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School of Arts and Sciences

Humanistic Research Reveals New Connection Between Rousseau and Montesquieu

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Professor Vickie Sullivan and Katherine Balch, A14, collaborate to publish scholarly paper

Professor Vickie Sullivan and Katherine Balch, A14
Balch Sullivan
Katherine Balch, A14 (KateL Photography),
and Professor of Political Science Vickie
Sullivan (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)

It's not often that a Tufts undergraduate student and a professor collaborate on an article for a distinguished British journal of intellectual history, but that's just what Professor of Political Science Vickie Sullivan and Katherine Balch, A14, have done. Their article, "Spectacles and Sociability: Rousseau's Response in his Letter to d'Alembert to Montesquieu's Treatment of the Theatre and of French and English Society," will appear in the spring edition of History of European Ideas, a peer-reviewed journal. The article had its genesis in Professor Sullivan's senior seminar, "Political Thought of Montesquieu."

A dual-degree student who double-majored in history and political science at Tufts while studying musical composition at the New England Conservatory, Balch has a strong interest in the intersection of art, philosophy, and politics. As an undergraduate, she saw these topics converge in the writings of the eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued in his Lettre à M. De'Alembert that theater would corrupt a society's good morals.

"I don't agree with many of Rousseau's' views," says Balch, "but he talks eloquently about issues between artists and society that arise all the time, including the ways in which the arts affect civil society. As an artist, I'm fascinated by the role art plays in shaping society's moral compass and to what degree the quality of art is affected by the whims and desires of popular public opinion."

Portrait of Montesquieu, 1728

Cover from the 1749 edition of
The Spirit of the Laws by

Aware of Balch's interest in Rousseau and his writing on the arts, Sullivan suggested that Balch examine Montesquieu's references to the theater and compare them to Rousseau's treatment of the subject for her final seminar paper. Sullivan had been considering writing an article on Montesquieu's treatment of the theater as a type of school of morality, but had put the topic aside. "In his Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu references the topic from time to time, and I suspected the references created a coherent standpoint on the theater," explains Sullivan. "I suggested that Katie find out." Rousseau was just over 20 years younger than Montesquieu, and recently scholars have become interested in the influence of the older philosopher on the younger, says Sullivan.

"Rousseau condemns the role of theatre in society, maintaining that it erodes morals," says Balch. "He believed that public opinion is easily swayed and superficial. Montesquieu makes similar observations but comes to different conclusions: he believed that even if the feelings theater cultivated were initially superficial they could become genuine over time. Thus, instead of corroding the moral righteousness of civil society, theater, in Montesquieu's view, could help mold it."

In her final paper for the seminar, Balch "took a handful of Montesquieu's references to the theater and explained their significance to show theater could be an important part of his view of society. She then went on to suggest that Rousseau was responding to these views in his treatise, Letter to d'Alembert," says Sullivan, who found Balch's argument so persuasive she proposed they co-author a paper to present jointly at a political science conference.

"Undergraduates are more likely to co--author an article in the sciences, as students are often integrated into the lab," says Sullivan, "but a professor collaborating with an undergraduate in the humanities and the humanistic social sciences is much rarer."

Sullivan and Balch worked together on the article during the summer. Balch says the endeavor was intimidating and very different from her undergraduate course work at Tufts. Professor Sullivan brought "intense scrutiny to every draft," she says. "I now understand how difficult the process of getting published is, and the little things that can cause readers to be dismissive of scholarly work. At Tufts I loved the freedom given to me by my professors to engage in a personal dialogue with political thinkers, without necessarily having to worry about contributing to a larger body of scholarship. At this level of scholarship, you have to be familiar with any secondary sources possibly related to your topic".

Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

Cover from Rousseau's Letter to d'Alembert, published in 1758.

Other scholars have pointed to the influence of Montesquieu's thought on Rousseau's, but the claim of Sullivan and Balch to originality arises from their argument that Rousseau, in his Letter to d'Alembert, is engaging directly with Montesquieu's treatment of the theater and his comparison of English and French societies. Even when Rousseau is disagreeing with his predecessor, they argue, Rousseau is using Montesquieu's terms.

In November 2013, Balch and Sullivan presented their jointly-authored paper at the Northeastern Political Science Association's Annual conference in Philadelphia. "It was a gift from Professor Sullivan to include me," says Balch.

"I thought I saw the political science professors in the audience look exasperated when an undergraduate was introduced as a presenter on the panel," recalls Sullivan, "but Katie was so poised, and once we began answering questions, it became clear that they were treating her as a colleague who could teach them something new." When asked about Rousseau's attitude toward music, Katie responded in great detail, says Sullivan. She was informing them about a topic in which she was expert and they were not, and at that point they didn't care that she was an undergraduate. After the panel concluded, several of the audience members gathered around Katie to continue asking her questions. It was like she was a rock star."

The panel's moderator, Matthew Mendham, professor of political science at Christopher Newport University, expressed enthusiasm about Sullivan and Balch's contributions to political science scholarship, and recommended they submit the paper to a peer-reviewed journal. "This is a truly fascinating essay," wrote Mendham in his comments to Balch and Sullivan. "It is the sort of scholarship that makes many surprising connections, and forced me to look up many passages in books concerning themes that I thought I understood quite well. Drawing creatively from the primary sources, it also states precisely its contribution to the broad range of secondary literature, and I am inclined to think those claims will hold up."

After receiving additional comments from peers, Balch and Sullivan worked together on revisions before submitting it to History of European Ideas. Balch says she learned quickly that to engage in depth in any historical topics, you have to move beyond "household" names. "In music we focus on Mozart and Brahms, and in political theory, Rousseau and Montesquieu," says Balch. "At this level of research I had to familiarize myself with lesser known writers." For example, they had to consider the work of Béat Louis de Muralt to counter the suggestion that Rousseau was taking his treatment of England from Muralt rather than from Montesquieu. "I had never heard of him, but reviewers suggested we examine his work in the article."

In September 2014, Balch and Sullivan learned their manuscript had been accepted for publication. While the novelty of their piece is the extent to which Montesquieu influenced Rousseau's thought in his Letter to d'Alembert, its broader relevance is "the place of artistic expression in society," says Sullivan. "It considers both how different types of societies respond to art as well as the effects that art can have on society. These are perennial questions that appear in many different guises. They are certainly with us today whenever we speak of censoring or restricting expression. For obvious reasons, these particular questions were important to Katie when she was at Tufts."

Balch is now pursuing her master's degree at the Yale School of Music, where she is studying music composition. She believes her study of political theory at Tufts has made her a more critical thinker and has helped shape her as an artist.

"Any artist trying to express something about the world or what it is to be human needs to have something to say," says Balch. "Having studied these great thinkers with amazing professors gives me a lot to think about and say, whether it's literal, abstract, or more subtle." She points to a choral piece recently premiered by the Yale Camerata, a tribute to Rousseau's Essay on the Origin of Languages, where he depicts the first language of man as one that "would neglect grammatical analogy in favor of the euphony, variety, harmony, and beauty of sounds." The piece explores shifts in the timbral color of the human voice through changes in vowel sounds.

Recent recognitions for Balch's work include an ASCAP Morton Gould award, first prize in the American Modern Ensemble's eighth annual composition competition (Tier I), and New England Conservatory's Donald Martino composition prize. Her music has been performed by the Albany Symphony Orchestra, the New York Youth Symphony, and New England Conservatory's Contemporary Ensemble, and the Yale Camerata, among others.

"As a faculty member, I am so proud that this is what we do at Tufts," says Sullivan. "We have outstanding students capable of doing research at this level. I pursued this collaboration precisely because I saw it as part of my teaching and mentoring responsibilities, but in trying to teach Katie, I learned a lot myself."