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Free thinking in secret

Thursday, 6 August, 2020

We all have secret thoughts which are occasionally betrayed by an unexpected gesture, an uncontrolled facial expression, a peculiar lapsus... which express at an awkward moment precisely what we wanted, or were supposed, to hide. All the secret services of all political regimes rely on that kind of clue to detect clandestine dissidents. But even if we are not all revolutionary rebels or terrorists, the simple conventions of everyday sociability make us very conscious of the necessity of self-censorship and the constraints bearing on the public sphere and even on mundane conversation. When we perceive signs of divergence in others, we judge them according to circumstances and quickly make a feasible interpretation – which may remain secret…

The execution of Anne Du Bourg at the Place de Grève

The execution of Anne Du Bourg at the Place de Grève.

It does not seem to me to be totally extravagant to imagine the birth and spread of free thought in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries on the same model. We know that there existed in France a strict system of censorship, that the punishments inflicted on free thinkers were drastic and that the Bastille, the Vincennes dungeon and the place de Grève (where executions were carried out) were well-known to careless or reckless writers and booksellers. In this context, can we not expect free thought to have found expression in subtle and ambiguous texts addressed to an élite of intellectual accomplices? Isn't it obvious that texts of that period should be read “between the lines” if one is to discover the undercover coherence and the true intention of the author?

Clandestine manuscripts at the Mazarine library

Clandestine manuscripts at the Mazarine library.

The proceedings of the conference organised at the Mazarine library on The Secret Thoughts of Academicians: Fontenelle and his fellow-members – published in the latest number of the periodical La Lettre clandestine (Paris, Garnier: no 28, 2020)  – assume a positive answer to that question.

Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle

Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle by Nicolas de Largillière.

There were indeed many Academicians who secretly contributed to the spread of free thought: Fontenelle, Lévesque de Pouilly and his brother Lévesque de Burigny, Fréret, Terrasson, the abbé de Saint-Pierre, Voltaire, Montesquieu, D'Alembert, Mirabaud, Naigeon are here studied in depth, as are the conditions of censorship and the circulation of clandestine manuscripts among specialised booksellers and the critical judgement on them offered by Louis Racine, the cardinal de Bernis and by the journalists of the Society of Jesus. A good number of clandestine manuscripts – and in particular those that belonged to the family of Mme Du Châtelet, identified by Maria Susana Seguin – are now kept at the Mazarine Library in Paris.

Jacques-André Naigeon

Jacques-André Naigeon by Fragonard. (Getty Images / The Bridgeman Art Library)

Rather than resume too briefly the many articles published here, I would like to offer a short reflection – based on recent research by Gianluca Mori – on the approach to reading and interpretation that they suggest and on the coherence of the history of free thought of which they give us a glimpse. The historian Oskar Kristeller used to claim that the reputation of Italian scholars of the 16th and 17th centuries as unbelievers and atheists was a false retrospective view of the Paduan professors imposed by French scholars whose historical vision was distorted by their interest in the 18th-century Enlightenment. Despite research published by Jean-Pierre Cavaillé, this thesis – which excludes any covert intention on the part of Cremonini and Pomponazzi in particular – was maintained by the American scholar Richard Popkin in his works on La Mothe Le Vayer, and has more recently been theorised by the Cambridge professor Quentin Skinner.

Nicolas Fréret, Lettre de Thrasybule à Leucippe

Nicolas Fréret, ‘Lettre de Thrasybule à Leucippe’ (Mazarine: ms. 1193-4)

However, it obviously imposes very narrow limits on any enquiry concerning authors of the modern period (16th-18th century): since these authors publicly declare their orthodox opinions, tainted by skepticism and fideism, it becomes impossible to suspect them of entertaining heterodox convictions or of being the authors of anti-Christian writings. To my mind, this prejudice is blown apart as we read the articles devoted to Fontenelle and his colleagues: the modern period is marked by the abyss between public and private life, between professions of faith and philosophical convictions. As is demonstrated by the research of Jean-Pierre Cavaillé on “libertinism”, of Alain Mothu on Bonaventure des Périers and of Gianluca Mori on Guy Patin, and as is made manifest by Molière’s comedies and Pierre Bayle’s published works, the Academicians were heirs to a long tradition of dis/simulation. The cat is now out of the bag.

– Antony McKenna

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