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April Shelford on Pierre-Daniel Huet

April G. Shelford, Transforming the Republic of Letters: Pierre-Daniel Huet and European Intellectual Life, 1650-1721 (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2007), pp. 264

Reviewed in December 2008

Myron Gilmore's graduate students chose (or were asked to do?) individual humanists as subjects for their doctoral dissertations, often with excellent results. The number of sources and their published works could on occasion be quite limited. I can think of a number of quite slim, well-researched and well-written volumes on humanists that conform to these observations.

As a general rule, the later the life of a particular humanist in the sixteenth century, the more that can be learned about his life and published (printed) works. April Shelford has boldly and successfully carried out such a study for a late seventeenth-century humanist, a formidable task because of the plethora of sources and the eclecticism of his research, thought, surviving manuscripts, and published works. As a boutade at a "Tuesday lunch" (which met on Wednesdays) at Columbia in the 60's, Willard Hutchen exclaimed: "Aristotle was not an individual but a research foundation!" Though by no means as great or as eclectic as Aristotle, Huet ranges over many arts and disciplines, and he actively participated in the republic of letters of his time, thereby leaving a very long paper trail. Peiresc comes to mind, for he too has a long paper trail; but unlike Huet, he published almost nothing!

What follows is not a formal review but a modest historical critical note on Shelford's accomplishments in her study of Huet. The following are principal features in Huet's quite long life (70 years) which are in fact major and immense subfields in seventeenth-century French studies that Shelford had to work up in order to frame her study and offer contexts for the writings:

­ Norman learned culture, with emphasis on the Jesuits

­ the republic of letters

­ the battle of the ancients and the moderns

­ the salons and the salonnières

­ biography and autobiography

­ the history of seventeenth-century poetry

­ Biblical studies, particularly on Origen's commentaries

­ sociability, politeness, conversation, and correspondence

­ neo-Latin as a phenomenon, even a movement; classical genres; Horace

­ gender studies, friendship, the learned woman

­ the history of science (natural philosophy)

­ the history of philosophy (Epicurianism, Gassendi, Thomism, neo-Aristotelianism, Descartes, Cartesianism, Boyle, Leibniz, theology, Jansenism, Antoine Arnauld, Nicole, Racine, Spinoza

­ education, schools, the ad usum Delphini series

At every turn we can literally imagine Huet, the future bishop of Avranches, tonsured and in a black be-ribboned gown with 20-30 buttons going up the front, as Shelford creates before our eyes a portrait of someone extremely self-aware: every gesture, salutation on a letter, obvious friendship for other learned persons, and disdain for the ignorant and mis- or un-informed, could become obvious. The early education and mentoring by the Jesuits would be consciously suspended here and there upon reflection, but their bildungsformation remained. Marc Fumaroli somewhere describes the republic of letters as essentially religious in spirit, a cleric-cy in which only the hard work of learning or devotion assured a place.

Shelford almost lovingly traces the steps by which French and learned culture, still honored by the crown, was left on the sidelines by a bombastic academism, a fanatical (or almost!) Cartesianism, a hostility to learning on the part of a new and noisy world of ignorant fiction writers and readers, and reinforced skepticisms emanating from biblical and philosophical studies, notably from Richard Simon, and Baruch Spinoza. There were others who were exasperating but who remained so unworthy as not to merit refutation! Huet is embattled and embroiled in controversy in his later life, and it would seem that he became quite isolated as friends died; and he may not have had the time or the inclination to make new friends. Learned refutation in Latin, biting satire in French. Shelford quotes La Rochefoucauld: "C'est une grande folie de vouloir être sage tout seul" (p. 184), implying that Huet suffered from increasing isolation as he aged.

Shelford does a lot of work in her notes, and some defy interpretation; but isn't that part of the fun of being a historian? Her very last note is a bow to biography: His [Huet's] less appealing traits became increasingly prominent as he aged. Indeed, Tolmer's description of Huet's last years give the impression of a "feeble old man obsessed with money, prickly and paranoid" (p. 238).