The Poison and the Spider's Web: Diderot and Eighteenth-Century French Epicureanism

History of European Ideas 41 (8):1107-1124 (2015)
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Abstract

SUMMARYThis article argues that the term ‘Epicurean’ had multiple meanings in the moral and political thought of the eighteenth century. Concentrating on the reception of Epicureanism in France, it shows that some critics focused on Epicurus’ hedonistic moral psychology and labelled Epicurean those thinkers who denied natural sociability; for others, who instead focused on Epicurus’ materialist natural philosophy, to label a thinker an Epicurean was to label them an atheist. This polyvalence is presented as a salutary caution against essentialising claims about the content of eighteenth-century Epicureanism per se. Despite this sceptical stance, however, the article goes on to argue that it is nevertheless fruitful to investigate the engagement with Epicureanism by particular thinkers or in particular texts. Indeed, a comparative reading of Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie entry on ‘Epicuréisme’ and his source material in Johan Jakob Bruker and Pierre Bayle demonstrates that Diderot used his discussion of Epicureanism to intervene directly in contemporary theological controversies over the immortal soul and a providential god.

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Jared Holley
Cambridge University

Citations of this work

Rousseau on refined Epicureanism and the problem of modern liberty.Jared Holley - 2018 - European Journal of Political Theory 17 (4):411-431.

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Rousseau.Henri Rousseau - 1976 - Academy Editions.

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