Swiss thinking

This picture shows Jacques Rousseau reads to Madame d’Epinay. © Keystone/Interfoto/Sammlung Rauch

The great philosophers of the Enlightenment seldom took residence in Switzerland, nor did it figure in their deliberations. All the same, Switzerland did become a laboratory for political theory – though not a particularly democratic one. By Urs Hafner

​Traditionally, Switzerland’s reputation is one of a free country. It conjures up the image of an Alpine republic that inspired the imaginations of the Romantics and of many an enlightened thinker: a veritable Arcadia of unspoilt mountain shepherds and virtuous, upright citizens. By the mid-19th century it surfaced as a liberal, free state, capable not only of staying afloat in a sea of repressive monarchies but also of throwing lifelines to political refugees. Switzerland became a safe haven for humanity.

Of course, these images of Switzerland contain elements of exaggeration. They achieved popularity among the educated European classes between 1750 and 1850, during the great upheaval from ancien régime to incipient modernity and have even retained some of that popularity to the present day. But they often served only the needs of those who simply saw what they wanted to, an idealised place of freedom. The common ground in both these images is actually an absence. They dispense with thinkers and philosophers. The citizens of the Old Swiss Confederacy and their women were supposedly farmers and warriors, not intellectuals. And yet in the early modern period, the Reformed cities of Geneva, Lausanne, Bern, Basel, Zurich and Neuchâtel were indeed home to a host of active political philosophers, known today only by their names, if at all: Emer de Vattel, Isaak Iselin, Johannes von Müller, Karl Viktor von Bonstetten, Benjamin Constant, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Germaine de Staël, Karl Ludwig von Haller, Johann Caspar Bluntschli and others besides them. The great Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the exception who proves the rule, so to speak.

Analytical minds

Despite their different political orientations and fields of activity, these thinkers all had things in common. Their life and work were discussed throughout the German and French-speaking worlds, says Béla Kapossy – a historian of ideas who teaches at the University of Lausanne and occupies an almost unique place in Switzerland today. They knew all the ins and outs of the contemporary economic, political and cultural discourse in Europe, and they were fierce analysts of what today we would term the international body politic. They are now the focus of Kapossy’s attention, and that of his doctoral students, as for several years he has been devoted to a thorough investigation of the politico-economic ideas of the early modern period.

There was something else that these thinkers had in common: their perspective was determined by the restricted territorial dimensions of Switzerland itself. They wanted to understand how Europe functioned in order to safeguard Switzerland’s modest place amidst Europe’s royal empires. ‘Peace theories’ were popular at the time, but these thinkers took a critical stance towards them because they suspected – often rightly – that they were a mask for the interests of the great powers. Unlike other contemporary observers of events, they were more sensitive to the presence of imperial undertones.

Moral debate

It’s natural to assume that thinkers raised in the societies of republican Swiss states would have propagated republican theories. Republicanism stood in contrast to the prevalent monarchism of early modern times (which allowed communities to fall under autocratic rule) and gave rise to a far less common system, a sovereign state ruled either by the aristocracy or by representatives of ‘the people’ – by citizens, merchants or even artisans. Monarchism therefore stood for the hereditary principle, whereas liberal republicanism favoured elections. But the philosopher Hannah Arendt traces our understanding of republican politics back to the ‘polis’ of the Ancient Greeks, arguing that Athens played host to the invention of politics and with it – and inseparable from it – “secular, visible freedom”. Her idea of freedom is the public execution of political acts among equals. Those ‘equals’ are, for example, other citizens endowed with the same rights in an autonomous city – such as the guild republic of Zurich in the Old Swiss Confederacy.

But from Kapossy’s point of view, these Swiss thinkers only agree with Arendt’s appreciation of political action to a limited degree. Once again the exception is Rousseau, who consistently propagated the sovereignty of the people. Otherwise, the so-called republican philosophers of the 18th and early 19th centuries preferred to debate the morality of the contemporary political elite: how they should act, and whether they should raise the status of the leading families in the towns in order to prevent the outbreak of revolts. Political thinking as applied in and to the Swiss Confederacy thus took a critical attitude towards power structures, but was not republican in a democratic sense.

Nor was this the case with the liberalism of the early 19th century. As with liberal movements elsewhere, voices spoke out in favour of market forces, pushed politicians to regulate less and called for the abolition of guilds. But whilst British economic thinking was very popular in Switzerland, according to Kapossy, Swiss liberalism had certain specific features. There was a real understanding of the tensions between politics and economics and of social cohesion and peace. The negative consequences of economic liberalisation – poverty and the impoverishment of the lower classes – were named and shamed. Liberalism in Switzerland helped to establish social insurance institutions. And in Europe, Swiss liberalism became admired and was regarded as both anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist.

Suspected conservatives

So why has this Swiss tradition of political thought been forgotten, even in Switzerland itself? For one thing, research into the Enlightenment has traditionally been centred on literature and France, says Kapossy. Politics and Switzerland have slipped through the net, as it were. Furthermore, in recent decades the academic discipline of the history of ideas has largely fallen by the wayside. It has been displaced by social and economic history and is unjustly suspected of having adopted a conservative stance.

These days the history of political ideas naturally factors in the social dimensions of leading thinkers, their social environment and the intellectual discourse they propagated. So is the discipline perhaps on the verge of a renaissance? Given that the boom years have finished for the majority of the population, battles for resources will probably intensify. But if there are battles to be fought, then – hopefully – there will also be more arguments and more debate.

(From "Horizons" No. 100, March 2014)