The Philosophy of Enlightenment and the Metamorphoses of the Libertine Spirit

Terry Winters, 2000.


Considerations on the historical continuity that links libertines to atheism, materialism, free-thinking, at whose center is the philosophy of Enlightenment

“The authentic principle of our customs lies so little in the speculative judgments we form about the nature of things, that there is nothing more common than orthodox Christians who live immorally and libertines of spirit who live morally” (Pierre bayle[1]).

“Eighteenth-century publishers and booksellers used the expression “philosophical books” to designate their illegal merchandise, whether irreligious, seditious or obscene. They didn't care for finer distinctions, as most banned books were offensive in a variety of ways. In the jargon of that trade, libre sometimes meant "lewd," but it also evoked seventeenth-century libertism—that is, freethinking. Around 1750, libertinism was about the body as well as the spirit, pornography and philosophy. Readers knew a sex book when they saw one, but they expected sex to serve as a vehicle for attacks on the Church, the Crown, and all manner of social abuse” (Robert Darnton[2])



Before starting to justify the title of this exhibition, it is necessary to reflect on the context in which it unfolds. That is, in the context of a symposium on libertines and libertarians. Let us begin, therefore, by reflecting on the conjunction between these two words, and on the interest that exists today in conjugating them, even if we limit ourselves to focusing on the connective and, which does not necessarily involve any reciprocal implication or internal relationship.

It is necessary, first of all, to formulate some semantic questions, which are never idle. Both the word libertine and libertarian, like all words or ideas in general, have a history – and these two words, of common origin, have histories that cannot be exactly superimposed. Let's say right away that we are not interested in opposing one another, that we don't want to suggest some logical incompatibility or found a social-historical difference between libertines and libertarians. That is, it is difficult to deny that, from the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries (and even from the sixteenth), the so-called libertines were in some way libertarians.

Our preliminary question aims, first of all, at the imperative of differentiation, both conceptual and historical, to avoid the pitfalls, difficult to circumvent, of anachronism and conceptual confusion. In other words, what we announce, with the expression of this precaution, is that the different intersections between these sister notions, over the last five centuries, can give rise to confusion of ideas, of very different ways of life and thought.

On the one hand, it is impossible to imagine a contemporary of ours who does not link the idea of ​​debauchery (to provoke another strong anachronizing short circuit) with the “derèglement des sens” (XNUMXth century) or, more crudely, with the debauchery or the sexual orgy, in a word, with transgression. A bit like, even before the birth of modernity, the Epicurean was seen as a débauché or libertine before la lettre, as expressed in the classic formula that anathematizes the “pigs of Epicurus' herd” – all of this going against the grain of the high ethical reflection of that respectable philosophical tradition.

Someone will say that it has always been like this. Witness to this is the precocious self-defence of the libertines. Thus, we can read, under the pen of the so-called “learned libertines” of the XNUMXth century, paragraphs as enlightening as the following, by Guy Patin: “Mr. Naudé, librarian for Mr. Cardinal Mazarin, a close friend of Mr. Gassendi, as well as a friend of mine, invited us to have dinner and sleep the next Sunday, the three of us, at his house in Gentilly, on the condition that there were only the three of us, and that there we consecrated ourselves to débauche, but only God. you know what to debauche. Mr. Naudé only drinks water, he has never tasted wine. Mr. Gassendi is so delicate that he would not dare to taste it, and he thinks he would be burned if he drank wine... As for me, I can only sprinkle dust over the writing of these two great men, and I drink very little - and yet it will be a débauche, but philosophical, and perhaps something more; perhaps the three of us, cured of the werewolf and freed from the disease of scruples, which is the tyrant of consciences, can approach the sanctuary. Last year I made this trip to Gentilly with Mr. Naudé, just the two of us, tête-à-tête; there were no testimonies and they were not necessary, there we were able to talk about everything, very freely, without scandalizing anyone”.[3]

It is also true that, in the same century, unsuspected authors (at first sight or through the glasses of retrospection), as can be seen in the above text by Bayle, insisted on the purity of the libertine spirit.

On the other hand, it is impossible not to recognize something like a historical logic that leads from the sixteenth century until today – the general movement of Enlightenment or of Lights which, aiming at the deforming weight of all tradition, directly attacks the dominant form of social organization (Ancien Régime or capitalism) and expresses the aspiration for a purer form of humanity in the future, at the same time more humane and rational. From Rabelais to the surrealists and anarchists, it is certain that the same inspiration or aspiration seems to run through.

But are they, in fact, the same inspiration and the same lungs? Will the good impulses of the heart keep, over these few centuries, the same meaning, the same direction? That's what we can ask ourselves. Several decades ago, Lucien Febvre showed in Le problème de l'incroyance au XVIème siècle how much anachronism was implied in the retrospective attribution of atheism to Rabelais. The same Rabelais who, following the sweet slope or inclination of retrospective reading, would be at the origin (or perspective) of everything that is good in so-called modern thought: atheism, materialism, skepticism, libertinism, free thought, etc…



Between Charybdis and Scylla, it is therefore urgent to find a middle way, which allows reconciling such hostile evidence. On the one hand, recognizing the unequivocal continuity of Enlightenment, on the other hand, to assimilate the idea that the remembrance of the past (even the near one) can correspond to ignorance or forgetfulness.

Let's return to our starting point: what do words like libertine and libertarian mean? Nowadays, they are words that incite our imagination for several reasons. But it is necessary to discriminate the contemporary forms of this revival, which has a lot to do with oblivion and takes on forms as opposed to those of immediate adherence and critical distancing.

In order to understand well the metamorphoses, both of philosophy and of the libertine spirit in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, it would also be necessary to do the history of the reception and prohibition of libertine literature during the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries. Since their paradoxical preservation in the “Hell” of the National Library (which, curiously, as Darnton observes, is not located in the basement of the building), preservation that kept these books out of the reach of the reader, or at least the common reader. Books were not burned in the XNUMXth century (as perhaps a more legal or police mentality would have liked), but reading them was prohibited. From then, or from that moment, to the successive phases of the rehabilitation of this literature, from Baudelaire to Surrealism, to use the title of a very suggestive book by Maurice Nadeau.

Successive steps that can be described as deepening or widening the reception space of this past literature. Let us think of the few decades, in our century, that separate the editions of Sade promoted by J.-J. Pauvert (who therefore had problems with the law) and the recent enthronement of the divine marquis among the great classics, in Bibliothèque de la Pleiade. Not to mention the most recent editions that finally offer the public the most infernal bibliography that was segregated in the “Hell” of the National Library in Paris. I am thinking here of the Anthology of Libertine Romances of the 1993th Century (Ed. Robert Laffont, XNUMX) prepared by Raymond Trousson, who is also responsible for a long and illuminating preface that we will use a lot in this conference. Or even in the seven volumes of “Inferno” at the National Library, which include the erotic novels by Mirabeau and Restif de la Bretonne, first and second volumes respectively; and five more volumes of anonymous works. All this without counting an anthology that had already been published in the same Bibliothèque de la Pleiade from Gallimard.

But this return of the repressed does not necessarily imply an opening of the channels of understanding. Contemporary theoretical-practical choices can oppose them, even when they lead to a positive reappraisal of this literary and philosophical tradition. This is what we can verify by comparing two contemporary attitudes, symmetrically opposed, in the face of the tradition of debauchery.

The first of these is represented by the feminist critique of libertine literature. I turn here, once again, to the beautiful essay by Robert Darnton. There we can read:After reading the works of 150 Years of Pornography, I found it hard to resist the conclusion that some feminists got things wrong. Instead of summarily condemning all pornography, they could have used some of it for their own benefit. Catharine MacKinnon may be right in associating modern pornography adherents with the idea that "sex and thought are antithetical." thought" [4]

And it is not difficult for Darnton to show how liberating literature is for the female condition. Starting with the praise of women's superiority in the field of sexuality. As indicated by the following verses, taken from the novel Histoire de Dom B…, from 1740: “Par des raisons, prouvons aux hommes / Combien au-dessus d'eux nous sommes / Et quel est leur triste destin. / Nargue du genre masculin. /Démontrons quel est leur caprice, / Leur trahison, leur injustice. Chantons et répetons sans fin: /Honneur au sexe féminin.”

It is not just the superior, so to speak, orgasmic capacity that is underlined here. It is also, and above all, the epistemic reach of women's sexual experience. Even if she is a victim of sexual violence, the victim is déniaisée (i.e. "desad") and reaches the majority of reason - according to the imperative of Enlightenment. As if to the Kantian motto (and before it) “sapere aude” this literature recommends: fornicare aude ut sapias (recalling here that, in Latin, know means both “to know” and “to taste”). As is the case, among a thousand others, of Fanchon, a character from L'école des filles, which, after being devirgined, says: “I start to get smart and stick my nose into things that were previously unknown to me”. sex is good for thought, as the title of Darnton’s text says in English – and we could add: for ethics. Especially if we link, as it is sensible to do, the ideas of ethics and autonomy.

But it is not just the rejection of libertine literature (as a consecration of female alienation or its reduction to an object of pleasure) that anachronistically lets the essential features of this literary tradition pass through. The apology for libertine literature can also be anachronistic – projecting our contemporary categories and sensibilities into an essentially different world. I am thinking here of the contemporary appropriation of eighteenth-century libertines operated by thinkers of “transgression”, in the wake of surrealism.

I speak, of course, of Georges Bataille – the one who in the 1930s became strongly interested in the anthropology of Marcel Mauss, and in the thesis that taboos were made to be transgressed. But I am also talking about Foucault, as can be clarified with a brief anecdote. As a mere anecdote, it should be relativized, but it does not fail to launch – boutade revealing – some light on the contemporary use of the idea of ​​transgression. The anecdote is as follows: in 1965, during Foucault's first visit to Brazil, on the occasion of a dinner in São Paulo, we asked him (who had written the History of Madness in Sweden) about the famous “sexual freedom” apparently dominant in that time. cold climate country. The following dialogue ensued, which I now dramatize as a better example:

"FOUCAULT: “There is no sexual freedom in Sweden”.

WE: “But how?”.

FOUCAULT: “It is true that girls choose a new sexual partner every year. It is also true that they only begin to be frowned upon when they choose more than one partner per year. From that index, they can be seen as 'chickens', as they say in your beautiful country”.

WE: "And doesn't that represent some form of sexual freedom?"

FOUCAULT: “You have to think that, in Sweden, the winter is very long and rigorous, which makes the choice of partner at the end of autumn dramatic. Everything or nothing. But what you don't realize is that, once the choice is made, the daily life of living together is as conventional as possible. In other words, this apparent freedom is the expression of a catastrophic generalization of the gray atmosphere of marriage. That is why I say, cum grano salis, that I am in favor of the police and repression. If any form of sexual intercourse were prohibited before the age of eighty, women aged 79 would become irresistibly desirable.”

I repeat that this is a mere joke, and that Foucault was far from being a lawyer for the police and penal institutions. But the joke does not fail to recall some pages of the History of madness, in which the assembly of the practical and discursive devices of the empire of bourgeois morality is described and in which the fascination with the idea of ​​transgression reworked by Bataille in a key not only anthropological, but also echoes. also ethical-aesthetic-metaphysical.



In the libertine discourse, the ideas of reason, nature and freedom are massively articulated, against the ideas of tradition, belief, unjustified social convention. To be libertine is to think freely (against the coercion of prejudices and tradition) according to the principles of reason and nature. Don't we have there the whole program of the Enlightenment philosophy?

But, what is the Enlightenment? Firstly, the Enlightenment is the mirror in which eighteenth-century philosophy is recognized. Rubens Rodrigues Torres Filho opens his beautiful essay Answering the question: who is Illustration?[5] as if opening an entry in a dictionary, with the following words: “Lights (Século das): with this metaphor of clarity (Lumières, Enlightenment, Enlightenment, Illustration, Aufklärung), eighteenth-century European thought formed its self-image, characterized by confidence in the power of natural light, of reason, against all forms of obscurantism”. It is impossible not to notice the irony present in this elementary definition – although we must leave the meaning that may be attributed to it to the conclusion. I am talking about the irony that is expressed in the circularity of the definition (as it usually happens in dictionaries) of the Enlightenment due to the predominance of light. Irony that multiplies in the comma present in the following sentence, “characterized by confidence in the power of natural light, of reason (...)” If we can glimpse some tension in what links the Enlightenment to reason, Rubens Rodrigues Torres Filho separates, by a comma, power of natural light the power of reason.

In any case, we are in the middle of the XNUMXth century and we are facing a philosophy that – to risk another elementary definition, without any ironic intention – could be defined as essentially French, although its best origins are English and its strongest theoretical effects have been German. European thought, yes, but in that order. This century, in Europe, is frankly French. But, unlike the century, in the eighteenth century French philosophers sought in England the models that they would use both against Great Rationalism (to use Merleau-Ponty's vocabulary) and against what seemed anachronistic to them in the society that surrounded them. It is no longer a question, for philosophers, of finding the rock and clay sought by Descartes, where to base, with absolute security, the System of Knowledge. In the eighteenth century, France begins to see itself from the outside. I am thinking here, of course, of the Persian letters (the illustrious ancestor of the Chilean Letters of our poor Enlightenment) by Montesquieu. But I think, above all, of the English letters of Voltaire.

This beautiful book by Voltaire shows how deeply France – in an essentially French century – is in love with England. Natural philosophy, moral philosophy, politics (ie Newton, Locke and constitutional monarchy) are all models to be set against Descartes' physical and metaphysical “novels” and the perverse effects of absolutism on social life. Nor does England lack the advantage of the Reformation, whereby, unlike France, "cette fille ainée de l'Église" , managed to break free "of the infamous". " Écrasez l'infâme!”, said Voltaire, summoning intelligence to fight the Church or Rome.

But if eighteenth-century France begins to see itself with exotic eyes, it is not just the effect of an ephemeral “Anglomania” (a very strong Anglomania, also expressed, in addition to the aforementioned text by Voltaire, in the New Héloise by J.-J. Rousseau – not to mention that the project of Rousseau herself Encyclopedia it only came to Diderot's mind after his previous project of translating an encyclopedic English dictionary into French). If since the XNUMXth century, with Montaigne, French thought had been open to the expansion of the known world, it is in the XNUMXth century that philosophers begin to feed on travel literature. From Paul Hazard's classic book (The Crisis of the European Conscience) to the beautiful book by Alain Grosrichard (The structure of the series), historians have shown the existing complicity between the advent of enlightened thought and the progressive discovery of the Other, not only in the “civilized” English or “barbaric” oriental, but also in the “savage” or “natural” of the Americas and the Pacific. beside the Persian letters and English letters, it would be necessary to mention, in this case, the Bougainville voyage supplement, by Denis Diderot.

But what are the French looking for, so far from France? Two words are essential for defining this project or the target of this search. Reason and nature. Historians have devoted thousands of pages to the ideas of nature and reason in the eighteenth century, but the reader has some uneasiness after going through them. These words or these concepts – so central – seem to elude a positive definition. The critical use to which they are susceptible is clear: reason versus imagination (or empty speculation, spirit of system), and nature versus artifice “or unfounded and iniquitous convention”. Once again, Montaigne asked himself: “Où commence la peau, et finit la chemise?”. Or, following Montaigne, Pascal had already pointed to the lack of substance of habits or customs (in every sense of these words): “In magistrats ont bien connu ce mystère. Leurs robes rouges, leurs hermines, dont ils s'emmaillotent en chats fourrés, les palais où ils jugent, les fleurs de lis, tout cet appareil auguste était fort nécessaire […]”. All the more necessary as only the imaginary or mystification can give consistency to the social apparatus. But now it's about undressing the king.

If it is so difficult to define the concept of nature, in Enlightenment philosophy, it is perhaps because it is less a concept than a horizon of all possible conceptualization. There are finalists and mechanists who understand each other perfectly well regarding the use of the “concept” of nature. Reading historians of the concept of nature in the eighteenth century, one is tempted to pastiche Wittgenstein and recommend: “Don't ask for the meaning, ask for the use [...] ".

Wouldn't the same happen with the concept of reason? Of course, the Lockean model of understanding rules – but, again, it is the use to which it is put that matters. As Cassirer observes, in his Philosophy of the Enlightenment, Everything happens as if the task of Enlightenment philosophy were to construct, in the field of moral philosophy, the equivalent of Newtonian natural philosophy. And it is Cassirer himself who underlines how this ideal of “analytical reason” is inseparable from the idea of ​​progress. Interestingly, the three terms of the equation (nature, reason, progress) seem to articulate in a circular fashion – as if progress, allowed by the activity of reason, made possible a return to the good order of nature. It is no coincidence that Cassirer insists on dismantling the caricatured image of Enlightenment thought (the idea of ​​purely linear and cumulative progress) created by conservative thought since the Restoration. It is not a question, for reason understood as “natural light”, of patiently accumulating partial truths, in the direction of the total map of the world: when I used the expression “analytical reason” a little while ago, I was thinking of the critical or dissolving use of reason when applied to the prejudice that cements – recall Pascal's text – this society, here and now. In a word, reason too can only be defined – in the Aufklärung – as a function, not as a substance, as a horizon of definition, not as a definable concept.



But this elementary framework of episteme of Enlightenment philosophy is not enough to clarify the dialectic that unites it to the libertine spirit. To move forward, it is necessary to fix our attention on the ethical-political effects of this style of thinking. Proceeding negatively, let us consider a classic interpretative scheme, of Marxist inspiration, exemplified in a short essay by Peter Nagy[6] Much less rich than the monumental book by René Pintard, it lends itself better, for that very reason, to a task, so to speak, propaedeutic, which will allow us, next, to move on to what matters – that is, to the figure that the spirit libertine assumes inside the Enlightenment, mainly in the second half of the XNUMXth century. Let’s read two pages from Peter Nagy’s book: “Libertines as a religious group[7] coherent that radically denies all game rules of existing society, disappear from society and consciousness during the sixteenth century; But with the XNUMXth century, a trend appears and then a circle of erudite libertines who - for its skepticism, for its search for a secular morality and for its groping materialism - would become the forerunners of eighteenth-century philosophers. Although this affiliation, accepted by R. Pintard and A. Adam, has been seriously questioned by an Italian researcher, we are convinced of its correctness. There are evidently many differences between these two ideologies: the aristocratic conception, the often sterile skepticism and the cynical view of history certainly distance Gassendi, Naudé and their friends from the revolutionary historical optimism of the philosophers, from their conviction of the possibility of spreading Enlightenment in the masses and their rational critique of the existing material and spiritual order, with a view to replacing it with a new system. It is evident that the libertinism of the early sixteenth century was one of the ferments of what was on the agenda of history: absolutism. And triumphant absolutism soon seeks to get rid of it. It is equally evident that the ideological movement that forged the intellectual weapons for the abolition of absolutism could not be identical with - far from it - to one of the movements that created that same absolutism. However, the kinship bond cannot be denied: not only because the transformation of skepticism into critical rationalism is undoubted (and by itself enough, moreover, to justify filiation), but because it is corroborated by the fact that the same principle anima: the negation of the established order and accepted values, in order to establish new ones. Retrospectively, we can add that, through a work of demolition and discovery, each served in its own way and in its time for the progress of history, which was the intellectual expression of a class, of an upward movement.[8]

In order to show how insufficient this interpretative scheme is, we would need to dwell on each of the concepts mobilized here (“sterile-rationalism” skepticism, materialism, etc.), as well as on the alleged social basis of the philosophies of the century – that we point out, finally, the problems involved by this “ideological” interpretation of the history of philosophy. Let us, however, fix just one point – the one that makes the French Revolution (if not another, more radical revolution, still inscribed on the horizon of history) the telos, target and culmination of two centuries of culture, where the libertine spirit is an essential moment.

To fix this point, I will resort to a posthumous text by B. Groethuysen, originally intended for the writing of the last scheduled volumes of the Origines de l'esprit bourgeois en France, which were to be devoted to the great thinkers of the eighteenth century and which was published under the title of J. -J. Rousseau.[9] Chapter VIII of this book has as its theme precisely the relations between the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and Rousseau's original position within this context. In it, Groethuysen seeks to underline the revolutionary character of Rousseau's work, as opposed to Enlightenment thought as a whole. The thesis is clear: contrary to the philosophers, Rousseau, himself, anticipates, in his texts, the French Revolution. Enlightenment philosophy was by no means revolutionary; Rousseau's thought, in a way, already was. On the one hand, a blind philosophy, in principle, to the meaning and possibility of a revolution; on the other, a philosophy that – provided it is taken to its ultimate consequences, beyond the author’s choices and style – anticipates, at the same time, the French Revolution and a new form of political thought, which would only emerge from the rubble of the Old Regime and in the social scenario set up by the economy of the XNUMXth century.

Groethuysen strongly underlines Rousseau's originality or solitude in the Enlightenment. But, after all, what is this originality? How does Rousseau's political thought differ, for example, from that of Montesquieu? Groethuysen responds, pointing to the limits of Montesquieu's political thought (and providing, of him, a different image from the one proposed by Althusser). Montesquieu's perspective is somehow external or contemplative; he sees “political things from afar, as a historian and jurist; he does not have the immediate vision of political movements; he does not take sides”.[10] Everything happens, in short, as if Montesquieu, as the philosophers in general, had a, so to speak, technical conception of politics. And, above all, a conception of political mechanisms, whose fundamental pieces (king, parliament, old reminiscences of the General States, images of the ancient republic) do not give rise to political “activity”, to programs, to any form of a practical project. It is the very idea of ​​political action that has no place here. To which Groethuysen adds: “This only starts with the revolution. It is only since then that there have been real politicians”.[11] Would we find, by chance, in Rousseau, on the other side of the line, the outline of the future, let's say, "interventionist" conception of politics, with the promotion of the idea of ​​political action, of a program of social transformations anchored in a social movement, we would almost say : with the idea of ​​party? Of course not. But Groethuysen nuanced the terms of his comparison, underlining what seems to him to correspond to the emergence of a new sense of politics or politics in some of Rousseau's texts, such as the following: “J'avais vu que tout tenait radicalement à la politique, et que, de quelque fazn qu'on s'y prit, aucun peuple ne serait que ce que la nature de son gouvernement le ferait être"(Confessions, II, book IX). But it will certainly not be the determination of the “soul of a people” by the “form of government” that will differ from the analytical style of the Spirit of the Laws. In fact, what embodies the proposition “Tout tient à la politique” is the exceptional situation of Rousseau – the Genevan in France. Everything happens as if, paradoxically, a less “external” view of politics derived from the Swiss gaze with which Rousseau considers France, as if distance were a condition for proximity.

Here it is necessary to read a paragraph by Groethuysen in full: “This matters. Imagine an eighteenth-century Frenchman who called himself a republican. This would mean that, dissatisfied with the current regime, he would like to replace it with another one, which adopts maxims that are absolutely contrary to those in force. Now, in Rousseau's time, no one in France sincerely went to that point, and we shall see how long, during the Revolution, republican thought took root in minds. A Frenchman who, in the time of Rousseau, was sincerely a republican, that is, a supporter of a republic in France and not only, as many others were, an admirer of the Roman republic, would have been a miracle: he would have surpassed his time, would have achieved in himself and by himself, alone, the transformation that only a collective effort would bring about later; he would have freed himself from all prejudices, he would have lived, so to speak, out of his time. I do not mean to say that a platonic love of the republican form was impossible in eighteenth-century France. A contemporary of Voltaire might fall in love with the republican form, but hearing France, the former Capetian monarchy, proclaim a republic - that would have sounded strange to his ears. And Rousseau himself did not encourage anyone to follow this path. France is a great nation and that is the reason why, short of turning it into a federalist state - another theory that would seem strange in France - any idea of ​​a republic is excluded.[12]

But it is not just Rousseau's external and ethnographic gaze that would allow him – without, however, dreaming of the unthinkable, that is, of a republican France – a virulence in his description of that society, which would make it a good instrument in the minds and hands of revolutionary futures. To this eccentric gaze is added another essential piece, specifically theoretical, which marks the discrepancy between Rousseau's theory of society and history in relation to the homogeneously optimistic background of the Enlightenment philosophy. Blind optimism for what would later be called “the inertia of the apparatus”, the “positivity of the negative”, or contradiction as the engine of historical development. Indeed, Enlightenment philosophy understood itself as pedagogy, or its task as that of educating humanity. The common thread of human history focuses on the mobile boundary that separates knowledge from non-knowledge, and the essence of politics coincides with the propagation of Enlightenment. The specificity of power and domination is diluted in the most ethereal element of knowledge. There is nothing opaque, in the social or in the design of institutions, that cannot be dissolved by the pure exercise of reason: only prejudice or ignorance give consistency to the negative in society.

“If all people have become reasonable and if the laws are well made, is it really important to know which of them will govern others, and in what way? Were not the great reforms applauded by the philosophes justly effected by enlightened kings?”[13]

With Rousseau, the center of gravity of political reflection shifts from the sphere of knowledge to that of power, or from the sphere of reason to that of passion, or even from that of Discourse to that of Force. The wills, the passions, even the claimed rights refer to an Economic or a Dynamic where owners and dispossessed, strong and weak, dominant and dominated are opposed. It is no longer a question of spreading knowledge, but of organizing given forces, or of neutralizing a conflict that has always existed, relying only on the (too human) forces available. It is social difference that finally comes to the fore, making it necessary to determine the means of suppressing it. What is irrational or intolerable about social organization does not come to it, as if from outside, from an administration helpless by reason and obscured by ignorance. Rather, it comes from his own heart or from his intimate nature, since institutions, or political societies, were born precisely from the need to legitimize and guarantee the permanence of the inequality that ended up emerging in pre-political societies.

Against the background of this archeology of inequality (second speech), the Social Contract appears as the design of an organizational device that allows reversing the spontaneous movement that led to the creation of political institutions. The big problem will be solved when the law is always placed above men: to be a servant of the law is not to be a servant of anyone. If in political societies institutions do nothing more than cover up and legitimize the reign of violence, it is about giving force to the law, removing it from groups and individuals, thus transforming the very structure and nature of society. Would such a transformation not properly be a revolution?

With the ruthless description of the functioning of society, Rousseau's thought opens an abyss between what should be and what should be, where what should be appears as a demand for fulfillment: “There is no way of reconciling what is with what should be, through of simple reforms that, safeguarding what has been achieved, would allow an evolution towards a better state of affairs”.[14]

After all, the oppositions between Rousseau and the philosophers culminate, in the painting designed by Groethuysen, in a lapidary formula in its symmetry: “The philosophers they would rather be evolutionists in matters of politics and revolutionaries in matters of religion. In Rousseau, taking his theories to their ultimate consequences, it would be the opposite”.[15]



Of course, the scheme just presented is summary, if not caricatured. And it could be endlessly tuned and sophisticated. For example, we could at least make use of recent studies by Marcel Gauchet. This same year [1995], he developed the Ecole des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, in Paris, an interesting course, which could receive the title of “Archeology of the modern subject”, in which he examined the simultaneous transformations of the passionate or affective subject (the progressive transformation of passion of ancient philosophy in feeling of modern philosophy), the subject of knowledge and the political subject. Interestingly, this study even shows the continuity unexpected difference between the elevated Jansenist discourse and the unabused language of the philosophers of the Enlightenment or the libertines of the XNUMXth century, between anti-humanism and humanism. But wasn't this continuity already suggested above, traveling from Pascal to Diderot?

But let us leave aside the more delicate nuances. Our elementary scheme at least allows us to clarify our intention. Or explain our print that much of the historiography and criticism produced in our century is more the result of retrospective projection than of philological understanding. Risk to which we are always subject, but which increases when we approach expressions such as libertines and libertarians. AND the case, for example, of Roger Vailland, in many of his writings, among which the one devoted to Laclos. Then we see the appearance of a Laclos not only libertine, as also libertarian, in the sense of revolutionary – more so, in the sense that the word revolution took over in the XNUMXth century with the labor movement, particularly among anarchists.[16]

Let us make it very clear: it is certain that this form of analytical or dissolving ratio represented by the Enlightenment philosophy is not pacific and turns conceptual analysis into dynamite. Moreover, the prudence, in language and behavior, of the erudite libertines of the seventeenth century and the anonymity in which the aggressive or militant libertines of the following century protected themselves show that no one was unaware that the libertine spirit called something more than the spirit itself into question. .

What we want to insinuate, deep down and somewhat against the current of certain literature, is that it is necessary to recognize the unity of classical thought (XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries) and its heterogeneity in relation to the our world, engendered at the turn of the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth centuries (just as the Renaissance world of Rabelais was recognized by Lucien Febvre as essentially heterogeneous to that of the Classical Age, who retrospectively attributed to it the label of “atheism"). Put bluntly (and contrary to what Peter Nagy suggests): there was no revolutionary before the French Revolution.[17] Or even the word libertarian took on, in the XNUMXth century, a meaning that it had never had before, and this is what is immediately offered to our sensitivity and understanding today. This is exactly what Robert Darnton says (although without thinking, in the aforementioned text, at least, of the specifically political dimension of libertinism), when he underlines the distance that separates us from the Old Regime way of life and sensibility, which makes, for us, almost impossible even imagine it.

But, if we distance the classical world from us in this way – recognizing its alterity and its strangeness –, perhaps we will better understand the continuity that crosses it. Without flattening all forms of the libertine spirit into a single invariable matrix, we can glimpse the thread that leads from the austere philosophy of the erudite libertines to the most lurid erotic novels of the eighteenth century. Discretion in the XNUMXth century, provocative ostentation at the end of the XNUMXth – but, in one case as in the other, it is analytical reason that throws its acid into the imaginary or theological-political mortar that cemented the Ancien Régime. Movement that only becomes revolutionary with the French Revolution itself, as we can see in the pamphlet “Français, encore un effort, if you voulez être républicain”, present in the novel The philosophie in the boudoir, de Sade, which marks perhaps the most extreme tip and the The end, a death of the free spirit.

However, perceiving continuity, we also perceive something like a change, which does not consist only in a deepening or a radicalization of critical reason. Let us finally risk a provocative formula. Recognizing, however, that the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the libertine spirit were more or less complicit from the beginning, from one century to another an inversion seems to occur between these two figures of culture.

Guy Patin's narrative, quoted above, shows us that, in Gassendi's time, debauchery was little more than free thought or the free exercise of reason. Eighteenth-century novels, from Crébillon Fils to Sade, passing through a thousand other authors, show that debauchery, crudely understood as orgy and erotic excess, came to be understood as a condition for the possibility of reason and philosophy.

*Bento Prado Jr. (1937-2007) was professor of philosophy at the Federal University of São Carlos. Author, among other books, of Rousseau's Rhetoric (Cosac & Naify).

Originally published on the website ArtThought IMS.



[1] Apud Paul Hazard, The crisis of European conscience (1680-1715), Lisbon, Cosmos, 1948, p. 107.

[2] Cf. Robert Darnton, “Sex for Thought”, The New York Review of Books, December 22, 1994. Cf. in this same volume, pp. 19-40.

[3] Apud René Pintard, Le libertinage érudit dans la première moitié du XVIII' siècle, Geneva/Paris Slatkine, 1983, p. 326.

[4] See Robert Darnton, op. cit.

[5] See Discourse magazine, rich. 14, pp. 101-12.

[6] See Peter Nagy, Libertinage et revolution, Gallimard, 1975.

[7] Peter Nagy is referring here to heretical movements of the sixteenth century, such as the Anabaptists of Flanders, fought as libertines by Catholics and Protestants, both for “free spiritual criticism” and for sexuel devergondage. A beautiful novelistic description of this movement can be found in the work in black, by Marguerite Yourcenar. A similar movement in the Middle Ages among the Franciscans is described in the novel The name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco, which thematizes the debauchery of fraticcelli.

[8] See Peter Nagy, op. cit., pp. 20-1.

[9] Cf. B. Groethuysen, J.-J. Rousseau, Paris, Gallimard, 1949.

[10] Cf. ditto, ibidem, p. 224.

[11] Idem, ibidem, p. 225.

[12] Cf. ditto, ibidem, pp. 221-2.

[13] Idem, ibidem, p. 226.

[14] Idem, ibidem, p. 209.

[15] Idem, ibidem, p. 233.

[16] For a different interpretation of the ethical and political meaning of Laclos' work, cf. Raquel de Almeida Prado, “Ethics and debauchery in Dangerous Liaisons”, in this same volume, pp. 253-65.

[17] This also applies to Rousseau. Let us remember that B. Groethuysen only makes an exception of it, when taken to the last consequences, far beyond the intentions and conscience of the philosopher himself. A statement that obviously raises a problem: what does it mean for a philosopher to be a revolutionary without knowing it?

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