The Republic of Letters : A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment  

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In 1994, Dena Goodman published The Republic of Letters : A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment. In this feminist work, she described the French Enlightenment not as a set of ideas but as a rhetoric. For her, it was essentially an open-minded discourse of discovery where like-minded intellectuals adopted a traditionally feminine mode of discussion to explore the great problems of life. Enlightenment discourse was purposeful gossip and indissolubly connected with the Parisian salons. As well, Goodman questions the degree to which the public sphere is necessarily masculine. Under the influence of Habermas's Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, she proposes an alternative division that defines women as belonging to an authentic public sphere of government critique through salons, Masonic lodges, academies, and the press.

Like the French monarchy, the Republic of Letters is a modern phenomenon with an ancient history. References to the Respublica literaria have been found as early as 1417. Nevertheless, the concept of the Republic of Letters emerged only in the early seventeenth-century and became widespread only at the end of that century. Paul Dibon, cited by Goodman, defines the Republic of Letters as it was conceived in the seventeenth-century as:

"An intellectual community transcending space and time, [but] recognizing as such differences in respect to the diversity of languages, sects, and countries...This state, ideal as it may be, is in no way utopian, but...takes form in [good] old human flesh where good and evil mix. "

According to Goodman, by the eighteenth century, the Republic of Letters was composed of French men and women, philosophes and salonnières, who worked together to attain the ends of philosophy, broadly conceived as the project of Enlightenment. In her opinion, the central discursive practices of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters were polite conversation and letter writing, and its defining social institution was the Parisian salon.

Goodman argues that, by the middle of the eighteenth-century, French men of letters used discourses of sociability to argue that France was the most civilized nation in the world because it was the most sociable and most polite. French men of letters saw themselves as the leaders of a project of Enlightenment that was both cultural and moral, if not political. By representing French culture as the leading edge of civilization, they identified the cause of humanity with their own national causes and saw themselves as at the same time French patriots and upstanding citizens of a cosmopolitan Republic of Letters. Voltaire, both a zealous champion of French culture and the leading citizen of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters, contributed more than anyone else to this self-representation of national identity.

Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the growth of the Republic of Letters paralleled that of the French monarchy. This history of the Republic of Letters is interwoven with that of the monarchy from its consolidation after the Wars of Religion until its downfall in the French Revolution. Dena Goodman finds this to be very important because this provides a history of the Republic of Letters, from its founding in the seventeenth century as an apolitical community of discourse through its transformation in the eighteenth century into a very political community whose project of Enlightenment challenged the monarchy from a new public space carved out of French society.



Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Republic of Letters : A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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