Happy Bastille Day! Here’s an excerpt from The Libertine Reader: Eroticism and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century France, edited by Michel Feher, to celebrate.
Libertinism, as developed in this reader, refers first and foremost to the licentious ways of the declining French aristocracy. However, before the eighteenth century, the word “libertine” did not refer exclusively to sexual mores. The term appeared as early as the middle of the sixteenth century within a theological context: Calvin used it to denounce a sect of dissident Anabaptists whom he accused of abusing their freedom by “transforming Scripture into allegory.” Others used it more generally as a synonym for “atheist.” By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the words “libertine” and “libertinism” became associated with an actual school of thought. The “scholarly libertines” (les libertines érudits), an assortment of scholars, poets, and dilettantes, formed a small group of freethinkers who shared an aversion to dogma; seeking to demystify superstition and to dismantle baseless beliefs and preconceived ideas, they contested both political and religious authority. Every watchword imposed by the powers that be, or accepted without question by the public, inevitably raised the libertines’ hackles. Conversely, any thinker persecuted for his opinions was counted, by definition, as a member of their circle…
After 1715, libertinism pertained almost exclusively to erotic matters…Neither moralistic nor strictly amoral, libertine fiction is nevertheless primarily about morals. Its main purpose is to examine critically the ethos of the petits-maîtres and of the dangerous men, as well as of the women who are the targets of the libertines’ maneuvers. In this respect, the writers in question paid special attention to their characters’ views on love, desire, and pleasure; first, because the libertines they describe spend most of their time devising and executing campaigns of seduction, and second, because they use their philosophical positions on love, nature, and society as a justification for their reckless ways.
Although libertine fiction is largely devoted to describing the schemes and the prowess of the petits-maîtres and the dangerous men, it also endeavors to underline the problems, the impasses, and even the tragedies to which the libertine life can lead.