2017 and on / TEARS700

The moral physiology of tears: Tears between physique and moral in the French 18th century

Marco Menin's current main project.

The Project

Why tears? Weeping is a human universal. Throughout history, and in every culture, emotional tears are shed: everyone, everywhere, cries at some time. Furthermore, weeping is exclusively human. As far as we known, humans are in fact the only species who produce tears when experiencing certain emotions. Tears are so the most substantial and yet the most fleeting proof of man’s emotional lives. Despite the long life of tears in the history of humankind, nowadays an interdisciplinary and systematic study on the history and philosophy of tears was not undertaken.

Why the French 18th Century? The privileged historical period to study the link between weeping and morality is undoubtedly the early modern France. This period is characterized by the development of a new aesthetic and moral code centred on the exasperation of emotion and on the hyperbolic use of tears, intended as sign of a shared elitist sensibility. Until the seventeenth century, tears are in fact exclusively analysed from a religious and supernatural point of view: e.g., the tears of the Homeric heroes and the tears of Christ. From the middle of the seventeenth century – a period characterized by a strong reaction against the Stoic philosophy and its negative evaluation of the passions – tears are analysed as a purely human phenomenon, invested with a crucial social and ethics function. This positive moral evaluation of crying will prevail until the first half of the nineteenth century, when the rise of Positivism discredits all emotional manifestations, sanctioning the triumph of an ethics of emotional restraint.
In the eighteenth century, in short, tear was not merely a biological fact, but was inevitably suspended between natural immediacy and cultural artifice, between the physiological process and the moral norm. For this reason, the analysis of weeping fascinated with particular force the eighteenth-century imagination, just to become an exemplary test for the understanding of the enigmatic relationships that link physiological and psychological dimensions, or – to use the conceptual couple in vogue in those years – the physique and the moral.


  1. Investigate in a systematic way the relationship between the physiological explanations of weeping in medical literature and the role of tears in moral reflection (both in philosophical and literary texts) with particular attention to the tradition of sentimentalism.
  2. Develop fruitful national and international collaborations, especially with the international centres devoted to the history of emotion.
  3. Compilation of a vocabulary of terms related to tears, starting from the fundamental distinction between "pleur" (tear understood as physiological mood) and "larme" (tear understood as emotion of soul).


    Essentially the most innovative aspects of the project are:
    a. The relationship between emotion and foundation of morals. A more detailed analysis of the ‘morals of tears’ in the eighteenth century firstly allows one of the key issues of eighteenth-century ethics, namely the question of the fundamental principle of morality, to be looked at from a fresh and unfamiliar angle. An ethical construction centred on tears implies in fact not only a comparison with a generic ‘moral of sentiment’, based on the primacy of the instinctual component, but also a rethinking of the theory of passions and of their social use.
    b. The description of sensibilité, suspended between philosophy and science. From this historicisation and contextualisation of the axiology of crying it seems possible to draw valuable pointers for a clarification of the philosophical language of the time, especially as regards one of its most fundamental aspects: the description of sensibility.
    c. The synergy, typical of the eighteenth century, between medical thought and philosophical thought. Finally, the analysis of the moral of tears enables light to be shed on another aspect of the history of ideas not yet adequately explored: the interplay between medical and philosophical thought. The new doctrine of sensibility, which embodies within the link between psychic and physical phenomena the complexity and mystery of human existence, leads to a blurring of the distinction between the ‘physician’ and the ‘philosopher’, resulting in a partial overlap (even in the most unexpected cases, such as in Rousseau) between the two figures.

Home page thumbnail: Harald Deischinger, Tears, https://www.flickr.com/photos/deischi/8980109146

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