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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.2 (2002) 239-246

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Forum: Biology, Sexuality, and Morality in Eighteenth-Century France

Sex, Procreation, and the Scholarly Life from Tissot to Balzac

Anne C. Vila

The French Enlightenment was an era that prided itself on its great thoughts and thinkersBor, at least, on its ability to appreciate the great thinkers of the past and determine how to produce more in the future. Yet it was also a time when study and reflection were tinged with darker undertones: although the meditative, poetic temperament was not yet tied to madness and degeneracy (as it would become in the following century), it nonetheless marked those who possessed it as anomalous, different from ordinary people in a moral, social, and physical sense. 1 Intellectuals have, of course, long been seen as a peculiar breed, at least since Aristotle depicted them as suffering from "black bile" or constitutional melancholy in his famous Problem XXX. 2 The cultural climate of eighteenth-century France would not, at first blush, seem very compatible with the melancholic, abstemious image of scholarly life that predominated from antiquity to the early modern period: the Enlightenment philosophe may (like Voltaire) have retained the lean and hungry look of the Socratic ideal, but he generally strove to be seen as a sociable fellow eager to contribute to civic concerns. 3 Writers from Fontenelle to Condorcet took pains to promote this more convivial image of the philosophe: one reads in the Encyclopédie, for example, that the real philosophe is the very opposite of the surly old Stoic sage, being instead a public-spirited, virtuous, and pleasure-loving "honnête homme" with a deep reverence for civil society. 4 This effort to recast the intellectual as the personification of sociability was not, however, entirely successful. Scholars were just as often depicted as social misfits, freaks of nature, or hypochondriacal invalids, and the scholarly life caused misgivings among physicians, scientific investigators, and moralists alike.

This might seem paradoxical, given that the eighteenth century is generally considered a golden age for the intelligentsia, a time when scholars from all branches of learning saw themselves as belonging to an elite meritocracy they called the "Republic of Letters." One of the most succinct descriptions of that republic is found in the Encyclopédie article "Gens de lettres," where Voltaire glorified the culture of the mind while also endeavoring to safeguard it from contamination, whether by frivolous mondains who merely dabbled in study, the hacks who wrote for the popular gazettes of the day, or what d'Alembert labeled elsewhere as the menacing horde of "literary lampooners." 5 Invasion by authors unworthy of the name was not, however, the only threat that faced the Enlightenment republic of letters. Rather, intellectuals were also seen as suffering from what one historian has dubbed an "Abelard complex": that is, an unnatural state of celibacy that resulted from their neglect of social commerce, on the one hand, and their excessive ardor for learning, on the other. 6 In other words, the hardcore [End Page 239] scholar was often construed as unsexed, a being who was either unwilling or unable to perform what many social theorists saw as the individual's most fundamental duty to the human race: healthy reproduction.

The perceived conflict between thinking and procreation often focused on women, particularly after physicians like Pierre Roussel began to insist in the 1770s that the female constitution was altogether unsuited for intense study. 7 By the end of the century, women intellectuals were widely viewed as both socially and sexually dysfunctional, even by authors who espoused such egalitarian ideas as the malleability of human nature and the mind's capacity for improvement through education. In 1802, for example, the medical Idéologue Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis celebrated the intellectual and moral heights the human race could attain, but branded women intellectuals as "ambiguous beings . . . who are, properly speaking, of neither sex." 8 Without question, the intolerance toward women scholars that became commonplace in revolutionary and post-revolutionary France was part of the now infamous campaign to relegate...


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