Today if someone mentions a “salon” you probably think about a haircut or manicure. But in the 18th century, prior to the French Revolution, salons were the focus of civil debate, intellectual curiosity, and culture. They were centres of discussion on everything from manners to literature to philosophy to science. And they were run by women. Salons were the bright stars of the Enlightenment; cauldrons of intellectual, cultural, and social development.
More than ever, we need a salon culture today. Social media is driving us to ignorance, stupidity, rigidly polarized views, and a culture of confrontation and abuse.
Guests to salons were invited to attend by the salonnières who ran them, and meetings were held in the host’s home, often in her bedroom. Should a guest engage too loudly, exhibit bad manners while there, express themselves too foolishly or show ignorance of the topics under discussion, they were not invited back. And in a highly social society like 18th-century France, to be exiled from participation was a humiliating loss of face. To be well-regarded, one needed to be an active and engaging participant in the salon culture: you gained more points for being amusing, witty, well-read, well-spoken, and polite.
Participants weren’t selected simply for their charm or wit: hosts wanted challenge, lively discussion, and even controversy. They chose people who could offer contrast; those who could speak to opposing views and raise difficult questions for proponents to wrestle with. Salons were even places for musicians, composers, painters, and poets to show off their work and have them critiqued by the guests.
Salons were egalitarian: men and women both participated and engaged in the discussions, breaking away from the male-dominated society of the time, and providing both an informal education for women and an opportunity for them to develop their own views. Women could engage in political discussion in salons while they were barred from them outside. But they also allowed the aristocracy and the bourgeoise to mix and mingle; to engage in ways they could not do outside the salon, breaking down the social barriers.
The salonnières also chose the agenda and topics for discussion. They introduced writers to their guests and found them patronage that allowed them to have their works published. Salonnières brought in books and documents to discuss and share with their guests. Their aim was not only to amuse one another, but to educate and communicate. From salons would come news, ideas, and visions that spread throughout French society.
For some of the aristocrats, salons were centres of entertainment and leisure, but not in the sense of play or game time (although early salons features games like chess or cards, these were infrequent in salons by the mid-18th century), but in intellectual stimulation. It was entertaining for them to escape the highly ritualized formalities of the court and engage in actual debate, to hear new ideas, and to have to defend their own views. And they had to do so in a witty, seductive, memorable way.
The salons also encouraged writers and thinkers to take their ideas and views further. The result was the growth of letter writing in which they could expand on and expound what they raised in a salon. This also helped spread these ideas outside the salons to a wider audience, because their letters were often copied and widely circulated.
In her essay, Women in the Salons of Eighteenth-Century Paris, Regina Raab wrote:
The philosophes believed that the Enlightenment was a collective project that could only be accomplished through the contributions of individuals to the whole. It was crucial to the development of the Enlightenment that ideas come from as many sources as possible. Salonnieres drew diverse groups of intellectuals, members of the nobility, and the bourgeoisie into their salons with the specific intent of sparking intellectual activity.
Of course, there was competition between salonnières to host the best and brightest, to be the envy of others. This had the effect of encouraging both the hosts and participants to engage in both the best discussions and the best behaviour. Compare this to the angry, insulting, confrontational posts, counter-posts, and comments on today’s social media where bad behaviour, lack of manners, and lack of facts are common.
In her book The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), author Dena Goodman wrote,
The salonnières were not social climbers but intelligent, self-educated, and educating women who adopted and implemented the values of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters and used them to reshape the salon to their own social intellectual, and educational needs.
We need salons back in our lives, again. We need stirring intellectual and civil debate moderated by strong, but wise hosts, not the sort of screaming posters who troll on social media. These mark the rise of the new cults of anti-science, anti-fact, and anti-manners, as well as the continuation of the toxic masculinity that blights our culture. We can and should do better. Bring back the salons!
Because the salon culture was predominantly a venue for the aristocracy and the rich, those outside the social circles soon took the idea to more open and less structured venues, like the cafés of Paris. There, similar but usually more political discussions were held. Voltaire was a frequent participant in some of these. Being less structured (or even unstructured), and run by men, these were often venues for rabble-rousing, violent debate, and confrontation.