Development and Underdevelopment in the History of Economic Thought

Women as the Measure of Moral Corruption: Diderot and the Fall of Commercial Society"

Bréban Laurie, PHARE - Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

This paper aims to offer a solution to Diderot’s allegedly ambiguous complaint against the influence of men’s despotism on women’s morality, in his essay “Sur les femmes.” Although such a complaint may appear as only a pretense, reading the essay in light of Diderot’s writings dedicated to his materialist or political philosophy allows us to show that his criticism of men’s despotism over women is not purely rhetorical, as sometimes claimed (see Trouille, 1994). Admittedly, the philosopher attributes to women a physiological propensity to immorality. But he does not view it as an inevitable outcome. On the contrary, he considers that this may be thwarted by economic and institutional factors, at the initiative of men, such as a proper sexual division of labor. However, Diderot does not believe that the opulence of the European society of his time is favorable to this because of the moral corruption which comes along with luxury. Thus, women’s immorality would be the measure of the decadence of society but also the harbinger of economic decline.

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Keywords: Diderot, moral corruption