Libertinism: Philosophy and Writing
René Pintard in his fundamental study Le libertinage érudit dans la première moitié
du XVIIe siècle already highlighted the difficulty in distinguishing between the
illustration of a sincere fideism and that of a strategic fideism, expressed in order to
disguise otherwise risky affirmations. The authors that Pintard defines as “erudite
libertines” of the seventeenth century, a period when, like everyone else, even
atheists and sceptics died “well confessed and having received Holy Communion”,
were masters of hypocrisy by necessity. The same also went for the thought of the
following century, the century of Reason and the Enlightenment, in which freedom of
expression was still but a claim and the systems of censorship in force in the
different states often forced thinkers to publish underground, or under a false name
and place of publication.
One of the aspects characterizing the works of libertine philosophers is therefore the
tension between the necessity to express their philosophical thought and the need to
dissimulate it to avoid the censor’s knife. Codes known by restricted circles, implicit
and double meanings, allusions and indirect references, as well as forms of selfcensorship
make libertines’ texts particularly obscure. In the seventeenth century,
the phenomenon was more marked because the prohibitions were more stringent,
whereas in the eighteenth century the censor’s and authority’s net was less tight,
and the manners of subterfuge, such as printing works abroad, were relatively easier
to put into practice. All the same, it was not a case of everything goes, especially
with regard to religion and politics. Hence, in this light, the use of irony, forms of
allusion and insinuation are also worthy of investigation. Furthermore, the stylistic
choices, which at times step totally outside the traditional literary genres of
philosophy, form a crucial aspect of a thought which, while maintaining its
coherence, abandons the method typical of some forms of scholastic philosophy and
The libertines used the necessity to read between the lines of dissimulated writing to
seek to create a space where, despite its indirect and limited disclosure, they could
freely question the dogmas of religion, materialist and atheist theses, express forms
of scepticism and dispute the political power. This indirect and obscure style enabled
the freedom of criticism which is first of all the freedom to lie to power, a form of
insubordination that is a key element for philosophical thought to liberate the
community in other ways.
The philological and historical, but also medical, mathematical and physical erudition
that typifies libertinism made the work of philosophy more collective than ever, even
when it took place outside the institutions, where affirmations are tested for strength
by constant comparison and exchanges of opinions. The milieux where the libertines’
works were directed were private clubs or salons in particular, ranging perhaps from
the Académie des frères Dupuy to the Coterie Holbachique: these small societies
often formed around an important and authoritative personality, but there were other
routes to comparison and collaboration too. Constant exchanges between thinkers
emerge in letters, and in their actual works, whether discreetly or through explicit
references to each other, putting together an ideal libertine library.
Although some characteristic traits can be identified, libertinism probably cannot be
deemed a true philosophical current. Indeed, we should question the very terms
“libertine” and “libertinism” before defining them. The terms were introduced by
Pintard, but those authors given the label of “libertine” did not define themselves as
such. Nevertheless, could the numerous common elements (criticism of religion, use
of ancient philosophical sources, natural morality) not allow the category of
“libertinism” to be attributed a certain philosophical coherence? What is more, the
understanding of this category in connection with early modernity could evolve and
maybe even take on a new meaning in the present day.
Authors can propose contributions which seek to investigate the various aspects of
libertine thought. Particular attention should be paid to the stylistic elements, with
reference to a time span covering the start of the seventeenth to the end of the
eighteenth century. The main topics of interest are:
- Definition of philosophical libertinism: history, definitions, critical interpretations.
- Libertinism as critical philosophy: limits of expression and problems of interpretation, proposals for new readings.
- Analysis of literary genres, stylistic aspects and writing strategies as ways of dissimulation and expression in libertine philosophical thought.
- Forms of collaboration and collective work between libertine philosophers: analysis of works and correspondence, indirect quotes and use of other people’s texts, libertine library
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