Paul et Virginie, or the Misfortune of Religious Enlightenment

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by guest contributor Marco Menin

Paul et Virginie, or the Misfortune of Religious Enlightenment

The first time I read Paul et Virginie I was nearly ten years old, attending elementary school in a small town in Northern Italy. Among the few books that were available in the so-called school “library”—which in reality was a modest metal shelving unit which held, at most, fifty books—was the Italian translation of the novel by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, tucked away among books for young readers ranging from age 8 to 12 years of age. Surprisingly, as I was able to ascertain years later, the translation of the work was complete, with only one brief passage censured, due to the complete nudity of the sailor who attempts to pull Virginie to safety during the shipwreck.       

I clearly remember how the events of Paul and Virginie, so distant both in style and content from the adventurous books that excited me at the time (I was an avid reader of Emilio Salgari and Alexandre Dumas, father), fascinated me and repulsed me at once. I was enraptured by the narrative ability and descriptive expertise of Bernardin, who painted before my adolescent eyes the exotic and lush sight of the tropics. Yet, I was deeply disappointed by the dramatic conclusion of the novel, which left me with a bitter taste of injustice. Being used to happy endings, typical of literature for young readers, I could not understand why Paul and Virginie—two young, beautiful and good individuals—had to die so tragically. One might say that, in a way, I had already grasped (albeit unconsciously) the philosophical problem of the theodicy that brings Bernardin’s novel to life!

In my view, this biographical anecdote—as trivial as it may be—allows us to reflect on the unique historiographical destiny of the Lumières catholiques, the religiously-inspired enlightenment, whose most famous exhibits include Paul et Virginie. Up until recent years, the history of ideas strived largely to exalt anticlerical discourse and the progress of secularization, both typical of the French Enlightenment. This would explain why this time period was perceived as irreconcilable with faith and, more specifically, with Catholicism, which was effectively deeply-rooted in eighteenth-century France. Despite the philosophes’ efforts to destroy the ecclesiastical institution and Catholic dogmas, religion, which often prevails over reason as regards moral efficacy, maintains a prominent position in a society that is continuously in search of moral progress, while increasingly absorbed by mundane habits.   

Faced with the ever-growing importance of secular values, which were glorified by the Utilitarian movement imported from England, the religious apologists adapted their discourse to the trends of the time, in order to defend a conception of religion that was more philosophical than fideistic. In a book from 2008 David Sorkin confirms the central position of the movement in eighteenth-century Europe; a movement somewhere between philosophy and religion which he defines as The Religious Enlightenment: “It [the religious Enlightenment] was at the heart of the eighteenth century: it may have had more influential adherents and exerted more power in its day than either the moderate or the radical version of the Enlightenment. The religious Enlightenment represented the last attempt by European states to use reasonable religion – as opposed to romantic, mystical, or nationalist interpretations – as the cement of society (p. 21).”   

Due to their ambiguous position, suspended between secularization and religious conservatism, between enlightenment and anti-enlightenment, the Lumières catholiques had been long ignored or, at best, embraced by a generic “edifying literature” which was to be regarded with benevolent indulgence. In addition to the case of Bernardin, one might consider Mme Leprince de Beaumont (as one mere example), who in present-day collective unconsciousness is considered exclusively to be an author of childhood literature (one might think of the tale La Belle et la Bête), while in reality she was a leading spokeswoman for religious apologetics, brimming with philosophical implications.   

Alongside content (their presumed conservatism), an additional misconception which has long characterized the reception of the figures of the Catholic Enlightenment regards form; that is, the choice to serve as a prevalent expressive means of the sentimental novel. Though it has been superficially interpreted as a merely aesthetic choice, this decision has solid theoretic foundations. Not only does the sentimental novel genre allow for a broader circulation of ideas, consistent with the democratization of knowledge which was typical of the Enlightenment, it also fosters a proper philosophical investigation. As a theater of the expression and operation of moral sentiment, restored by Rousseau, the sentimental novel is presented as a privileged space in which a tolerant and enlightened faith is defended, and sensibility is considered to be a source of morality. Free of its theological implications, religion becomes a powerful moral instrument, equipped with the extraordinary gift of political and social cohesion.     

In the case of Paul et Virginie, as I hope to have demonstrated in my article Paul et Virginie, or the Enigma of Evil: The Double Theodicy of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, the exotic adventure and amorous idyll (destined to transform into tragedy) serve to illustrate a clear theodical plan, which cannot be fully understood if the novel is not considered against the broader backdrop of Bernardin’s philosophical-naturalistic reflection, showcased in his Études de la nature.

A similar discussion to the one we have had regarding Bernardin can be applied to all of the apologists who were involved with the genre of edifying novels: from the aforementioned Mme Leprince de Beaumont to the abbé Gerard and Mme de Genlis, authors of Le Comte de Valmont ou les Égarements de la raison (1774) and Les Petits Émigrés (1798), which though nearly forgotten today, were best-sellers of their time.

In the case of all these authors, repeated references to Heaven and to divine providence as narrative motors should not be reduced to pathetic ornamental epiphenomena; rather, they must be considered an integral part of the sentimental rhetoric that fuels the figures of the Catholic Enlightenment, and that exerts leverage on the affective dimension before the intellectual dimension of the reader. The apologist novelists use a precise aesthetic and ideological system in order to desacralize Catholic orthodoxy by democratizing it. By making orthodoxy mundane through fiction, these authors draft a new order, which is clarified simultaneously by the lumières of faith and of reason.     

From this standpoint, as vigorously confirmed by the historiographic events of Paul et Virginie, a more in-depth examination of the Lumières religieuses allows us to reconstruct a relevant building block of the cultural life that characterized France (and Europe) in the late eighteenth century, while returning to unjustly marginalized texts their due place within the history of ideas.

Marco Menin is an Associate Professor in History of Philosophy, Università degli Studi di Torino (Italy). His article on Paul et Virginie is available in the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

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