Gabrielle Suchon was born in Semur-en-Auxois on 24 December 1632 and died in Dijon on 5 March 1703. She was an original philosopher on account of the singularities of her life and work. We know about her life only through the canon Philibert Papillon, author of the Bibliothèque des auteurs de Bourgogne, published in Dijon in 1742. The actual records of her birth and death, kept in the Burgundy archives, correct the date of birth proposed by Papillon (1631) and make Gabrielle Suchon an exact contemporary of Baruch Spinoza and John Locke, also giving some clues as to her social background. She was the daughter of Claude Suchon, ‘procureur du Roi au baillage Chancellerie Maréchaussée et Grenier à sel’, and of Claude Mongin, who had blood ties with the fief of Courtine-lès-Semur; she came from the minor landed gentry and noblesse de robe of the province, and her family included several jurists. Papillon’s biographical note provides only a little basic information on this obscure and solitary existence: after living as a nun at the Jacobin convent in Semur, Gabrielle Suchon protested against her confinement. She travelled to Rome to request that the pope relieve her of her vows. Her family began a trial against her to force her to return to the convent, but she succeeded in evading the decree issued by the court, left Semur and settled in Dijon, where she devoted her life to study, writing and teaching. There is no information so far that enables us to date these different events that are even harder to trace given that Gabrielle Suchon’s major work, the Traité de la morale et de la politique, was published in Lyons in 1693 under the gender-neutral pseudonym of G.S. Aristophile. This pseudonym was revealed by A. Barbier in his Dictionnaire des ouvrages anonymes et pseudonymes composés, traduits ou publiés en français, restoring the treatise to the author who, in 1700, published her second work under the name of Damoiselle Suchon, Du célibat volontaire, ou la Vie sans engagement. The autodidactic nature of her thought must be inferred from the works themselves, due to lack of other proof. They indicate that their author had no institutional training in philosophy (she insisted on this point), but developed her own knowledge based on five sources. These are, by order of frequency of reference: the scriptural texts; the texts of the Church Fathers; pagan philosophy and Graeco-Roman literature; the lives of the saints; the ‘moderns’, borrowing names, titles of works and ideas from Montaigne, Descartes and Pascal , as well as from writers and essayists such as Petrarch, Christine de Pisan, Marie de Gournay , Madeleine de Scudéry and Poullain de La Barre . Nothing in the texts indicates knowledge of ancient languages or direct contact with any contemporary thinkers.
Gabrielle Suchon’s thought has a remarkable peculiarity, which consists in combining a classical philosophical reflection, applied to moral, metaphysical, epistemological, political and judicial domains, with a militant commitment to the cause of women. Such are the two main themes of this work, which lend it its singularity.
The questioning of the female condition, inaugurated in French-language culture in the fifteenth century by Christine de Pisan’s Cité des Dames, belonged to the main subjects under debate in the seventeenth century. It then appeared in one of two forms: either that of a problem that remained on the fringes of the great political philosophies of the time (Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke), or else that of a militancy devoted to the cause of women (‘la cause des femmes’), which found expression in literature – essays, poems, novels or pamphlets – written by women (Marie de Gournay, Madeleine de Scudéry) or men (Poullain de La Barre). More than 150 works of this type were published between 1600 and 1700. Gabrielle Suchon’s originality lay in the way she linked the different areas of ideas that had previously been separate. The complexity of her project translated into a particular method of construction that can be summarized by the term ‘double-entry text’. Two main lines of thought intertwine at every moment. The philosophical line questions concepts such as freedom, science and authority. The militant line links each of these concepts to the female condition, both contemporary and historical.
The problematic effect of these two lines of argument generates a philosophy the main theories of which are both ‘negative’ and ‘affirmative’. Suchon denounces the female condition as being deprived of the essential right to freedom, knowledge and authority. In an unequivocally rationalist spirit, she promotes a philosophy of freedom, knowledge, strength and autonomy, which has Stoic and hedonist echoes, promoting a joy of knowledge and action by developing her specific aspirations. Her treatise Du célibat volontaire endeavours to provide a concrete framework in order to implement this philosophy. It promotes – for women but also, consequently, for men – the possibility of leading an existence without religious or conjugal commitment: a choice that the author expresses by the concept of ‘neutralist’. In order for this free existence to be made possible, she demands judicial status for a right that is recognized by the state (‘la République’) and that considers enforced religious or conjugal commitment as major obstacles to the individual’s salvation. These propositions are based on the affirmation of the singularity of each person’s predisposition, received from nature and willed by God. Anything that opposes this free disposition is regarded as an offence against God’s will.
Suchon’s religious language, scholastic mode of demonstration and frequent scriptural and Christian references seem to make her thought part of a Catholic tradition, the fundamental dogmas of which she does not discuss and by which she obtained permission to print (she also received a royal privilege). These facts have often disconcerted modern critics. The textual form does not seem to be in line with the content of her theories that were entirely contrary to the Church’s official position as regards women during this time of violent Counter-Reformation: a position that was radicalized, for example, by Bossuet (at times it would appear that she is expressly arguing against the theories of his Élévations sur les mystères). Gabrielle Suchon’s works gave rise, at the time, to several somewhat neutral commentaries, in the Journal des savants and the Nouvelles de la République des Lettres, but (like those of Poullain de La Barre) they did not trigger any particularly noteworthy debate. However, the works were read, since the Traité de la morale et de la politique was reprinted in Lyons in 1694. The reasons for this silence, then, probably stem from the traditional framework of her expression that enabled the texts to sidestep the censure that was so feared, hiding the fact that Suchon gave equal status to pagan wisdom and to Christian tradition. She does not hesitate to question the latter by analysing certain theories of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Scotus Erigen and above all by evoking numerous ecclesiastical practices: abuse of power, use of force in ensuring nuns’ vocations, seeking profit and wealth, literalism of forms of worship, violent struggles against heresy (T.M.P), censorship, monopoly of priests’ reading of holy texts and of direction of consciences (Du célibat volontaire). Her emphatically declared Catholicism, in what was perhaps a prudent disguise, is often marked by Protestant or Jansenist nuances, or even by personal heterodox interpretations, closely akin to those of John Milton and indeed to those of medieval Beguines and spiritual women such as Marguerite Porète – for example, when she states that the development of knowledge on earth, including in its experimental form, is a restitution of heavenly innocence and a truly experienced beatitude. As regards her morality of strength, of the joy of knowledge and of individual autonomy, she sometimes adopts a curiously Spinozist tone. It is fair to wonder to what extent this thinker – like her illustrious Dutch contemporary – needed a linguistic mask. Gabrielle Suchon does not fail to reflect on language, taking into account its conventional nature that is relative to given periods (T.M.P., Préface générale), or to make a number of innovations. She introduces some original concepts such as ‘neutral life’, ‘free life’ and, in particular, ‘neutralist’. She sometimes uses this term as an adjective, but her most original contribution is to make it a noun: ‘the neutralist’, since her subject is primarily the non-committed woman, in both marriage and religion. When she envisages the case of men, she speaks more in terms of a ‘neutralist life’. She strives to select feminine terms in French, such as ‘person’ (‘personne’), preferred to the general word ‘man’ (‘homme’) commonly used by philosophers at the time, which enabled her to use the feminine gender to speak of universals. Another noteworthy aspect of her expression – which does not only involve language but also her actual way of thinking – is her use of ‘I’: the explicit position of the first person singular which states the determined gender – in this case female – of the subject of thought.
Although Gabrielle Suchon’s work scarcely raised an eyebrow at the time, she was rediscovered in a major way in the 1970s in the area of feminist studies in France and worldwide. She was a precursor to the theory of feminism in France and was also the earliest female philosopher whose work has been preserved in its entirety.
Traité de la morale et de la politique, divisé en trois parties, savoir: la liberté, la science et l’autorité, où l’on voit que les personnes du Sexe, pour en être privées, ne laissent pas d’avoir une capacité naturelle qui les en peut rendre participantes. Avec un petit traité de la faiblesse, de la légèreté et de l’inconstance qu’on leur attribue mal à propos (under the pseudonym of G.S. Aristophile) (Lyons, 1693).