In the seventeenth century, the rehabilitation of Epicurus became a kind of code behind which was assembled the program of the enlightenment – which, as I have remarked in a post last week, can be looked at, using Fred Hirsch’s terms, as the accompaniment to the loosening of the positional economy as old feudal ties and customs waned. Interestingly, one of the loosened ties had to do with the role of women. Mostly this loosening was about women in the periphery around either the court or the aristocratic salons.
For LI, Epicurus marks an important moment in that covert struggle, that dialectic, between the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of sagacity. Here seemed to be a counter-sage to the ascetic Socrates, just as Socrates seemed to counter Jesus for the humanists. The game is to find an emblem to trump an emblem.
Gassendi was the major sponsor of the new Epicurus in the 17th century. He was also the godfather of the line that challenged the Cartesians from what I suppose you could call the philosophical left. But one shouldn’t be too programmatic about these things – while the neo-Epicurians were devising materialist explanations of the world, they were also in sharp disagreement with, for instance, Descartes notion of the anima-machine. Antoinette Deshoulieres, as John Conley points out in his chapter on her in The Suspicion of Virtue: Women philosophers in Neo-classical France, was celebrated for her affection for animals, derived from Lucretius. Bayle, in his dictionary, ‘lauded her naturalist subordination of the human species to nonrational animals: “One of the most lucid and of the most brilliant minds of the seventeenth century preferred the condition of sheep to that of humans.”
In my next post, I want to say some biographical things about Deshoulieres and maybe translate her imitation of Lucretius (it isn’t long – she called it a galimatias).