Most may think of universities, online forums and even some social media platforms like YouTube as their go-tos for many of today’s intellectual thoughts and discussions. But many of today’s think tanks, thought leaders and hubs take inspiration from a historical and intellectual institution of the past: the salon.
The salon was a gathering of people presented by an inspired host as an important place for exchanging ideas. It was a hub to educate and stimulate intellectual conversation on essential subjects of the day, including culture, science, the arts, literature and politics.
With origins dating to the 16th century in Italy, the salon tradition of the French literary and philosophical movements thrived from the 17th and 18th centuries and remained popular until the 1920s, mainly in urban settings. Throughout the centuries, philosophers like Rousseau and Voltaire and artists like Gertrude Stein, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso, and many others frequented salons to share their ideas and works.
Some scholars believe it to have a more widespread significant influence on the public sphere than previously thought. By the 18th century, light conversation turned to more intellectual, rigorous topics and served as de facto universities.
During the salon’s height, the period was labeled the “age of conversation.” Not only did the salon serve as an avenue of communication for revolutionary ideas, but it also allowed women the opportunity to receive education and information. Women hosted many private salons, while men-only gatherings conversed or debated at salons in city and village cafes.
It remains a bedrock of thought and discourse; the tradition was transformed into different settings in the 21st century, but there could be hints at a revival.
The Modern Salon
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of the salon in some principles and industries. In the United States, individuals and companies have begun to host their own salons. These events sometimes resemble cocktail parties, seminars or networking events. They are distinguished from other events in an important way: all participants are encouraged to partake in communal, deep conversations while engaging in fun.
Le Procope, the oldest restaurant in Paris that held salons in the 18th and 19th centuries, recently hosted its own salon for the space industry. Discussions were centered around celebrating the sector’s widescale innovations but also helped to stimulate knowledge of our future within the field.
Historically, salons were held after dark periods in history and brought together various players who all had common thoughts or inspired each other to inspire a new era. Much like the artists of old salons, the attendees at the recent Le Procope restaurant served to elucidate how to bring the space industry to everyone and allowed experts to socialize and elevate the discussion.
And the tradition continues. This past September, while in Paris attending the International Astronautical Congress (IAC), I was hosted at a salon styled dinner by serial entrepreneur and space leader, Jason Dunn. Other participants in the dinner included the legendary Peter Worden, Co-founder of Made in Space, Aaron Kemmer, Planet co-founder and fellow Blue Origin Commercial Astronaut, Chris Boshuizen and Deputy Prime Minister of Luxembourg Etienne Schneider among others.
Intellectual dinners have also become a mainstay within various industries, particularly in innovative and emerging fields.
For example, I created The Ad Astra Dinners as a Jeffersonian-styled dinner salon featuring the leading minds in the world to discuss the future of humanity in space. The most recent dinner was hosted in December 2021.
This dinner series was founded by myself and I have received tremendous joy hosting some of the leading minds in the world at these events. But more importantly, I have seen the impact of cross pollinating ideas have had on the participants, and the benefit of bringing people together for such a unique exchange of ideas.
The age of the Internet has led to a wealth of information, but also an overload of material where focus, direction, or inspiration can be hard to find. By celebrating and generating more in-depth conversations with leaders and vanguards in various fields, more insight into the progression of industries like the space sector can lead to a treasure trove and creativity of new, refreshing ideas.
There is an opportunity to build more intelligent, thought-provoking discussions across our communities — and I believe the rebirth of the salon as a popular form of shared thoughts and debates is essential to our progress as a species — on and off Earth.