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The Philosophe’s Stomach

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

Abstract

“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.

Keywords

French Physician Mental Labor Vital Region Mental Application Literary Life 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    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
  2. 2.
    Christiane Mervaud discusses this and other engravings by Jean Huber in Voltaire a table: Plaisir du corps, plaisir de l’esprit (Paris: Editions Desjonqueres, 1998), 9–13.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    “Diderot Gastronome,” in Georges May, Quatre visages de Denis Diderot (Paris: Boivin, 1951), 13–33; see Mervaud, Voltaire a table, esp. 17–94. On Voltaire, see also Jean Starobinski, “Le philosophe a table,” in Etre riche au siecle de Voltaire, J. Berchtold and M. Porret, eds. (Geneva: Droz, 1996), 279–293.Google Scholar
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    On the latter subject, see my essay “The Scholar’s Body: Health, Sexuality, and the Ambiguous Pleasures of Thinking in Eighteenth-Century France,” in The Eighteenth-Century Body:Art, History, Literature, Medicine, Angelica Goodden, ed. (NewYork: Peter Lang, 2002), 115–134.Google Scholar
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    The Montpellier-trained physician Gabriel Venel implied that those who fretted over petty ailments like “digestion fougueuse” suffered mainly from selfabsorption: he called them “the people who constantly observe or listen to themselves.” “Digestion,” in Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonne des sciences, des arts et des métiers, Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert, eds. (Paris, 1751–1765; reprint, NewYork: Pergamon Press, 1969), vol. 4, 1002; author’s emphasis.Google Scholar
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    Noteworthy studies of this phenomenon include Didier Masseau, L’Invention de l’intellectuel dans l’Europe du XVIIIe siecle (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1994); Jean-Claude Bonnet, Naissance du Pantheon: Essai sur le culte des grands hommes (Paris: Fayard, 1998); and Darrin M. McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).Google Scholar
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    The practice of self-observation was fairly common among physicians writing on vaporous or nervous disorders: see, for instance, Pierre Pomme, Essai sur les affections vaporeuses des deux sexes (1760), cited by Elizabeth A. Williams in “Hysteria and the Court Physician,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, 32:2 (2002), 249.Google Scholar
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    See Juan Rigoli, Lire le delire: Aliénisme, rhetorique et littérature en France au XIX siecle (Paris: Fayard, 2001), 434–435 and passim.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., vol 2, 184–185. Voltaire often fretted over whether he could obtain enough cassia to maintain his heavy purgative regimen. See, for example, his letter of 12 October 1757 to Jean Robert Tronchin (Dr. Theodore Tronchin’s brother): “The affairs of Saxony can go as they please, but I can’t live without cassia … Cassia absorbs all of my ideas.” Letter 6720 in Voltaire’s Correspondence, Theodore Besterman, ed. (Geneva: Institut et Musee Voltaire, 1953–1965), vol. 32, 110.Google Scholar
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    On Henaut and Desfontaines, see Epitre 65 (1744) inVoltaire, Oeuvres completes, vol. 10, 327–328.Voltaire wrote two extensive letters on indigestion and cassia to Mme du Deffand in 1775; see Besterman, Correspondence, vol. 90, 34–35 and 174–175. Voltaire’s flattering poem on the colic of Frederick of Prussia is reprinted in Starobinski, “Le philosophe a table,” 280–281.Google Scholar
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    On Voltaire’s relations with the Tronchin family, see Deidre Dawson, Voltaire’s Correspondence: An Epistolary Novel (New York: Peter Lang, 1994), 101–126. According to Andre Maurois,Voltaire was well known for using his frailty as a social weapon, exclaiming “Vite, vite, du Tronchin” and feigning indisposition when he didn’t wish to receive guests at Ferney. Dictionnaire des lettres franfaises: Le Dix-huitieme siecle (Paris: Librairie Artheme Fayard, 1960), vol. 2, 640, 655.Google Scholar
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    Brockliss and Jones identify Tronchin as “one of the first advocates of expectant medicine,” a physician who prescribed placebos for patients who insisted on being heavily medicated. The Medical World of Early Modern France, 572. On Tronchin’s attitude toward Voltaire as patient—and his effort to put an end to Voltaire’s “frightening” consumption of remedies—see Henri Tronchin, Theodore Tronchin: Un médecin du XVIIIe siecle (Paris: Plon-Nourrit, 1906), 149–150 and 160–165.Google Scholar
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    Voltaire wrote this tale soon after the death of Philip Stanhope, count of Chesterfield, who suffered from deafness in his final years; see “Note sur ‘Les Oreilles du comte de Chesterfield”’ in Voltaire, Romans et contes (Paris: Gamier Flammarion, 1966), 669. This was not the only text in which Voltaire linked digestion and hearing: Henri Tronchin cites an undated letter to Tronchin in which Voltaire remarked: “when the bowels are clear, the organ of hearing is, too.” Theodore Tronchin, 368.Google Scholar
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    See Mervaud, Voltaire a table, esp. 109–126, and Starobinki, “Le philosophe a table,” esp. 283–284. On the redemption of illness through fiction, see Evelyne Ender, “‘Speculating Carnally,’ or, Some Reflections on the Modernist Body” in Yale Journal of Criticism, 12:1 (1999), 113–130.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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