Paul Rapin Thoyras and the art of eighteenth-century historiography

As I type this, experts reach out to us by all means available, on Twitter and talk-shows, to explain the best course of actions to curb a worldwide pandemic. We, lay people of a society as interconnected and literate as ever, have to navigate the flow of information and distinguish the dubiously self-appointed experts from those who are adequately equipped to steer decision-making at both state and individual level.

Epidemiology and social media were light years away from Paul Rapin Thoyras, the expatriate Huguenot historian whose œuvre is at the centre of my book Paul Rapin Thoyras and the art of eighteenth-century historiography. Yet, in the early eighteenth century, scholars also debated about how to discern and acknowledge a certain kind of expertise: who could produce reliable historical accounts. I reconstruct Rapin’s crafting of the persona of a historian as an ‘expert’ who weighed all available evidence and eventually emitted a plausible verdict, which others could in turn take up and challenge. The book accounts for how history-writing earned Rapin a badge of membership in the Republic of Letters, a self-appointed community of scholars who strove to advance learning in all domains. Such a Republic had to juggle emerging media (the periodical journals); editorial formats (serializations, abridgements, popularizations); and writers (journalists, hack writers, editorial all-rounders) to steer the reception of printed works beyond a narrowly envisioned scholarly circle to an audience that was increasingly literate and hungry for historical accounts.

Chapters One and Two survey how skeptics at the turn of the eighteenth century doubted that history could be a magistra vitae as it had always been conceived: personal bias stood in the way of an impartial reconstruction and history-writing seemed unable to attain the allegedly unequivocal knowledge of physics and mathematics. Rapin drew his pen to fight the mounting skepticism and rehabilitate history-writing as a discipline of probable reconstructions. This resulted in what I call the Histoire-project: commented abridgments of English primary sources (1714-1725); an essay on the English political parties (1717); and the a ten-volume Histoire d’Angleterre (1724-1728) which represented the culmination of his twenty-year enterprise.

Rapin’s historiographical trials are put to test in Chapter Three, to see how his musings on the Anglo-Saxons or the disentanglement of the Popish Plot also responded to ongoing political and religious debates in England. Striving for impartiality did not – does not? – equate to being neutral in things political. Rapin thought of history-writing as a means to understand the deep-seated roots of present issues and advocate for religious toleration.

Rapin’s achievements were extraordinary, yet his strategies and ambitions were common within the Republic of Letters – as were his previous occupations as soldier and tutor, and his multiple displacements: to England, the Netherlands, and ultimately Germany. His personal trajectory thus illuminates how scholars reconsidered the boundaries of their community in the face of the booming printing industry and the interconnected growth of a readership among the general public (chapters Two and Four). Fellow scholars provided Rapin with primary sources, intellectual support and publicity in a common effort to make history-writing a worthy scholarly endeavour.

Paul Rapin Thoyras, Histoire d’Angleterre, 10 vols. (La Haye, A. de Rogissart, 1724-1727), vol.1, title page.

Chapter Four follows the many afterlives of Rapin’s œuvre – continuations, translations, adaptations – to show how knowledge of the past was becoming a ‘widespread cultural currency’ (see note below). The impact and spread of Rapin’s œuvre are further gauged through English political newspapers: Whig and Tory party-writers quarried the history written by a foreigner for their domestic political crossfire. The Histoire was thus brought from the royal and scholarly cabinets also to an audience assembled in coffee houses for their daily news. Commentators on opposing sides of the religious and political spectrum equally strove to guide lay readers’ reception of Rapin, criticizing his works either for being ‘too French’ (in England), ‘too Anglophile’ (in France), or even the product of a motley crew of Dutch pamphleteers. History, traditionally written by retired gentlemen for the edification of their peers, was turning into a popular reading genre; and the Republic of Letters felt compelled to mediate the unscholarly in approaching the past.

This guiding was boldly taken up by authors of Enlightenment narratives, who through history-writing traced the emergence of a modern society from a supposed state of barbarity. Rapin’s crafting of historical expertise is compared in Chapter Five with Hume’s and Voltaire’s histoires philosophiques. Both avid readers of Rapin, they brandished his erudition in their respective historiographical works but claimed an expertise decidedly beyond that of the Republic of Letters. While Rapin detected biased interpretations of events by previous historians, Hume and Voltaire detected the change of mankind through the eras to dispense cures for the evils of current society. The Enlightenment pair hoped to eventually dispel all traces of superstition and intolerance by offering their counselling at royal courts and by widely distilling their wisdom through printed matter.

Clio’s altar, the frontispiece of vol.1 of the Histoire d’Angleterre.

Praising Hume’s History of England – written to challenge Rapin’s – Voltaire admired how the Scotsman ‘talked of barbarity as if it were an epidemic disease’. I wonder how Hume and Voltaire would react at seeing superstitious knowledge about the current pandemic spreading at pandemic speed. Rapin might have spoken his mind clearly only within a restricted circle of friends or in private correspondence, while he would painstakingly weigh evidence in the public arena. Despite the increasing pace of print and scholarship, in Rapin’s view knowledge was still manageable by scholars through ink skirmishes. The same that earned him a place on Clio’s altar in the eighteenth century, and a cover in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series almost exactly 314 years after the signature of his contract for the Histoire d’Angleterre (23 December 1701).

Note: Daniel R. Woolf, ‘From hystories to the historical: five transitions in thinking about the past, 1500-1700’, Huntington Library quarterly 68:1-2 (2005), p.37.

–  Miriam Franchina (University of Trier)

Paul Rapin Thoyras and the art of eighteenth-century historiography is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

What’s blood got to do with it? Reimagining kinship in the Age of Enlightenment

To pass the time on a recent rainy drive to Pittsburgh with my family, we listened to an episode of The Ezra Klein Show that consisted of a conversation between Klein and American novelist Richard Powers. Powers is the author of, among many things, The Overstory, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel recently included in Barak Obama’s list of three books everyone should read. The main characters of the story are the trees, their stories told through the humans that form intimate relationships with them. While listening to the interview, I was struck by how, in describing the relationships between humans and trees (and plants, and other animals), Powers referred again and again to this vast network as one of kinship. He reframed kinship as an immense and powerful interspecies network that brings together all the matter that exists on earth.

In many ways Powers’ project, that of both re-imagining what kinship can be, and of exploring what these different forms of intimate communities can do, is also the project of Queering the Enlightenment. While firmly grounded in human interaction, my book establishes a strong link between kinship, knowledge production, and political critique in eighteenth-century France, arguing that one valid method of critique of the French monarchy was stories about queer intimate communities. Many eighteenth-century French authors were critical of the kinds of kinship that reproduced wealth and social hierarchies through practices such as primogeniture and arranged marriage, and so they turned to figures such as the orphan, the bastard, and the foreigner to imagine how the moving pieces of the family might be rearranged, and how these new kinship formations might change how we think about knowledge and power.

Each chapter of Queering the Enlightenment focuses on a single paradigm of intimacy as unearthed through readings of various canonical authors of eighteenth-century France. A chapter on Crébillon fils, for instance, shows how the author harnesses the power of cruising in his novels to propose that random hookups and one-night stands can lead to meaningful methods of sharing the human experience with others. Kinship, gender, and sexuality lose all fixed meaning in a world such as this one. Another chapter turns to several works of Pierre de Marivaux to examine the possibility of a feminine symbolic that emerges from the space of the maternal and circulates among women who nurture and care for other women. In so doing, it invites us to imagine a queer motherhood capable of nourishing the French Republic in ways unavailable to the bare-breasted Marianne that serves as a symbol of France to this day. Other chapters question the heteronormative family structure guided by analyses of the literature of Voltaire, Montesquieu, the abbé Prévost, and Françoise de Graffigny to see how certain outcast figures find hope in unlikely encounters, and how the relationships they form question the very idea of a cultural knowledge based on (sexual) reproduction.

François Boucher, Le Déjeuner (1739), Louvre Museum, Paris (Wikimedia Commons).

It is not without a hint of irony that I began this post with an incredibly banal scene of heteronormativity. What could be more normative than a family of three driving an SUV to the zoo while listening to a New York Times podcast? And so, to close, I would like to attempt what Voltaire, and Graffigny, and Crébillon, and the others did so eloquently almost three hundred years ago – I would like to take these pieces and see how we might understand them differently. Yes, we were a unit on the same journey to the same destination, but we were also three bodies sharing a space but experiencing the time in different ways. As one body drives, they may let their mind wander in and out of the podcast, thinking about the animals they would see, or the tasks they need to complete, or the bit of news they heard that they want to remember to tell their sibling; another might be riding, enjoying the beauty in the mountains and trees as they pass or wishing their arms were long enough to reach the stuffed animal or the used tissue on the floor – mentally exploring and learning from their interactions with the objects around them; still the third might be contemplating the ethics of visiting a zoo where animals are confined in spaces too small for their bodies, or drafting a blog post in their head, or maybe they are thinking about nothing at all. Or maybe the trees and mountains are watching them, wondering why they are there, or if the roads will ever decay to leave room for more flora to bloom. In any case, by decentering the experience of the nuclear family, we might be able to expand what we expect from kinship and intimacy, and we might be surprised at how such a perspectival shift can change what we think we know about the world.

– Tracy Rutler (Pennsylvania State University)

Tracy Rutler is the author of Queering the Enlightenment: Kinship and gender in eighteenth-century French literature, the November volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

Further work on English pamphlets that coopt ‘a Persian’ for political polemics

There is an almost unlimited potential for further work in the area of influences from Persia in the Enlightenment, an area that is explored in our very recent volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, Persia and the Enlightenment (2021). Each chapter can be considered a pointer in the direction of further research. For example, my chapter, ‘George Lyttelton’s Letters from a Persian’, reviews a number of English texts purporting to be written by ‘a Persian Traveller’. These texts started appearing in response to George Lyttelton’s Letters from a Persian in England, to his friend at Ispahan (1735), and are best understood in the context of an intense political fight between Prime Minister Robert Walpole and his opposition. I did not mention one such text, the anonymous Remarks of a Persian traveller on the principal courts of Europe with a dissertation upon that of England, the nation in general, and the Prime Minister. Written originally in the Persian language, and now translated into English and French (London: John Hughs, 1736), which I will discuss here.

[Anon.], Remarks of a Persian traveller, title page of the third edition (London, 1735).

As customary at the time, it insisted that the text, presented as a single letter, was written in Persian by a traveller named Ismael to his friend Ibrahim. The introduction declares that the translator expects to translate other writings by Ismael, particularly a narrative on ‘the History of that Hero of Asia, Thamas Kouli Kan’ (p.5). The author reports from visiting a coffee house in London: ‘I heard most of them celebrate the Praises of our invincible Kouli Kan, in a manner which convinced me that his Reputation was in as high esteem in England, as in Persia it self’ (p.21).

In fact, in 1741, The Complete History of Thamas Kouli Kan, Sovereign of Persia, was printed in London.* It was a translation of Jean-Antoine Du Cerceau’s Histoire de Thamas Kouli-Kan Sophi de Perse, which was first printed in 1740 (Amsterdam: Arkstee & Merkus). One interesting distinction of Remarks of a Persian traveller is that it presents the purported letter from Ismael to Ibrahim in French and English simultaneously, leading to the speculation that it could have been written by the translator of Jean-Antoine Du Cerceau’s Histoire.

Remarks of a Persian traveller is in a distinct way different from the other Persian letters mentioned in my chapter of Persia and the Enlightenment. Although as a single letter it is short, a substantial part of it is dedicated to Ismael’s observations while in the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Denmark, Prussia, Holland, and France, before turning its attention to England. The author, who appears to be knowledgeable about current European affairs, is particularly fond of the Russian and French regimes. Meanwhile, he describes the Ottomans as prejudiced and violent, and their political system as ‘tyrannical, and bloody’ (p.9).

The Complete History of Thamas Kouli Kan, frontispiece of the second edition, London, 1746.

The author of Remarks of a Persian is also relatively familiar with Persia. His choice for the purported Persian author of the letter, Ismael, is much more realistic as the name for a Persian in the eighteenth century than Montesquieu’s Usbek or Lyttelton’s Selim. His reference to Meszat, ‘A Town in the Province of Corassan, whither the Persians go in Pilgrimage’, denotes Mashhad in Khorasan, where the tomb of the eighth Shia Imam, Reza, is a main destination for pilgrims. He knows of Tahmasb Qoli Khan (later Nader Shah) who, as chapter four of Persia and the Enlightenment discusses, was a controversial figure in Europe. The author of Remarks of a Persian has a positive view of Nader referring to him as the ‘Invincible Thamas Kouli Kan [who] so happily governs our Country, and makes it his chief care with great Discernment and justice, to reward true Merit’ (p.9). The author’s remark about the Russians ‘being at all times friends [of the Persians]’, in conjunction with his reference to Shah Abbas III (p.9), is perhaps based on his up-to date information about the 1735 treaty of Ganja that established a counter-Ottoman alliance between Peter I of Russia and Nader, who at the time was Abbas III’s regent.

Particularly relevant to my chapter of Persia and Enlightenment is the author’s assessment of Lyttelton’s Letters from a Persian. To begin with, he refutes the authenticity of Lyttelton’s claim that the book was a collection of letters originally written by a Persian, arguing that it was ‘easily perceived, that the Name the Author had taken, was only a Mask which he made use of to cover his Designs’. He continues, ‘I found nothing in those Letters which savour’d of the true Genius of a Persian’ (p.23). The author of Remarks of a Persian accuses Lyttelton of attempting to disturb ‘the Publick Peace’, and claims that Lyttelton has ‘taken’ his ideas from Henry St. John Bolingbroke’s Dissertation upon Parties (p.23).

Frontispiece to Walpole’s A Dissertation upon Parties: in several letters to Caleb D’Anvers, Esq. (London, 1735).

The author is overt about his affection for Prime Minister Robert Walpole. The Prime Minister is described as an eloquent speaker, whose ‘harangues full of Force and Beauty, always filled with such Measures as might render his Country formidable to her Enemies, and serviceable to her Allies’. The author compliments Walpole’s ability to expand trade and keep Great Britain out of war (p.27-30). In fact, the letter ends not by Ismael saying farewell to his friend, but praising Walpole as a great man ‘who by the strength of his mighty Genius, alike admired abroad and at home, has acquired the Confidence of his Master, and is become not only the Glory of his Nation, but is also consider’d as one of those who contributes the most to the many Blessings She at this Day enjoys’ (p.32). Remarks of a Persian traveller further supports the assertion made in my chapter of Persia and the Enlightenment that Lyttelton’s Letters from a Persian had a wide reception in England, and because of its extensive influence, the author’s opponents felt obliged to attack it immediately after its publication. It also indicates that in eighteenth-century England, the Persian letter genre had turned into a popular and effective instrument of propaganda, widely utilized in the intense political rivalries surrounding Robert Walpole’s long ministry.

* The 1741 edition is mentioned in Catalogue of the printed books in the library of the Society of Writers to H.M. Signet in Scotland (Edinburgh: Neill and Company, 1762), p. 555. A second edition was published in 1742 (London: J. Brindley).

Cyrus Masroori (California State University, San Marcos)

A version of this blog was published in the Liverpool University Press blog in September 2021.

Cyrus Masroori is one of the editors of Persia and the Enlightenment, the September volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, along with co-editors Whitney Mannies and John Christian Laursen. The series is published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

Artisanal labour and the ethics of craft

Scholars today are rewriting histories of the eighteenth century to be more ambitious in scale and inclusive in scope. As a discipline whose foundations have traditionally been located in the European Enlightenment, art history has long defined itself through exclusive canons of ‘artists’ and ‘art’ that have valorized certain individuals and objects at the expense of others. Recent directives to decolonize art history, as well as architectural history, demonstrate that these disciplines seek to credit those who labour as part of art- and knowledge-making processes.

Artisanal objects represent the material and archival evidence of someone’s work and, accordingly, histories of art and architecture double as histories of labour. Our volume Crafting Enlightenment: artisanal histories and transnational networks recognizes artisan-labourers and contextualizes their identities in order to acknowledge distinct processes of facture – be that artisanal labour standardized, precarious, oppressed, or coerced – and the working conditions under which eighteenth-century artisans operated. Our volume captures the diversity of artisans from a range of occupations – sculptors, manuscript illuminators, ornamental carvers, desk– and chair-makers, clockmakers, garden designers, ceramicists, architects, and jewellers – working in Europe, the Ottoman Empire, colonial America, viceregal Mexico, Mughal India, Qing dynasty China, and colonial Australia. The dialogues between historians of art, architecture, material culture, sociology, and technology featured in our book demonstrate how contested histories of colonialism, imperialism, and Enlightenment are also fundamentally artisanal histories.

Crafting Enlightenment: artisanal histories and transnational networks is the June 2021 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

The contributions in Crafting Enlightenment all argue for artisanal participation within the pluralities of Enlightenment thought, along multiple narratives of Enlightenment that existed across the eighteenth-century world. Instead of focusing exclusively on the Enlightenment’s European intellectual origins, we consider how artisans from the long eighteenth-century and the products of their labour responded to a multifaceted Enlightenment that meant very different things in different places, as historian Sebastian Conrad has argued. Our version of this transnational Enlightenment extends well beyond the eighteenth century, from seventeenth-century projects of state building to nineteenth-century consequences of imperialism and cross-cultural encounters. We hope our volume encourages readers to delve more deeply into the intertwined narratives between art objects and labour – like the artisans discussed, the objects themselves also represent critical moments of transnational exchange.

Crafting Enlightenment offers a timely reminder that artisans employed craftsmanship and labour to assert their own creativity across the eighteenth-century world. These important queries around pluralism and inclusive practices continue to resonate throughout the academy and governments via policy. In addition to identifying historical eighteenth-century actors who have been marginalized by history, scholars might further chart ambitious intellectual territory by tracking how the exploitation of labour and extraction of natural resources today continue to advance the problematic agenda of colonialism around the world. Public attention is now increasingly trained on the ways that local materials, outsourced labour, and working conditions determine our habits of consumption. Such ecologies of natural resources and labour, identified as such in the long eighteenth century, have allowed us to explore how transnational networks highlight discrepancies between certain privileged artisans who had access to imperial commissions and others who did not and remain uncredited for their work. These issues are as relevant today as they were in the long eighteenth century. Artisanal craftsmanship remains at the heart of social critique, demonstrating how the objects we make and use reflect our personal biases. The practices of contemporary craft – hand-woven textiles being one example – demonstrate how feminized labour, materiality, gender, and race have pulled these techniques towards ideological ends. Ethical questions prompted by artisanal production inflect ongoing debates in art and architecture, signalling how the structural limitations of Enlightenment thought have persisted in determining the production and reception of craft.

Lauren R. Cannady (University of Maryland, College Park) and Jennifer Ferng (University of Sydney)

Crafting Enlightenment: artisanal histories and transnational networks is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

A version of this blog first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in June 2021.

Reframing Rousseau

What can Enlightenment philosophes – especially Rousseau, arguably the most difficult of them all – have to tell us about modern life that we don’t already know?

Le Lévite d’Ephraïm: la douleur du Lévite (c.1806), by Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours of Geneva, 1752-1809 (MAH Musée d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève).

We are a team of scholars from different academic areas, each of whom offers a unique vantage point in understanding Rousseau’s texts. This constellation of approaches – grounded in an appreciation of the shared background of feminist critique promoted by the contributors to our volume Reframing Rousseau’s Lévite d’Ephraïm: The Hebrew Bible, hospitality and modern identity – provides the density that allows Rousseau’s nuanced writings to be read in their full complexity.

This book focuses on a relatively unfamiliar work of Rousseau’s: Le Lévite d’Ephraïm, a prose-poem in which Rousseau elaborates on a little-known Hebrew biblical text to interrogate many of the accepted, conventional views on issues ranging from the role of sacred texts; to Rousseau’s self-construction through the representation of guilt and remorse; to the role of hospitality in structuring both individual self-representation and social cohesion; to the place of violence in establishing national and communal self-identity. In each of these spheres, Rousseau reveals a particularly modern perspective in trying to honor both personal and social needs, and in privileging both the individual viewpoint and the political structure.

In keeping with Rousseau’s own multifocal writings as reflected in our own authors’ distinct voices, each contributor here provides a more detailed description of the sections in this book.

Reframing Rousseau’s Lévite d’Ephraïm: The Hebrew Bible, hospitality and modern identity (Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment May 2021).

In focusing on Rousseau’s rewriting of one narrative in the Hebrew biblical text, the first chapter interrogates the uses to which Enlightenment thinkers put the ancient – to many, still sacred – understanding of the biblical text. Why do 18th-century thinkers feel the need to refer to biblical texts at all? What new ways of reading do they create to construct a world view that differs markedly both from ancient and classical philosophical and political thought? This section foregrounds the ‘strange’ reliance Rousseau places on an ancient text to propose a modern critique of the conventional way of understanding the world.

Although Rousseau named Le Lévite d’Ephraïm the ‘most cherished’ of his works, it has drawn far less scholarly attention than most of his other works. Taking the author at his word, the second chapter of the volume explores the paradox behind Rousseau’s valorization of the most disturbing of his writings and his contention that it provided proof of his gentle nature. This chapter identifies links between Le Lévite d’Ephraïm and Rousseau’s autobiographical works and writings on language and society. Rousseau’s rewriting of this Biblical narrative reflects his vision of language, human nature and the fragility of community bonds while offering unique insight into Rousseau’s understanding of human psychology, manipulation of language, and the dynamics of scapegoating and civil unrest.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Line engraving. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Chapter three looks to how Rousseau incorporates the metatext of hospitality into his œuvre, utilizing the social and textual themes of misguided and absent hospitality. It seems that Rousseau’s personal circumstances intensified his conviction that the subversion of hospitality by the host (individual, group, or nation), ineluctably leads to moral catastrophe. Inter alia, this presentation addresses the issue of failed hospitality as it relates to the marginalization of individuals and to the eventual alienation of the group. In the end, society creates its own strangers, and by mistreating them, prefigures its own demise. Le Lévite constitutes a plea for society to restore its moral compass. While much of Rousseau’s work, including the Confessions and Emile, provides insight into the context of his interpretation of faulty hospitality, it is Le Lévite d’Ephraïm that offers a view from a different vantage point of the developing political philosophy explored more fully in the Contrat social.

The book’s final chapter focuses on Rousseau’s view of how nationalism can intersect with violence. Do these two movements inevitably presuppose each other? What determines the notion of ‘belonging’ to a nation? Concomitantly, Rousseau treats the inverse implication of these questions: what is the status of the stranger, of the person who doesn’t belong? Rousseau’s choice of an abstruse biblical text through which to examine this complicated issue highlights Rousseau’s understanding of the complexities of texts, and of others, as we try to interpret these all to get at their essences.

The Afterword of this volume explores some of the current implications of the questions raised, both implicitly and explicitly, by the text of Le Lévite d’Ephraïm. How do Rousseau’s writings – particularly Le Lévite d’Ephraïm – speak to a 21st-century world fractured by demonization and alienation? This section of the book outlines the ways in which strangeness and nationalism can be utilized to unite the world of variegated individuals and communities that form the complicated texture of our lives.

In Reframing Rousseau’s Lévite d’Ephraim, Abrams, Morgenstern and Sullivan offer us a new look at Rousseau’s writing on political and cultural issues that continue to be salient in contemporary times. The authors look forward to expanding this conversation with the responses and reactions from the readers of this book.

Barbara Abrams, Mira Morgenstern, and Karen Sullivan
(Suffolk University Boston, City College / City University of New York, Queens College / City University of New York)

Reframing Rousseau’s Lévite d’Ephraïm: The Hebrew Bible, hospitality and modern identity is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

A version of this blog first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in May 2021.

Mapping a polycentric Republic of Letters in eighteenth-century Mexico

Map of Mexico or New Spain (1708), by Herman Moll. (Wikimedia Commons)

The viceroyalty of New Spain – whose territory largely corresponded to that of present-day Mexico – was, during the eighteenth century, the most important intellectual hub in Latin America and a place of extraordinary scholarly endeavors. During this period Mexico’s viceregal society saw the publication of its first regularly issued newspapers (for example the Gazeta de México), its first biobibliography of Mexico’s written production (Bibliotheca Mexicana), its first scientific periodicals (such as the Diario literario de México), and one of the first – if not the first – science fiction works of the region (Un viaje novohispano a la luna). Despite these achievements the literary production and intellectual life of eighteenth-century Mexico has been overlooked. Why? Perhaps one of the reasons lies in the need for scholarship on this era to go beyond the analysis of the traditional models and genres of the Hispanic Golden Age studied by specialists of the early modern period. Given that literatura was an umbrella term that, during the eighteenth century, extended to almost the entire universe of writing, I think that the literary production of this time in Mexico is best approached as the product of the complex historical, scientific, philosophical, and religious inquiry that marked the era. Viceregal scholars, the practitioners of this literature, were polymaths that notably held a wide array of scholarly interests.

Front pages of the first issues of Mercurio volante (1772-1773), a scientific periodical edited by José Ignacio Bartolache (left), and of Gazeta de literatura de México (1788-1795).

My study Polemics, literature, and knowledge in eighteenth-century Mexico: A New World for the Republic of Letters aims to fill this critical void by analyzing how eighteenth-century Mexican writers sought to establish their local literary republic’s place within the global community of learning. These individuals formed scholarly networks, engaged in the historical exploration of the past and present, and configured new epistemological approaches to literary production inspired by enlightened ideas. Polemics of different kinds, as suggested in the title of my study, played a crucial role in the formation of scholarly circles. One of the first of such controversies was related to the lack of recognition by European scholars of the intellectual capacities of those born in the Americas. In order to debunk existing prejudices and to be considered part of the res publica literaria, Mexican scholars were eager to showcase their intellectual attainments to Europe. For these scholars, the Republic of Letters was polycentric, with one of its centers located precisely in viceregal Mexico.

Many literary works of this era not only utilized scholarly polemics as unique points of departure, but also gave rise to new controversies. Beyond Mexican scholars’ efforts to defend the intellectual capacities of fellow inhabitants of the New World, these writers, especially during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, were involved in internal, epistemological battles related to the practice of knowledge. My book not only highlights the efforts of scholars in eighteenth-century Mexico to construct a polycentric Republic of Letters in order to receive recognition from their European peers, but also demonstrates the extent to which the intellectual realm was dynamic within the viceroyalty.

Elementa recentioris philosophiae, by Juan Benito Díaz de Gamarra (Mexici, 1774) (Bodleian Library)

As such literary debates on knowledge attest, several intellectual circles coexisted in the viceroyalty that, due to their different characteristics, grew increasingly distant over time. In the works of some Mexican authors there existed two chronologically distinct Republics of Letters, that from the pre-Columbian era and that which emerged after the Spanish conquest. In the late eighteenth century, however, several publications attested to the simultaneous existence of at least two distinctive groups of scholars, one that was old and pertaining to scholasticism – the philosophical-educational system traditionally ruling the world of scholars – and another that was new, or modern, and influenced by enlightened ideas. In other words, the seemingly stable idea of the Republic of Letters in the mid-eighteenth century was to fall apart in the following decades, when Enlightenment-inspired criticism, opposition to ancient authorities, and philosophical and scientific development concerned with social realities put into play innovative approaches to knowledge and the practice of religion in the viceroyalty.

With Polemics, literature, and knowledge in eighteenth-century Mexico: A New World for the Republic of Letters, I invite those scholars devoted to the study of eighteenth-century cultures to engage in an examination of a less-explored scholarly territory and its networks, and to think about how it was heterogeneously constructed by many-sided polemics and debates manifested through a broad range of literary works.

– José Francisco Robles, University of Washington

Polemics, literature, and knowledge in eighteenth-century Mexico is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This blog first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in April 2021.

What do children do with books?

A key concept in childhood studies since the 1970s, children’s agency has recently returned to the heart of the reflections of a group of childhood historians. The conference Se soustraire à l’empire des grands. Enfance, jeunesse et agentivité (1500-1830) (Escaping the empire of the grown-ups: childhood, adolescence and agency, 1500-1830), organised by Sylvie Moret-Petrini at the Université de Lausanne, focused on the personal journals of children and adolescents. The aim was to tackle this source, often seen by historians as a surveillance and educational tool, or as ‘panoptiques de papier’ (paper panopticons), from a new angle and consider it as a space where young writers could reflect on their status as children and express forms of rebellion or indiscipline.

These reflections invite us to take a fresh look at another object that educators advised should be placed under the constant and close supervision of parents – the book. What kind of agency can be achieved in children’s and adolescents’ relationships with books, whether this was how they approached and absorbed texts, how they handled the book as a physical object, or the resources they drew from their reading to inform their present actions or future choices? This approach, as always, requires a cross-analysis of the rare traces that remain of the way children treated books and the mass of adult, pedagogical, parental, medical and literary discourse.

Gradus ad Parnassum

Becoming a poet and settling accounts in the margins: the Berkeleys’ Gradus ad Parnassum. (Centre culturel irlandais, Paris, fonds patrimonial, B 1010)

It is clear there was plenty of room for manoeuvre concerning ways of reading, places and times of reading, and the material uses of the book as a physical object. Those who enjoyed reading as a child recall their ability to fully immerse themselves into the imaginary world opened up by a text, like children who play at being a fairy or Robinson Crusoe. In adolescence, parents express the fear that certain books may cause their offspring to ‘emulate something unusual’ or to take up careers other than those they had envisioned for them. The ‘wild’ handling of books is documented by the volumes themselves, such as the practice of writing and drawing in the margins, either to pass the time or to convey messages to someone sitting nearby. We find examples in literature and art of children making castles out of books or using them as stepping stones, like the Cholmondeley children painted by Hogarth in 1732. However, beware of such overly euphoric representations of childish creativity. Alongside these noisy diversions, there were also quieter forms of agency, ‘weak uses’ of books such as interrupted or unengaged reading, or expressions of a dislike of reading (sometimes found in correspondence or in parents’ diaries), which were all ways of rejecting the pedagogical norms of consulting books as a means of self-improvement and learning.

Hogarth, The Cholmondeley family

Building paper worlds: Hogarth, The Cholmondeley family, 1732. (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As is often the case, most traces of, or clues to, the agency of young readers are available to the historian only through writings originating from the adult world (theoretical discourse, pedagogical literature) or produced under close adult supervision (children’s journals). Even annotated books, which in principle offer the most spontaneous traces of children’s reading, have only been preserved and transmitted to us as a result of adult arbitration. The discourses undoubtedly refer less to childish practices and more to the preoccupations and concerns about juvenile behaviour projected by the adult world. But it doesn’t end there, of course. The figures of child readers represented in eighteenth-century children’s literature in particular pose a problem. What can literature teach the historian? Or, as Judith Lyon-Caen might say, what can history teach us about literature? There are two possible research avenues here.

The historian can first of all shed light on these literary figures through archives that document their reality in a more fragmentary and indirect way. The foolish vanity of the young Valentin, who waves his Telemachus under the nose of a gardener’s son to clearly mark the social divide between them, is certainly ridiculed in La Vanité punie, but the episode also highlights the fact that the child has grasped the social advantage that he can gain from his small possession – albeit he uses it inappropriately here – at a time when children were given beautiful books as gifts at New Year and in a society where owning a library was a powerful symbol of social distinction. Agency, as we know, is never disconnected from the socio-institutional contexts that are imposed on it at the very heart of practices.

Arnaud Berquin, L’Ami des enfants

Arnaud Berquin, L’Ami des enfants (London, 1782).

Similarly, in the short play Un bon cœur fait pardonner bien des étourderies (A good heart makes up for many careless mistakes) (published in L’Ami des enfants in 1782), Arnaud Berquin portrays a young man, Frédéric, who sells his watch and school books to give money to the poor. Police archives contain many files on peddlers convicted of acquiring books from schoolchildren in exchange for sweets or novels. Some had been unmasked as a result of the ex libris on the textbooks, as in Berquin’s play. The practice of selling on is therefore well documented, but it is presented in literature as a form of children’s agency rather than as the (female) street vendors’ agency as generally tackled by historians.

Livres d’école et littérature de jeunesse en France au XVIIIᵉ siècle

Livres d’école et littérature de jeunesse en France au XVIIIᵉ siècle is the February 2021 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

This example leads us on to the second research avenue. It reminds us not to present children’s agency as a given, an a priori, but rather as a construction, an ‘œuvre de re-connaissance et de re-présentation des enfants par les adultes’ (work of re-cognition and re-presentation of children by adults), to borrow Pascale Garnier’s expression. The focus on childhood in the eighteenth century led to the valorisation of youthful inventiveness, including in its negotiations with the rules, as long as it remained venial, expressed qualities associated with childhood (innocence, impulsiveness), and did not constitute a threat to the established order. Children’s literature thus presented a framework of acceptability for a number of uses of the book, regardless of the final judgement made on the protagonist. We still need to be able to document what was outside the scope of the representable, what the anecdotes left out, what the parents did not want to admit, what only serendipitous archives perhaps can tell us as historians.

Emmanuelle Chapron, Aix Marseille Université

A version of this notice first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in February 2021.

Livres d’école et littérature de jeunesse en France au XVIII siècle is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: adventures in words and deeds

Frontispiece and title page of Paul et Virginie

Frontispiece and title page of a 1789 edition of Paul et Virginie. (Taylor Institution, Oxford)

Why read and study Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737-1814)? Until recently, his reputation rested almost exclusively on arguably the most-published novel in French literature, Paul et Virginie (1788). However, the appearance of the first scholarly editions of his correspondence in Electronic Enlightenment and his Complete Works (in progress, Garnier) have produced not only reliable texts but substantial fresh material. His status has been considerably enhanced.

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, engraving by Etienne-Frédéric Lignon

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, engraving by Etienne-Frédéric Lignon, after a painting by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767-1824). (Public domain)

Trained as a military engineer, Bernardin found job opportunities impossible after the Seven Years War. He sought his fortune by setting out for Eastern Europe. In Russia he met Catherine the Great and secured employment. He then crossed into Poland where he was imprisoned for an unwise military escapade and acted as an unofficial spy for a French diplomat. He observed customs and landscapes as well as drafting reports. It was a political awakening. Penniless, he returned to France before being posted in 1768 to its colony of île de France (Mauritius).

His sea journey was perilous, marked by deaths and scurvy. On the island he was appalled by aspects of the French administration. He possessed two slaves as servants but was shocked by the treatment of slaves on plantations. Despite having family members engaged in the maritime slave trade, he attacked the brutality of slavery in his correspondence and subsequent publications.

Paul and Virginie obtain pardon for a runaway slave, print by Charles Melchior Descourtis

Paul and Virginie obtain pardon for a runaway slave, print by Charles Melchior Descourtis, after Jean Frédéric Schall (1752-1825). (Public domain)

He returned to France in 1771. In Paris, he became a friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and attended the salon of Julie de Lespinasse. In a surprising career move, he became a writer, in a variety of formats.

His first work, a sort of travel account, appeared in January 1773, the Voyage à l’île de France. Its publication was supported by d’Alembert and it was admired by Condorcet. It was published anonymously because officials disapproved of its harsh depiction of colonial life. Bernardin was not against colonisation but wanted reforms. Indeed he proposed schemes to the government for foreign initiatives, but all to no avail. He lived on his wits but refused to sell his pen like those in Robert Darnton’s version of Grub Street. Some financial stability arrived with the publication of the Etudes de la nature (1784) and Paul et Virginie (1788).

Frontispiece and title page of the first edition of Etudes sur la nature

Frontispiece and title page of the first edition of Etudes sur la nature. (Taylor Institution, Oxford)

The three-volume Etudes supplied a panorama of his thoughts: a firm belief in God and Providence and the ideal of harmony in an interlinked world but also opposition to the scientific and political establishments. It won him a large readership. He received an abundant fan mail from admirers from different backgrounds. He was regarded as a sage, as a moral authority in whom even strangers could confide.

Invitation à la concorde

Invitation à la concorde. (Gazette Drouot)

At the outset of the Revolution he was famous. He used his fame to enter the political arena as a reformist pamphleteer. In September 1789 he published the Vœux d’un solitaire and was eager that Revolutionary activists should read it. The wisdom of the poor and excluded was championed in the character of the pariah in the short story La Chaumière indienne (1791). He sought to influence moderate public opinion through his little-known poster Invitation à la concorde displayed in the Palais-Royal in July 1792. He was elected to a Revolutionary body, a position that he refused. He belonged to no political grouping. There followed a series of posts that he could not turn down. Louis XVI appointed him Intendant of the Jardin des plantes in 1792 (a position formerly held by Buffon). The Comité d’instruction publique nominated him in 1794 as professeur de morale républicaine at the new Ecole normale (Bernardin’s views on education have been neglected but receive significant coverage in my book). The Ecole closed in May 1795 but he was still a ‘go to’ man and became a member of the Institut during the Directory. Linked with the Bonapartes, he remained a prominent figure in his declining years.

Despite his intimacy with Rousseau, it is possible that he read Voltaire’s works more extensively. This study suggests that the slippery terms philosophe or antiphilosophe cannot be unambiguously applied to him. He was a witness to an age in transformation who gained supporters engaged in politics to add to his wide community of readers. He was not just an adventurer in terms of his travels to Eastern Europe and the Indian Ocean, but also in his ideas and their varied forms of expression. He believed that the world was in constant change, history was not cyclical. A growing assessment of his importance is emerging and this monograph hopes to provide information and insights to stimulate further research on Bernardin and his times.

Simon Davies

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: Colonial Traveller, Enlightenment Reformer, Celebrity Writer is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This text first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog, January 2021.

Montesquieu, the Persian Rousseau, and Napoleon’s French Revolution in India

Soltan Hosayn, by Cornelis de Bruijn

Soltan Hosayn, by Cornelis de Bruijn. (Rijksmuseum)

The year 2021 marks the tercentenary of the publication of Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes and the two hundredth anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte. At first glance, the philosophe who penned a novel about a fictional Persian’s travels to Paris in the first half of the eighteenth century seems to have little in common with the Corsican who marched his army across three continents at its end. But in fact both men were motivated by the same sequence of events to cast their eyes towards Persia. Pierre Victor Michel’s embassy to Shah Soltan Hosayn in 1708 and Mohammad Reza Beg’s delegation to Louis XIV in 1715 inspired Montesquieu’s peripatetic Persian protagonist and Napoleon’s 1808 treaty with Persia’s Fath-Ali Shah. Napoleon was an avid student of Persian history. His admiration for Persian conqueror Nader Shah ran so deep that he brokered his treaty to continue Nader’s invasion of the Asian subcontinent and bill it as a French Revolution in India.

Nader Shah

Nader Shah. (Unknown artist, Victoria and Albert Museum)

One of the chief architects of this revolution was Jean-François Xavier Rousseau, a forgotten Persian first cousin of another philosophe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Unlike the Citizen of Geneva, who eschewed trans-imperial trade and warned against commercial luxury, Jean-François embraced it. His father Jacques had arrived in Persia as part of Louis XIV’s first official delegation to Soltan Hosayn in 1706. He remained there and became jeweller to the Safavid and Afsharid shahs. Jacques’s son was born in Isfahan in 1738. By the age of eighteen, Jean-François secured a position as chancellor of trade in Basra. Following the deaths of the French consuls of Baghdad and Basra in the Great Persian Plague Epidemic of 1773, he assumed their consulships for three decades. Across the reigns of the Zands and the Qajar shah Fath-Ali, Jean-François lobbied Persian rulers, French kings and revolutionary governments to establish alliances while he organized plans for their joint conquest of India.

Jean-François’s project ran contrary to the French Bourbon monarchy’s long-standing partnership with the Ottomans. But from the late seventeenth century, missionaries and entrepreneurs who hoped to enrich themselves and grow French influence further east had peddled the idea of negotiating trade agreements with Turkey’s adversary, Persia. Following Michel’s commercial treaty with Soltan Hosayn in 1708, abbé Martin Gaudereau, Jean Billon de Canserilles, and Greek-French drogman-turned-consul Etienne Padéry attempted to convince Louis XIV, the duc d’Orléans, and Louis XV to secure more privileges by providing weapons and ships that the Safavids and their successors needed to suppress tributary populations and imperial competitors. Persia’s borderland violence intensified as famine and plague forced the Baluch, Kurdish, Ghilji, and Abdali tribes to migrate into the empire and the Omani Ya’rubids fought for control of the Gulf. Having exhausted English and Dutch aid, the Persians increasingly turned to France.

French rulers who sought to repair their global reputation following the disastrous Seven Years War found Persia’s entreaties enticing. Louis XV’s foreign minister, Etienne François, duc de Choiseul, toyed with the idea of colonizing Egypt and weighed opportunities in Basra and Baghdad to weaken Britain’s India trade. Under his direction, Jean-François Rousseau negotiated an agreement with Shah Karim Khan Zand to support French shipping through the Persian Gulf. Plague, borderland conflicts, and succession crises frustrated these plans. But Jean-François continued to lobby for a belligerent anti-British policy in western and south Asia. Following the fall of the Bourbon monarchy, he repackaged his project for a Franco-Persian offensive on India as a logical continuation of the French Revolution.

Napoleon breathed new life into Jean-François’s plans. Imagining a French corridor from Africa across the Indian Ocean and fantasizing being crowned emperor in Asia, he corresponded with Fath-Ali Shah, promising military aid against the Russians in exchange for a joint assault on India. Jean-François submitted a Tableau général de la Perse to Charles de Talleyrand, co-authored with his son Joseph and outlining plans for French marines to join Persians, Afghans, and Sikhs in the Gulf of Sindh, march on Delhi, and seize ‘the places that have knelt under the yoke of British domination’ (see ‘References’ below, no.1). The ‘liberation’ of the subcontinent would allow Napoleon and his Persian ally to surpass Nader Shah as warriors of the century.

Signing of the treaty of Finkenstein, by François-Henri Mulard

Signing of the treaty of Finkenstein, by François-Henri Mulard (1810).

But as soon as Napoleon signed his Treaty of Finkenstein with Fath-Ali’s ambassador Mirza Mohammed Reza Qasvini in 1807, he abandoned Persia and set his sights on Eastern Europe. Jean-François died in Aleppo the same year. While the subcontinent was spared a French offensive, Napoleon’s about-face reignited the Russo-Persian War of 1804-13. Without French aid Fath-Ali could not prevent carnage in the disputed northern frontier as Tsar Alexander drove a wedge into the Caucasus.

So the French Revolution in India never materialized. Then why remember another of Napoleon’s failures? Historians who studied eighteenth-century political ruptures traditionally ignored Asia, focusing on the three revolutions in England, France, and North America. But these were just a few of many political earthquakes that shattered old regimes during the Age of Revolutions. European contemporaries who witnessed the Siamese Revolution of 1688, the janissaries’ revolt against Ottoman Sultan Mustafa II (1703), Mahmud Hotaki’s siege of Isfahan (1722), and Nader Shah’s conquest of India (1738-40) described them as Asian ‘revolutions’, reflected on their causes, and mused over their effects on politics at home.

But as western powers jockeyed for global dominance, European elites consolidated a view, made famous by Montesquieu, that in Asia ‘power is always despotic’ and ‘liberty never grows’ (see ‘References’, below, no.2). The more they associated ‘revolution’ with a modern, democratic experiment, they saw its ideals as exclusively European. Asia was written out of the history of revolutionary progress, and labelled a political aberration. It is time to insert it back in. When we reconsider the Age of Revolutions globally we can better understand how two of the most significant processes of the century – competition among Eurasian empires and the development of democratic revolutions – were more intertwined than scholars have allowed.

Iran and a French empire of trade, 1700-1808: The other Persian letters is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.


  1. Centre des archives diplomatiques du ministère des affaires étrangères (La Courneuve), Correspondance politique Perse [AE CP] 8.64, f.182-89v, Jean-François Rousseau to Talleyrand, 28 vendémaire An XII (October 20, 1804); AE CP Perse 8.89, f.236, Rousseau to Talleyrand, 25 ventôse An XIII (March 20, 1805).
  2. Montesquieu, ‘Cause de l’immutabilité de la religion, des mœurs, des manières, des loix, dans les pays d’orient’, De l’esprit des lois, book 14, ch.4, p.288.

Junko Takeda, Syracuse University

A version of this text appeared on the Liverpool University Press blog.

Virtue in crisis: Enlightenment perspectives

With frightening speed, COVID-19 has brought about a global crisis. In western democracies the phenomenon was first tracked and measured from a distance, then discovered to be not just ‘their’ problem, but ‘ours’ too. In the process, common behaviours were subjected to new scrutiny; with the virus, moral sentiment proliferated. Formerly anodyne acts were proclaimed to be vices, twinned with equal and opposite virtues. Politicians devised lists of what may and may not be done, and other lists, of what should and should not be done. These lists concerning ‘should’ and ‘should not’ are in fact a plea for civic virtue: if the majority are sufficiently virtuous, the nation will be healed. Striking a utilitarian note, certain commentators began to argue that the good of some must now be sacrificed for the good of all, and current lives, for future prosperity.

Thanks to the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Virtue and Truth prevent Human Pride from resisting the efforts of Nature to allow children to live a happy life

Thanks to the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Virtue and Truth prevent Human Pride from resisting the efforts of Nature to allow children to live a happy life. Engraving by G. Vidal after Ch. Monnet. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

In the Enlightenment era, natural disasters, contagions, and wars also fed debates about civic (and other) virtues. Then as now, these were embedded in larger discussions of morality, the common good, and the relation between individual citizens and the polity. For instance, we may recall an exchange that took place between Rousseau and Voltaire, following the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Voltaire wrote a poem expressing rage against Optimists who might still argue, with Alexander Pope, that ‘partial evil’ is ‘universal good’. In the case of the Lisbon earthquake, ‘partial evil’ would consist in many thousands of deaths. Yet according to Voltaire’s Optimists (whom he addresses as ‘wretched mathematicians of human suffering’), universal good would be sustained by those very deaths. After all, children could inherit their parents’ wealth, stone masons find employment, and animals feast on rotting corpses. In a letter to Voltaire, Rousseau objected that the disastrous effect of the earthquake was not tied to some unfathomable cosmic riddle. It was, rather, the consequence of the European tendency to live in large cities, where so many are exposed at once to a single danger; and neither God nor nature, but humanity was responsible for this. More generally, as in his celebrated Second Discourse, Rousseau argues that, as it pursues what (other) philosophes see as progress, civilisation reaps what it sows.

If we can hear echoes of such debates in contemporary life, it is because we are, in important respects, heirs of the Enlightenment. Many of us think about virtue and the common good in an entirely secular way; our moral duties are owed, we feel, not to God, but to our fellow citizens. It makes sense to describe this as a ‘post-Enlightenment’ view. After all, it counted as a bold step when, towards the end of the seventeenth century, Pierre Bayle wrote that a society of atheists might be capable of virtue.

But by the mid-eighteenth century, secularisation, linked by the historian Paul Hazard to a ‘crisis of the European mind’, had gained extensive ground. In France, atheistic thinkers suggested that virtuous behaviour should be understood as whatever contributes to the common good in this, the only life we have. Diderot and the materialist coterie of the baron d’Holbach, for instance, tended towards this view. But Voltaire and Rousseau, who abhorred atheism, were secularisers, too; for they rejected ecclesiastical explanations of the Lisbon earthquake (or anything else). In brief, secularisation in France was in the first instance a case of pushing back against the mundane influence of the Church and its theology. We should be wary, however, of casting a few major writers as the isolated prophets of secular modernity. If there was a crisis of the European mind, it was caused by a nexus of cultural, social and historical forces which far exceeded the ‘Republic of Letters’.

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, March 2020

James Fowler is the co-editor of the March volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, Enlightenment Virtue, 1680-1794, in which contributors analyse complex and shifting relations between religious and civic virtue during the Age of Enlightenment.

During the Revolution, various factions laid claim to civic virtue. Speaking for the Montagnards, Robespierre asserted, not only that virtue was the essence of the (French) Republic, but that Terror could be an ‘Emanation of virtue’. He also echoed those, including Rousseau, who (had) admired the ‘male’ virtues of Sparta, or other ancient republics. Despite women’s participation in the Revolution, the virtues prescribed by the Terror were gendered ones; indeed, what was virtue in a man might be vice in a woman. The Moniteur universel of 17 November 1793 held up three recently executed women as examples of vice: Marie Antoinette; ‘la femme Roland’ (married to the Girondin Jean Roland); and Olympe de Gouges (author of a Declaration of the Rights of Woman). The former queen was a ‘bad mother’ and ‘debauched wife’; as for the others, they had in different ways ‘forgotten the virtues of their sex’. For a brief period, at least, it must have seemed that the state did not distinguish between private, public, and gendered virtue, nor between unvirtuous thoughts and crimes against the nation. Public executions became, as never before, virtue’s instrument.

In moments of national crisis, we tend to inquire, earnestly and urgently, what should count as civic virtue. If only half-consciously, we may turn to notions of the common good, especially utilitarian ones, which we have inherited from the Enlightenment era. Certainly, that period is an excellent place to start if we wish to put the current debate into historical perspective.

– Dr James Fowler, Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College, London

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.