In 1766 the Paris of the Enlightenment welcomed the Milanese political philosopher Cesare Beccaria with both reverence and curiosity. All the philosophes were anxious to meet the author of Of Crimes and Punishments (1764), his celebrated treatise on judicial law that condemned torture and the death penalty. All the same, when invited to lunch by Madame Geoffrin, whose salon was considered “the headquarters of the Encyclopédie,” Beccaria found that another Italian (or rather, Neapolitan) guest was the center of attention and monopolized the conversation. And the same thing was to happen on subsequent occasions. “Whatever company we frequented,” wrote Pietro Verri to his brother Alessandro, “Galiani was there too, and wherever he is everyone keeps mum and leaves him to shine, because this abbé has a hundred wisecracks to not even the fourth part of a heart. He’s all the rage in Paris, much sought-after, everybody knows him…and everyone’s mad about him.”1

Three new books deal with the man whom Friedrich Nietzsche was to describe as “the most profound, the most acute, and perhaps the dirtiest man of his century.” Francis Steegmuller recalls the friendship between the Neapolitan Abbé Ferdinando Galiani and Louise d’Epinay, a prominent figure in the Parisian intellectual society of the time. The first volume of the correspondence between Galiani and Epinay, one of the most enchanting exchanges of letters written in French during the eighteenth century, has just appeared, and Ruth Weinreb’s scholarly book on Madame d’Epinay also devotes much space to Galiani.

Denis Diderot was among the first to lose his head over the visitor from Naples. “I love this abbé to distraction,” he wrote to Sophie Volland, and from the autumn of 1760 onward he devoted whole pages of the letters to his mistress to the stories and witticisms of Galiani. “Round and plump,” the tiny little abbé radiated a contagious joie de vivre. “In came abbé Galiani,” wrote Diderot, and with him “gaiety, imagination, esprit, madness, and everything that makes one forget the afflictions of life.”2 Less than two years after his arrival in France Ferdinando Galiani had discovered the capital city of the Enlightenment, and the capital city had adopted Galiani.

From then on, for an all too brief decade, the petit abbé was an integral part of Parisian intellectual life and “perpetually on show,” according to an almost invariable weekly schedule, at all the salons frequented by the philosophes. Along with Diderot, d’Alembert, Grimm, Marmontel, Saint-Lambert, Raynal, and Duclos—to mention only the most famous names—Galiani became a regular guest of Madame Geoffrin (Mondays and Wednesdays), Julie de Lespinasse (Tuesdays), Monsieur and Madame Helvétius (Thursdays), the Neckers (Fridays), Madame d’Epinay (Saturdays), and Baron d’Holbach (Sundays). From then on his bon mots, his anecdotes, his paradoxes, became famous in Paris and Versailles and in time reached the most distant courts of Europe. The story goes that Louis XV asked him to produce an off-the-cuff witticism on the subject of his royal self. And Galiani, quick as a flash, replied, “Sire, how could I? Your Majesty is not a subject!”

“You are made for Paris, and Paris even more is made for you,” wrote Madame d’Epinay (September 1, 1769). Yet Galiani had been sent to Paris as a mere secretary to the Neapolitan embassy, responsible for keeping his minister, Bernardo Tanucci, informed of the news that eluded official channels. Since Charles of Bourbon had become King of Spain, relinquishing the throne of Naples to his son Ferdinand IV, Tanucci had been a member of the council of regency and, in effect, the ruler of the Kingdom.

But in his diplomatic correspondence with Tanucci Galiani preferred to keep quiet about his circle of friends, saying little about the philosophes and the Encyclopédie. He knew that his minister would not approve of his sympathies. As Luciano Guerci, who with Furio Diaz has edited the excellent edition of Galiani’s collected works, puts it, “Tanucci was a man of another generation and a different cultural outlook, upset and irritated by the desecrating antitraditional violence of the philosophes, and tenaciously attached to a conservative vision of the primacy of Italy in the field of culture.”3

The Parisian friendships that Galiani kept from Tanucci might have been predicted from his past. Born in 1728 at Chieti, in Abruzzo, Ferdinando Galiani and his brother Bernardo grew up in the house of their uncle, Celestino Galiani, chaplain-in-chief of the kingdom, an office roughly equivalent to a present-day minister of culture. Celestino, a friend of Gian Battista Vico, was a man of considerable intellect, in touch with the most interesting minds of contemporary Neapolitan culture. Thanks partly to the intellectual atmosphere in his uncle’s house, Ferdinando at the age of twenty already had a wide culture and encyclopedic learning, and could move with ease from archaeological and antiquarian studies (to which the recent discoveries of Herculaneum and Pompeii had given new impetus) to problems of science, minerology, economics, and financial law, all without abandoning his literary interests. The decision to take religious orders was an entirely practical one: his ecclesiastical benefices would enable him to continue his studies and compensate him for his lack of faith.


Was he then a typical eighteenth-century abbé who haunted academies and salons and in studious leisure carried on the old tradition of humanistic Encyclopedism? Far from it: we need only read his anti-academic parody Divers Compositions on the Death of Domenico Iannaccone, Hangman to the Great Court of the Vicaria (1749) to realize that young Ferdinand had a ferocious comic instinct and anti-conformist spirit, heaping derision on the hypocrisy of official funeral eulogies by writing one for the hangman of Naples.

When he was twenty-three Galiani showed what he was capable of with the anonymous publication of his treatise On Money. This work, as has been shown by one of the leading historians of the Enlightenment, Franco Venturi, is the “masterpiece” that emerged from the discussion of coinage that was taking place in Italy around the mid-eighteenth century.4 Destined to become a classic, cited by Marx in Capital, studied by such political economists as Eugen Böhm-Bawerk, Luigi Einaudi, and Joseph Schumpeter, the treatise based a theory of value on the simultaneous action of two categories, the utility and the rarity of things. Anticipating the modern theory of marginal utility, Galiani argued that economic value depended on the progressive satisfaction of less and less essential or even superfluous needs.

Enfant terrible and enfant prodige—from the beginning to the end of his career both labels could apply to Galiani. He would continuously amuse, mock, provoke, and at the same time express brilliant intuitions, define central social problems, and hint at solutions that he himself would soon abandon. What would have happened, Benedetto Croce wondered, if Galiani had not had occasion to go to Paris? In Naples the abbé “would very likely have come to nothing for lack of effective stimuli and material to work on…. He would have abandoned himself to indolence, to academic games, to facile jests, even to coarse buffooneries.” In short, he would not have found “the right conditions for developing the best and most genuine powers of his intellect, and revealing his true physiognomy as thinker and as writer.”5 Certainly he would not have written his two masterpieces, the Dialogues sur le commerce des bleds (“Dialogues on the Grain Trade”), a brilliant confutation of the principle of free trade (starting with agricultural products) as applied dogmatically by the physiocrats, and the letters he wrote to his French friends after his return to Naples.

Galiani’s rise in Parisian circles seems to have been spectacular—a matter for hyperbole. The little abbé appeared to be “unique,” “irresistible,” “sublime,” because he embodied opposites—“he is Plato,” Melchior Grimm said, “with the verve and gestures of Harlequin.” And Voltaire, who in his exile at Ferney knew Galiani only from reading him and hearing about him, raised the literary tone a few notches by saying he embodied the qualities of Plato and Molière.

Still, such exaggerated comparisons give us a clue to the reasons behind the abbé’s success in Paris. Harlequin was after all the mask-character par excellence, the personification of the Commedia dell’Arte, and Plato the symbol of the Socratic method and the art of dialogue; and theater and conversation—what Madame Necker appropriately called “the theater of ideas”—were among the ruling passions of fashionable French society in the eighteenth century. A genuine Italian Harlequin must have been an irresistible spectacle for people who, not content with constant theater-going, would invite the actors back home for private performances and had their own theaters where they staged plays in which they often took part themselves.

The memoirs of Marmontel, the philosopher, novelist, poet, and dramatist who contributed to the Encyclopédie, give perhaps the best description of the abbé in action:

An Epicurean in his philosophy, and—having seen everything from the ridiculous standpoint—possessing a melancholy soul, there was nothing either in politics or in ethics about which he did not have some good tale to tell; and these tales always fell aptly, with the piquancy of some unexpected and ingenious allusion in them. In addition to this, picture in his gestures and style of narration the most artlessly engaging manner, and you will see what pleasure we obtained from the contrast between the profound meaning conveyed by the tale and the bantering air of the teller. I am not exaggerating when I say that one forgot all in harkening to him, sometimes for hours on end.6

With the instinct of the born actor Galiani knew how to use self-caricature as a means of seduction: “Here I am the same as ever, still the abbé, the little abbé, your little plaything. I am installed in my comfortable armchair, waving my arms and legs about like a madman, with my wig all awry, talking non-stop,” he was to write to Madame Geoffrin on his return to Naples. In a civilization of masks, as Claude Arnaud7 has defined the aristocratic French society of the eighteenth century, on which the tyranny of social propriety (les bienséances) imposed a considerable homogeneity of style, the abbé relied on his own natural sense of when to strike the discordant note. Despite his buffoonery, however, he was never seen as rough or vulgar; his wit, according to Diderot, was “like the flame of spirits of wine, gentle and light, that travels everywhere but never sears.”


Galiani, then, was an extraordinary mime and raconteur, and in him the two things seemed to be inseparable. Told by others, even by Diderot, his stories lost their edge. But the Harlequin of the comic monologues excelled also in conversation, the most indispensable of the collective rites of social life à la française. In the Paris of the 1760s this meant two different and to a large degree antithetical kinds of communication, the one playful and frivolous, the other intellectual and dialectical. There were not many capable of passing from one register to the other, and Galiani soon showed himself to be one of them.

Following the seventeenth-century aristocratic tradition, frivolous conversation rejected any form of commitment and obeyed the rules of naturalness and elegance. One could talk about everything and nothing; the important thing was how one talked about it, and any kind of serious discussion was rigorously banned. But a more recent tradition, which had grown up in the clubs and cafés and first became fashionable in the drawing room of the Marquise de Tencin, now threatened to subvert the rules of the word-game. It was in vain that Madame Geoffrin, when they attempted to talk politics, philosophy, or religion in her house, called her guests to order with her famous voilà qui est bien (in effect, “That’s enough: stop!”). For the philosophes conversation had ceased to be mere entertainment, and had become reasoning, conquest, martial strategy. We find this clearly laid out in a letter Diderot wrote to Jacques Necker (June 1775):

Opinion, this driving force of which you know the power both for good and for bad, is in origin nothing but the effect of a small number of men who think before they speak, and who at different points in society constitute permanent centers of instruction from which well-considered errors and truths little by little gain ground until they reach the utmost limits of the city, where they establish themselves as articles of faith.8

It was chiefly at the house of Baron d’Holbach, and in the Tuilerie Gardens after leaving Mme. Geoffrin, that this “small number of men” took to meeting and speaking their minds, free from the self-censorship imposed by the conventions of the salons. As we read in the Mémories of the Abbé Morellet, an encyclopedist and economist with links both to the philosophes and the physiocrats, “It was there that you were bound to hear the freest, most spirited, most instructive conversation that ever was….There is no daring notion in politics or religion that is not put forward and debated as to its pros and cons.”9 Conversation, in a word, had become for the philosophes a method of discovery, comparable to the Socratic dialogue. For Denis Diderot, the best mind of them all, as well as the most spectacular conversationalist, it was even more important than reading. It had become the prime mode of thinking.

Once again Galiani scored. His light conversation, all verve and repartee and witticisms, was the delight of the most intransigently fashionable salons. But when he was welcomed into the intellectual coterie, the “Harlequin polished by wit” (to paraphrase Marivaux) assumed the mask of the philosopher. In these circles it was not so much his ideas as his paradoxes, his provocations, his intellectual acrobatics, that gained him the nickname of Plato. Galiani was too skeptical and conservative to share the moral concerns of the Encyclopedists or to believe in their reformist projects. An empiricist with a hard-headed sense of reality, the abbé distrusted generalizations, and certainty interested him far less than doubt. He did not seek any basic transformation of the existing social order; he favored only minor changes that would help maintain the balances and interplay of forces already at work in society. But behind closed doors, with a few intimate friends, this “mini-Machiavelli” of politics showed himself a superb intellectual gadfly, “because,” Croce writes.

in Paris he had the good fortune to find the antitheses to his thesis, the enemy to combat, the obstacle in collision with which his powers were enhanced and intensified to the highest degree. This antithesis, this enemy, this obstacle, was abstractionism, universalism, encyclopedism.

The radical atheism of certain members of the coterie, which caused concern to Voltaire and had earlier scandalized David Hume, seemed to him a lamentable dogmatism. The nonreligious abbé, Croce pointed out, “had not even the faith of a materialist.”

Morellet in his Mémoires has recorded the famous episode at Baron Holbach’s, when Galiani countered Diderot’s arguments in favor of atheism by using deistic reasoning, and, comparing God to the keeper of a gambling house, succeeded in being even more blasphemous than his opponent.

Ah, philosophe, what’s this? Because ten or a dozen throws of the dice have rolled out of the box in such a way as to cause you to lose six francs, you firmly believe that this is the result of a deft move, a rigged combination, a well-woven knavish plot; whereas seeing in this universe such a prodigious number of combinations thousands and thousands of times more difficult, more complicated and more sustained, useful, etc., you do not suspect that nature’s dice are also loaded, and that there’s a great rascal up there who makes a sport of cheating you.10

But in a police state such as France under the ancien régime not all conversations could remain secret. The Neapolitan abbé talked well, but too much. The Bourbons of Naples, weaker than their cousins, had been forced to join the Bourbons of Spain and France in a “family pact” of opposition to England, Prussia, and Denmark. Concerned lest the kingdom be dragged into a war which would have brought it nothing but disadvantages, Tanucci—and in consequence also Galiani—tried to play for time with the French foreign minister, the Duc de Choiseul, who was the chief promoter of the alliance. After the abbé confided to his friend Gleichen, the Danish ambassador in Paris, that the Kingdom of Naples was against the pact, Gleichen’s dispatch passing on this information was intercepted by Choiseul, bringing about the great catastrophe of Galiani’s life. Louis XV’s foreign minister demanded that Tanucci immediately recall the abbé to Naples.

In his Correspondance littéraire, the secret fortnightly news-sheet of Parisian cultural life he edited for about a score of European princes, Friedrich Melchior Grimm deplored the fact that Galiani’s “rare, fertile, and original ideas should be limited to only a few philosophes, or allowed to evaporate in the conversations of a frivolous circle.” From this point of view the abbé’s enforced repatriation could be seen as providential, for to avoid being forgotten by his friends in Paris Galiani had to condense his conversation into letters. Over the years he wrote to Diderot, d’Alembert, Grimm, Baron d’Holbach, Madame Necker, Madame Geoffrin, and many others, but above all he wrote to Madame d’Epinay, who from the start took on the task of keeping him informed of goings-on in Paris, writing to him at least once a week, starting in July 1769 and continuing, after over five hundred letters, until only a few months before her death in February 1782. This long-distance dialogue, alternating gossip with intellectual reflection and personal confession, is justly famous, an invaluable source of information about an entire decade of French cultural life.

“You well know, my fair lady, that our correspondence will, when we are both dead, be printed. What a pleasure for us!” wrote Galiani (June 5, 1773) to Madame d’Epinay, who for her part had already taken the precaution of numbering the letters. While the correspondence was still under way Melchior Grimm offered subscribers to Correspondance littéraire numerous examples of Galiani’s epistolary talents and a few samples of that of Madame d’Epinay. Even in nineteenth-century editions of the abbé’s correspondence11 only a few of Madame d’Epinay’s letters were published, and some of these were spurious. It took the publication of her letters in 1929 by the great Neapolitan scholar Fausto Nicolini to reveal her full part in the correspondence, 12 and only today, after more than two centuries, are the letters between Abbé Galiani and Madame d’Epinay about to be reassembled in a handsome critical edition published by Desjonquères in the Collection XVIIIe Siècle, directed by Henri Coulet, and edited by Georges Dulac and Daniel Maggetti.

How did Madame d’Epinay become the privileged correspondent of the Neapolitan abbé? An explanation is put forward by Francis Steegmuller, who gracefully describes the various stages of Madame d’Epinay’s life. Her story in outline resembles that of many other women of eighteenth-century Parisian high society, but Madame d’Epinay’s strength of character and intelligence made a great difference.

Louise-Florence-Pétronille-Tardieu d’Esclavelles, the impoverished daughter of the governor of the citadel of Valenciennes, was married off in 1745 to Denis-Joseph de Lalive de Bellegarde, the son of a well-to-do financier and a cousin on her mother’s side. Louise was nineteen, uneducated, ingenuous, and sentimental, and believed that marriage must be synonymous with love and happiness. Though only a little older, her husband soon revealed a marked inclination for extravagance, gambling, and other women, evidently concerned to bury any trace of bourgeois virtues beneath the manner of a well-bred aristocratic libertine. Louise’s dream of conjugal happiness therefore lasted only a few weeks. Her husband gave her two children, venereal disease, and absolute freedom to do what she liked.

Of help to her in emerging from this disastrous experience was her first official lover, Charles-Louis Dupin de Francueil, also the son of a leading financier. The least that can be said of him is that he knew intelligence when he saw it, since he had hired Jean-Jacques Rousseau as his secretary. The relationship with Francueil came to an end after four years of passion, and not without some bitterness; still, by then the unhappy young woman had the experience of a genuine emotional attachment, while her intellectual curiosity had been awakened by contact with the refined, educated milieu frequented by Francueil.

Her next lover, Friedrich Melchior Grimm, had the greatest effect on her life. Born in Regensburg, Germany, in 1723, Grimm arrived in Paris in 1749 and almost immediately became a prominent figure in the coterie philosophique. In 1753, with the help of Diderot, he took over as editor of the Correspondance littéraire, bringing it increased prestige and enlarging the group of subscribers. To Madame d’Epinay, often in poor health and now entirely responsible for looking after her family, this German journalist appeared as a savior, and in him she found the moral and intellectual support she had never had. Through Grimm, Madame d’Epinay was in touch with Diderot, Saurin, Marmontel, d’Holbach, and others, and although she kept no formal salon her house became an important meeting place for intellectuals. In her “self-portrait” written during the same year (1755) in which she began her relationship with Grimm, she wrote that she was determined to become une femme de grand mérite, while fulfilling her vocation as a writer.

No doubt Grimm liked to run Madame d’Epinay’s life for her and to be adored by her. But this does not mean that the tyran en blanc—a nickname owing to his authoritarian temperament and overuse of white lead on his face—was prepared to give all that much time to his mistress. When he was not caught up in his journalistic work he was often traveling throughout Europe on the diplomatic missions that earned him the title “Baron of the Empire.” As years went by it also became more and more evident that he preferred to kneel at the feet of Catherine of Russia than stay with Madame d’Epinay. For her part, though never breaking off her liaison with Grimm, Madame d’Epinay was on the lookout for friends capable of providing some psychological support and with whom she could establish a genuine intellectual understanding. In return she was ready to offer them attention, hospitality, and an affectionate helping hand.

In 1756 and 1757 Louise had tried to befriend Jean-Jacques Rousseau, putting him up for twenty months in the Hermitage, an annex of the d’Epinay country property on the fringe of the Forêt de Montmorency; but this idyll soon turned sour when Rousseau, as he wrote in his Confessions and in a long letter to Grimm, came to resent her generosity and what he saw as the excessive obligation to keep her company (“Compare Madame d’Epinay’s kindnesses with my sacrifice…and two years of slavery and tell me who—she or I—has more obligations to the other”)—not to mention a variety of other difficulties between them. She later published her own version of what happened in Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant, with telling quotations from his letters to her. But, as Ruth Weinreb comments, Rousseau’s charges eventually “cast a long shadow” on Madame d’Epinay’s reputation.

Still, Rousseau had a strong influence on her thought and work. We need only compare his Emile with the Conversations d’Emilie of Madame d’Epinay, her dialogues on the subject of education. Even if they reached different conclusions, both stressed the importance of environment in forming children’s character and favored education at home that would emphasize simplicity, clear explanation, and naturalness. A few years after she broke with Rousseau, she turned to Galiani, and this time she chose well.

Francis Steegmuller’s portrait of Madame d’Epinay is skillfully constructed, but like most other modern accounts does not add to what we already know of her. The reason is not hard to find. Won over by Madame d’Epinay, historians tend to adopt the view of her life that she herself gave in her long autobiographical novel, Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant. And yet the self-vindicating intentions of that book are clear enough, as one can see in her craftily tendentious account of her friendship and quarrel with Rousseau.

Madame d’Epinay had many things to answer for, not so much to the reader (the novel came out posthumously) as to herself. It was not easy to justify a failed marriage, two official extramarital relationships, at least two illegitimate children, her firstborn son a scoundrel; and it is hardly surprising that in trying to show how, in the tough school of life, she gradually formed a superior moral conscience, illuminated by the religion of the heart, Madame d’Epinay reconstructed and in some cases falsified the record. Although Steegmuller says he is fully aware that the Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant cannot be used as an “innocent” source and a genuine autobiographical document, he determinedly adopts Madame d’Epinay’s point of view in his book. This is notably the case, and particularly vulnerable so far as historical method is concerned, in the use he makes of diary excerpts from the Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant in order to reconstruct Louise’s relationship with Francueil: he simply replaces the name of the character in the novel, Formose, with that of Francueil. The biographer thus uncritically traps himself into a retrospective and highly idealized version of the facts, one that Madame d’Epinay has devised to justify her own conduct. Madame de Montbrillant’s purity of heart and delicacy of feelings at the moment when she has her first affair become, and without any assessing view on Steegmuller’s part, those of Madame d’Epinay.

The decision to adopt uncritically Madame d’Epinay’s point of view is in keeping with the book’s entire approach. Steegmuller meticulously reconstructs the stage, and the drama to be acted on it, leaving the dialogue to the actors—Galiani, Madame d’Epinay, Diderot, Grimm, Voltaire, etc.—and intervening as little as possible. Galiani and d’Epinay communicate in extracts from the Correspondance, chosen and translated with considerable finesse. This skillful work of literary marquetry enables Steegmuller to create an elegant period piece and to give plausible characterizations of Galiani and Madame d’Epinay. Evidently they interest him far more as “characters” within Enlightenment culture than they do as writers; and it is their esprit and their “style” that he wants to evoke rather than their work and their ideas. Hence Steegmuller feels no need to explain the intellectual positions taken by Galiani and Madame d’Epinay in the cultural and political life of Paris in the 1760s and 1770s. Steegmuller probably wished to spare his readers explanations of complex ideas, but in doing so he has exposed himself to the opposite risk—that of losing sight of the most vital distinguishing mark of his characters, which is their intense participation in and original contribution to the intellectual controversies of their time, in which it was impossible to separate esprit from the exchange of ideas.

A different and far more unusual Madame d’Epinay emerges from Ruth Plaut Weinreb’s Eagle in a Gauze Cage. Based on many years’ research in the archives, Ruth Weinreb’s book aims to shift “the emphasis from the ‘marquise’ in her salon to the philosophe in her study,” and it “moves Epinay’s writings to the center.” Elisabeth Badinter had already suggested that literary ambition was central to Louise’s personality, her weapon in the struggle for independence from the subjection imposed on her by sex;13 but Ruth Weinreb, after considering virtually all her known work, gives a more precise account of Madame d’Epinay’s literary qualities and ideas and ends by claiming for her “the status of woman of letters in its fullest sense.” The phrase, Ms. Weinreb reminds us, was explained by Voltaire in the Encyclopédie: “Today universal knowledge is no longer within the grasp of an individual but the true gens de lettres make an effort to be acquainted with other fields even if they are unable to cultivate them.”

Weinreb describes how, as a moralist, educator, novelist, and journalist, Madame d’Epinay dealt with contemporary problems such as the reform of education and the situation of women, using the literary forms—essays, epistolary novels, dialogues, articles, and letters—that were then seen as experimental. Sainte-Beuve had written of Histoire de Madame Montbrillant that the book was a superb portrait of eighteenth century society. Weinreb, for her part, examines the text to see what it reveals about the author and finds it to be a “novel of development,” the story of how d’Epinay’s heroine acquired moral and intellectual independence. Certainly Mme. d’Epinay wanted to give an account based on her own experience, but instead of completely identifying with her main character, she was able to describe her from a critical distance. In doing so, Weinreb writes, she gave a new direction to the epistolary genre and “expanded the frontier of écriture féminine.”

In reconstructing Madame d’Epinay’s intellectual history Ms. Weinreb, moreover, gives a particularly revealing account of her stay in Geneva between 1757 and 1759. Seriously ill, having broken with Rousseau who refused to accompany her there, she went to Geneva to be treated by the famous Dr. Tronchin, and there for the first time she found herself alone. Far from her lover, her children, her mother, and her friends, she suddenly discovered that she had more resources of her own than she had suspected, and she was able to write part of her Histoire de Madame Montbrillant. The friendships she formed with men such as Tronchin and Voltaire gave her a new sense of her possibilities, and Voltaire himself praised the strong intelligence within her frail body with the famous image of “un aigle dans un cage de gaze.”

But it was only with Galiani that she was able to establish a deep complicity, a tacit pact of friendship that was free from any sentimental misunderstanding and was to gain in strength with the passing years. It was indeed in the form of letters to the Neapolitan abbé that she was to write her finest pages. The first volume of the Correspondance, masterfully edited, bears witness to this intellectual complicity. The volume, containing 104 letters written between July 1769 (Galiani had left Paris on 25 June) and October 1770, records the deep distress of his exile—“Yes, Paris is my country,” he wrote in one of his first letters. The feeling that his life was shattered, and his continual nostalgic yearning for a lost paradise are here evoked with all the dramatic intensity of a tragedy on which the curtain has barely fallen. Indeed, as we read these letters we sometimes get the impression that the abbé has not yet fully grasped how irreparable the catastrophe really is; in his heart of hearts he feels that he is still in Paris.

In Paris, indeed, and in the hands of Diderot and Madame d’Epinay, he had left one of his more ambitious compositions, the unfinished manuscript of the Dialogues sur le commerce des bleds. The notion of writing a tract in dialogue form against the free circulation of wheat and other grains arose, needless to say, from a conversation, and a conversation moreover at the house of Madame d’Epinay. Lately returned from a brief stay in England at a time when the specter of famine was recurring throughout Europe, Galiani asked how governments could deal with the social and economic consequences of an uncontrollable natural phenomenon such as a series of bad harvests. Was it advisable to adopt a protectionist policy, stockpiling food and controlling prices? Or was it preferable to liberalize the market both within the country and in dealings abroad, hoping that higher earnings would encourage the farmers to produce more? The latter policy had been followed since 1763, when the French government abandoned the traditional limits on grain imports, which dated back to Colbert. The promoters of liberalization were the physiocrats, who advocated the free-trade theories outlined by François Quesnay in the Encyclopédie. Having established economics as an independent science, they had formed in Paris a formidable Ecole including such figures as Quesnay himself, de Gournay, Turgot, Dupont de Nemours, Le Mercier de La Rivière, Morellet, Trudaine, and the Marquis de Mirabeau.

Galiani had already had occasion to reflect on the grain problem during the severe famine that struck the Kingdom of Naples in 1764, and in his letters to Tanucci he was favorable to the views of the physiocrats and the measures taken by the French authorities. But four years later, faced with a new situation in France—rising prices, local famines, growing popular discontent—and also with the abstract dogmatism and sectarian intransigence of the physiocrats, Galiani, with his usual realism, changed his mind. It was evident to him that in economics, as in politics, general rules were to be distrusted, and that the appropriate measures would depend on the specific circumstances.

The abbé expounded his new theories so brilliantly that Diderot and d’Holbach begged him to write them down. He took their advice, but he was summoned back to Naples just as he was finishing his essay. It was only natural that when forced to leave France in a hurry he should have left his manuscript in the hands of his most trusted friends, who were to see to its publication. Many of the textual changes made by Madame d’Epinay, and even more by Diderot, went far beyond correcting Italianisms and printing errors, and they pose a complex problem of textual criticism,14 but, as the first volume of the Correspondance makes clear, it was chiefly d’Epinay who took charge of the political and organizational side of things, and reported on it, in letter after letter, to Galiani.

However, Galiani’s brilliant essay, which succeeded in being witty about a grim problem—“No one has been so funny about famine,” Voltaire wrote to Madame Necker—was destined to cause not a few headaches among the philosophes. Georges Dulac in his introduction and Daniel Maggetti in his notes show how the movement loosely labeled la philosophie included very diverse minds, and how, by launching his final Parisian broadside, Galiani brought its internal conflicts to the surface.

Their reputation damaged by Galiani’s arguments, which were confirmed by the famine that occurred in April of the year of publication, the physiocrats organized a counter-offensive, and the Abbé Morellet (who in the past had paid for his militant “enlightenment” by spending time in the Bastille) was charged with preparing an official refutation of Galiani’s propositions. Galiani had no success when he appealed to Morellet to be skeptical of the physiocrats’ arguments. Morellet replied that he had always found it “impossible to be skeptical about the great questions of liberty, property and the rights of citizens….I oppose your dialogues because I believe your principles false.”15

But when a new comptroller general of finance was put in office, the government suddenly decided to return to protectionist policies and the advice of physiocrats was cast aside. The philosophes could not remain indifferent to this setback for the physiocrats. Quite apart from the question of whether they had become too doctrinaire in their views on the grain market, their campaign for free trade had, as Dulac writes, great symbolic importance, because it aimed at preparing the way for other reforms, such as suppressing the guilds and the corvée (forced labor), the project for a new tax system, and so on. Besides this, the physiocrats had many allies in “enlightened” circles, starting with those who frequented Baron d’Holbach’s salon.

Discernible behind Galiani’s brilliant realism, moreover, was a deep conservatism amply confirmed in his letters to Madame d’Epinay. In recommending “prudence” he set out to defend the fluctuating, empirical methods characteristic of the monarchical tradition rather than the political schemes for sweeping and radical reforms put forward by the men of the Enlightenment. As Dulac says, the abbé “was certainly not wrong in doubting the ability of the monarchy” to carry through its free trade policy. Turgot’s failure, which he had predicted, would soon corroborate such doubts. But Galiani himself had no desire whatever for a change in the traditional order of things: “I love the monarchy,” he wrote in his usual provocative tone to Madame d’Epinay on January 2, 1773, “because I feel myself far closer to the government than to the plough. I have an income of fifteen thousand francs, which I would lose to enrich the peasants.”

The Dialogues on the grain problem therefore became a sort of ideological litmus test for the very people who had encouraged Galiani to write them, and revealed to what extent the unity of the philosophes was a mere façade. In a sermon philosophique delivered on January 1, 1770, at d’Holbach’s house, Grimm praised Galiani and violently attacked the physiocrats; but this only showed that by this time he was one of those “discouraged philosophes” who, Diderot wrote, “consider the hopes placed in the spread of Enlightenment to be naive, and prefer to put enlightened despots back into action.” D’Holbach and Diderot, on the other hand, “found in the inveterate defects of the regime reason enough to make their critique and their struggle more radical.” In addition, despite the loss of the internal cohesion which had united the philosophes in the great communal effort of the Encyclopédie, Diderot and d’Holbach (as Dulac notes) remained attached to “a certain militant notion” both of the philosophical movement and economists associated with it, and in consequence—unlike Grimm—they attempted to moderate the tone of the dispute.

Writing from Naples, the abbé had no inclination whatever to soften his views. Until then he had never even bothered to put his name to his writings; now he was in a state of excitement over the coming publication: “I shall see myself, read myself, go into ecstasies over myself, and ask, ‘Is it possible that I have so much wit? Who would ever believe it?’ ” he wrote jestingly to Madame d’Epinay. In his exile Galiani’s chief desire was that everyone in Paris would appreciate, and talk about, his wit, and that the success of his work would vindicate the humiliation of his recall to Naples.

In his letters to Madame d’Epinay, therefore, we see him anxiously following the reactions provoked by his Dialogues, urging his friends to write about them—he particularly wanted a review by Diderot—and hoping that the authorities would side with him against his critics. Unlike the coterie, Madame d’Epinay identified herself entirely with Galiani’s work and wanted to fight for it against all his detractors, caring nothing about the consequences for la philosophie. Diderot and d’Holbach became angry with her for exacerbating the dispute with the physiocrats.

When Diderot finally reviewed the Dialogues in an article appearing in the Mercure in June 1771, he praised Galiani while avoiding a direct conflict with the physiocrats. His prudent diplomacy did not pass unnoticed by the abbé, who would have preferred rather “to be revenged than praised,” as he wrote to Madame d’Epinay (March 16, 1771). But among Diderot’s remarks one is particularly acute. He praised the author for having succeeded “in mastering our language to the point of writing with this facility, this force, this elegance, but above all this tone of natural jocularity,” and added that “those who have had some acquaintance with him will all say that his Dialogues are modeled on his conversation.”

Was it only for practical reasons that Galiani became a brilliant French writer—“one of ours,” as Sainte-Beuve put it? To express his genius Galiani used a form and an instrument that he could only have acquired through direct contact with the fashionable and cultured world of Paris. And this, as he wrote to Madame d’Epinay on May 12, 1770, was because “the language of a nation which talks more than it thinks, of a nation which needs to talk in order to think, and which only thinks in order to talk, is bound to be the language which best lends itself to dialogue.” Understanding as he did the intrinsic possibilities of that language, which is to say the French spoken by the eighteenth-century elites, Galiani in his dialogues and correspondence was able to confer on the most ephemeral of all the arts the enduring form of a work of literature.

Translated from the Italian by Patrick Creagh

This Issue

December 17, 1992