O.P. Recommends: Alison Gopnik’s ‘David Hume and the Buddha’

I just read a delightful piece in The Atlantic‘s October 2015 issue which combines three of my favorite things: history of ideas, a detective story, and David Hume. In her article ‘David Hume and the Buddha’, psychology researcher, philosopher, and author Alison Gopnik tells the tale of how she detected elements of Buddhist philosophy in Hume’s A Treatise on Human Nature, and how she set out to discover if he had indeed been influenced by it.

In Hume’s time, mid-1700’s, there was very little access to Buddhist philosophy in Europe, at least in part due to church suppression of its public dissemination. There was, however, some accounts of it buried in private libraries here and there, especially among the Jesuits, travelers, missionaries, and scholars as they were (and are). As Gopnik read up on Buddhist philosophy and European first encounters with it, she stumbled upon more than an ideological link with Hume: a possible way he could have discovered as a young scholar.

Like the 23-year-old Hume, Gopnik had fallen into a depression, but in her case, it was brought on by the changes that so often occur in mid-life: the children have grown up and left home, her marriage had broken up, she moved, and the stress of it all left her unable to work for a time. Hume’s depression was likely brought on by too many years of intense study, too much time spent indoors all alone. His Letter to a Physician of 1734 is a clear and detailed account of what it’s like to suffer a severe bout of depression, and he recognized it, clear-headed naturalist that he was, as an ailment of the physical body, and just as amenable to a cure if only the right one could be found.

Hume found the cure for depression in regular exercise and in enjoying the company of other people; Gopnik found in in a new love and renewed enthusiasm for her favorite pursuits, but first she found it in Hume. After finishing Gopnik’s story, I find myself even more impatient for my next traveling philosophy adventure in the history of ideas. Until then, I’ll continue to be inspired by Hume’s, Gopnik’s, the Buddha’s, and other great thinkers’ work, and heed Thomas Jefferson’s advice: if you keep yourself busy and your mind occupied, depression will be hard pressed to find its way in.

Gopnik, Alison. ‘David Hume and the Buddha’. The Atlantic, October 2015 issue.
Published online as ‘How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis:

David Hume, the Buddha, and a search for the Eastern roots of the Western Enlightenment’.

On Plastic Surgery and Other Cosmetic Interventions

I work for a dermatologist who focuses his practice on medical dermatology. While all treat many of the same medical conditions, an ever-increasing percentage of dermatologists devote a substantial portion of their time to performing cosmetic procedures, from Botox and filler injections, chemical peels, and laser treatments to surgeries: facelifts, chin implants, eyelid modifications, and so on. The sign on the door of the medical practice I work for, however, reads ‘Diseases of the Skin’.

To me, this is a reassuring message, as if to say to all who enter ‘We are here to try and cure what ails you.’ It contrasts sharply with the message I get from cosmetic dermatology and surgery ads: ‘We agree that you’re ugly and need to be altered.’

Now, of course, this is only what I read into those ads, especially in my more sensitive moods. I don’t for a moment speak for anyone else, including the doctor I work for. ‘Diseases of the Skin’ is a simple statement of fact, conveying the information that he specializes in certain areas of dermatology and nothing else.

I’ve thought about the issue of cosmetic medical interventions, aka, ‘getting work done’, quite a bit over the years. The idea of using surgery and other invasive procedures to permanently alter a person’s body because they and others have decided they don’t like and can’t accept how they look makes me very uncomfortable, even angry on their behalf in case others have led them to feel that way. I admit right now, I have a longstanding bias against most forms of plastic surgery and cosmetic dermatology, and even the de facto social requirement that women wear heavy makeup, binding clothing, and hobbling footwear to be successful in many fields of work, especially in the performing arts and public media, and to ‘make a good catch’ as it used to be commonly called. Oh, and these women are often effectively required to ‘get work done’ at some point, too. While these procedures (CMI’s for short) are performed on men too, over 90% are performed on women, so I’ll continue to address cosmetic interventions as if it’s primarily a woman’s issue, though most of my comments apply to men as well.

So why worry about any of it? Is it any of my business what other women freely choose to do with their bodies? Are are my objections just personal, rooted in some sort of insecurity, just ‘sour grapes’ towards other women who are willing to do what I’m too lazy, cheap, or tomboyish to do?

As to the first, I don’t believe our life decisions have nothing to do with others; in fact, as I often argue, our choices so often affect other people in some way that we should make it a habit of assuming that they do. But whether or not deciding to have a cosmetic procedure performed is a purely personal choice, it’s an important topic for public discussion, since there are so many risks and ramifications to financial, physical, and mental health, and so many moral issues to consider. And when it comes to freedom of choice, I’m not at all convinced that the pressure women feel to conform to certain standards of beauty, especially the perception that they must have cosmetic procedures in order to have the kind of life they want, can meaningfully be referred to as real freedom.

As to the latter, I’ve occasionally wondered if elements of some or all of those things influence my attitudes on the subject. Of course I sometimes feel insecure in the presence of particularly beautiful or glamorous people, especially as a teen, but I’m quite sure everyone experiences these feelings from time to time. I also refuse to wear makeup primarily for two reasons: I loathe the scent, feel, and taste of it, and I’m not willing to spend the time it takes to put it on and touch it up all the time. But this is also normal, I know plenty of women who wear little or no makeup. Still, perhaps, my youthful ‘sour grapes’ got the whole ball rolling on my mostly negative attitude towards cosmetic interventions, it’s hard to say. But at this point, I’ve considered the case for and against cosmetic interventions, especially those undergone for the sake of simple vanity, so many times that I’ve thought out a wide range of arguments, and though I’m not sure I’ve drawn rock-solid conclusions, the objections remain. I’d like to share them with you, dear readers, and see what comes of them.

I’ve often shared my concerns with the dermatologist I work for, but his attitude toward the whole issue of CMI’s is much more tolerant than mine. Some weeks ago, he gave me a cutting of an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in April of this year. It’s the abstract of a study whose purpose is ‘to introduce the concept of facial profiling to the surgical literature and to evaluate and quantify the changes in personality perception that occur with facial rejuvenation surgery’. The study seems, on the face of it, to provide some scientific evidence against at least some of my objections. So what are they, anyway? Well, the study gives me a good starting point.

It goes like this: the researchers gave people pictures of 30 white women who had undergone various kinds of plastic surgery, and gave the participants a mixed assortment of the before- and after-procedure photos. They then had the participants rate the people in the photos for several personality traits, including attractiveness and femininity. As you may have guessed, the study found that the people who had received plastic surgery were rated significantly higher in several four positive traits: attractiveness, femininity, social skills, and likeability. They rated the people in the photos for other traits, too, some positive and some neutral, but there were no significant statistical differences for those. By the way, I was surprised to find the researchers didn’t ask the participants to rate for traits usually considered negative, unless ‘aggressiveness’ counts.

As I read the abstract, however, I didn’t find much that told against my objections; rather, several problems with the study leapt to the eye.

First, the study had a very tiny pool of subjects whose pictures were rated, and an even tinier pool of participants doing the rating, which may render it little more than a record of statistical outliers. It is difficult to fund a study, and the small size may not necessarily render it useless, since the researchers may very well have conducted this small study just to see if their hypothesis had any merit at all. Still, it seems hard to be convinced by such thinly tested results.

Secondly, and I think especially problematically when it comes to perception, the participants only looked at still pictures. I’ve frequently observed that those who have had ‘some work done’ often look rather odd in person: Botox-paralyzed brows don’t harmonize well with the expression of the the rest of the face; various parts of the body don’t match in age appearance, with smooth cheeks and perked breasts accompanying evidence of age and softening in other parts of the body; eyebrows often end up arched alarmingly and eyes narrowed by being tightened too many times; the corners of the mouth curve artificially, Joker-like, whether the person is smiling, talking, or at rest; scar tissue often adds a stiff and often texturally incongruous look to surgically altered areas of the body. A still photo reveals only a small fraction of the actual alterations in appearance and movement that are caused by CMI’s.

As to measuring attractiveness, femininity, sociability, and the like: many of these are mostly or entirely culturally ingrained stereotypes of what a (white) woman ‘should’ look like if she is likely to possess these traits. But the cultivation and perpetuation of many of these stereotypes is one of those things I object to the most in the first place. What sorts of surgery did these few women choose to have and why did they select those particular ones? What results were they trying to achieve: to look like a typical Hollywood starlet or socialite, or to look like their own younger selves, or to express their own idiosyncratic ideals of beauty? And as to those involved in the study itself: Why were only white women chosen, and why these particular set of personality traits? Did the raters also perform other tasks to help determine what they think an ‘attractive, feminine, and socially skilled’ person ‘looks like’ in the first place, and why they assume that’s how they look?

Now, the authors of the study, at least in this abstract, seem to try not to make too many preemptive value judgments on these points. They merely state that the results of this study indicate that receiving plastic surgery can alter one’s likelihood of being perceived in certain ways by other people. I don’t critique this study to claim the researchers are wrong in their predictions, but to point out various ways in which I think the study is unsuccessful in demonstrating what they want it to. The study was just too small; the participants did not have an adequate opportunity to observe what recipients of plastic surgery really look like since they saw only stills; and the way the participants were asked to rate the photos, as well the way the researchers selected the traits and photos themselves, probably influenced the outcome to a significant degree, revealing at least as much about the researchers’ biases, or tendencies to ‘facially profile’, as anything else.

I’m also going to stop here and make this clear: I’m fully aware that CMI’s, like the field of dermatology as a whole, have many wonderful, life-enhancing applications, repairing all manner of disfigurements caused by disease and injury, from tumors to severe acne to burns to the ravages caused by severe weight-gain and -loss. People with such disfigurements, and those born with physical traits that are very unusual or exaggerated, may have a very hard time getting a job, promotions, and dates, and feeling as if they can live freely without the constant distractions that come with having a very unusual appearance. Try as one might, it’s extremely difficult to keep stares, startled or disgusted looks, and other negative reactions to one’s appearance from damaging one’s peace and overall happiness. CMI’s, in these cases, can provide enormous benefits by normalizing appearance and thus ease feelings of stress and isolation, remove unwanted negative attention, and open up opportunities.

I also want to make it clear that I’m not critiquing the human desire to be beautiful or to ornament ourselves. The human species is an imaginative, creative, and playful one, after all, and I am the first to admire a fantastic costume, a gorgeous shade of lipstick, or a flattering haircut. What I’m critiquing is the obsession we have with fitting into very narrow, culturally-derived stereotypes of what it means to be attractive, the ways in which we oblige one another to do so, and our blasé attitudes towards these procedures regardless of their effects on our financial, mental, and physical health.

Cosmetic dermatology treatments and plastic surgery are expensive. They may also be addictive, or signify and likely exacerbate underlying mental health problems. (I found conflicting information on this point, since few rigorous studies have been done; while a large percentage of recipients of cosmetic procedures display observable and well-documented behaviors consistent with addiction, it’s still uncertain if the procedure-seeking is a primary or secondary symptom.) They are also often unpredictable in their results, and sometimes dangerous. People can suffer allergic reactions to the chemicals used, or the skin can burn, scar, or be discolored. We all tend to heal and to scar at different rates as well, even in different parts of the same body, and often there’s no way to predict ahead of time how the procedures will turn out, how well the results will harmonize with one’s overall appearance, and how much they will affect the natural mobility and expression of the face and body.

The story of the twenty eerily near-identical Korean beauty queens that went viral a couple of years ago is a case in point, a story which I found disturbing in the way it reveals the degree to which an obsession with artificial beauty standards can overrun a culture, destroying even its acceptance of the way its individuals naturally look. One of the most popular cosmetic procedures these Korean beauty queens choose, after all, is eyelid surgery to make their eyes look less ‘Asian’ and more ‘western’. A quick internet search will reveal innumerable horror stories of individuals who become obsessed with cosmetic interventions, and their addiction to ‘getting work done’ leaves them scarred, deformed, even disabled.

Anecdotally, I tend to be very conscious of such things because of my years of training in observing the details of the human body. Drawing was among my favorite pursuits as a child and young adult, and I studied figure drawing and painting in my first go-around in college. My fascination with the human form, combined with my sewing hobby and my years as a buyer, seller, and tailor of denim and vintage clothing, led me to choose the career of dressmaker and independent fashion designer for many years. I assisted people in choosing the proper fit in clothing (and still do!), and designed and created patterns and custom pieces to fit various figure.

And over time, the detailed observation and assessment of bodily forms gave me a deep appreciation of the wonderful and fascinating variety inherent in the human species. Noticing how the features and foibles of a person’s appearance express their personality and life story has become such a deeply ingrained habit in me that I just can’t turn off. Automatically, I assess the proportions of the faces and bodies I see, and note how the ways people carry themselves, their bodily attitudes and ways of speaking, denote their mood and general personality. A gesture, an expression, a moment’s pose, the way the hair falls across the shoulders or the hand rests on a surface, will sometimes strike me as the perfect subject for artistic representation. I’ll draw, paint, quilt, or snap a picture in my imagination, or decide which other artist would choose this as their subject. What rich offerings to the imagination does the variety in human appearance bring! In so many ways, it’s strange to me to decide that wrinkles and other body folds, those curves and lines that lend interesting shape and dramatic texture to a face or body, are ugly and must be eliminated, or that all bodies should be tucked, sucked, and otherwise molded into a narrow and far less interesting range of forms. I remain very grateful for the wonderful training I received, and thank all of those who helped me to recognize the true beauty and interest there is in this world.

And in my day to day life, I regularly have the opportunity to closely observe the results of regular recipients of cosmetic interventions and the personality traits that often accompany them. The dermatology practice I work at rents out a cosmetic dermatologist’s office one day a week to see patients local to that area. When it’s my turn to accompany the doctor to that relatively wealthy suburb, I find myself in the position of closely observing the physical results of cosmetic intervention when that doctor’s patients come in to purchase skin care products, as well as their behavior towards those of us behind the front desk. And what I observe is not always pretty, to say the least. These women are often curt, demanding, complaining, and chatter at long length about every little real or perceived flaw in their appearance that they’re eager to ‘cure’, whether or not that European-formula sunblock-concealer or skin serum costs sixty dollars per tiny bottle, and many with the stiff, tight faces of the sort I described earlier, oddly inexpressive and of indeterminate age. They have very often not, in my view, purchased beauty, good social skills, or an aura of happiness with the faces they now wear.

There’s an actress I’ve long thought very lovely, and I admired her since I first saw her, self-confident and wry, in an early 90’s movie. A few years ago, I was glad to see her act again in a certain miniseries, and while I still enjoyed her acting very much, I watched in dismay as, between each season, her face was altered more and more until I found myself cringing a little during her scenes. Having clearly ‘gotten some work done’ time and time again, her once very expressive face stiffened, stretched, and morphed into an ever more mask-like appearance. Now, I find her nearly unrecognizable. Do I fault her, and so many others like her (yes, some men too)? Sometimes I think yes, sometimes no, usually somewhere between the two, but my intention is not at all to pick on people in her position. I don’t really know what it’s like to feel that you have to choose between staying in a profession you know and love and having to remain looking as young and smooth as possible. Like all people at at some point in their lives, I do know the deep discomfort of perceived bodily dysmorphism, a feeling particularly common in our culture as we so often compare our own appearance unfavorably with cultural standards of beauty. But in her case, as with so many others, I find the surgical, ahem, ‘enhancements’ a failure, not at all conducive to her fully expressing her talents or growing into new roles she could explore.

So far, we’ve considered the practical and artistic downsides to CMI’s. But what I find even more problematic are some of the ethical implications, the ways in which these practices can help create, instill, and perpetuate some undesirable character traits if we are concerned with respect, tolerance, and appreciation for ourselves and our fellow human beings.

For one thing, participating in the project of creating a world of beauty-conformism can be socially irresponsible. There’s an idea, commonly held by liberals, that if a person wants to do something with their own body, it’s nobody else’s business. In short, people should be allowed to do whatever they like, without being subject to moral judgment or criticism of any kind, unless it harms other people directly and only in certain ways. I think this view is mistaken, or at least shortsighted. While I’m a fellow liberal and lover of freedom, it’s also true that our actions more often than not can and do affect others, indirectly, directly, or in the aggregate, and judging our own and other’s actions in light of this fact is essential to caring about doing the right thing. When individuals make personal decisions in matters of what they buy, how much they consume and waste, how their actions affect public safety, how much they contribute to pollution and future overpopulation, how courteously, fairly, and respectfully we treat our fellow human beings in our day to day dealings with them, and so on, we see that our personal decisions really do impact other people. Participating in a harmful or potentially harmful practice of engendering beauty conformism, for example, can be as irresponsible as participating in the wasteful and polluting practices of a hyper-consumerist culture. In their concern for liberating people from the oppressions and encroachments of others as well as from government, many confuse liberalism in politics with the idea that we shouldn’t value certain things over others, and that we shouldn’t make judgments about might be better ways to think and act.

So when we keep buying into this view that the only people that count are the ones that look good (whatever we mean by that) and help perpetuate it by choosing cosmetic interventions for ourselves, we help create a world that’s less free. By doing so, we do our part to foster the view that women (and men) should all ‘look good’ in more or less the same way if they expect to get ahead in the world, and if they don’t, they can expect to be sidelined in their careers or even in life. For myself, I already feel this way about the expectation that we women must alter the appearance of our faces with makeup and increase the sexiness of our foot, butt, and leg shape with high heels in order to be feminine and attractive, so the Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus brand of hyper-sexualized ‘liberated grrrrl power’ doesn’t feel like freedom or empowerment to me. While I enjoy looking at cute shoes as much as anyone, we’ve gone beyond that: sexiness in women virtually equals high heels, blond and/or straight-to-wavy hair, and/or revealing skirts, if cultural mirrors such as Cannes File Festival organizers or Fox News policy-makers are to be believed. How much more oppressive is the social pressure such as that experienced by my aforementioned admired actress: whether or not she liked her own face as it was, it’s not ‘good enough’ in a culture that values the trappings of youth, such a smoothness, slimness, and sexual availability, real or manufactured. It’s the image that counts, not the person. To me, there’s something dehumanizing in all of it, something that smacks of the same old oppression that corseted Victorian women and foot-bound Chinese women experienced, whether they bought into the whole thing or not. By the way, I’ve also long wondered how men would deal with it if the fashions they were expected to wear and the beauty-alterations they were expected to undergo were as uncomfortable, binding, and camouflaging as women’s.

Another problem with CMI’s is the way they can reinforce one of our most self-destructive habits, an obsession with looks that all too often comes from equating worth with beauty, and equating beauty with fitting into a few narrow aesthetic stereotypes. We have become quite a vain and self-obsessed culture. While a certain amount of vanity may be useful in helping us stay fit, clean, and well-dressed at appropriate times, overall it’s limiting and even self-destructive. How many hours we waste when obsessed and disturbed by perceived imperfections in our appearance, and how much beauty and interest we fail to see in the world when our perspective is so unforgiving, so narrowed, so unimaginative! The person overcome by vanity draws into themselves; their world becomes small, their preoccupations dull and trite, and their problems loom large because they are no longer contrasted with the real problems outside the world of their own narrow range of interests. Acting on that vanity to often entrenches it ever more deeply into our character through habituation and reinforcement, justifying our vain preoccupation to ourselves by expending our money, time, even suffering satisfying its demands. And when we instill in ourselves the value that our looking a certain way matters so much that we’ll go through all that expense and pain to to attain it, it seems we also change the way we habitually perceive other people. Perhaps if we can’t appreciate or respect ourselves if we don’t look good enough, we might soon find that others who don’t look good enough by our own or society’s standards aren’t worthy of our appreciation or respect either.

It seems as if we want to get closer to creating a world where people are more generous, tolerant, and celebratory of one another, a good place to start is with one’s own face and body, and then to extend that disposition outward. If we can’t come to terms with our own appearance, to learn to appreciate one’s own self with its own set of quirks, wrinkles, spots, lines, bulges, colors, etc, how can we do that with other people? Each and every one of us enjoys the good fortune to be born into this world, so why do violence to the very body that makes our existence possible? Why not instead habituate in ourselves an attitude of gratitude to the body which gives us everything we have? And do we really want a world of clones and lookalikes anyway, or would we rather be in a habit of enjoying the marvelous richness and diversity of the world is that we’re so lucky to find ourselves in? And anyway, who decided that only the smooth, slim, and young are worth looking at? Definitely not the artist, the loving grandchild, the parent, the friend, or the kindest and noblest part of our own characters.

Perhaps it would be much better for us to habituate ourselves to looking at the world differently. Perhaps it’s better to decide it’s not up to others to conform themselves to our expectations of how they should look, just as it’s not up to others to impose their expectations on us. Perhaps we could train ourselves to look at people whose appearances do not conform to narrow stereotypes of beauty, ourselves included, and react not with the desire to change them, but to accept and appreciate them. Perhaps we could open ourselves up appreciating to more types of beauty, such as perceiving the lines and spots in an aged person’s face as the writing and punctuation of an interesting life story, or the prominent curves and angles of a nose as the proud badge of one’s ethnicity that also lends drama to one’s features, or the softened tummies and breasts of mothers as the tokens of the new life they bring into the world, and not as ugly flaws.

When we think about CMI’s generally and to consider whether we should do this to ourselves, maybe we should ask: is it really a good thing to chose to spend the time and money and take these risks in order to alter my looks to fit in with these contrived standards of beauty? And yes, they are contrived, as we can see by observing rigid but often non-overlapping beauty standards throughout the world and throughout history, as well as contradictory and changing societal attitudes towards the aged. Or might it be better to forgo all of that in favor of internalizing a more open and appreciative attitude towards the variety inherent in the world? Is it really a harmless thing to perpetuate in ourselves and others the kinds of attitudes about physical appearance that lead us to seek cosmetic interventions in the first place?

In a world struggling with racism, sexism, nationalism, ageism, celebrity-obsession, commodification of human beings, and all other kinds of racial and gendered bigotry, based on assumptions about who a person is and how desirable they are based on the color, shape, and smoothness of their body… should we think it’s generally a good idea to carve these expectations into our own bodies and burn them into our own skin?

What do you think?


Sources and inspiration:

‘2013 Plastic Surgery Statistics Report’. American Society of Plastic Surgeons website.

‘The Dangers of Plastic Surgery Addiction’, Jun 26, 2015, Jim Brantner, MD Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery website. http://jimbrantnermd.com/the-dangers-of-plastic-surgery-addiction/

Dimiero, Ben & Eric Hananoki. ‘”I Can’t See Her Legs!”: Roger Ailes’ Rampant Sexism’. Jan 13th 2014, Media Matters blog. http://mediamatters.org/blog/2014/01/13/i-cant-see-her-legs-roger-ail

Griffiths, Mark D., Ph.D. ‘Cosmetic Products: Can People Become Addicted to Plastic Surgery?’ Sep 2, 2013. Psychology Today website, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-excess/2013

Nolan, Steve. ‘Has Plastic Surgery Made These Beauty Queens All Look the Same? Koreans Complain About Pageant “Clones”‘. Daily Mail.com, April 25th 2013.

Reilly, Michael J, Jaclyn A. Tomsic, Stephen J. Fernandez, et al. ‘Abstract: Effect of Facial Rejuvenation Surgery on Perceived Attractiveness, Femininity, and Personality’. JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery Journal. May/June 2015, Vol 17, No. 3. http://archfaci.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?art

Seventh Day in Paris Following Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson

Former site of the Hotel d'Orleans at 17 rue Bonaparte, Paris

Front door of 17 rue Bonaparte, Paris, at or near the former site of the Hotel d’Orleans

Friday, August 21st, 2015

Today’s tale will be a shorter one, though the places I do make it to are wonderful and full of interest. It’s my last full day in Paris and I’m accompanied by my tired husband, so we take it easy. We visit Serge Gainsbourg’s house in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, enjoy some celebratory Paris-Brest pastries  from La Pâtisserie des Rêves on rue du Bac (considered by many to be the very best), take a boat ride on the Seine (a lovely way to see the city!), and otherwise just stroll around at a very leisurely pace, stopping here and there for a coffee or a cold drink.

On our way to the pastry shop, we swing by 17 rue Bonaparte, where, sometime in early to mid-August of 1784, Thomas Jefferson and his daughter Patsy moved from the smaller Hôtel d’Orleans on rue de Richelieu to more comfortable lodgings at this larger hotel, also named d’Orleans. This street was named the rue des Petits-Augustins in Jefferson’s time, and this time around, I have the address. The Hôtel would be Jefferson and Patsy’s home until he found the one that was supposed to be their permanent home in Paris on cul-de-sac Taitbout that October, and until he settled on a good school for Patsy. However, as we have seen, Jefferson ended up living the longest on Champs-Élysées.

Rown of shops and hotels including 17 rue Bonaparte, at or near Hotel d'Orleans site, Paris

Row of shops and hotels including 17 rue Bonaparte at or near the Hotel d’Orleans site where Thomas Jefferson lived for a short time in the fall of 1784

 Cour du Commerce Saint André behind Cafe Procope, Paris,

Cour du Commerce Saint André behind Café Procope, Paris

Next, we head east on Boulevard Saint-Germain, passing the beautiful medieval Église de Saint-Germain-des-Prés. One of its chapels is the oldest surviving religious building in Paris, originally built in the 11th century, and I admire its spartan beauty.

We’re heading for Café Procope, which Jefferson frequented during his years in Paris in the company of Benjamin Franklin. Their time in Paris overlapped for a little less than a year, as Franklin left Paris in June of 1785, and Jefferson, as I have mentioned, arrived on August 6th, 1784. Franklin had already been a regular at Café Procope for many years, since 1776. The Café is located at 13 rue de l’Ancienne Comedie in the 6th Arrondissement, just off Bd. St-Germaine at Odéon, though we first spot it from the charming little pedestrian street that runs behind it named Cour du Commerce Saint André.

Cafe Procope and its flags, Paris

Cafe Procope and its flags

Marble plaques at Café Procope, 13 rue de l’Ancienne Comedie, Saint-Germain-des-Prés

Café Procope is a large, cheery restaurant, whose front is bedecked with flowerpots and flags from around the world. It’s considered the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Paris, and started as a literary cafe centered around conversation and coffee. Many of Paris’s best minds and most influential movers and shakers were guests here over the centuries: Jefferson, Franklin, Jean de La Fontaine, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, Napoleon Bonaparte, Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, Anatole France, and perhaps Thomas Paine too, though I haven’t been able to verify the latter. After all, Paine was a great friend of Franklin’s, a sort of protege of whom Franklin took the trouble to introduce to his friends both in Paris and in the United States.

Central stairway in Cafe Procope

Central stairway at Café Procope

We approach the hostess and ask if they have a bar; we want to spend some time here and take in the atmosphere, but we have our picnic lunch with us already. It turns out it’s only a sit-down restaurant, no bar or coffee service. We pause and look around a bit, and a tall man with salt and pepper hair, in response to my inquiring expression, welcomes us very warmly and gives me permission take pictures. We have a little chat, and I tell him of my project, and though he appears pleased to hear it it’s clear I’m not the first visitor interested in the history of the place. He also invites us to go to the upstairs suite of dining rooms and explore those rooms as well, since they’re doing a little painting and it’s closed to diners at the moment. It appears that he manages the restaurant according to the wise principle that all press is good press, and the more people share stories and pictures of the place, the better for all.

Two interior views of upstairs dining rooms in Café Procope, Paris

Two interior views of upstairs dining rooms in Café Procope, Paris

Facsimiles of letters of famous diners over the centuries at Cafe Procope


Thomas Jefferson plaque and upstairs dining nook at Café Procope

Painting of a hot air balloon ride at Café Procope, Paris

Painting of a hot air balloon ride at Café Procope, Paris

The restaurant has numerous dining rooms, upstairs and down, and has a sweet little back terrace dining area facing the passage we first spotted the restaurant from. They’re decorated in shades of gold and red, which coupled with the large and numerous windows, lend the rooms a warm and cheerful feeling. The walls are covered with portraits, plaques, facsimiles of personal correspondence, and many more artifacts pertaining to the great people who have sipped coffee, dined, and talked here over the centuries.

There’s a plaque dedicated to Jefferson on the wall of one dining room south of the central stairway, and a scene of a hot air balloon taking off with an adventurous couple in the basket in the hall. Jefferson was fascinated with this technology, the first by which people could travel by air, and Jefferson witnessed this marvel for himself in Paris for the first time, in the Tuileries Gardens. This place is a treasure trove for a person following history as I am, and next time I’m in Paris, this will certainly be the first on my list of restaurants to splurge on dinner.

Parc Montsouris, Paris, France

Statue of Thomas Paine by Gutzon Borglum at Parc Montsouris, Paris

Two views of the pedestal of the statue of Thomas Paine by Gutzon Borglum, 1938, at Parc Montsouris in Paris

At a certain point late in the afternoon, my exhausted husband decides to return to his hotel in Saint-Quentin en Yvelines where his bike and luggage are, so he can get plenty of sleep before leaving early in the morning, and we say goodbye until we see each other at home. I plan to stay up late, however, since my flight leaves tomorrow afternoon. So I decide that my last historical site to visit for this trip will be Parc Montsouris at the southern edge of Paris in the middle. I plan to spend my last evening at the Seine, watching the sun go down over the Île de la Cité, and I figure that I have time to get to the park and back before sunset. I’m headed to Parc Montsouris because the only statue of Thomas Paine in Paris is there, and to get there, I take the metro to the Port d’Orleans station then head east on Boulevard Jourdan. The park is across from the Cité Universitaire, and the statue is just off the pathway that runs along Bd. Jourdan, nearer the west end of the park. It’s a lovely place for a stroll on this cooling late afternoon, a relief from this hot summer day.


Statue of Thomas Paine by Gutzon Borglum, 1938, Parc Montsouris, Paris

The statue is a gilded affair, sculpted by Gutzon Borglum in 1938, the same artist who conceived of and designed Mount Rushmore. He was a man of outsize personality, with a strange family history, overweening ambition, and a membership in the Ku Klux Klan. There’s a documentary about Mount Rushmore on PBS’s American Experience from which you can learn more about this most unusual character, and it’s really worth a watch. I’m pretty sure the egalitarian, anti-slavery, human-rights activist and critic-of-organized-religion Paine would disapprove of the commission for his statue going to this guy. It’s also just a middling portrait: not particularly evocative of Paine’s personality, as is the portrait by George Romney, nor particularly artful, interesting, or innovative in other ways. But it’s a serviceable one, and I’m glad this tribute exists in any case.

It’s likely Borglum painted it gold because of Napoleon Bonaparte. They first met at a dinner party in 1800, where Bonaparte invited Paine over to flatter him and get his support for his ambitious plan to invade Britain and ‘liberate’ them from their oppressive monarchy. (‘Liberate’ is in scare quotes because, in hindsight, it’s funny to think of Napoleon liberating people from monarchy as an institution. While he may have been sincere to begin with, over time, it became clear that he didn’t have a problem with monarchy per se so long as he was the monarch. He did, however, institute laws that promoted some of the best principles of the French Revolution including political equality, for men at least.) Paine had been advocating such a plan for years and continued to do so; however, his initial enthusiasm for Bonaparte rather quickly turned to disillusionment and then disgust. He recognized Bonaparte’s overweening arrogance, and accused him of freely shedding blood because of it and not out of a true concern for the people. Anyway, Bonaparte flattered Paine by telling him that he slept every night with a copy of The Rights of Man under his pillow, and that a golden statue of Paine should be erected ‘in every city in the universe’. Well, here’s one anyway.

I’ve come to the end of my travel adventures following in the footsteps of Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson in Paris, though not to the end of immersing myself in their ideas.

I’ve had a most wonderful and energizing time here in Paris, and I am very sorry it’s drawing to a close. I got to know the city in a way that I might never have done if I had come just for the food, the museums, and the scenery. My adventures led me to walk many, many miles a day up and down, back and forth across the city, and I got to know many of the neighborhoods very well. I didn’t make it to a few sites I would have liked to visit: the Bois de Boulogne, the woods where Jefferson liked to relax; Versailles, which Paine and Jefferson both visited on official business (I visited Versailles when I was here seven years ago, and decided not to go this trip because it gets absolutely mobbed by tourists in mid-August); and to search for the sites of Wollstonecraft’s Neuilly-sur-Seine cottage and Helen Williams’ salon which Wollstonecraft and Paine frequented (the latter two are way out in the suburbs and I can’t find records of the addresses). Through my research and my search for buildings of a particular era set among others of varying ages, I also developed much more of an understanding of how the city changed over time.

I had one main disappointment: I had hoped to find more sites associated with the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, and to find some sort of public tribute to her as well: a statute, a street named after her, even a little plaque marking any of the places she had been. No such luck. Even given the fact that Paine and Jefferson were appointed state officials whose movements in Paris would have been documented more thoroughly, the degree of the lack of evidence of places Wollstonecraft had bee been, and of public recognition of her contributions, was still a little surprising to me. Wollstonecraft was the first to publish a best-selling rebuttal to Edmund Burke’s screed against the French Revolution; she was an ardent supporter of the Revolution and championed its cause to the western world; she was close friends with Paine and many other leaders of the Revolutionary movement; she was a famous and highly respected intellectual; she was among the first to make a systematic, well-developed philosophical case in favor of women’s rights; she lived her life as unconventionally as she thought her thoughts; and by the way, she gave the world Mary Shelley. How, then, are her contributions still so overlooked in Paris? Perhaps for some of the same reasons I was so hard-pressed to find significant public recognition of the contributions of Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in New York City.

I learned so much about these three great thinkers and about this great city, what a joy this journey has been! And I’ll be continuing to immerse myself in their ideas and to think about much they still contribute to our lives and thought. Stay tuned…

Sources and Inspiration:

Adams, William Howard. The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1997.

‘Café Procope.’ Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

‘French Revolution’. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication:  A Life of Mary WollstonecraftNew York: Harper Collins, 2006.

Gutzon Borglum‘, Biographical page on the American Experience website.

History of the Restaurant‘, Café Procope website.

Hitchens, Christopher. Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography. New York: Grove Press, 2006.

Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Owl Books, 2004.

Les Statues du Parc Monsouris: Thomas Paine, Citoyen du Monde’, Laparisienneetsesphotos.com

Nelson, Craig. Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations. New York: Viking Penguin, 2006.

Todd, Janet. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000

Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1974.

Williamson, Audrey. Thomas Paine: His Life, Work, and Times. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973.

Zwerin, Mike. ‘Traveling In Style: With Jefferson In Paris’. Los Angeles Times, October 16, 1994.

Sixth Day in Paris Following Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson

Crossing rue de Richelieu on a drizzly day in Paris, France

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

It’s a rainy morning, wet enough to drive away the otherwise intrepid kids at the little alleyway skate park across the street, though not quite enough to drive away the hardworking construction crew renovating the building next to it. I take advantage of the inclement weather by catching up on my writing and research, and the clangs, buzzes, and shouts from the workers only adds to the feeling of productiveness, and don’t disturb me at all. By late morning, the rainfall lightens up, so I head out for the day. Along the way, I pop into several passages, covered pathways lined with shops and cafes: Passage des Panoramas, Passage Jouffrey, la galerie Vivienne, Passage des 2 Galleries, and more. It’s a great way to duck out of the rain while discovering some of the most charming little spots in Paris.

BNP Paribas offices, about where Hôtel Landron and cul-de-sac Taitbout used to be

On my way to my main destinations of the day, I quickly follow up on two sites from earlier in my trip. Last evening, I visited 95 Rue Richelieu, the actual site of James Monroe’s first house in Paris when he arrived to take over the ambassadorship from Governeur Morris. It’s now occupied by a Mercure Hotel (hotel in the modern sense), and I follow the desk clerk’s recommendation from yesterday, to see if the day manager can help me find more historical information about the building, but no dice. Upon inquiry, the lady in charge at the front desk stopped me with an abrupt ‘no’, as if to say, ‘I don’t have time for this nonsense, I have a hotel to run.’ Fair enough. I move on.

I swing over to Boulevard des Italiens, where Thomas Jefferson had lived at Hôtel Landron, aka Taitboit, for the first year of his sojourn in Paris. It stood on cul-de-sac Taitbout, which used to run north off this street right across from the back side of the Theatre des Italiens. I have since confirmed the site in additional sources, but I was right the first time: the building, and the cul-de-sac it was on, no longer exists. This place is now occupied by a large, much more modern building which houses the offices of BNP Paribas.

Then I head for 30 rue Richelieu, where Thomas Jefferson stayed first for a few days when he arrived in Paris, at one of the two hotels he stayed at named Hotel d’Orleans; this is the first of them. It’s a smaller and simpler building than many that Jefferson stayed at, which might explain why he stayed there such a short time, being used to more luxurious quarters. I find that it’s right down the street from the house where one of my literary heroes, Moliere, died, and there’s a monument to him right across the street. The statue is wearing a scarlet blindfold, just like another statue I saw on another day. I wonder what it means….

30 rue Richelieu where Thomas Jefferson stayed at one of two Hôtels d’Orléans, and 40 rue Richelieu, where the great playwright and actor Molière died

Galerie de Vivienne, behind approximate site of White’s Hotel, aka Hôtel de Philadelphia, at passage des Petits-Pères

Next, I swing by the site of the former White’s Hotel, where Thomas Paine stayed several times while he was in Paris and where Mary Wollstonecraft visited him, to confirm its actual site. As I mentioned at the opening of the story of my second day in Paris, part 2, it was listed as 7 passage des Petits Pères in three separate biographies I referenced (two of Mary Wollstonecraft, one of Thomas Paine). However, in the U.S. State Department paper I just discovered, it’s listed as 1 rue des Petits Pères. Turns out the place I had gone to on the first day was half right: putting two and two together, it seems that White’s Hotel, later Hôtel de Philadelphia, stood at the intersection of passage des Petits Pères and rue des Petits Pères, which join at an angle. Paine also lived in a place across from the hotel at 7 passage des Petits Pères, hence the confusion.

Building where James Monroe and Robert Livingston signed the Louisiana Purchase, rue des Petits Champs

Historical plaque on the building where James Monroe and Robert Livingston signed the Louisiana Purchase

So on with the story of the day: on the way to passage des Petits Peres, I stumble upon a Jefferson site quite by accident! It’s at rue des Petits Champs and rue Vivienne, the next block over from the White’s Hotel site, and it’s the place where James Monroe and Robert Livingston signed the Louisiana Purchase treaty on April 30th, 1803.

Jefferson had authorized them to purchase the crucially important port city of New Orleans and the area surrounding it so that U.S. trade could not be hampered by European quarrels. But when Napolean offered the entire Louisiana territory for $15 million, vastly larger than what they were prepared to purchase, Monroe and Livingston jumped at the chance, since they had also been instructed to use their best judgment. This was sort of going over Congress’s head, because though the President has the power to negotiate treaties, they don’t have the power to make land purchases, strictly speaking, and Jefferson had not received funding or the permission from Congress. For all his strict constructionism and anti-government-debt rhetoric, Jefferson at times operated more in accordance with a ‘great man theory’ of government like Theodore Roosevelt did. After all, if you have the vision and the power coupled with the proper concern for the wellbeing of your country, at times it just seems incumbent upon you to take such bold and decisive steps, even if they’re not strictly legal. And Jefferson was right: the Louisiana purchase was an opportunity like no other to increase the prestige, population, and power of the young United States, and had to be done almost regardless of the price.

Palais Royal, Paris, France

Front Gate of the Palais Royal / Conseil d’État, Paris, France

On my way to my next destination, I pause to snap some photos of the front of the Palais Royal, which I had neglected to do on my second day in Paris, in favor of staying under the shady walkways of its rear enclosure and tree-lined gardens. 

229 – 235 Rue Saint-Honore, former Home of Abbé André Morellet

The next site I swing by is the former home of Abbé André Morellet at 229 – 235 Rue Saint-Honore in the 8th Arrondissement, north of the Jardin des Tuileries at about its midpoint at Rue Castiglione. Morellet was an economist and contributing writer to Diderot’s Encyclopedia of the Sciences, Arts. and Crafts, and close mutual friend of Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. It’s a tall narrow house, over a macaron shop between a cafe and a luggage shop, on a touristy and expensive section of the street. Jefferson, as we have seen, was an avid collector of knowledge, and Morellet’s learned, witty, and sarcastic brain was an excellent one for picking.

Jefferson was also a frequent guest of Geoffrey Chalut de Vérin at 17 Place Vendôme, between the Opera metro station and the Jardin des Tuileries. He was a customs official and another close friend of Benjamin Franklin, though I can’t find that much information about him with a brief internet search, The collected Franklin papers contain some notes from him. Many of the opulent buildings surrounding the Place Vendôme are being restored, and some are being converted to a Ritz Hotel; 17 Place Vendôme is one of these. The column in the center of the place is also being reconstructed: the Paris Commune pulled it down in the revolution of 1871, the same revolution which saw the destruction of the Tuileries Palace.

A view of the Place Vendôme. The printed screen is shielding the monument under repair

17 Place Vendôme, behind the printed screen, at or near the site of the home of Geoffrey Chalut de Vérin

Returning to my lodgings to meet up with my husband Bryan, hopefully rested enough from riding Paris-Brest-Paris to spend a day touring Paris with me, I pass by the Palais Garnier Opera, whose spectacular beauty really knocks your socks off as you enter the square. It’s not the opera house that Jefferson attended, however, as it was built many decades after his time there.

Palais Garnier Opera House, Paris, France

When I meet up with Bryan, it turns out he’s still too exhausted to take much of a walk, so we go out for a delicious meal at a little gastropub just down the street from my place on rue Montmartre. After he goes in for a nap, I take the metro nearly as far west as it goes to Auteuil, which once was a suburb of Paris, and now in its 16th Arrondissement.

Hôtel de Verrières, 47 Rue d’Auteuil, former residence of John, Abigail, and John Quincy Adams, Paris, France

Histoire de Paris sign and view of the Hôtel de Verrières, 47 rue d’Auteil, former residence of the Adamses

Plaque on the wall in the courtyard of the Hôtel de Verrières, 47 rue d’Auteuil

Jefferson stayed here at John and Abigail Adams’ place for awhile in 1784, probably not long before he signed the lease at the Hôtel Landron at the cul-de-sac Taitbout that fall. The Adams’ former residence is at 43 – 47 rue d’Auteuil, about halfway between the Seine and the southeast corner of the Bois de Boulogne, at rue Michel-Ange, near the Monoprix grocery which is near the metro stop. The house at 47 rue d’Auteuil has a historical marker identifying it as the Hôtel de Verrières, where many famous people lived. It’s on a sweet little street, which still feels like central Paris but much mellower. The house is cute too, with rounded corners and sweet little garden area. There’s a plaque on the wall above the front garden with both John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams’ names on it, but try as I might, I can’t make out the small print or capture it on the basic camera I have with me. A young boy with a little black dog and thick blue glasses, which give him oversize Keane eyes, looks at me like I’m crazy as he goes to let himself in the front gate which I happen to be blocking. He doesn’t speak English, but I’m able to communicate with gestures that I’d just like to take a picture real quick. He lets me in and I do so. Nice kid.

Near 59 Rue d’Auteil, the former site of the salon of Madame Helvétius

In 1784 and onwards, Jefferson also often hung out at the famous salon of the fabulous Madame Helvétius just down the street at 59 rue d’Auteil. The rather puritanical Adamses were often shocked at French manners and dress, loud, lots of makeup, exposed bosoms, frank conversation, and these were to be found in abundance at Madame Helvétius’. (There are great scenes from the John Adams miniseries, starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, of their unease in Parisian society and discomfiture at Madame Helvetius’ salon.) Aside from her own accomplishments and outsize personality, she was famous for Ben Franklin’s being so smitten with her that he asked her to marry him. The building I find is not old, quaint, or lovely, but an aggressively sleek, square building of concrete blocks and smoked glass, all angled corners. The suburb of Auteuil was very fashionable in Adams’ and Jefferson’s time, and the neighborhood I find myself in today still is, full of elegant buildings, cute expensive shops, well-dressed people, and families with one or two likewise well-dressed children. it looks like a postcard or realtor’s advertisement of the perfect neighborhood and reminds me a bit of Noe Valley in San Francisco, Paris-style.

Corner view of Benjamin Franklin’s house at Hôtel Valentinois, Passy

The last site I visit today is in Passy, also in the 16th Arrondissemont, also a former fashionable suburb of Paris which is now one of its outer wealthy neighborhoods. Thomas Paine lived somewhere in this neighborhood near Ben Franklin, who befriended him during Paine’s first stay in Paris in 1781 as he helped negotiate a loan from the French government to aid the American Revolution. Though I couldn’t find the exact site where Paine lived, Franklin lived at Hôtel Valentinois at 62-70 rue Raynouard at Avenue de Lamballe. There’s no doubt that Paine visited here often. The Hôtel Valentinois stands on a hill overlooking the city, and the view must have been particularly spectacular in Franklin and Paine’s time, with an uninterrupted view of the city since this is way out in the outskirts of Paris. Passy was an outlying village or suburb at the time, but highrises galore have sprung up between the Valentinois and central Paris since then. The view has still got to be pretty great from the upper floors, since it towers seven tall stories from the hill it’s on.

A view of Benjamin Franklin’s house at Hôtel Valentinois, Passy, Paris, France

Benjamin Franklin’s image on the corner of the historic Hôtel Valentinois

It was Franklin who wrote letters of introduction for the young Paine to his friends in the American Colonies, which enabled him to find a job and make connections with other young thinkers, movers, and shakers, eventually involving Paine in the burgeoning independence movement, which led to the publication of Common Sense… and the rest, as we have seen, is history!

As I walk back towards the Seine to meet my husband at rue Saint Dominique for dinner (just down the street from where we honeymooned seven years before, how romantic!), I’m treated to the most beautiful views, quite changed since Franklin’s, Paine’s, Wollstonecraft’s, and Jefferson’s time, but no more or less breathtaking, I’m sure. Just different.

A view from Avenue du President Kennedy, Passy, Paris, France

A View through Pont de Bir-Hakiem, Passy

A View From Pont de Bir-Hakiem, Paris, France

Sources and Inspiration:
Adams, William Howard. The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1997.
André Morellet‘. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Bell, David. ‘5 Myths About the French Revolution‘, New York Post, Jul 9th, 2015.
The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert‘, Collaborative Translation Project website.
French Revolution‘. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication:  A Life of Mary WollstonecraftNew York: Harper Collins, 2006. 
Hôtel de Verrières‘, Structurae website.
Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Owl Books, 2004.

Louisiana Purchase, 1803‘, U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian website.
Nelson, Craig. Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations. New York: Viking Penguin, 2006.
O’Brien, Kristin. ‘Madame Helvétius‘, The Salonniere blog.
Paris Residences‘, from the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, Monticello.org
Todd, Janet. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000 
Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1974. 
Williamson, Audrey. Thomas Paine: His Life, Work, and Times. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973.