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The third way between convent and marriage

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03 July 2021

It is “precious”, but by no means ridiculous, to paraphrase Molière and his famous comedy in which he mocks the self-styled intellectuals of his time, who were gifted with a vast and profound culture, and rigorous thought. Gabrielle Suchon - a talented philosopher and essayist who lived in France in the second half of the 17th century - holds many surprises in store for those who invest time in the careful reading of the texts that have come down to us.  Thanks to the passion and expertise of Maria Pia Ghielmi, who teaches Spiritual Theology at the Theological Faculty of Northern Italy in Milan (and has published an Italian translation of some of the works of the Jesuit Jean-Baptiste Saint-Jure and a study devoted to his teaching, Storie di libertà. Donne e fede nella Francia del Seicento), it is now possible to read ample excerpts of an ambitious, profound work, illuminated, at times, by a calm irony.

Gabrielle Suchon’s Treatise on Ethics and Politics was published in Lyon in 1693 under the pseudonym of Aristophile (which did not reveal whether the author was a man or a woman). The treatise aimed to show women, to whom the essay is mainly dedicated, that it is possible to free themselves from ignorance and converse with men on their own intellectual level, without inferiority complexes. To argue, the text uses a traditional philosophical method and the academic knowledge universally recognised at the time. Such a declaration of intent is indicated in the work’s prologue: “I have had no other intention in this whole treatise,” Suchon writes, “than to inspire noble and magnanimous sentiments in women, so that they may protect themselves from servile constraint, stupid ignorance and low and degrading dependence. They will be able to do this very easily if they follow what I explain about each of these subjects, without needing to turn against men or shake the yoke of obedience as the Amazons once did. The women of our time will be able to imitate them in their Christian strength and generosity, which, though less evident, will not fail to be more useful and profitable”. Through continuous references to the Bible and the patristic tradition, the author urges the readers to study, to help each other, and choose their own lifestyle, writes Maria Pia Ghielmi in the rich and well-documented introduction to the text translated from French in her book Della morale e della politica. Libertà, scienza e autorità attraverso gli occhi di una donna, [Ethics and Politics. Freedom, science and authority through the eyes of a woman], published by Edizioni Paoline - who led a pioneering life, a convinced supporter of a third way alternative to the convent and marriage, a “bachelorette” consciously chosen as the main way to achieve knowledge and independence from the models imposed by the social structure of the time.  Therefore, she was able to devote herself entirely to God and study. Suchon’s thought did not manage to emerge from marginality, neither then nor until a few decades ago, even though it presents a coherence of argumentation, a philosophical erudition and an acuity and depth of judgement that have nothing to envy to other much better-known authors of the 16th century. Even though she wrote at a time when the controversy of the querelle des femmes was dying down, Gabrielle shows that she is familiar with its authors and draws on their examples and arguments, without, however, repeating their tones of “worldly gallantry”  and frivolous adulation.

“This woman”, wrote the abbot Philibert Papillon, author of a work on the writers of Burgundy in which he provides some scant information on the philosopher, “because she was extremely industrious, spent all her time reading, writing and teaching children. Her conversation was very pleasant. I remember a conversation I had with her, in which she listed the advantages of her sex, which she defended very firmly”.

By Silvia Guidi