Organization: Giornale Critico di Storia delle idee Università Vita-Salute San Raffaele di Milano
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 self-censorship 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 modern rationalism.
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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