Adam Smith and the salons of Paris: venues of Enlightenment or situses of snobbery?

Horace Walpole’s journal entry for Saturday, March 8 reads: “Ditto. Mme Geoffrin, Mr Smith, Mme du Deffand, Lord and Lady George came.[1] That is, in addition to Adam Smith, Lord George Lennox, and Lord George’s wife Lady Louisa Kerr, Walpole’s entry for that day mentions two of the most famous Parisian salonnières of the time: “Mme Geoffrin” and “Mme du Deffand.”[2]

As it happens, Walpole spent a considerable amount of time at the salons of these leading ladies during his visit to Paris, and he became an especially close friend of du Deffand. In fact, upon her death in 1780, she left her papers, and her dog Tonton, to Walpole, and her correspondence to Walpole (4 vols.) was first published at Walpole’s Strawberry Hill printing press in 1810.[3]

Marie Anne de Vichy-Chamrond, marquise du Deffand (1696?–1780), whose portrait is pictured below (bottom right), was not only a leading salonnière and patroness of the arts; she was a remarkable woman of letters in her own right. In its heyday, her salon, which was located on the rue Saint-Dominique (now the Boulevard Saint-Germain) in her apartments in the Convent of Saint-Joseph, attracted famous diplomats, great ladies, philosophes, and prominent politicians, at least until 1764, when her protégé Jeanne Julie Éléonore de Lespinasse (1732–1776) opened a competing salon of her own just down the street on the rue Saint-Dominique.

Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin (née Rodet; 1699–1777), whose portrait is also pictured below (bottom left), was du Deffand’s great rival in the rarefied world of the Paris salons and was one of the leading female figures and salonnières of the French Enlightenment.[4] From 1750 until her death in 1777, Madame Geoffrin hosted many of the most influential philosophes and Encyclopédistes of her time at her salon on the Rue Saint-Honoré.[5] Among other things, her famed salon was decorated with the large mirrors and glass wares of her family business, the Saint-Gobain company, a glass and mirror manufactory that had obtained a royal privilege to produce mirror and glass goods.[6] In fact, Geoffrin’s family firm was one of the largest companies in Europe, employing twelve hundred workers, and had amassed a working capital of 14 million livres by the 1760s, with annual sales ranging between two and three million livres.[7]

There are, however, two competing views of these famous salons. On the one hand, some scholars emphasize the leading role the salons played in Europe’s literary and intellectual life. In her classic study of the salons of Paris, Dena Goodman writes:

“Geoffrin, who acted as a mentor and model for other salonnières, was responsible for two innovations that set Enlightenment salons apart from their predecessors and from other social and literacy gatherings of the day. She invented the Enlightenment salon. First, she made the one-o’clock dinner rather than the traditional late-night supper the sociable meal of the day, and thus she opened up the whole afternoon for talk. Second, she regulated these dinners, fixing a specific day of the week for them. After Geoffrin launched her weekly dinners, the Parisian salon took on the form that made it the social base of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters: a regular and regulated formal gathering hosted by a woman in her own home which served as a forum and locus of intellectual activity.”[8]

At the same time, other scholars paint a more stuffy and mundane picture of the Paris salons. On this view, the salons were, above all, the social space of Parisian high society, or le monde,[9] and hostesses like Madame Geoffrin and the marquise du Deffand–and presumably their guests as well–would be surprised, if not astonished, to learn that they were participating in an important cultural and literary institution.[10] According to one source, for example, Madame Geoffrin herself “vigoroursly avoided any learned pretensions and aspired above all to be acknowledged by polite society and to conform to the norms of female honnêteté. For her … to receive well-known writers [like, say, Adam Smith or Horace Walpole] constituted one step in the process of entering high society; her salon thus became a fashionable place, a necessary destination for aristocrats who wished to acquire a reputation as men of wit.”[11] If this picture of the Paris salons is accurate, their appeal to such a simple and austere man as Adam Smith is questionable at best.

Which of these opposing pictures of the salons is the correct one? Perhaps both. Maybe most of the salons of Paris were the stuffy and sultry social spaces of le monde, while some of the salons, at least some of the time, were home to the most enlightened and avant-garde intellectual and literary discussions of the Age of Reason. Although there are no references to these salons in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith most likely visited Madame Geoffrin’s famed salon, as well as those of the marquise du Deffand and mademoiselle Lespinasse, at some point during his 1766 sojourn in Paris.[12] After all, Smith’s first great work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, had been well-received in France, and he was thus a minor intellectual celebrity in France at the time–minor, that is, in comparison to David Hume. The leading philosophes, artists, and the salonnières of the Enlightenment were no doubt eager to meet him–and perhaps to hear what he had to say. But even so, the question posed by my “Smith in the City” series is still left unanswered. When did Smith’s transformation from a moral philosopher to a political economist take place? I will address this key question in future blog posts.


[1] Lewis 1939, p. 306, footnote omitted.

[2] See generally Nancy Collins, pp. 102-144. For an overview of the leading ladies of the French salons, see Aldis 1905; Mason 1891. See also Kale 2002.

[3] In addition, her correspondence with such lights as D’Alembert, Hénault, and Montesquieu–Correspondance inédite de Mme du Deffand–was published in Paris (2 vols.) in 1809.

[4] See generally Goodman 1989, 1994. See also Aldis 1905.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See Collins 2006, pp. 126-127.

[7] See ibid., p. 131 & n.144. Geoffrin had inherited her husband’s stake in the Saint-Gobain company upon his death in 1749, giving her lead ownership in one of Europe’s largest companies until her death in 1777. Ibid., pp. 126-127.

[8] See Goodman 1994, pp. 90-91.

[9] Cf. Lilti 2009, p. 10: “Salons were mostly organized as little courts, revolving around the hostess, and ruled by the ideals of politesse, witty conversation, social distinction, and galanterie.”

[10] See generally Collins 2006.

[11] See Lilte 2009, pp. 3-4.

[12] See, e.g., Rae 1895, ch. *. As I shall explain later in this paper, it was at these salons during the summer of 1766 that Smith would receive the latest news of Rousseau’s quarrel with Hume and map a strategy for Hume in response to Rousseau’s troublesome accusations.

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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1 Response to Adam Smith and the salons of Paris: venues of Enlightenment or situses of snobbery?

  1. Sheree says:

    Much enjoying visiting Paris from long ago in this series

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