Enlightenment’s Errand Boy

David A. Bell

  • Calvet’s Web: Enlightenment and the Republic of Letters in 18th-Century France by L.W.B. Brockliss
    Oxford, 471 pp, £55.00, July 2002, ISBN 0 19 924748 X
  • The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon by Colin Jones
    Allen Lane, 651 pp, £25.00, August 2002, ISBN 0 7139 9039 2

The French Revolutionaries identified the Enlightenment as the work of a small, brave band of 18th-century philosophes, whom they rushed to entomb as heroes in the gloomy crypt of the Panthéon. In the corrupt and desolate wasteland of the Ancien Régime, the Revolutionaries proclaimed, the philosophes had cast welcoming rays of light and reason, stirring the dull roots of popular discontent. On the other side of the political spectrum, angry defenders of religious and political orthodoxy accepted this image, but in photo-negative: for them, the wasteland was a happy garden; the rays of light were menacing shadows; and the angelic philosophes were demons, casting Europe into perdition. Thus the fiery gospel of the abbé Barruel and Joseph de Maistre, to which reactionary Catholics and many others held fast throughout the 19th and much of the 20th centuries.

For two hundred years, these popular images of the Enlightenment have retained considerable force. Textbooks (including Colin Jones’s superb new one) have repeated them to new generations of readers, while literary historians such as Daniel Mornet have taken them for granted and proceeded to tell the story of the Enlightenment’s steady diffusion outwards from its Parisian source. In the 1960s, Peter Gay gave them new power in his brilliant extended essay The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. Gay recognised the international dimensions of the Enlightenment, and included Scots, English, Germans and Italians as well as French in what he called the ‘little flock of philosophes’. He recast it as a dialectic in which ‘modern paganism’ overcame Christianity and ushered in ‘the science of freedom’ – which he found best expressed in the American rather than the French Revolution. But at heart Gay’s Enlightenment remained the exploit of a handful of brave 18th-century souls.

Yet there have always been challenges to this view. Some critics have tried to expand the Enlightenment’s geographical and chronological boundaries. Others, more daringly, have denied its essential unity. J.G.A. Pocock, in his ongoing study of the intellectual worlds of Edward Gibbon, insists on the existence of multiple Enlightenments, some of them remarkably conservative, religious and devoted to erudition. The most radical critics of all have gone far in the other direction, subsuming the Enlightenment into even larger, sweeping historical shifts. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s notorious (and notoriously abstruse) Dialectic of Enlightenment traced ‘Enlightenment’ thinking back to the age of Homer. Foucault recast 18th-century Europe as the scene of a dramatic break in Western habits of thought, and darkly associated it with new, menacingly ubiquitous patterns of discipline and repression. Subsequent authors have often mistaken these radical critiques for attacks on the Enlightenment of convention, and proceeded to blame the Parisian philosophes for all the ills of modernity, crediting them with a repressive, even proto-totalitarian ‘Enlightenment Project’. This sort of thinking amounts to vulgar Postmodernism, and enjoys an alarming degree of popularity on American and British university campuses.

L.W.B. Brockliss is no Postmodernist, vulgar or otherwise, and his elegantly instructive study falls into older traditions of critique. Like the great early 20th-century historian Paul Hazard, Brockliss wants to push the boundaries of the Enlightenment beyond the ‘little flock of philosophes’, and in particular to identify it with the intellectual phenomenon known as the ‘Republic of Letters’ – an international network of correspondents born in the late 17th century and committed to unfettered critical inquiry. Hazard made this argument by showing that the founders of the Republic anticipated the philosophes in many of their lines of thought. As Diderot himself later acknowledged, ‘we had contemporaries during the age of Louis XIV’ (Jonathan Israel has recently restated this argument in a new form in Radical Enlightenment, focusing on the Netherlands and the circle of Spinoza). Brockliss takes a different tack. He wants to show, first, that the Republic of Letters survived into the late 18th century and, second, that its membership shared the principal concerns and beliefs of the narrower group of philosophes. ‘The Enlightenment,’ he concludes, ‘should be subsumed within the Republic of Letters and the philosophes treated as the citizens of a singular mini-Republic within a broader federation.’ In fact, Brockliss would like to get rid of the term ‘Enlightenment’ altogether.

It is a tempting suggestion, not least because of the way it would discomfit those who mutter so ominously about the ‘Enlightenment Project’. To make his case, Brockliss, rather than writing yet another sweeping survey, has chosen the path of microhistory, looking at the career of a single republican of letters about whom remarkably abundant information has survived: an Avignon doctor called Esprit Calvet. By illuminating the ideas of Calvet and his correspondents – ‘Calvet’s web’ – Brockliss hopes to ‘put some flesh’ on a period of European intellectual history usually observed from its commanding Parisian heights.

Brockliss himself acknowledges that Calvet’s flesh was not the sort that made anyone thrill at its touch, at the time or since. A doctor and teacher by profession, a collector and antiquarian by avocation, he lived a long, comfortable and mostly very dull life in his pleasant, comfortable and dull Provençal city (which remained a Papal enclave until its annexation by France during the Revolution). A confirmed bachelor, he kept regular hours, eschewed games and exercise, and read virtually no contemporary literature. Brockliss calls Calvet a ‘prig’, an ‘intellectual and moral snob’ and a ‘social climber’. At first sight, the most interesting thing about him was his apparently bizarre medical views. He treated patients with anal injections of sheep gut, warned that vaccination could cause cancer, and campaigned strenuously against the evils of coffee-drinking, which he held responsible for ‘emaciation, phthisis, sterility, impotence, paralysis and especially apoplexy and melancholy’. But, alas, in an era when some popular physicians treated patients by immersing them in tubs of iron filings to repair their magnetic orientation, Calvet’s medical opinions were actually quite conventional. His papers hint at illicit liaisons, and even an illegitimate child, but there is little indication that he placed much value on either sex or female companionship.

What Calvet did place value on was intellectual sociability, and it is here that his true interest lies. He had a close circle of friends in Avignon, with whom he gathered for serious conversation, and he maintained a regular correspondence with them and many others – in all no fewer than 350. Nearly all male, and drawn from the professions, the clergy and the nobility, their seriousness and stuffiness mostly matched Calvet’s own, and provided him with a cosy, convivial circle: the epistolary equivalent of a Victorian gentleman’s club. In his voluminous letters, he repeatedly lamented the hours not spent in his friends’ company owing to the regrettable necessity of earning a living. With these friends, he discussed his real passions: coins, Roman inscriptions, fossils and books.

Although he gained considerable expertise in each of these fields, Calvet never established any sort of true scholarly reputation. His sole, short publication, in a long life of scholarly curiosity, concerned the Roman guild of the Utricularii (river boatmen), whose activities he managed to illuminate through an analysis of a newly discovered inscription. If he stood out at all, it was in his dogged acquisitiveness. Over the course of his life he compiled one of the finest Roman coin collections in France, a library of more than five thousand volumes, and a smaller but still impressive number of fossils, some collected personally from Provençal hillsides. These became, after his death, the basis for a Musée Calvet which exists in Avignon to this day.

Drawing on the material from the museum, the correspondence and records of Calvet’s possessions, Brockliss has been able to draw up a remarkably full portrait of this mildly unattractive man. In fact, Brockliss takes us about as far into the head of an 18th-century French person as we are ever likely to get, even if in this particular case the trip is disappointingly uneventful. But what does it have to do with the Enlightenment?

According to Brockliss, a great deal. Conventional though Calvet may have been, his correspondence shows that he shared the outlook and principal goals of the philosophes. While he and his correspondents cared more immediately about antiquarianism and natural history, they nonetheless had a serious commitment to freedom of thought, religious toleration and unrestrained critical inquiry. They took broadly utilitarian views of social questions, and believed in the improvement of humanity. Moreover, their Republic of Letters itself stood as an exemplar of a key aspect of Enlightenment thinking: meritocracy. Within its ranks, Brockliss insists, bourgeois like Calvet could rub shoulders as equals with high-ranking nobles, and earn marks of distinction through scholarly achievement alone. ‘They may not have imagined the new France, but they had experienced it avant la lettre.’ They were not egalitarians, and had little but disdain for the common people and women – but then again, so did many of the philosophes (Voltaire warned sternly of the dangers of overeducating peasants).

Yet extrapolating from these similarities to the fundamental unity of the Enlightenment and Republic of Letters depends, it seems to me, on a misconception of the former. Had someone forced the leading philosophes to sit down together and draft a sober statement of principles, the resulting document might not have looked that different from one composed by the members of Calvet’s web. But the Paris Enlightenment was not an affair of sober statements of principle (nor could its members generally be persuaded to sit down with one another for more than a few minutes without squabbling). It produced very few significant philosophical treatises, and of those, some of the most prominent were deliberately shocking assertions of atheism that even today would earn banishment from the shelves of school libraries in many American states and fatwas in much of the Islamic world, if one or the other set of fundamentalists ever bothered to read them.

The great works of the French Enlightenment came rather, for the most part, in the form of fiction (Persian Letters, Candide, Julie), travel literature (The English Letters), dramatic dialogues (Rameau’s Nephew), child-rearing manuals (Emile), even pornography (such as Diderot’s The Indiscreet Jewels, whose title characters are talking vaginas). And when cast in more traditional forms, they placed a premium on three things to which Esprit Calvet had a positive aversion: wit, brevity and shock value. Colin Jones recalls one of Diderot’s classic pieces of provocation: in the Encyclopédie he edited with d’Alembert, after a learned and sober article on cannibalism (anthropophagie), comes the sly note: ‘See also: Holy Communion.’

These differences amounted to much more than simply a divergence in taste and style. Yes, both Calvet’s web and the philosophes believed in freedom of expression, but why? To express what? For Calvet’s circle, freedom of expression mostly meant allowing men like themselves to enquire eruditely into what they wished, and to publish the results. The matters in question could certainly stretch beyond coins, fossils and Roman inscriptions. The Republic of Letters first coalesced not around antiquarianism, but around the application of a critical gaze to traditional forms of superstition, prejudice and intolerance, and around the subjection of even sacred texts to critical analysis. Yet it remained mostly a genteel affair, and grew more genteel over time.

The Parisian philosophes, by contrast, felt they had a mission not merely to publish, but to publicise: to expose intolerance and injustice wherever they found it, and to the largest possible audience. They wanted not merely to express, but to enlighten. And even if Diderot and Voltaire knew how to bend their knees to kings and emperors on occasion, they both retained an impressive capacity for rudeness when the cause of enlightenment demanded it. The true God, Voltaire once wrote, ‘can surely neither be born of a virgin, nor die on the gallows, nor be eaten in a piece of dough, nor have inspired these books filled with contradictions, madness and horror.’ The Republic of Letters saw very few such utterances, even in its early, heroic days, when figures like Pierre Bayle ran real personal risks and published the daring newspaper Nouvelles de la République des Lettres.

IIs this contrast overdrawn? The French historian Daniel Roche has spent much of his productive career investigating the principal arena in which the Republic of Letters and the Enlightenment came together in France: the network of provincial academies where men like Calvet gathered to discuss ideas, hear lectures, take part in essay and poetry contests and sponsor projects for all manner of ‘improvements’ and charitable works. Roche makes clear that these academies were anything but revolutionary. They drew their membership from both the bourgeoisie and the privileged orders, and believed in prudent, consensual reform, not radical upheaval. Yet many of their members, unlike Calvet, had a real hunger for the new ideas emanating from Paris, as seen by the books they bought: Voltaire and the Encyclopédie, the atheist philosophy of the baron d’Holbach, the utopian fantasies of Louis-Sébastien Mercier. And, of course, it was the Academy of Dijon which launched the career of a previously obscure Genevan author and composer called Jean-Jacques Rousseau by awarding him their annual essay prize. There are probably provincial republicans of letters with whom Brockliss might have forged a stronger case for the unity of the Enlightenment and the Republic of Letters than Esprit Calvet.

Historians must use the sources available to them, however, and what Brockliss’s sources suggest is the large degree of separation between the Enlightenment and the Republic of Letters. For all that Calvet shared many of the philosophes’ ideas, he had little inclination for spreading them beyond his small circle of erudite correspondents, still less for engaging in deliberate and risky provocation. As Brockliss shows, he did drift away from the Catholic Church over the course of his life, as did many of his fellow Provençal bourgeois, but that was not the same thing as attacking the Christian God in the manner of Voltaire, or courting prosecution for publicising clerical abuses. Not for Calvet the large-scale recasting of human knowledge pioneered in the Encyclopédie. Not for him Rousseau’s cult of natural sentiment, still less Rousseau’s democratic politics. And while Calvet and his noble friends may have treated each other as equals in some circumstances, in others he was more than happy to serve as their errand boy (in one case, Brockliss reports, hiring servants for a noble bishop). During the Revolution, when many readers of the philosophes leapt at the chance to put their ideas into practice, a stunned Calvet concentrated on surviving. And while he was briefly arrested under the Terror, lost a great deal of money and had to serve several years as an army doctor, he lived to praise Bonaparte sycophantically as a ‘second Augustus’.

So should we, then, dispense with the term ‘the Enlightenment’? Brockliss points out that 18th-century French people themselves did not describe their age in this way (although they did write endlessly about ‘spreading enlightenment’). The term ‘Republic of Letters’, he writes, ‘would have made far more sense’ to them. True enough; but we do not insist on writing Aztec history in terms that would have made sense to the Aztecs, or Mongol history in terms accessible to Genghis Khan. The historian’s job is to interpret the past in terms that make sense to his or her own readers, and from this point of view, for all of Brockliss’s erudition and careful analysis, Esprit Calvet’s story does little to disprove the utility of the label.

Its utility is underscored by a reading of Colin Jones’s new survey of 18th-century France. Although Jones and Brockliss have worked closely in the past, co-writing the standard history of 18th-century French medicine, Jones takes a very different view of the Enlightenment from his colleague. In many respects it is the traditional view, in that his focus is squarely on the philosophes, and he underlines the extraordinary ambitions and provocations which set them apart from their predecessors in the Republic of Letters. If he offers something new, it is in his post-Marxist linkage of the Enlightenment to changes in France’s economy and social structure. Without in any way seeking to revive the ‘rising bourgeoisie’ of Marxist legend, which a generation of revisionist work has consigned to the historical rubbish pile, Jones stresses a series of changes that left France increasingly prosperous and increasingly dependent on the production and sale of consumer goods (in his words, ‘the Great Chain of Buying and Selling’). Cash increasingly counted for more, and social rank for less. In this changed social universe, Jones traces the rise of an ethos of ‘civic professionalism’ oriented around the themes of meritocratic promotion and public service, which both nurtured, and was nurtured in turn, by the philosophes.

Jones’s book has been needed for some time. The last comprehensive history of 18th-century France in English, covering both the Ancien Régime and the Revolution, appeared more than forty years ago, since when historians have changed their views on many aspects of the period. They have highlighted the surprising vigour of the pre-Revolutionary economy and political culture, explored the experiences of women and minorities, and raised disturbing questions about the unstable and repressive nature of Revolutionary politics as a whole. Jones covers all this material with aplomb and an easy wit, even if he sometimes strains rather too hard for the bon mot (he has Louis XV dodging a crowd ‘like a character from a Molière farce trying to dodge an enema’, calls the duchesse d’Orléans ‘a superannuated tomboy’, and labels Diderot the ‘product manager’ of the Encyclopédie). As one would expect from a medical historian, Jones is particularly good on death and lesser bodily complaints. His portrait of Louis XIV’s deathbed scene is a tour de force, as is his horrifying description of the Marseille plague of 1720 – the last significant outbreak of the Black Death on French soil. Along the way, he also provides such interesting details as the number of coffeepots in Paris in 1789 (one for every two households), the number of carts required by the prince de Conti to lug home his stock market profits during the 1720 bubble (three), and the fact that Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun caused a scandal in 1787 by painting herself with her mouth open, in defiance of artistic convention.

If the book has a weakness, it is that Jones has a hard time sustaining his interest in the more familiar aspects of the story. He deals brilliantly with the early 18th century, which has long suffered a dearth of serious historical attention, and with the subjects highlighted by recent research. But when he reaches the taking of the Bastille, he begs off with the excuse that the events feature in every ‘storybook history of France’ and ‘need little retelling’. My own experience teaching American undergraduates – including one who once referred to the French national holiday as ‘Saint Bastille’s Day’ and another who placed Lafayette at the Battle of the Somme – would suggest otherwise. The death of Robespierre, which Carlyle described so unforgettably (‘“he had on the sky-blue coat he had got made for the Feast of the Etre Suprême” – O Reader, can thy hard heart hold out against that?’) gets similarly summary treatment from Jones, in contrast to his fine pages on Louis XIV. Still, the book does capture the essential drama of this remarkable time and place, and the way the cataclysm of 1789 overturned so many ancient beliefs, ancient institutions and comfortable little worlds. ‘We were walking on a carpet of flowers; we did not see the abyss beneath,’ the comte de Ségur wrote in his memoirs. Esprit Calvet, although not given to such rhetorical flights of fancy, would doubtless have agreed.