- From Feminism To Biblical Criticism: The Theological Trajectory of François Poulain de la Barre
More Christians have perished by the hands of Christians than by the hands of the Heathen & Infidels.—François Poulain de la Barre, 1720.
Fifteen years ago, Richard Popkin observed that the application of the Cartesian standard of true philosophical knowledge to the study of the Bible was one of the major intellectual innovations of the late seventeenth century. Popkin’s chief examples were Spinoza, Isaac la Peyrière, and John Toland, as well as Catholic polemicists such as Richard Simon and Pierre Nicole, and liberal Calvinists like Jean Leclerc. 1 All these authors had their own, highly particular reasons to engage in a critical examination of Scripture. In this paper I will discuss yet another road to a critical theology, related to several of those just mentioned, but also quite distinct from them inasmuch as it was motivated in the first place by the attempt to refute the Scriptural objections to the equality of the sexes. The author in question, François Poulain de la Barre (Paris, 1647 - Geneva, 1723), was a former Sorbonne student of theology who had embraced Cartesianism. 2 What makes Poulain’s theological trajectory particularly intriguing is that he moved from Sorbonne theology to Cartesianism and egalitarian feminism, and then to Genevan Calvinism after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and finally to the brink of Deism.
Poulain’s feminism was part of a broader Cartesian social philosophy, in which he applied Descartes’s radical doubt to the social conventions of his age, argued that the mind, being noncorporeal, “has no sex,” and put to use the egalitarian elements in [End Page 367] Cartesian epistemology, as well as the notion of natural equality found in the discourse of Natural Jurisprudence, in order to subvert the legitimacy of social inequality. 3 His Cartesian-feminist treatises, published in the 1670s, are now fairly well-known, but his audacious theological opinions have received but scant attention, 4 perhaps because in his early books theology is not discussed as a separate subject. However, in 1720, toward the end of his life, Poulain devoted an entire book-length treatise to the interpretation of Scripture, which has to my knowledge never been discussed in the historiography of Biblical criticism.
A brief survey of Poulain’s life can throw some light on the sources of his theological interests. 5 As a schoolboy, he embarked on a church career and, in 1666, obtained a bachelor’s degree in theology at the Sorbonne. Shortly thereafter he left the university; this was not unusual because the great majority of the clergy did not pursue their university education beyond the bachelor’s degree. 6 Poulain, however, turned away from scholastic philosophy once and for all. He later complained that his education had left him with “empty names” instead of real knowledge, a complaint frequently made by dissatisfied university students in those days. We shall see, however, that he made good use of his theological knowledge during the rest of his life. In the next decade, Poulain published the three Cartesian-feminist treatises referred to above, which are generally judged the most radical and egalitarian published in Europe before the eighteenth century: De l’Égalité des deux Sexes (1673), De l’Éducation des Dames (1674), and De l’Excellence des Hommes (1675), a mock refutation of himself, followed by a firm rebuttal of his own “refutation.” 7 For all we know, Poulain was not able to make a living as an author, even though his books were reissued several times. 8 In February 1679, he acceded to the priesthood and shortly thereafter he left Paris to become a village priest in northern France. Poulain’s decision to take holy orders can hardly be explained in terms of his previous intellectual trajectory. Nor does his move from Paris to a remote village appear as a logical or desirable one for an enterprising intellectual such as Poulain, except for the bare necessity to make a living. 9
From 1680 to 1688, Poulain served as a village priest. In 1688 he left his last charge, in the tiny hamlet of Versigny...