Louis XVI, roi de France (1778-79) by Antoine-François Callet. Courtesy of the Palace of Versailles, France


Against power

As a republican, Sophie de Grouchy argued that sympathy, not domination, must be the glue that holds society together

by Sandrine Bergès & Eric Schliesser + BIO

Louis XVI, roi de France (1778-79) by Antoine-François Callet. Courtesy of the Palace of Versailles, France

During the Paris Commune of 1871, all government officers and judges had to be voted in by the people. Karl Marx celebrated this fact in the pamphlet The Civil War in France. This idea had been in the air in French revolutionary circles, but has its roots in the radical egalitarianism of the 17th-century Levellers in England.

However, when we trace the diverse origins of the proposal back from later versions found in the work of 19th-century utopians and socialists, we find that during the French revolutionary era of the late 18th century, the most prominent advocate of (at least a part of) this proposal was the aristocratic-born French translator of Adam Smith, Sophie de Grouchy (1764-1822). The Letters on Sympathy, Grouchy’s only known, and signed, authored work, were published in 1798 as an appendix to her translations of the final edition of Smith’s book The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1792) and of his essay A Dissertation on the Origins of Languages (1792). These remained the standard translations of Smith’s key works for two centuries. Consequently, Grouchy’s Letters on Sympathy remained in wide circulation too, and were able to influence the growth of political ideas.

Sophie de Grouchy (1764-1822), miniature self-portrait. Source unknown

In the seventh of her Letters on Sympathy, in the context of her broader argument on criminal reform, Grouchy wrote: ‘if all appointments were granted by a general choice and a free election, our conscience would only rarely need to resist the sort of motivation that leads to crime or injustices inspired by ambition’ (all translations are by Sandrine Bergès). Grouchy clearly assumed that a government and bureaucracy filled by elected officers would be a source of legitimacy and justice.

There are intimations of this approach in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762) and Roman republicanism, but Grouchy’s formulation of this hasn’t been sufficiently recognised. How did a woman born of a rich aristocratic family become a conduit for radical democracy during the French revolutionary era?

In 1793, Grouchy worked as an artist, writer and translator from a tiny studio on the rue Saint-Honoré, a few doors down from where Maximilien Robespierre was lodging. Her husband, Nicolas de Condorcet, was in hiding from the Reign of Terror a few kilometres away, and she visited him when she could, bringing books and writing materials as well as moral support. Below her studio she had set up an underwear shop, and the brother of Condorcet’s secretary managed it. One day the militia, aware that the wife of a renegade could be found at that address, knocked on the door, intent on arresting her. But instead of dragging her to prison, the arresting officer sat for his portrait in her studio – gratis, of course. Grouchy was saved from the consequences of her radical political philosophy (and that of her husband) by her artistic skills.

Grouchy was born in the Château de Villette near Meulan in 1764. Her family was not only rich and aristocratic, but also literary: one of her ancestors had been tutor to Michel de Montaigne, and her parents kept a well-known literary salon in Paris. As a pious and studious child, Grouchy’s favourite book was Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. But in her late teens, she discovered the more dangerous thinkers Voltaire, Denis Diderot and Rousseau. She became an atheist – to her mother’s horror – and a republican.

Her political radicalisation is probably one reason she was attracted to Condorcet (one of the leading mathematicians and social theorists of the age who, far ahead of his time, supported equal rights for women), and he to her. They’d met through her uncle whose son she was tutoring. In December 1786, Grouchy and Condorcet married in the chapel at Villette, with the Marquis de Lafayette as their witness.

The newlyweds moved to Condorcet’s apartments in the Hôtel des Monnaies on the Quai de Conti, opposite the Pont des Arts, where Condorcet worked as the Inspector General of the Monnaie (that is, of the Mint). Sophie’s English was excellent by then, and they entertained many foreign visitors including Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Anacharsis Cloots and Étienne Dumont. Their devoted friend Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis, a medical doctor, physiologist and social reformer, who later married Sophie’s sister, Charlotte, was also a frequent visitor. Cabanis was also the ‘C***’ to whom Grouchy addressed her Letters on Sympathy.

She attacked monarchy as an economic extravagance, proposing that the king be replaced by automata

From the beginning it was clear that Grouchy did not lag behind her husband in terms of radical political thought. Reflecting on her role in the revolution, a former friend, André Morellet, wrote that Grouchy was to blame for her husband’s more extreme views. Her Letters on Sympathy certainly display an uncompromising republican framework. But for fuller evidence of her more radical views, we need to turn to the newspaper she founded together with Condorcet, Paine and others: Le Républicain. Published in 1791, the journal included anonymous articles by Grouchy and her translations of some of Paine’s work. She became known as a ‘fierce’ republican, and, not surprisingly, as an anti-monarchist she was mocked and caricatured in royalist journals.

In one of these articles, Grouchy attacked monarchy as an economic extravagance, and at the same time showed that it served no purpose beyond a ceremonial one by proposing that the king and his entourage be replaced by automata. Given the cost of the real ‘moving sculptures’ and the difficulty of producing and maintaining them in good working order, the claim that automata would represent a significant cost-saving was a direct attack on royal extravagance. But more than an economic cost, it was the psychological cost of monarchy that Grouchy was most worried about. In the second article (which she may have redrafted from an earlier one by her friend Dumont), Grouchy took on a theme she developed in her Letters on Sympathy: the moral and psychological cost of domination, the kind of domination characteristic of monarchy.

Being dominated is the chief and most pervasive political harm for republicans, because, Grouchy argues, it removes our liberty. In this, republicans differ somewhat from liberals, who see liberty threatened by interference. To be dominated is not necessarily the same thing as being interfered with. Being dominated means being subject to an arbitrary power that has the potential to interfere at any point in time. Grouchy argues that a king who is unconstrained by the law always dominates. Even a benign king who does not wish to interfere with his subjects’ personal lives dominates. Louis XVI insisted that he cared above all about the happiness of his subjects, yet his power over them was unregulated by law, and therefore arbitrary and dominating in this sense. And, given that a king’s attitude may change over the course of his reign, and that he will, one day, be replaced by his heir, his benevolence cannot be relied on to prevent future harms from interference. So, the king’s character does not make a difference to whether we should accept rule by monarchs: they still dominate, no matter how well meaning. As Grouchy writes in Le Républicain:

How can it be a virtue to love kings, be they good or bad, stupid or wise, good or evil doers, whether tyrants or the instruments of tyranny, sunk deep in indolence and abandoning the government to corrupt underlings?

This is the classic republican argument against domination: hereditary power is necessarily arbitrary, and causes harm regardless of the character of the current holder of the title. But Grouchy goes further: even if we could be certain of non-interference, being dominated is, itself, harmful. Domination reduces subjects’ autonomy, making them constantly anxious about what may happen to them, and unable to let their guard down except through a general psychological repression of the truth – a psychological ploy of denying the reality of the situation. A benevolent king’s subjects, Grouchy says, are like children: immature, easily entertained by trifles, and not fully capable of taking responsibility for their own lives and their own thoughts. Only by rejecting the king’s rule altogether can his subjects finally realise their humanity, and leave their metaphorical childhood behind:

Their respect [of the French for their king] is annihilated, as is their love: the heart of the French people, cured from this stupid and vain passion, has risen to the love of laws and country. Their soul, exalted by generous sentiments, will not go back to crawling at the feet of a prince. A king is the most infantile of rattles degrading the childhood of nations: the French no longer want rattles: they are grown.

Given she was arguing, firstly, that the king’s political role was so minimal that he and his entourage could easily be replaced by automata – which would be far less expensive to maintain – and, secondly, that simply having a king infantilised the French people, it is not surprising that Grouchy chose anonymity for her work. Even among the most radical revolutionaries, such direct attacks on monarchy were rare, though Paine certainly shared many of her beliefs on this. But if Grouchy chose anonymity in publishing her political thought, she very much gave of her person in public demonstrations of her republicanism. She was present with many other women at the Champ de Mars on 17 July 1791, the day her friend Lafayette’s army charged into the crowd. It was her home that the Marseillais soldiers came to when they arrived in Paris to join the revolution: she and Condorcet were feted by the soldiers as republican heroes.

When, as the revolution unfolded, her husband went into hiding, Grouchy’s wealth was confiscated. Later, following a rumour that she had emigrated, it was refused to her again. This period of relative poverty, her daughter Eliza wrote, is what prompted her to publish the Letters on Sympathy:

My mother was for several months without any income. When she could no longer find portraits to paint, she translated Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, to which she joined Letters on Sympathy, addressed to Cabanis, which she had written earlier.

We have good evidence that the Letters were drafted earlier, in 1792, as she had sent copies of them to her friend Dumont in the spring of that year, and Condorcet refers to them in his 1794 ‘Advice to his Daughter’. There may even have been earlier drafts: Pierre-Louis Roederer notes, in his review of the Letters published on 14 July 1798, the existence of an earlier manuscript that he had seen in the hands of Emmanuel Sieyès in 1789 or 1790. The Letters are, thus, the product of revolutionary politics, though published somewhat later.

In her Letters, Grouchy argues that for Adam Smith morality needs reason to mature but that it is born out of the human tendency to feel sympathy. In other words, morality comes naturally to us, but we need intellectual work to cultivate it. Smith does not explain, however, where that tendency to feel sympathy for others’ pains originates. In the Letters, Grouchy thoroughly agrees with Smith that reason plays an important role in developing morality and justice from basic sympathy, but she goes further than Smith. First, she asks where our tendency to feel for each other’s pain comes from. She suggests that Smith ignores an important insight when he merely postulates sympathy as a natural human trait. Second, she asks how the theory of sympathy may be developed to help reform social and political institutions after the revolution in France. These insightful ideas, and the brevity of her text compared with Smith’s own hefty treatise, make the Letters well worth reading.

Parents and teachers should help children perceive pain in others and learn from this pain

Grouchy’s first take on Smith, which she exposes in the first of her Letters, is that he does not fully explain what sympathy is, or where it comes from. He has done the work of ‘asserting its existence, and expounding its principal effects’, but has not gone back to its first cause: he does not ‘show at last why sympathy is the property of every sensible being susceptible of reflection’. Her own hypothesis is grounded in physiology, which provides physical triggers that will bring about pleasure and pain and eventually create sympathetic sentiments. She finds these triggers in the very first relationship any human being experiences: that of a dependent baby to the person who nurses it. The infant gets pleasure from proximity to the person who feeds her and calms her hunger pains. And that closeness also teaches her to recognise when her nurse is in pain, and to feel that pain herself. This is something Grouchy may have known from observing her own daughter, born in 1790, but also from going on charity rounds with her mother as a child.

The next two of Grouchy’s Letters discuss how the origins of sympathy affect its development through reason and education. She emphasised the centrality of parents and teachers’ roles: they should not only help children learn to think abstractly, but also teach them to perceive pain in others and learn from this pain. Here, Grouchy builds on recollections of her own childhood:

You have taught me that much, respectable mother, whose step I so often followed under the decaying roof of the unfortunate, fighting destitution and suffering! … Yes, seeing your hands relieve both misery and illness, and the suffering eyes of the unfortunate turning to you, softening as they blessed you, I felt my heart become whole, and the true good of social life was made clear to me, and appeared to me in the happiness of loving and serving humanity.

The fourth and fifth Letters offer her own account of the origins of morality out of sympathy. She mostly agrees with Smith. In the final three Letters, Grouchy explores the implications of her theory for the legal, social, economic and political reforms called for, and made possible, by the French Revolution. Although there is much of interest there, one particular set of arguments concern economic inequality, in particular, extreme inequality.

The central argument of Grouchy’s Letters is that virtue, moral or political, is born out of sympathy, the ability and propensity to feel others’ pain and to want to relieve it. One of her central innovations is to focus on the developmental, economic and social conditions that make sympathy possible. For, in order for this to be possible, we do need to see the suffering other as a human being, as someone just as capable of experiencing pain as we are. As the philosopher Philip Pettit puts it in his book On the People’s Terms (2012), we need to perform an ‘eyeball test’: can people look each other in the eyes without fear or deference? This means that we regard each other as members of the same species, capable of experiencing the same emotions, and perhaps as importantly, not as predators.

For Grouchy, the eyeball test becomes a test in emotional receptivity, or, as care ethicists put it, ‘attention’: are we sufficiently close to others to perceive their humanity? Extreme inequality can be an obstacle to this: the very rich and the very poor do not regard each other as being of the same species, so they cannot easily sympathise with each other, and will therefore be unlikely to apply the laws of morality and impartial justice in their dealings with each other. This, Grouchy says, leads to crime:

Let us only remove the extreme inequality that puts the poor too far from the rich to be known by them, and the rich too far from the poor to see them, and to let the voice of humanity reach their hearts; then unexpected misfortunes will become rarer and will certainly be mended. Take away from all the small tyrants their desolating sceptre; make these heaps of gold disappear, the smallest and least illegitimate of which probably has, in secret, a thousand victims to its name; let man no longer be elevated above man in such a way that he no longer sees his duties next to his interest; and then theft and fraud will become rare enough that the greatest danger and most dreaded punishment will be their actions being made public.

Grouchy offers a concrete proposal to reduce extreme inequality. She calculates that, given the size of metropolitan France, even assuming some inequality in redistribution of land, there would still be enough for everyone to live comfortably, either off the land, or by selling their land and going into some other business. All it would take, she says, after an initial repartition, is a set of good laws that protect property rights, and the absence of corruption. Anticipating contemporary ‘limitarians’, such as Ingrid Robeyns, she argues that, without extreme poverty or extreme wealth, citizens would be in a position to view each other as political and moral equals, and treat each other with respect.

Grouchy echoes Smith’s criticism of mercantilism and protection. But she seeks to adapt his thought for a post-feudal, post-revolutionary France. This includes changing the tax system, which benefits the rich at the expense of the poor, and replacing officials who are appointed to protect their own and their friends’ wealth with elected ones who will follow the law and the people’s will. Her intellectual contribution to debates about how to organise society after the French Revolution is enduring. The fact that her Letters were so widely distributed as an appendix to her translations of Smith’s work means that her thought may have reached many more intellectuals than was usually possible for a woman writing about radical politics in the 18th century.

Grouchy lived through the end of the Reign of Terror, the rule of the Directory, the First Empire, and the first years of the Bourbon Restoration. She also remained at the heart of politics, holding salons in Paris and Auteuil. Napoleon Bonaparte was among the people who frequented these. One day, he told her that he did not like women who meddled in politics, and she replied wittily that, in a country where politics could send women to the scaffold, they had better understand why. Sadly, we do not have any remaining works from Grouchy during that period of her life, save for her editions of her husband Condorcet’s works. It is possible – likely, even – that she wrote more but, while she and her descendants took great care to preserve Condorcet’s papers, her own were somehow lost, or destroyed.