If you have heard of Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet at all, you probably know more about eighteenth-century France than is common. Even then, you might barely know his name, or only know him as someone who quarreled with a more illustrious figure; perhaps a playwright whose plays (unlike Linguet's) are still read, or a philosopher whose ideas (unlike Linguet's) are still studied, or an historian whose histories, (unlike Linguet's)… You get the picture.
Linguet is, by most measures, unknown today. Already in the nineteenth century, a biographer wrote:
Who would believe today that this man, wiped from history, filled Europe with his name, with the racket of his speech, his writings and his adventures? Who would believe that Voltaire dealt with him as an equal, that he was a god for Louis XVI, and the devil for his ministers, whom he never ceased to trouble; that he had held in check the Parliament, the Bar, the French Academy, the economic clan and all the leaders of philosophy; that, with immense success, he founded political journalism; that he was, in a word, one of the most talked about figures of the XVIII century?
Jean Cruppi, Un avocat journaliste du dix-huitième siècle, Linguet, 2
When he wrote the present work, he was forty-six, and one of Europe's most famous journalists. He was at the height of his success, a success prompted by one of his greatest failures: as a lawyer.
As a lawyer, Linguet had lost more cases than he won, but was immensely popular with the public. His colleagues, however, hated him, and, in 1774, contrived to have him disbarred. If they'd expected to silence him, however, they'd made a terrible mistake. After several false starts as a journalist, he moved to London - out of reach of the royal censors - and started the Annales politiques, civiles et littéraires du dix-huitième siècle: "Political, civil and literary annals of the eighteenth century". It was a tremendous success - and often controversial. The abbé Morellet, who called him "a phony, a bad writer", saw in Linguet's thorny character the very key to his success: "[He] would never have been successful without the use he made of a powerful means to celebrity, impudence, … whose full energy he understood better than anyone." (Mèmoires, I, 236). The remark is not entirely fair - Linguet was knowledgeable, eloquent and often (if harshly) witty - but not inaccurate either. As Darline Gay Levy puts it: "Linguet did not lack political enemies. In a sense, enemies were what he wanted. He almost courted antagonists on all sides the way more prudent and cunning men collected patrons and protectors." (The Ideas and Careers of Simon-Henri Linguet, 200).....
The success of this work was the high-point of Linguet's career. He was to have more adventures: he was made a noble by the (Austrian, not French) king; he offered his services as Louis XVI's lawyer; he became a mayor under the Revolution. But let us move past these and other tales to his life's tragic-comic end.
Despite the part played by this work in a key event of the Revolution, Linguet had written on so many subjects in so provocative a manner that he could be - and was - accused of holding anti-Revolutionary positions. As it happens, he was sick when he was arrested and was soon transferred to a hospital, where he might have stayed quietly out of harm's way. Instead, he once more wrote provocative letters, these to the Revolutionary tribunal, and demanded to be tried. Did he think his old eloquence as a lawyer would clear his name? If so, he had a sadly idealistic view of these summary courts. He was convicted and at once sent to the guillotine. Grumbling once again, it seems, about how unfairly he'd been treated.