Sentimental Savants: Philosophical Families in Enlightenment France

Sentimental Savants: Philosophical Families in Enlightenment France

by Meghan K. Roberts

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Though the public may retain a hoary image of the lone scientific or philosophical genius generating insights in isolation, scholars discarded it long ago. In reality, the families of scientists and philosophers in the Enlightenment played a substantial role, not only making space for inquiry within the home but also assisting in observing, translating, calculating, and illustrating.

Sentimental Savants is the first book to explore the place of the family among the savants of the French Enlightenment, a group that openly embraced their families and domestic lives, even going so far as to test out their ideas—from education to inoculation—on their own children. Meghan K. Roberts delves into the lives and work of such major figures as Denis Diderot, Émilie Du Châtelet, the Marquis de Condorcet, Antoine Lavoisier, and Jérôme Lalande to paint a striking portrait of how sentiment and reason interacted in the eighteenth century to produce not only new kinds of knowledge but new kinds of families as well.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226384252
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/26/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Meghan K. Roberts is assistant professor of history at Bowdoin College.

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Sentimental Savants

Philosophical Families in Enlightenment France

By Meghan K. Roberts

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-38425-2


Men of Letters, Men of Feeling

In 1751, Jean-Jacques Rousseau received a letter from a horrified reader. Suzanne Dupin de Francueil had heard a rumor that Rousseau had abandoned five children at foundling hospitals: Could this be true? Defiant, Rousseau acknowledged that he was, in fact, guilty as charged but insisted that he had had no other choice. It would have been impossible for him to be father and philosopher at the same time. Raising a family required a constant flow of cash, and that was not easy to come by as a writer. If he had kept his children, he would have been reduced "to intrigue, to games, to craving some vile employment, to bettering himself by the ordinary means." Repulsed by this life of craven dependence, Rousseau swore that "it would be better for my children to be orphans than to have such a rascal for a father." He saw family life and philosophy in diametric opposition, and he could not have pursued both at the same time.

The story of Rousseau's abandoned children was and is notorious: How could the author of Emile, an educational treatise that demanded parents devote themselves unswervingly to their children, and La Nouvelle Héloïse, a novel that made legions of readers weep over the joys and sorrows of love, have done such a thing? On its own, Rousseau's example suggests that Enlightenment philosophers avoided family life at all costs and devoted themselves to lives of stoic contemplation rather than sentimental connection. Historians of eighteenth-century France have long known, however, that the life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau — an acerbic and eccentric individual — was far from normal. Indeed, in surveying a wider swath of French thinkers, I have discovered men of letters quite unlike Rousseau. These men did not shun family ties but rather made them part of their public personae. Some very well-known philosophes — including Claude-Adrien Helvétius, the Marquis de Condorcet, and Antoine Lavoisier — count among these numbers.

Rather than representing themselves as independent and unattached, these men of letters embraced more sentimental modes of self-fashioning. They depicted themselves as men of letters and men of feeling. They crafted a new intellectual ideal, that of a married couple who loved each other deeply and collaborated productively. The rise of this ideal marked the creation of a new type of public man, a figure I am calling the "sentimental savant": a philosopher who immersed himself in family feeling but retained his intellectual edge. Inspired by the treacly prose of sentimental novels, many men of letters described family life in over-the-top language and presented themselves as loving husbands and fathers. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, author of Dangerous Liaisons, rhapsodized that, "whatever might become of me, I console myself with the idea that you [my wife] will be my posterity, and that my memory will find asylum in your heart. The pure and sensitive heart of a good wife and a good mother is a pantheon worth as much as any other." Even bachelor savants emphasized that they still had families and that they cared for them deeply. Drawing on the language of sentimental domesticity became one way to prove virtue, sensitivity, and trustworthiness. Enlightenment philosophes thought of themselves as public figures, and representing themselves as loving husbands and fathers allowed them to claim to lead by example.

Thinkers had married and had children before the Enlightenment, and so the major element of change over time studied here is not a demographic shift but rather a shift in cultural ideals and representations. With philosophes increasingly anxious to present themselves as useful and patriotic members of society, as moral leaders who would reform the public by providing a model of behavior, they deployed the language of feeling as a way to stress their virtue and sociability. Highlighting their affectionate domestic lives helped accomplish this goal. The ideal of the happily married man of letters, the philosophe as devoted father, became a new way (but not the only way) for savants to represent themselves as engaged and admirable citizens.

This new image of intellectual life coexisted alongside other models. Many Enlightenment philosophers — including clerics who had no choice in the matter — remained unmarried, and without controversy. Like their married counterparts, bachelor men of letters could claim to be sociable, virtuous, and public-minded. The philosophe par excellence, Voltaire, did not consider his unmarried status to be a black mark on his character. Indeed, even writers who lavished praise on loving marriages could marvel in turn at a celibate savant devoted to his work. Enlightenment thinkers thus had choices to make, even as many embraced sentimental domesticity.

They did so from across the social spectrum, although most of the thinkers discussed here came from the middling and aristocratic levels of society. Their comfortable socioeconomic statuses undoubtedly made the decision to wed easier for them, and their exposure to sentimental texts clearly shaped their self-representations. Nevertheless, I have not found material factors in and of themselves sufficient to explain changing ideals of intellectual marriage. While social status clearly mattered in both the practice and representation of domestic life, it is difficult to pinpoint a clear social origin for the ideal of companionate intellectual marriage. It would be wrong to say that the ideal of the sentimental savant was fundamentally bourgeois. The language of feeling was picked up in a scattershot way by savants from a range of social backgrounds and intellectual interests. To deal with this heterogeneity, I have chosen to restrict my observations about class to individual examples rather than generalizing from them.

Savants may have talked the talk of sentimental family life, but they did not always walk the walk. Clearly not — Rousseau was, after all, the master of the sentimental novel, a trusted source of child-rearing advice, and seemingly everyone's ami, yet that did not stop him from abandoning his own children. The men and women discussed in this chapter did not reach that level of hypocrisy, but contradictions aplenty can be found in their lives and letters. Helvétius wrote honeyed letters to his wife, and yet he frequented prostitutes. Marie-Anne Lavoisier, whose public image was that of devoted wife and attentive assistant, had a long-term affair with her husband's friend Samuel Pierre Dupont de Nemours. Even beyond these striking examples, families experienced tensions and betrayals that did not jibe with the harmonious and affectionate image they put forward. Some savants clung to aristocratic licentiousness even as they embraced new forms of sentimental domesticity; others displayed ordinary human changeability. These individuals may have been sincere when they expressed marital affection and familial devotion, but they acted on those feelings in a selective fashion. Yet whether or not they practiced what they preached, it is significant that certain men of letters lauded a new model of behavior: the sentimental savant whose private life, and particularly his family life, testified to his virtue.

Sociability, Sentiment, and Family Love

The ideal of the married man of letters germinated slowly, in part because of the enduring appeal of bachelorhood. The idea that thinkers should surround themselves with like-minded men and scorn the burdens of marriage was an assumption inherited from the Middle Ages, when philosophers had prescribed celibacy as the surest path to intellectual excellence. That philosophers also tended to be men of the church only strengthened the link between celibacy and the life of the mind, for they vowed to remain unmarried as a way to keep their thoughts pure and their devotion to God unwavering. Marriage and the obligations of family life would distract the philosopher with worldly concerns, when he should be training his gaze on more universal targets. The monastic tradition — the foundation of Western European intellectual culture — created a legacy of solitude and seclusion as the foundations of merit. This changed in the late medieval period with the advent of new funding sources for intellectual work. Philosophers became less reliant on church benefices but were left to their own devices when it came to managing their households. Confounded by the amount of work that household management entailed, they discovered they needed a woman to take care of them. Driven more often than not by practical concerns, philosophers began to marry. Yet even as medieval philosophers relied on their wives to look after them, they belittled their spouses' intelligence and disparaged their usefulness.

Philosophy and family life had begun to coexist, but they made uneasy bedfellows. Bachelorhood remained the most desirable way of life. Indeed, philosophers' disdain for marriage endured long past the medieval period. Even when some Renaissance humanists and Protestant theologians encouraged philosophers to wed, they did not necessarily dismiss the attractions of bachelorhood. The same dynamic appeared in the seventeenth century. Savants pursued increasingly social means to develop and display their ideas and yet still considered bachelorhood the ideal state.

Enlightenment philosophes, however, claimed to be unlike all philosophers who had come before them. Although they exaggerated the differences between themselves and their predecessors, new ideals of engagement and philosophical living did indeed emerge during the eighteenth century. A number of factors influenced intellectual self-fashioning during the Enlightenment, most especially ideas of sociability, sentiment, and civic virtue. These, in turn, shaped perceptions and representations of married intellectuals.

Scholars pinpoint the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as the birth of a new concept: the invention of society as a stand-alone field of human existence. "Society" had once referred to a select gathering of people, but the term came to evoke something grander and more abstract in the eighteenth century. It expanded into its modern definition as the arena of human relationships and interactions. Moreover, the number of references to "society" in published texts skyrocketed. Society elbowed aside Christian metaphysics and absolutist politics as the organizing principles of people's lives. To be socially virtuous, to be useful to society: these were the real markers of goodness. The reward for good behavior — the love and appreciation of one's peers — was likewise secular. Many people continued to practice Christianity, of course, and many hoped that they would enjoy a heavenly afterlife. But that far-off reward no longer stood on its own. More often than not, "society" and its needs served as motivating principles.

As "society" came into its own, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers found themselves in the grips of a new obsession: sociability. Many were inspired by the writings of Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury wished to show that human beings were naturally sociable creatures. "What Wretch is there," he asked, "what open violator of the Laws of Society, destroyer or ravager so great, who has not a Companion, or some particular Set, either of his own Kindred, or of such as he calls Friends, with whom he shares his Good, in whose Welfare he delights, and whose Joy he makes his Joy?" Sociability was a good thing, as passions and attachments inclined individuals toward virtuous behavior. If people acted selfishly or unsociably, they would be exiled from society; this theoretically deterred them from immoral behavior.

Denis Diderot found these ideas intriguing, and he ruminated on them at length in his 1745 translation of Shaftesbury's work. Diderot proved himself an active translator, expanding some parts of Shaftesbury's philosophy, truncating others, and interjecting his own voice as he saw appropriate. For example, the dangers of hypothetical solitude in Shaftesbury's hands morphed into a critique of not-at-all hypothetical religious solitude after his translator was done. Although Diderot tweaked Shaftesbury's ideas about personal happiness and social harmony, the idea of a natural human sociability resonated with him.

Diderot was not alone. Many French philosophes believed that humans were naturally sociable, and that nurturing sociability made one happier and more virtuous. César Chesneau Du Marsais, for one, insisted in the Encyclopédie that "man is not a monster who must live only in the abyss of the sea or in the depths of a forest: the very necessities of life make commerce with others necessary to him; and in whatever state he may find himself, his needs and well-being draw him to live in society." A philosophy oriented toward personal happiness need not be selfish, these philosophes insisted. By enjoying themselves and reaping the pleasures of life in the world, individuals would become better members of society and would contribute to the happiness of others. This was the true aim of society. Not security, not contractual obligation, not even divine will: personal and collective happiness stood out as the raison d'être of life on earth. A sociable life was a life as nature — that eighteenth-century keyword for all that was virtuous and orderly — intended.

Sociability might have been natural, but it needed cultivating. And that cultivation started at home: the family was the first place where individuals learned how to be sociable (and, accordingly, how to be virtuous). Marriage developed one's social credentials, for women were integral to the pursuit of civility and sociability. Women were believed to be naturally skilled at correspondence and oral communication, and they would help civilize their husbands.

Hence, for the philosophes, virtue no longer entailed isolation from society or abstinence from family life à la the regular religious: instead, seclusion represented a moral hazard. The family became the key to both happiness and morality, on a personal as well as a public scale. The Abbé de Mably summed up this belief in succinct prose: "Whoever does not know how to be a husband, a father, a neighbor, or a friend will not know how to be a citizen. In the end, domestic morality [moeurs] determines public morality." This idea only acquired greater significance during the French Revolution, when a virtuous home life became necessary for "making all households happy, developing good morals, [and] contributing to public happiness."

Praise of domestic life only amplified as ideas of sensibility and sentimentalism caught on. Sensibility — defined in the eighteenth century as a faculty, the ability to perceive and respond to outside stimuli — had moral overtones. A person with an appropriately delicate sensibility would have good morals; one with dull senses would be insensitive to the needs of others. It became highly fashionable to display one's sensitivity through seemingly spontaneous (and therefore authentic) displays of emotion, with crying, weeping, and fainting being especially popular choices. The enthusiasm for outward displays of emotion grew so strong that William Reddy has coined it a new "emotional regime."

Literary culture helped amp up the affect. Celebrated texts such as Graffigny's 1747 Lettres d'une Péruvienne, Sedaine's 1765 Le Philosophe sans le savoir, Diderot's 1758 Père de famille, and Rousseau's 1761 La Nouvelle Héloïse belonged to the newly popular genres of the drame bourgeois and the sentimental novel. The drame bourgeois focused on the everyday lives of ordinary people, rather than heroic myths or tales of martial glory. With sweeping gestures, weeping, and melodramatic speeches, actors hoped to move their audience to tears, a satisfying crescendo of emotion that greatly appealed in the age of sentiment. Sentimental novels had a similar effect. Eighteenth-century readers clamored for moving stories, sharing the joys and sorrows of the characters they encountered. As many novels were epistolary, readers felt like they were witnessing private dramas and glimpsing the inner lives of characters. Men and women wept as they read, and delighted to have such clear evidence of their virtue, sensitivity, and humanity. Novels and plays alike were thus explicitly designed to evoke a heady emotional response from their readers. And what sorts of scenes best prompted virtuous emotions? Often these authors focused on domestic life as dramatic, emotional, and of fundamental importance. Once again, all roads led back to the family home.


Excerpted from Sentimental Savants by Meghan K. Roberts. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


1.         Men of Letters, Men of Feeling
2.         Working Together
3.         Love, Proof, and Smallpox Inoculation
4.         Enlightening Children
5.         Organic Enlightenment


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