Gabriel Bonnot de Mably

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Gabriel Bonnot de Mably,
Musée de la Révolution française.

Gabriel Bonnot de Mably (Grenoble, 14 March 1709 – 2 April 1785 in Paris), sometimes known as Abbé de Mably, was a French philosopher, historian, and writer, who for a short time served in the diplomatic corps. He was a popular 18th century writer.[1]


Mably was born to a noble legal family bearing the surname Bonnot. He had an older brother Jean and, with him, preferred to be called after the family's property at Mably, Loire, so they both took "de Mably" in their names. His younger brother Étienne preferred to be called after another family property, at Condillac, Drôme. Condillac also became a noted writer and philosopher.

As was typical of men of their class, Mably's education included a Jesuit college. Early on, he pursued an ecclesiastical career, enrolling in a seminary at Saint-Sulpice. He abandoned that path to enter the diplomatic corps in 1742. His diplomatic career was a short one, ending in 1746. Afterwards, he focused on scholarly pursuits, for which he became the most known.

Mably and his family had a great influence on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. From April 1740 to May 1741, thanks to the connections of his patron Mme de Warrens, a twenty-eight year-old Rousseau became employed as tutor for two of his four sons, M. de Sainte-Marie, aged six, and M. de Condillac, aged five. Toward the end of 1740, he produced two short works addressed to Mably: “Memorandum Presented to Monsieur de Mably on the Education of Monsieur His Son” and the shorter “Plan for the Education of Monsieur de Sainte-Marie.” In these, he not only outlines a proposed system of education for Mably’s sons, but he also presents one of his earliest public self-reflections and self-justifications. Months into the job, Rousseau realized that he was ill-suited to the position. By the summer of 1741, Rousseau and Mably agreed amicably to part, and Rousseau left Lyon to return to Mme de Warens.

The historian Leo Damrosch explains that at this time, Abbé de Mably

"had just published a treatise comparing Roman institutions of government with French ones and celebrating the progress of civilization...Conversing with Mably, Condillac, [and friends he had met at Lyon's reading club] Parisot, Bordes, and their friends, Rousseau found himself in a stimulating intellectual milieu, and the studies he had put himself through in Chambéry suddenly came to life."[1]

Rousseau would remain lifelong friends with Mably and his family. Both Mably and his brother Condillac visited Rousseau when he moved to Montmorency, Val-d'Oise.[1] Rousseau later reflected upon his experience tutoring Mably's sons in The Confessions.


Engraving of Gabriel Bonnot de Mably

Mably's most well-known work is Entretiens de Phocion, a dialogue first published in 1763, which introduced themes of his mature thought. Two of his works were published posthumously and they had a profound effect on the early deliberations on the assembly of the Estates-General of 1789: an enlarged version of his Histoire de France (first published in 1765), which was published in May 1789 to great acclaim. Authorities tried unsuccessfully to suppress it by confiscating many copies. Secondly, Des droits et des devoirs du citoyen, written in 1758, was also published after his death. He warned against events that later developed during the French Revolution.

These two works were seen to contribute to the later concepts of both communism and republicanism. He advocated the abolition of private property, which he saw as incompatible with sympathy and altruism, and conductive only to one's antisocial or egotistical instincts. Mably's writings contain a paradox: he praises elitist Plato, but also the enlightened Stoic views on natural human equality. Mably went further than the traditional Stoic argument that all men possessed a divine spark. He also went beyond the liberal concept of equality before the law, and argued for the equality of needs. He argued that virtue was more valued than the acquisition or possession of material wealth, and criticized idleness. He found an audience among those who were critical of the inherited wealth and privilege of the nobility, who did no work.

Mably's complete works were published in 15 volumes in 1794–1795, with an obituary/biography by Gabriel Brizard.

List of 18 published works by Gabriel Bonnot de Mably (1709–1785)

  • Parallèle des Romains et des François par rapport au governement (1740)
  • Lettres à Madame la Marquise de P... sur l'Opéra (1741)
  • Le droit public de l'Europe fondé sur les traités conclus jusqu'en l'année 1740 (1746)
  • Observations sur les Grecs (1749)
  • Observations sur les Romains (1751)
  • Des principes des négociations pour servir au Droit public fondé sur les traités@ (1757)
  • Entretiens de Phocion, sur l'introduction de la morale avec la politique, traduits du grec de Nicoclès, avec des remarques (1763)
  • Réponse de M. Abbé de Mably à M. Abbé Rome (1764)
  • Observations sur l'histoire de France, Books I – IV (1765)
  • Observations sur l'histoire de la Grèce, ou Des causes de la Prospérité et des malheurs des Grecs (1766)
  • Doutes proposées aux philosophes économistes sur l' Ordre naturel et essentiel des sociétés politiques (1768)
  • Du commerce des grains (1775)
  • De l'étude de l'histoire à Monseigneur le prince de Parme Tome XVI du cours d'études pour l'instruction du Prince de Parme, aujourd'hui S.A.R. l'Infant D. Ferdinand, duc de Parme, Plaisance, Gasuelle etc. par M. l'Abbé de Condillac (1775)
  • De la législation, ou Principes des lois (1776)
  • Du gouvernement et des lois de la Pologne (1771 or 1776 ?)
  • De la manière d'écrire l'histoire (1783)
  • Principes de morale (1784)
  • Observations sur le gouvernement et les lois des États-Unis d'Amérique (1784)

Posthumous publications of individual works, published in 1786-1794

  • Observations sur l'histoire de France, nouvelle édition précédée de l'éloge historique de L'auteur par M. l'abbé Brizard (1788)
  • De la situation politique en Pologne en 1776
  • Le Banquet des politiques
  • De l'étude de la politique
  • Des maladies politiques et de leur traitement
  • Des droits et des devoirs du citoyen (1789; reprinted in 1793; written in 1758)
  • Du commerce des grains
  • De la superstition
  • Notre gloire et nos rêves
  • De la paix d'Allemagne
  • De la mort de l'impératrice-reine
  • L'oracle d'Apollon
  • Des talens
  • Du beau
  • Du développement, des progrès et des bornes de la raison
  • Le compte rendu
  • La retraite de M. Necker
  • Du cours et de la marche des passions dans la société

Posthumous Complete works to 1795

  • Œuvres complètes de l'Abbé Mably précédées nouvelle édition précédée de l'éloge historique de l'auteur par M. l'abbé Brizard, 12 vol., slightly incomplete London edition (1789)
  • Œuvres complètes de l'abbé Mably, 19 vol.,Toulouse (Sens) & Nîmes (Gaude) edition, (1791)
  • Œuvres complètes de l'abbé Mably, nouvelle édition; revue, corrigée et augmentée, 19 vols. Toulouse (Sens) & Nîmes (Gaudeedition), (1793)
  • Collection complète des œuvres de l'abbé Mably, 15 vols. Paris edition (Desbrières), (1794/1795) more complete than previous editions.

Recent Translations in English by Simon de Vries

  • Concerning the Rights & Duties of the Citizen – Comtal Publications, 2008 – ISBN 0-9557974-0-3
  • Letters to Madame the Marchioness of P **** on the Opera – Comtal Publications, 2010 – ISBN 978-0-9557974-1-5

Further reading[edit]

  • Johnson Kent Wright, A Classical Republican in Eighteenth-Century France: The Political Thought of Mably (Stanford University Press, 1997).
  • V. I. Guerrier, L'Abbé de Mably, moraliste et politique (Paris: 1886)
  • Mably's work is catalogued at the French National Library
  • Charles Philippe Dijon de Monteton, Der lange Schatten des Abbé Bonnot de Mably. Divergenzen und Analogien seines Denkens in der Politischen Theorie des Grafen Sieyès, in: Thiele, U. (ed.): Volkssouveränität und Freiheitsrechte. Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes' Staatsverständnis, Nomos, Baden-Baden, 2009, S. 43–110


  1. ^ a b c Leo Damrosch (2007). Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius. Mariner Books.

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