During a recent visit to the Conciergerie, I picked up a prettily bound book, entitled Note sur le supplice de la guillotine. The book contained a short essay of that title by Cabanis, five drawings by the artist Cueco, and a discussion of the moral and political philosophy of the guillotine by French philosopher Yannick Beaubatie.
For the main part, Cabanis's article, written 1799 (an IV) argues against recent articles that claimed that the torment of the guillotine ought to be abolished because it cannot be proven that the guillotined do not feel pain. The articles (by members of the medical profession, Cabanis's own colleagues), cite as evidence witnesses's reports of decapitated heads moving in such a way as to suggest that they responded to the situation, and attempted to communicate. One example they cite is that of Charlotte Corday, whose decapitated head was slapped by one of Sanson's valets, after which it apparently reddened as if in shame and indignation. Cabanis answers that while he was not present at any decapitation (as he did not have the stomach for it) he was present at the testing of the machine and certifies that death must be instanteanous. He then goes on to discuss the philosophical question of where pain resides, and the medical phenomenon of bodily movement after death.
At the end of the essay, Cabanis offers his moral and political reflections: the death penalty, he claims, ought to be abolished. But if it is not, the guillotine has to go. Not because it causes pain to its victim, but because it is too swift so that as a performance of a punishment it cannot serve its rightful purposes. Beaubatie takes this up in a fascinating discussion. In particular, he notes a resemblance between Cabanis' s reservations about the guillotine and Beccaria's utilitarian theory of punishment. Beaubatie notes further that Beccaria and Cabanis both frequented the Helvetius home, although two years apart.
What Beaubatie does not note, however is the strong resemblance between Cabanis's thought and that of his sister in law and long term friend and collaborator Sophie de Grouchy. Cabanis's principal reason for thinking that the guillotine should not be used is not - as Beaubatie claims - that it cannot serve as an exemple or detterrent, but that it does not allow enough time for spectators to react emotionally in such a way that would help their sympathy grow.
The guillotine’s work is done in less than a minute.
That it did not occur to Beaubatie, in his commentary written in 2002, to look to his long term philosophical correspondent Sophie de Grouchy for influence, as well as to Beccaria (whose path with Cabanis crossed, but two years apart) is a sign of how much work has been done over the last fifteen years in recovering the works and influence of women philosophers.
In May 1792, before Mary Wollstonecraft set out for Paris, where she was to act as a war journalist for her publisher Johnson, a French translation of her Vindication of the Rights of Woman came out.
Before traveling she wrote to her sister: "I shall be introduced to many people, my book has been translated and praised in some popular prints".
So who was the author of this translation that was so favorably reviewed?
La Défense des Droits des Femmes was translated anonymously. Isabelle Bour suggested that it might have been translated by a member of the Girondin circle. This is quite plausible as we know that the Girondins did defend to some extent women's rights. Condorcet published an article arguing that women should be given equal political rights to men in 1791, so that Wollstonecraft's book would have struck him as important and topical.
So who was close enough to Condorcet to share his views on women and citizenship, knew enough English to read the Vindication and was an experienced translator? Sophie de Grouchy, of course. We have already speculated as to whether she had read anything by Wollstonecraft, and whether she could have met her. This is another possibility to add to the mix.
Although Madame de Stael is well known, as a historical figure and a writer, she remains very much in the background of the research I have conducted so far on the women of the French Revolution. I mentioned Roland's quip about her salon in my last post. This is as close as the two women got. Stael and Gouges never met, and although she and Grouchy moved in similar aristocratic and international circles, they were certainly not friends.
Germaine de Stael was the daughter of Jacques Necker, a Swiss banker appointed by Louis XVI as finance minister in 1777. Necker held this post until 1781, when he was dismissed for having hidden the debts of France in his reports. He was recalled briefly in 1788, but dismissed again on 12 July 1789. Camilles Desmoulins, in the famous speech rousing the French people to revolt, invoked the King's treacherous treatment of Necker.
Necker comes across as something of a quiet hero of the revolution, a man who did his best to resist the decadence of the French regime and serve the people. This is certainly how his daughter saw him. However, to see him as such we must leave out the story of how he became minister in the first instance.
In 1776, Turgot was minister of finances, and Condorcet, director of the mint, his right hand. This was a difficult period for the French economy, marred by the flour wars, the rising price of grain which resulted in famines, and the ensuing revolts. Turgot attempted to deal with the crisis by getting rid of a number of regulations (including pricing) which had a throttling effect on the production of bread. But before he could succeed (or fail) he was dismissed and replaced by Necker. People in Turgot and Condorcet's circle believed that Necker had had a hand in his dismissal, privately misrepresenting to the King what Turgot was doing. Condorcet, when Turgot was dismissed, did not want to continue in his position. But the King ordered him to stay.
This background of political squabbling may explain why Grouchy and Stael never became friends. Each was loyal to her husband or father. The rift grew bigger when the Condorcet's close friend and ally, Mirabeau took over from Necker in the heart of the French people. Necker left France, and after 1789, had no role to play in revolution.
Stael fled Paris in 1792, after the September massacres, and took her salon to her chateau in Switzerland. When Napoleon came into power, he took an instant dislike to her, and she had to exile herself again.
As powerful figures in French literary circles, however, Stael and Grouchy could not ignore each other. And when Grouchy's Letters on Sympathy came out in 1798, Stael wrote to her, admitting that she envied both her style and the depth of her analysis.
It is not clear whether Sophie de Grouchy took the homage seriously.
Wilhelm von Humboldt, who visited Sophie in 1799 reported the letter in his Journal Parisien.
"She showed me a letter which Madame de Stael had written about her book to which she gave exaggerated praise"
In July 1791, just as Le Republicain was getting ready to print its first issue, the King, who'd try to run away from France with his family, was caught in Varenne, recognised because of his likeness to the profile printed on a coin. He was brought back to Paris, and the Assembly, much relieved that they wouldn't have to do anything truly radical, decided to keep him on as the head of a constitutional monarchy.
This roused the republicans, and Brissot, often their spokesperson, drafted a petition to have the king removed from office. The word spread and on 17 July a huge crowd gathered on the Champ-de-Mars for the purpose of signing the petition. The Champ-de-Mars, now the site of the Eiffel Tower, was then a large empty space which had been chosen to celebrate the first 'Fete de la Federation' on 14 July 1790.
As is often the case in large gatherings, a few detractors made trouble, there was a fight, and possibly a death or two. This was enough for the Assembly to declare court martial and the army, headed by La Fayette, fell onto the crowd with their bayonettes.
It is unknown how many died or were wounded, but the event is refered to as the Champ-de-Mars Massacre.
Both Sophie and Manon were in the crowd, both with their daughters. The Marquis de la Fayette, famous for his role in the American Revolution had been a close friend of Grouchy before her marriage to Condorcet, and was generally in sympathy with Brissot and his friends. This, of course was the end of the friendship.
When Paine submitted his 'Letter' to his friends Brissot and Condorcet to publish as an advertisement for their new paper Le Républicain, it needed to be translated. Paine spoke and read French, but didn't like to write it. It had been decided, for some reason, that Achille Duchatellet, not Paine, would sign the article before it was pasted all over Paris, and published first, in Brissot's Patriote François, and then as the leading article of Le Républicain. Etienne Dumont, translator of of Jeremy Bentham, was approached first. Dumont refused, on the grounds that he did not want to be involved in what he saw as a foolhardy enterprise by 'an American and a young fool from the French aristocracy who put themselves forward to change the face of France' . The other member of the team who was able to translate was Sophie - hence, she probably got the job.
But Sophie's participation in the journal did not end with translation. Two anonymous articles may be attributed to her. The first is very short. Entitled "Letter from a young mechanic" it proposes that the royal family and its entourage be replaced by a set of automaton. Even though such machines are expensive, they will cost a fraction of what the French people are spending on their actual king. And what's more, the mechanical king, far from being a tyrant, will raise its pen and sign everything its government wants it to!
The second article is a long and very critical piece on the King and the mechanisms of his government. This article, it seems, was originally supposed to be written by Dumont, but he withdrew, when the king was returned to Paris. Dumont, however, had left a set of notes at the Condorcet. He later complained in his memoires:
There is good stylistic evidence that the person who 'rewrote' Dumont's piece was in fact Sophie. In particular, an image she uses in her Letters on Sympathy can be found in the article, that of the king (and monarchy) as a rattle designed to amuse the immature French people, to distract them from the fact that they are not free.
Paine remarked that the life of the French peasant before the revolution was nothing short of abject, and put paid to the Hobbesian theory that humans were always better off in the civil state than they would be in the state of nature.
The revolution was, at least in principle, meant to redress some the most extreme instances of inequality.
But the leaders of the revolution are often accused of not really having the best interest of the poor in mind. How would they know what the lives of the poor were like?
What did an aristocrat like Sophie de Grouchy really know or care about the poor of France?
As a child, with her mother, she visited them - an important part of her education was charitable visits. In her Letters on Sympathy, she thanks her mother for showing her the true value of such hands on charity:
Yes, seeing your hands relieve both misery and illness, and the suffering eyes of the unfortunate turning to you, softening as they blessed you, I felt my heart become whole, and the true good of social life was made clear to me, and appeared to me in the happiness of loving and serving humanity
There's something perhaps a bit distasteful about the very rich dispensing weekly, or even daily graces on the poor, when they could so easily relive most of their sufferings by relinquishing half their luxuries. Or perhaps this is politically or historically naive.
In her Letters on Sympathy, Grouchy theorized her attitude to charity. Hands on charity is good, she says, not just because it relieves suffering, but because it teaches sympathy. Sympathy in turns becomes morality, and justice, and the desire to reform laws and social institutions so that extreme inequalities no longer exist. She does not want to erradicate all inequalities - some that are down to chance, or temperament, will survive. But there is enough good land in France, she says, to ensure that no-one be poor, even if three quarters of it goes to the rich, and the last quarter is divided amongst the common people.
Photo of a copy of Sophie de Grouchy's will, held at the Bilbliothèque de l'Institut, courtesy of Millicent Churcher.
Sophie saw her ties with the poor through to the end of her life. In her will she asked that instead of being buried at great expense in the family vault, she asked to be buried as a pauper, and that the money saved be distributed to the poor.
When Sophie de Grouchy was young, no tutor was assigned to her. But she benefitted from her mother's instruction, a woman known for her intellect, culture and generosity. And she was allowed to participate in her younger brothers' lessons. She did so well at this that when their tutor was sick, she took over their Greek and Latin instruction.
At the age of 18, she was sent to a finishing school in Normandy, at Neuville-les-Dames, near Macon, a secular convent for ladies. She received the title of Chanoinesse, and was addressed as Madame.
In order to gain admission, one had to pay a substantial fee and maintenance amounting to 9000 pounds per year, but also provide proof of lineage: 9 generations on the father's side and 3 on the mother's.
The convent was not ostentatiously religious. Pupils studied Latin and modern languages, and worked on their accomplishments. They hosted parties, the purpose of which was to find husbands of the right sort.
In an environment that was religious and socially privileged, she became an atheist and socially aware. She discovered Voltaire and Rousseau, she read and translated Tasso's Jerusalem, and an unnamed work by Young (probably his Tour of Ireland). Her aunt, visiting her, worried about her health - her eyes were puffy every night and ached so that she feared it might be a form of gout. And yet Sophie kept on with her work.
The building Sophie lived in is long gone. But Neuville now has an Allee Sophie de Grouchy, on which stands an elementary school, l'école Condorcet. There are many schools named after Condorcet in France, but if this one is named after the Marquise, not the Marquis, then it is, as far as I know, unique.
In 1798, Sophie de Grouchy published her Letters on Sympathy.
We know that she already had a draft in 1791, which she'd sent to her friend Dumont for feedback that never came. We know that the Letters were complete in 1794, and that they had a title, as Condorcet refers his daughter to them in his Testament.
So why were they only published in 98?
We don't know as she did not leave an account. But it's likely the answer lies either in need, opportunity or both. After the Terror, Sophie needed money, and she decided to translate Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiment. Smith was very popular, and existing translations of this text were not particularly good, so there was a clear gap in the market. This also gave her the opportunity to publish her own short text. Her Letters were after all a critique and commentary of Smith. So she appended them to the translation.
Although the Letters are in fact a more like a treatise than a record of correspondence (there is in fact only one letter writer involved), each chapter is set out as a letter to someone addressed as C***, announcing the topic of discussion, linking it to the previous one, and at the end, drawing out the conclusions to be taken forward to the next chapter.
C*** is also an excuse for considering objections to Grouchy's arguments, with many paragraphs starting with formulas such as "No doubt you will tell me, my Dear C***". So C*** is very much a philosophical interlocutor, the Platonic touchstone to Sophie's Socrates.
So who is C***?
The obvious assumption is that it is Sophie's husband, Condorcet.
But there are reasons why this is probably not true.
First, her husband was dead by the time the Letters were prepared for publication. Secondly, if Sophie was to record a fake dialogue with a real person then she would probably have picked someone she actually corresponded with - in 1791, when the letter were written, Sophie and her husband were not apart long enough to correspond.
But there were at least two more Cs in Sophie's life, to whom she was very close, with whom she did correspond and who were still alive when the Letters were published.
They were her sister Charlotte, and Condorcet's close friend, Pierre George Cabanis. Of the two, C*** cannot be Charlotte, as 'My Dear C***' in French is 'Mon Cher C***' which is masculin.
So Cabanis is more likely.
Cabanis, as it happens, did correspond with Sophie on topics very close to her Letters, on Physiology, a materialist science aiming to understand human beings through their bodily organs. In 1802, Cabanis published his Rapports du Physique et du Moral de l'Homme, in which he explores the relations between bodies and morality, discussing for instance, the influence of weather and digestion on mood and decision making. Prior to publishing this, he corresponded with Sophie, and had long discussions with her on the subject.
Physiology is also central to the Letters on Sympathy, as Sophy argues that our moral feelings are born out of the physiological response that ties a newborn to the person that nurses her and holds her.
Cabanis and Charlotte de Grouchy became lovers during the Revolution, and in 1796, they were married. Some readers like to see a love story behind every text (in particular, texts written by women!) but in this case, we must suppose that C*** was very much an intellectual interest (and a close family friend) but not a love interest.
Cabanis was by profession a doctor in medicine but did not practice. Some say that was because of his own poor health. Some say that he was in fact a spy, not a doctor. He is also reputed to have given Condorcet a dose of poison to hide in a ring. And this poison, in some accounts of Condorcet's death, is what he took to kill himself when he was captured in March 1794.
Janet Todd, Wollstonecraft's biographer, suggests that Wollstonecraft may have been contacted in 1792 by Condorcet and Paine to help rework the plan for educational reform that Talleyrand had started in 1791. Might Wollstonecraft have at least considered taking them up on the offer, and might she have met Condorcet's wife, Sophie de Grouchy over dinner?
Probably not. When Wollstonecraft was in Paris, she mostly visited English nationals, such as Helen Maria Williams, and Johnson's associate, Thomas Christie.
She was close, ideologically, to the Girondins, some of which were fluent English speakers. Brissot, for instance, had visited England, and developed a friendship there with Catharine Macaulay. Manon Roland also spoke English, having taught herself at the beginning of her marriage, and travelled to England, where she was much impressed with the cleanliness and simple habits of the inhabitants. Sophie de Grouchy was also a fluent English speaker and writer, so that her salon in the early years of the revolution attracted foreign luminaries such as Thomas Paine and Jefferson. But by the time Wollstonecraft moved to Paris, Sophie no longer had a salon, and Manon did not admit any woman in hers.
It is therefore unlikely that they would have met.
Had they read Wollstonecraft? Again there is no evidence. But a letter dated 20 August 1791 from Sophie to her friend Dumont suggests that perhaps she may have come across one of Wollstonecraft's books. Sophie thanks Dumont for sending her books and political news from England and says:
"Until I receive more news from you, I will be busy reading the book you sent me and dreaming about the best way to raise reasonable women who can live with men who are not and will not be reasonable towards women for a long time from now".
This could, of course, be coincidence. But it does suggest that the book Dumont sent her and Sophie's dreams might be related. And who, better than Wollstonecraft could be the inspiration for such dreams?
Just as Olympe de Gouges did, Sophie de Grouchy had to relocate to the suburbs during the Terror. In 1793, the Jacobin Chabot had issued an order to arrest her husband, Condorcet. Condorcet had gone into hiding in the house of Madame Vernet, on the Rue des Fossoyeurs (now the Rue Servandoni). Their property was confiscated by the government, and Sophie, together with her young daughter, her nanny and her sister Charlotte, moved to a house on the Grande Rue D'Auteuil, not far from where Madame Helvetius lived.
Several times a week, Sophie walked into Paris to visit her husband.
As she did not want to be recognised, or to attract anybody's attention to Condorcet's hiding place, she came dressed as a peasant woman, pretending to be with the crowds of farmers come to sell their goods to the starving capital. Once through the gates, she would lose herself in the crowds come to see that day's executions at the Place de la Revolution (now Place de la Concorde), then cross the river to reach the left bank, and walked towards the church of St Sulpice, and beyond that to the street where her husband was hiding.
Often she would bring him books, or notes that he needed for his work - as he'd had to leave home in a hurry. She would also stay and encourage him, and work with him. His last work, the Sketch of human progress, was almost certainly something they worked on together.
After seeing her husband, Sophie would walk back across the Seine towards the Rue St Honoré, where she rented an underwear shop and the half-floor above it. Putting Auguste Cardot, younger brother of her husband's secretary, in charge of the shop, she set up a studio in the alcove and worked on her miniatures from there. Thus she insured that she had sufficient income to see to the needs of her husband, her family and herself until she could claim back some of what the government had seized.
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.