Brave New World

France in the Enlightenment

by Daniel Roche, Translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer
Harvard University Press, 723 pp., $24.95 (paper)

Daniel Roche is an eminent French scholar who has previously written on French provincial academies and the “people” of Paris. One must presumably call him a “social historian,” but in his long and wide-ranging book1 he aims, he says, to “move from social history to history on a broader scale.” It is important that the kind of history he is undertaking is made quite clear. It is not narrative history, though it has an overall chronological drift; nor is it concerned, except incidentally, with wars or with politicians, or (much) with intellectual history. One could say that its central topic is structures—social structures, institutional structures, and mental structures—and the interaction between them, with the “possibilities of transformation” that this brings. Or, more simply, one could say that Roche’s subject is change: the change that came over France during the eighteenth century, when the ground shifted under the ancien régime. He warns us, however, of the danger of teleology or hindsight—of writing the history of “Enlightenment” France in the light of the French Revolution. (In practice he does not always succeed in avoiding this. But then who, apart perhaps from Michel Foucault, has ever managed to?)

Roche’s book falls into three parts. The first is an essay in epistemology, a study of the “frames,” or perspectives, through which French people of the eighteenth century looked at the world and their own country. According to Roche, changing understanding of space became visible, for example, in economic thinking, in which the concept of an economic “circuit” and the integration of roads, canals, rivers, ships, and port facilities, as instruments in the forming of a national market, received a new emphasis. Concern with space also became evident in the government’s growing obsession with mapping, surveying, and boundary drawing. And the same could be said, in Roche’s view, for its emphasis on efficient collection of taxes and control of citizens’ movements. Likewise, according to Roche, the French interpretation of time was transformed from a seasonal and cyclical conception, reinforced by religious practice, to a linear or clockwork one, with the implications that this carried for attitudes toward history, religion, and progress.

Part Two goes on to comparable changes in collective “representations,” and in particular the weakening of the mystique of the monarchy and the “social hierarchy.” These challenges to the court, church, and other traditional institutions were the result, Roche suggests, of the rise of a “public space,” or institutionalized public opinion. (The term comes from the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, whose The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere [1962] has had a large impact on eighteenth-century social history.) Among these new “spaces” for liberal public discourse, discussed by Roche, were new educational institutions, coffeehouses, lodges and secret societies, salons, and, of course, the press.

Part Three describes “life triumphant,” as seen in the mood of “utilitarian optimism” which developed in the second half of the century. It went along, according to Roche, with a revaluation of science, which came to be directed toward…

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