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9-08-2015, 17:38

Learned societies, salons, and newspapers

The “public sphere” as Habermas envisioned it developed fully in the eighteenth century, but it built on earlier formal and informal groups of people who gathered together to talk, argue, and debate. In the cities of the Italian Renaissance, humanists thought of themselves as belonging to the “Republic of Letters,” a phrase they invented that came to mean those who engaged in learned exchange of all types, both oral and written. The most formal of these were learned academies and societies, originally devoted to studying the classics, but by the end of the sixteenth century often with the broader goals of encouraging learned conversation on many topics. Many academies were short-lived private gatherings, but several gained royal patronage and grew into national academies, usually with a very limited number of members. The Académie Française, for example, which focused on French language and culture, was founded in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII and still exists today. During the seventeenth century, academies specifi cally devoted to the study of nature and science were founded in Rome, Florence, Paris, London, and elsewhere. The Royal Society of London (founded 1660) collected specimens for study, supported experiments using new types of instruments such as the air pump and the barometer, and published reports. The Academy of Science in Berlin, founded in 1700 by the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) for the Electress Sophie Charlotte, supported astronomical and other types of scientifi c study. In the middle of the eighteenth century, some new learned societies saw their mission as (in the words of the Royal Dublin Society, founded in 1731) “promoting husbandry, manufactures, and other useful arts.” They wanted to apply learning to practical problems and make knowledge available to a broader public, so they published their fi ndings in the vernacular, not Latin. Learned societies, fi rst in Italy and then elsewhere, put together permanent collections of natural objects: what we would today call museums of natural history but were then usually termed “chambers of wonders” or “cabinets of curiosities.” These contained strange things found locally – unusual specimens of plants, animals born with birth defects (preserved in jars or mounted and stuffed), fossils, beautiful geological formations such as geodes – and objects brought in from European voyages around the world. Collections were initially private, but many were gradually opened to the public; as Robert Hooke (1635–1703), the fi rst curator of the collection of the Royal Society in London, commented, viewing a collection offered visitors opportunity to “peruse, and turn over, and spell, and read the Book of Nature.” As museums do today, the founders of these collections sought wealthy patrons who could provide permanent buildings and the resources to obtain still more objects; Peter the Great amassed a huge collection, specializing in archeological fi nds from Siberia and central Russia. Along with the “wonders of nature,” collections included art and artifacts from Europe’s past and from different parts of the world, jumbling together human-produced and natural objects in an effort to awe and astonish. Visitors discussed what they had seen or wrote about it in letters and essays. Some collections issued printed catalogs, so that even those who could not afford to visit could know the wonders they contained. Wealthy young men, especially from England, visited collections as part of their “Grand Tour” of the cultural and intellectual centers of Europe, designed to give them polish and sophistication. The members of one learned society, the Academy of Linceans (that is, of the lynx), whose most famous member was the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei, decided to make a pictorial record of all of nature. They traveled all over Europe, making drawings of materials in collections. Many of these collections became the foundation of later national museums, and by the last half of the eighteenth century a few of these began organizing their holdings in ways that emphasized the order rather than the exuberance of nature. Learned societies and museums were only some of the places where discussion fl ourished in European cities. The Society of Freemasons, a fraternal voluntary association whose exact origins are disputed, established lodges fi rst in England and then on the continent, where members gathered to discuss politics as well as science and learning. In Edinburgh, discussion groups met at the universities, in private homes, and in the city’s many taverns – one estimate is six hundred drinking establishments in a town of only forty thousand people. Individuals in Paris established clubs called musées in the late eighteenth century, in which people paid a fee to hear lectures, watch or perform scientifi c experiments, and participate in discussions on a range of issues. Several of these had hundreds of members; fees were too high for artisans or workers, but lawyers, offi cials, shop-owners, and even a few middle-class women joined. Societies and clubs devoted to “progress” and the “useful trades,” and lodges of Freemasons, sprang up in European colonial cities like Philadelphia and Rio de Janeiro as well, whose members were in frequent contact with European thinkers. At about the time that national scientifi c academies were being founded, elite women in Paris created a more informal and private institution that would allow them greater access to the “Republic of Letters” – the salon. Salons were gatherings of men and women for formal and informal discussion of topics decided upon by the women who ran them, held in the drawing rooms ( salons in French) of their own homes. The salonnière , or salon hostess, selected the guests, determined whether the conversation on any particular night would be serious or light, and decided whether additional activities such as singing, poetry readings or dramatic productions would be part of the evening’s offerings. She took what she did seriously, preparing herself by reading and practicing letter-writing and conversational skills. Salonnières did not have any offi cial public or academic role, but the approval of certain salon hostesses was often an unoffi cial requirement for a man to gain election to the Académie Française, the highest honor for a French intellectual or writer. (No woman was elected to the Académie Française until 1979, and there were only a handful of women in any European national academy; the fi rst woman was elected as a full member to the British Royal Society in 1935.) Writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) warned that salons were “feminizing” French culture and weakening the country’s military and work ethic. In the later eighteenth century, salons became important institutions in the development and dissemination of philosophical ideas associated with the Enlightenment. They were places where wealthy nobles, professionals, and members of the clergy who were interested in new ideas or cultural forms met less-well-off writers and artists. English and German women also created salons on the French model; those in Germany were one of the few places where Christians and Jews could mix. Members of learned societies and others interested in literature and learning discussed their ideas orally or in letters, and by the late seventeenth century circulated them in printed journals, such as Pierre Bayle’s News from the Republic of Letters (1684). The English journals The Tatler (1709–11) and The Spectator (1711–12), edited by the playwright Richard Steele and the poet Joseph Addison, had circulations in the tens of thousands, which meant they were read by far more people than just a small elite. They included essays by their editors, commentary on theatrical productions, and a skillful mixture of society news and social criticism. Readers were encouraged to respond, and their letters were printed, so that the circle of authors as well as readers expanded. Similar literary journals appeared later in the eighteenth century in Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. In many European states journals and books that included material too critical of the church or the government were often censored or banned, but such efforts were not very effective at limiting the spread of ideas. Philosophical and political works in many languages were published in tolerant Amsterdam or in Switzerland, and then smuggled to eager readers, while works that criticized or satirized political fi gures and religious authorities were easily available with a word to the right bookseller. Along with journals, newspapers were an important element in the circulation of ideas. A regular postal service allowed printed publications to be delivered on a set schedule, and the fi rst printed newspaper appeared in Germany in 1605. Newspapers soon appeared in other central and western European countries, and by the eighteenth century there were a few daily newspapers in larger cities, and weekly or twice-weekly papers elsewhere. They were generally sold by subscription, and initially contained little or no advertising, as businesses did not see the point of paying to market their products. Coffeehouses, taverns, wine-shops, and cafés did see the point of providing newspapers for their patrons to read, so that a single subscription was often read by many people, provoking animated discussion. Rulers recognized that the press could be a powerful force; they required publishers to get a license, fed information about laws and government activities to them, and routinely censored unfl attering news. Besides their local newspapers, educated people often read and discussed international French-language newspapers printed in the Netherlands.

METHODS AND ANALYSIS 11 The changing shape of the Enlightenment

In the scholarship of the past fi fty years, the Enlightenment has changed shape, becoming larger, broader, less cohesive, and multicentric. In what became classic works written in the 1960s, the intellectual historian Peter Gay focused primarily on French thinkers and their ideas, especially their opposition to the church and championing of science, subtitling his massive studies “The Rise of Modern Paganism” and “The Science of Freedom.” Gay included a few Scots, such as David Hume, and a few Germans, such as Kant and Leibniz, but otherwise everyone was French, male, and mostly upper-class. In the 1980s social and cultural historians, including Margaret Jacob and Robert Darnton, began to examine the ideas of Freemasons, religious free thinkers, publishers, lawyers, and others who were not members of the elite. They broadened the notion of “an Enlightenment thinker” socially, and also began to focus on the institutions and practices of the Enlightenment rather than simply on ideas alone. Groups discussing and advocating for enlightened ideas were found in many cities of northern Europe, not simply Paris, so the Enlightenment expanded geographically as well. In the 1990s, the British historian Roy Porter, known especially for his work in the history of medicine, continued to challenge a Paris-centered view, arguing that British people – including a few women – were pivotal in creating and disseminating Enlightenment ideas. Other scholars also examined the Enlightenment in various national contexts, fi nding an Enlightenment in Scotland, Spain, Naples, Rome, Poland, Russia, and across the Atlantic in the British, French, and Spanish colonies. Here people did not simply read and discuss French ideas, but gave them different emphases. And women were not simply occasional participants in Enlightenment debates, argued Dena Goodman and others, but central to their shaping. Many of these historians studying an Enlightenment that was socially and geographically diverse continued to view the Enlightenment as a liberating movement that led directly to the revolutions of the later eighteenth century, including the American and Haitian as well as French. Documents that emerged from these revolutions, including the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, were written in the language of “natural rights” that was developed by Locke and expanded by Enlightenment thinkers. Other scholars began to emphasize the more negative legacies of the Enlightenment. The German intellectual historian Reinhart Kosseleck and others saw it as an authoritarian movement whose motto – “dare to know” – led science and the state to be elevated above all else, a quality found in twentieth-century fascism. Most Enlightenment thinkers, asserted scholars of colonialism such as Peter Hulme, did not contemplate extending natural rights or civil liberties to anyone other than white male property owners, and viewed Europeans as more rational and productive than non-Europeans, thus providing support for colonial inequities. Women may have talked about Enlightenment ideas, argue Steven Kale and others, but these were elite women only and their conversations had little infl uence on political events. In the 2000s, the intellectual historian Jonathan Israel developed an argument in which both points of view could be accepted. He asserted that there was a sharp split between what he terms “radical” thinkers such as Spinoza and Diderot and “moderates” such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, Hume, and Rousseau. The former, argues Israel, supported freedom of opinion and equal rights – ideas that were the origin of modern democracy – and the latter continued to support hierarchical social and political structures. There also weren’t separate national Enlightenments, according to Israel; rather thinkers throughout Europe interacted constantly. This transnational Enlightenment also became increasingly global in the 2000s. Enlightenment ideas did not simply fl ow east to west across the Atlantic, argue several scholars, but west to east. Historians of the Caribbean such as Laurent Dubois have analyzed the ways in which debates about slavery and universal rights going on in the islands of the French Caribbean shaped political discussions in Europe, and postcolonial historians trace lines of infl uence in all directions. Israel and Dubois have affi rmed the focus on ideas that was at the core of Gay’s study, but the Enlightenment today has a very different shape than it did half a century ago. Though rulers and church leaders were still important shapers of culture, the institutions of the “public sphere” – learned societies, salons, clubs, literary journals, and newspapers – helped create what we now call “public opinion,” a force that became more powerful as the eighteenth century progressed. Public opinion was shaped by the tastes of elites, but also by those of more ordinary people, and increasingly determined which artistic and literary genres and styles would be judged praiseworthy, and which political ideas and plans should be accepted or rejected. Many artists, writers, and composers continued to get commissions from aristocratic patrons, but others depended on selling their work to a middle-class public through galleries, art shops, book stores, or subscriptions. Middle-class urban households often had more disposable income in the eighteenth century than they had had in the sixteenth, and the consumer goods they purchased included books, engravings, paintings, musical instruments, and music to play on them. The men and women who gathered in societies, academies, clubs, and salons embraced science as well as other interests. Like Pope – who was a favorite of discussion groups in London – they saw new developments in science as a proper basis for all knowledge and something that all educated people should understand. They regularly purchased popularizations of scientifi c works, which sought to explain both the basis and the impact of new ways of understanding the world.

 

 

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