Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

20

FONTENELLE AND THE WAR
OF THE ORACLES

It was a commonplace dictum of the French High Enlightenment that the esprit philosophique 'so widespread today owes its beginnings to Fontenelle'.1 Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657–1757), native of Rouen, nephew of Corneille, and star pupil of the Jesuits, was the first prominent high-society philosophe and general commentator on science, and the progress of the new learning, in France. Admired by Voltaire, and Diderot, upon both of whom his influence was considerable,2 he has invariably been reckoned a key precursor and pioneer of the French Enlightenment and one, moreover, who enjoyed great prestige far beyond the confines of France. He was the philosophes' 'prototype', it has been aptly remarked, 'their founder and, finally, their doyen'.3 It is of some consequence, therefore, to identify the sources and impulses which shaped his philosophical stance.

Broadly, Fontenelle's outlook derives from a blend of Descartes, Bayle, and late seventeenth-century, pre-Newtonian scientific ideas. But there are also less obvious roots which none the less crucially contributed to his ambitious, philosophical reform programme. If he shared Bayle's unremittingly critical-rational attitude to tradition, received ideas, and men's propensity to error and delusion,4 during the 1680s Fontenelle was also powerfully (if privately) influenced by non-providential deism and Naturalism deriving from illicit sources which, moreover, as we shall see, were not predominantly French.5 In 1687, soon after the other of his two best-known and most controversial works, the Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686), Fontenelle published his Histoire des Oracles. It was a book which attracted great interest and has always been assigned a prominent place among the first stirrings of the Enlightenment, a volume addressed to a broad public, written in an elegant, gentlemanly style with the undisguised intention of 'enlightening' as many people as possible, women included.

Ostensibly, Fontenelle's aim is simply to correct an unfortunate historical mistake, the notion introduced by Eusebius and subsequent Church Fathers, unquestioned over many centuries of Christian tradition, that the long venerated oracles of

1 Marsak, Bernard de Fontenelle, 6–6; Gay, The Enlightenment, 1, 317–78.

2 Proust, Diderot, 179, 205, 239–90, 254.

3 White, Anti-Philosophers, 12.

4 Hazard, European Mind, 198.

5 Niderst, Fontenelle, 533–3.

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