The ‘Code of Nature’, 1755: collective feelings vs. individual reason (2020)

A proto-communist manifesto?

by Federico Soldani – 31st Dec 2020

Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, authors of the 1848 ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, recognized in the Conspiracy of Equals of May 1796 – a failed coup d’Etat by Gracchus Babeuf, Filippo Buonarroti, Sylvain Maréchal, and others during the French Revolution – “the first appearance of a truly active Communist party.”

Filippo Buonarroti, an Italian from Pisa, later wrote about such episode of the French Revolution, that could be considered either a revolution within the revolution or a sort of counter-revolution, depending on the viewpoint, in his 1828 Conspiration des égaux and Histoire de la Conspiration pour l’Égalité dite de Babeuf.

Soviet bust of Gracchus Babeuf (1934)

After the failed coup d’Etat, during the trial that led to him being guillotined (the name guillotine is from the French doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin), Babeuf appealed to the 1755 Code of Nature, or the True Spirit of Laws (Code de la nature, ou le véritable esprit de ses loix, de tous temps négligé ou méconnu) and to Denis Diderot – author of the Encyclopédie – who was believed for a long time to be the author of the ‘Code of Nature.’

Babeuf, in order to defend himself during the trial that led to his execution by guillotine, claimed that he followed the doctrine of the ‘Code of Nature’ and that in turn he was to be considered a disciple of Diderot.


‘Manifesto of Equals’

Sylvain Maréchal, one of the conspirators with Babeuf, wrote the Manifeste des Egaux – in English Manifesto of Equals – first issued in 1796 in support of Babeuf’s views and plan (excerpts, emphasis added):

“People of France!

You have not been more favoured than the other nations that vegetate on this unfortunate globe !… Always and everywhere the poor human species delivered to more or less skilful anthropophages, served as a toy for all ambitions, as a pasture to all tyrannies. […]

Equality was nothing but a beautiful and sterile fiction of the law. Now that she is being asked in a louder voice, we are being told: Shut up miserable! de facto equality is a pipe dream; Settle for conditional equality; you are all equal before the law. Canaille what more do you need? What more do we need? Legislators, rulers, wealthy landlords, listen in your turn.

We’re all equal, aren’t we? This principle remains uncontested, because unless you are insane, it cannot be seriously said that it is night when it is day. […]

The French revolution is only the forerunner of another revolution that is much larger, much more solemn, and which will be the last.

The people marched on the body of the kings and priests coalesced against him: he will do the same to the new tyrants, to the new political tartuffs sitting in the place of the old ones […]

The time for grand measures has arrived. The evil is at its height; it covers the face of the earth. Chaos, under the name of politics, has reigned there for too many centuries. Let everything get back to normal and take its place.

To the voice of equality, let the elements of justice and happiness be organized.

The moment has come to fund the Republic of the Equals, that grand asylum open to all humankind. The days of general restitution have arrived. Families moaning, come and sit at the common table set up by nature for all its children. […] Let it finally stop, this great scandal that our descendants will not want to believe! […]

The day after this real revolution,  they will say to themselves in astonishment: What! common happiness meant so little? We just had to want it. Ah! why didn’t we want it sooner.”


Uncertain authorship of ‘Code of Nature’

The ‘Code of Nature’ is considered one of the most important works of the XVIII century and its author is uncertain.

The author could have been Morelly, possibly Étienne-Gabriel Morelly, or Morelli, or a pseudonym for a group or an author such as Diderot, who was thought to have used a diminutive of the author of Utopia, Saint Thomas More.

Many scholars have noted in the text the similarities with Rousseau, especially in the premises; however the Code of Nature is more radical for instance in theorizing the abolition of private property and only leaving property of what is immediately surrounding and needed day by day. Analogies have been proposed with Helvetius, especially the De l’esprit or, Essays on the Mind, and Its Several Faculties, which was proposing ideas alternative to Montesquieu‘s The Spirit of Laws (De l’esprit des loix) – on which the Constitution of the United States of America is based – and also with Baron d’Holbach as well as with earlier psychological conceptions of Pierre Gassendi.

The ‘Code of Nature’ was also explicitly written to better elaborate certain aspects of the utopic poem published two years earlier Le naufrage des îles flottantes ou la Basiliade du célèbre Pilpai. Poëme heroïque traduit de l’Indien par Mr. M****** (1753).


‘Code of Nature’ excerpts (emphasis added)

“You owe evidently the simplest and the finest lessons of nature perpetually contradicted by vulgar morals and politics. If the heart and mind fascinated by their dogmas, you neither want nor can feel their absurdities, I leave you in the torrent of error. Qui vult decipi decipiatur.” Such is the incipit of the book.

In the Code of Nature, under ‘Specific Defects of Politics’, there is an explanation about the ‘Experimental proofs of our principle’ where there are “new proofs of the true principles of all Morality and all legislation, and to demonstrate analytically the origin and progress of the errors which have perverted the excellence of the primitive laws of Nature.”

“Such is the deplorable state of reason, that it is necessary to make a thousand efforts, to use a thousand stratagems to tear the blindfold which blinds it, and to make it turn its eyes towards the true interests of humanity: that is the goal of the Basiliade.”

“A person worthy of faith, recently back from America, told me the story of some admirable traits of humanity, of these Peoples, either towards their own, or towards ours […] and they may well call us Savages.”

According to the ‘Code of Nature’, all that is corrupting the natural laws are “proprieté” (private property) and “interêt particulier” (special interest); in such light it discusses the “True origin of Nations; & causes of the corruption of feelings of sociability.”

It discusses the ‘state of nature’ of human beings and it supports the idea, in line with Rousseau, of the ‘natural integrity’ in such state of nature. “Vulgar Morality is established on the ruins of the laws of Nature, it would be necessary to completely overthrow this one in order to restore them. […] Morality and Vulgar Politics are so opposed to the truths.” […]

The book insists on the importance of sociability and of feelings of consanguinity: “in these causes which have weakened or extinguished the feeling of consanguinity, and in almost any community, I find the source of the differences which could arise either between individuals or families, or between entire Nations, and for example consequently, the fatal origin of all civil disputes, of war and brigandage.”

Also, remarkably, according to the ‘Code of Nature’, “The spirit of Christianity brought men closer to the laws of nature.”

“It is on the evidence of the principles that I have just tried to identify as from a heap of ruins that I dare to conclude here that it is almost mathematically demonstrated that any division, equal or unequal, of goods, any particular ownership of these portions, are in every society, what Horace calls summi materiam mali.

All political or moral phenomena are effects of this pernicious cause; it is through it that we can explain and resolve all theorems or problems on the origin and progress, the sequence, the affinity of virtues or vices, disorders and crimes; on the real motives of good or bad deeds; on all the determinations or perplexities of the human will: on the depravity of the passions; on the ineffectiveness, the inability of precepts and laws to contain them; on the technical flaws of these lessons; finally, on all the monstrous productions of the wanderings of the mind and the heart.

The reason, I say, for all these effects can be derived from the general obstinacy of the Legislators, in breaking or allowing the first link of all sociability to be broken by possessions usurped from the fund which should indivisibly belong to the whole humanity.”

When a People unanimously consent to obey only the laws of Nature as we have developed them, and behave accordingly, under the direction of their fathers of families, it will be a Democracy.

“Real causes of the decadence & revolutions of the most flourishing States. What hazard is in the moral order. This hazard, this alleged moral fatality only results from the discordance of wills which you must expect, for having neglected the true means of associating these wills, in accordance with the intentions of nature”

“Such has always been the progress of the decadence of the most flourishing Empires. What other thing than the cruel spirit of property and interest sets off these sad revolutions?

The ‘Code’ also presents an ‘Analogy between the physical order and the moral’, which might remind of the first memoir by Philippe Pinel, widely considered the ‘father’ of psychiatry about his innovative method which he called “regime moral” and the analogy he presented in it between the intermittent attacks of insanity and the violent symptoms of an acute illness.

God, with regard to the actions of men, as in the physical order of the world, has established a general law, an infallible principle of all movement; and all things once arranged according to a plan as admirable for its simplicity as for the extent and fruitfulness of its consequences, everything goes with a marvelous concert; it seems that omnipotence has delivered the secondary causes and the particular effects to themselves, or, if you will, it preserves their course and sequence. The sciences have brought men close enough to the first spring of this mechanism to give them a glimpse of it.

God, who is always similar to himself, has also established in the moral order an infallible principle of innocence for the creatures whom he wished to endow with a faculty which enables them to mutually preserve themselves. As he has delivered the inanimate beings to a blind and mechanical movement, he has likewise delivered men to a guide who penetrates them, so to speak, and possesses them entirely. It is the feeling of love for ourselves, helpless without help, which puts us in the happy need to be beneficent. Our weakness is in us like a kind of inertia; it disposes us, like that of bodies, to submit to a general law which binds and enchains all moral beings. Reason, when nothing offends it, further increases the force of this species of gravitation.

In a critically important passage about the ‘True cause of the annoyances of the mind and the heart,’ the ‘Code’ has the following passage:

“If we consider the actions of men who are simply called vices, and who have a lesser degree of wickedness than distorted actions, by how much, great God! to childish, bizarre and laughable practices have we not attached the moral idea of ​​goodness and wickedness? These things which have nothing to do with Nature at all, which even annoy and upset her, have, however, found so much credit in the minds of men that they have often made divine orders of them. When it happens that Nature, in spite of the spirit, shakes off a useless yoke, can we treat its resistance as a revolt? can we say that the will of man leads him to vice despite the lights of the spirit? These so-called clarities are, in fact, only dark bluettes, and it is not surprising then, if Nature, wiser and stronger by virtue of her feelings, so often puts the will in contradiction with the spirit, and seems to make fun of his lessons.

This is precisely the Gordian knot of our moralistic reasoners. The heart of man, they say, is an impenetrable labyrinth, the folds of which we cannot know: it is only a monstrous compound of contrary elements which wage a perpetual war. What good is reason to him, if, despite this guide, he stumbles at every step; if we see him constantly acting against his opinions, against the principles of which he seems most strongly convinced; if, finally, nothing is more inconsistent than man in his conduct?

Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor – Ovid

The reason is quite simple; it is that on a thousand occasions your prejudices, your errors, your foolish opinions are opposed to the wise impressions of Nature; the heart feels its prompt and sure indications, and seems to laugh at the vain pedantry of the mind which sees wrong. […]

It is precisely by such an abuse of reason that most of our melancholy Enthusiasts declaim against man, as bizarre, as indefinable themselves as the one they decry.”

So, for the ‘Code’ individuals need to recognize the superiority of feelings related to Nature and the fact that in reality human actions will follow such feelings instead of the spirit or reason which only leads to foolish opinions and behaviours that are not in accordance with such individual reason.

Identifying this way in the feelings, which are closer to nature, the ‘Main motive of all human action, and principle of all social harmony.’

“Why deaf to this advice, does he listen to those diametrically opposed to his happiness?

This is because vulgar morality, as well as politics, has overturned and corrupted most ideas, as well as the order and succession of these ideas.

Let us therefore try to recognize and follow the true traces of Nature, to discover what could have interrupted its processes, disturbed their success; let us indicate the real means of repairing these disorders.”

“Can we excuse those who pretended to remedy these evils, I mean, the first reformers, and after them the first moralists, to have been precisely fervent of all the monstrous ideas that the nations saw conceived to establish their laws or their dogmas? […]

When the Peoples, weary of their own crimes, began to long for the pleasures of sociability, and to submit to the orders and advice of those they believed capable of restoring it, was it not easy to know and inspire in them hatred for the first cause of all their evils, property? […]

I end this Dissertation with these kind truths. I believe that I have sufficiently removed the darkness of error to make the evidence incontestable.

I have made efforts to find the solution of the problem which I propose from the beginning of this Work. It is, I repeat, to find a situation in which man is as happy and as beneficent as he can be in this life. […]

Reform the defects of politics and morals on the laws of Nature; to succeed, start by leaving full freedom to the true Sages to attack the errors and the prejudices which support the spirit of property: this monster struck down, let education strengthen this happy reform; it will no longer be difficult for you to make your Peoples adopt laws more or less the same as those which I have collected from what it seemed to me that reason can suggest the best for men to protect themselves from becoming wicked.”


‘Model of legislation in accordance with the intentions of nature’

The last part of the ‘Code of Nature’ presents an outline of a constitution, the supreme law according to such conception of nature. All philosophical, moral, or metaphysical studies are to be prohibited, with the exclusion of those on the ‘Code of Nature’ itself, only technical and scientific studies are to be encouraged.

Here only one example is reported about criminal law and the fact that the worst of all crimes, which is to introduce private property is equated to both furious madness and being an enemy of humankind:

PENAL LAWS. As few as the prevarications, as gentle as they are effective.
Every citizen, without exception of rank or dignity, was it even the head general of the nation, who would, what one does not think, have denatured to take the life, or fatally bled someone, who would have tempted by cabal or otherwise, to abolish the sacred laws, to introduce the detestable property, after having been convinced and judged by the supreme senate, will be locked up for all life, like a furious madman & enemy of humanity, in a cave built, as it has been said, aedile law XI, in the place of public burials: his name will be forever erased from the enumeration of citizens, his children & all his family will leave this name, and will be separately incorporated into other tribes, cities or provinces, without being allowed to anyone to despise them or to reproach them for the fault of their relatives, under penalty of being cut off from society for two years.”


‘Code of Nature’ as utopia

Jean Servier in his History of Utopia (1967) highlighted how during the XVIII century the progress that was leading towards the industrial revolution was by many not considered matched by an equal moral or political progress. The ‘Code’ might be read in such context.

Morality, metaphysics, philosophy will be delimited permanently by the ‘Code’ and only technical and scientific investigations will be permitted. According to Servier, individual reason is denied as a constructive element of society and substituted by just laws and by prince-philosophers.

The ‘Code’ and the other works by Morelly, whoever the author was in reality, have influenced the entire history of socialism, of the claims in the Western world originated by social structures and industrialization on one side and the spirit of the Christian Gospel on the other, a contradiction that Morelly was the first to point out. Also, according to the such philosophy “morality rests on psychology and it is not possible to understand politics if not though the analysis of the human heart and mind.”

De Toqueville highlighted about a century later how the ‘Code of Nature’ “written in 1755 seems written yesterday” and how “centralization and socialism are the products of the same milieu.”

In his ‘The Old Regime and the Revolution’ (1856), De Toqueville wrote: “It is generally believed that the destructive theories known by the name of socialism are of modern origin. This is an error. These theories are coeval with the earliest economists. While some of them wanted to use the absolute power they desired to establish to change the forms of society, others proposed to employ it in ruining its fundamental basis.

Read the Code de la Nature by Morelly – recommended De Toqueville – you will find there, together with the economist doctrines regarding the omnipotence and the boundless rights of the state, several of those political theories which have terrified France of late years, and whose origin we fancy we have seen—community of property, rights of labor, absolute equality, universal uniformity, mechanical regularity of individual movements, tyrannical regulations on all subjects, and the total absorption of the individual in the body politic.”


Submit to the orders and advice of those believed capable of restoring” the laws of Nature

Words related to madness such as folie, folles (referred to constitutions), cerveau fanatique, fol furieux (associated with ennemi de l’humanité), fous, imbécilité, etc. abound in the ‘Code’.

Laws, especially the Constitution will not be open to discussion or modification by the people. As a consequence, citizens can only submit to the orders and advice of those they believed capable of restoring such laws of nature which are meant to be immutable as nature itself. But when the people “unanimously consent” to such laws of nature, which of course they cannot discuss but must only accept – according to the ‘Code of Nature’ – the resulting regime would be called a “democracy.”

Private property and special interests corrupt the human mind, intellect, morality, opinions and obfuscate natural sentiments, feelings such as sociability and consanguinity; this in turn is considered to be the origin of all evils, masked as insane politics, laws and constitutions.

If, according to the ‘Code of Nature’, private property is the root of decadence of the most flourishing empires, would the revolution that abolishes private property as well as individual reason, as foretold in the Manifesto of Equals be the last, ultimate revolution?


Loin que la raison nous éclaire
Et conduise nos actions,
Nous avons trouvé l’art d’en faire
L’orateur de nos passions.
C’est un Sophiste qui nous joue,
Un vil complaisant qui se loue
A tous les fous de l’univers,
Qui s’habillant du nom de sages,
La tiennent sans cesse à leurs gages
Pour autoriser leurs travers.

Rousseau – as quoted in the ‘Code of Nature’ 1755

Last Updated on December 31, 2020 by Federico Soldani

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