Less Radical Enlightenment: A Christian wing of the French Enlightenment

In Steffen Ducheyne (ed.), Reassessing the Radical Enlightenment. Routledge (2017)
Eric Palmer
Allegheny College
Jonathan I. Israel claims that Christian ‘controversialists’ endeavoured first to obscure or efface Spinozism, materialism, and non-authoritarian free thought, and then, in the early eighteenth century, to fight these openly, and desperately. Israel appears to have adopted the view of enlightenment as a battle against what Voltaire has called ‘l’infâme’, and David Hume has labelled ‘stupidity, Christianity, and ignorance’. These authors’ barbs were launched later in the century, however, in the period of the high Enlightenment, following polarizing controversies of mid-century. This chapter argues that many Enlightenment figures, including Hume and Voltaire, were far more involved within a culture in the second quarter of the century that was less divided against Christian interlocutors, less rigid, and more complex than these two wished to suggest, in retrospect, after mid-century. A Christian literary and scientific circle was productive and prominent in French Enlightenment culture, particularly in the personages of François Prévost, Pierre Desfontaines, Samuel Formey and Noël Pluche, and in the pages of ubiquitous journals and occasional publications. Many of the Catholics among these lumières held the education and retained the status of ‘abbé’, a title with prophylactic properties that legitimated expansive inquiry – into topics such as libertinism and atheism – and facilitated in-print exchanges with Voltaire and other less orthodox figures. This wing of the Enlightenment developed a culture that reflected, and sometimes promoted, Christian theology – especially in the tradition of natural theology – and displayed broadly Christian and politically conservative values. The latter aspect served in part to motivate concerted efforts toward their marginalization by others, but the French Enlightenment of the eighteenth century’s second quarter was actually very mixed, and not so very radical; rather, it became polarized at mid-century, and in retrospect, the Christians of this wing were written out of the history by the likes of Voltaire and Hume.
Keywords Radical Enlightenment  Prévost, Antoine François  Hume, David  Voltaire  Pluche, Noël  Israel, Jonathan  physico-theology  French Enlightenment  Radical Enlightenment
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