Happy Birthday, David Hume!

In honor of David Hume‘s birthday, May 7, 1711, let me share anew my history of ideas travel series and other pieces I’ve written in honor of my favorite philosopher if I was pressed to chose only one. I fell in love with his native Edinburgh when I originally visited in the spring of 2014 but even so, I wouldn’t have predicted I would now be living here furthering my education at his alma mater, the University of Edinburgh. It would have been even more impossible to predict that the window of my flat would be located directly across the narrow square from the University’s David Hume Tower. I was moved to observe one day, and still am whenever I think or tell of it, that the windows of that glassy tower often reflect the light of the rising sun into my window. I could imagine no more poetic image than that of how this great Enlightenment thinker has influenced my life.

Here they are in the order I wrote them, starting several years back. Perhaps you’ll find, as I do when I return to old pieces from time to time, that my thinking has developed and my mind has changed, to various degrees, on some things:

First Day in Old Edinburgh: Hume Sites and Monuments
Hume’s New Scene of Thought, and, It’s Good to Be Able to Say ‘I Don’t Know’
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 2
The Consolations of Philosophy, and A Death Free from Fear
Happy 303rd Birthday, David Hume!
The Debate Over Government and Freedom
The Tale of the Magic Toe – Superstition? Or What?
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 3
Water of Leith
Last Day in Edinburgh, May 13th, 2014
Hume, Aristotle, and Guns
A memory quilt I created for my Edinburgh trip:
A Hill and a Wall in Edinburgh, 2015, 102″ x 69″
Enlightenment Scotland: Site of James Boswell’s Home in James Court, Edinburgh
Enlightenment Scotland: Advocates Library, Edinburgh
Chirnside and Ninewells, Scottish Borders, Childhood and Summer Home of David Hume
Enlightenment Scotland: Edinburgh’s Select Society
Photobook: Robert Adam, Architect of Edinburgh
Photobook: Letter from David Hume to James Balfour, Mar 15, 1753

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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Enlightenment Scotland: Adam Smith’s Grave at Canongate Kirkyard

Canongate Kirk on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland

Here in Edinburgh, where I’ve returned to University to earn my Master’s degree, I love to visit sites and monuments associated with the Enlightenment. As a lover of philosophy, the rich intellectual history of this city first brought me here: I followed (and still do) in the footsteps of David Hume for my first traveling philosophy/history of ideas series for O.P. I think it’s high time I share more of my explorations with you!

I’ll start with my visit yesterday afternoon to the great moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith‘s grave in Canongate Kirkyard on the Royal Mile. The lovely Kirk of the Canongate was built form 1688-1691, and is quite different in style than the other buildings on the Royal Mile. The graveyard behind it, however, is very like many others to be found behind kirks all over and around this great city, and includes the gravesites of many great Scots.

Canongate Kirkyard on the Royal Mile with Adam Smith’s grave center-left, Edinburgh, Scotland

Adam Smith’s grave in Canongate Kirkyard on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland. Many of Adam Smith’s moral and political theories, and his ideas on trade and economics, were developed from the ideas of his great friend and mentor David Hume.

Canongate Kirk on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland

List of famous people buried at Canongate Kirkyard on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Rationality and the Origins of Myth: Bayle, Fontanelle, and Toland

Pierre Bayle, Bernard de Fontanelle, and John Toland; all images in the public domain or free for noncommercial use

This is an extended version of a blog post I recently wrote for my seminar class Myth and the History of Scholarship in Early Modern Europe. It’s a more formal style than I generally like to write in since it’s for an academic blog, but I thought I’d share it with you just in case you’re interested in what I’ve been working on at the University of Edinburgh lately ~ Amy

From the ancient philosophers of Greece and Rome to the European Renaissance to early modern Europe in the Age of Discovery, thinkers and scholars attempted to make sense of mythology and the multiplicity of belief from ancient to modern times, in light of their own understanding of the nature of God and the workings of the universe. The Renaissance saw the humanistic attempt to understand mythology as allegories, repositories of ancient wisdom in fable form which conveyed essential religious truths to those discerning enough to perceive them. Then, missionaries to the New World and theologians wrestled with the fact that vast numbers of human beings had no knowledge of the biblical God or of Jesus Christ. They attempted to reconcile this with their beliefs about God’s justice and mercy by recasting pagan myths as expressions of natural theology.

The years leading up to the Enlightenment saw another significant shift in ways of thinking, a rationalist approach that we now associate with the rise of skepticism and the scientific method. In the decades straddling the turn of the 17th century, Huguenot scholar Pierre Bayle, French scientist and writer Bernard de Fontanelle, and British freethinker and religious critic John Toland offered their own critical approaches to the myths of the ancients and of the New World.

‘…People began, in various countries, to write histories in a more reasonable manner and generally with more verisimilitude. So no new fables appear; people are satisfied with preserving the old ones. But can this ever stop those who are infatuated with antiquity? They imagine to themselves that under the fables are hidden secrets of the physical and moral world (Fontanelle 18)’

In On the Origin of Fables, Pierre Bayle (1647–1706) applies ‘natural reason’ and Aristotelian method to myths and ancient philosophy to determine whether they are worthy of belief or useful in promoting a rational understanding of God and the world. Bayle’s approach is to offer critical examinations of particular myths. Through these examples, Bayle intends to demonstrate that mythology is not a vessel of truth, allegorical or otherwise. For one, he considers the ancient Greek philosopher Anaximenes’ idea that the gods were produced by the air, which is the primary and original cause of everything. Bayle rejects this idea as absurd because natural reason doesn’t allow us to believe that a thing’s efficient cause (Aristotle’s term for that which is responsible for another thing’s state of being) to be inferior to that which gave rise to it (Bayle 110). Even more ridiculous, for Bayle, is the idea that a non-thinking thing like air could give rise to a thinking thing like a god (p 113). (I suspect that Bayle would have little use for the theory of evolution.) Other myths such as the birth of Venus, who arose from the foam created when Saturn cut off his father Chaos’ genitalia and threw them into the sea, or that  thunder and lightning is caused by Jupiter’s hurling thunderbolts to earth, aren’t only immoral and brutish, but entirely useless for understanding the rationality of the universe.

Bernard de Fontenelle (1657-1757) sees mythology as the product of the childishness of the human mind at the dawn of reason. When humans observed some amazing or unexpected thing that they couldn’t explain, they naturally embellished it a little so that they could (Fontanelle 11). These embellishments often consisted of positing beings with human-like capacities causing the phenomenon in some recognizable way. Fontanelle, like Bayle, uses the example of thunder and lightning, a mysterious phenomenon that could be explained by imagining a being very like a human but more powerful, who throws arrows of fire like humans do but much larger ones from higher up (p 11-12). He also uses the example of rivers: they originate somewhere, so why not from pitchers like these we use to make water flow? (p 11) But to make rivers, the being(s) who pour the pitchers must have much larger ones, with added power that can keep them flowing plentifully and with force. With each subsequent retelling of these stories, they took on more and more fantastic elements they passed from one person to the other (Consider Michel de Montaigne’s passage about un/reliable testimony in his essay ‘Of Cannibals’), resulting in elaborate and fantastic myths.

But Fontanelle doesn’t judge these almost accidental mythmakers harshly; rather, he makes an interesting and astute observation: it’s actually harder to adhere strictly to the truth than to embellish a tale, especially when it’s about something exciting. It’s harder because 1) ‘our imagination gets heated up with its subject’ (Fontanelle 11) and begins to elaborate the tale all on its own and 2) the more marvelous details you add, the more interest, encouragement, and admiration you arouse in your audience. But though rationality is hard and the imagination is lively (p 15), Fontanelle insists that it’s still essential that we resist ignorance. David Hume would later elaborate on Fontanelle’s idea about myths and miracles, making it one of the centerpieces of his skeptical philosophy in his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding.

John Toland’s (1670-1722) theory also cites human ignorance and frailty in the origins of myth, but he offers a less general account. In his view, myths spring from the honor paid to the dead. Worship of the gods is an extension of the respect, fear, and supplication of powerful rulers, warriors, magicians, and so on (Toland 72). He accepts Euhemerus’ idea that the gods of myth refer to real people but that, over time, their origins were forgotten (p 85). Toland observes that the honor paid to the gods closely resemble the honors paid to dead heroes and princes, so he postulates a common origin for these practices.

Toland further explains that the gods, based on exceptional humans now dead, are also based on human ideas and virtues (p 88). Here, both Toland and Bayle reflect the ancient philosopher Xenophanes, who argues that all gods are devised to resemble their creators. If animals had gods too, they would look, act, and have the same mental features as those animals—at least, the strongest, best, most admired animals among them. Fontanelle also takes a Xenophanean view in his description of how the gods evolve over time: the gods of the earliest, most primitive myths were as irrational, lustful, and brutal as the people themselves. But just as societies became more civilized, more rational, and more virtuous, so did the gods (Fontanelle 13).

Fontanelle, Toland, and Bayle all take a rationalist approach to the subject of myth, as they do to the sciences and all other areas of inquiry. All myths and idolatry are born from irrationality, and if we are to understand the world as it really is, as a rational place created and designed by a rational God, it’s important to demonstrate the irrationality of the myths and remove their power to promote irrationality in the general public. This will result in a more rational, moral, and free society.

Bayle, again, takes the approach of examining particular examples of myths to show that their origins are irrational and that they cannot, even as allegory, be seen to impart anything good or true, or to promote understanding in any way. He continues his exploration of ancient ideas about air, this time the myth that equates the goddess Juno with the air. Despite all attempts to understand this myth as a way of understanding a truth about the workings of the world, it does nothing but confuse and confound. Bayle again invokes Aristotle, who says that if it’s a thinking being, it must have a soul, and if that being is a part of nature and has a soul, it must be an animal. Therefore, if Juno is the air, she’s a sort of animal being constantly being torn and wounded by things passing through her, which he offers as such a patent absurdity that the myth couldn’t possibly promote a rational understanding of nature. (p 117-118)

Fontanelle argues that his time was one of the most intellectually vigorous (p 13), no doubt because he saw it as an age of rationality. He has a progressive view of the human capability for rationality (p 17), and sees it as the way of the world that all human societies will become more rational over time, just as the Greeks did, and just as he suspects that the Native Americans encountered by the Spanish would if given the time to develop their capabilities (p 16). This is consistent with Fontanelle’s view that creation itself is a rational system. It would make sense, then, that the more human beings come to understand it, the more rational they become as well. That’s why it’s a mistake to perpetuate irrationality by continuing to teach the myths through the arts such as poetry, fine arts, and theater (p 17).

Toland argues that a multiplicity of gods and objects of worship, which is characteristic of the less rational belief systems, is correlated with irrationality, less freedom, and more autocracy. The more gods a society creates, the more autocratic and the less free and rational the society – (Toland 98) (Noted scientist and religious skeptic Richard Dawkins would likely point out that in that case, the most free, rational, and democratic societies would have no gods at all.)

‘So [the well-meaning Philosophers] proceeded to explain away the rest of the Gods; and, as Allegorys are as fruitful as our Imaginations, scarce any two Authors cou’d wholly agree in their Opinions. But supposing the Truth of the matter had bin as any or all of ’em wou’d have it, yet their Religion was not a whit the better, and deserv’d to be abolished; since, what ever were the Speculations of a few among the Learned, ‘cis evident that the Vulgar took all these to be very real Gods, of whom they stood in mighty fear, and to whom they paid Divine Adoration…’ (p 122)

So even if the myths could be interpreted as allegories by the learned, their dissemination spread ignorance and irrationality and so did far more harm than good.

‘But if any shou’d wonder how Men cou’d leave the direct and easy Path of Reason ‘ton wander in such inextricable Mazes, let him but consider how in very many and considerable Regions the plain Institution of Jesus Christ cou’d degenerate into the most absurd Doctrins, unintelligible Jargon, ridiculous Practices, and inexplicable Mysterys…’ (p 129)

Bayle goes further than Toland, and believes that myth not only correlates with barbarous societies, but that they promote acceptance of bad behavior. The myth of Jupiter, for example, deifies a being guilty of just about every crime you can think of: murder, rape, incest, lies, and cruelty of every sort (Bayle 107). Fortunately, Bayle observes, most people behave better than the gods of mythology, an observation that extends beyond his close examination of many mythological beliefs.

Fontanelle also observes that belief does not necessarily inform moral convictions or behavior; in fact, they seem to be quite separate:

‘What is strange is that Christians, whose system of religion is so pure, yield almost nothing to the gentiles in respect to engaging in vices. It is a mistake to believe that the moral practice of a religion corresponds to the doctrines of its confession of faith. (p 107)’

People, then as now it seems, accept those religious beliefs that accord with their own principles and moral characters more than the other way around.

~ Thanks to Dr. Felicity Green for inspiration and insight


Bayle, Pierre, ‘Jupiter’, in Historical-Critical Dictionary: Selections [1697], trans. Richard Popkin (Indianapolis, 1991), pp. 107-119.

‘Bernard Le Bovier, sieur de Fontenelle.’ (2017, 25 January), In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from www.britannica.com/biography/Bernard-Le-Bovier-sieur-de-Fontenelle  ; accessed 09 November, 2017.

Falcon, Andrea, “Aristotle on Causality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/aristotle-causality/ ; accessed 09 November, 2017.

Fontenelle, Bernard de, De l’origine des fables [wr. c.1691-99, pub. 1724]. English trans. Of the Origin of Fables by Burton Feldman and Robert D. Richardson, The Rise of Modern Mythology 1680-1860 (Indiana, 1972), pp. 10-18.

‘John Toland’. (2017, 17 August), In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from www.britannica.com/biography/John-Toland ; accessed 09 November, 2017.

Lennon, Thomas M. and Hickson, Michael, ‘Pierre Bayle’, In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/bayle/ ; accessed 09 November 2017

Toland, John, Letters to Serena (London, 1704), part III

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The Revolutionary Figure of the Beautiful, Self-Improved Soul, by Justine Kolata

Miniature room by Mrs. James Ward Thorne portraying a French salon from about 1780, ca. 1930’s, Art Institute of Chicago

In a global culture that appears increasingly obsessed with radical individualism, narcissistic presentations of self, and incendiary political rhetoric, it is hard to imagine that society once cared about the beauty of the soul. But, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Germany and across Europe, the pursuit of a ‘beautiful soul’ became a cornerstone of philosophical thought and popular discourse, advanced by some of the most important intellectuals of the time, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller and Wilhelm von Humboldt. To these thinkers, the pursuit of inner perfectibility responded to the horrors of the French Revolution’s irrational mass action culminating in The Terror of the 1790s. Nascent notions of democracy, they believed, could be developed only if each individual achieved liberation from what Immanuel Kant described as the ‘self-incurred tutelage’ of intellectual immaturity by developing cognitive and emotional faculties through aesthetic experiences.

At the core of the beautiful soul is the idea that the individual possesses an innate cognitive potential. Subject to the right environmental and educational conditions, this latent potential can be developed to reach a more perfect state of intellect, morality, character and conduct. The beautiful soul is an aesthetic concept focused on developing human capacities and advancing knowledge and culture. It entails the pursuit of personal cultivation to create a convergence of the individual aesthetic impulse with a collective ethical ideal. The beautiful soul is a virtuous soul, one that possesses a sense of justice, pursues wisdom, and practises benevolence through an aestheticised proclivity for the ‘good’.

Inspired by ancient Greek philosophy, the beautiful soul reflects Plotinus’ imperative to cultivate the self in the same way that the sculptor works:

Withdraw within yourself, and examine yourself. If you do not yet therein discover beauty, do as the artist, who cuts off, polishes, purifies until he has adorned his statue with all the marks of beauty. Remove from your soul, therefore, all that is superfluous, straighten out all that is crooked, purify and illuminate what is obscure, and do not cease perfecting your statue until the divine resplendence of virtue shines forth upon your sight …

Sculpting the soul and creating what Goethe referred to as ‘a more beautiful humanity’ is achieved through the internalisation of the Platonic triad of beauty, truth and goodness. Beauty is conceived as the integration of intellectual and aesthetic faculties in the encounter with art and nature. Truth is the result of the logical exercise of rational faculties and the elevating sense of curiosity derived from experiences in the world. Goodness is found in the human capacity to feel compassion for others and thereby contribute to the betterment of society.

The Platonic triad is realised within the soul by exploring ideas through lived experiences, not by blindly following abstract principles or dogma dictated by a church or political system. The concept requires that the individual actively engage her senses to navigate the material world in which beauty acts as her guide. The ineluctable indeterminateness of aesthetic, sensory experience is precisely what makes it valuable in expanding one’s consciousness in order to explore the ultimate questions of reality. Watching a lark’s parabolic trajectory in the sky, observing the fractal patterns found in nature, contemplating the concentric circles produced by rain droplets in pools of water become opportunities to understand the universe and reach a heightened cognitive-affective state. As Goethe observed: ‘A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.’

The concept affirms that, in its universality, beauty offers a means of engaging with the world, providing a common basis upon which positive social relationships can be developed, acting as a lexicon for communicative exchange. Since it is a natural human inclination to share sensory experiences, beauty provides an opportunity to bond individuals in a moment of ultimate meaning, conveying ineffable feelings that cut to the core of existence. By opening one’s perceptual horizons, a person is elevated beyond ego and self-absorption into a realm of universal concern and contemplation. Beauty achieves the good by strengthening faculties of empathy that induce deeper compassion for others and attentiveness to the wellbeing of the social collective. Thus, the marriage of the beautiful, the true and the good is for the beautiful soul more than the metaphysical meditations of antiquity but the very basis of a more just and equitable society.

Although the philosophy was never realised in the way that its theorists envisioned, the beautiful soul is far more than a beautiful idea. In turning towards aesthetics, the philosophers of the German Aufklärung (Enlightenment) did not naively evade political realities. Instead, they offered a holistic theory that recognised the long-term horizon for the flourishing of reason and human understanding. In doing so, they developed a poetic conception of politics that took inspiration from ancient Greek notions of an aesthetic state. In working towards her own self-improvement and fearlessly venturing into society, the beautiful soul was a revolutionary figure, at the vanguard of Enlightenment progress.

Self-cultivation was not an idle, vainglorious pursuit of the wealthy, but rather a radical reformulation of what it meant to be human and how to harmoniously exist in society. The beautiful soul anticipated the problems of instrumental reason, overcoming the dangers of mere utility, disenchantment and social isolation by offering an aesthetic world view that facilitated positive human interactions and a multidimensional understanding of human experience. She epitomised Enlightenment values of equality, fraternity and rationality, serving as the model of a citizen who lived up to the responsibilities associated with democracy.

The contemporary turn towards nihilism that lionises the individual at the expense of the collective has made the idea of cultivating a more beautiful soul appear hopelessly idealistic and disconnected from ‘hard realities’. In a realist’s world, we seek utilitarian ends under the guise of pragmatism, turning away from the illusiveness of an immaterial and ultimately unattainable ideal. The mystery and poetry of human nature has been stripped from our daily experience at the expense of our imaginations and our will to envision a more beautiful world. Yet, the social and environmental ills induced by our unfettered economy of instrumentality are proving anything but pragmatic for the long-term sustainability and wellbeing of our species. If we still harbour hope in the human propensity for goodness, then we ought to contemplate anew the poetic, revolutionary figure of the beautiful soul that might once again provide a vision for deepening our intellectual, moral and emotional faculties in the service of a more just and progressive future for us all.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Justine Kolata is the founder and director of The Public Sphere, and the co-founder and co-director of The Bildung Institute. She is currently pursuing a PhD in the German department at the University of Cambridge on enlightenment salon culture.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, David Hume!

In honor of David Hume’s birthday, May 7, 1711, let me share anew my history of ideas travel series I created in honor of my favorite philosopher in his home city of Edinburgh, Scotland. I’ll soon be in Edinburgh again, this time for at least one year, to pursue a Master’s Degree in Intellectual History at the University of Edinburgh. I can hardly express how thrilled I am at the prospect! I’ll be expanding this Hume series while I’m there.

To Edinburgh I Go, In Search of David Hume

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy! I’m pleased and excited to announce my upcoming adventure: my first philosophical-historical themed adventure, and my first trip to Edinburgh, Scotland!

Here’s my plan:

I’m taking a series of trips to places around the world, where I explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. I’ll follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’ve decided to start with the philosopher I most admire as a person as well as a thinker, the great David Hume. He was not only revered for the brilliance of his ideas and his honesty in presenting them, but also as a premier example of a genial, generous, great-hearted person; so much so, in fact, that one of his closest friends nicknamed him ‘Saint David’.

Hume is often described as the greatest philosopher to write in English and among the greatest philosophers of all time, period. He was a central figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, and a profoundly influential empiricist and moral philosopher

So off to beautiful Edinburgh I go! There, I’ll visit the places where he worked, thought, wrote, studied, and rested. I’ll be traveling there in the first two weeks of May, and will be writing throughout the trip. I’ll be writing in this blog not only about his ideas, but about what I can discover about his everyday life, and whatever feeling of his time and place I manage to uncover in my time there.

If you have any questions for me to answer while I’m there, or pictures you’d like me to take for you, or any information you have that could help me with this project, I’d love to hear from you!


Here are my essays on Hume as I discover him in my travels, in (roughly) chronological order:

First Day in Old Edinburgh: Hume Sites and Monuments
Hume’s New Scene of Thought, and, It’s Good to Be Able to Say ‘I Don’t Know’
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 2
The Consolations of Philosophy, and A Death Free from Fear
Happy 303rd Birthday, David Hume!
Cycling Through Edinburgh, First Time
The Debate Over Government and Freedom
The Tale of the Magic Toe – Superstition? Or What?
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 3
Water of Leith
Last Day in Edinburgh, May 13th, 2014
Hume, Aristotle, and Guns
and a memory quilt I created for my Edinburgh trip:
A Hill and a Wall in Edinburgh, 2015, 102″ x 69″

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Second Day in Paris Following Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson, Part 1

22 rue Meslay, Paris. Mary Wollstonecraft may have lived here at Aline Filliettaz’s house from December 1792 through June 1793. See update to the search for the Filliataz house

Monday, August 10th, 2015

I get up at a decent hour, though of course not too early: I discovered early on when I began to travel in earnest that proper rest is essential for clear thinking, map-reading capabilities, and the good humor necessary for enjoying the day.

Since there’s such a huge number of sites to visit on my itinerary, I’ve decided to visit them in an order determined not by subject nor in any kind of chronological order, but by proximity to one another, so I can better cover them all.

I make my way from my temporary digs on Boulevard Voltaire up toward Republique, then make a soft left and head for 22 rue Meslée (now called the rue Meslay). Mary Wollstonecraft lived here at her friend Aline Filliettaz’s house from December 1792 through June of 1793, shortly after arriving in Paris. Wollstonecraft was full of hope for the Revolution and longed to be a part of it, and thought that the humanitarian and egalitarian Enlightenment principles she espoused were more likely to take hold there before they would in her home country of England, as they had (to an extent) in America. By the time she arrived in Paris, she was a self-made woman, a governess and schoolmarm who had become the bestselling author of two progressive and highly influential books, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, 1790 (a scathing rebuttal to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792.

In fact, her Rights of Men was published the year before Paine’s Rights of Man, which was also a response to Burke, but Paine’s became the most famous by far. However, Wollstonecraft held her own with Rights of Woman, as it’s now widely considered the founding work of modern feminism. Wollstonecraft was lonely and blue when she first lived at this house, since her hosts were away and the servants behaved haughtily and uncooperatively towards her, but she soon cheered up when she began to get out more and hang out with her expatriate friends and their Parisian social circle. (More on that soon.)

Building where 22 rue Meslay is now located in Paris, France

The Fillattaz house is on a little side street in the Marais district, near the medieval Temple where the royal family was held during the French Revolution, before the King was guillotined in December of 1793 and Marie Antoinette was sent to the Concierge. Wollstonecraft wrote in her account of this period in her life that she saw the King being taken from the Temple prison to his trial at the Hôtel de Ville, where the Convention Nationale was held, from her window at this house. See update to the search for the Filliataz house

By the way, it’s important to make this point at the beginning: as is the case with all private residences and some other sites I visit during this tour, unless I can find a clear indicator of the history of the building (in accounts I have access to, on plaques, on cornerstones, etc), it’s very possible that I may not have found the exact location, especially if it’s not a public building with a clearly documented history. Many of my sources list an address without specifying whether it’s the modern address or the historical one and numbers change over time, and some streets are re-routed or disappear entirely, as do many of the original buildings, and records are not always consistently kept or may have been lost in the intervening years. Since my subjects were all here well over two centuries ago, it’s likely that at least a few of these locations are approximate, rather than the exact sites, despite my best efforts to discover them. This is especially true of Mary Wollstonecraft since she’s the only one of my subjects who never held public office or had any government appointments.

Courtyard behind 22 rue Meslay

63 rue Faubourg St-Denis, Paris, France. It’s the right address but not actually the site of Paine’s once-time residence, since the address had changed since his time. You can the story of how I find the true site here.

For example, poking around for historical details of the rue Meslay, I found that George Sands was born on that same street, and the address was 15 in her time, 46 now. I didn’t find any info as to whether Wollstonecraft’s 22 address is the new one, old one, or just that same address in different sources, but since she described seeing the King’s carriage pass by her window on the way to trial, it may be that the Filliettaz house was further up the street, in a taller building or at a higher elevation, so that she could see as far over as Boulevard Saint-Martin, the next street over and the route he would taken. But another source describes the house as having six stories, and the house now at 22 matches this description.

If I have time, I might swing back over there for further explorations since the place I’m staying now and the place I’ll be staying when I return to Paris (I’ll be joining my husband Bryan tomorrow for a quick family visit to Berlin, then to Saint Quentin en Yvellines where he’ll commence the Paris-Brest-Paris cycling event) are not too far away.

A mural on a wall on rue Faubourg St-Denis

Next, I head for 63 rue Faubourg St-Denis, at rue des Petits Ecuries, where Thomas Paine moved in 1793 to share the ground floor of a ‘mansion farmhouse’ with six friends. Paine wrote in glowing terms of the lifestyle there, and they had farm animals and grew fruits and vegetables, as that area was still pretty rural, and they would romp in the garden to take their minds off the tumult and violence in Paris. He was living here when he, with a committee of nine others, drafted a new constitution for France, though this one was unsuccessful: the Girondin faction which Paine worked with were moderates, while the radical Jacobins were gaining power and, over time, took over the Revolution entirely, instituting the Reign of Terror. (See update on the search for the rue Faubourg Saint-Denis house).

It’s unlikely that any part of the building that stands here now is original, either in whole or in part, given Paine’s description of it, and the current address may not the same as the historical one [this turns out to be the case]. The only fruits and vegetables to be obtained here now are from the colorful produce shops that line this now urban, rough-around-the-edges but vibrant and colorful part of the city. I think this neighborhood is wonderful, and it reminds me in many ways of the Mission district of San Francisco before it became mostly taken over by hipsters and tech people.

A view of rue Faubourg St-Denis

At 101 rue de Richelieu, Paris, France.

Next, I head down to rue de Richelieu in search of the place where Thomas Paine moved in with James Monroe’s family in November 1794. Monroe had finally secured Paine’s release from his eight-month imprisonment at the Luxembourg (I’ll return to this subject after I’ve visited that palace-turned-prison-turned-Senate house). Paine lived with the Monroes for about 2 years, not all of them here, since they moved more than once. At the time of his release, they lived at 101 rue de Richelieu, which begins at Bd. Montmarte where it meets Bd. Poissonere, in the 2nd Arrondissement.

At 101, I find a classy place, fit for an honored foreign dignitary, with a lovely courtyard with a lovely arched entryway, updated with a modern reflecting pool. Again, I’ll return to this street soon for further explorations, which will be easier next time since I’m now getting very familiar with this corner of Paris, and as I find more source material with which to confirm whether the numbers have changed. (See update to the search for the Monroe house on rue de Richelieu.)

Courtyard at 101 rue de Richelieu

An entryway to 101 rue de Richelieu

When Paine was released from prison, he was broken down in health and spirits: he had nearly died from typhus, and he had an open ulcer on his side that wouldn’t heal. He had also felt that his American friends in high places had deserted him, not doing what they could to rescue him from his predicament. He was especially upset with Gouverneur Morris, the ambassador (then ‘Minister Plenipotentiary’) to France at the time, and with president George Washington. Morris was the primary author of the preamble to the United States Constitution as well as many of its other sections and he was an able statesman, but the French government lacked confidence in him; he was recalled after they repeatedly requested he be replaced by another. From their writings, it appears that Paine and Morris alternately liked, respected, and loathed one another. Morris often writes very sarcastically about Paine, and though I’m quite the Paine fan-girl, I find some of his remarks very funny and witty, though others are just plain bitchy and catty.

While Paine did offer valuable assistance to Monroe (Morris’ replacement) in his role as the new American ambassador, Paine was at this time also, as an aftereffect of his imprisonment and disillusionment with the French Revolution, given to depression, anger, and paranoia, and as a result of all of these, binge drinking. He was to acquire a reputation as an alcoholic, but since these accusations came almost entirely from his political enemies during and after his lifetime, this characterization is suspect. His friends and colleagues describe him as a social drinker, wont to make merry in the evenings and engage in enthusiastic discussions about politics, science, and philosophical topics as long as anyone was willing.

I next head north to rue Taitbout and turn left on rue de la Victoire, and go to the grand house at 60 rue de la Victoire, which was 6 rue Chantereine in Paine’s time, in the 9th Arrondissement.

60 rue de la Victoire, once 6 Rue Chantereine, former Home of Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte

It was likely in this house that Paine attended a party thrown by Julie and Francois-Joseph Talma in October 1792. The house was owned by Mrs. Talma, formerly Louise-Julie Carreau, and she held a famous salon here. Her husband was a well-known actor and passionate Revolutionary, friends with Jacques-Louis David (who, I was surprised to discover was among those who voted in favor of executing the King) and Napoleon Bonaparte, who moved into this house in 1796 with his new wife Josephine). Like Paine and Wollstonecraft, the Talmas were Girondinist in their sympathies, yet there was a ruckus between Paine and other attendees of the party, many of whom had begun to turn on this once-beloved muse and author of two revolutions.

Two Details of 60 rue de la Victoire, former Home of Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte

The history of the French Revolution is, among other things, a prime example of how people, even as they see themselves pursuing the same lofty goals and are members of the same political party, just can’t seem to avoid petty infighting. This sort of thing undermines so many important projects, and as we see all too often, petty disagreements can devolve to self-righteousness and even blind radicalism over time. French culture, in that era especially, placed a high value on ‘sensibility’, valuing the free expressions of both raw and cultivated emotions. As we have also seen in the French Revolution, unbridled passion was very often allowed to trump reason. To Paine’s dismay, he watched the beloved Enlightenment campaign for rational democratic government, that he served so enthusiastically and so well, turn into a bloody campaign of vengeance and terror.

View of Église Notre-Dame de Lorette from Rue Lafitte, Paris, France

Side view of Opera Comique, Formerly Theatre Des Italiens

It was very near this place that Thomas Jefferson moved for awhile, eight years earlier in October 1784, on the cul-de-sac (impasse) Taitbout off rue La Fayette near rue St Georges. He signed a long-term lease at Hotel Landron, also called Hotel Taitbout, but only ended up living here for about one year. I explore this area very thoroughly, peeking into every courtyard, driveway, and byway I can find, but a hotel by this name is nowhere to be found so far as I can see. (By the way, ‘hotel’ wasn’t used in the same sense as we use it today: It could refer to a grand house or a large public building.) This area is very near where I’ll be staying next week, so I’ll return if I find more leads, and I’m looking ever more forward to doing so, it’s such a beautiful neighborhood.

Jefferson was an avid patron of the arts, and attended the theatre often while living in Paris to see plays and musical performances. He often went to the Theatre des Italiens, very near his Taitbout place on Boulevard des Italiens. There is no theatre today with that name, but I find Opera Comique in just about the right place. Could this be the same building? The building appears to be of the right vintage. I look into it, and sure enough, it is! It’s in the process of getting a facelift and a good cleaning, but the side entrance is in good repair and attractive with its lovely cast iron lacy canopy.

Opera Comique, formerly Theatre Des Italiens, Paris, France, under repair

I still have many sites I’ll be visiting throughout the course of the day, so I’ll take a break here.

To be continued in Part 2:  >>>


Sources and inspiration:

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

Bell, David. ‘5 Myths About the French Revolution‘, New York Post, Jul 9th, 2015.

Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication:  A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.http://www.harpercollins.com/9780060957742/vindication

Grossman, Ira. ‘The House on the Rue de la Victoire
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.

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.’

French Revolution.’ Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia., Jul. 17 2015.

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

Traveling Philosophy Series, Thomas Jefferson Edition: Prologue

As I sit here in the airport terminal in Salt Lake City, waiting for one of my connecting flights to DC, I sleepily munch on French fries and watch the crowd go by. My ever-generous darling awoke with me at three thirty this morning to drive me to the airport, and though I’m almost too tired to think, I can’t sleep either, as is usually the case at the beginning of a trip (I can usually sleep on the way home).

So as I’m watching the crowd, I’ve got Thomas Jefferson in the back of my mind, as I’ve been immersing myself in biographies, lectures, discussions, and author’s talks about his life and thought over the last couple of weeks. On the first leg of my trip, I had just been re-reading the first chapters of Susan Jacoby’s marvelous Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, in which Jefferson’s Enlightenment philosophy, his Deism, and his efforts to enshrine a robust conception of human rights and separation of church and state in state and federal law play a large role.

A strong belief in the basic natural goodness and perfectibility of humankind underlie Jefferson’s view of human nature and his political philosophy. In the airport, I see those traits personified which would justify Jefferson’s faith in humanity if they were as universal as he hoped. I see cooperation, courtesy, patience, and friendliness abound: people chat freely with others they just met; others stand in line and in crowded aisles with forbearance, and courteously let others go ahead of them, or step around them with a smile, if they are burdened with children or slowed by age or disability; still others helpfully pick up a bag or a scarf dropped by a fellow passenger in a hurry to get their things so as not to delay others. I just saw a man give up the standby seat he had just won to the woman who had forfeited it, who was on the verge of tears because she arrived mere moments before her flight was due to take off.

I also see a wide diversity of race, culture, and creed represented in the crowd peacefully assembled here, cooperating seamlessly with one another, which the slaveowning-yet-abolitionist-yet-repatriationist Jefferson thought impossible (more on these contradictions in a later piece). He didn’t think, for one thing, that people of different races could live harmoniously in one place, not to mention his dim view of women’s ability to fully engage in public life and the professional world! I see an elderly woman murmur fervent prayers in a low voice to an image of a Hindu saint (I think) perched on the bag in her lap, with no-one protesting or even batting an eye; I see a black woman with a cross prominently displayed on her bosom accept instructions from the woman of apparent Middle Eastern descent at the podium, and then share pleasantries with her; I see a young white apparently Mormon man praising the sweet looks and winning personality of the child of Indian parents across the aisle, comparing her virtues to those of his own children at home; I sit next to two women, smelling of stale smoke, missing a few teeth, and wearing cheap clothes, happy, chatting, and smiling about the adventure they’re embarking on, without any show of feeling out of place next to the obviously much wealthier woman sitting next to them on the other side (and who, in turn, shows no sign of noticing or even caring about ‘rubbing shoulders’ with those of a different economic class). I see a young female pilot stride confidently down the aisle, a young boy gazing at her admiringly.

This airport, right now, in so many ways, is the America of Jefferson’s dreams, in some ways realizing his rather idealistic view of human nature, and in many more ways surpassing it. I wish he could see it right now, to relish this justification of his hopes for what his country could be, and to learn that human nature is capable of being even better than he thought possible. But when I think about all that’s going on in the world right now, I know we still have a long way to go. For now, I’m not going to dwell on that. I’m just going to enjoy this microcosm of human goodness I find myself in right now.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes