Libertines and Libertinism in Early Modern Europe

Libertines and Libertinism in Early Modern Europe: The Origins of Religious and Civil Liberty. British Society for the History of Philosophy in association with The Department of Philosophy of the University of Rome 'La Sapienza' and the Departments of Italian and History at Royal Holloway College.

About this Conference

Location: Royal Holloway College, University of London

Date: 29-31 March 1999

Organizers: Dr Letizia Panizza and Dr Justin Champion

Conference Theme

'Libertinism', following René Pintard's classic study of 1943, refers to a 16th and 17th century mainly Italian and French erudite cultural, philosophical movement establishing reason and nature as the criteria of morality, politics, and law -- and thus questioning transcendental sources of truth and authority. The conference will explore the numerous ways in which this movement supplies a bridge in the history of philosophy, cultural history, and European Studies for the period between the late Renaissance and the Enlightenment; and will also seek to relate Italian, French and German authors and currents to English 'free-thinkers' and Deists. It will make available to an English audience for the first time the results of scholarship carried on mainly in Italy over the past twenty-five years, and link it with French and English developments. A fundamental question posed by the conference is: In conditions of non-liberty of thought and expression, how do writers convey their dissent; how do philosophers engage in free enquiry? The language of the conference will be English.

Some of the issues and texts associated with the libertine agenda are: a questioning of the arguments for teleology in nature, and a providential ordering of history; a similar questioning of miracles and prophecies as evidence of divine intervention in human affairs; reduction of the Bible to a collection of poetic, sometimes moralizing, fables; pluralism in matters of religion, law, and ethics; a sceptical defence of doubt in philosophical and religious matters; the historical origin, and consequent human fabrication of religions, creeds and dogmas; the political function of religion; atheism or at least adherence only to a rational or natural religion; Epicureanism; the consequent rejection as invalid theology and metaphysics anchored to 'divine' revelation (especially on issues such as the immortality of the soul, punishments and rewards in an after-life); the positive reassessment of pagan antiquity, and discussion of a secular ethics; the circulation of a corpus of clandestine literature. Some Italian authors associated with the movement are Vanini, Cardano, Campanella, Boccalini, and members of the Accademia degli Incogniti (Ferrante Pallavicino); French ones are Charron, Gassendi, Naudé, Cyrano de Bergerac, La Mothe Le Vayer; and English counterparts include Bacon, Toland, Blount, and Burton.

The conference hopes to explore the kinds of writings, such as dialogues, essays, letters, satirical plays, novels and poems, sometimes considered marginal to philosophy strictly speaking; as well as associations such as Academies that constituted a forum for transmitting libertine ideas. It will want to distinguish between European and English reception, and characterize anti-libertine propaganda as crystallized, for example, in the figure of Don Juan/Don Giovanni. The conference will end with a round table reassessing Pintard's book.


  • TULLIO GREGORY (Rome, 'La Sapienza'), The Libertine critique of ethics and religion
  • GIOVANNI AQUILECCHIA (London) Pietro Aretino and the libertine legend
  • JEAN-ROBERT ARMOGATHE (Paris) Libertine terminology
  • MIGUEL BENITEZ (Seville) James Tyrrell (1642-1718), reader of The Three Imposters and friend of John Locke
  • GUIDO CANZIANI (Milan) Atheism and philosophy in the Theophrastus redivivus
  • JUSTIN CHAMPION (London) European clandestine literature in England
  • DESMOND CLARKE (Cork) John Toland and natural religion
  • PAUL DIFFLEY (Exeter) The querelle des anciens et des modernes, and the concept of progress in 17th century Italy
  • GERMANA ERNST (Rome) Campanella's Atheismus triumphatus or Atheismus triumphans?
  • MARTA FATTORI (Rome, 'La Sapienza') The diffusion of Francis Bacon's Essays among French Libertines
  • PHILIP FORD (Cambridge) Cyrano de Bergerac and Lucretius
  • HILARY GATTI (Rome, 'La Sapienza') Milton among the Libertines? Toland's biography and its aftermath
  • JONATHON ISRAEL (London) Libertinism and the Netherlands
  • DILWYN KNOX (London) Shifting meanings of 'Atheist' and 'Deist'
  • ANTONY MCKENNA (Paris) Clandestine literature in Europe
  • MICHAEL MORIARTY (London) La Mothe Le Vayer and the defence of pagan virtue
  • MARGARET OSLER (Calgary) The limits of Gassendi's Epicureanism
  • FRIEDRICH NIEWÖHNER (Wolfenbüttel) 'Non Judaeus, non Christianus, non Mahometanus sum': the Laws of Noah and the philosophical critique of religion
  • HELENE OSTROWIECKI (Paris) The place of nature and human nature in the Theophrastus redivivus
  • LETIZIA PANIZZA (London) Boccalini, Pallavicino and Leti: advancing civil liberty with the aid of Lucian
  • TREVOR PEACH (Lampeter, Wales) Lucian and the Libertine dialogue in France
  • JEREMY ROBBINS (Edinburgh) The Don Juan/Don Giovanni myth - fears of Libertinism in Spain
  • SILVANA SEIDEL MENCHI (Trent) Roman Censorship and Libertine writings
  • WINFRIED SCHRÖDER (Berlin) Early atheism and the Libertine heritage
  • SYLVIE TAUSSIG (Paris) Gassendi's reading of Lucretius

Seminars/Worshops on (selections from) texts will include:

  • La Mothe Le Vayer (T. Gregory)
  • Francis Bacon (M. Fattori)
  • Giulio Cesare Vanini (J.-R. Armogathe)
  • Robert Burton (H. Gatti)
  • Theophrastus redivivus (G. Canziani)

GRAHAM REES (London) will lead a seminar on the Philosophical Lexicon of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (covering philosophers writing in Latin and the main European languages, produced by the team of the Lessico Intellettuale Europeo based at the University of Rome, 'La Sapienza'), and its use as a research instrument in the history of philosophy.

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