The Philosophe’s Stomach

Hedonism, Hypochondria, and the Intellectual in Enlightenment France
  • Anne C. Vila


“The stomach rules the brain”: with that pithy maxim, Voltaire summed up much of the spirit of scholarly endeavor in the French Enlightenment. The stomach did, indeed, seem to rule the life of the mind in eighteenth-century France, a time when social pleasures like fine dining were central to the effort to redefine the modern intellectual as a public-spirited, convivial fellow eager to partake of worldly life.l Nowhere, it seems, did the French love of food and the equally French passion for ideas converge more harmoniously than in the mythic “repas philosophique,” the imaginary gathering of Voltaire and other famous talking heads that became one of the century’s canonical images.2 However, even in this golden age of intellectual sociability, the connection between the thinker’s mental and digestive pursuits was far from simple: although philosophes like Voltaire and Diderot were avid gourmands who disavowed the ascetic image of the scholar that had prevailed in the past, they were often ambivalent about the belly-centered excesses of their own era.3 They seemed, moreover, to regard the Republic of Letters as an institution plagued with indigestion—both the metaphorical indigestion induced by the flood of books issuing forth from writers great and small, and the literal indigestion that tormented those who overindulged in high living, the pursuit of learning, or both at once.


French Physician Mental Labor Vital Region Mental Application Literary Life 
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    See Steven Shapin’s contrast between the traditional, abstemious image of the scholar and the “sociable, merry, and moderately gormandizing philosopher of the eighteenth century,” in “The Philosopher and the Chicken: On the Dietetics of Disembodied Knowledge,” in Science Incarnate: Historical Embodiments of Natural Knowledge, Christopher Lawrence and Steven Shapin, eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 43. Many scholars have emphasized the importance of sociability among eighteenth-century French intellectuals—and their aspiration to full membership in “polite” culture: see esp. Emmanuel Bury, Litterature et politesse: l’invention de l’honnete homme (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1996); and Gregory S. Brown, A Field of Honor: Writers, Court Culture and Public Theater in French Literary Life from Racine to the Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press/EPIC, 2002).Google Scholar
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© Christopher E. Forth and Ana Carden-Coyne 2005

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  • Anne C. Vila

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