Republic of Letters  

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Republic of Letters (Respublica literaria) is most commonly used to define intellectual communities in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century in Europe and America. It is mostly accepted that the Republic of Letters emerged in the seventeenth century as a self-proclaimed community of scholars and literary figures that stretched across national boundaries but respected differences in language and culture. These communities that transcended national boundaries formed the basis of a metaphysical Republic. Because of societal constraints on women, the Republic of Letters consisted mostly of men. As such, many scholars interchangeably use ‘Republic of Letters’ with ‘men of letters’.

As is evident from the term, the circulation of letters was necessary for its function because it enabled intellectuals to correspond with each other from great distances. All citizens of the seventeenth century Republic of Letters corresponded by letters and they considered it their duty to bring others into the Republic through the expansion of correspondence.

The origin of this term remains controversial. The term first appeared in its Latin form in the fifteenth century and was used increasingly in the sixteenth and seventeenth, so that by the end of that century it featured in the titles of several important journals. Currently, the consensus is that Pierre Bayle first translated the term in his journal Nouvelles de la République des Lettres in 1684. But there are some historians who disagree and some have gone so far as to say that its origin dates back to Plato's Republic. Part of the difficulty in determining its origin is that unlike an academy or literary society, it existed only in the minds of its members.

Historians are presently debating the importance of the Republic of Letters in influencing the Enlightenment. Today, most Anglo-American historians, whatever their point of entry to debate, occupy a common ground: the Republic of Letters and the Enlightenment were distinct.

See also

republic, letters, intellectual

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