Gournay, Marie le Jars de (1565–1645)

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Marie le Jars de Gournay was the editor of the first complete text of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne's Essais ; author of feminist, moral, and religious tracts; and a literary writer and theorist. Born into an aristocratic family in Paris, she mastered Latin and translated Diogenes Laertius's Life of Socrates in her youth. At eighteen or nineteen, having read with enthusiasm Montaigne's Essais, books 1 and 2, she met with the author, which inspired her novel. Their friendship led to her becoming his "adopted daughter," which, in the sixteenth century, implied a literary partnership. Thus, in 1594, Montaigne's widow sent her the final manuscript of his Essais, which Gournay edited, later annotated, and published, together with a long "Préface," in 1595.

The "Préface" attempts to defend Montaigne against the main criticisms advanced by his contemporaries: (1) Against the charge that his Latinisms and neologisms did harm to the French language, Gournay stressed the importance of Montaigne's usages. Gournay would later make a name for herself as the protectoress of ancient French words and would defend the innovative, metaphorical use of language against Malherbe and other moderns. (2) In response to Dominique Baudius's and Étienne Pasquier's claim that Montaigne's frank discussion of love was indecent, a point Blaise Pascal would later take up, Gournay argued that the ancients rightly took such discussion as a prerequisite for the self-knowledge needed for virtue. (3) The charge of philosophical obscurity was countered with a skeptical attack against the critics' capacity for judgment: "The gift of judgment is the thing in the world that men possess in more varied proportion." (4) Gournay defended Montaigne's digressive style against the objection that it precluded treating a topic thoroughly and evidenced a lack of method. Since Gournay and Montaigne were steeped in skepticism, Gournay could hardly imagine Montaigne producing rigorous, linear proofs. (5) The accusation of heresy, leveled especially at the "Apologie de Raymond Sebond," was the criticism Gournay was most anxious to refute. Her defense of Montaigne's religious orthodoxy is of particular interest, since it rests on one of the clearer statements that we have of his fideisma doctrine that she shared: "Who, likewise, could tolerate these new Titans of our century, these scalers of the heavens, who think that they will manage to know God by their own means?" "Judgment alone puts us in direct possession of God: which is to know nothing of Him and to worship Him on the basis of faith." (6) Montaigne's focus on the self and use of confessional autobiography had been attacked as vain and pointless. Gournay argued that Montaigne was instructing us in the Platonic art of self-examination; she was one of the first to see the epistemic and moral significance of the first-person philosophical voice, which would play such an important role in the works of René Descartes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. (7) Beginning with the 1625 edition, Gournay countered the charge that Montaigne was ignorant of the sciences by providing a skeptical, humanist understanding of a "true science": That which aids us in conducting ourselves as "honnêtes hommes" and in leading a good life. The subjects of which Montaigne might have been ignorant were "pure scholastic amusements."

After defending the Jesuits in a pamphlet, for which she was attacked in print, Gournay published a collection of classical translations, and a feminist tract, Egalité des hommes et des femmes (The Equality of Men and Women; 1622). Egalité is arguably the first modern philosophical response to the querelle des femmes, or "woman question." Gournay's innovative contribution was to combine (1) skeptical attacks, including the use of reductio arguments, against traditional views on the intellectual and moral inferiority of women with (2) evidence on behalf of the thesis of equality based on the authority of holy scripture, the early church fathers, and the ancient philosophers whom the church has recognized. As a Christian skeptic and fideist, Gournay saw (1) and (2) as consistent.

Gournay's moral essays reflect not only Pyrrhonism and fideism but the Christian stoicism that made up part of her morale provisoire. They appear in her collected works: L'ombre de la Damoiselle de Gournay (The Shadow of Mademoiselle de Gournay, 1626) and Les advis ou Les presens de la Demoiselle de Gournay (The Advice and Presents of Mademoiselle de Gournay, 1634; 1641).

She corresponded with Anna Maria van Schurman, Justus Lipsius, Saint Francis de Sales, La Mothe le Vayer. Abbé de Marolles, and Cardinal Richelieu. In her final years Gournay participated in the salons of the Duchesse de Longueville and the Comtesse de Soissons; her own salon was, arguably, the seed from which the French Academy grew.

See also Descartes, René; Diogenes Laertius; Feminism and the History of Philosophy; Fideism; La Mothe Le Vayer, François de; Lipsius, Justus; Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de; Pascal, Blaise; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Skepticism, History of; Women in the History of Philosophy.


works by gournay

Le proumenoir de Monsieur de Montaigne (Paris, 1594). Delmar, NY: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1985.

"Préface." In M. Montaigne, Les essais de Michel Seigneur de Montaigne (Paris, 1595). Various editions of the preface appeared in subsequent editions of Montaigne's Essais.

Adieu de l'Ame du Roy de France avec La Défence des Pères lésuites. Paris/Lyon, 1610.

Versions de quelques pièces de Virgile, Tacite et Saluste. Paris, 1619.

Eschantillons de Virgile (n.p., n.d.).

Egalité des hommes et des femmes (n.p., 1622). First modern edition in Schiff (below). English translation by E. O'Neill in Social and Political Philosophy in Perspective: Classical Western Texts in a Feminist and Multicultural Perspective, edited by J. Sterba (Belmont, CA, 1994), and in Bijvoet (below).

Remerciment au Roy. Paris, 1624.

L'ombre de la Damoiselle de Gournay. Paris, 1626. Included Proumenoir, essays on education, morals, feminist issues, religion, poetry and literary and philological topics, translations from the Aeneid and the works of Tacitus, Salust, Ovid, and Cicero.

Les advis ou Les presens de la Demoiselle de Gournay. Paris, 1634. Included the material in L'ombre, an additional translation from the Aeneid and new moral essays; the 1641 edition included "La vie de la demoiselle de Gournay."

Correspondence with Schurman is found in Anna Maria van Schurman, Opuscula (Leiden, 1648).

Correspondence with Lipsius is in J.-F. Payen, "Recherches sur Montaigne: Correspondance relative à sa mort," Bulletin du Bibliophile (1862).

The correspondence with Lipsius, Dupuy, and Richelieu, along with autobiographical, feminist, moral and literary essays, appears in Fragments D'un Discours Féminin, edited by E. Dezon-Jones (n.p., 1988).

works on gournay

Albistur, M., and D. Armogathe. Histoire du féminisme français, Vol. 1. Paris: Femmes, 1977.

Baillet, A. Jugemens des Savans sur les principaux ouvrages des auteurs. Paris, 1694.

Bayle, P. Dictionnaire Historique et Critique. Paris, 1697.

Bijvoet, M. "Editor of Montaigne: Marie de Gournay." In Women Writers of the Seventeenth Century, edited by K. Wilson and F. Warnke. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.

Boase, A. The Fortune of Montaigne: A History of the Essays in France. London, 1935.

Bonnefon, P. Montaigne et ses amis. Paris, 1898.

Feugère, L. J. Les femmes poètes du XVIe siècle. Paris, 1860.

Ilsley, M. H. A Daughter of the Renaissance: Marie le Jars de Gournay, Her Life, and Works. The Hague, 1963.

La Forge, J. de. Le cercle des femmes sçavantes. Paris, 1663.

McDowell Richardson, L. The Forerunners of Feminism in French Literature from Christine of Pisa to Marie de Gournay. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1929.

Menagiana. Paris, 1754.

Richards, S. A. "Feminist Writers of the Seventeenth Century." MA thesis, 1914.

Sainte-Beuve, C.-A. Tableau historique et critique de la Poésie Française et du Théâtre Français au XVIe siécle. Paris, 1828.

Schiff, M. La fille d'Alliance de Montaigne, Marie de Gournay. Paris, 1910.

Somaize, A. de. Le grand dictionnaire des Précieuses. Paris, 1660.

Zedler, B. "Marie le Jars de Gournay." In A History of Women Philosophers, edited by M. E. Waithe, Vol. 2. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1989.

Eileen O'Neill (1996)

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Gournay, Marie le Jars de (1565–1645)

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