Under examination here is the early modern period in France from Louis XIV to the French Revolution when kings ruled absolutely and citizens were without sovereignty. Discarding the traditional image of the Enlightenment as the absolute enemy of absolutism, Gordon, in this sense, follows Norbert Elias and Robert Darnton who treat the Enlightenment as part of an elitist and hierarchical establishment. More specifically, as his subtitle indicates, Gordon portrays the invention of a “nonpolitical polis” (p. 6), an ideological social space where, despite political inequality, citizens could practice social equality in a hierarchical régime. The rise of this “nondemocratic egalitarian ethos” (p. 7) brought with it a new cult of sociabilité, a term invented in the eighteenth century to describe the idealization of the private sphere and the practice of social equality.
The first chapter, then, ties sociability not to democracy, as in the Habermasian model, but to the absolutism that stimulated it and coexisted with it. A series of five ideal types of sociability depict how men and women, members of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, came together—in commerce, public welfare, scientific academies, salons, cafés, public libraries, and various other social situations not protorevolutionary in character—to create a bond among equals [End Page 279] under the ancien régime. In this framework, progress and modernity are born during the absolute monarchy where sociability suggests conviviality rather than class warfare. Every major French novel of the eighteenth century supports Gordon’s refutation of De Toqueville’s surprising statement that “noblemen and bourgeois never met except by chance in private life “in prerevolutionary France” (p. 27).
In chapters two and three, Gordon examines the nature of the rules of sociability found in courtesy literature and their functioning as the imagined basis of the newly invented idealized space called société. In addition to analyzing in great detail the nature and frequency of the vocabulary invented to define and describe sociabilité, Gordon discusses sociabilité in the context of natural law theory in Hobbes, Bossuet, and among others, Pufendorf, who wanted to refute Hobbes by showing that self-interest leads humans to establish stable social relations even before government orders them to do so. Holbach surfaces here too for having amalgamated the older language of politeness and the newer language of natural law. In Holbach, as in the Encyclopédie, sociability, based on egalitarian premises of natural law, is nonetheless fully compatible with the hierarchical regime. Among other things, this shows clearly that the philosophes never preached the French Revolution. Striving to eliminate the abuses of despotism and establish equality in private life was not tantamount to working for political equality and the abolition of all rank. In this same vein, Gordon paints the apolitical essence of the private sphere and, by a rigorous study of the seventeenth-century manuals of polite living, shows convincingly (this time against Elias who saw the court as a model of refined behavior) that the salon was indeed a world unto itself, independent of preexisting social hierarchies. Rejecting Paul Hazard’s conception of absolute rupture between seventeenth-century culture and eighteenth-century thought, Gordon destroys the facile dichotomy between seventeenth-century hierarchy and eighteenth-century equality and, once again, admirably depicts the compatibility of Enlightenment and absolutism.
If chapters one to three underscore a certain continuity between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, chapters four and five explain important changes. It is not, for example, the mere preservation of the idea of sociable communication but rather its new use that is germane in understanding the Enlightenment. Now “conversation” and “civility” no longer had meaning only for an urban elite but had in fact become ideals in all philosophical endeavors including the writing of universal history. Sociable communication had become the defining characteristic of modern nations. In the fourth chapter, by analyzing in detail the works of Jean-Baptiste Suard, Gordon demonstrates the meaning that the writing of universal history in Scotland acquired within the French absolute monarchy. Suard’s readings of Adam Smith and David Hume...