French Free-Thought from Gassendi to Voltaire

French Free-Thought from Gassendi to Voltaire

French Free-Thought from Gassendi to Voltaire

French Free-Thought from Gassendi to Voltaire

Excerpt

French free-thought was remarkably consistent and substantial during the century which preceded the main manifestations of the Enlightenment. It evolved, but it evolved according to its own inner nature. It was never dependent upon foreign inspiration. Even the ideas received from sixteenth-century Italy were rigorously trimmed according to a peculiarly French model, whilst Spinoza can hardly be said to have been acclimatized at all and in Locke the French 'libertins' found only what they already knew. That is not to say that French free-thought was inflexible or impervious to new matter. It assimilated the information produced in the laboratories and studies of Europe, keeping well abreast at a time when the total sum of sound knowledge was rapidly increasing from decade to decade. It never petrified into a creed. The original scepticism gave ground at first to Epicurean empiricism and Cartesian rationalism, but by the end of the century these three elements had amalgamated to form the rational scepticism of Bayle and Fontenelle. Free-thought was neither aggressive nor dogmatic, though constantly faced with aggressive and violent enemies who had the civil power at their disposal. The main effect it had on the intellects which surrendered to it was to keep them open, flexible and mobile. It was this very mobility, this readiness to question accepted beliefs time and time again and constantly reassess them, which enabled the French 'philosophes' to become Europe's purveyors of general ideas. England provided more sound knowledge than did the French, both in the sciences and in scholarship, but the French were none the less destined to hold the intellectual hegemony of Europe. Their books, clearly written, with a minimum of jargon and specialized vocabulary, handled general ideas courageously and radically, with the lucidity of mind and expression which the 'libertins' had created. French free- thought was essentially social at all times. This does not mean that it was the attribute of a particular class, at least not in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries--later in the eighteenth century it was adopted by the financial, commercial and industrial 'bourgeoisie'; nor does it mean that free-thought was a by-product of a . . .

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