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The Ruins, a book by C.F. Volney, was widely read and very influential in its day. Now it is scarcely known. Subtitled “Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires,” Volney’s once much-admired work may, today, seem out of style — its method of presentation is truly odd — but its subject and theme are far from irrelevant. This is especially the case since Americans now prepare to vote for one of two imperialists, incumbent President Barack Obama or Mormon millionaire Mitt Romney.

The story Volney tells is a moral one. That is, he fixes his history of the rise and fall of great empires on the moral element, restating social contract theory in a rather poetic manner:

Men, fatigued with the evils they reciprocally inflicted, began to sigh for peace; and reflecting on their misfortunes and the causes of them, they said:

“We are mutually injuring each other by our passions; and, aiming to grasp every thing, we hold nothing. What one seizes to-day, another takes to-morrow, and our cupidity reacts upon ourselves. Let us establish judges, who shall arbitrate our rights, and settle our differences! When the strong shall rise against the weak, the judge shall restrain him, and dispose of our force to suppress violence; and the life and property of each shall be under the guarantee and protection of all; and all shall enjoy the good things of nature.”

Conventions were thus formed in society, sometimes express, sometimes tacit, which became the rule for the action of individuals, the measure of their rights, the law of their reciprocal relations; and persons were appointed to superintend their observance, to whom the people confided the balance to weigh rights, and the sword to punish transgressions.

Thus was established among individuals a happy equilibrium of force and action, which constituted the common security. The name of equity and of justice was recognized and revered over the earth; every one, assured of enjoying in peace, the fruits of his toil, pursued with energy the objects of his attention; and industry, excited and maintained by the reality or the hope of enjoyment, developed, all the riches of art and of nature. The fields were covered with harvests, the valleys with flocks, the hills with fruits, the sea with vessels, and man became happy and powerful on the earth. Thus did his own wisdom repair the disorder which his imprudence had occasioned; and that wisdom was only the effect of his own organization. He respected the enjoyments of others in order to secure his own; and cupidity found its corrective in the enlightened love of self.

But cupidity finds its fullest expression in the political realm, the realm of government, and there the great destruction proceeds:

Under the mask of union and civil peace, [cupidity] fomented in the bosom of every state an intestine war, in which the citizens, divided into contending corps of orders, classes, families, unremittingly struggled to appropriate to themselves, under the name of supreme power, the ability to plunder every thing, and render every thing subservient to the dictates of their passions; and this spirit of encroachment, disguised under all possible forms, but always the same in its object and motives, has never ceased to torment the nations.

This war of all against all takes place within the sphere of government. Thomas Hobbes may have envisioned the problem of internecine fighting as a feature of “the state of nature,” but Volney sees it as an integral part of political governance, and, in it, an explanation of why great states decline. And that they do it in a variety of ways:

Sometimes, opposing itself to all social compact, or breaking that which already existed, it committed the inhabitants of a country to the tumultuous shock of all their discords; and states thus dissolved, and reduced to the condition of anarchy, were tormented by the passions of all their members.

Sometimes a nation, jealous of its liberty, having appointed agents to administer its government, these agents appropriated the powers of which they had only the guardianship: they employed the public treasures in corrupting elections, gaining partisans, in dividing the people among themselves. By these means, from being temporary they became perpetual; from elective, hereditary; and the state, agitated by the intrigues of the ambitious, by largesses from the rich and factious, by the venality of the poor and idle, by the influence of orators, by the boldness of the wicked, and the weakness of the virtuous, was convulsed with all the inconveniences of democracy.

The chiefs of some countries, equal in strength and mutually fearing each other, formed impious pacts, nefarious associations; and, apportioning among themselves all power, rank, and honor, unjustly arrogated privileges and immunities; erected themselves into separate orders and distinct classes; reduced the people to their control; and, under the name of aristocracy, the state was tormented by the passions of the wealthy and the great.

Thus plutocracy, the strain underlying so many systems of governance.

I have only begun to read this work. I am no expert. But a correspondent places the book within the pantheon of classical liberalism:

Thomas Jefferson liked Volney’s Ruins so much he secretely translated it into English. He saw the book as a means to teach future generations about the Enlightenment-based principles upon which the United States was founded. According to evidence discovered by Gilbert Chinard (1923), Jefferson was responsible for translating the first 20 chapters of Volney’s Ruins, while Joel Barlow translated the final 4 chapters. Indeed, the first edition of the so-called Jefferson-Barlow translation, published in Paris by Levrault in 1802, is divided into two volumes: chapters 1-20 and chapters 21-24—an implicit recognition of the work done by two different translators.

Jefferson, an amazingly industrious intellectual, had given a similar attention to one of my favorite liberal economists of the late Enlightenment period, Destutt de Tracy. The French Liberal views of the time exerted a great influence on American thought. But that was a long time ago. This influence has now almost totally dissipated — alas.

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