An (im)Moral Education
Reading in the 18th century was not only about being educated, but about “knowing dangerously”. The books not only warned of immorality, but tempted their readers to explore the provocative discourses within. They play with forms of language that touch readers’ sensibilities, thus provoking unexpected ways of judging societal education.
Abby Broughton, a graduate student in Hanna Roman’s spring 2016 “Rethinking the Enlightenment French Novel” class, speaks to the evolving role of fiction as a more or less dangerous tool for social education in the eighteenth century as seen in the Morris Wachs Collection.
Nicolas Delaunay used Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting, L’Éducation fait tout, to create an etching and engraving that mirrors the original image. This particular copy has been colored by hand. Yellow, the main color, may represent enlightenment and creativity, thus highlighting youthful curiosity. This satirical work depicts young people “playing school” and instructing their dogs, while books, an instrument of education, lie out of reach in the top left corner. This scene juxtaposes education with its application, hinting that the information learned from books is not always used as the author originally intended. This image particularly shows the misinterpretations of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose Enlightenment works on education aimed to develop the whole person as an ethical citizen.
Dites donc s’il vous plait, an etching by Nicolas Delaunay modeled after an original painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, depicts a motherly figure instructing children. In a scene representing the instruction of young people, notably absent are books and a father figure, both symbols of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s popular 18th century ideals of education.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau published the first volume of Julie, or the New Heloise in 1761. Its original edition was subtitled Letters from two lovers living in a small town at the foot of the Alps, alluding to its epistolary nature. Though the novel was well known to be fiction, Rousseau presented it as actual letters exchanged between a group of young people that he simply “collected and published.” Through the letters transferred between Julie, Claire, Saint-Preux and others, Rousseau explores the line between doing what is expected by society and what is authentic to one’s own identity. Julie and Claire’s eventual deaths, and Saint-Preux’s solitary despair at the end, may be viewed as results of personal inauthenticity faced with societal mores. Like many of Rousseau’s other works, notably Émile, or On Education (1762), Julie was meant to instruct as it entertained, allowing readers’ sensibilities to be stimulated in a variety of ways.
“Motherly love.” Julie, or the New Heloise details the forbidden romance between Julie d’Étanges, a young noblewoman, and Saint-Preux, her tutor. Though the two love one another deeply, the liaison is socially unacceptable. To appease his agony, Saint-Preux leaves Julie to explore the world. In his absence, Julie marries M. de Wolmar, her father’s friend, and bears a son, Marcellin. During a climatic moment in the story, the boy falls in the lake and Julie jumps in to save him. She succeeds, though she soon falls ill and dies. Letter XX, written to Saint-Preux by a servant, details the young woman’s death: “Ah! Sir! ah! my benefactor! how have they charged me to tell you? …Madame! ...my poor mistriss! …Oh God! I already see your fear…but you cannot see our hopelessness…” Upon publication, Julie’s popularity grew alarmingly. Originally intended to present the public with a morally educational text, the novel incited the public into a frenzy. Did the plot overshadow the lesson?
“Where do you hope to flee? The ghost is in your heart.”Rousseau’s Letter VI, written by Saint-Preux to Claire, tells of a nightmare Saint-Preux has in which Julie dies. He writes: “She can’t be dead! ... I would embrace her cold tomb without remorse...I would at least have the hope of joining her…Bye she lives: she is happy! …she lives, and her life is my death, and her happiness is my torture…she lives, but not for me, she lives for my distress” (72). The illusion continues as he watches Julie’s mother turn into her daughter in his dream. “Friend, calm down, she tells me in a frail voice…My fear soon vanishes” (74). Rousseau implies that Saint-Preux’s fear, or his ghost, is not the result of external sources. It is within himself, and he must conquer his own personal struggle in order to progress through life. This dream foreshadows Julie’s eventual death after saving her son from drowning in the lake (see Image: “Motherly love”).
Though Rousseau’s Julie was a smashing literary success in 18th century France, not everyone agreed that it proposed the best examples of moral education, due to the uncontrolled repercussions of its sentimental letters. In the preface to Julie’s Spirit, or Excerpt of the New Heloise, Johann Formey, a well-known philosopher, writes, “Its author [Rousseau] is unquestionably one of the most skillful writers of this century. I would not as affirmatively decide that he is one of the best… Everything is an issue in his eyes, and he wants to render everything problematic to his readers. His works then become more dangerous than those of writers sworn by irreligion.” Formey’s version of Julie proposes a work that is “useful to society, particularly to youth,” as stated in the book’s subtitle. In this heavily modified version of Rousseau’s original, Formey takes it upon himself to only include what he deems appropriate, rendering the multi-tome epistolary novel a reductive list of maxims.
Formey’s Julie’s Spirit reduces Rousseau’s epistolary novel to a work of moral statements. Though the novel is meant to be at the center of the text, Rousseau’s plot is nowhere to be seen. Maxims include: “It is a very dangerous situation for young women who are too educated to allow themselves to be governed by others, and are not enough to govern themselves,” (2) and “Simple girls can be honest; but they are less so than those who are because they want to be.” (2) Formey’s rewrite treats education completely differently than Rousseau, who allows the reader to interpret the message implicitly through the plot and the emotion it transmits. These maxims are reminiscent of Delaunay’s Fragonard engravings, which are entitled with easily manipulated, reductive messages. In comparing the maxims to Rousseau’s immensely popular text, Formey’s work lacks Julie’s sentimental qualities that captivated the readers’ attentions, leaving us to question which form of literature was more effective.
In dialogue with Rousseau’s Émile, or On Education, Formey explores the “right” way to educate children. He writes: “Nature wants children to be children before becoming men. If we want to pervert this order, we will produce premature fruits, who will have neither maturity nor taste, and who will not wait to corrupt themselves: we will have young doctors and old children. Childhood has its own ways of seeing, thinking and feeling. Nothing is less sensible than wanting to substitute ours, and I would like to demand just as much that a child have five feet of height than judgment at ten years old.” (140-141) Formey contradicts Rousseau’s view of childhood development, claiming that Rousseau confuses “reasoning children” with “reasonable children,” This work raises questions of how education should be carried out and the relationship between nature and society, while simultaneously questioning Rousseau’s system of education.
Meusnier de Querlon’s Innocent Impostures begins with a preface by Mlle de Gourani regarding Montagne’s Essays that sets the tone for the novel: “It is not the candid and speculative discourses on love that are dangerous; it is the soft and delicate ones, the artistic and sensitive stores of romantic passions, and of their effects that are visible to novels and poets: dangerous, I say, still, but that would be much less, without the increase and the high price where the laws of the ceremony and their exemptions raised Cupid and Venus. Nevertheless I admittedly have a great fear that humankind cannot know more dangerously which animal is love, when nobody tells him or her.” If education is essential to producing a moral person, how can one “know dangerously?” Innocent Impostures offers the public a chance to experience the immoral in fiction in hopes that reader will choose the moral path in life.
Novels were not the only way for the 18th-century authors to educate their readers. This Collection of a few brief works presents short stories, fables, and poems in hopes of offering multiple ways to entice the reader into learning. The fable pictured here, “Recklessness punished,” tells the story of a cat on the lookout for rats. The rats, huddled together, dare not make any noise. One rat, however, makes the imprudent decision of breaking the silence and is immediately eaten by the cat. Written in rhyme, this story exemplifies traditional fable structure, made popular a century earlier by Jean de La Fontaine, as its catchy rhythm allows for both children and adults to profit from its prudent message.
What is the link between beauty and morality? In Sympathy: A Moral Story, Mercier indicates that finding a woman who is both moral and beautiful is an outstandingly rare occurrence and must be cherished. This combination was personified six years earlier, in Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise, and proposed a role model for 18th century youth.Here, Mercier hints that moral goodness and beauty go hand in hand, both internally and externally. He writes:
Yes, you are right, a woman who joins together beauty and morals is the most rare ornament of the earth. She pleases, she interests, she attracts in her slightest actions, she penetrates our hearts with a new life. And if she smiles at us, it is then that the blue of the heavens is most vivid, that the coloring of Nature charms our eyes, is that not what you would like to say? ...Yes…The true secret of captivating a heart is to be yourself sincerely in love. (78-79)
The Stranger, A True Novel is a short novel that exemplifies an unspoken Enlightenment game between author and reader—that of where reality ends and fiction begins. The work is anonymous and published in The Hague , establishing an aura of mystery and secrecy. While the letters are most certainly fictional, the editor entices the reader with promises of truthfulness, claiming to have simply found the manuscript. “Where, how, by whom? These hardly interesting circumstances would be too long to explain… A more natural curiosity would be to know who the heroes of the book are,” reads the introduction. These heroes are none other than a young woman and a clergyman, a scandalous pair. Works like The Stranger tempted 18th century readers into their fictional labyrinths with tales of forbidden love, offering an alternative to works like Marmontel’s Moral Stories that were geared exclusively to society’s moral education.
Jean-François Marmontel, of the Académie française, began work on his popular Moral Stories at the famed Mercure de France, a literary journal founded in the 17th century and pointed toward educating the elite on current intellectual debates and trends. The novel contains a variety of tales, all written with the aim of exploring the different aspects of moral quandaries. Some examine love, while others delve into the relationship between parents and children. “Father’s grievances on their sons’ debaucheries are only too frequent and too well-founded; but do they not have any negligences to be ashamed of themselves? What sacrifices have they done in the great interest of preventing or correcting the vices they are complaining about in their sons?” writes Marmontel in the preface. Moral Stories is designed to educate all members of society, young and old alike, on the virtues of leading an honorably moral life.
The Way of Proper Thinking in Works of the Mind proposes stories, poems and texts of eloquence for readers who wish to educate themselves on literary content regarding the mind and intellect. Deeply rooted in Cartesian philosophy, the book’s goal, as outlined in the preface, “is not to learn how to understand simple ideas or to form arguments with the precision demanded by reason, aided by reflections and guidelines.” (iii) Rather, the dialogues “clarify the most obscure questions” and clearly outline the arguments for and against subjects of all kinds. (iv) Calling to mind Socratic dialogues, books like Bouhours’ were openly educational, yet attempted to captivate their readers’ attention through storytelling.
Gifts of Virtue for the Year 1786 proposes morally sound stories for adolescents. In its fifth annual edition, the book aims to please both children and parents alike, through compelling tales of moral fortitude. In the preface, the editor expresses how deeply it touches young minds and appeals to parents concerned with their children’s moral education:
We have the satisfaction of learning that the young people wait for it impatiently, read it avidly, and that even, at certain parts, we have seen them cause gentle tears. Such sensitivity must be the most favorable prejudice for parents. And how an honest father is not flattered, in seeing his children enjoy a story of virtuous action! tacitum pertenant gaudia pectus; A secret joy then penetrates his soul. He tells himself indulgently, affectionately: My children have a good heart, because they are sensitive. In all likelihood they will be compassionate, generous humans, they will do good.
At first, the Abridged Dictionary of the Fable seems to be a reference of people, places, and objects found in traditional lore. Yet the defense of mythology in the preface hints that such tales were not seen as contributing positively to moral education in the 18th century:
It is said that Mythology is a web of bizarre imaginations – a muddled heap of facts, sometimes fundamentally true, but without chronology, without order, often even repeated under different names; that finally it is an assembly of wretched stories, most of which are deposed of credibility and worthy of disregard. But it is also so that knowledge of these poetic and pagan chimeras is absolutely necessary to understand the Authors. In this aim we have assembled alphabetically what is essential to know on this material so as to spare young people the trouble of drawing from often poisoned sources, where, after dangerous and revolting study, there is nothing to gain for reason, and all to lose for the heart. (ii)