The absent philosopher-prince

Thinking political philosophy with Olympe de Gouges

RP 158 () / Article

Since the publication of Olivier Blanc’s biography of Olympe de Gouges and the first collection of her texts, compiled and edited by Benoîte Groult,1 dozens of articles on various aspects of de Gouges’s work have been published. All of them share the assumption that the author of this work was a fascinating figure of the French Revolution who left behind an unprecedented body of feminine political writing and theatrical work. At the same time, paradoxically, many of these studies also share the assumption that de Gouges was a conservative thinker, in terms both of her politics generally and of her feminism.2 She is represented as a woman trapped in the accepted political or philosophical positions of her times. Her declared affinity with Rousseau – although she also insisted on the distance between them3 – has been a major factor in the way her work has been read. Indeed, the central categories deployed in discussions of her writings are informed by this affinity, a fact which prevents commentators from viewing de Gouges as an independent political thinker who did not conform to the conceptual system of most of her contemporaries.4

My own interest in Olympe de Gouges is not limited to the interpretation of the writings of a past thinker. It is part of an ongoing endeavour to outline a civil political thought, mostly through reading women’s texts as an alternative to a modern political thinking that is focused on rule and turns the political into a judgement of taste. But I shall not expound on this here. However, my reading of her writings here aims not only at reconstructing what Olympe de Gouges wrote, but also what the writings contain potentially, derived from de Gouges’ specific position in the discourses of her time – the position of a woman who, like her female peers, struggled with the Ancien Régime and did not become a citizen of the new one. To this end, I shall first dwell on the triangle formed by the writings of de Gouges, Arendt and Rousseau. Second, through a discussion of de Gouges’s defence of the king, of her play The Slavery of the Blacks5 and of her novel The Philosopher-Prince,6 I shall present the main precepts of Olympe de Gouges’s political thought.


1. Olivier Blanc, Olympe de Gouges, Editions Syros, Paris, 1981; Benoîte Groult, ‘Olympe de Gouges: la première féministe moderne’, in Olympe de Gouges: OEuvres, Mille et une femmes, Mercure de France, 1986. To date, very little (only one play and the ‘Declaration’) of de Gouges’s writings have been translated into English.

2. It has become bon ton to depict de Gouges as politically conservative and limited in her thinking on slavery or women. See, for example, Doris Kadish, ‘Translating in Context’, in Doris Y. Kadish and Françoise Massardier-Kenney, Translating Slavery: Gender and Race in French Womens’ Writing 1783–1823, Kent State University Press, Kent OH, 1994; Laurent Dubois, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean 1787–1804, Chapel Hill Press, Chapel Hill NC, 2004. This is accompanied by an attitude that holds her talent as a playwright to be limited beyond the pioneering subject matter with which she dealt. Thus, for instance, Eléni Varikas writes, in her introduction to a play republished in 1989, ‘if de Gouges’ play is worthy of our attention today, this is not so much due to its dramatic value but mainly because of the ideas it expresses.’ Eléni Varikas. ‘Introduction à L’esclavage des noirs’, in L’esclavage des noirs, Côté-femmes, Paris, 1989, p. 17. See also Annette Rosa, Citoyennes: les femmes et la révolution française, Messidor, Paris, 1988. Gabriella Verdier, who offers an analysis of several of de Gouges’s plays, criticizes this view and demonstrates de Gouges’s innovativeness in the realm of theatre: Gabriella Verdier, ‘From Reform to Revolution: The Social Theater of Olympe de Gouges’, Catherine Montfort-Howard, ed., Literate Women and the French Revolution of 1789, Summa Publications, Birmingham AL, 1994.

3. See, for example, the sarcasm with which she refers to him – ‘the citizen from Geneva’ – in a text calling on women to rescue France. De Gouges quotes a passage from Rousseau’s 21st letter to Julie without disclosing its author, distancing herself from its position. See Olympe de Gouges, Écrits Politiques 1792–1793, Côté-femmes, Paris, 1993, p. 121.

4. The most radical stand of this type is taken by Erica Harth, who in the final chapter of her book thanks Daniel Morris for making her think about the limitations of de Gouges’s thought: ‘De Gouges’ feminism is defined by the boundaries of the philosophical discourse.’ Erica Harth, Cartesian Women: Versions and Subversions of Rational Discourse in the Old Regime, Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY, 1992, p. 233. Harth analyses the play The Slavery of the Blacks and the novel The Philosopher-Prince, presenting both as mainly conservative due to de Gouges’s understanding of nature, ‘which contradicts Rousseau’s depiction of initial equality in the second speech and illustrates his view of women’ (ibid.). In this article I propose a reading of these plays that is diametrically opposed to Harth’s. Contra Harth, see also Verdier, ‘From Reform to Revolutiom’, in which Verdier proposes the category of solidarity among women as a central motif for the interpretation of de Gouges’s plays. In an article on de Gouges’s rhetoric, Janie Vanpée stresses the importance of the immediate historical context in understanding her work and shows the degree to which de Gouges assumes that context to be shared by her audience. Vanpée proposes a fascinating analysis for understanding the rhetorical means employed by de Gouges to address her audience. Janie Vanpée, ‘Taking the Podium: Olympe de Gouges’s Revolutionary Discourse’, in Women Writers in Prerevolutionary France: Strategies of Emancipation, Garland Publishing, New York, 1997). However, this analysis is based on an assumption that I will seek to refute: the assumption that, in the absence of this context, the texts emerge as weak. This assumption pertains to a particular stratum of the text while disregarding the importance that de Gouges ascribed to the fact that her texts were meant to be read. In Vanpée’s work the criticisms of de Gouges’s capacities for writing and philosophizing are contradicted by the spellbinding manner in which she represents the author’s unique treatment of issues such as that of illegitimate children. See Janie Vanpée, ‘Revendication de la légitimité: les performances révolutionnaires d’Olympe de Gouges’, in Sexualité, mariage et famille au XVIII siècle, Les presses de l’université Laval, Quebec, 1988; Janie Vanpée, ‘Performing Justice: The Trials of Olympe de Gouges, Theater Journal 51, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore MD 1999.

5. Olympe de Gouges, L’esclavage des noirs (1792), Côtéfemmes, Paris, 2006; Olympe de Gouges, L’esclavage des Nègres – version inédite du 28 décembre 1789, ed. S. Chalaye and J. Razgonnikoff, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2006.

6. Olympe de Gouges, Le Prince philosophe: conte oriental, 2 vols, Indigo and Côté-femmes, Paris, 1995.