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From very early in the play, and before Palissot condemns Helvétius’ idea of intérêt, the playwright shows that Valère and his philosophe cohort are moved by very little besides a self-centered desire for personal gain. Valère’s reasons for courting Rosalie and staying at the estate are more financial than romantic: one doubts if he has any feelings at all for Rosalie, his bride-to-be. This was not the first time Palissot made disparaging comments about how philosophes define “love.” In one of Palissot’s pamphlets from 1757, which also happened to be a one-scene parody of Diderot’s play Le Fils naturel, Palissot harshly criticizes Diderot’s idea of romantic love through Constance’s “own voice.” She laments how, “Il est vrai, mon projet dans la tête; c’était d’amener Dorval insensiblement à m’aimer: mais j’avoue que jusqu’à ce jour je n’avais conçu aucune espérance de succès; Dorval me témoignait de la confiance, de l’estime, et rien de plus” (Palissot, Supplément d’un important ouvrage 5).
In his pamphlet, Palissot argues that philosophe notions of love touch upon esteem and friendship, but lack important visceral connections between two people. This Diderotian conception of rational love contrasts with Palissot’s demonstration of romantic sentiment in his comedy. In Les Philosophes, Damis loves Rosalie, and through the dénouement, Palissot will show that weaker, and possibly more “logical” philosophe sentiments are no match for the powers of physical and emotional love.
Placing the Blame: Palissot’s Criticism of Claude-Adrien Helvétius’ De l’Esprit In act two, the playwright condemns what he sees as hypocritical behavior by integrating citations from philosophe works into his dramatic narrative. In scene iii, Valère discusses a recently published work by Cratès, a member of the philosophe circle, and intellectual rival to Valère. From his name alone, we could associate Cratès with Socrates and discern a parallel criticism with the Plato/Encyclopédie jab: philosophes wrongly hope to replace important pillars of Western thought with their own recent and dubious works. However, it is difficult to make the leap between Cratès and any known philosophe in 1760. But when the title of the book is revealed as De l’Esprit, the obvious connection is clear to Claude-Adrien Helvétius, the author of a materialist work of the
same name. Valère gives his own “reading” of Cratès’ work:
Valère and his band act out of sheer personal interest and back up their behavior with philosophical justification. For Valère and his associates, “intérêt personnel” trumps more interdependent ideas such as “la morale,” and individual “génie” emerges as their clear goal in both action and philosophy. Palissot’s reading of Helvétius, and more specifically, of the former’s definition of “intérêt,” is a far cry from the Lockean ideal of private interest or Helvétius’ conception of the term in De l’Esprit. In those works, personal interest leads to the overall amelioration of society because of mankind’s desire to preserve private gains through fear of losing individual goods. The creation of public institutions such as the legal system then naturally flows from this fear of private loss.
But in his biased reading of Helvétius, Palissot equates the term with little more than greed.
In Les Philosophes, nuances in Enlightenment texts are reduced to superficial digs and “l’intérêt” connotes nothing more than philosophe trickery and facetious rhetoric.
Valère asserts his own “intérêt” but condemns others who try to manifest the same principle. Throughout the play, the idea is used and misused on a whim and personal interest emerges as more of a way to justify hypocrisy than a legitimate social plan.
Palissot cleverly points to the fallacy of philosophe self-interest through the actions of his characters and through staging works by members of the encyclopedic movement during the late 1750s. By providing textual examples from the philosophe circle itself, and then by attaching those ideas to the nasty behavior of the “philosophe” characters in his play, Palissot provides bibliographical “evidence” that the philosophes are to blame for certain undesirable elements of society. This strategy confronts the popular topos of the persecuted philosophe cum Socrates, which both Diderot and Voltaire employed in various plays, pamphlets and prefaces during this exact period.56 By theatrically staging people who behave in a despicable manner, then by rooting the reasons for their actions in philosophe texts, Palissot provides a tightly linked representation of cause-and-effect.
Philosophes were never shy to use the victim topos in describing their relationship with French society, especially after the interdiction of the Encyclopédie in 1759. One commonplace theme was Socrates’ trial, where the famous Greek philosopher was wrongly condemned by a group of “anti-philosophes.” Voltaire wrote an unpublished play that tells Socrates’ story, but could have easily been read in a contemporary context during the late 1750s. I will revisit Voltaire’s philosophical dialogue/play in the next chapter, but for a complete analysis of the work, see Russel Goulbourne’s Voltaire comic dramatist, pp. 187-203.
Here, we see the emergence of a Counter-Enlightenment didactic strategy.57 Palissot teaches the audience the precise ways in which philosophes are a detriment to society. In so doing, the playwright puts forth a plan to mitigate the effect of pedagogical works by philosophes such as Diderot and Rousseau (Le Fils naturel, Emile, etc.). Once again, Palissot’s criticisms come forth through dramatic, narrative elements in the play (such as Valère lying to Cydalise) as well as through bibliographic citations of philosophe texts from the late 1750s.
Palissot then moves from his attack on philosophe self interest to an offensive against their organizational structure and cohesion as a group. If, as he argues, philosophes act only with their own goals in mind, then, unity among them is impossible and one will always try to vie for the social status of another. When Cratès’ “De l’Esprit” receives critical acclaim, Valère becomes jealous of its author and seeks to bring him
down a peg by forcing critical acceptance of his protégée Cydalise’s work:
Due to his own desire to render Cratès jealous and assert himself as the most influential philosophe, Valère throws his weight into the critical ring. The philosophe hopes that his With his on-stage “didactic strategy,” Palissot hopes to show audience members how to be socially responsible, good-natured citizens. This attempt to instruct normal social behavior through theater is a vital part of Diderot’s dramatic theory as well as a pertinent issue today. Following Judith Butler’s analysis of performance in Bodies That Matter, Martin Puchner argues that “theater, more than any other art form, replicates the social world an in particular human interaction through real humans on stage, it can therefore be considered the art form that is most directly tied to social normativity” (Puchner 17).
circle will praise Cydalise’s work because Valère says it is good (and because Cydalise’s sex precludes her from criticism) and not because it has any aesthetic or moral merit of its own. Later, we will see how philosophes rally, fuse, and combine allegiances in the wake of Palissot’s comedy. But here, it is important to note the playwright’s unconscious foreshadowing of an important mobilizing event, which will attach philosophes to one another (nous la protégeons tous) in binary opposition to Palissot, Fréron, and other Counter-Enlightenment voices.
With attacks against different voices inside the same “secte,” Les Philosophes struck the nerves of the philosophe circle. Palissot combines philosophes under one umbrella and blurs nuances among personalities like Diderot, Rousseau, and Helvétius.
This combinatory strategy, although initially successful in generating publicity for Les Philosophes, will prove detrimental as philosophes that were once bitter rivals join forces to form a united (or at least more united than ever before) front against Palissot and his Counter-Enlightenment colleagues.
Europeans or Frenchmen? Palissot’s Critique of Cosmopolitanism Returning to the comedy, it is clear that, according to Palissot, philosophes could not care less about politics, society, or any issue of national importance. In the second act, Palissot intensifies the scope of this argument by placing the locus of attacks on the detached metaphysical nature and foreign allegiances of his rivals. Again, the playwright uses a systematic method of quoting from “philosophe” works and using narrative strategies to debase philosophe viewpoints. In act II, scene v, Palissot distinguishes between two eighteenth-century philosophical notions. Damis argues that Dortidius (a Latinized anagram of Diderot) and other philosophes cannot even speak about truth
because their maxims and dissertations refuse to focus on human experience:
Damis argues that philosophe principles exhibit a dangerous rhetorical nominalism (“vains arguments,” “sophismes”), or, a refusal to attach words to concrete human experiences and a linguistic construction that raises
principles and broad generalizations to the level of the law. This philosophy contrasts with Damis’ less universalizing tendency to trust what he feels and form a plan accordingly—a process Palissot evokes through Damis’ plan to rid the estate of philosophes during act III.
Over the course of the play, it becomes clear that Damis detests two philosophe ideals more than any others: their tendency to ground reasoning in abstraction, and their cosmopolitan views of a more international society. To some philosophes, ideas surpass national borders and patriotic sentiment—a notion clearly expressed by D’Alembert in his Discours préliminaire of the Encyclopédie (1752). The famous mathematician and
academician attests that:
L’histoire de l’homme a pour objet, ou ses actions, ou ses connaissances;
et elle est par conséquent civile ou littéraire, c’est-à-dire se partage entre  les grandes nations et les grands génies, entre les rois et les gens de lettres, entre les conquérants et les philosophes” (Discours 65).
D’Alembert makes a distinction between powerful nations and powerful minds, and between kings and “gens de lettres”. For the philosophes, ideas surpass borders and political associations—a notion that renders problematic and doubtful any sort of patriotism or overt support of a certain political regime.
In his play, Palissot cleverly picks up on his rivals’ proclivities towards internationalism and exaggerates their putative skepticism toward monarchies. According to the character Damis, the philosophes could not care less about France—a maxim that
taints their reputation and categorizes them as “bad citizens”:
Instead of loving individual people (like Damis loves Rosalie), philosophes love the idea of humanity in abstraction (“le genre humain”). Here, Palissot draws a clear distinction between citoyens and philosophes. The author presents Damis as a model citizen who demonstrates a clear intelligence, a desire for stable family life, and a love for France. On the other hand, Palissot’s philosophe manifests a detached and selfish hypocrisy with international tastes and a fondness of ideas from beyond the French border that are ungrounded in tangible, human experience. Damis once again disparages the lackluster citizenry of philosophes by exposing their “dangerous” internationalism: “Louant, admirant tout dans les autres pays,/Et se faisant honneur d’avilir leur patrie:/Sont-ce là les succès sur lesquels on s’écrie?” (1.5).
By precisely criticizing philosophes for their disinterest in national politics during a period of war, Palissot is trying to “affect” an audience that included veterans and relatives of veterans from the Seven Years’ War.58 Through characters’ dialogues, overt denunciation and citing texts, Palissot shows that philosophes care less about French politics than about detached metaphysics or international philosophical principles.
Palissot takes the “horizon of expectations” of his audience into consideration. By dotting his text with patriotic themes, and by emphasizing this feature during a time of war, the playwright finds a psychosocial (pain of war) commonplace among his spectators.
However, not all of the playwright’s considerations stay inside the socio-political frame—we can easily apply many of Palissot’s critiques to the domains of literature and theater. It is clear that, during the middle of the play, some of Palissot’s harsh words focus on the relationship between philosophes and the sociopolitical issues in France at the time of the performance. However, the playwright also incorporates stylistic arguments into his repertoire, and never relinquishes his disapproval of the didactic tone employed by philosophe writers. Palissot despises the overtly pedagogical nature of some philosophe writing and critiques writers such as Rousseau and Diderot for their use of bombastic and persuasive rhetoric instead of more subtle aesthetic formulations.
At times in his play, Palissot concentrates on two popular forms of contemporary writing on which philosophes relied to disseminate their ideas: the drame and philosophical treatises. And in a similar vein with most of his other criticisms, we can find roots of his disdain for philosophes in Palissot’s pamphlets from the 1750s.
For example, Palissot had already applied the “didacticism” argument to Diderot’s theater in 1758. In his Supplément d’un ouvrage important, Palissot writes in a mocking tone that, “ …nous aurions heureusement ignoré pour jamais cet étalage de Ravel includes military personnel as one of the chief represented groups in his “List of Spectators in Paris Parterres by Social category and Theater, 1717-1768” (229-237).