Catherine Daniélou, Ph.D., may be 4,500 miles from home, but her love for France and history made its way across the Atlantic Ocean with her 25 years ago when she came to the United States. 

"History was my first love," Daniélou says.

She has always been interested in the intersection of general history, the history of philosophy, sciences, religion and literature and the changing of those ideas with time. So Daniélou was happy to submit an essay for consideration for the Frederick W. Conner Prize in the History of Ideas. Her entry, "Our days pass too quickly: Madame de Sévigné and aging," was selected as the winner for 2010. Daniélou will be recognized Tuesday, Nov. 30 at 3 p.m. in the Mervyn Sterne Library Henley Room.

"I'm delighted," Daniélou says. "If you look carefully, for the past decade and earlier, Conner Prize winners have been exemplary researchers and truly engaged teachers, as well. Not that I think the attention necessarily is deserved, but I am honored and proud to find myself in such company."

Daniélou's research has focused on early modern non-fiction writers, especially those who are called moralist writers, and who, starting with Michel de Montaigne in the French Renaissance, critically studied and debunked the actions, nature and behavior of human beings, including their habits and inner workings.

Daniélou, an associate dean in the UAB College of Arts & Sciences, says early-modern French moralist writers primarily were observants concerned with moral principles without necessarily wanting to regulate behavior. Some presented a secular vision, such as La Rochefoucauld, and others had strong religious beliefs, such as Pascal or Pierre Nicole.

"They all looked at us humans without concession," Daniélou says. "I have studied their vision of the world, how they see the individual in connection to society and the human condition at large."

Daniélou's essay covers several central thoughts on aging, including:

  • Until the Enlightenment, French literary stereotypes of aging often invited prejudice and mockery; physical degradation was ridiculed, and old people were marginalized.
  • 18th-century France signals a shift in both the perception and acceptance of aging.
  • Examining women's writings closely, however, shows that they hardly shy away from the issue. Madame de Sévigné's perception of aging is a precursor to its acknowledgement at the time of the Enlightenment.

Daniélou became interested in the topic of aging after she explored the writings of famous 18th-century salon keeper, Madame de Lambert. Lambert wrote that her idea that humans need to practice an "enlightened self-love" intersected with Nicole's outlook on human beings and also tackled the topic of aging. And it was de Sévigné's letters that chronicled life of the time as seen through the eyes of an upper-class woman of the 17th-century Versailles court.

"Soon it became obvious that I needed to explore her vision of aging," Daniélou says.

"Everything ties in together. Aging as a topic explored by women of the time is also a discussion on how we as individuals relate to society and its expectations."

Good opportunities
Daniélou says she appreciates the opportunities UAB provides for faculty to explore the history of ideas. The concept enables faculty to think widely in scope, she says, and explore the evolution and expression of ideas, ways they inform who we are now and the kind of society in which we live.

She says opportunities like the Conner Prize, President's Excellence in Teaching Award, Ingalls Award and Ireland Award provide faculty opportunities to grow as educators and are nice gestures to honor their achievements.

"We all do the best job we can, and most of us in the humanities are discreet solitary researchers whose work is important and yet does not get a lot of attention," Daniélou says.

"For those who win a prize or an award it feels like your accomplishments and merits are being noticed, appreciated, honored, and this is simply nice and meaningful. In a way, it's also important and good to compete and perhaps find the final measure of your work. You try harder and everyone secretly wishes to win.

"But, as François de La Rochefoucauld said, one should be able to simply achieve without witnesses and the world looking on."