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An enlightening history on French salons...
The 18th century France, during the “Century of Philosophy” that was the Enlightenment, there were intellectual spheres of French society that created spaces, known as “salons“, specifically to exchange knowledge and encourage discourse. These French salons, held in the lavish homes of the French wealthy elite and nobility – for the elite nobility were the primary classes that could afford an education – would host some of the greatest minds of the Enlightenment. These French intellectual thinkers were commonly referred to as the “philosophes,” but take care not to confuse these intellectuals with philosophers; Although plenty of them were actually philosophers, such as the witty writer of Candide, Voltaire, and the writer whose ideas were highly influential to the French Revolution, Denis Diderot, the philosophes were a diverse group of “literary men, scientists and thinkers of 18th-century France who were united, in spite of divergent personal views, in their conviction of the supremacy and efficacy of human reason.” 1
While this definition has been sourced from the Encyclopedia Britannica, it isn’t entirely valid as it makes the common (even in the 21st century) mistake of excluding women from the organization of influential thinkers. Indeed, the philosophes were primarily men, but some were women. In fact, the Enlightenment in France, especially in the spheres discussed here, were very often conducted by women. Many of the organizers of these salon gatherings were highly influential women, known as salonnieres, such as Madame Pompadour and Marquise du Deffand, and while the conduct of these meetings were moderated for civility’s sake, particularly because of the inclusion of women called for a decorum of “politeness” – so as to keep debates from exploding into altercations – these academic gatherings provided an opportunity for both men and women to gather and behave as intellectual equals. Thus, making the salons culturally progressive, if not feminist, in its encouragement of intelligent dialogue between the sexes.
Additionally, in correlation with those cultural effects, it has been proposed that salons may have cultivated social although the weight of its impact cannot be ascertained, the social impacts and liberal themes that were cultivated by salons expanded to have political consequences that were could be described as politically progressive. As previously stated, these social gatherings were held with a commitment to civility and decorum, so it is difficult to surmise if (and if so, how often) the discussions held at these salons broached radical discussions of policy and government given the contention such discussion could invoke. No doubt, these discussions of government would have been bold and deeply influential to the development of the French Revolution, especially if these discussions were to be critical of the current absolutist monarchy (meaning, essentially, the King is ordained by God to be the head of government without interference in any way from those under ) or present potential alternative ideas of what legitimatized a government – as many such discussions were in the later period of the Enlightenment leading up to the French Revolution. Were salons to reach realms of discussion, it would indeed have been incredibly impactful to compiling dissatisfaction with the French monarchy that plagued the whole of society.
These enlightened individuals, both men and women, gathered to share knowledge, exchange ideas, and explore opposing perspectives for the education for the entertainment of their intellect. They would do this in a ways that gave a distinct characteristic to French Enlightenment as well as a sense of unity and camaraderie to compare perspectives, formulate collectively – not strictly to break gender norms,
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