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François Poulain de la Barre and the Invention of Modern Equality Siep Stuurman harvard university press Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England 2004 Copyright 2004 by the President and Fellows of Harvard

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François Poulain de la Barre and the Invention of Modern Equality Siep Stuurman harvard university press Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England 2004 Copyright 2004 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College All rights reserved Printed in the United States of America Harvard University Press gratefully acknowledges a grant in support of the publication of this book by the Trust Fund of Erasmus University, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Stuurman, Siep. François Poulain de la Barre and the invention of modern equality / Siep Stuurman. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN Equality. 2. Feminist theory. 3. Poulain de la Barre, François, Enlightenment. I. Title. HM821.S dc Contents Preface Notes on Spelling vii xi Introduction: Origins of the Enlightenment 1 1. The Making of a Philosopher The Feminist Impulse Cartesian Equality The Power of Education Reason and Authority Anthropology and History The Road to Geneva Rational Christianity 245 Conclusion: Inventing the Enlightenment 272 Acknowledgments 301 Notes 305 Index 355 Preface How can I help you? The old priest regards me with a friendly but faintly curious gaze. I am standing in front of the vicarage of La Flamengrie, the small village in northern France where François Poulain de la Barre spent five years as a village priest, after he published the feminist books for which he is known today, and before he converted to Calvinism and fled to Geneva. Today La Flamengrie is a very average village on Route Nationale 2 to Belgium. It is raining. The place looks somber and desolate. So this is where poor Poulain ended up, I cannot help thinking; this is where the radical Cartesian and egalitarian feminist had to adapt to the routines of village life, far from Paris, sadly musing on the unfulfilled dreams of an intellectual career. This is where he was an involuntary participant in the final drama of French religious politics under Louis XIV: the increasing harassment of the Protestants, culminating in the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Poulain the Parisian feminist author had pleaded for tolerance; Poulain the village priest found himself a member of an organization practicing persecution on a huge scale. To my amazement the old priest knows whom I am talking about. Ah yes, he says, the one who was here in the seventeenth century; that man who wrote about the education of girls. But to my question about surviving documents he replies with a bitter laugh: Here, there vii viii Preface is nothing left. This is a land of war: here, everything has been devastated, burnt, sacked, and pillaged. Look at this house. It was built in the second year of the eighteenth century, but the front looks much newer; that s because it was blown to pieces by cannon fire in the Great War. No, here you will find nothing. I must admit that he is right. La Flamengrie is in the present-day Département de l Aisne. From where we are standing, it is thirty miles to Saint Quentin, where the Spaniards smashed the French army in 1557, and forty miles to the Somme, where a million men fell in This has indeed been a land of war from the Middle Ages into the twentieth century. Unfortunately for me, this is also the place where Poulain may have left his unfinished work. When he returned to Paris and from there emigrated to Geneva, in 1688, he was a defected Catholic priest. As a fugitive he had to travel light, and he must have left behind most of his belongings. In the archives of the Genevan Republic, where Poulain ended his days, only a few personal documents remain. Nor are there any in Paris or in the departmental archives of the Aisne. La Flamengrie was my last hope. As a result, we know almost nothing about Poulain s personal life. We do not even know what he looked like. Thanks to the studies of Marie-Louise Stock and Madeleine Alcover we know the external facts of his life and career. 1 I have been able to add some data and some context to their account, but this does not alter the fact that most of what we know about Poulain s motives and ideas has to be inferred from his published writings: the three Cartesian-feminist treatises he published in Paris in , the little book on the French language published in Geneva in 1691, and finally a voluminous work on biblical criticism that came out in Geneva in 1720, three years before he died. It is entirely as a result of those writings that Poulain is still known and studied today. Currently, his Cartesian egalitarian social philosophy is generally considered a landmark in the history of feminism. In this book I will show that it is also a landmark in another history: the making, or the invention as I like to call it, of the Enlightenment. In Poulain, feminism and the new philosophy of modernity are for the first time brought together in a systematic argument, and the result is the first recognizably Enlightenment social philosophy. This becomes clear when we look beyond feminism and Cartesianism, the two most conspicuous contexts of Poulain s thought, to other contexts: authority Preface ix and natural law, theories of education, anthropology, and history, and finally religion and theology. As Poulain himself observed: The question of the equality of the sexes is vast, important, and curious, and serves to decide several other curious questions, notably in Morality, Jurisprudence, Theology, and Politics, which one cannot discuss freely in a book. 2 The importance of Poulain s thought as a window on the intellectual world of the early Enlightenment has not been sufficiently recognized. The combination of Cartesianism and feminism in his work reveals a radically egalitarian potential of Cartesian thought that is underestimated or simply ignored in most studies of Descartes s philosophy. By situating Poulain in his intellectual context, I will show that he was not the isolated forerunner of later ages he is often taken for. Poulain was a product of his time, and must be studied as such. If his ideas seem at first sight marginal, it is because they explore the limits of the thinkable in late seventeenth-century Europe. It is my contention that the connections between feminism, Cartesianism, and the emergence of the intellectual matrix of the early Enlightenment, exemplified by Poulain s thought, as well as by his remarkable personal trajectory, deserve more attention than they have thus far received. That is one reason I have written this book. Another one is my personal fascination with Poulain. When I first came across his writings, I was astonished to find such radically egalitarian ideas expressed in the seventeenth century. Poulain, I then thought, was an outstanding, isolated case: important to us but marginal to his age. By now I have come to understand that the role of socalled minor thinkers in the history of European thought is perhaps not minor at all. Feminist voices, as well as those of other subaltern speakers, are now being recovered on a large scale. We should, I think, look for connections between the egalitarian arguments advanced in different social, political, and intellectual contexts. The questioning of the hierarchy of gender cannot be isolated from other concerns. It is frequently connected to a critique of other forms of inequality and dependency. It is no accident that Poulain s egalitarian argument, though centered on gender, also touches on class and race. The interrelation of those concerns is no twentieth-century invention it is right there, in the early-modern sources. And it is there that we must study it to gauge its historical meaning and its significance for today s world. x Preface Ultimately, the inclusion of the subaltern voices must lead, I am convinced, to a review of the traditional canon of intellectual history. 3 Currently Poulain s feminist writings are fairly well known to feminists and students of women s history. However, in the feminist historiography Poulain s place in the story of the origins of the Enlightenment has not been investigated in depth. 4 Reprints and translations of several of his writings are now available in French, English, Italian, German, Catalan, and Spanish. Before the 1960s, however, very little was known, and, perhaps significantly, Marie-Louise Stock s (1961) and Bernard Magné s (1964) dissertations were never published. 5 Outside the field of women s history Poulain is still almost completely unknown. It has struck me during the years I have been working on this book that most of my male colleagues had never heard of him. And those who happened to know Poulain s name had not read his work. Among other things, this book seeks to convince them that they should. To the village priest of La Flamengrie my interest in Poulain appeared somewhat outlandish. First he wanted to know whether I was a Belgian (a polite French way of saying that one s French is tolerable but not quite the real thing). When I told him that I came from the Netherlands he asked me to explain why a Dutchman, of all people, should be interested in Poulain or, for that matter, in what the French had written about the education of women in the seventeenth century. Was there perhaps some special Dutch craving for knowledge about this particular aspect of French history? I answered that I was writing my book in English and intended to publish it in America. This left him open-mouthed: Même en Amérique il y a donc des gens qui s intéressent à ce Poulain? He had just told me that he was over eighty, so I replied that the interests of historians had changed considerably over the past half-century. That answer seemed to satisfy him. His expression changed from puzzlement to reflection; yes, he seemed to think, things change a lot during a lifetime, so why not the writing of history? We shook hands and parted company in good spirits. I left my card, just in case he might hit upon some documents. Thus far, he has not. Notes on Spelling Poulain is frequently spelled Poullain. Both spellings are correct. Poulain himself uses both. I have opted for the simplest. French spellings and accents (or their lack) are as they appear in the original texts, reflecting the usages of different authors. Seventeenthcentury authors (or their printers) do not always place accents where they are used today. Introduction: Origins of the Enlightenment Popular views hold that Turks, barbarians, and savages are less adept at [learning] than Europeans. Nevertheless, should five or six of them turn up with this ability, or with a doctorate, which is not impossible, this opinion would definitely be corrected, and we would concede that these peoples are human beings like us, with the same abilities, and that, if educated, they could equal us in any respect. François Poulain de la Barre, 1673 paul hazard s thesis, formulated more than sixty years ago, that the Enlightenment originated in a crisis of the European mind in the late seventeenth century has been largely confirmed by the historiography of the past decades. Precise periodizations vary, but most historians now agree that the essential components of Enlightenment thought were introduced between 1650 and Besides the outstanding protagonists of this intellectual revolution, such as Descartes, Gassendi, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Fontenelle, Toland, and Bayle, to name only a few of the most prominent, numerous minor authors have by now found a secure place in the historiography of the origins of the Enlightenment. Yet the picture is by no means complete. One of the most remarkable absences from the historiography of the early Enlightenment is the former Sorbonne student of theology François Poulain de la Barre, who formulated a Cartesian, feminist, and radically egalitarian social philosophy in the early 1670s. Poulain s work fits so well into the crisis of the European mind that he could almost have been invented by Hazard. Beginning with De l égalité des deux sexes, in 1673, Poulain published three treatises on the equality of women and men that are, in all probability, the most radically egalitarian texts published in Europe before the French Revolution. According to Poulain, virtually all the differences between the sexes, just like all other forms of human dependency, are caused by chance, power, and 1 2 Introduction custom and have no foundation in nature. Starting from Descartes s philosophy, he reworks earlier feminist arguments into a general critique of prejudice and custom, presenting an environmentalist social psychology and pedagogy. Taken together, Poulain s writings from the 1670s contain what may arguably be called the first formulation of an Enlightenment social philosophy. Not only their content, but also their language and rhetoric are suffused with the esprit de critique that Hazard considered the hallmark of Enlightenment thought. However, by putting an uncompromising feminism at the heart of his philosophical project, Poulain also disrupts Hazard s classical narrative, for the female voice and the issue of gender are entirely absent from Hazard s Enlightenment. Poulain s Enlightenment, by contrast, is constituted by the dialectic of feminism and Cartesianism, fueled by a deep-seated aversion to oppression and intolerance, which ultimately derived from his youthful experience as a theology student at the Sorbonne. Beyond that, Poulain s social philosophy is the result of a creative combination of existing discourses. Apart from Cartesianism and feminism, he draws on modern natural law, cultural relativism, the new natural science, early anthropology, the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, and, last but not least, biblical criticism. Virtually no single part of his philosophy is entirely original, but the combination of those parts into a coherent and forceful theoretical argument certainly is. Equality, grounded on the autonomy of reason and the similarity of all human bodies as Cartesian machines, is the key concept underpinning the entire theoretical edifice. Poulain is the first thinker in modern Europe to build his entire social philosophy on a universalist concept of equality. Today, however, Poulain is rarely mentioned outside the historiography of early-modern feminism. Histories of the Enlightenment at best mention him in passing, if at all. Even more striking is that he is also virtually absent from the historiography of Cartesianism, despite the fact he was the first thinker to turn Descartes s thought into a social philosophy. This absence may be due to the fact that at present we have no satisfactory history of French Cartesianism in the decades following the death of Descartes. These omissions are all the more questionable because the pivotal role of Cartesianism in the early Enlightenment has long been recognized, and has indeed been underlined by recent stud- Introduction 3 ies, notably by Jonathan Israel s brilliant study of the Radical Enlightenment. Israel mentions Poulain in a footnote on the emancipation of women, but he gives no attention to his social philosophy. 2 Neither does he notice Poulain s advocacy of unlimited toleration and his critique of the moral prescriptions of the Bible, which is extremely close to the position of Spinoza, the central figure of Israel s story. Like Spinoza, Poulain embarked on an intellectual journey into the uncharted lands of critical philosophy. A Radical and Feminist Enlightenment This book seeks to restore Poulain s thought to its rightful place in the Radical Enlightenment, which in Poulain s case, as distinct from Spinoza s, is also a Feminist Enlightenment. The following pages present a contextual reading of Poulain s writings, situating him in the intellectual history of the seventeenth century, showing how he fashioned his social philosophy out of the intellectual materials available to a former theology student in the early decades of the reign of Louis XIV. However, this study is not just about filling in a white spot on the map of the Enlightenment. Beyond the intrinsic interest of his ideas and his fascinating intellectual trajectory, I aim to show that the inclusion of Poulain makes a difference to the larger story of the Enlightenment. In this broader connection, I present three arguments: the first concerns the relationship between feminism and the Enlightenment, the second is about the significance of the Radical Enlightenment, and the third concerns the question of rational religion, or rational Christianity. In the first argument, I maintain that we must rethink the relationship between feminism and the Enlightenment. The presence of feminist voices within the Enlightenment is by now fairly well documented, but much of the dialectic of feminist and antifeminist arguments in the Enlightenment remains to be explored. To Poulain feminism is absolutely crucial: it is precisely the need to refute male supremacy that induces him to give Cartesianism a social turn. The feminist impulse is also at the root of his radically universalist concept of equality. My study of Poulain strongly suggests that we should ask not only what the Enlightenment contributed to feminism, but also what feminism contributed to the Enlightenment. As I address and critique the con- 4 Introduction tentions of feminist philosophers that the Enlightenment, or Cartesianism, is intrinsically masculinist and impervious to the female voice, I will argue that the historical record does not bear out such contentions. In the second argument, I maintain that the case of Poulain fits into the view, at present well established in the historiography, that right from the beginning there were powerful radical currents in Enlightenment thought. The term Radical Enlightenment was coined by Margaret Jacob in the early 1980s, and has recently been taken up by Jonathan Israel. 3 The radical currents do not constitute a single, coherent philosophy, but rather a vast array of arguments and ideas which have in common that they consciously transcend the boundaries of elite culture and politics as well as established religion. Beyond that, the radical thinkers pursue widely different intellectual agendas. In Poulain s case, a thorough and inclusive egalitarianism is the core idea. Apart from the critique of masculine supremacy, it contains a critique of aristocratic rank, a decidedly hard-nosed view of the origins of property and power, and an emphatic affirmation of the equality between Europeans and other nations and races. In Poulain s thought the Cartesian tenet of clear and distinct language becomes subversive for the elementary reason that the legitimacy of the traditional hierarchies of the social order could not be validated in clear and distinct terms. The analysis of Poulain s egalitarianism I present in this book is also intended to contribute to a rethinking of the history of the concept of equality. The history of equality provides a promising avenue for further exploration of the meaning and significance of the Radical Enlightenment, as well as a useful corrective to the historiography of political thought, which has traditionally been organized predominantly around the concept of liberty. 4 In the third argument, I show that Poulain s trajectory confirms the overriding significance of religion for all Enlightenment thinkers, radicals and nonradicals alike. Poulain began his life as a French Catholic and ended his days as a Genevan Calvinist, but his true religion was a rational Christianity of his own making. Poulain s religious development shows that a radical critique of established religion does not necessarily lead to atheism, and that some variety of rational Christianity or deism is probably the most common form of Enlightenment religion. Thirty years ago Peter Gay depicted the Enlightenment as a Introduction 5 modern paganism, directed against the Christian inheritance. 5 Today, however, the Enlightenment is no longer seen as predominantly anti-christ
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