Mandate of the Fatherland: Denis Fonvizin’s Translation of Neo-Confucianism into the Politics of Enlightened Absolutism under Catherine the Great

Born in 1745, Denis Fonvizin was one of eighteenth-century Russia’s premier playwrights, and among the reform-minded intellectuals and future statesmen educated at the University of Moscow in the 1750s who became instrumental in the successful coup d’état of 1762 which brought Catherine the Great to the throne. Motivated by the urge to transform the Russian autocracy into a benevolent despotism ruling within a state of fundamental laws, these officials, Fonvizin among them, coalesced into a more or less self-conscious court faction under the patronage Nikita Panin, tutor to Crown Prince Paul, and head of the College of Foreign Affairs from 1763 to 1781.[1] Haltingly, and ultimately with little success, the so-called Panin Party tried to convince Catherine to provide a system of fundamental laws for the realm. Because of changes in Russian foreign policy and the outbreak of the disastrous Pugachev peasant uprising after 1773, Catherine became increasingly wary of allowing limitations on her prerogative powers at a time when Russia was feeling the strains of her foreign wars and was still reeling from domestic revolt. Significant members of the Panin party, including Fonvizin who would not compromise their political principles in the interests of political survival, were forced into either political irrelevance or political opposition.[2]

But this standard account of Fonvizin’s vote at the court of Catherine does not capture the dynamism and eclecticism of Fonvizin’s political thought. Though parts of Fonvizin’s collected works have been translated, the corpus itself remains in Russian and very difficult to find.[3] The bulk of what has been translated is Fonvizin’s celebrated dramatic works.[4] By comparison, Fonvizin’s surviving works on political topics are small indeed; Walter Gleason’s collection of Fonvizin’s political and legal writings remains the best, most complete anthology of his works in translation. More recently, the two pieces for which this author is most indebted here – Fonvizin’s translation of an expert from the Confucian Ta Hsüeh, and A Discourse on the Permanent Laws of State – are reprinted by Marc Raeff in his anthology of Russian Intellectual History.[5] Yet, Fonvizin’s important contribution, first, to the crafting of an early form of Russian nationalism, and second, to a political discourse inspired by political thought from Western Enlightenment and Chinese sources, with the potential of legitimizing opposition to the Tsar, warrants a renewed attention by Russian scholars.

Specifically, this article will be concerned with the specific language through which Fonvizin articulated his mature thoughts on the legitimacy of the Russian Tsar, and the duties and rights of her citizens. What follows is, first, a discussion of the ideals and activities of the Panin Party throughout the 1760s and 1770s, and how the journey of Fonvizin, the man, sparked the eclectic and provocative synthesis of political thought from West and East that occurs in his later writings. Second, this article will lay hold of Fonvizin’s prescriptions for Catherine the Great and his notion of “Imperial Legitimacy” by a close reading and parallel analysis of Fonvizin’s partial translation of Ta Hsüeh and A Discourse on the Permanent Laws of State – quite literally the prologues to the last major legal reform proposal submitted unsuccessfully to Catherine the Great between 1779 and 1781, and a fascinating blend of Confucian and Western Enlightenment political thought with potentially explosive consequences.

In these years after 1771, when Fonvizin worked most closely with Panin in the College of Foreign Affairs overseeing correspondence between the college and Russian embassies in Europe, he coined the term “fatherland” (otechestvo) in his critical assessment’s of Catherine’s foreign policies, and basis for opposition to Catherine’s autocratic policies at the expense of the social and legal reforms for which he and Panin had striven throughout the 1760s.[6] As these criticisms found in Fonvizin’s correspondence with his patron, friend, and mentor, Nikita Panin, grow more strident, “fatherland” takes on a more emotive and ethical rather than legal definition in opposition to the bellicosity of Catherine’s policies of war and expansion, and to her domination by upstart favorites made possible by the lack of any legal limits on the Russian autocracy in the creation and maintenance of its bureaucracy and inner counsel.[7] In Fonvizin’s later writings, “The bonds between ruler and ruled,” as Gleason admits, “were emotional and instinctual rather than rational and contractual.”[8] Yet, for this transformation of the concept of “fatherland” into “a standard by which to evaluate Catherine’s policies,” Fonvizin was forced to arrive at original conclusions on the nature of Russian nationality and its relationship to the powers of the Tsar.[9] In crafting this original political discourse, Fonvizin’s debt to German Natural Law and Cameralist thought has been emphasized in the existing historiography, yet this article will argue that a plausible case can be made for a Neo-Confucian component to his conception of Imperial power, legitimacy, and nationality.[10]

No pretension is made to the manifest absurdity that Fonvizin knew Mandarin, or was in any way more a Confucian than a scion of the Russian Enlightenment. As discussed below, his exposure to Chinese thought came undoubtedly via his travels in France, where Jesuit translations of Confucian classics into French had ignited a lively debate over the religious implications of Chinese philosophy. Instead, one might argue that a conjuncture of circumstances – 1) Fonvizin’s concerns over the direction of Catherine’s autocracy, 2) his sudden realization during his travels in France (1778-79) that the “enlightened” West so revered in Russia was as decadent as the “backward” Russia itself, and 3) finally the last attempt by Fonvizin and Panin to foist a set of fundamental laws on to Catherine II in the early 1780s – all conspired to make Fonvizin’s unearthing of a French translation of Chu Hsi’s edition of the Ta Hsüeh a crucial foundation for his argument that imperial legitimacy depended on the virtue of the sovereign, evinced by her willful obedience to her own laws, and by her proper choice of counselors. Fonvizin’s translation of the Ta Hsüeh and his accompanying Discourse on the Permanent State of Laws were in every sense designed by Fonvizin as paired companion volumes in their last attempt to propose to Catherine and to the public opinion (i.e. the literate elites who mattered to them) a set of fundamental laws for the Russian Monarchy in the early 1780s.[11]

The most sophisticated attention paid to Fonvizin’s political writings is found in the monographic studies, anthologies, and articles of Walter Gleason. Yet even Gleason finds Fonvizin problematic and contradictory, minimizing rather typically Fonvizin’s translated fragments of Ta Hsüeh. For example, Gleason summarizes Fonvizin’s argument in A Discourse on the Permanent Laws of State thusly:

Malfeasance on the part of the sovereign led unavoidably to revolution. Obviously, Fonvizin invoked only the specter of social revolution rather than the real item. By publishing his essay in 1779 he could play on the recent memory of the Pugachev revolt.[12]

Yet Fonvizin’s Discourse, as will be analyzed below, does in fact provide post facto legitimacy for any revolt that might chance to take place because of the “malfeasance” of the Tsar. The concept of the Mandate of Heaven – the colloquialism attached to the political ethics described in the Chinese Ta Hsüeh – provides just such an allusive, post facto justification. Without taking Fovizin’s Confucian dabbling seriously, Gleason and other scholars remain at a loss to explain why Fonvizin would be of potential interest to later Russian revolutionaries; this oversight derives from Fonvizin having been read only through European lenses.[13]

Rather unlike German Natural Law theorists, especially Pufendorff, Gleason notes that Fonvizin’s political views after his return from Europe around 1780 focused on a more ethical as opposed to legal definition of the ‘contract’ between ruler and ruled. “Fonvizin,” Gleason writes perceptively, “gave priority to the moral hierarchy of God, virtuous ruler and ethically sound subjects over the legal hierarchy of a deist God, legal ruler, and law-abiding citizens.”[14] With understandably Eurocentric Myopia, Gleason is at a loss to explain the apparent contradiction in Fonvizin between his debt to German enlightened absolutist thought, and his statements which argue for a society bound together by moral and emotive sinews, one in which rulers can lose their legitimacy by neglecting their moral duties and love for their people. When faced with such paradoxical thinking, Gleason dismisses Fonvizin’s call for an “immutable state of laws” as a sham, a mere knock-off of Franco-German enlightenment notions of contractual sovereignty engrafted on to the writings of a Russian bureaucrat.[15]

Denis Fonvizin, his brother Pavel, and other figures of the Panin Circle like Bogdanovich were students in the nobles’ boarding school at the University of Moscow. Fonvizin began his studies in 1755, and it was here that Fonvizin, Novikov, and Bogdanovich studied closely under professors who, in turn, owed their appointment to Gerhard Friederich Müller, a celebrated historian, publisher, and graduate of one of the premier centers of the German Enlightenment, the University of Leipzig. Müller and the professors who closely supervised the academic training of Fonvizin were immersed in the methods and manner of natural law jurists such as Samuel Pufendorff. Many German Natural Law writers, Pufendorff foremost among them, were concerned with synthesizing Thomas Hobbes’ view that political society derives from individual self-interst with the view of Hugo Grotius that man is naturally a social being.[16] The ideal polity was, therefore, one designed to maximize the individual aspirations of its citizens by teaching them sociability and curbing their passions through a regime of just, impartial laws, based on the application of universal reason to political science.[17] Fonvizin’s training in German Natural Law proved a fortuitous coincidence since Catherine II, the recent German usurper to the throne of her husband, Peter III, was trying to distance herself from the policies of her husband. The new German empress strived to cultivate an image of herself as the spiritual heir to Peter the Great, and promote herself as a virtuous matriarch of her people, intent upon ruling in relative peace with her European and Islamic neighbors according to a state of enlightened, fundamental laws. Thus, the ideals of Fonvizin and his fellow students at the University of Moscow appealed to Catherine the Great in the early years of her reign, and Fonvizin was granted an appointment to the College of Foreign Affairs in 1762. Yet as the reign progressed, Catherine came to believe that there were greater risks involved in pursuing a peaceful foreign policy and a unified law code. At this point, the members of Fonvizin’s circle were faced with a choice between career and principle. Fonvizin, by the late 1770s, looks to have opted for the latter.[18]

Fonvizin’s dilemma, and his quest for new ways to express the true basis of imperial legitimacy in relationship to the Russian fatherland, began with what would become the classic problem of the Russian monarchy even on its deathbed after 1905: the lamentation of Radishchev, written not long after Fonvizin’s Ta Hsüeh and Discourse, that never would a sitting Tsar “willingly let go of any of his power.” Educated men of principle, like Fonvizin, were compelled into opposition, irrelevancy, or later, even outright hostility to the tsar.[19]

Fonvizin and his colleagues caught the eye and were thrown the lengthy coattails of Count Nikita Panin, one of the masterminds who brought Catherine to power. He would later be honored with the appointment of tutor to the Tsarevich. But, rule by favorites had resulted in neglect of domestic order and costly foreign wars. The decisive but Janus-like involvement in the Seven Years War against Prussia and the rapid abandonment of the war effort essentially at the whim of Peter III had destabilized the constellation of power in St. Petersburg and Panin wanted to insure that Catherine II would rule by fundamental laws – meaning for Panin and Fonvizin, stabile and appropriate bureaucratic procedures concerning the Tsar’s inner circles of council.[20] Panin’s attempt to limit the autocracy through a legal code and an imperial council was motivated by this concern for stabilizing the personnel and the procedures of the bureaucratic state. When Fonvizin and many of his colleagues came within the clientele of Panin, they were forced to adapt German Enlightenment political theorists in order to justify Panin’s proposal.[21]

Fonvizin’s deployment of German Natural Law theorists may have been more on principle than Panin’s accession to Fonvizin’s justifications. Nikita Panin’s principal concern was that Catherine was extremely vulnerable to relying on her favorites (very often her lovers) for political advice. Panin and many of his clients realized that, if reliance on legitimate counselors were not institutionalized by a control over the imperial bureaucracy exercised jointly by the tsar and an aristocratic council, the situation prevailing under Elizabeth and Peter III would forever repeat itself. Indeed, Peter III’s constant rule by favorites seems to have been the grounds by which Panin justified supporting this overthrow; on these grounds alone, Peter had “automatically forfeited his legitimacy.”[22] To these ends, the German Natural Law background of Fonvizin provided an ideal justification for these endeavors.[23] Its main virtue, as far as Panin’s more politic associates were concerned, was insuring that the rightful representatives of the Russian state (like Panin) would be protected by the monarch.

However, there is no Western Enlightenment discourse (faithfully translated) that is capable of justifying regicide by a palace coup on the basis, essentially, of the monarch’s unwillingness to appoint a rightful counsel to office.[24] Panin, Fonvizin, and Catherine, herself, proceeded as though the very success of the coup, accompanied by her (admittedly contingent) promise to rule according to laws established by and for rightful elites, was sufficient to legitimize the new regime and de-legitimize Peter III. This political outlook seems to have been commonplace enough among the governing elites at the apex of the imperial state in Russia as to require no further comment in 1762. But for Fonvizin, who was not advocating another palace coup as such, but sought to admonish Catherine by justifying whatever insurrection might occur if her abusive policies continued, a new language of political argument had to be found. The language of justifying Fonvizin’s opposition to the Empress had, in essence, to come from elsewhere – a combination of nascent Russian nationalism (his concept of the fatherland), expressed in the language of the Confucian Mandate of Heaven.[25]

Two events of signal importance for the development of Fonvizin’s political thought occurred in 1768. The first was Catherine’s war against the Ottoman Empire (the first of two which would not end until the 1790s) and arguably conducted with expansionist designs on the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. Secondly, after having rejected Panin’s proposals for a council, Catherine turned to other court factions with their own ideas for the establishment of an aristocratic council. Though the influence of the Panin faction had been secured in other ways and Panin had been temporarily convinced to drop much of their reform program, the later proposal for a council, emanating from some of Panin’s rivals, was a direct assault on the position of Panin, Fonvizin, Bogdanovich and Novikov. In short, reform had been co-opted by the opposition, and Fonvizin and Panin found themselves in the awkward position of opposing a watered down version of their original concept which had been temporarily embraced with suitable modifications and reserved enthusiasm by Catherine, herself.[26]

Fonvizin and Panin first attempted to discredit the new council. Rather than attack the institution, a move which would have been blatant hypocrisy as well as dangerously impolitic, Fonvizin, Novikov, and Bogdanovich devised arguments which emphasized the moral obligations of socio-political groups to fulfilling their place in the hierarchical state of Imperial Russia. An individual’s fidelity to one’s personal responsibilities to others and fulfillment of one’s duty to social superiors became the basis for an ideal Russian state that would mirror and serve the patriarchal society of the Russians. These same moral norms (essentially ethical, spiritual and patriarchal) regulated all associations of individuals in the performance of their obligations to the entity representing the collective self of Russian society. Individuals and the state were equally obligated to behave according to the normative, hierarchical nature of the Russian fatherland.[27] These arguments which established Russia as an association of individuals bound by hierarchical moral obligations enabled the Panin faction to attack the personnel of the imperial council – as noted above, a potentially serious accusation which was tantamount to suggesting that Catherine was neglecting her moral obligation to her rightful counselors by preferring upstarts from the lesser aristocracy, and vaunting them beyond their station.

Prior to the late 1760s, Fonvizin and other members Panin’s clientele took issue with the Empress on matters of procedure and bureaucratic reform. For the first time, the Panin group was attacking the moral legitimacy of those chosen to occupy the imperial council; Catherine, as a party to the overthrow of her late husband, would have recognized immediately the fine line between loyalty and opposition these men were treading. For Fonvizin, however, these arguments increasingly expressed in correspondence with Nikita Panin are significant because they demonstrate that Fonvizin’s own notions of the ideal, ethical relationship between ruler and ruled, developed nearly a decade before his encounter with Neo-Confucian political thought, would have resonated with the language he found in the Ta Hsüeh at a later date. In one particularly revealing passage of Fonvizin’s rendering of the Ta Hsüeh, we read:

The magnificence of a state is a fruit of the sovereign’s wisdom and virtue; anyone who presumes to think that it is the effect of his riches has a base soul and lacks cordial feelings. Unhappy the sovereign who hearkens to a minister conversing with him in this wise, and who gives his power into such a minister’s hands. All the wise men of the state together will not be able to fill in the pit which he is digging beneath his feet, or to prevent him from falling into it.[28]

But first, Fonvizin and several members of the Panin group cultivated a conception of the Russian nationhood – in Fonvizin’s case, the term was usually rendered “fatherland” – that conceived of the Slavic Russians as a spiritual community averse by nature to militaristic and opportunistic ventures by the state. The fatherland was seen as a self-regulating, organic whole over which the Imperial state presided, but could only manipulate autocratically to the detriment of itself and ultimately the fatherland as well. Nation and State were considered by Fonvizin as a complimentary duality, necessarily interdependent and harmonious.[29] Catherine’s illegitimate bureaucratic reforms, her unwillingness to establish fundamental, procedural boundaries to her autocracy, and her increasing addiction to war was, in Fonvizin’s view, to vaunt her own power to the unnatural detriment of the fatherland. In a letter to Count Panin’s brother in May of 1772, Fonvizin all but equates patriotism with opposition to the contemporary policies of the empress: “Your patriotic [patrioticheskie] discussions about peace, dear sir, do not of course find any opposition from any true citizens.”[30] By the dawn of the 1770s, Fonvizin was caught between fatherland and empress, and for the first time, he distanced himself privately from the latter.[31]

Fonvizin’s reconfiguration of imperial legitimacy vis-à-vis the Russian fatherland along lines increasingly distant from those of his early affinity to the German Enlightenment, grew in sophistication throughout his travels in Europe during the middle 1770s, as evinced from his collected letters from France to Panin and his family back in Russia from 1778-1779. Fonvizin’s own intellectual and political readjustment was complicated by a demoralizing reappraisal of Western culture – a sacrosanct cultural idol for many aristocratic Russians in the eighteenth century. In France he found many freedoms provided by law, which the arrogance and impudence of men of society, and the oppressive dictates of all powerful Parisian “taste” (we might say “peer pressure” or “status anxiety” today) rendered impossible to enjoy in practice.[32] “True law,” Fonvizin writes, “is the one which is recognized by the reason as just and which therefore engenders some sort of internal obligation within us to obey voluntarily.”[33] This key theme of the need for internal obligation to obey what reason dictates was later magnified by his contact with Chinese political philosophy, and it would find its way into the conclusion of his Discourse on the Permanent Laws of State discussed below: “The ordinance, ‘Be good’…would be futile to engrave…on signboards and set…on desks in government institutions; for if it be not engraved on men’s hearts all administrative offices will be badly managed.”[34]

Fonvizin thus became convinced by his rocky political career and by his disillusionment after 1778-79 with the Parisians in the very Mecca of Enlightenment that true freedom is only possible if a State of Laws is designed chiefly to insure virtuous leadership in the highest councils of the administration. In this way, the virtuous monarch would mobilize and maximize the latent virtues of the fatherland, inspiring individual Russian subjects, by example, toward virtue by teaching them the internal obligation to obey what reason dictates is just.[35]

At the same time Fonvizin was arriving at these conclusions through independent means, he found in Paris a translation of the Ta Hsüeh by the Jesuit Abbé, Pierre Martial Cibot (1727-80), in the larger work, Mémoires concernant l’histoire des sciences, les arts, les moeurs, les usages, etc. des Chinois.[36] These Mémoires are the fruit of a scholarly exchange lasting from 1763 to 1773 and patronized originally by the Jesuits and Louis XV. Abbé Cibot lived and worked in Ch’ing, China, while two young Chinese students spent three years studying the languages and cultures of Europe with members of the Royal Academy of Science. Though the Chinese scholars returned to their homeland in 1766, the collaboration with Jesuit missionaries continued resulting in fifteen encyclopedic volumes between 1776 and 1791 that include biographies of celebrated Chinese monarchs, poets, and scholars; descriptions of Chinese customs, divination, natural science, and politics; whole translations of Confucian classics; and finally, erudite studies of the Chinese language by Jesuits such as Joseph Marie Amiot and Pierre Martial Cibot as well.[37] At the time of Fonvizin’s sojourn in France, the first three volumes of the Mémoires were already completed and Cibot’s translation is contained in the very first volume.[38] Cibot’s translation was most likely the “orthodox” version of this Confucian classic (usually rendered into English as The Great Learning) by the seminal twelfth century scholar of the Southern Sung Dynasty, Chu His, and still in use in the Ch’ing Dynasty.[39] Jacques Proust, one of the commentators and editors of Fonvizin’s letters from France, directly asserts that Fonvizin came into contact with Cibot’s translation in 1777-78.[40] Chiefly, the Jesuit familiarity with Ch’ing Dynasty China and its philosophy had caused quite a flurry in France. Chinese dynastic chronicles and Confucian classics like the Book of Rites (of which Ta Hsüeh was originally the forty-second chapter)[41] sported chronologies of the world which flew in the face of all accepted chronologies of human history derived from Genesis. China had also been for some time a serious problem for the Jesuits because it was, first, a society apparently run by philosophers (Confucian) with a state “religion” and a highly sophisticated moral philosophy, but lacking a belief in a personal, monotheistic deity. This immediately had shorn eighteenth century Jesuits of one of their signal empirical “proofs” of God – that is, believe in his existence by universal consent of mankind. Montaigne and a host of other skeptics throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century had used Chinese society to argue for the feasibility of a secular morality based on accepted usage and an innate, human intuition of the laws of nature. Perhaps more importantly, however, Cibot’s translation had been published in 1776 immediately before another scandal broke out surrounding a work by De Maila and published by a French abbé as the Histoire générale de la Chine in 1777. [42]  Fonvizin would almost certainly have been aware of the book’s suppression, and one could speculate that this controversy may have been, in part, what peaked his curiosity about Chinese political thought and led him most certainly to the Cibot translation of Chu Hsi. Although it should be noted that the partial collection of Fonvizin’s correspondence from France contains no explicit reference to the Cibot translation.[43] Yet, Marc Raeff, Walter Gleason, and the commentators of Fonvizin’s letters from France all agree that the Cibot translation was Fonvizin’s inspiration, and the very close affinities between the translations of Fonvizin and the Abbé Cibot are impossible to ignore.

Ta Hsüeh provided a language in which to articulate (to the empress and to the literate elites in Russia) the reflections on imperial legitimacy and political opposition that had preoccupied him since the late 1760s. After returning to his homeland, Fonvizin then published his translation of Cibot’s fragment in the Bulletin de l’Académie in 1779.[44] This publication is highly significant because it was conducted at exactly the same time Fonvizin and Panin were working, once again, to justify to Catherine the Great the necessity of a fundamental project of legal reform. This last ditch effort at reform was drafted by Fonvizin, as well as Nikita Panin and his brother, Piotr Panin, and addressed both Tsarevich Paul and Catherine. In the event that Catherine would not comply, or that mass popular rebellion broke out as it had just six years earlier during the Pugachev rebellion, their collaborative reform proposal was to be, first, Paul’s blueprint for a reformed imperial state, and second, a bid by the Panins and Fonvizin for the power to organize the reformation.[45] The structure of the proposal itself comprised five items. First, there was Fonvizin’s Discourse on the Permanent Laws of State, second, a draft constitution, third, eighteen articles on the proposed goals of Paul’s reign, fourth, a suggested fundamental law of succession, and finally, two short commentaries on the previous items.[46]

Most significant are the many glaring textual and thematic similarities between Fonvizin’s translation of the Ta Hsüeh and the Discourse on the Permanent Laws of State, which was, at any rate, the prologue to the reform proposal. Walter Gleason goes as far as to consider the simultaneous publication of the Ta Hsüeh translation as the public reiteration of his proposals in the Discourse, and this is certainly clear from the structure of the proposal. Yet, one must also consider that the Confucian text, itself, just like Fonvizin’s Discourse, is extremely explicit about the legitimacy of rulers resting on their love of virtue and their love for their people. In this sense, Fonvizin’s reform proposal as a whole neatly combines common concerns from both the schools of German Natural Law and Neo-Confucian political thought. From the German Enlightenment on the one hand is the concern for the best means of teaching (or legislating) subjects and sovereigns to internally assent to rational, fundamental laws; from Confucian political thought on the other hand is the analogous concern for instilling internal assent to socio-political roles (the rectification of the mind and will first by the emperor and then, by force of example, his subjects). Fonvizin seems clearly to have emphasized the latter after 1780.

Not only did Fonvizin’s Discourse and his translation of Cibot’s Ta Hsüeh find its way into the counsels of Catherine and the crown prince, but it was published. To publish such a provocative statement was not an open call to revolution by any means. Fonvizin’s argument, if one reads both the Discourse and Ta Hsüeh closely, is that uprisings like the disastrous Pugachev revolt are inevitable reactions if needed reforms are not provided and virtuous men of proper noble bloodlines allowed to properly serve. On these grounds, Fonvizin argues, the people – whether nobles or commoners – are bound to revolt again sooner or later – and are justified if the revolt succeeds. Sharing, as he did, his readership’s fear of another Pugachev, the option is clear. The nobility should be loyal, but if popular uprising and disaster looms, the nobles would be foolish not to depose Catherine and reconstitute the state under the heir to the throne, becoming, in effect, the vanguard of reform, in place of whatever fearful successors of Pugachev may arise.

A close reading of Fonvizin’s Ta Hsüeh and his Discourse shows how seamlessly the traditions of German Enlightenment and Neo-Confucian political arguments are woven together in expressing Fonvizin’s thoughts on the nature of the sinews binding ruler and ruled, and under what legitimate – indeed inevitable – circumstances those ligaments are torn. Sovereignty exits for the benefit of the subjects, Fonvizin states in the opening of the Discourse. To these ends:

[God] instituted principles of everlasting truth, unalterable by Himself, whereby He governs the universe and which He Himself cannot transgress. In the same way, a sovereign is like unto God …His almighty power cannot signify his might and worth except by instituting in his state unalterable rules, based on commonweal which he himself could not infringe without ceasing to be worthy sovereign.[47]

Such a statement could be found in the cameralist tradition of many German Enlightenment jurists, or English Newtonian Deists. However, inasmuch as he is addressing Catherine or Paul, he makes the ruler the root of the structural integrity holding the fatherland together with the state. Without immutable laws to which the sovereign binds himself, and to which he rectifies his rule, Fonvizin writes, “no common bond can even exist; there is a state but no homeland, there are subjects but no citizens.”[48] Without a state of laws set by the ruler, every man, “being subject to the caprice and injustice of those more powerful than himself, considers himself under no obligation to observe when dealing with others, standards which others do not observe” with him.[49] Property and safety are not secure, and because of the chronic whimsy and injustice of the ruler’s decrees and choice of undeserving favorites,[50] the ethical bonds of community decay from the center outward. Fonvizin writes:

Spirits grow despondent, hearts are depraved, and the manner of thinking becomes loose and contemptible. The favorite’s vices…become general, all these vices spread abroad and infect the court, the city, and finally the country… And what can hold back the onrush of vice when the idol of the sovereign himself has raised the banner of lawlessness and dishonor in the very imperial palace before the eyes of the whole world.[51]

The focal point which instills by example an upright will among all subjects of the realm – among the whole of the fatherland in relationship to the state – is the ruler. What follows are the very words of the Ta Hsüeh filtered through the French translation of Abbé Cibot:

A great monarch serves as an example for his entire state from within his own palaces. The virtues which he has restored to them, and which flourish around him, attract the eyes of all…And indeed he cannot but be loved and honored, his dignitaries cannot fail to receive respect and obedience, nor can the wretched fail to obtain relief…

Even more effectively does the example of the imperial family open the way for love of virtue and for that inclination toward goodness with which all men are born on this earth… [I]mmitation will increase and multiply these qualities and spread them abroad forever in all families. But if injustice and wickedness enter therein, then all is lost; then will this spark a general conflagration…[A] single man may save everything… In vain does a sovereign forbid that which he permits himself, for then no one will obey him.[52]

The original Confucian classic did not equate the virtue of the ruler with a state of laws of his own making. For elsewhere in the Ta Hsüeh is written “The true and worthy glory of a sage consists in drying up the source of litigation and surrounding the throne of justice with virtues.” Within the Chinese traditions of political discourse, “legalism” was a dirty word, signifying what was needed when the root of society (the emperor, the Son of Heaven) was corrupt, and therefore, all of society with him.[53] Yet Fonvizin’s assimilation of both German Natural Law and Chinese political discourses led him to equate the concept of virtue in the Ta Hsüeh with the monarch’s personal conduct, choice of ministers, and also voluntary creation of proper laws; the addition of the latter to the former two Confucian political virtues is at the root of Fonvizin’s originality. Indeed, if one recalls the Panin-Fonvizin group’s original conception of “law” as a more standardized, immutable form of existing procedures within the state bureaucracy, binding upon even the tsar, the verisimilitude to the Chinese notion of li – a dominant theme of the Ta Hsüeh – is even more striking. Li was, by Chu Hsi’s time, the cosmic, ethical principle underlying the rituals of state and procedures of the Imperial Chinese bureaucracy to which the emperor was bound by the very nature of the universe – by his mandate of heaven – to perpetuate. A similarity exists between, Fonvizin’s state of laws as a sort of fundamental procedure corresponding to the nature of the Russian fatherland and to which even Catherine should be subject, and the Chinese li, a sort of “foundational ritual and institutional procedure” most consonant with natural order. To perpetuate this order was the Mandate of Heaven, just as for Fonvinzin, to create a state of laws and was the mandate of the fatherland for Russian rulers.[54]

The righteousness of the ruler is an inclusive concept for Fonvizin; it synthesizes personal virtue, upright choice of ministers, and German Enlightenment Cameralism seeking to reform the law and administration.[55] The “righteousness” of the empress will keep her safe from the “buffeting of passions,” and in this way, keep the fatherland safe from the arbitrariness of the state. The more direct translation of the Ta Hsüeh from classical Mandarin into English by Wing-tsit Chan describes this relationship thusly:

Those who wish to bring order to their states would first regulate their families. Those who wished to regulate their families would first cultivate their personal lives. Those who whished to cultivate their personal lives would first rectify their minds. Those who wished to rectify their minds would first make their wills secure.[56]

Self-cultivation by the ruler – rectification of his mind – meant safeguarding himself, and thus also his subjects, from avarice, greed, and favoritism. “When one is affected by fondness to any extent, his mind will not be correct,” says the Ta Hsüeh.[57] Fonvizin requites this thusly:

By the righteousness of the heart alone are vices corrected and virtues acquired. But this righteousness, so precious and so essential, cannot stand against the powerful buffeting of passions…Then a man looks and does not see, listens and does not understand.[58]

Yet his translation betrays a curious reversal that may reflect Cibot as much as Fonvizin’s Enlightenment bias: “Righteousness…so essential cannot stand against the powerful buffeting of passions.” Fonvizin, it seems, makes the willful establishment of a permanent state of laws the first moral duty of any sovereign who wishes to rectify his mind and his will; Fonvizin also, by implication, makes it the first evidence denoting whether the sovereign actually has an upright mind and will. Or, in Fonvizin’s own words in the Discourse:

Without permanent state laws, neither the condition of the state nor the sovereign is stable. There is no buttress to strengthen their common powers… Where one man’s whim is the supreme law, there no firm common bond can even exist. [59]

If the empress would rectify her rule by securing herself against passion through a fundamental state of laws (i.e, the very one the Panin brothers and Fonvizin were then proposing), she would not “transgress the bounds of [her] rights by…the power of sound reason.” And at this point in the Discourse, Fonvizin strikes out into what is perhaps the most radical statement of his political career. The statement is a Europeanized re-statement of the Mandate of Heaven doctrine couched within the terms of Fonvizin’s notion of the fatherland:

Righteousness and meekness are rays of divine light, proclaiming to men that the power which rules them has been established by God and that it deserves their reverent obedience; consequently every power which is not marked by…righteousness and meekness, but which gives rise to injuries, acts of violence and tyranny is a power not from God…If a nation in such a disastrous situation finds the means to break its fetters, it acts very intelligently if it does… If [the ruler] does not acknowledge truth’s supreme authority over him, then…distinction arises between his own welfare and that of his country…In a word, all his power becomes illegitimate [Emphasis mine].[60]

This quote is strikingly similar to the words of the Ta Hsüeh:

By having the support of the people, they have their countries, and by losing the support of the people, they lose their countries. Therefore the ruler will first be watchful over his own virtue. If he has virtue, he will have the people with him. …Virtue is the root, while wealth is the branch. If he regards the roots as secondary and the branches as essential he will compete with the people in robbing each other…The Mandate of Heaven is not fixed or unchangeable. The good ruler gets it and the bad ruler loses it.[61]

Fonvizin then elaborates on this mandate of the fatherland inspired directly by Confucianism by rephrasing it in the more familiar contractual terms reminiscent of John Locke. Fonvizin asserts that human societies are voluntary associations, voluntary as much for subjects as for sovereigns, and that whenever one party or the other violates the conditions of the arrangement, intelligent subjects are inevitably going to revolt. As we have seen, Fonvizin came to these conclusions somewhat on his own terms throughout nearly two decades of his political career, but the Confucian discourse he found in Paris galvanized the terms of his proposal. With the Ta Hsüeh, Fonvizin provided his readers with a language that was similar to indigenous Slavic notions of imperial power, and loyal to his sovereign, but also potentially more radical due to the Confucian language of the Mandate of Heaven which morally delegitimized the Empress in favor of the Russian fatherland.[62] Yet Fonvizin’s reform proposal clearly gave precedence to the fatherland over any individual tsar in the cases of imperial malfeasance. In short, Fonvizin creatively articulated German Enlightenment thought on law and administrative reform and indigenous Russian definitions of the legality of obedience and resistance to authority in the language of Chinese political and ethical thought. In this way, it became very possible for Fonvizin to obliquely threaten revolution without advocating it. For the naturalistic cosmos of Chinese thought conceived of human social relations as highly organic and in a sense predictable. The Ta Hsüeh puts it in this way: “To love what the people hate and to hate what the people love…is to act contrary to human nature, and disaster will come to such a person.”[63] Fonvizin’s discourse, which makes use of the ambivalence of Chinese political language, opens the possibility of revolution (limited or not), and justifies it as an inevitable, natural result of misrule. Even to insinuate this to Catherine and her son was, at the very least, a very gutsy maneuver.

According to Fonvizin, in order to avoid the revolution that might occur if favoritism, abuse of serfs, heavy taxation and war abroad continued, Paul (or Catherine) must promote virtue in their councils and regularity in their laws and bureaucratic organization. In this way, the sovereign will be “a good husband, a good father, and a good master of his house…[and he will] establish internal tranquility in all homes, arouse love of children, and in supremely autocratic fashion forbid every man to step outside the bounds of his condition of life.”[64] Fonvizin conceives of the tsar as custodian of the fatherland; the autocrat’s job is to bring order to the center and in doing so, to insure that “nothing transgresses its proper bounds.”[65] Fonvizin’s conclusion is derived from his understanding of the ideal ruler found in the Confucian Ta Hsüeh:

[T]he strengthening of his undertakings helped him to correct his inclinations; having ordered his own conduct, he found it easy to institute good order in his house; the order which held sway in his house assisted him in the good administration of his provinces. And finally, ruling serenely over his provinces, he became an example to the whole state and increased virtue therein.[66]


As any good sinologist is quick to assert, the terms of Chinese political thought do not readily translate into Post-Enlightenment European notions of natural law or natural right, and much good history could be written about this process of translation and the ramifications for the European Enlightenment. Fonvizin was relying on a French translation of a text from the very different linguistic universe of twelfth-century China.[67] This study was also seriously hampered by the fact that the 1959 English translation of Fonvizin’s Ta Hsüeh is lacking in other textual clues like Fonvizin’s marginalia, which according to Marc Raeff, survive in the original documents. Raeff neglected to cite, first, whether these are preserved in his complete works and second, where the original manuscript with these explanatory notes can be located.[68]

All disclaimers aside, the cross-cultural origins of Denin Fonvizin’s political thought warrants greater study by historians of Russia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[69] It is certainly true that, in reaction to Polish attempts to create a reformed constitutional state after 1772 and the assassination of Gustavus III of Sweden, Catherine was all the more reluctant to adopt Fonvizin’s reform proposal after 1780, and this effort ultimately failed.[70]Yet, the Russian intellectual historian Andrezsj Walicki has found among the papers of Nikita Panin a document of debatable provenance, but most likely from the hand of Denis Fonvizin (based on form, style, and content), entitled, A Discourse on the Disappearance in Russia of All Forms of Government and Likewise on the Unstable Position of the Empire and Sovereigns Arising Therefrom. This may have been Panin’s last political testament to Crown Prince Paul. Though this document is obscure, Walicki asserts that it “contains bold demand for constitutional reforms and a warning that rebellion will break out if these are denied.”[71] The evidence connecting this rather obscure piece to Fonvizin’s writings analyzed above remains inchoate, but if Walicki’s summary is accurate, it is a veritable re-statement of points made as long ago as 1779 in Fonvizin’s Discourse on Permanent Laws, and the Ta Hsüeh. The Discourse on the Disappearance in Russia of All Forms of Government, moreover, seems found a home among Russian Revolutionaries (the Northern Union of the Decembrists) thanks to General M.A. Fonvizin, a descendant of Denis Ivanovich. Nikita Muraviev adapted it as a pamphlet as early as Alexander I’s reign, and it was published, first, from London by Alexander Herzen in 1861 on the eve of Alexander II’s emancipation, and again, after the Revolution of 1905.[72]

Having already justified the overthrow and murder of Peter III by Catherine’s promise of bureaucratic and conciliar reform, Fonvizin found in the Chinese notion of the Mandate of Heaven a political discourse capable of legitimizing his loyal opposition to the empress, while justifying limited rebellion against the tsar should it prove inevitable and successful after the fact. Without choosing proper occupants of the tsar’s inner councils, without a state of fundamental laws, the fatherland (its elites or worse, its peasants) would justifiably revolt – inevitably as the driven snow of a Moscow winter. A fuller study of Fonvizin’s later appropriation is well beyond the scope of this paper, but apparently more than a few Russian revolutionaries thought Fonvizin’s rendering of Chu Hsi to be advice worth taking, and the last of the Russian tsars was tragic proof of the Confucian dictum – that “It is not easy to keep the Mandate of Heaven.”[73]


[1] Cynthia Hyla Whittaker, Russian Monarchy: Eighteenth-Century Ruler and Writers in Political Dialogue (DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illonois University Press, 2003) p. 231 n. 93.

[2] Walter Gleason, “Political Ideals and Loyalties of Some Russian Writers of the Early 1760s,” Slavic Review 34: 3 (Sept. 1975): pp. 560-75; also Gleason, “Introduction: State and Nationality in Fonvizin’s Writings” in Political and Legal Writings of Denis Fonvizin, pp. 1-21; David L. Ransel, The Politics of Catherinian Russia: The Panin Party (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1975).

[3] Sobranie sochineii, ed. G.P. Makogonenko 2 vols. (Moscow-Leningrad: Goslitizdat, 1959).

[4] The most recent complete bibliography of Denis Fonvizin’s corpus, in Russian and in English translation, is to be found in Gleason, Political and Legal Writings of Denis Fonvizin, pp. 144-45; compare with Alexis Strycek, Rossia epokhi prosveschcheniia (Moskva: Prometei, 1994); E. B. Rogachesvskaia, Aleksandr Griboyedov, Ot russkogo klassitsizma k realizmu: D. I. Fonvizin, A.S. Griboedov (Moskva: Schkola-Press, 1995); Stanislav Borisovich Rassadin, Fonvizin (Moskva: Iskusstvo, 1980); Peter Hiller, D. I. Fonvizin und P. A. Pavil’scikov: ein Kapitel aus der russischen Theatergeschichte im 18 Jahrundert (München: O. Sagner, 1985); Rassadin, Satiry smelyi vlastelin: kniga o D. I. Fonvizine (Moskva: Kniga, 1985); M. Muratov, Denis Ivanovich Fonvizin (Moskva: Gos. Izd-vo detskoi lit-ry, 1953); L. I. Kulikova, Denis Ivanovich Fonvizin (Leningrad: Prosveshchenie [Leningradskoe otd-nie] 1966; Dramatic Works of D. I. Fonvizin (Kantor: Marvin Publication; Bern: Herbert Lang; Frankfurt: M. Peter Lang, 1974; N. D. Kochetkova, Fonvizin v Peterburge (Leningrad: Lenizdat, 1984).

[5] D. I. Fonvizin, “A Discourse on the Permanent Laws of State” in The Political and Legal Writings of Denis Fonvizin, trans. Walter Gleason (Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis Publishers, 1985) pp. 172-73. The English translation of the political writings of Fonvizin to which this author is indebted, are reprinted wholesale from the English translations of Robert Hingley in Sobranie sochineii as long ago as 1959. Hingley’s translation is reprinted completely in Gleason’s anthology of Fonvizin’s political works, and excerpted in Marc Raeff (ed.) Russian Intellectual History: An Anthology (New York: Humanity Books, Imprint of Promethius Books, 1999; Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1966), pp. 87-105; compare with The Great Learning (Ta Hsüeh); excerpted in A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, ed. and trans. Wing-tsit Chan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963) pp. 92-3.

[6] Gleason, Political and Legal Writings of Denis Fonvizin, p. 13.

[7] Ibid, pp. 14-15

[8] Ibid, p. 15.

[9] See for quoted portions Ibid, p. 16.

[10] Ibid, pp. 13-15.

[11] The companionate nature of these documents is noted in nearly all the secondary literature. See Ibid, p. 16; W. Gleason, Moral Idealists, Bureaucracy, and Catherine the Great (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1981), p. 189; Ransel, p. 272; Piotr Zaborov, “Denis Fonvizine et ses Lettres de France,” in Denis Fonvizine, Lettres de France (1778-1779)trans. Henri Grosse, Jacques Proust, Piotr Zaborov (Paris: CNRS Editions; Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1995) pp. 7-8. All references to Fonvizin letters, unless otherwise noted, derive from this edition of Fonvizin’s letters from France (see below, n. 45).

[12] Gleason, Political and Legal Writings of Denis Fonvizin, p. 16; cf. Gleason, Moral Idealists, Bureaucracy, and Catherine the Great, p. 190.

[13] Though considerably beyond the scope of this article, and merely alluded to by way of conclusion, the manner in which Fonvizin’s use of Chinese political thought may have been useful to later generations of Russian revolutionaries remains a topic worthy of closer study. Some of Fonvizin’s later works, though not widely circulated, were known to the Decembrists in some form via Fonvizin’s relative, M.A. Fonvizin, and may have resonated in moments of crisis as far removed as the aftermath of the 1905 Revolutions: see Andrzej Walicki, A History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism, trans. Hilda Andrews-Rusiecka (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1979), pp. 32-4. This Decembrist connection will be elaborated in somewhat greater detail at the conclusion of this paper, but Walicki’s suppositions are long overdue for more thorough study. Much existing scholarship in English deemphasizes the potential radicalism of Fonvizin, perhaps in part because the radical implications of the Confucian language of the Mandate of Heaven, when transposed into European political discussions, has not been more fully studied. David Ransel and Charles Moser have both seen in Fonvizin, and others who worked under the patronage of Nikita Panin, the last gasp of concerted aristocratic opposition to Romanov autocracy: see Ransel, pp. 268, 281; also Charles A. Moser, Denis Fonvizin (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979), pp. 98-102, 105. In some respects, however, Moser and Ransel are not far removed from a handful of Soviet scholars who saw in the Panin Party a nascent but weak movement in favor of a constitutional monarchy that would be historically analogous to the English Civil War or the so-called “aristocratic phase” of the French Revolution from 1787-89. For Soviet scholarship on Fonvizin or the Panin Group, see G. Makogonenko, Denis Fonvizin: Tvorcheskii put’ (Moscow and Leningrad, 1961); Makogonenko, Ot Fonviziana do Pushkina (Moscow, 1969); K.V. Pigarev, Tvorchestvo Fonvizina (Moscow, 1954); G. Gukovskii, Ocherki po istorii russkoi literatury XVIII veka: Dvorianskoia fronda v literature 1750-kh-1760-kh godov (Moscow, 1936); cited in Gleason, Slavic Review 34:3, p. 560 n. 1 and 2; for a rebuttal to Soviet exaggeration of Fonvizin’s opposition to Catherine the Great, see Moser, pp. 107-12.  For the somewhat dated, rather ‘Marxist-friendly’ periodization of the French Revolution’s “aristocratic phase” see Crane Brinton, A Decade of Revolution, 1789-1799 (New York, Evanston, and London: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1934; rpt. 1963).

[14] Gleason, Political and Legal Writings of Denis Fonvizin, pp. 17-18; Gleason, Moral Idealists, Bureaucracy, and Catherine the Great, p. 191; cf. for contrast, Samuel Pufendorf, Le Droit de la nature et des gens, ou système générale des principes les plus importans de la morale de la jurisprudence, et de la Politique, traduit du Latin par Jean Barbeyrac, 2 vols (Amsterdam: Veuve de Pierre de Coup, 1734). The Moscow University scholars were not likely to have read him in the original Latin, but most Russian aristocrats were more proficient in French than Russian by the middle eighteenth century.

[15] Gleason, Moral Idealists, Bureaucracy and Catherine the Great, p. 125; Gleason, Political and Legal Writings of Denis Fonvizin, p. 18.

[16] Peter Schröder, “Natural Law in Enlightenment France and Scotland – A Comparative Perspective,” in Early Modern Natural Law Theories: Contexts and Strategies in the Early Enlightenment, ed. T. J. Hochstrasser and P. Schröder (Boston and London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003), p. 297; cf. Walter J. Gleason, “Pufendorf and Wolff in the Literature of Catherinian Russia,” Germano-Slavica 2 (1978): 427-37.

[17] Ian Hunter, Rival Enlightenments: Civil and Metaphysical Philosophy in Early Modern Germany (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 7-9.

[18] Gleason in Slavic Review 34:3, pp. 572-74, and for quote see p. 574.

[19] See above and for quote, A.N. Radishchev, “Pis’mo k drugu,” in Izbrannye filosofkie I obshchestvenno-politicheskie proizvedeniia (Moscow: Goslitizdat, 1952), pp. 218-19; qtd. in Cynthia H. Whittaker, “The Reforming Tsar: The Redefinition of Autocratic Duty in Eighteenth-Century Russia,” Slavic Review 51:1 (Spring, 1992), p. 96 n. 77.

[20] Gary Marker, “The Age of Enlightenment, 1740-1801” in Russia: A History, ed. Gregory L. Freeze (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 116.

[21] Gleason, Moral Idealists, Bureaucracy, and Catherine the Great, pp. 108-12, 117; Ransel, pp. 280-81.

[22] See above in Moser, pp. 1-5; also Ransel, pp. 280-81.

[23] Gleason, Moral Idealists, Bureaucracy and Catherine the Great, p. 118.

[24] The reader is here referred to three classic studies on the British Political thought and the regicide: J.G.A. Pocock, “Retrospect” to Ancient Constitution and Feudal Law (Cambridge University Press, 1987); J.P. Sommerville, Politics and Ideology in Stuart England, 1603-1640(London and New York: Longman, 1986), pp. 38-9, 46-7, 69-80; Corinne Weston and Janelle Greenberg, Subjects and Sovereigns: The Grand Controversy over Legal Sovereignty in Stuart England (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Barry Coward, The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714, 2nd ed. (London and New York: Longman, 1994), pp. 224-77; for the ideological background and implications of the regicide of the French Revolution see François Furet, Revolutionary France, 1770-1880, trans. Antonia Nevill (Oxford and London: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1992; 8th rpt., 2000), pp. 101-50.

[25] Thus, when some fifteen years later at another key point in his life, Fonvizin would not have found these words from the French translation of the Ta Hsüeh to be an alien concept: “If a monarch has not the confidence of spirit to summon merit from afar to receive honors, if he puts from him the pat of merit and lets thorns grow on it, if he puts his trust in men whose malice is known to him or does not remove his entire confidence from them immediately, then it is himself whom he strikes down, opening the door to the greatest calamities.” See “Ta Hsüeh or That Great Learning which Comprises Higher Chinese Philosophy,” trans. Denis Fonvizin; excerpted in Russian Intellectual History, ed. and trans. by Raeff, pp. 94-5.

[26] Ransel, pp. 280-81; Gleason, Moral Idealists, Bureaucracy, and Catherine the Great, p. 127, p. 168.

[27] Gleason, Moral Idealists, Bureaucracy, and Catherine the Great, p. 156-57, and for quote, p. 130.

[28] “Ta Hsüeh” in Raeff, 95

[29] Frederick W. Mote, Intellectual Foundations of China, 2nd. ed. (New York, et al: McGraw-Hill, 1989; 1971), p. 62.

[30] Fonvizin, “Letter to Peter Panin 2 May, 1772” in Sochineiia D.J. Fonviziana. Polnoe Sobranie original’nykh proizvedenii, p. 276; qtd. Gleason, Moral Idealists, Bureaucracy, and Catherine the Great, p. 170; This conception of Russian nationality is not completely unique to Fonvizin. Another celebrated literateur of the Panin group, Bogdanovich, wrote a play known as The Slavs that dates from this period. In The Slavs, Bogdanovich invents an illicit love affair between Alexander the Great and a Slavic slave woman. Addressing her warlike lover, the Slavic woman attempts in one scene to convince Alexander that her people are uniquely inimical to the need to be prodded by an aggressive state to convince them to fulfill their duty to one another. See in I.F. Bogdanovich, “Slavaiane” in Sochineiia Bogdanovicha v. 2 of 2 (St. Petersburg: Izdatel’stvo A Smirdina, 1848); qtd. Gleason, Moral Idealists, Bureaucracy, and Catherine the Great, p. 168.

[31] Ibid, p. 170.

[32] Moser, pp. 90-5; Hans Rogger, National Consciousness in Eighteenth-Century Russia(Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1960), p. 78, pp. 80-1.

[33] Moser, p. 106.

[34] Fonvizin, “Discourse on the Permanent State of Laws,” in Political and Legal Writings, pp. 178-79; this theme of educating the head but neglecting the heart becomes salient in Fonvizin’s characters as well. Ransel believes the character of Mr. Starodum in his famous play, The Miner, was deliberately modeled on Fonvizin’s friend and mentor, Nikita Panin. Rogger believes that the tutor in The Adolescent is similarly constructed. See Ransel, p. 270; see also Rogger, pp. 76-77; cross reference these observations of Ransel and Rogger with Fonvizin’s praise for Panin in his role as tutor to the future Paul I in “Life of Nikita Ivanovich Panin” in Political and Legal Writings, pp. 185-87.

[35] Ibid, pp. 117-18; Fonvizin’s conclusion answered a very practical dilemma for those like Panin and Fonvizin who wanted to extend the privilege of nobility which had accrued slowly since the early 1760s in Catherine’s Great Charter while yet enhancing participation of the high nobility in government. As Ransel astutely notes, “Since enforced service contradicted the very essence of the noble estate and merely enhanced the autocratic power, they [the Panin Faction] could not advocate a return to the obligatory service requirement of Peter I’s time. The answer was rather to convince people of their moral obligation to serve”: see Ransel, pp. 75-76. Nobles associated obligatory service with despotism, but the remedy for imperial favoritism required nobles to serve. Fonvizin’s renewed emphasis on the ethical bond between autocracy and fatherland, therefore, was an attempt to answer this dilemma, and he found a kindred emphasis in the political thought of the Ta Hsüeh – one uniquely amenable to plausibly addressing answer this dilemma.

[36] Proust, “Lettres de France dans l’espace littéraire française” in Lettres de France (1777-1778), p. 30; Raeff, Russian Intellectual History: An Anthology, p. 88 (see explanatory note).

[37] Joseph Marie Amiot, François Bourgeois, Pierre Martial Cibot, Aloys Kao, Charles Batteux, Louis Georges Oudart-Feudrix de Bréquigny, “Preface,” Mémoires concernant l’histoire, les sciences, les arts, les moeurs, les usages, &c. des Chinois: par les missionaries de Pékin, v. 1 of (Paris: Chez Nyon, 1776) pp. i-vi; henceforth cited Mémoires, v. 1 (1776) pp. i-vi; see also Pierre Martial Cibot, “Essai sur l’ecriture et les caractères Chinois” in Mémoires v. 8 (1782), pp. 133-266; Cibot, “Suite de l’Essai sur l’ecriture et les caractères Chinois” in Mèmoires v. 9 (1783), pp. 282-440; The translation of the Ta Hsüeh in the first volume of the Mémoires is known to be by Abbé Cibot because he cites his own translation an extensive note in Mémoires v. 9 (1783), pp. 411-12; both Cibot and Joseph Marie Amiot (the general editor of the Mémoires) were well-known scholars of Chinese language: see also Joseph Marie Amiot, Dictionnaire tartare-mantchou françois composé d’après un dictionnaire mantchou-chinois, par M. Amyot…rédigé et publié avec des additions et l’alphabet de cette langue, par L. Langlès 3 v. (Paris: F. A. Didot l’ainé, 1789-90); also Amiot, Abégé historique des principaux traits de la vie de Confucius, célèbre philosophe chinois; orné de 24 estampes in 4, gravées par Helman, d’après des dessins originaux de la Chine, envoyés à Paris par M. Amiot, missionaire à Pékinet tirés du cabinet de Mr. Bertin (Paris: Chez l’auteur et chez M. Ponce, graveur [1788?]).

[38] Abbé Cibot, “Ta-Hio” Mémoires v. 1 (1776) pp. 432-58.

[39] Valerie Hanson, The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600 (New York: Norton, 2000), pp. 295-97.

[40] For Proust, see above n. 40.

[41] The Great Learning in Chan, p. 85 n. 5.

[42] Catherine M. Northeast, The Parisian Jesuits and the Enlightenment: 1700-1762 (Oxford: The Voltaire Foundation at the Taylor Institution, 1991), p. 122; for signal importance of China to theological disputes within the French republic of letters, see Alan Kors, Atheism in France, 1650-1729 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990).

[43] I found not mention in any of the following, all dating from his period in Paris: “Letter 11: à sa soeur, de Paris, 11/22 mars 1778,” pp. 103-9; “Letter 12 à sa soeur, de Paris, 20/31 mars 1778,” pp. 111-12; “Letter 13: à Piotr Ivanovitch Panine, de Paris, 20/31 mars 1778,” pp. 113-18; “Letter 14: à Iakov Ivanovitch Boulgakov[?], de Paris, 3/14 avril 1778,” [Letter Incomplete] pp. 119-22, and see p. 121 n. 7; “Letter 15: à sa soeur, de Paris, 30 avril, 1778,” pp. 123-31; “Letter 16: à Piotr Ivanovitch Panine, de Paris, 14/25 juin 1778,” pp. 133-40. Despite the lack of any direct mention of Cibot’s translation, it should be stressed again that the complete correspondence of Denis Fonvizin has not been translated, and there may be other items in Russian which could shed light on these findings one way or another.

[44] Marc Raeff said it appeared anonymously in May, 1779 in Sankt-Petersburgskii Vestnik: see Raeff, p. 88; also Piotr Zaborov, “Denis Fonvizine et ses Lettres de France” in Lettres de France, pp. 7-8.

[45] Zaborov in Lettres de France, p. 8; Ransel, p. 272.

[46] The full text of the reform proposal is reprinted in Russian in the Appendix to E. S. Shumigorskii, Imperator Pavel I, zhizn’ i tsarstovovanie (St. Petersburg, 1907), pp. 1-35. I am greatly indebted to my friend and colleague Richard A. Moss for his invaluable assistance in consulting this source; also Ransel p. 272 n. 24; for renewed concentration on Paul as a sort of “savior” for the ideals of the Panin-Fonvizin group, see Fonvizin, “A Discourse on the Recovery of His Imperial Majesty the Crown Prince Paul Petrovich in 1771” in Political and Legal Writings, pp. 153-54, p. 156; see also “Life of Nikita Panin” in Ibid, p. 185.

[47] Fonvizin, “Discourse on the Permanent Laws of State” in Political and Legal Writings, p. 169.

[48] Ibid, pp. 169-70.

[49] Ibid, p. 172, p. 171.

[50] About the time of Fonvizin’s reform proposal which included the Chu Hsi translation and his Discourse on the Permanent Laws of State, Catherine II had rather alarmingly turned over a vast amount of official responsibilities to her last favorite, the youthful and power-hungry Platon Zubov: see Whittaker, Russian Monarchy: Eighteenth-Century Ruler and Writers in Political Dialogue, p. 175.

[51] Fonvizin, “Discourse on the Permanent Laws of State” in Political and Legal Writings, pp. 170-71.

[52] Fonvizin, Ta Hsüeh, in Raeff, 92; Elsewhere in the Ta Hsüeh, the question of ministers is taken up in almost exactly the same terms as in the Discourse: : “‘Alas!’ cried Wu King…’if my choice should fall on an arrogant man, one who would fear, remove, hide from me, or hem in all those whose ability, knowledge, zeal, obedience, and honor might vex his pride and prick his envy – then…such ministers are born to destroy and ruin states. Only a wise sovereign is able to reject their services.” See in Raeff, p. 94.

[53] Ibid, p. 91; Mote, p. 39, pp. 42-4.

[54] Chan, “Introduction to The Great Learning” in Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, pp. 84-5; cf Howard J. Weschler, Offerings of Jade and Silk: Ritual and Symbol in the Legitimation of the T’ang Dynasty (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985), pp. 24-30; for a rival tradition of institutional and legal reform as a basis for rectifying society with li, with some limited affinity to Fonvizin’s proposals to the Russian empress, see discussion of Wang An-Shih’s reformism (predating Chu-Hsi by nearly a century) in James T.C. Liu, Reform in Sung China: Wang An-Shih and his New Policies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959), pp. 40-5.

[55] William Doyle describes the central problem of German Cameralism and the limits of the German Enlightenment as applied to states. The dilemma that Doyle notes is one that Fonvizin is directly addressing by his injection of Neo-Confucian political morality into his reform proposals. Doyle writes, “The writings of the German cameralists…such as Seckendorff, Becher, Hornigk, Schröder, or Justi were more interested in what states should do than in the authority by which they did it. Their writings were strewn with references to the quality of various forms of government, but there was no unanimity among them and often little consistency in the works of individual writers. None set out to construct a coherent theory of political obligation; a government justified itself in cameralist eyes if it used its power wisely… Cameralism was bureaucratic, rather than political, theory.” See in William Doyle, The Old European Order, 1660-1815, 2nd. ed. The Short Oxford History of the Modern World Series (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1978; rpt. 1992) p. 235.

[56] The Great Learning in Chan, p. 86.

[57] Ibid, p. 90.

[58] Fonvizin, “Ta Hsüeh” in Raeff, p. 91.

[59] Fonvizin, “Discourse on the Permanent State of Laws” in Raeff, p. 96.

[60] Fonvizin, “Discourse” in Raeff, pp. 172-73, p. 174.

[61] The Great Learning in Chan, pp. 92-3; Interestingly enough, however, the translation Fonvizin provided for the published edition of 1779 is not nearly as direct: “The love of subjects gives scepters and crowns. Their hatred wrenches them away and shatters them. Wherefore a truly wise sovereign strives to be strong and to increase in virtue, for he knows that the more virtuous he is, the more favor he enjoys amongst his subjects…Virtue is the unshakable foundation of the throne and the inexhaustible source of power; riches are only its adornment. If the sovereign is deceived in this matter and takes the immaterial for the essential, then will his subjects, corrupted by his example cast off the burden of the laws and pollute with plundering and robbery all those channels which his greed will tap to divert himself the sources of wealth…The supreme governor of our fates does not arrive at the same decision forever. This means that the same hand whereby he sets on the throne sovereigns able to preserve its glory by their virtue and justify its destiny – with that same hand he overthrows others who disgrace the throne with their vices and compel justice to overthrow them.” [Emphasis mine]. See Ta Hsüeh in Raeff, p. 93-4. The English rendering of both the Fonvizin and Cibot translations are virtually identical, and yet the italicized portion above, when compared with the more direct twentieth-century translation of the Chinese into English by Chan, is more oblique. The Abbé Cibot, like Fonvizin’s, is judiciously oblique (again, the italicized portion, again, corresponds to the portions italicized from Fonvizin and Chan above): “C’est le cri de tous les siècles: l’amour du Peuple donne les Sceptres & les Couronnes: sa haine les laisse tomber ou les brise. Ainsi un Prince vraiment sage s’applique, avant tout, à s’ancrer dans la vertu, & à s’y perfectionner, parce qu’il fait bien que plus il sera vertueux, plus il sera aimé de ses Sujets… La vertu est le fondement inébranlable du Trône & la source intarissable de l’Autorité; les richesses & les biens n’en sont que l’ornement. Si un Prince s’y trompe & prend l’accessoire pour l’essentiel, ses Sujets corrompus par son exemple secoueront le joug des Loix & souilleront de vols & de brigandages tous les canaux qu’ouvrira son avarice pour conduire vers lui les sources des richessses… C’est la Loi de tous les siècles: l’injure qui a souillé la bouche en sortant, rentre dans les oreilles en les déchirant: l’avarice du Prince ayant corrompu la probité de ses Sujets, leur iniquité dissipe les trésors qu’a grossi son injustice.” The long-winded and oblique phraseology of Fonvizin’s 1779 published translation departs from both Cibot and the original Ta Hsüeh, and seems to be a fancy pirouette around the censors in a text designed for more public consumption than the Discourse, a document which was essentially a rather bold “policy memorandum” meant for the eyes of Paul and Catherine. See Cibot, “Ta-Hio” in Mémoires v. 1 (1776), p. 452.

[62] Whittaker, Russian Monarchy: Eighteenth-Century Ruler and Writers in Political Dialogue, p. 175.

[63] The Great Learning in Chan, p. 93.

[64] Fonvizin, “Discourse” in Raeff, p. 179.

[65] Ibid, p. 175.

[66] Fonvizin, “Ta-Hsüeh” in Raeff, 89.

[67] The above notwithstanding, the translation of Abbé Cibot was highly sophisticated in its day, and benefited from the Jesuit missionary’s close, first-hand experience with Chinese language and culture. Cibot states in the preface to his translation that he relied on the most highly respected linguistic authorities among the Jesuits and Chinese, as well as the most revered commentaries on the Ta Hsüeh then current among eighteenth-century Ch’ing Dynasty officials. See Cibot, “Preface to Ta-Hio” in Mémoires v. 1 (1776), p. 434.

[68] See Explanatory note in Raeff, p. 88. Regrettably, this author is limited by his area of expertise: Western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The topic is ripe for further study by Russian Historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

[69] As noted previously, even in France where Chinese society was copiously studied for its theological and moral implications, there were seldom (or never?) any creative attempts to synthesize political Confucianism with Western political discourse for concrete political reform programs.

[70] Whittaker, Russian Monarchy: Eighteenth-Century Rulers and Writers in Political Dialogue, p. 172.

[71] Walicki, p. 33.

[72] Ibid, pp. 33-4.

[73] The Great Learning in Chan, 92.

About the Author

Jeffery D. Burson

Jeffery D. Burson is a Ph.D. student at George Washington University set to graduate in June of 2006.  He plans to become a professor of European History.

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Andrei Nesterov

Andrei Nesterov leads SRAS' Research Services, performing remote archive research and consultations for researchers around the globe. Andrei graduated from Ural State University (journalism) and Irkutsk State Linguistic University (English). He also studied public policy and journalism at Duke University on a Muskie Fellowship and taught Russian at West Virginia University. As a journalist, he has reported in both Russian and English language outlets and has years of archival research experience. He has travelled Russia extensively and penned many stories on the “real Russia” which lies beyond the capital and major cities. Andrei also contributes news, feature stories, and language resources to the SRAS Family of Sites.

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