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Olympe de Gouges versus Rousseau: Happiness, Primitive Societies, and the Theater


In Le Bonheur Primitif (1789), Olympe de Gouges takes on Rousseau's account of the evolution of human society in his first two Discourses, and she argues that primitive human beings were not only happy, but also capable of virtue. I argue that in that text, Gouges offers a contribution to the eighteenth-century debate on human progress that is distinct from Rousseau's in that it takes seriously the contribution of women and families to human happiness and progress. I show how the concept of emulation plays an important role in Gouges's analysis, both in her account of primitive societies and of the theater, and argue that she uses it to bridge the gap between primitive happiness and future progress.

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This article is the second in a special series of commissioned articles on women in the history of philosophy. The first article ‘What Kind of Monist is Anne Finch Conway?’, by Jessica Gordon-Roth, appeared in Volume 4, Issue 3, pp. 280-97.

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