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

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

36

THE CLANDESTINE
PHILOSOPHICAL MANUSCRIPTS

i. Categories

The diffusion of forbidden philosophical literature in manuscript, for the most part in French, immeasurably furthered the spread of radical thought in late seventeenthand early eighteenth-century Europe. Clandestine philosophy circulating in manuscript was not, of course, in itself new. As a European cultural phenomenon, it reaches back at least to the era of Bodin and Giordano Bruno, and possibly earlier. Yet there was a decisive broadening and intensification of such activity from around 1680, after which it fulfilled a crucial function in the advance of forbidden ideas for over half a century, until the easing of the censorship regarding theological and philosophical topics, especially in Prussia and (less conspicuously) France, but also Switzerland, Denmark, and other states from around 1740, rendered the propagation of this kind of manuscript less relevant, if not yet obsolete, by expanding opportunities for the dissemination of clandestine printed versions.

While the most widely known of the clandestine manuscripts, the Traité des Trois Imposteurs (or La Vie et l'Esprit de Mr. Benoît de Spinosa), was secretly printed at The Hague in 1719, this first edition could be sold only surreptitiously, in tiny numbers, and evidently remained rarer than the manuscript versions. In 1731 Lenglet Dufresnoy, an expert in everything concerning clandestine literature, furtively published at 'Bruxelles' (Amsterdam) a collection of Spinozistic texts including Boulainvilliers' Essay together with several refutations. But it was not until 1743 that there appeared, without disguise or any attempt to feign rebuttal, the first printed collection of clandestine philosophical texts previously circulating in manuscript. This publication, a landmark in the history of the Enlightenment, though produced anonymously and announcing its place of publication as 'Amsterdam', actually appeared in Paris, edited seemingly by Du Marsais.1 Entitled Nouvelles Libertés de penser, it comprises five texts including Fontenelle's Traité de la Liberté, which dates from the 1680s and is known to have been circulating in Paris by 1700, when copies were publicly condemned and burnt by order of the Parlement,2 and Du Marsais' own scathing rejection of traditional philosophiz-

1 PBA MS 2858, fo. 278.

2 On this important publication, see Benítez, Face cachée, 83, 86, 88, 91; Landucci, 'Introduction', 7; Mori,
'Du Marsais philosophe clandestin', 178, 189.

-684-

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