1902 Encyclopedia > François Quesnay

François Quesnay
French physician and economist
(1694-1774)




FRANÇOIS QUESNAY (1694-1774) was one of the most eminent economists of the 18th century. He was born at Mérey, near the village of Montfort FAmaury, about 28 miles from Paris, on the 4th of June, 1694, a year memor-able also for the birth of Voltaire. He was the son of a worthy advocate, who had the reputation of ruining his own practice by reconciling the parties who came to consult him about their suits. The modest resources of the family were derived principally from the cultivation of a small landed estate, Quesnay's mother in particular busying herself much with the details of its management, which she thoroughly understood. His boyish years were thus spent amidst country scenes and the occupations of the farm, and he retained to the end a strong predilection for rural life and a special interest in the welfare of the agricultural population. Little attention was given to his early literary instruction; it is said that he could not read till he was eleven years of age, when he was taught partly by the family gardener, who used as the text book the liaison Rustique of Jean Liébault, a work " wherein " (to quote the words of its old English translator, Richard Surflet, 1606) " is conteined whatever can be required for the building or good ordering of a husbandman's house or countrey farme." This book Quesnay is said to have studied with such assiduity as to have almost known it by heart. He learned Greek and Latin and the elements of several sciences with scarcely any aid from masters. He was possessed with an ardent and untiring desire for know-ledge, and we are told that more than once he walked to Paris for a book, which he read on his way back the same day, thus travelling twenty leagues on foot.

At the age of sixteen he became apprentice to a surgeon in the neighbourhood of Mérey, who was not able to teach him much, and he soon went to Paris to continue his professional education. He there devoted himself with great ardour for five or six years to the study of medicine and surgery, diligently attending the hospitals, and following the courses of anatomy, chemistry, and botany ; he also learned drawing and engraving, in which he acquired considerable skill, and gave some attention to metaphysics, to which he had been attracted by the reading of Malebranche's Recherche de la Vérité. About 1718 he established himself at Mantes, and soon obtained a distinguished clientèle. He became known to the Maréchal de Noailles, who conceived a high esteem for Iiim, and persuaded the queen, whenever she came to Maintenon, which was not very far from Mantes, to _consult no physician but Quesnay. A celebrated practi-tioner of the time, named Silva, having published a treatise on bleeding, which, though of little merit, was loudly applauded by his friends, Quesnay wrote a refuta-tion of it, founded on the principles of hydrostatics, which brought his name much into notice. When La Peyronnie had procured about 1730 the foundation of an academy of surgery with the view of elevating that profession, he selected Quesnay for the post of perpetual secretary. Coming to Paris to fill it, he obtained through La Pey-ronnie's influence the office of surgeon in ordinary to the king. He was the author of the remarkable preface which was prefixed to the first volume of the Mémoires of the academy. He was for a long time much occupied with the controversies between the faculty of medicine and the college of surgery concerning the respective limits of the two professions, and wrote most of the pieces in which the claims of the latter were asserted. Finding that frequent attacks of the gout were rendering him incapable of performing manual operations, he procured in 1744 the degree of doctor of medicine from the university of Pont-à-Mousson ; but, though thus changing the nature of his practice, he continued to defend the rights of the surgical profession. He soon after purchased the reversion to the office of physician in ordinary to the king, and afterwards became his first consulting physician ; in this capacity he was installed in the palace of Versailles, occupying apart-ments near those of Madame de Pompadour. Louis XV. esteemed Quesnay much, and used to call him his thinker ; when he ennobled him, ho gave him for arms three flowers of the pansy pensée), with the motto Projeter excogitationem mentis.

He now devoted himself principally to economic studies, taking no part in the court intrigues which were perpetu-ally going on around him. About the year 1750 he became acquainted with M. de Gournay, who was also an earnest inquirer in the economic field; and round these two distinguished men was gradually formed the philo-sophic sect of the Économistes, or, as for distinction's sake they were afterwards called, the Physiocrates. The most remarkable men in this group of disciples were the elder Mirabeau (author of L'Ami des Hommes, 1756-60, and Philosophie Rurale, 1763), the Abbé Baudeau (Introduction à la Philosophie Économique, 1771), Le Trosne (De l'Ordre Social, 1777), Morellet (best known by his controversy with Galiani on the freedom of the corn trade), Mercier Larivière, and Dupont de Nemours. Of the writings of the last two, as well as of the general doctrine of the physio-crats, some account has been given in the article POLITICAL ECONOMY (see vol. xix. pp. 359 sq.). The principal econo-mic work of Quesnay himself was the Tableau Économique, which Laharpe called I'Alcoran des Économistes. A small edition de luxe of this work, with other pieces, was printed in 1758 in the palace of Versailles under the king's immediate supervision, some of the sheets, it is said, having been pulled by the royal hand. Already in 1767 the book had disappeared from circulation, and no copy of it is now procurable ; but the substance of it is has been preserved in the Ami des Hommes of Mirabeau, and the Physiocralie of Dupont de Nemours. In Quesnay's Maximes Générales du Gouvernement Economique d'un Royaume Agricole, which was put forward as an Extrait des Économies Royales de Sxdly, and was printed along with the Tableau in 1758, besides stating his economic doctrines, he expresses his opinion in favour of a legal despotism as the best form of government. " Let the sovereign authority be single, and superior to all the individuals of society and all the unjust enterprises of private interest The system of counter-forces in a government is a harmful one, which produces only discord among the great and the oppression of the weak." He had contributed to the Encyclopédie in 1756 the articles "Fermiers" and "Grains," which con-tained the earliest announcement of his principles through the press ; and he published a number of minor pieces in the Journal de l'Agriculture, du Commerce, et des Finances, and in the Éphémérides du Citoyen. His Droit Naturel, which was included in the Fhysiocratie of Dupont de Nemours, is especially noteworthy as showing the philo-sophic foundation of his economic system in the theory of the jus natures.





Interesting notices of Quesnay's character and habits have been preserved to us in the Mémoires of Marmontel and those of Mme. du Hausset, femme de chambre to Mme. de Pompadour. His probity and disinterested zeal for the public good did not suffer from the atmosphere of the court ; he never abused his credit with the sovereign or the favourite for any selfish end. To raise the national agriculture from the decay into which it had fallen and to improve the condition of the working population were the great aims he kept steadily in view. His conversation was piquant, humorous, and suggestive, often taking the form of moral and political apologues. Some of his weighty sayings are quoted by contemporary writers. Here is one of them. Having met in Madame de Pompadour's salon an official person who, in recommend-ing violent measures for the purpose of terminating the vexatious disputes between the clergy and the parliament, used the words, " C'est la hallebarde qui mène un royaume," Quesnay replied, " Et qu'est ce qui mène la hallebarde?" adding, after a pause, "C'est l'opinion; c'est donc sur l'opinion qu'il faut travailler." Diderot, D'Alembert, Duclos, Helvetius, Buffon, Turgot, Marmontel, used to meet in his rooms in the palace, and also several of the physiocrats above named ; and Madame de Pom-padour, who affected the patronage of philosophy and science, sometimes came to join them and converse with them. Amongst them, when they were alone, subjects were sometimes discussed in a tone which would not have pleased the royal ear. Thus, one day, Mirabeau having said, " The nation is in a deplorable state," Larivière replied in prophetic words, " It can only be regenerated by a conquest like that of China, or by some great internal convulsion ; but woe to those who live to see that ! The French people do not do things by halves ! " Adam Smith, during his stay on the Continent with the young duke of Buccleuch in 1764-66, spent some time in Paris, where he made the acquaintance of Quesnay and some of his followers ; he paid a high tribute to their scientific services in his Wealth of Nations, and would have dedicated that work to Quesnay, had the latter been alive at the time of its publication.

At the age of seventy Quesnay went back to the study of mathematics. He thought, wo are told, that he had discovered the quadrature of the circle, and was not pre-vented by the remonstrances of his friends from printing his supposed solution of the problem. He died in 1774, having lived long enough to see his great pupil, Turgot, in office as minister of finance. Quesnay had married in 1718, and had a son and a daughter; his grandson by the former was a member of the first Legislative Assembly.

The economic writings of Quesnay are collected in the 2d vol. of the Principaux Économistes, published by Guillaumin, with preface and notes by Eugène Daire. His writings on medicine and surgery have now only an historic interest. They were as follows :— 1. Observations sur les effets de la saignée, 1730 and 1750 ; 2. Essai physique sur l'économie animale avec l'art de guérir par la saignée, 1736 and 1747 ; 3. Recherches critiques et historiques sur ïorigine, les divers états, et les progrès de la chirurgie en France (said to have been the joint work of Quesnay and Louis), 1744, and, with slightly altered title, 1749 ; 4. Traité de la suppuration, 1749 ; 5. Traité de la gangrène, 1749 ; 6. Traité des fièvres coutumes, 1753 ; 7. Observations sur la conservation de la vie (said to have been printed at Versailles along with the Tableau Économique), 1758. His other writings were the article " Evidence " in the Encyclopédie, and Recherclies sur l'évidence des vérités géométriques, with a Projet de nouveaux éléments de géométrie, 1773. Quesnay's Éloge was pronounced in the Academy of Sciences by Grandjean de touchy (see the Recueil of that Academy, 1774, p. 134). There is a good portrait of him, engraved by J. Ch. François, which is reproduced in the Dictionnaire d'Économie Politique of Coquelin and Guillaumin. (J. K. I. )






The above article was written by: J. K. Ingram, LL.D., Librarian, Trinity College, Dublin.



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