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Fustel de Coulanges May 31, 2010

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges (1830-1889), according to the brief but sufficient biography supplied by Reinhard Bendix in State and Society: A Reader in Comparative Political Sociology (1973,) was “Professor of History at Strasbourg and at the Sorbonne in Paris.”  Coulanges’ The Ancient City (1864), Bendix declared, was  “a pioneering analysis of the role of religion in classical antiquity.”  Coulanges was the author of a number of other works on early French history but is remembered, if at all, as a persistent influence on Emile Durkheim.

According to Steven Lukes, Durkheim praised Coulanges, along with the French historian Gabriel Monod, for his rigorous historical method, but criticized the former for his lack of attention to the “comparative method” (Lukes, Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work, 58.)

Lukes is quick to point out that Durkheim’s criticism only referred to Coulanges’ account of the Roman family or gens in The Ancient City, as Coulanges’ 1889 essay, “The Origin of Property in Land,” has a section entitled “On the application of the comparative method to this problem.”  This essay contains an interesting summation of the status quo of economic sociology in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.  Coulanges’ notes Henry Maine’s use of the Indian village to inquire into the original constitution of Western property as well as Emile de Laveleye’s theory of the original communal ownership of the soil.

After an exhaustive refutation of Laveleye’s arguments, the reader is treated to a mature statement of method.   “If you wish to employ the comparative method,” Coulanges noted, “it would first be needful to study each nation in itself, to study it throughout its history, and above all, in its law” (Origin, 130-1.)  Coulanges was not averse to comparisons between India and ancient Europe, but cautioned that the use of the comparative method should not distort the legal traditions of the countries from which they draw.  The comparative method “does not consist in discovering amongst fifteen different nations fifteen different facts, which if interpreted in a certain manner, unite in the construction of a system.”  It consisted “in studying a number of nations in regard to their law, their ideas, all of the circumstances of their social life…” (131.)

What concerned Coulanges was the superficiality of accounts using the comparative method, not the comparative method itself.  Coulanges, throughout The Ancient City, engaged in a comparison of the institutional and religious forms of Greek, Roman, and early Christian life with those of modern Europe  (The Ancient City, trans. Willard Small, 10-11.) Coulanges was concerned not only with the progression of human kind from tribalism to urbanity but also with the growth and progress of the human mind.

Consistent with much of 19th century anthropology and sociology in France, including that of Emile Durkheim and Alfred Espinas,  Coulanges’ effort in The Ancient  City (1864) was a working out of the terms and implications of Comtean positivism in its elucidation of the historical growth of the rational intellect.   The growth of the intellect was most apparent through the systematization and reduction of an originally infinite number of household deities to a stable pantheon which steadily became more inclusive of strangers outside of the original family unit (161-67.)  It was this development in the religious aspect of ancient human beings which led to progressively more organized social structures   (“Introduction.”)

In contrast to Karl Marx, Durkheim, and William Robertson Smith, Coulanges contended that religion produced the economic and social relations between individuals rather than the inverse. From religion “came all the institutions, as well as the private law, of the ancients.”  It was from religion that the city “received all its principles, its rules, and its usages, and its magistracies” (12.)

Coulanges believed that rituals were survivals.  “The contemporary of Cicero,” Coulanges noted, “practiced rites in the sacrifices, at funerals, and in the ceremony of marriage” which were “older than his time.”  These rituals did not correspond to the present “religious belief,” but bore the marks of a worldview which men believed “fifteen or twenty centuries earlier”  (14.)  In this way, the writings of Cicero gave the investigator clues into the more primitive beliefs and social structures.

W.H.R. Rivers in his “Survival in Sociology” (1913) described “survivals” as “a custom….(which) can not be explained by its present utility but only becomes intelligible through its past history” (The Sociological Review, 6, 1913.)     Coulanges’ formulation of this anthropological heuristic predates Edward Burnett Tylor’s discussion of “survivals” in his Primitive Culture (1871.)  Tylor described a “survival” as something which “manifestly”  does not have  its “origin in the new state of things, but has simply lasted on into it.”   Through paying attention to survivals, “it becomes possible to declare that the civilization of the people they are observed among must have been derived from an earlier state, in which the proper home and meaning of these things are to be found ; and thus collections of such facts are to be worked as mines of historic knowledge” (Tylor, Primitive Culture, 71.)

Coulanges’ discussion of the interconnection between ritual, religion, and community foreshadowed one of the principle analytic debates of nineteenth and twentieth century anthropology.  This discussion was begun in earnest with the work of  William Robertson Smith, who argued for the primacy of ritual over that of myth and of the centrality of ritual to social cohesion.

Robertson Smith’s work on early Semitic rituals or “rites,” particularly his Religion of the Semites, based upon lectures delivered at the University of Aberdeen between 1888 and 1891, argued that primitive mythology were not an a kind of proto-science, as Tylor contended.  Religion derived its power from ritual or “rite,” which Robertson Smith, much like Durkheim, defined as acts and observances which cemented social bonds between members of the community.  Rituals were the worship of a representation, or totem, of the community itself.

As Catherine Bell details, for Robertson Smith, “ritual is the primary component of religion, and it fundamentally serves the basic social function of creating and maintaining community.”  Myth was given a second place of explaining what the ritual, or the rite, stood for after its original meaning had been forgotten.  Robertson Smith concluded, “the myth was derived from the ritual, and not the ritual from the myth.” (In Catherine Bell, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, 4.) Coulanges also held that in the ancient world religion enforced social stability.  In the “social system of the ancients,”  religion was “the absolute master, both in “public and in private life,” and the state was “a religious community” (520.)  Individuals, however, practiced the rituals prescribed to them by the state not out of any need for social solidarity or out of an understanding of its efficacy, but due to the respect given to antiquity and to the authority of the state.

Coulanges also underscored the historical role of religious ideas in societal change.  This change, though gradual, culminated in the disengagement of the laws of the state from the sanctions of the religious cult and in the complete disappearance of ritual as it was understood in the ancient world.    Christianity, though reviving religious sentiment, was in no way concerned with ritual or with the state.   Taking its “abode” in the “thoughts of man,” Christianity was also a universal faith rather than a belief system of a “caste” or “nation” (521-22.)

“Prayer,” Coulanges detailed, “was no longer a form of incantation” but “an act of faith and a humble petition,” with the “love of God” replacing fear of the divinity.  Christ was the great agent of secularization as “he separates religion from government” (525.)   Coulanges concluded that religion did enforce social conformity in some societies, as in ancient Greece and Rome.  Coulanges also argued that  the progressive separation of church and state, culminating in Christianity, was due to the work of religion as well.


1. Linkwaddies « Evolving Thoughts - June 1, 2010

[…] Donohue at Ether Wave Propaganda discusses Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, a 19th century sociologist and historian, who wisely wrote of the use of cross cultural […]

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