Almost thirty years ago, Alan Charles Kors published an exciting and original book entitled Atheism in France, 1650–1729: The Orthodox Sources of Disbelief, which was recently reissued by Princeton University Press. That was announced as Volume One, and the two new publications from Cambridge are effectively the long-awaited sequel. The three books do indeed have a unity, such that the new ones can only be fully appreciated when read in conjunction with their predecessor. Indeed, it is puzzling why the publisher has produced two volumes rather than one, and is charging significantly more for the shorter of the two. Atheism in France combined a very scholarly examination of a wide range of contemporary writings with sensitivity to their context. Kors stressed the notable expansion of the reading public in the seventeenth century, the thirst for books and the enthusiasm for travel in geographical space and historical time. He argued convincingly that, as a result, there was a keen interest in the relationship between Christian Europe and other cultures, whether those of antiquity, of the civilisations of the East or of the natives of the New World. Another crucial context was that of the learned and clerical world. Teachers in universities and colleges were proud of their rigorous training and their proficiency in logic, while they were also taught to generate objections to the most cherished ideas. The majority seem to have viewed the innovative philosophical and scientific views of their time as grave threats to their own central values and to their intellectual integrity. In France, this conservatism was reinforced by the rivalries between clerical groups, and the bitter theological controversies seen at their most extreme in the disputes over Jansenism. The monarchy, largely incited by the powerful and divisive Jesuits, issued a long series of prohibitions directed against the Cartesians and others, which probably exacerbated the disputes and certainly failed to stop the arguments. The printing press encouraged disputants to engage in extended debates before the public, made more intense by the appearance of journals that loved quarrels. A standard technique on all sides, surely founded on scholastic debating practices, was that of the reductio ad absurdum. What this usually meant was that the opponent’s system was shown to lead to an impasse, either opening the way to atheism or actively supporting it. In this fashion, a whole arsenal of arguments against orthodox Christian claims and beliefs was laid before the public, with the atheist being invoked as a heuristic device, only for this material to help inspire the real deists and atheists of the next generation. The first of the new volumes, Naturalism and Unbelief, is very different in style to Atheism, because it essentially concentrates on one central problem. How could Christian thinkers, as they discussed being and the phenomena of nature, avoid allowing the possibility that nature could function without God? Kors starts with an excellent chapter pointing out that the overwhelming majority of writers left the problem aside, so that holders of every position from rigid orthodoxy to Deism could buy enthusiastically into versions of the argument from design. To explain the phenomena in terms of natural forces was to demonstrate the power and wisdom of God and had the additional merit of attacking superstition. However, he then goes on to show how advocates of the scholastic, Cartesian and Malebranchist positions berated one another for their manifest inability to evade the naturalist trap. Behind these often heated denunciations lurked such dangerous figures as Lucretius, Epicurus, the Stoics and Spinoza. Kors patently disagrees with the controversial views of Jonathan Israel about the crucial role of Spinoza, citing Bayle on the way those who neither read nor understood him used ‘Spinozist’ as a general term of abuse, but is too irenic a scholar to press this point very far. This is symptomatic of a more general feature; the admirably patient exposition of many contributions to the debate, from both famous and obscure figures, moves forward at a snail’s pace and is rarely enlivened by much in the way of broader contextualisation. The effect verges on that of an immense footnote to the unquestionably correct argument of Atheism, that pious authors attacking the views of other equally pious contemporaries generated many destructive ideas. It does not always help that the author’s default reaction in tackling each new controversialist is to cite lengthy reviews from the Journal de Trévoux, without ever discussing the general issues about the style and influence of that journal. At a late stage there is a lucid treatment of the problem of evil, as handled by these writers, but it is oddly limited; D.P. Walker’s classic study The Decline of Hell does not appear in the bibliography, and there is nothing here on the problems of eternal punishment or the fate of unbaptised infants. There are other surprising omissions from the bibliographies that suggest a curious narrowing of range; these include such major historians of the French Church and of the intellectual world inhabited by its members as John McManners, Jean Orcibal, Bruno Neveu and Jean-Louis Quantin. The purely intellectualist approach to which Kors has retreated in his two new books creates a problem for this reviewer at least; over these decades the overwhelming concern within the Gallican Church was with the vicious and endlessly mutating Jansenist dispute. Whereas in Atheism that was briefly, but quite deftly, identified as a crucial feature in the background, it is hardly mentioned in these 500 pages, whose debates seem to be taking place, most implausibly, in a decidedly non-Cartesian void. The marked tendency to concentrate more heavily on French writings also raises some questions, in an era when intellectual frontiers remained very open ones. Epicureans and Atheists is composed in much the same style as its companion, although its concern with the use of various ancient authors after 1650 does provide rather more variety. Kors brings out well the great familiarity of the French intellectuals of the time with this material, and also the ease with which fideistic disclaimers apparently satisfied the censors. Among those who exploited this loophole was the Epicurean natural philosopher and anti-Galenist doctor Guillaume Lamy, who argued that one could reason about nature and appearances, while treating divine revelation as a separate and superior truth. Another interesting figure, the Italian immigrant François-Marie-Pompée Colonne, identified the ancient philosophers as atheists to a man, ignorant of the great mysteries that the human mind could not apprehend on its own. His textbook explaining their systems could therefore equally well function as a comprehensive guide to subversive thought. One has to agree that the authors of clandestine atheistic manuscripts, which have so excited some historians, were hard pressed to come up with anything very different. At the very end, Kors comes to one who did—Jean Meslier, whose death in 1729, followed by the discovery of his scandalous atheistical and anti-clerical Testament, had always set the terminus for his investigations. The extended treatment promised in Atheism only extends to fifteen pages, but these contain a fine discussion that ends the whole trilogy with a real punch. Some questions still remain, however. If the dissident priest is convincingly linked to themes from the polemics between his more orthodox colleagues, the tone of his Testament is surely unlike anything else we have heard until this point. For him, atheism was the only rightful moral stance, because belief in God promoted despotism, injustice and suffering. Kors does, I believe, get Meslier essentially right when he proposes that the curé began by recoiling from the injustice and suffering occasioned by tyranny; this was a political and social rebellion, which led him to identify Christianity as the ideology of the oppressors. Heaven was an imaginary compensation for the unhappy peoples, the Old and New Testaments were palpably human creations full of contradictions, and the promises of the New Testament had never been fulfilled. So, although Meslier did borrow ideas from the vast literature Kors evokes, one may still wonder how close the connections were. A more limited, if precise, criticism is that no mention is made of the work of Dominique Julia and others placing Meslier in his clerical context. There are some striking echoes in these writings of the austere moral theology discussed at the meetings of curés in the Jansenist setting of the diocese of Reims; in his extreme fashion the atheist priest was a forerunner of the rebellious parish clergy of the Revolutionary era, friends of the people and enemies of their own bishops. So there is much to admire in these two meticulous books, but they are likely to prove more of a quarry for specialists than a necessary addition to Atheism (the section on Meslier perhaps excepted), and it is to that first fine study that most of us will still turn. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 18, 2018
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