Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

28

Men, Animals, Plants, and Fossils: French
Hylozoic Matérialisme before Diderot

The world of the clandestine manuscripts was one of furtiveness, conspiracy, anonymity, deception, manipulation, and collage, but it would be wrong to infer from this that the thought of the incipient parti philosophique before Diderot's entry on the scene was therefore not a sustained or coherent body of thought. For, on the contrary, what is most remarkable about Early Enlightenment French clandestine philosophical literature, or at least its major works, was precisely its intellectual seriousness and cogency. A corpus with a hidden core, and somewhat chaotic and eclectic façade, it is nevertheless a mistake to dismiss its authors and content (as they have often been dismissed) as a marginal dimension of the Enlightenment. If these clandestina were concocted from many sources recent and ancient and, when finally printed, were frequently heavily edited or doctored, this does not mean that they lacked a coherent common purpose or a clear philosophical orientation.

There were, of course, some important differences of view. The manuscripts diverge widely, for instance, over whether, and how far, organized religion benefits men. Where Meslier's Testament and Du Marsais's Le Philosophe, both written in the early 1720s, deny that revealed religions serve positive social and moral ends, the Analyse de la religion, like Spinoza and Boulainvilliers, maintains that revealed religion usefully serves to instil 'obedience'; and that at the end of the day Christian morality, despite questionable aspects, is 'bonne, en général'.1 But unresolved questions such as this, or the lingering problems of the materiality of the soul, elementary human drives, and the 'first principles of morality', all pointing to residual philosophical disagreements, remained relatively few.

If most matérialiste writers, unlike Challe and the Deists, agreed the soul, and its drives, are something natural, and material, and therefore morally neutral, and potentially good, the question remained what was the soul? Whilst the clandestine manuscripts exerted their greatest impact during the 1720s and 1730s, two rival materialist solutions competed. On the one hand, an older conception of the soul as something consisting of invisible, superfine particles of matter, animating animals

1 MoBM MS 338 'Analyse de la religion', 8–9; "Du Marsais", Le Philosophe, 191–3; Israel, Radical
Enlightenment,
79–80; Artigas-Menant, Secret des clandestins, 29.

-733-

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