- Philosophical about Marriage: Women Writers and the Moralist Tradition ASECS Presidential Address, 2013
When we think of early modern women’s intellectual and cultural production, we are probably more likely to think of genres other than moralist writing—letters and novels, translation, even history and science. Women left their mark in all of these domains. Moralist writing, however, possessed an innate cultural capital derived from the authority of Montaigne, a modern classic, and classical antecedents in Cicero and Seneca, yet it eluded the increasingly pejorative connotations, especially for women, of “erudition”—however erudite the moralist’s allusions might be—by assuming a worldly, detached form of spectatorship. Thus, even as other genres, notably the novel, were assuming the moralist role of social commentary and analysis of the human heart, the novel explicitly blurred the lines between subject and object, between the spectator and his or her world, lines that moralist discourse sought to maintain. By writing in this older mode, women writers engaged with a distinguished tradition and claimed for themselves the right to observe and to analyze. Thus, the choice of genre is in itself a statement on women’s participation in intellectual life and their relationship to the production of knowledge.
William Reddy and Jerrold Seigel have commented on the fraught nature of interpersonal relationships, “laced with intrigue and a wounding struggle for preeminence,” as Seigel puts it, as a distinctive feature of élite [End Page 1] French social life under the ancien régime.1 Classical moralist writing has indeed been one of our chief means for imaginatively recreating this world through the eyes of François de La Rochefoucauld and Jean de La Bruyère. Eric Méchoulan has argued that moralist writing comes into its own in the wake of the sixteenth-century Wars of Religion, the retreat of the Church as guarantor of state morality, and the new location of personal morality within the individual.2 The moralist practices the courtier’s “art of prudence” both as a form of self-regulation and, through deeper understanding of their motives, as a means to control or surpass others.
In the longer project of which this is a part, I look at the ways in which women take on some of the great topoi of traditional moralist writing: friendship, the passions, old age, knowledge of oneself and of the world. One topic, however, runs through their works far more prominently than in those of their male interlocutors and predecessors: marriage.
Classical moralist thought, whether ancient or modern, has remarkably little to say on the subject of marriage. Montaigne describes a good marriage as “representing” the conditions of friendship—as analogous to friendship, in other words, but not quite the same. He tells us that one marries not for oneself, but rather for one’s posterity, one’s family. Under ideal conditions, marriage can be a source of profound happiness, but it is not to be confused with love. “These things are distantly related [ont quelque cousinage], but they are very different.”3 The leading moralists of the following century are less nuanced on the subject, and indeed not particularly interested in it. As usual, in his one maxim on marriage, La Rochefoucauld sums up the thinking of an era with devastating concision: “Il y a de bons mariages, mais il n’y en a point de délicieux.”4 La Bruyère scatters reflections on marriage in various chapters of Les Caractères, where it is invariably linked to questions of wealth, social advancement, and hypocrisy. Among eighteenth century moralists, Luc de Clapiers, marquis de Vauvenargues, and Chamfort both take a jaundiced view of marriage, seeing it simply as a “commerce” of material interests, and hardly conducive to personal (masculine) happiness. Take Chamfort, for example: “Le mariage et le célibat ont tous deux des inconvénients: il faut préférer celui dont les inconvénients ne sont pas sans remède.”5 Much of the 17th and 18th century iconography of marriage further suggests ways in which the topic lent itself to comic, misogynistic, or sentimental representations.
Not surprisingly, marriage is a subject on which the female moralists...