When I was an undergraduate philosophy major in the 70s, there were no women in sight. The picture started to shift when I was in grad school at Northwestern, moonlighting from the French Department in a Leibniz seminar taught by Ken Seeskind. As the lone literature student in the seminar, I was uncertain about a paper topic. Ken suggested that I might want to look into Leibniz’s French reception, and that idea, of course, took me to Emilie Du Châtelet via W.H. Barber’s classic Leibniz in France. The paper ended up being more intellectual history than either philosophy or literature as such, but Du Châtelet was still on my mind when I started working on Enlightenment notions of systematicity in the mid-1990s. I dove back into the Institutions de physiques, even consulting the manuscript at the Bibliothèque nationale. Quick manuscript story: on my first attempt to call up the manuscript of the Institutions I provided the wrong call number, and was unexpectedly presented with the manuscript of Du Châtelet’s Newton translation instead. The cover sheet is the letter that she wrote to the abbé Sallier, the royal librarian, confiding her manuscript to him in the knowledge that she might well die from her impending childbirth—as she did. The letter has been published and is well known, but there was nevertheless an emotional weight to that hand-written document that I will not forget.
I returned to Du Châtelet when Judith Zinsser and I co-edited a volume marking the tercentenary of her birth; that volume was to have included a revised and updated version of W.H. Barber’s 1967 essay, “Madame Du Châtelet and Leibnizianism,” allowing me to pay off an intellectual debt. Unfortunately, Professor Barber’s ill health prevented him from being able to make the changes to the piece that he had hoped and he passed away as the project was coming together; although his article represents an older style of scholarship, Judith and I included it in the volume to honor Du Châtelet’s early champion.
Early modern women intellectuals have figured increasingly in my work. A book project on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century translation theory led me to a large number of women who came to writing through translation, then went on to history, fiction, science, and philosophy after their initial publications as translators. Pursuing those threads brought about two related, but distinct projects: a work-in-progress on women writers in the moralist tradition from Marie de Gournay to Germaine de Staël, including such figures as Madame de Sablé, Madame de Lambert, and Sophie de Grouchy, as well as a series of articles and a recently published translation of one of the most fascinating and understudied of the femmes moralistes, Marie-Geneviève-Charlotte Thiroux d’Arconville.
The writings of the moralistes, male and female, cover a broad spectrum of questions from ethics, moral philosophy, social psychology, and epistemology, in a philosophical conversation that looks back to Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, and Montaigne, and in the eighteenth century engages with more recent figures La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère. Their analysis of human behavior is often aligned with a profound skepticism regarding our ability to free ourselves from the unconscious motivations of self-interest and self-love or amour-propre; their tendency towards short, fragmentary forms such as the maxim or portrait offers an implicit critique of the philosophical treatise’s claim to completeness and closure.
Women intellectuals manifest an early affinity for the genre. Madame du Sablé’s neo-Augustinian or “Jansenist” salon is often remembered as the milieu in which La Rochefoucauld developed his disenchanted Maxims; her own posthumously published Maxims offer a less sharp-edged approach, but no less subtlety in the analysis of social interactions:
It is sometimes useful to feign being duped. For if we let a guileful man know that we see through his trickery, we give him a reason to increase it.
In the final decade of her life, Madeleine de Scudéry turns from the massive novels that had made her famous, and turns instead to writing philosophical dialogues. Her Conversations explore the complexities of emotions, of social life, and the difficulty of self-understanding. As one of the characters in “On the Knowledge of Others, and of Oneself” argues,
Against you are arrayed your own senses, your pleasures, your inclinations, your own temperament and amour-propre, which one cannot take too lightly; it is so well disguised that even though it occupies our entire heart and mind and is spread throughout our feelings, still we do not feel it, we have no knowledge of it, and we do not want to know it.
But even as women take up the classic topics of moralist writing, such as friendship, amour-propre, and the passions, they also bring new elements to a conversation spanning millennia. Writing women into the discussion can mean literally just that, as in Madame de Lambert’s New Reflexions on Women. Marriage, for example, is more often a subject of satire among the classical moralists; in the hands of women writers, it becomes a subject of serious inquiry as they explore both its emotional and social dimensions. Thus d’Arconville:
More husbands love their wives, than wives love their husbands. The reason lies, I believe, in humankind’s love of liberty. Women are dependent on their husbands, but husbands are not dependent on their wives. (“On Marriage,” Thoughts and Moral Reflections)
D’Arconville’s range is stunning: her published works include scientific and literary translations, original scientific research, moralist writing, fiction, and history. At her death, she left thousands of manuscript pages of essays and autobiographical texts. I translated her partly as a way to prevent her from completely dominating the work-in-progress, and also because translation proved amenable to the intermittent attention to scholarship allowed by university administration. I look forward to continuing to stitch together the voices of these women writers, some well-known and others less so, as they both reflect on an intellectual tradition and create new pathways.
Julie Candler Hayes is Professor of French and Dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her books include Translation, Subjectivity, and Culture in France and England, 1600-1800 and Writing the French Enlightenment: System and Subversion; she recently edited and translated Selected Philosophical, Scientific, and Autobiographical Writings of Marie-Geneviève-Charlotte Thiroux d’Arconville. When not thinking about strategic planning reports and budget requests, she is working on a study of French women writers in the moralist tradition.