Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Libertine and Libertinism: Polemic Uses of the Terms in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century English and Scottish Literature

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Libertine and Libertinism: Polemic Uses of the Terms in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century English and Scottish Literature

Article excerpt

"Libertinage" or "libertinism" is an established category of literary history and of the history of ideas between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and one that now seems self-evident. We should use both of these terms in the plural since historiography has established diachronic distinctions and has drawn very clear dividing lines among the "spiritual libertinism" of the sixteenth century stigmatized by Calvin, the "philosophical" or "erudite" libertinism of the seventeenth century, and libertinism in the mores and in the literature of the eighteenth century. I have already tried to prove elsewhere that these distinctions, at least as a diachronic succession, are completely unfounded, especially if one refers to the actual use of the terms in historical sources.1

Indeed, on a synchronic level-and more specifically for the seventeenth century-historiography has always created subdivisions: libertinism of thoughts and libertinism of mores; philosophical libertinism and practical libertinism; libertinage flamboyant and libertinage érudit, etc. However, the process of categorization itself is particularly debatable since it depends largely on how the sources construe such categories. Furthermore, this process of categorization gives a certain objectivity to the polemical and ideological conflicts we note in our sources in their political, religious, moral, and intellectual forms. That is, the category "libertine" refers to men and women, to groups of human beings, even to a type: the libertine, understood as the subject of a form of writing and thinking that is held to constitute the essential characteristic of "erudite libertinism." But establishing categories in this way is contestable, since "erudite libertinage" is a specific historiographical construction, one without any philological legitimacy: the term "erudite libertine" does not occur in any of our sources and none of the authors incarnating this form of libertinism has ever presented himself as such.

This term, of course, seeks a different legitimacy, not of the word but of the thing, or rather of the things. That is because "erudite libertinage" is typically evoked to refer to an ensemble of networks of scholars, to specific forms of writing, even to an identifiable form of thought. Such thought bears the stamp of philosophical eclecticism, skepticism, the rejection of dogmatism (and therefore of any system), the valorization of experience, a more or less radical critique of a wide range of Church dogma, of the constituent beliefs of Christianity, and possibly of the moral rules derived from them. As we attempt a theoretical redefinition of "erudite libertinism" a couple of observations arise.

First of all, the attempt at a definition is basically an a posteriori rationalization of a category that was originally established on disputable grounds. The first historiography created the category of "libertine" starting from what the libertines were not: they were not thinkers worthy of the name, nor were they real philosophers capable of proposing alternative systems to the ones they criticized. Subsequent historiography tried to provide a positive content, a methodological if not doctrinal coherence, and, most of all, to attribute to the libertines a relative unity of writing and argumentation without, generally speaking, questioning the established gap between the great philosophers, such as Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, and the minor libertines.

Second, the definition of libertinism as established is largely unfounded and extremely restrictive with respect to the historical sources, in which the term is used almost exclusively a polemical or disparaging manner. Restrictive, because the historiography of libertinism has erected as a model and as a major source that specific form of culture that René Pintard called "libertinage érudit," which is confined exclusively to the French members of networks that were in fact international.2 But those who were called "libertines" and termed "erudite" by Pintard were certainly not the only ones to be fitted with this disparaging and accusatorial name at the time (essentially the first half of the seventeenth century, but we should probably also consider the frequent use of the term all over Europe from the sixteenth century onward). …

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