The art of knowing one-self (1695)

For around ninety years the Edict of Nantes had protected the rights of Huguenots in France, protecting them from persecution and promoting civil unity. In 1685 that all ended when the edict was revoked by Louis XIV, leading to an exodus of Protestants, many of whom ended up as refugees in the German principalities. Jacques Abbadie (1654-1727), himself born in France, played a crucial role in encouraging many of the Huguenot refugees to settle in Brandenburg during the 1680s, having already been summoned to lead the congregation of refugees in Berlin before the edict had been revoked.


The Art of Knowing One-self

The Art of Knowing One-self is a book about moral philosophy, providing an alternative to the views on self-love and morality purported by Jansenists and Calvinists in the seventeenth-century, which were based on a severe reading of Augustine. Abbadie described the principle of self-love in detail, looking at pleasure and happiness as aligned to Christian morality. Isaac Nakhimovsky has argued that Abbadie’s moral theory was a rejection of the Augustinian claim that only divine grace could correct the corruption produced by the fall of man. Nakhimovsky stresses that Abbadie viewed self-love as an integral part of the eternal, uncorrupted soul, rather than an aberration caused by human sin.

In what he terms as epicureanism, Nakhimovsky argues that Abbadie only took up the ethical elements of what Epicurus had described before 270 BC, and not the physics. He accepted that an ideal of happiness or good should be equated with pleasure, as Epicurus had suggested, but rejected the idea that pleasure is nothing more than an arrangement of atoms ‘agitated in a certain manner’. He aligned his understanding also to Descartes moral theory, which argued that a desire for happiness is the primary feature of self-love and that ‘true and eternal happiness must be founded on the soul’s awareness of its perfection’ (Nakhimovsky, 2003, 8). Overall, Abbadie offered something different, building upon such ideas to come to his own understanding of morality that would influence theories around morality, luxury, and pleasure in the following centuries.

Indeed, in 1853, G. de Felice described Abbadie’s book as ‘full of judicious observations, and shows that the author had profoundly meditated upon the relations of the human conscience to the duties of the Gospel’ (Felice, 1853, 386). In 1992, Ruth Whelan went further, by describing Abbadie as ‘the father of Christian apologetics in the eighteenth century’ (Whelan, 1992, 32), although she does not refer directly to The Art of Knowing One-self but rather to Abbadie’s religious treatises. In this, Whelan is referring to Abbadie’s ideas about deism, or, in other words, his belief in a god that does not intervene, but could be known through understanding of natural laws and knowledge; a knowledge that is both acquired and innate. Abbadie argues for a connection between ‘natural revelation and natural religion and morality’ (Whelan, 1992, 34-5), providing a front of religious debate and discussion in the emergent process of Enlightenment. 

Pride, Pleasure and the Honey Bee

The last portion of The Art of Knowing One-self deals specifically with pride; dividing it into five branches: love of esteem, presumptuousness, vanity, ambition and arrogance. It is in this section that the single reference to the Honey Bee is made.

This appears in a section on pleasure obtained by ‘vain-glory’. Abbadie argues that ‘any man in the World would openly praise himself, if he dar’d be so bold’ but does not as he is fearful of ‘a breach of Modesty’ and instead uses ‘Cunning and Artifice in displaying his Merit to the Eyes of Mankind, so as not to attract the Reproach of too great Vanity’. The claim that Abbadie makes is that we are all vain in our own way, that we often disparage others, or make an accusation of fault, as to show ourselves as exempt and better: “As for my part, tho’ I have very great Defects, yet may I boast that I have not This”, as Abbadie quotes as an example of a kind of ‘dull and unpolitick Self-love’.   

He goes on to note that pride can therefore bring pleasure, as can hatred, but neither lasts. The Pleasure of conversation is not ‘innocent’ as ‘indifferent things are tedious to us’ but those things that relate to our own pride, hatred, impiety, ambition, or some other passion, ‘excite’. Thoughts also bring pleasure as ‘our Heart, being prepossess’d with certain Passions, can’t enjoy it self, but when it thinks upon certain Objects; and therefore suspends all our other Thoughts and Reflections’. The pleasure of a Lover who forgets all things but the object of his love is given as a prime example. As is dedication to God, ‘for indeed these proceed merely from the too great Pleasure, which the Ideas of temporal things excite in our Minds’

The essential point that Abbadie makes is that pleasure is in all things, even where we would prefer to pretend that it is not. It is, as he suggests, that:

The Bee metaphor is used not only to suggest that pleasure, like flowers, can be found in abundance, but also that the Bees can often find them ‘in foul and Moorish places’. This extension of the metaphor is to suggest that pleasure is often found in bad places; the excitement of an affair, the risk of life, delighting in ‘lamenting the death of illustrious persons’ and even, perversely, in prolonging our own sorrow. 

Further Reading

G. de Felice, History of the Protestants of France from the Commencement of the Reformation to the present time, trans. By Philip Edward Barnes (London, 1853).

Isaac Nakhimovsky, ‘The Enlightened Epicureanism of Jacques Abbadie: L’Art de se connoȋtre soi-mȇme and the morality of self-interest’, History of European Ideas, 29 (2003), 1-14.  

Ruth Whelan, ‘Abbadie, Jacques [James] (bap. 1654?, d. 1727)’, ODNB (Oxford, 2004).

Ruth Whelan, ‘From Christian Apologetics to Enlightened Deism: The Case of Jacques Abbadie (1656-1727)’, The Modern Language Review, 87:1 (Jan., 1992), 32-40.