Modern history


The philosophes aimed to disenchant the world, that is to say, to evacuate nature of magical or spiritual powers and to present a version of material reality over which forces inaccessible to rational understanding had no sway. Like their sometime enemies, the Jansenists, they had a sense of a world in which God’s intentions were illegible and beyond the reach of human reason. Unlike the Jansenists, they sought to ground the meanings of human life in ‘society’ – a term which only began to be widely used in the early eighteenth century, and whose resonance derived from a rejection of transcendent spiritual values and a linked belief that cultural meanings were socially grounded. It was not that the philosophes disregarded the deity. Indeed, as the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, implied, even in fashion-crazy Paris it was rarer to find someone who believed in atheists than an individual who did not believe in God.50 The baron d’Holbach and some of his philosophical intimates verged on outright disbelief, as did Diderot, spasmodically. Yet many whom their contemporaries regarded as outright atheists protested their belief: even La Mettrie, author of the ultra-mechanistic, soul-denying L’Homme machine (‘Man the Machine’) (1747), left the door open to the possibility of God’s existence, while Voltaire died within the bosom of the church (though not without some stage-managed anti-clerical touches).

Down to mid-century (and in many cases beyond), the philosophes tended to take their cue from Voltaire, who popularized the purportedly Newtonian metaphor of God as watch-maker, with the internal machinery of the universe operating according to some not empirically obvious design. The natural philosopher thus operated from a stance of epistemological modesty, eschewing any insight into the mysterious operations of the deity, who was the first cause of all creation, and restricting himself to issues pitched at the level of secondary causation. The only things about God which seemed to be knowable were that he had removed himself from his creation once it was complete, and that he had set up the mechanism of the human world in an essentially beneficent manner. His lack of intervention in the material world meant, however, that the whole substance of revealed religion – the Bible, the church, the record of miracles – must necessarily be fraudulent. Individuals who preached an interventionist God were consequently charlatans and scoundrels who conspired to keep the people in a state of foolish ignorance and dark prejudice from which the philosophes were now striving to free them. Voltaire’s celebrated slogan, ‘Écrasez l’infâme!’ (‘Crush [religious] infamy!’) was directed not against the Deity but against the priesthood which claimed to speak in his name. Diderot too struck a militantly anti-clerical note:

This is our device: no quarter for the superstitious, for the fanatical, for the ignorant or for fools, malefactors or tyrants. I would wish to see our brethren united in love of virtue, feeling for beneficence and taste for truth, goodness and morality – a rather more valuable trinity than the other one. It is not enough for us to know more than Christians; we must show that we are better than they, and that science makes more good men than divine or sufficient grace.51

The philosophe belief in a distant deity was thus combined with systematic hostility to all those who claimed to be his interpreters. What got the philosophes’ goat – and helped them score some of their most telling propaganda points – was the apparent hypocrisy of the Catholic church’s claims to provide a model for virtue. The philosophes contrasted their own irenic calls for tolerance with the church’s historical record as the perennial source of cruelty and fanaticism. They constructed an image of the regular clergy in particular as essentially irreligious, driven by their own appetites, and socially useless: monasteries were, for Voltaire, ‘the repair of disorder [and] enmity’ and ‘monkish sloth’.52 The ostentatious lifestyle of the upper clergy, the church’s obstreperous refusal to contribute proportionately to national tax loads, its greedy insistence on a tithe of all agricultural produce – all were held to highlight the clergy’s lack of commitment to the social good.

Yet despite the growing ferociousness with which the philosophes conducted the campaign to eradicate l’infâme, most of them did not exclude a role for the church within society. This was to be grounded, however, not in the clergy’s claimed access to transcendent values and meanings, but in their usefulness to society. Belief in a deity who punished wrongdoers and promised rewards for good behaviour was a pillar of social order. And that belief had to be nurtured by the clergy. ‘If God did not exist,’ was Voltaire’s celebrated view, ‘it would be necessary to invent him.’ The quip highlighted the extent to which the philosophes were seeking a via media between what they saw as the morally and intellectually impoverished tradition of Christian revelation and its embattled polar opposite, a sceptical materialism which left no space for a moral sensibility which the philosophes regarded as essential in any virtuous and happy human society.

Intriguingly, the philosophes’ argument for religion on grounds of social utility was also one which was increasingly espoused by their opponents. Partly, ecclesiastics were thereby responding to anti-clerical taunts of their alleged social parasitism, but partly too this reflected important shifts in religious thinking. The Catholic church’s grafting on to its post-Tridentine pastoral mission an acceptance of the state’s need for docile and obedient subjects had encouraged a tendency to prioritize moral issues over spiritual concerns. ‘True devotion’, announced the abbé Dinouart, ‘is exactitude in fulfilling one’s duties.’53 The figure of the bon prêtre – the good parish priest who placed pastoral care above theological niceties and served as a natural, tolerant, peace-loving and ultra-charitable spokesman and arbitrator for his community – proved a seductive advertisement for the church, even in philosophe eyes. It did indeed represent a reality in many locations, for, as we have suggested,54 the parish clergy was more committed, more zealous and better educated than at any time in the history of the French church. The hard-working, under-appreciated and yet socially useful bon prêtre found a female equivalent, moreover, in the Daughter of Charity, the religious nursing sister whose vocational commitment and humane compassion in the face of soul-destroying tasks made even Voltaire dewy-eyed.

The valorization of the bon prêtre as more socially useful and spiritually admirable than the upper clergy gave many parish priests ideas well above their station. From the 1750s, rumblings of discontent began to be heard in a number of dioceses, notably in Nancy, Provence and Dauphiné where, despite formal royal prohibition, the lower clergy formed diocesan assemblies to protest their cause. There was often a Jansenist twist to their complaints: many curés were attracted to the doctrines of the seventeenth-century Augustinian, Edmond Richer, who had held that the successors of Christ’s disciples were not the episcopate but the whole body of the clergy. They argued that church decision-making ought to be done in democratic diocesan synods. There was, moreover, an economic as well as a spiritual edge to their militancy: the pitifully low portion congrue (the clerical stipend on which much of the lower clergy had to live) had failed to keep up with increases in the cost of living: set at 300 livres for curés in 1690, it was raised to 500 in 1750, and then to 750 in 1786 (with 300 for parish subalterns). The lower clergy resented how sorry these figures appeared when set against the prodigious incomes of the prelates. Even though Richerists amongst them would have been appalled to think of themselves as being influenced by the philosophes, their protests were increasingly couched in a language of civic virtue and social utility which reflected Enlightenment debates.

If forces within the church increasingly warmed to the utilitarian gospel preached by the philosophes, this sprang partly from growing anxiety and concern about the church’s impact on the laity. From the second quarter of the century, deep cracks were starting to appear across the face of the country in the façade of religious conformity. After mid-century, those cracks developed into an abyss. Perhaps the most striking feature of this thoroughgoing transformation of mentalités related to the florid set of beliefs and practices clustered around the deathbed, centre-piece of post-Tridentine baroque piety even, as we have seen, for a king.55 The traditional kind of last will and testament – replete with charitable and religious bequests, intricate funeral instructions and spiritual invocation of God and the saints – went into steep decline. In Provence more than 80 per cent of testators had written the traditional kind of will at mid-century; by the 1780s, only half did so. In Paris, the shift had taken place even earlier and was even more extensive. It was as though most French people were starting to forget how to die – or at least to die like Catholics. The rate of religious and charitable giving fell starkly, worsening the financial state of hospitals and charitable institutions. Characteristically, the burial spot, perennial theatre of much baroque funeral pomp, was under attack on utilitarian, sanitary grounds: in 1776, burials inside churches were forbidden as a health risk; and the transfer of the sprawling Cemetery of the Innocents graveyard at the heart of Paris to a more remote spot signalled a move towards suburban graveyards which would become the norm early in the nineteenth century.

Other indices of religious commitment were in parallel, sometimes vertiginous, decline. Religious titles dropped from around one-third of all books published in 1720 (the figure had been even higher under Louis XIV) to a quarter by 1750 and one-tenth in 1789. Religious vocations also seemed in free fall for most of the century, with a marked acceleration after around 1750: they dropped by a quarter down to the 1780s. A quarter of a million strong in 1680, the clergy was only half as large in 1789. The unpopular regular clergy were the worst affected. Their numbers had been dropping from the 1720s, and the raising of the age of vows in 1768 to twenty-one for men and eighteen for women completed the rout. From the 1760s, moreover, the church itself was looking to eradicate failing institutions – the ‘Commission of Regulars’ established in 1768 closed down around one-sixth of all monasteries over a period of two decades. Lay confraternities also entered a phase of decay: churchmen deplored the tendency of these to become centres of collective profanity, and deplored members seeking out company and profane pursuits in coffee-houses and masonic lodges. The sociability of the public sphere offered a seemingly more attractive model than religious association.

The moral teachings of the church were also increasingly ignored. Ecclesiastical censors worked overtime but could not prevent the spread of philosophical works whose message believers were enjoined to despise. (Indeed, many works on the papal Index also found their way on to the bookshelves of French ecclesiastics.) Those within the church who held fast to the theme of religious unity proclaimed by Louis XIV in the 1685 Edict of Fontainebleau were downcast by the lack of repression of Huguenots after mid-century, and by the growing sense in government as well as philosophical circles that toleration was inevitable. Church attendance and, in particular, Easter duties were no longer the occasions for community togetherness which once they had been: priests bewailed the opening of bars, the playing of boules, and the raucous cracking of jokes during divine service. Belief in miracles, attendance on pilgrimages, participation in missions and the vitality of religious art all went into decline. The church’s teachings on sexual matters had been remarkably faithfully observed at the high water-mark of post-Tridentine influence – but here too there was plentiful evidence of deterioration. Illegitimacy rates rose by nearly 50 per cent from the 1740s down to 1789: though the towns maintained their reputation as sinks of iniquity, with much higher levels than the countryside (around a third of births were illegitimate in Paris, for example, and nearly 40 per cent were so in Nantes), in fact the rate of increase was probably more pronounced in rural than urban areas. There were rises too in the rate of pre-nuptial pregnancy and in child abandonment: the latter increased 100 per cent between the 1740s and the 1780s. Shocked confessors reported the growing evidence of the use of coitus interruptus too – in rural localities as well as in the towns.

It would be quite wrong to imagine that this erosion of religious belief was universal and across the board. As with average wage rates, average rates of religious observance obscure very great divergences from the mean, and complex patterns of difference. The towns had been the leading edge of post-Tridentine Catholic zeal, but in the eighteenth century their piety tended to wane, and it was rural areas, slower to receive the post-Tridentine message, who tended to stick with it. Here, community peer pressure often acted in the direction of conservatism and homogeneity, especially in remote mountain areas more cut off from the lively interchange of ideas and commodities of valleys and plains. Certain regions – Nice and Upper Provence, Alsace-Lorraine, the Velay, the Vivarais and parts of Brittany were good examples – even bucked the secularizing trend altogether, and showed greater religious vitality in the eighteenth century than in the seventeenth. Gender was a further line of differentiation: in general women were more likely to retain their religious beliefs than their menfolk. In addition, there were signs of at least partial recovery from the 1770s: the number of religious vocations rose, and a flurried revival of spiritual activity in publishing too: changes in laws of literary ownership in 1779 led to a spurt of religious publications. More than a million religious works were sold, the field being led by the bestseller, L’Ange conducteur (‘The Guardian Angel’), which went into fifty-one re-editions, selling over 100,000 copies in a decade.

Ecclesiastics were swift to blame the philosophes for the erosion of religious uniformity and the growth of spiritual indifference over the century as a whole. This was a case of shooting the messenger. The Enlightenment project did seek to change attitudes and did indeed impact on the behaviour and innermost convictions of much of France’s elite and most of its intelligentsia. Yet it was also very much a product of the wider social, economic and cultural transformation which was taking place in eighteenth-century France, linked to the development of commercial capitalism. The shift in mentalités which necessitated coming to terms with a remote Deity and grounding religious values in the material world involved many individuals besides the philosophes. It also had more to do with a changed society than with the anti-clerical views of the philosophes, who, moreover, acknowledged God’s existence, valued rather than depreciated popular religious belief and retained a place in their universe for the moral teachings of the church. The latter was, moreover, in the throes of a spiritual reform which sought a more purposive social dimension for religious action. Furthermore, the popular classes did not look to the philosophes for their social values. It is possible to detect in the writings of theBibliothèque bleue, which provided the literary pabulum for the popular classes, some reflections of the values of the enlightened elite – there was less astrology and prophesying, as the century wore on, and more popular science and civility. Yet in general, the common people shared their priests’ and community leaders’ suspicions of the philosophes. It was widely believed that the most characteristic feature of the latter was sexual deviancy: in popular parlance, le péché philosophique – ‘the philosopher’s sin’ – was sodomy, while pornographic and obscene writings were commonly dubbed livres de philosophic.

Furthermore, although the philosophes were a useful whipping-child for a beleaguered church, some of the reasons for the transformation of religious mores lay within the church itself. Some of the bitterest denunciations of popular piety, for example, came from purist clerics like Christophe Sauvageon, scourge of what he saw as the spiritual lip-service his parishioners paid to the Christian verities.56 Despite the wish of many clerics to tailor their faith and to transform their lives to the demands of a more secular age, the fact remained that the church was a house divided, and its divisions reduced its efficacy against philosophe attacks. Doctrinal battles within the church – uncertain counsels on strategy as regards the philosophes, the fierce anti-Jansenist struggles, and the social critique which the Richerists were starting to mount – reduced its overall effectiveness. So too, from the late 1750s, did the campaign to expel the Jesuits, who had formed the shock-troops of the early Counter-Reformation. Diderot commented to his mistress Sophie Volland on how ecclesiastical tergiversations over the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1762 ‘g[a]ve the philosophes a good laugh’.57 The Jesuits were often criticized for being too accommodating with the sins of their flocks. On the other hand, Jansenists’ often austere rigour in the confessional and their wish to purify popular beliefs of allegedly pagan accretions alienated many of their would-be supporters, swelling rather than thinning the ranks of unbelief.

Just as the philosophes distinguished between attacking the church and denying the existence of God, so too, many of the individuals manifesting religious indifference did not reject an overarching belief in a beneficent providence, belief in which had calculable social benefits. Providence was, for many, clad in the garb of Nature. For some of the more radical philosophes, the siècle des lumières had knocked God off his pedestal and installed Nature in his place. In his scandalously materialist System of Nature (1770) – published abroad under cloak of anonymity – d’Holbach presented Nature as an alternative, more authentic and more attractive deity than the Christian God: ‘Return to Nature!’, he apostrophized his readers. ‘She will console you, drive out from your heart the fears that hobble you, the anxieties which tear you … the hatreds that separate you from Man, whom you ought to love.’58 This was an extreme version of a view which Buffon voiced more moderately towards the end of his life: ‘I have always called the Creator by his name; but it is only a short step to removing this word and putting naturally in its place the power of Nature.’59

‘Nature’, the Encyclopédie noted (supplying no fewer than eight separate meanings to prove the point), was a ‘vague term’, and vagueness was part of its appeal.60 While semi-atheists might rejoice in God’s displacement by Nature, a great many orthodox Christians also held that Nature constituted a transcendent source of goodness which offered guidance to right living. Voltaire had drawn on Newton to demonstrate an allegedly divine orderliness in the natural world which left no space for God’s intervention in human affairs, but as the century wore on it was Christian apologists who utilized a version of this argument from design to demonstrate the necessary existence of God. Nature was taken to form a Great Chain of Being, established by the deity, with mankind at the top and the other forms of life disposed beneath it in interlinking patterns so hierarchically complex that they necessarily implied a hidden designer. The master text in this respect was abbé Pluche’s Spectacle of Nature (1732–50), a pedagogic compendium framed as a polite conversation about nature’s wonders, which went into dozens of editions, selling more than 20,000 copies. The cult of nature as ‘sugar-coated spectacle’61 was further boosted by Rousseau’s writings from the late 1750s onwards: the critic of cities, courts, commerce and civilization only felt at home in settings as far removed from their corrupting influence as possible.

Jean-Jacques thus helped engender vigorous enthusiasm for pastoral settings and mountain scenery where the corrupting hand of humankind was less apparent. After 1750, moreover, a growing sense among natural philosophers that Nature was not just pre-assembled passive matter but also an energizing force in its own right which was determining as well as determined placed pressure on the Newtonian-Voltairean conception of the universe as finished artefact. Though Maupertuis, Buffon and others flirted with moving away from the fixity of species towards a more evolutionist position, the Great Chain of Being stayed in place, seeming testament to God’s master design. The master metaphor with which Nature was described, however, passed from the watch, an intricately mechanical artifact, to the natural organism, capable of growth and development. Nature, Buffon stated, was ‘a ceaselessly active worker, able to make use of everything’.62

‘Nature elevates the soul by way of the truths one discovers by contemplating it.’ This guileless sentiment, testament to the widespread attachment to natural history of the last half of the century, were the words of a middle-ranking factory inspector.63 Perhaps indeed, it needed a culture as thoroughly rooted in urban and commercial values as the Enlightenment to make a cult of nature, mingling intellectual curiosity with nostalgia for a world which many town-dwellers had lost or feared losing. Devotees of the cult often stayed at the level of contemplation and enjoyment of nature in all its forms – especially as prettified in the contrived pastoralism of artists like Boucher. Yet a striking feature of the cult of nature in the eighteenth century was the number of individuals who strove to enter the machine-room behind the unfolding spectacle (the metaphor was Pluche’s). Using a wide and varied set of methodologies, unified by a politeness of approach inculcated in salons and academies, they sought to survey, comprehend, collect and taxonomize nature’s epiphenomena. Underlying these activities was a touching Enlightenment faith in the social utility of their activities. When Réaumur spent long evenings motionless in the dewy grass of his garden spying on the nocturnal perambulations of caterpillars, he nurtured a belief that there might well be industrial products (lacquers, dyes, etc.) which could result from a better knowledge of that world. Bazin’s erudite and semi-anthropomorphic studies of bees were guided by a determination that advanced apiary could stimulate the national economy. Physicians throughout France checked their barometers and thermometers and tirelessly visited hospitals and the homes of the poor to record patterns of morbidity, mortality and meteorology, out of a firm sense that a healthier world would be a happier place. In Buffon’s Burgundian château, badgers warmed their toes by his hearth and hedgehogs defecated in his cooking pots, for the great naturalist’s efforts to comprehend the mores of the animal realm involved building up a menagerie of creatures, to whom he gave the run of his premises. He combined his natural history with experimentation in a whole range of utilitarian fields, including animal husbandry, chemistry and electricity, which he hoped would further enrich him and boost national production.

Front-line naturalists were important not only for what they did but also for allowing others to experience nature vicariously. A veritable passion for collection was combined with moves to present inventorized and contextualized works of nature for the visual delectation of a large public of amateurs. Academies, public institutions and private individuals all took a part in this. The Jardin du Roi in Paris under Buffon’s stewardship from 1739 to 1788, for example, became a showcase for exotic naturalia. The private residence in Paris of the Languedocian financier Bonnier de la Mosson was in all essentials a museum in which visitors could wander, contemplating in turn a chemistry laboratory, a pharmacy, a collection of precision tools, a cornucopia of stuffed and pickled animals, and one of the finest collections of mechanical objects in Europe. Despite the frequent bric-à-brac dimension to such collections, these theatres of nature invited an appreciation of nature rather different from the Renaissance Wunderkammer which had preceded them. Whereas the latter had foregrounded the freak, the prodigious and the monstrous, the Enlightenment cabinet stressed the order and regularity of nature, and sought rational systems of classification for presenting them (taxonomy being the invariable reflex of Enlightenment science, as Michel Foucault noted).64 By a similar logic, Buffon devoted only three pages in the forty-odd volumes of his great Natural History to monsters. Science’s laws were more impressive in their performance than in their transgression.

New technologies were available – and were further developed – to encourage and enthuse this multiform wave of polite science. The superior glass-manufacture for which the French were famed supplied better telescopes for the study of the superlunary and better microscopes for the sublunary worlds (to use an Aristotelian language which was fast becoming démodé). For every savant lovingly devoted to his or her science, there were a score of amateur naturalists doing their bit for the glorification, the progressive revelation and the use-value of the natural world. A useful role-model in this respect was Tremblay, whose minute observation of pond-life hydra revealed a baroque sex-life which called into question the most fundamental views of reproduction: one could espy secrets of the Creator in one’s own back-yard. Besides entomology, the measurement of climate, astronomical observation and the study of rocks also became voguish pursuits, but all were surpassed, as domains of this kind of domestic scientific observationism, by botany. Shorn of its earlier medicinal orientation, the discipline developed cult status, which was further validated by Rousseau’s Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (‘Reveries of the Solitary Walker’) (1782), in which Jean-Jacques depicted himself wandering contentedly through the countryside, in his hand a magnifying glass and, under his arm, a copy of Linnaeus (the Swedish naturalist whose system of plant classification achieved canonical status).

Alongside the natural history cabinet, the garden was a further example of a site in which public tastes for science and nature were satisfied. The regimented gardens of Versailles, in whose stern geometry Louis XIV had taken such a strong personal interest, no longer provided the model to emulate. The more naturalistic English garden, along lines popularized outre-Manche by William Kent and ‘Capability’ Brown, provided a more appropriate setting in which to indulge a taste for the force of nature (rather than nature under human force, as at Versailles). Gardens in the maisons de campagne which much of the urban elite were building were also ordered in such a way, with serpentine lines, lakes, follies, bosks and the like. They inspired and projected the emotions (even a fashionably gothic melancholia) in the same way that unspoiled landscape did for anyone who had read Rousseau. Gardens were almost didactic in their orientation, providing a site in which the individual could commune with nature, perhaps intuit the hand of God, and through exploration of the palette of emotions seek out the parameters of his or her selfhood.

Engineering technology also played a big part in this new appreciation of the intricacies and wonders of the natural world and the concomitant quest for ‘natural’ selfhood. Better, faster roads, along with modernized public transport and the development of a burgeoning hospitality industry, made it possible for the town-dweller to indulge a taste for the wild ‘natural’ scenery which was so much to Rousseau’s taste. Classical civilization had abhorred the vacuum of wildernesses, deserts and mountains, but with a little push from Jean-Jacques, such denuded sites now came into their own. No collector could put an Alp in his cabinet; but the new tourist infrastructure allowed mountains to be visited and explored, in some comfort and style, and with a groaning bookshelf of guidebooks in tow. It was a gesture highly characteristic of the age that, when the adventurous naturalist de Saussure achieved the first ascent of Mont-Blanc in 1787, rather than admire the view he rushed through a sequence of thermometrical and barometrical readings, took the pulse of his companions, and built a fire to check on the boiling point of water. And when he descended, taking rock samples as he went, he wrote up his experiences as a scientific best-seller.

Probably the most critical technology in diffusing and popularizing the taste for nature in the eighteenth century remained the printing press. If for every philosophe savant there were twenty amateur naturalists, for every amateur naturalist there were scores of readers who consumed ‘the life sciences’ (to use an anachronistic but helpful term) at one remove. Massive editions of often lavishly illustrated works of natural history – Pluche, Buffon, Réaumur (on insects), the chevalier de Lamarck and the Lorraine naturalist Buc’hoz (on flora) – invariably financed through the subscription method pioneered by the Encyclopédie, were enormously popular. So too were dozens of humbler works, often in small format to allow carrying when out walking. Science books and novels were the most important genres in private libraries by the 1780s, with theology – the core of most seventeenth-century collections – well down the list. Science periodicals also began to blossom: the ending of the Jesuits’ famous Journal de Trévoux in 1767 left the field wide open for the development of a specialist science sector. The general press took up the baton too: the Journal de Paris, for example, regularly reported on the flowering of exotic specimens in the Jardin du Roi. Pastoral poetry (of an often excruciatingly awful quality), novels set in rural locations, historico-geographical accounts of provinces and natural phenomena, guide-books of every description and aimed at every pocket, supplemented by engravings which carried the naturalistic landscapes of Vernet and Hubert Robert beyond the walls of the art collector, provided further elements within this highly buoyant market.

The commodification of nature through the book trade highlighted the role of commercial capitalism in fuelling the taste for the picturesque and developing a wide audience for the life sciences. The capitalistic element within such public science caused some anxiety in a world of polite inquiry which saw itself as peopled by gentlemen scientists. Though they themselves benefited enormously from the development of cultural markets, scientists and their patrons resisted entrepreneurial attempts to play too flagrantly to popular taste. The role of the academies, the scientific academician Fontenelle held, was as much to ‘disabuse the public of false marvels as to report on true ones’.65 There was particular concern over cases in which the diffusion of science had a performative element. Enlightenment scientific heroes – from Boyle and Newton through to Lavoisier and Priestley – inspired the public demonstration of science. Provincial academies, salons and private individuals proved eager to stage such events. Yet it was thought that the frontier between practical instruction and popular entertainment needed careful policing. A limiting case was the physicist abbé Nollet, who claimed to be gratifying ‘the most reasoned curiosity’ of his public, and who spoke out harshly against any ‘spectacle of pure amusement’66 – yet who laid on highly theatrical demonstrations of electricity in which circles of soldiers, then 300 monks, were simultaneously propelled vertically into the air by an electric shock. Nollet retained the necessary gentlemanly politeness, however, whereas many who followed his lead were essentially businessmen seeking profits. Beneath the thinnest of scientific veneers and the most implausible claims of social utility, scientific entrepreneurs offered sheer escapist entertainment at a price. Paris and other major cities swarmed with anatomical freakshows, talking horses, magical tricks, illusionary stunts, magic lantern performances and the like, which irked and embarrassed polite science – but attested to the vitality of the taste for science outside the social elite.

The bitterest such dispute occurred over the public demonstration in Paris in the early 1780s of the putatively scientific doctrine of animal magnetism espoused by the Viennese physician Franz-Anton Mesmer. Mesmer had a great deal going for him – an orthodox medical pedigree, a stress on ‘natural’ cures, exotic scientific apparatus, humanitarian and utilitarian justifications – but the movement he promoted signally failed to live up to expected standards of gentlemanly politeness. A government commission stuffed with the most celebrated scientists of the age (including chemist Lavoisier, astronomer Bailly and physicist Benjamin Franklin) roundly condemned Mesmer and all his works. He was accused of keeping his craft as an arcane secret beyond public scrutiny by fellow scientists; of bamboozling money out of the gullible sick; and of producing, through the bodily stroking which the treatment involved, orgasmic states in female patients (thought rather ungentlemanly behaviour). Yet the strength of the support his movement attracted – including from within the medical and scientific establishments – highlighted the fragility of the philosophe claim that the age of Enlightenment was tolling the death-knell of public credulity. Mesmer’s emphasis on his therapy as ‘natural’ showed that nature was still open to widely varying interpretation, while also demonstrating – in the eyes of his critics – that the public sphere could nourish rather than extinguish the age of wonder and miracles.

Rousseau’s influential writings of course had been based on a wholesale rejection of urban and commercial values. Whereas the philosophes stressed the role of towns in civilization’s progress, for Rousseau, ‘towns are the abyss of the human race’, while Paris,philosophe city of enlightenment, was nothing but ‘noise, smoke and mud’.67 Yet even he, after decades of hermetic living and wanderings in rural locations, returned to live for the last eight years of his life in the human goldfish bowl that was Paris. Transgressing his own rule that his nature was ‘to write and [then] hide’,68 he strolled the streets clad ‘naturally’ (and oh!-so-anonymously) in eye-catching Armenian dress. His quondam disciple Mercier offered an even more characteristic ‘enlightened’ response: he recorded how in his youth, inflamed by Rousseau’s writings, he had set out to live in the state of nature in the wildest forests – only to find that such a life was dull and boring, and to return forthwith to Paris.69 Most writers would cheerfully have subscribed to the abbé Galiani’s view that he would rather be a pumpkin or a cucumber than renounce the pleasure of living in Paris.70

In spite of the anti-urban rhetoric which clothed it, commercially marketed changes in urban taste played a key role in the popularization of nature through science. The exotic plants and shrubs in domestic gardens – Bougainville’s bougainvillea is an apt example – were silent testimony to the outreach of French colonial and commercial power. The coffee served in coffee-houses, as well as the tea and chocolate consumed in salons and academies, had been turned into everyday beverages by the transforming power of the market. The ‘natural’ wonders (waterfalls, lakes, mini-Alps, follies, ruins, etc.) within Enlightenment gardens were created using engineering and hydraulic technology developed by the Ponts et Chaussées officials. Those high priestesses of fashion – Madame de Pompadour and Louis XVI’s queen, Marie-Antoinette – both designed ‘naturalistic’ English-style gardens within the Versailles enclosure, with Marie-Antoinette developing an arcadian little hamlet close to the château in which she played the role of shepherdess and milkmaid, and spawned a whole à la bergère fashion trend. Nature in the age of Enlightenment was thus far more comfortable with the values and practices of commercial capitalism than its Rousseauist rhetoric implied. The Great Chain of Being was underpinned by a Great Chain of Buying and Selling which commodified Nature for a growing middle-class and elite audience, and thereby helped re-enchant an increasingly disenchanted world.

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