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Saturday, April 19, 2008

He read Bayle

Via George Huppert’s The Style in Paris: Renaissance origins of the French Enlightenment, LI found this story about the Marquis D’argens in Jean Philibert Damiron’s Memoire sur le Marquis D’argens:

He was never lacking in adventures, and if it wasn’t in one genre, it was in another. In returning from Italy and during the trip across [the Mediterranean] , he encountered a storm, the frightened sailors took vows to all the virgins of their countries of origin; a monk said his breviary in sobbing; two Calvinists trembled while reciting the psalms of Marot; for himself, he read the Pensees diverses of Bayle, and those who saw such cold bloodedness imagined that he was a saint, to whom the tranquility of his conscience procured his repose. – He read Bayle, that was his own breviary, his preferred book, the assiduous nourishment of his soul, which opened more and more to skepticism. If to doubt is to repose, it was that repose which his author of predilection bestowed upon him. [Memoires, 13]

LI likes this story. It is a perfect cameo of the libertine sub-culture that extended into the eighteenth century, connecting the time of Voltaire with the time of Cyrano de Bergerac. Something is happening here when the libertine becomes the double of the saint, doubt becomes the double of belief, and Bayle becomes the double of the breviary. Last year, LI posted a lot about the notion of ‘volupte’ as a sort of intermediary between the humanist’s stoicism and the greatest happiness of the political arithmeticians that Burke denounced in his Reflections on the French Revolution. As Damiron confesses at the beginning of his Memoire, D’argens was not a great personality:

“The marquis d’Argens, in fact, was not a great character, and what is more, he was not an eminent thinker, and in more than one circomstance of his life, he displayed a personality that was little enough serious. He wrote much and on all things, but with no rare distinction, and of philosophy in particular, on which he often touched, he didn’t illustrate with some new light a single thing.”

He was, to use the hobbled language of the advertisers, an early adopter. He adopted a sensibility. Which brings us to a number of questions.

These questions go back to Bayle, and a point made by Pierre Force in his Self Interest Before Adam Smith. Force notes that Bayle, the encyclopedic skeptic of the 17th century (a man whose graphomania, very much of the era, has been rewarded by posterity by being read by practically no one but being preserved as a name, just as a piece of wedding cake might be preserved in a freezer for decades, not to be ceremonially eaten, but as a gesture of etiolated piety) was considered an atheist not because he advocated atheism, but because he stripped belief of the coordinate conduct it was assumed that it entailed:

For Bayle, the principle of pleasure explains the variations that may be observed in the behavior of atheists. At fist sight, someone who does not believe in the rewards and punishments of eternal life would be inclined to indulge in every kind of physical pleasure. Yet we observe that some atheists are more restrained on that count than many Christians. Whether someone indulges in drunkenness is not a matter of opinion regarding the existence of a punishment for it in the afterlife. It is simply a difference in humor and temper. Some people love to drink, others don’t:

“If you examine things in general, you suppose that, as soon as an atheist realizes that he can get drunk with impunity, he will get drunk every day. But those who know the maxim, Trahit sua quemque voluptas, and who have examined the heart of man more carefully, do not go so fast. Before judging the conduct of this atheist, they inquire about his tast. If they find that he likes ot drink, that he is very sensitive to this pleasure, that he prefers it to his reputation as a good person, they conclude that he actually will drink as much as possible. But they do not conclude that he will drink more than countless Christians, who are drunk most of the time. …”

Bayle believes that, in general, differences in behavior cannot be explained by differences in belief. The adherence to such and such system of belief is irrelevant when it comes to explaining concrete human behavior. Preferences are not a matter of opinion.”

Here we stumble upon one of the great themes of modernity, which runs through Balzac, Dostoevsky, Freud, Alcoholics Anonymous and the political industry of polling – the relationship between what we believe and how we conduct ourselves. For after all, if belief makes no difference to your behavior, why believe anything?

1 comment:

Chuckie K said...

Today I'll ask a real question. Is this, "if belief makes no difference to your behavior" this question, or is "if belief does not always completely determine significant behavior'"

Speaking of libertinism, I don't know if you've encountered this argument for its twentieth-century offshoots, but a few years ago I read Dada: L'arte della negzione, the catalog of an exhibition in rome in 1994 devoted to the Italian connections and manifestations of Dada. A couple of the essay maintain with quite plausible textual evidence that the initial intent of Tzara and others when they launched the movement was explicitly founded on that old-school libertinism.