Modern history


Diderot and d’Alembert dreamed of a network of points of light, nodes of critical reason, facilitating a commerce des lumières (‘commerce of lights’) in which a self-reflexive virtual community, united through the medium of print, could pursue the ‘revolutionary’ collective mission of societal improvement. Yet the dream only made sense, and could only possibly be enacted, within a society in which those points of light – those lumières – were already numerous and dense, and provided an audience and a recruiting-ground for the project of enlightenment. Happily for them, the Encyclopédistes were not preaching in the wilderness, but rather within a cultural milieu and public sphere which already accepted the improving potential of enlightened sociability and in which the social practices of communication and exchange were firmly established. As the century wore on, and as Paris increasingly took over the role of cultural pace-maker from Versailles, it became increasingly evident that the public sphere on which thelumière of thephilosophes was projected was not easily accommodated within the purview of the royal court. Intellectual exchange – le commerce des esprits – worked best among the literate and urbane social elite and in the kind of commercial society which France was fast becoming.

The notion that communication and exchange were integral to intellectual life and scientific advance did not originate in the eighteenth century, but had venerable roots in natural law theory and in theories of politeness and conviviality which had prospered under Louis XIV. A key institution in this respect was the salon. Aristocratic women had held gatherings in their homes in which men and women, usually from a lower social status, read aloud from their latest works. Such salons became social fora, but also institutions which set the artistic and intellectual agenda and dictated polite patterns of behaviour. The salon in the following century which most resembled this was that hosted by the duchesse du Maine at Sceaux, on the outskirts of Paris, from the Regency period down to her death in the early 1750s. In general, however, the major salonnières of the eighteenth century came from a broader and less exclusive background. Madame du Deffand was the wife of a financier with a scandalous past, albeit one less colourful than Madame de Tencin, sister of the cardinal, and mother of d’Alembert (whom she abandoned as a baby). Madame Geoffrin, wife of a financier, and Suzanne Necker, who was married to the Genevan millionaire statesman, were rather more sedate, though Julie de Lespinasse achieved notoriety as d’Alembert’s lover. The social provenance of those who attended the salons also became more wide-ranging. Madame de Geoffrin received the great and the good – including Gustavus III of Sweden, for example, Stanislas Poniatowski, former king of Poland, and numerous distinguished visitors to Paris and foreign ambassadors – but also men of letters from lowlier origins. The range of topics discussed in the salons also widened. Open discussion on politics was invariably taboo – indeed, those salons which tried to specialize in it (such as the Maines’ Sceaux meetings under the Regency or the Club de l’Entresol in the 1720s) were forcibly prevented from doing so. Yet history, philosophy and political economy now figured alongside the belles-lettres in which the seventeenth-century salon had specialized.

The salon provided a receptive context for the message of Enlightenment. So too did the academy. The latter’s traditional format was much mocked in the post-Louis XIV era. Even before the Encyclopédie waded in, Montesquieu had poked contemptuous fun at the members of the Académie française – ‘a body with forty heads, all full of figures, metaphors and antitheses’ – in his Persian Letters (1721),13 and guyed their assumed mission as relays for the glory of the ruler. The academies survived and even prospered by subtly changing their role – and their location. The Paris-based academies established under Louis XIV were supplemented by a host of provincial institutions. Fifteen in 1715, there were nineteen by 1743 and thirty by the 1770s, by which time all major cities had one. Each was formally and hierarchically organized under the patronage of the king, who accorded them charters. They gathered together the intellectually and culturally concerned from local elites, often meeting in their own premises and funding a library. Devised as top-down institutions, designed to endorse the authority of the national institutions in conferring epistemological legitimacy and setting aesthetic standards, many developed considerable autonomy and took pride in reflecting the interests and concerns of local society. This caused a little nervousness in Paris: in 1750, the Académie française’s prize essay was on ‘Just how far should the proliferation of learned societies be allowed to go?’. Like the salons, moreover, their agenda widened to take in a much more utilitarian set of issues, extending beyond literary or narrowly scientific matters into social questions and the applications of science. This shift was reflected in their prize essay competitions, which stimulated public interest at national level. Characteristic post-1750 topics were the extinction of begging, wet-nursing techniques and drainage systems. This functional and practical edge was also evident in the work of the royal societies of agriculture established in many localities from 1760 onwards.

The changes which salons and academies underwent over the course of the eighteenth century were congruent with the open, collective and utilitarian values espoused by and exemplified in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. As with the latter, they represented forms of learning couched in the vernacular. Since the Grand Siècle, French had taken over from Latin as the lingua franca of polite discourse to which Europe’s intelligentsia aspired (a tendency which was also served by the post-1685 Protestant diaspora outside France). Salons and academies also worked together to nurture the idea of a republic of letters, comprising any individual of wit, intelligence and cultural accomplishment – who could speak and read in good French. Other associational forms which developed over the course of the century also helped to develop this inclusive public sphere of intellectual sociability outside the corporatist parameters of the state. The first masonic lodge in France had been founded in Dunkirk in 1721, for example, and the first Parisian one in 1725 or 1726. Despite the fulminations of the pope and Cardinal Fleury in the late 1730s, they began to spread widely within the urban milieu. A period of rapid growth in the 1760s was followed by efforts to reorganize the national framework of lodges in the 1770s into the Grand Orient of France under the grand mastership of the duc de Chartres (subsequently duc d’Orléans). A further spurt of foundations followed in the 1780s. By the end of that decade, there were perhaps as many as 1,000 lodges throughout France containing between 50,000 and 100,000 masons. Perhaps as many as one published writer in ten was a freemason. Exactly what the lodges got up to behind their closed doors and besides their arcane rituals was shrouded in mystery, but it was clear that they too breathed the same spirit of polite sociability and the same wish for human betterment.

Less clandestine but equally convivial was the coffee-house culture which evolved over the century. The first coffee-house had been established in Paris in 1672. By 1723 there were 380 of them and they probably tripled or quadrupled in number by the 1780s. The phenomenon spread in other cities, making of what had been a rare medicinal substance a banal commodity of everyday living. The more boisterous culture of the bar, tavern and billiard-hall supplemented coffee-house sociability. Subscription to a range of newspapers and journals facilitated and promoted public debate. ‘They hold academic session,’ ironized the writer Louis-Sebastien Mercier in 1782 of the denizens of Parisian coffee-houses. ‘They pass judgement on authors and plays, and they assess their standing and judgement … The chatter endlessly revolves around the newspaper.’14

Mercier’s remark on the place of newspapers in coffee-house culture highlighted the critical importance of print as a lubricant for the mechanisms of Enlightenment sociability. The oral sessions of salons and academies had been relayed through a dense ‘epistolary commerce’15 – a decent postal service was the sine qua non of Enlightenment sociability. Yet, as the example of the Encyclopédie showed, nothing could match print’s capacity for allowing associational life to occur ‘virtually’ – that is, without the physical presence of those involved – and thus building an immeasurably larger audience than salons and academies could ever manage. The audience for printed works expanded prodigiously. The annual output of publications roughly tripled: around 200 works were authorized each year in the last years of Louis XIV, and this grew to about 300 by 1750 and 600 by the late 1770s. These figures include authorization by ‘tacit permission’ – the stratagem employed by government to allow publication which left the door open to subsequent repression – but it omits the dark number of works published without full government consent. There was a massive black-market in books of this sort. In Paris, 120 licensed pedlars traded in illegal works, many of them finding semi-immunity in privileged sanctuaries beyond the direct reach of the Paris police, such as the headquarters of the Order of the Temple and, to some extent, the Palais-Royal. Illegal works (including most titles in the flourishing pornography market) were normally printed just across the French border in places such as Liège, Amsterdam, Bouillon, Neufchâtel and Geneva, and smuggled into France on mule-back along secret mountain paths.

Foreign printing houses also made an important contribution to the market for periodicals and newspapers, which boomed as never before. There were fewer than a dozen titles available to the reading public in 1715 and around a score in 1750; by 1785 there were eighty-two. A great many periodicals were literary, philosophical or special-interest organs, but from mid-century there was substantial growth in current affairs-oriented publications: in 1750 there had been five political newspapers, four of which were published abroad and circulated by informal government agreement; by 1770 there were twelve, and by 1785, nineteen (sixteen of which were still published abroad). The official Gazette de France supplied all the news that government censors saw fit to print, but it had to compete commercially with foreign-based newspapers like the Gazette d’Amsterdam and the Gazette de Leyde, which despite government warnings showed increasing editorial independence. They were supplemented by one of the big newspaper successes of the post-1750 period, the provincial advertiser cum news-sheets, or affiches. Down to 1789, these retained their air of a print bazaar for buyers and sellers of everything from venal offices to horse-manure, from chateaux to billiard-tables and from seigneuries to patent remedies and false teeth. Yet as their number grew – originating in 1751, there were sixteen in existence in 1770 and forty-four in 1789 – they expanded their remit to include reportage of current affairs – sometimes necessarily politically coded.

The buoyancy of the book trade and the newspaper network highlight the emergence of an urban sector increasingly open to national and international affairs. As we have seen,16 towns boomed as the economy started to expand from the 1730s. They grew in size: by 1789, over 5 million individuals – roughly one French person in five – lived in a town. (As a comparison, it should be noted that although a higher proportion – perhaps 40 per cent – of neighbouring England’s population of 6 million lived in towns, this meant France had numerically nearly twice as many town-dwellers as its more urbanized neighbour.) Whereas a very high proportion of English city-dwellers were Londoners, the distinguishing characteristic of French urban life was the solidity of a middling band of towns with between 20,000 and 60,000 inhabitants (only Paris, with around 650,000 and Lyon and Marseille, with 120,000 each, were significantly larger than this). Even more striking than their population growth were changes over the period in urban physiognomy. The Bourbon monarchy’s standing army and Vauban’s pré carré had rendered obsolete the massive ramparts which had enclosed cities since the Middle Ages. These were now demolished, leaving liminal open space which was developed as boulevards, squares, promenades and piazzas. Physicians applauded the removal of city walls for allowing the freer circulation of urban air and light. Most towns still retained much of their dark, tortuous medieval street-system and enough of their noisome smells to shock genteel English travellers, yet a host of other types of micro-improvement in urban public health were changing the feel of urban living: the relocation of cemeteries, for example, hospital rebuilding, vast improvement in waste removal and street cleanliness, paving and lighting schemes, marsh and ditch drainage, purer water supplies, tighter policing of trades producing noxious waste (butchers, tanners, etc.) and the like. Some of this far-reaching campaign of environmental micro-engineering was state-directed: the Intendants in particular played an important stimulant and shaping role, notably in the demolition of urban ramparts, the compensating erection of royal garrisons and barracks, the decoration of the offices of the provincial authorities and the development of a central square as a place royale in which the statue of the ruler could be shown off to good advantage. Change also testified to a growing demand from town-dwellers themselves for a reworked urban environment. Much rebuilding focused on the beautiful private residences of the great, which played an important role in the cultural life of the town by hosting salons, circles, exhibitions of paintings, theatrical representations and concerts. The building of theatres towards the end of the century reveals growing support for and also sophistication in provincial urban culture. The culture of the outdoors also evolved: the old hierarchically disposed public processions, dominated by the church and local corporate bodies, gave way to open-air mass spectacles, festivities and sports events (horse-racing, rackets, boules, etc.) in which all could savour ‘the charms of equality’.17 Public gardens on the English ‘Vauxhall’ model were very popular as centres for promiscuous social mixing, and events staged within them were often topped off with fireworks – a more than appropriate spectacular form for an enlightening age.

Open space, the incursions of commercialism and the growing prestige of polite society produced an urban environment increasingly consonant with the voluntaristic collective culture of the philosophes. Madame Geoffrin once refused admission to her salon to the powerful duc de Richelieu, arguing that wit rather than social rank was the passport for admission into her circle. This was the kind of action which made sense in an urban culture less heavily dominated by a corporatist ethos than hitherto, where like-mindedness between equals rather than rank within a pre-ordained social pyramid acted as the prime form of solidarity and identity. In theory at least, the points of light of the siècle des lumières were class-blind. The main Enlightenment authors were of very mixed social provenance. Diderot’s father was a master cutler, Rousseau’s a watch-maker, Morellet’s a paper-maker and Marmontel’s a tailor. At the other extreme, Jaucourt and Condorcet were of ancient feudal lineage, while d’Holbach was a hyper-rich baron and Helvétius and his scientist colleague Lavoisier were both Farmers General. The highest echelons of society were not in principle ruled out from this world – but they entered in it on terms which were not those of the corporatist hierarchy. Overall, moreover, the intellectual elite was probably drawn more from the middling groups of the professions than from the ranks of wealth and poverty: Voltaire was the son of a notary, Turgot was from a distinguished Robe family, La Mettrie and Quesnay had medical careers, while Maupertuis was a soldier. The professional orientation of the grouping extended into the church: Condillac, Raynal and Mably, for example, were clerics (at least of a sort).

If the philosophes were a mixed bunch, so were the other adherents of the urban public sphere. The organs of enlightened sociability had a cross-class and mixed-sex ambience, as did participation in print culture. A certain degree of intellectual cultivation was required. So was a decent amount of leisure-time – a factor which signally reduced the number of individuals with mercantile and business careers involved in these activities. Clergy and nobles dominated in the bodies most closely linked to the culture of the state: 20 and 40 per cent respectively of provincial academicians, for example, were from the first two orders, and court nobles were heavily over-represented in the salons. The more remote institutions were from the influence of the royal court, however, the weaker noble involvement was. In general, the sociology of the public sphere which bore enlightened culture aloft was solidly of the middling sort: lawyers, state officials and medical men, along with smaller contingents of other professional groupings such as engineers, teachers and non-titled military men and ecclesiastics. Less than 40 per cent of provincial academicians came from these ranks, but the figure was higher in the case of subscribers and collaborators to the Encyclopédie (50 and 84 per cent respectively), of active authorship (59 per cent), of masonic lodges (78 per cent) – and doubtless even more of the informal organs of sociability such as coffee-houses and bars. In sociological terms at least, even though the nobility were proportionately over-represented, this was a public sphere that was predominantly bourgeois. Despite the female governance of the salons, it was predominantly male too.18

One of the fundamental values of the bourgeoisie back to the Middle Ages had been a punctilious concern to differentiate itself from the manual and working classes. The public sphere was bourgeois in this respect too, despite the fact that the popular voice was increasingly equipped to make itself heard. Literacy rose over the course of the century: male and female literacy rates, which had stood at 29 and 14 per cent under Louis XIV, rose to 47 and 27 percent respectively by the 1780s. Rural fastnesses, especially in the Midi and the far west, had much lower levels, but conversely literacy rates in the north and north-east generally were roughly three-quarters and a half for men and women respectively, and there seem to have been very few Parisians beyond the scope of the written word. The Enlightenment project envisaged the gradual enlightening of the masses in the long term; yet in the short term, the philosophes were pessimistic about making much impression on the brute masses. Diderot praised the ingenuity behind the invention of the silk loom, but noted of its operative that he ‘moves the machine [without] understanding anything, knowing anything or even dreaming of it’. Although Diderot acknowledged the intellectual potential of an aristocracy of enlightened labour, theEncyclopédie’s plates often displayed enthusiasm for the potential of mechanization under technocratic management to reduce the input of skilled labour.19 Workers did not need minds.

The class distinction which lay at the heart of the collective identity of the Encyclopédistes was also apparent in regard to popular education. Gains in popular educational provision owed nothing to the philosophes and everything to their putative opponents. Thephilosophes mocked the externalism of post-Tridentine baroque piety, and tended to be highly suspicious of popular education for encouraging religious vocations among people who ought to have their hands on the plough. It was ecclesiastics and charitably mindeddévots rather than they who put the printed word within the reach of the popular classes, notably through charity schools and religiously staffed primary schools. Above primary level too, the religious orders proved receptive to the updating of syllabi. The Jesuits in particular, who were responsible for around half of all secondary schooling in France and who numbered amongst their ex-pupils many of the philosophes (Voltaire, La Mettrie, Helvétius, Turgot, Morellet, etc.) were alert to the utilitarian twist to curriculum development. The decline of Latin at the hands of French as a language of instruction also testified to a more utilitarian pedagogic outlook.

What also became increasingly evident over the century was that a strong demand for education was developing which transcended the social desiderata of the philosophes. The primary school syllabus was confined to religious verities, moral precepts and the three ‘R’s; but an ability to read and reckon at very least equipped the individual for participation in public debates in the medium of print and in the market economy on which that was based. In the hide-bound universities, the call for the modernization of teaching came from the students themselves, who realized the career potential involved in the inculcation of professional skills. The traditional format of primary schools, colleges and universities was, moreover, complemented by a diverse assemblage of ancillary institutions – military academies, technical schools, schools of art and design, business schools, public lecture courses and so on – created very largely to respond to popular and middle-class demand.

The debate on the value of education shed interesting light on the claims of philosophes and Encyclopédistes to embody the forces of improvement within society. Philosophic demands were highly congruent with the commercialization of society and a growing respect for mental labour and professional training. Conversely, however, the popular demand for education showed that there was now in play more than a single version of modernity – and indeed enlightenment. The new public sphere was more pluralistic than – and not always as polite as – the philosophes might have wished.

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