Modern history


In his inaugural speech in the Académie française in 1787, the historian Rulhière looked back to 1750 as the eighteenth century’s turning point. His criterion was not the conclusion of a famous peace nor an act of monarchical éclat. Rather, he highlighted this as the moment when the philosophes had established their intellectual hegemony over the royal court in the realm of public opinion.20 The historian simplified; historians do. Yet in much the same spirit, the marquis d’Argenson mused in 1751 about ‘revolution’ blowing in the ‘philosophical wind’. And it was the same epoch that Voltaire had in mind when he declared in 1767 that ‘in the past fifteen years or so a revolution has occurred in people’s minds’.21 The moment of the Encyclopédie etched itself deeply on the collective memory of the enlightening age.

One of the striking aspects of the mid-century which Rulhière evoked was a changed view of history in many of the key works which appeared around that date. As we have seen, historical research had been utilized as one of the means by which the mythic present of Louis XIV’s reign was opened up to critical scrutiny around 1700.22 The discipline retained a polemical edge, and the years around 1750 highlighted fundamental new concepts and practices within it. Crucial here was the philosophical history enshrined in the Encyclopédie and championed in the ‘Preliminary Discourse’ of 1751, which represented history as the unfolding triumph of enlightening reason. Other works published around this time exemplified – and sometimes complicated – this quasi-triumphalist account. There was, for example, Voltaire’s cultural history of the reign of the Sun King, Le Siècle de Louis XIV of 1751; Montesquieu’s De l’Esprit des lois (‘On the Spirit of Laws’) of 1748, which provided an analysis of the environment and values of political cultures in different regimes in the past; the rather divergent historical account offered by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his ‘Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts’, which appeared in 1750 (to be followed in 1755 by a second discourse, ‘On the Origins and Foundations of Inequality’); and the natural historical dimension to chronology offered by Buffon, the first volumes of whose multi-volumed Natural History appeared in 1749. Whatever their differences, all exhibited a historicist sensibility which transcended orthodox views of the past promoted by church or state.

The article on ‘history’ in the Encyclopédie, penned by Jaucourt, offered as a definition, ‘a narrative of facts taken to be true’, in contradistinction to ‘fable’ which was based on falsity.23 All these foundational mid-century texts evinced open scepticism about the possibility of revealed religion – only recently acknowledged as the prime epistemological yardstick – contributing to the establishment of sound, socially grounded historical knowledge. God and his earthly representatives, it seemed, could provide no clue to the implicit rules behind the workings of past societies. Buffon used fossil evidence and physical experimentation, for example, to underpin his contention that the world was far more ancient than the Genesis account was held by the churches to suggest (Louis XIV’s bishop Bossuet, for example, had dated the Creation to 4004 BC, with Noah’s Flood cutting in in 2348 BC). Rousseau, in sketching out an account of human history since earliest times, took his examples from classical Antiquity rather than scripture. Similarly, Montesquieu’s quest for ‘the spirit’ (or the mind) of laws excluded from the start the possibility of a single divine plan: ‘First of all, I have examined men,’ he announced in his Preface, ‘and I have come to believe that, in the infinite diversity of their laws and customs, they were not solely led by their fantasies.’24 He drew on the growing ethnographic record contained in travellers’ tales about extra-European societies to develop a stadial view of human evolution according to which each society passed through the stages of hunting, pastoral life, farming and trading – a schema which had no place for scriptural precept.

With the striking exception of Rousseau (to whom we shall return), this cohort of mid-century historians largely subscribed to the progressivism implicit in d’Alembert’s ‘Preliminary Discourse’. This was certainly the case, for example, with François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, poet, dramatist, wit, essayist, historian and all-round belles-lettriste. A celebrity at twenty-four under the Regency when his play, Oedipus (1718) won him massive fame, Voltaire was a success in all the genres – save only that of courtier. Briefly thrown in the Bastille for some crude jokes at the Regent’s expense, and then again for seeking to get his own back on the chevalier de Rohan who had had the poet beaten by his lackeys for lack of respect, Voltaire’s attempts to be accepted within the courtly ambience of the state sadly fizzled out: despite Madame de Pompadour’s backing, his tenure of the posts of Royal Historian and Gentleman of the Royal Bed-Chamber in the 1740s was a flop, while his subsequent acceptance of an invitation from king Frederick II to serve as royal philosopher-in-residence in Prussia also ended in tears. After his return to France in 1753, he chose to live close to the Swiss frontier, from 1759 at Ferney. Participating in the Republic of Letters through his numerous letters and publications, Voltaire wrote furiously and brilliantly enough to become the first French writer to make a living solely from the pen.

Voltaire’s most celebrated historical work was his Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1751). It was a latterday contribution to the great seventeenth-century debate over the Ancients and the Moderns, with Voltaire coming down powerfully on the side of the latter, arguing that the great cultural achievements of Louis XIV’s France marked a signal advance on Antiquity. His rejection of ‘the endless detail of wars, and the attacks on cities, taken and retaken by force of arms’ in favour of a history of ‘the genius and manners of men’25chimed very harmoniously with the Encyclopédie’s downgrading of ‘the conquerors who have desolated the earth’ in comparison with ‘the immortal geniuses who have enlightened it’.26 Voltaire’s fulsome praise for the Sun King in this volume contrasted with the attitude of many of his peers: Montesquieu had satirized the king, in his Persian Letters, as ‘the great magician’, while the abbé de Saint-Pierre freely compared him with Nero, Attila and even Satan.27 This Voltairean encomium was also at odds with his own more habitual views, which had a strongly liberal, English flavour. A spell spent in England out of political prudence in the 1720S had transformed his outlook, opening his eyes to issues of personal freedom and material progress. His Philosophical (orEnglish) Letters, published in 1734, under the guise of travel literature, constituted a coded and wittily ironic attack on French mores. The English had an open and secular approach to science, in which Newton’s inductive approach and Locke’s empiricism were exemplars, while the intellectual life of the French, Voltaire more than implied, was dominated by the Catholic church, with Cartesian rationalism inhibiting Lockean and Newtonian approaches. English people enjoyed the right to personal and religious freedom, enshrined in the English constitution; the French suffered under lettres de cachet, brutally enforced confessional unity and press censorship. The English had a truly representative and patriotic Parliament; the French had to make do with a corporative, sectional and legally pettifogging Parlement (which indeed lived up to Voltaire’s stereotype by having the Lettres philosophiques ostentatiously burned by the public hangman). The English traded and prospered and were happy; the French valued land over commerce, esteemed social rank over wealth, and had a poorer quality of life. ‘In England’, Voltaire claimed, ‘commerce, by enriching the people, has extended their freedom and this freedom has in turn extended their commerce and furthered the greatness of the state.’28

That a virtuous circle could be set up so as to conjoin trade, freedom and civic virtue in a new configuration of national greatness was an idea which in principle at least should be applicable to the French, whom Voltaire adjudged ‘the most sociable and the most polite people on earth’.29 And indeed, this kind of thinking had started to gain in intellectual currency within the social elite as well as among the philosophes. Cardinal Fleury’s age of peace had helped to kick-start French economic growth, and to promote more positive views of the commercial sector.30 Like many others, Voltaire was influenced by The Fable of the Bees by the English-based Dutch writer, Bernard Mandeville (1723). The work’s subtitle, Private Vices, Public Virtues, indicated the disjuncture between private and public morality which explained its notoriety. A radical revalorization of individual self-interest, Voltaire argued, could serve as an agent of social improvement; the individual quest for material happiness was perfectly congruent with wider, societal felicity. Voltaire’s favourite economist was Jean-Francois Melon, ‘a man of intelligence, a citizen and a philosopher’,31 he stated, who had at one stage served as John Law’s secretary, and who produced an influential Political Essay on Commerce in 1734. Melon offered a diluted Mandevillianism, shorn of its more outrageously cynical topnotes.32 Luxury might be spiritually undesirable, Melon held, yet in moderation it supplied a key to collective material improvement: it stimulated trade, exchange and communication which refined the senses, produced greater sociability, and engendered more wealth. Developing a critique of France’s commercial and industrial performance which went back to Boisguilbert in the final years of Louis XIV’s reign, Melon argued against the notion that one person’s luxury was his or her neighbour’s impoverishment; rather, he held, the more luxury there was in society the more likely it was that essential needs were also met.33 Luxury was, moreover, a dynamic rather than a static concept, and was evolving in ways which demonstrated historical progress: (who had met Melon in the Bordeaux Academy) thought frugality an estimable republican virtue, but regarded commerce and restrained indulgence in luxury as a positive force for harmonious social interaction: ‘everywhere there are gentle mores there is commerce’ (and vice-versa).34 ‘There is luxury in all states,’ concurred the Encyclopédie. The article on ‘luxe’ distinguished between ‘lazy and frivolous luxury’ (which was bad) and ‘polite luxury [luxe de bienséance]which always serves utility’; in general, it seemed clear that luxury ‘adds to the happiness of humanity’.35 Support for a degree of luxury came from the Jansenist camp: so fallen was man, so far distant was God from material creation, in the eyes of influential seventeenth-century moralist, Pierre Nicole, that it became acceptable to believe that good could be achieved through individuals following their self-interest to achieve communal felicity. Other ecclesiastics – including many of the Jansenists’ sworn enemies, the Jesuits – were similarly accepting of a space for purposive and beneficent human action and betterment in a disenchanted world. Human freedom and social betterment seemed to depend on economic growth: significantly, the first author to use the term in which such debates were subsequently to be couched – civilisation – was the political economist (économiste), the marquis de Mirabeau, writing at mid-century.36 Trade and culture, commerce and enlightenment, were never far away from each other in the siècle des lumières.

By the time that Mirabeau wrote, however, giving an enduring name to that hybrid process of material improvement, progress and sociability which philosophes and Encyclopédistes had already enshrined at the heart of their project, the face of the luxury debate had been transformed. Luxury and indeed civilization were given an altogether more negative, even sinister reading (and one which cast history in a totally different light) by one of the philosophes’ own, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This son of a Genevan watch-maker had had a desperately unhappy childhood and peculiar adolescent sexual dalliances before entering Paris’s Grub Street in the 1740s, becoming friendly with Diderot and other philosophes, writing poetry, developing musical interests and penning articles for theEncyclopédie. In 1749, he made a splash in the Republic of Letters through one of its characteristic literary channels, the academy prize essay. The essay question proposed by the Dijon Academy, whether the re-establishment of the arts and sciences had contributed to the purification of morals, struck him with uncommon force. Rejecting the progressivist narrative of his fellow philosophes, he answered with a resounding no: the wealth and luxury which accompanied the progress of the sciences had corrupted a pristine innocence in man. Man’s conscience seemed to tell him that the contemporary world was corrupt.

Rousseau’s prize-winning efforts might have remained a witty and not particularly original or influential jeu d’esprit. His central thesis resonated with sub-Fénelonian criticisms of luxury and corruption, for example, while his privileging of the inner voice had been pre-dated by François-Vincent Toussaint’s acclaimed and controversial On Manners (‘Les Moeurs’, 1749). What made a difference was Rousseau’s throwing himself body and soul for the rest of his life into exploring the perception the First Discourse had embodied. The first return on this intellectual and emotional investment was a further prize-essay submission, the ‘Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men’ of 1755. The ‘Second Discourse’, as it is usually known, took the form of a dazzling thought experiment, starting from the premise that the first men, once they had emerged from an animal state, were innocent, robust and healthy, and with an instinct to remain solitary rather than become sociable. He then imagined himself and his readers through the different stages involved in the making of modern man – the acquisition of language, the advent of private property, and so on. ‘I dared to strip man’s nature naked,’ he later wrote. ‘I compared man as he made himself with natural man, and showed that his supposed improvement was the true fount of all his miseries.’37 Far from being the source of human felicity, luxury was an unnatural bane of society and an insult to suffering humanity.

Rousseau’s two Discourses were arrows aimed at the heart of the philosophe movement. Even a group as tolerant of divergent opinions as they, who found much to admire in the author’s erudition, historical research and rational argumentation, found Rousseau difficult to digest. ‘I have received, Monsieur, your new book against the human race,’ Voltaire wrote to him with savage irony on receiving a copy of the Second Discourse, ‘and I thank you. Never has so much intelligence been seen to try to turn men into beasts.’38The banter of the salons and the cut-and-thrust of polemical debate (plus disapproval voiced by the church establishment, furious at his rejection of the doctrine of original sin), stung the thin-skinned Rousseau to the quick. In 1756, he left Paris somewhat theatrically for a more solitary, back-to-nature life in a ‘hermitage’ in the Île-de-France (his philosophe antagonists imagined him down on all fours eating grass). He followed this up with a definitive break with his erstwhile friends, sealed with a highly personal attack on d’Alembert. By 1760, he was solemnly writing to Voltaire, ‘I hate you.’39

Rousseau thus spurned obvious and available connections to the incremental social improvement looked for by the philosophes, his two Discourses comprising a credo which on the surface seemed deeply pessimistic about the present and the future. Yet though the sickness which Rousseau diagnosed in contemporary society seemed terminal, hope did remain. Just as certain poisons taken in limited quantities constitute an effective antidote, so there were seeds of possibility which provided an opportunity for human regeneration in the paths of virtue. Pace the taunts of Voltaire and others, Rousseau was not seeking to return humanity to a state of nature, but rather to explore how society could be reimagined in terms of that condition, albeit evidently at a higher level. This became more apparent in Rousseau’s writings in the early 1760s. His Social Contract of 1762, with its ringing opening peroration – ‘man was born free but is everywhere in chains’ – was a half historical, half prophetic analysis of a form of government in which citizens could be both free and happy in their virtue.40

It was, however, the human and emotional – rather than the overtly political – aspect of Rousseau’s writings which won him fame and celebrity for the rest of his days. The two novels he published in the early 1760s – Julie, or La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) andÉmile (1762) – were enormously widely read over subsequent decades. In them he created a new authorial voice, integrally dipped in heart-rending sentimentality, which touched the deepest emotions of his readers, who reacted as though they were born again into ecstatic inner turmoil. In a century which liked a good cry, Rousseau’s readers broke all records. Readers were moved to communicate their feelings to the author in purple-passaged prose, reporting ‘delicious tears’ and ‘delicious outpourings of the heart’. The litany went on, ‘one must suffocate … one must weep, one must write to you choking with emotion and weeping’, and ‘You have overwhelmed my soul. It is full to bursting and it must share its torment with you … ’41 It was less Julie’s story itself – a tale of requited and unrequited passion, with the heroine dying melodramatically at the dénouement – than the intimacy and frank transparency of the emotional relations between the principals which struck a chord, along with the intimacy which the novel appeared to establish between writer and his readers, many of whom had difficulty in believing that such portrayals were fictional. The novel seemed to offer a new recipe for virtuous living and earthly happiness which highlighted the role of conscience and the need for emotional honesty and transparency in the creation of selfhood. While Voltaire remained Voltaire and Diderot was Denis only to his intimates, La Nouvelle Héloïse transformed Rousseau into everyone’s friend, loveable (if difficult) ‘Jean-Jacques’.

The brilliant literary success of La Nouvelle Héloïse – which had buyers queuing round the block and libraries lending out chapters by the hour – was matched the following year by Rousseau’s Émile. Although it was dressed up as fiction, the work was, to a considerable degree, a pedagogical tract, and one which made a matching pair with the two Discourses. While the latter had imagined natural man anterior to society, Émile was organized around the Lockean premiss that the education of a young boy (the eponymous Émile) could be structured around manipulating his sense impressions in such a way as to develop a moral personality and a capacity for natural happiness and transparent social relations. The core of the novel was the quest to fashion individual virtue, but Rousseau’s aim was not to strip away societal accretions to reach the ‘natural’ man in the manner of the two Discourses. Rather he strove to imagine a pathway towards the making of a virtuous citizen in a necessarily corrupt society. Civic virtue, it seemed, could be worked at, and a new, more natural personality structure could be created which transcended the artifices of contemporary society. He avowedly sought to up-date Télémaque, and the work is crammed with Fénelonian touches. Crucially, however, the virtue he described was to serve as goal for the citizen rather than, as had been the case with Fénelon’s work, a mirror for princes. Émile was Télémaque for the bourgeois public sphere.

The issue of ‘natural’ virtue was given added substance by burgeoning debates over the meanings derived from the practices of exogenous societies revealed to an avid reading public by traders, travellers and missionaries. In the past, a great deal of this literature had endorsed the technical, religious and therefore, it was believed, moral superiority of Western Europe. The civilizing project of the philosophes and the Encyclopédistes was indeed predicated on a contrast between the light of contemporary reason and the dark times of savagery and barbarism. Since the times of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, however, there had always been a subjacent stream of travel literature which had queried the civilizing function of Western penetration of such societies. In the eighteenth century, this was instantiated in writings which developed the view that ‘savages’ exhibited more virtue and moral nobility than their conquerors. Rousseau wrote more against the idea of the ‘noble savage’ than for it, and was not without his own ethnocentric prejudices (thus, Émile had to be brought up in a temperate European climate since in hot and cold climes ‘the brain [is] less well-organized’).42 Nonetheless, his writings had the effect of encouraging many contemporaries to locate natural virtue within other, more exotic and more primitive societies than their own. A developing humanitarian critique of the institution of plantation slavery on which much of France’s colonial and economic wellbeing was based played a part in this trend. So too did the exploration from the middle years of the century of the South Pacific, Enlightenment Europe’s ‘New Found Land’. Of particular significance were chronicles of life in the island of Tahiti retailed by James Cook and the French savant Bougainville in the early 1770s: Tahiti was portrayed as a living utopia, an Edenic vision of what must once have been the state of Europe. The reception of Rousseau’s work in the decades after their publication was strongly inflected by this current of thinking, which further dramatized the contrast between natural virtue and civilized corruption.

Émile was a boy’s story about civic virtue – with very important consequences for girls. Whereas the centre of the fiction was the moral perfecting of the young Émile, the fate ascribed to his marriage partner, Sophie, seemed to suggest that women were nature-bound to play second fiddle. A woman’s education, Rousseau stipulated,

must be planned in relation to man. To be pleasing, to win his respect and love, to bring him up as a child, to tend him in manhood, to counsel and console, to make life pleasant and happy – these are the duties of women for all time.43

Whereas Émile’s personality was in some sense malleable, there seemed to be an ahistoric, ‘natural’ aspect to women’s characters which constrained such moulding. This motherly domestic role involved a rejection of women’s own rational activity in favour of that of their partner’s: ‘all that tends to generate ideas is not within the compass of women; all their studies must deal with the practical’.44

Rousseau’s views on women directly contradicted the theory of communicative and egalitarian sociability which was at the heart of the philosophe vision of knowledge. Salons run by women offered not only a venue for social mixing but also a key epistemological site for the polite and reciprocal exchange of reason. In the salon, men subjected themselves to the formal direction of a female, who umpired debate and policed the frontiers of polite discussion. French civilization could pride itself on being so much more advanced than other nations, it was held, precisely because of the polishing of manners and honing of intellects which occurred under female governance. Very much in line with this liberal view of women, a number of the philosophes, from the abbé de Saint-Pierre to Condorcet, criticized the inferior legal and social status of women, while Jaucourt, in the article on ‘Woman’ in the Encyclopédie, went so far as to argue that the husband’s authority within a marriage was ‘contrary to natural human equality’.45

‘I am very far from thinking’, Rousseau had stated in a footnote to the First Discourse, ‘that [the] ascendancy of women is in itself an evil.’46 Indeed, his view of women as ‘the moral sex’ par excellence47 highlighted a firm valorization of what women could offer society. Yet much of his work was read by contemporaries as endorsing precisely the opposite sentiment, for which, from mid-century, there was a growing amount of support. In Sparta, Rousseau approvingly noted, women had been confined at home and forbidden entry on to the public arena on which (male) public life took place. The history of ancient Rome, Renaissance Italy and many other societies, Rousseau claimed, showed that as soon as women began to influence political affairs, corruption and decay wheedled their way into the polity. The symbol of a naturally ordered polity was a mother breastfeeding her offspring within her home (rather than hiring the child out to mercenary wetnurses). By the same token, the symbol of a disorder and corruption was a woman on the public forum, in the palace, in the street – or in the salon. Rousseau marked his passage into open opposition to the philosophes by venomous attacks on this quintessential enlightening venue. The salonnières were so many ‘tyrants of [men’s] liberty’, who, he alleged, ‘do not know anything, although they judge everything’,48 and therefore needed to be directed and kept under control.

Rousseau’s works were to have an enormous influence on the moral economy of gender in the last half of the eighteenth century. Rousseau had opened up debate on the extent to which eighteenth-century man was civilized and virtuous, but those who drew inspiration from his ideas seemed to foreclose on any discussion of a positive role for women in social change by confining them within an atemporal version of their ‘nature’. The ‘natural’ social arrangement on which emphasis was placed as the site for the inculcation of civic virtue was the domestic family in which only the men did the thinking and public acting. Women, in contrast, were confined to a subordinate, ancillary and supportive role in mental work, and were restricted from participation in public life. This approach was endorsed by medical men who were tending to locate gender difference more strictly in terms of biological incommensurability between the sexes. Pierre Roussel’s influential and much republished Système physique et moral de la femme(‘Systematic Overview of Women as Physical and Moral Beings’) (1775), for example, drew freely on current debates in physiology and anatomy, and ended up blaming women’s distinctive nervous system for limiting their intellectual development (‘Their delicate organs will feel more keenly the unavoidable ill effects that [serious study] involves’)49 and saw the child-bearing capacity inscribed on to their bodies as grounds for believing in their essential difference from men. Their inherent propensities should be allowed to blossom in the work of reproduction, breastfeeding (which became highly fashionable), child-care and husband-nurturing. This view also dovetailed with political economists’ fears of depopulation: societal prosperity seemed to rely on women doing the procreative work which should have come naturally. And Nature was increasingly seen as the grounds for human happiness.

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