Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

A French economist, born at La Rivière (Calvados), 11 April, 1806; died at Paris, 5 April, 1882. His childhood was spent among Christian people, with a poor widowed mother. From the college of Havre he went (1824) to Paris, where he followed the scientific courses of the Collège St. Louis, the polytechnic school, and the school of mines. At the polytechnic school he had as fellow-pupils the economist Michel Chevalier, Père Gratry, and the philosopher Jean Reynaud. In 1829 with Reynaud he made a journey on foot through the Rhine provinces, Hanover, Brunswick, Prussia, and Belgium to study mining, customs, and social institutions. On his return an accident in the course of a chemical experiment caused him eighteen months of suffering and deformed his hands for life. He became secretary of the "Annales des mines" and of "Statistique de l'industrie minérale", and professor of metallurgy at the school of mines (1840). Each year he travelled six months, studying metallurgy and social problems, and questioning traders, workmen, owners, and peasants. He spoke five languages and understood eight.

His life may be divided into two periods: from 1833-55 he invented, applied, and perfected his method; from 1855-82 he explained, developed, and perfected his doctrine. In 1833 he visited Spain ; in 1835 and 1846 Belgium ; 1836 and 1842, Great Britain; 1837 and 1844, Russia ; 1845, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway ; 1844 and 1845, Germany ; 1846, Austria, Hungary and Northern Italy. Extracts from his correspondence with his wife and mother during his travels were published in 1899. During his sojourns in Russia he was consulted by Nicholas I on various projects of reform, and, having undertaken at the instance of Prince Anatol Demidoff a scientific expedition into the coal regions of Donetz, the prince entrusted him with the superintendence of his gold, silver, platinum, copper, and iron mines, which employed 45,000 men in the Ural region.

His conversations with Comte de Rayneval, French ambassador at Madrid, to whom he had been recommended by Boieldieu, convinced him that the forced division of inheritances established by the Code Napoléon had evil social consequences. His visit to the Baron de Tamm, who directed 2300 workmen at Osterby, near Upsala, showed him what might be done by resident owners anxious for the welfare of their people, and his theory of "social authorities" slowly took form in his mind. Among the peasants and blacksmiths of the Ural region he observed a social condition very similar to the ancient French feudal regime, and his statements regarding the comfort of these people coincided with those of Guérard and Leopold Delisle concerning the prosperous condition of the French agricultural classes during the early centuries of feudalism. He thus formed ideas quite at variance with the juridical and historical conceptions propagated by the men of the French Revolution. His "method of observation", the rules of which he gradually formulated, was in contradiction to the individualism of the French Revolution. It consisted in studying, not the individual, but the family (which is the real social unit), and in studying types of families among the stationary element of the population whose members lead uniform lives and faithfully preserve their local customs.

From 1848, during the months he spent in Paris, Le Play held weekly gatherings of persons of various opinions interested in the social question; among them were Jean Reynaud, Lamartine, François Arago, Carnot, Lanjuinais, Tocqueville, Montalembert, Sainte-Beuve, Agénor de Gasparin, Abbé Dupanloup , Thiers, Auguste Cochin, and Charles Dupin. During the social troubles which followed the Revolution of 1848 these men besought Le Play to abandon his teaching at the school of mines and to devote himself exclusively to the exposition of his social system. But Le Play, ever scrupulous, considered it necessary to make further journeys to Switzerland, the Danube provinces, and Central Turkey (1848), Auvergne (1850), England and Western Germany (1851), Austria and Russia (1853). However, in 1855 he published "Les ouvriers européens", describing the material and moral life of thirty-six families, among widely different races, which he had studied at close range. The School of Le Play continues this series of valuable monographs in a periodical entitled "Les ouvriers des deux mondes". The English economist Higgs declared that Le Play's monographs on four English families are the best available account of English popular life from the economic point of view. Taine, the French historian, after studying the origins of contemporary France for his great work, wrote: "By his methodical, exact, and profound researches, Le Play has done a great service to politics and, in consequence, to history." Luzzatti, a Jew who later became president of the Italian ministry, wrote to Le Play: "After drinking at all sources, I draw inspiration for my studies from your method alone." And it was in conformity with Le Play's method that Carroll D. Wright, head of the Boston Bureau of Statistics and later Commissioner of Labour at Washington, had 6000 monographs dealing with labour problems compiled; in acknowledging the influence of the study of Le Play, he says, "I received from it a new inspiration which completely changed the trend of my thoughts." Le Play had intended to add to "Les ouvriers européens" a final chapter setting forth certain doctrinal conclusions, but at the last he held them back to let them mature, and simply wrote: "If required to point out the force which, operating at each extremity of the social scale, suffices, strictly speaking, to render a people prosperous, we should unhesitatingly answer: at the bottom, foresight; at the top, religion. In analysing facts and comparing figures, social science always leads real observers to the principles of the Divine law." In 1856 Le Play founded the Société d'Economie Sociale with the intention of preparing public opinion to accept his conclusions.

In 1855 (second period) Napoleon III appointed Le Play councillor of State and reposed in him a confidence which steadily increased. He also requested Le Play to write a book on the social principles which seemed to him requisite for the prosperity of society. Le Play consented and, in 1864, published his "Réforme sociale en France, déduite de l'observation comparée des peuples européens". In the first chapter, "La religion", he defends the religious idea against Darwinism and Scepticism, but at that date the various religions seemed to him but external forms, equally respectable and inspired by the same religious sentiment; he does not decide in favour of any. He defends God, respects Jesus Christ, but fails to appreciate the Church. From his observations he concluded that the doctrine of the original goodness of man is false, that the tendency to evil is ingrained in human nature, that, therefore, a law is needed to compel man to do good in order to attain happiness, and he hails this law in the Decalogue but makes little account of the Gospel. The work was a sort of social apologetic for the Decalogue : "the erring ", he writes, "on whom the traditional truths have no longer any influence, are led back by the facts which the method of observation brings to light." The book met with great success. Sainte-Beuve proclaimed him "a rejuvenated Bonald, progressive and scientific ". Montalembert wrote: "Le Play has produced the most original, most useful, most courageous, and, in every respect, the strongest book of the century. He not only possesses more eloquence than the illustrious Tocqueville, but much more practical perspicacity and above all greater moral courage. I repeat, what I admire most in him is the courage which impels him to fight with raised visor against most of the dominant prejudices of his time and country. In this, even more than in his prodigious knowledge of facts, will consist his true greatness in the intellectual history of the nineteenth century." Napoleon III entrusted the organization of the Exposition Universelle of 1867 to Le Play, whom he made commissary general, and, at his request, the emperor created a new order of reward in favour of "establishments and localities throughout the world which give the best examples of social peace". But despite public opinion and the sympathy of the emperor, the jurists opposed Le Play's ideas regarding testamentary liberty. As early as 1865 Baron de Véauce, a member of the corps législatif, proposed that the Government should study the modification of the laws of inheritance, but his proposal received the votes of only forty-one deputies. The emperor, however, on two occasions had investigations made with a view to the establishment of testamentary freedom in favour of small holdings, but the project was opposed by the jurists and failed. In November, 1869, he urged Le Play to make another effort to win over five senators to this view, but this attempt, also, was unsuccessful.

It was at the emperor's suggestion that, in January, 1870, Le Play in his "L'organisation du travail" gave a résumé of the principles expounded in "La Réforme sociale". The emperor also asked him to present to two of his ministers the conclusions of this book as expressing the imperial opinion, but further action was prevented by the outbreak of war and the fall of the empire. In 1871, after the war and the Commune, Le Play published his book "L'organisation de la famille" and his pamphlet on "La paix sociale après le désastre", and to propagate his ideas he founded in France "Unions de la paix sociale". His ideas met with little political success; the project laid before the National Assembly, 25 June, 1871, for the modification of the laws of inheritance was without result. Le Play grouped about him eminent economists such as Focillon, Claudio Jaunet, Cheysson, and Rostand. In 1875 he published "La Constitution de l'Angleterre"; in 1876, "La réforme en Europe et le salut de la France "; in 1877-79, the second edition of his "Ouvriers européens", which, enriched with new details, is a sort of compendium of the social history of Europe from 1855; and in 1881, "La Constitution essentielle de l'humanité". In 1881 also appeared the review, "La réforme sociale", which, even today, propagates Le Play's ideas.

The social doctrine elaborated in his works is as follows: In all prosperous nations there are certain institutions which accompany and explain this prosperity. These institutions are;

  • (1) the observance of the Decalogue ;
  • (2) public worship — on this point Le Play devotes some beautiful passages to the rôle of the Catholic clergy in the United States and in Canada (which he calls the model nation of our time ), expresses his fear that the concordatory regime in France will produce a Church of bureaucrats, and dreams of a liberty such as exists in America for the Church of France ;
  • (3) testamentary freedom, which according to him distinguishes peoples of vigorous expansion while the compulsory division of inheritances is the system of conquered races and inferior classes. It is only, he asserts, under the former system that familles-souches can develop, which are established on the soil and are not afraid of being prolific;
  • (4) legislation punishing seduction and permitting the investigation of paternity;
  • (5) institutions founded by large land owners or industrial leaders to uplift the condition of the workman. Le Play feared the intervention of the State in the labour system and considered that the State should encourage the social authorities to exercise what he calls "patronage", and should reward the heads of industry who founded philanthropic institutions. The League for Social Service, organized at New York in 1898 by Mr. Tolman, applied these ideas of Le Play;
  • (6) liberty of instruction, i.e. freedom from State control;
  • (7) decentralization in the State.

He greatly admired the English ideas of self-government. In his latest works the Catholic tendency becomes more and more clearly defined. Le Play desired to collaborate with the clergy in the work of social reform; he believed that fidelity to God's law, an essential need of societies, could not be better guaranteed than by the doctrines, sacraments, and worship of the Catholic Church. One of his last public acts was a proceeding in behalf of the Church's right to teach, which was threatened by the projects of M. Jules Ferry. He obtained from his friend St. George Mivart a statement, signed by Gladstone, Lord Rosebery, and numerous professors of Oxford, Cambridge, and London, regarding the English idea and practice of liberty of instruction.

Le Play was very influential in Catholic circles. In his Lenten pastoral for 1881, Cardinal de Bonnechose compared him to "those ancient sages of Greece who went to Egypt and the most remote countries of the Orient, to glean from sanctuary to sanctuary the primitive traditions of the human race ". The future Cardinal Lavigerie wrote to him, "You are one of the men whom I most respect and admire." Although the "Œuvre des cercles catholiques ouvriers", founded in 1870 by the Comte de Mun and the Marquis de la Tour du Pin, held on the subject of the State's intervention in the labour system very different ideas from those of Le Play, the marquis claimed Le Play as one of his masters, because of the latter's attacks on Rousseau's theory of the original goodness of man and on the juridical and social ideas of the men of the French Revolution.


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Second Samuel 7:1-5, 8-11, 16
1 Once the king had settled into his palace and ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 89:2-3, 4-5, 27, 29
2 for you have said: love is built to last for ever, ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 1:26-38
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by ... Read More

Reading 2, Romans 16:25-27
25 And now to him who can make you strong in ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for December 21st, 2014 Image

St. Peter Canisius
December 21: In 1565, the Vatican was looking for a secret agent. It was ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter