Issue #71 April 2024

Diverse Thoughts on the Lightly Enlightened, circa 17th Century France

John William Godward, "Mischief and Repose", (1895)

17th Century French so-called libertine writing was stylistically all over the map. Still, style was important. The following takes its cues primarily but not exclusively from Pierre Bayle’s Diverse Thoughts on the Comet (1683).


I sometimes wonder what sort of accomplishments Blaise Pascal would have been capable of had he not been drawn into the Jansenist versus Jesuit conflict that boiled over in mid-17th Century France. I wonder how much of what he did accomplish was lost after his death due to the religious fervour of his sister and niece, the two people primarily responsible for shaping his image as an earthly genius who turned his back on such pursuits to focus on a higher calling. While historians have established his engagement with earthly affairs up until the end, they are also aware that documents, such as correspondence with fellow mathematicians, were purposefully destroyed (Le Guern, XXVI).

Then I reflect on the wars of religion that preoccupied Montaigne at the end of the 16th Century, Rousseau’s religious struggles in the 18th Century and, to shift religions rather than periods, Spinoza’s writings and subsequent exclusion from Amsterdam’s Jewish community. There was, and still is, a great deal of religious strife going around. If it was not Jansenists against Jesuits, Pascal would likely have been sucked into some other clash.

It can also be argued that the temperament driving his involvement in debates on effective grace and the infallibility of the pope was not all that different from that behind his air-pressure experiments, draining wetlands in Poitou and, as he was about to shuffle off this mortal coil, working through the logistics of a mass transit system for Paris (cf. Mesnard 1965). The heady mix of passion and meticulousness was necessary for both and he would not have accomplished much of anything without it. The argument obviously does not follow the dualistic portrait his surviving family painted of him. That should probably count in its favour.

While far from its centre, Pascal and his pensées were no stranger to the libertine community of his day. Many preoccupations, religious and otherwise, were shared. Temperaments, on the other hand, were vastly different. If we want to explore the sort of character capable of thinking about Jesuits and Jansenists without taking the fight all that seriously, there are better options than imagining a counterfactual Pascal. Charles Marguetel de Saint-Denis, Lord of Saint-Évremond, would serve our purposes nicely, though focusing on him to the exclusion of others would simply not do.

Digging into the conflict is beside the point. Rather, it is to explore some currents of not-all-that-serious thought running through the Enlightenment important for understanding the period. By serious, I mean profound meditation and rigorous experimentation. Not-all-that-serious then was a mix of lighter reflections, conversational contemplations compatible with polite society, musings that leaned into burlesque and satire, and so on. This would not include serious study of what was labeled a frivolous topic, such as Pierre Gassendi’s thorough work on Epicurean philosophy.

Of course, some lighter work, including Montaigne’s Essays, Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist and Voltaire’s Candide, is so well ensconced in the Enlightenment tradition that any retread would risk wearing it through. What makes Pascal interesting as a starting point is that he was at the crossroads of complex technicality, weighty theology and the relatively trivial. His famous wager on the existence of a Christian God, which was but one fragment of his Pensées, is a case in point. Michel le Guern nicely sums up the context and challenges:

“One cannot present this fragment without addressing the highly controversial problem of the place it should take in the whole of the Apology [of religion]. In reality, one finds oneself faced with an unsolvable problem. Everything leads to the conclusion that the four pages containing the fragment constitute in themselves a complete and independent apology, intended for an audience of libertine gamblers Pascal met among the friends of the Duke of Roannez, and written before the composition of even the project of the grand apology. This explains the technical character of the wager’s argument, and responds to the objections many times raised against it: it only has force for a gambler, but, since it is only addressed to gamblers, one cannot fault it for that. In effect, it seems that one can date the fragment to 1655: the extremely technical form the theme of the wager takes in its second version makes one think of Pascal’s work on calculating probabilities, and more specifically of the letters to Fermat on the subject, which are dated 1654. It is at the demand of the gamblers of the Duke of Roannez’s entourage, particularly of [Antoine Gombaud, Knight of] Méré, that Pascal undertook this research” (676 n. 1).

In my admittedly limited experience, the wager tends to be presented as a broadly applicable thought experiment. Though the lights of human intelligence are too dim to illuminate the infinite that is God, they are capable of running through the logic that weighs finite hardships of religious observance in this life against the chances, however remote, of infinite felicity or damnation. It is at the same time more compelling than arguments for the existence of a god that claim certainty and categorically awkward. Playing the odds on eternal life seems tantamount to letting the money changers back into the temple–incompatible with any sort of genuine faith.

As with the Jansenists versus Jesuits, the point is not to thoroughly analyze the fragment, only to show that its argument is far more comprehensible when the relatively trivial is given its due. The trivial comes in many forms, as mentioned above. Évremond, like Méré, wrote a great many reflections that were the continuations of salon conversations. Agreeableness, decorum, and refinement were the order of the day. Being an honest person was the ideal. Although honesty was not exactly the same for men and women, it was an ideal for mixed company. Women, such as Mlle de Scudéry, hosted the salons and, in that role, were largely responsible for setting the tone for everyone (cf. “Jugement sur Sénèque, Plutarque et Pétrone” 675).


Where does my scribbling fit in? Évremond wrote to prolong the agreeable conversations of polite society and Pascal wagered at the request of that very same society. What exactly have I been hoping to accomplish? Nothing, really. Let us take a detour into the world of another enlightened libertine, Bernard Le Bouyer de Fontenelle, to expand on that.

Several years ago, I unanimously decided that Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1849) and Raymond Queneau’s Saint Glinglin (1948) fell within a newly minted category of gonzo-ly mythic and solidly lithic. The first had a memorable scene of the devil flying the titular hermit up to the heavens where nothing but emptiness and aeroliths awaited them. The second featured the inadvertent melting of the father’s religious symbol, an imposing megalith, as a result of the son’s attempts to bring water to a parched land. My sixth book, Our New Neolithic Age (2021), was on one level a possible answer to the question of what such a mythically lithic story might look like in this century.

At that time, I did not seriously engage with the content of Flaubert’s devilish dialogue. Given how close the argument came to Spinoza’s take on substance, determinism and so on, one could say that there are weightier treatments of the matter more conducive to seriousness. Whole academic careers have focused on the philosophy of writers like Flaubert, though, and there is something with a certain gravity to be said about how Spinoza is interpreted and blended with Leibniz, Eugène Burnouf’s take on Indian Buddhism, Plotin, Democritus, and so on. It would be tempting to say that I do not mean to make light of Flaubert’s words. As noted, the opposite is true.

Spinoza is famous in part for taking Descartes’ geometric (Cartesian) method to the highest of heights. The hermit’s flight resembled a fever dream, so perhaps a geometrician’s dream is exactly what the doctor ordered. Diderot happened to dream up such a dream, with his sometime encyclopedic collaborator d’Alembert as the geometrician. Let us join a conversation between the two people taking care of the sickly savant, Mlle de L’Espinasse and the doctor Bordeu. They are in the midst of discussing the patient’s semi-coherent, semi-conscious ramblings.

“Mlle de L’Espinasse: (Doctor, what is the sophism of the ephemeral?)

Bordeu: It is that of a short-lived being who believes in the immutability of things.

Mlle de L’Espinasse: Fontenelle’s rose who was saying that in the memory of roses no one had ever seen a gardener die.

Bordeu: Precisely. That is light and profound.

Mlle de L’Espinasse: Why don’t your philosophers express themselves with his grace? We would be able to understand them.

Bordeu: Frankly, I don’t know if his frivolous tone is appropriate for serious subjects.

Mlle de L’Espinasse: What do you call a serious subject?

Bordeu: Well, general sense experience, the formation of the sensitive being, its unity, the origin of animals, their lifespan, and all the questions related to it.

Mlle de L’Espinasse: Me, I call that the follies I am permitted to dream about, when I sleep; but with which a man of good sense who is awake will never occupy himself.

Bordeu: And why is that, if you please?

Mlle de L’Espinasse: It’s that some are so clear that it is pointless to search out  the reason for them; others so obscure that one sees practically nothing, and all are of the most perfect uselessness.

Bordeu: Do you believe, miss, that it is indifferent to deny or admit a supreme intelligence?

Mlle de L’Espinasse: No.

Bordeu: Do you believe that one can take a position concerning the supreme intelligence, without knowing what to think of the eternity of matter and its properties, the distinction between two substances, the nature of man, and the production of animals?

Mlle de L’Espinasse: No.

Bordeu: These questions are then not as idle as you were saying” (367-8).

Fontenelle’s rose is from his Interviews on the Plurality of Worlds, a series of dialogues intended to popularize astronomy. It was first published in 1686, just nine years after Spinoza’s passing–24 years after Pascal’s death–and within Leibniz’s–and Évremond’s– lifetime. From Cyrano de Bergerac’s Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon to Pierre Bayle’s Diverse Thoughts on the Comet, “light and profound” treatments of aeroliths, more or less imaginatively construed, abounded in 17th Century France.

Plurality of Worlds’ preface begins with:

“I am in more or less the same situation where Cicero found himself, when he undertook to put in his language the substance of philosophy, which until then had only been dealt with in Greek. He tells us that people said that his works would be particularly useless, because those who loved philosophy, having taken pains to find it in the Greek books, would after that overlook the Latin versions, which would not be the originals; and that those who did not have the taste for philosophy, would not bother to look at it either in Latin or in Greek.

To that, he responded that, very much on the contrary, those who were not philosophers would be tempted to become one by the ease of reading the Latin books; and that those who were already philosophers by the study of the Greek books, would be very content to see how such things would have been handled in Latin” (1189).

Fontenelle concludes that “Cicero was right to talk like that,” but that he himself lacked the same “reasons for confidence.” In the end, “it could very well be that in searching for a middle ground where philosophy is suitable for everyone, I found one where it is suitable for no one; middle grounds are too difficult to hold, and I do not believe I have any desire to go through the trouble a second time” (1189-90). While never aiming to popularize philosophy per se, I share his imbalance between the technical and the accessible, and the resulting doubts.

And yet. I remember being taken aback when an acquisitions editor from the publisher of my first novel, Cowards, opined that they would be further ahead if they brought out an out-of-print title I had listed as a major influence rather than publishing my book. It was A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator by Ludvík Vaculík. Though not at all what the editor was getting at, I came to realize that Vaculík did a much better job than I at finding and holding this mythical middle ground. I had my own Cicero moment at the outset and stumbled on regardless.

The funny thing is that Fontenelle’s sentiments would have resonated with Vaculík. A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator was a collection of samizdat newspaper articles written in Czechoslovakia during the normalized socialism period, post-1968. The authorities were aware of what he was doing–thus the title–and Vaculík was aware that they were aware. He believed the reason his work was tolerated was because it was practically useless: those who were trying to change the situation had no need for it and those who were passive were not incited by it to act.

On one level, it is not clear what my scribbling accomplishes, any more than Vaculík’s was for him. On another, it can be seen as quite simple: we are doing something that takes us out of ourselves. By this, I do not mean that we forget ourselves or our conditions, nor that we become some sort of passive consumer of entertainment in a Guy Debord-esque society of spectacle. It is a diversion, however, and, as Pascal’s and Évremond’s take on such things show, how one views diversions depends a great deal on temperament.



The only thing that consoles us in the midst of our miseries is diversion [divertissement]. And at the same time it is the largest of our miseries. Because it is that which principally stops us from thinking of ourselves, and which makes us imperceptibly lose ourselves. Without it we would feel ennui, and it is this ennui that would push us to search for a more solid means of getting out of it, but diversion amuses us and delivers us imperceptibly to death” (fr. 393, 671).


“In order to live happily, it is necessary to reflect little on life, but rather to frequently go out as in beyond oneself; and among the pleasures that foreign things provide is evading the consciousness of one’s own ills. Diversions take their name from the diversion they offer from objects vexing and sad, by means of pleasant and agreeable things: which is sufficiently shown by the fact that it is difficult to overcome the harshness of our condition by any force of mind, but by skill one can ingeniously turn away from it” (“Sur les plaisirs, à M. le comte D’Olonne” 656).

These are extreme positions that should not be taken too literally. Our pleasures, just as much as our miseries, are part of who we are. And vexing objects become agreeable things when turned on their head. Hyperbole aside, the distinction is evident. Pascal was a problem solver, whether that problem was earthly or heavenly, and had a confidence bordering on arrogance (see for instance his treatment of Father Antoine de Lalouvère during his roulette competition (367)) in his ability to work things through. And, whether his confidence was justified or not, history is full of bread and circuses supporting his point that distractions from woes often end up worsening them.

Évremond was skeptical about our ability to fundamentally improve our condition. Like Pascal, the principle concern is death:

“If I write a long discourse on death, after having said that meditating on it is vexing, it is that it is impossible to not reflect on a thing so natural: there would even be a sort of weakness [mollesse] in never daring to think about it. But whatever one says, I cannot support the particular study of it; it is an occupation too contrary to the usage of life” (657).

From this, he extrapolates to “sadness, and all sorts of chagrin” (657). They are natural, so cannot and should not be completely ignored. Indifference and asceticism are just as “contrary to the usage of life.” They also cannot in any meaningful way be overcome, so there is no point in stewing on them. If one has the capacity to reflect on and communicate insights into the nature of man and the universe in ways that are neither pointless nor obscure, as Fontenelle thought Cicero had and Diderot’s Mlle de L’Espinasse thought Fontenelle had, so much the better. For some of the rest of us, being agreeably amused by mythical lithics is about as solid as it gets. Let he with greater force of mind cast the first stone, as it were.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, "The Italian Comedians", (ca. 1720)


I could simply have said that my words would not enlighten polite society and I lack a Mlle de Scudéry to tell me with utmost tact to hold my tongue. Instead, I dragged poor Vaculík into it. Is this not the man who wrote The Two Thousand Words, arguably the key manifesto of 1968’s Prague Spring? Did he not sign Charter 77, a reminder to the Czechoslovak government of its obligations toward its people? Even if one could claim that words were a shared tool, technically true but terribly misleading, was he not precisely the sort of person pushing for “a more solid means”?

Perhaps at the beginning. By the 1970s he was, in the sense Évremond and Méré gave the expression, an honest man. That is something I could never pretend to be. Even if I had a Mlle de Scudéry nice enough to nudge me in the right direction, I would blather on. In the best of cases, I would wake up with a start the next day belatedly grasping what she meant. It is appropriate in serious texts to provide a lay of the literature to demonstrate one’s grasp of the field. Here, it makes sense to at least indicate some proximity to honesty.

Méré offered a good definition of the ideal:

“Perfect honesty is always the same in all the subjects where it is found, though the difference in time and fortune makes it appear rather differently. But under whatever form it shows itself, it always pleases, and it is that which is principally what one recognizes in it. Because true agreeableness does not come from a simple superficiality or an insubstantial appearance, but rather from a great stock of spirit or of merit, which spreads through all that one says and all the actions of life” (75).

“Pleases” can be taken as pleasure or pleasant. While the distinction may seem like splitting hairs, in general use the latter tends to be milder and more in line with agreeableness than the former. Pleasure, in the sense of the salacious, licentious, lascivious and so on, has dominated popular imagination when it comes to libertine thought. It is absolutely true that a significant amount of such writing, such as Roger de Bussy-Rabutin’s Romantic History of the Gauls, was in this vein. Alas, even when “pleasure” is uttered in this collection of thoughts or the thoughts behind these thoughts, it is not referring to anything particularly titillating.

What honesty is, is both social and general. Méré’s definition hints at the former with “the difference in time and fortune,” and the latter with “always the same in all subjects,” despite its form. This can be interpreted as a classic sort of Enlightenment universalism coupled with a basic excuse for why things do not look the same on the surface. Let us turn to Évremond for a better understanding.

“You are no longer as sociable as you were. Study has something sombre about it, which spoils your natural agreeableness, which takes from you the easy cleverness, the freedom of mind, that the conversation of honest people demands. Meditation produces even more villain effects for such commerce; and it is to be feared that you would lose with your friends in meditating that which you think you gain with yourself” (“L’homme qui veut connaître toutes choses ne se connaît pas lui-même, à M. ***” 651).

Agreeableness, a pleasant sort of pleasure, is sociability. Not only stewing on death and sadness, but any study or meditation that isolates is contrary to honesty. As that was precisely the study or meditation the brightest lights of the Enlightenment undertook, it would be rather difficult to equate the two. Méré’s “perfect” should be kept in mind on both the enlightened and honest sides of the equation, though, since there is no such thing in the human realm. Pascal’s family painted a picture of him as perfectly enlightened and therefore totally isolated from societal concerns in his final years. No matter how rational a calling organizing five-cent carriages for public use was, one would be hard pressed to call it antisocial (cf. Mesnard 755-812). And no matter how frivolous Évremond portrayed himself, his thoughtfulness betrays a reasonable use of reason: “I talk to all sorts of people, I think on all sorts of subjects, I meditate on none” (“Sur les plaisirs, à M. le comte D’Olonne” 656).

As another example, Sylvie le Bon, in her notes for Simone de Beauvoir’s All Said and Done, critiqued Beauvoir’s attribution of reading as conversation to Montaigne:

“If Montaigne evokes the “commerce” of books in the famous pages of the Essais (III, iii), it is by Descartes’ pen that one finds the closest expression to that of Beauvoir: “the reading of all good books is like a conversation with the most honest people of centuries past, who were their authors, and even a studied conversation in which one discovers but the best of their thoughts.” (Discours de la méthode, 1re partie, dans œuvres et lettres, Bibl. de la Pléiade, p. 128)” (638 n. 15).

It is easy to put Montaigne, with his light-but-profound essays, in the “honest man” column and Descartes, the arch-meditator of the Enlightenment, in that of the societal sticks in the mud. But, no one is perfect.

Regarding Enlightenment-style universal humanism, nuance is also needed. “Natural” was thrown about regularly as an indicator of human commonality. We have seen it in the context of death and vexations. Évremond used “natural agreeableness” as a way to say that people are fundamentally social creatures. That was the limit, however. Folks like Méré and Évremond did not reject human nature as such, only the shared and consistent values and virtues often attributed to it.

“We are not always the same; it is to honour too much human nature, to give it uniformity; the person who neglects you with coldness today, will tomorrow find by some extraordinary movement the occasion to serve you. In the end, men are shifting and varied; a mix of good and bad parts. Get from them that which our efforts can get with honesty, and do not flee people because of their flaws, people who would have just as much right to avoid us because of ours” (“L’Intérêt dans les personnes tout à fait corrompues” 695).

A humanity endowed with the force of mind and a more solid means to put an end to its misery without ending its life may very well have a uniform nature. Real people are not like that and it would be unreasonable to expect that they should be. Under these circumstances, merit lies in taking the good with the bad and being agreeable regardless.

With all that in mind, let us return to Vaculík. In 1976, he wrote an article sketching his philosophical development, such as it was, entitled “My Philosophers.” His most significant influence was the Marxist philosopher and fellow fermenter of Prague Spring liberalization, Karel Kosík.

“Karel Kosík (1926-2026) is the first philosopher I have ever got to know in person. They showed him to me once at an editorial meeting at Literární noviny. He did not stand out either by reason of his size or his sonorous delivery; his evident authority must have been due to his character, behaviour, opinions, or even his philosophy. He was the author of Dialectics of the Concrete and no doubt other things. I had not read a single line of his. We looked at one another, and I saw at once that he was favourably impressed, and therefore so was I. He took an approving view of my work, which pleased and encouraged me. He is a sound philosopher, that I can vouch for” (8-9).

If these, dear reader, are not the sentiments of an honest man, I do not know what are.


To be continued? Well, I have not gotten to Évremond’s take on Jesuits and Jansenists yet, and that would evidently have to come after Aeroliths, Aristotle, Burlesque…

I would like to thank Denis Lacroix at the University of Alberta Library. As a library rat, a good research library and a helpful librarian are to me what a salon and a Scudéry were for Évremond.

All translations from French by the author.

Trent Portigal is a writer of eclectic curiosities. Novels include Our New Neolithic Age (2021), Simulated Hysteria (2020), Death Train of Provincetown (2019) and The Amoeba-Ox Continuum (2017).

Works Cited

Bayle, Pierre. Pensées diverses sur la comète. Libertins Du XVIIe Siècle. Ed. Jacques Prévot V. 2, Gallimard, 2004.

Beauvoir, Simone de. Tout compte fait. Mémoires. Ed. Jean-Louis Jeannelle et al., Gallimard, 2018.

Diderot, Denis, et al. Le rêve de D’Alembert. Œuvres Philosophiques. Ed. Michel Delon et al., Gallimard, 2010.

Marguetel de Saint-Denis, Charles, Lord of Saint-Évremond. “Jugement sur Sénèque, Plutarque et Pétrone.” Libertins Du XVIIe Siècle. Ed. Jacques Prévot V. 2, Gallimard, 2004.

—. “L’Intérêt dans les personnes tout à fait corrompues.” Libertins Du XVIIe Siècle. Ed. Jacques Prévot V. 2, Gallimard, 2004.

—. “L’homme qui veut connaître toutes choses ne se connaît pas lui-même, à M. ***.” Libertins Du XVIIe Siècle. Ed. Jacques Prévot V. 2, Gallimard, 2004.

—. “Sur les plaisirs, à M. le comte D’Olonne.” Libertins Du XVIIe Siècle. Ed. Jacques Prévot V. 2, Gallimard, 2004.

Fontenelle, Bernard Le Bouyer de. Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes. Libertins Du XVIIe Siècle. Ed. Jacques Prévot V. 2, Gallimard, 2004.

Gombaud, Antoine, chevalier de Méré. Cinquième conversation. Œuvres complètes. Ed. Charles-H. Boudhors, Fernand Roche, 1930.

Le Guern, Michel. Introduction. Blaise Pascal. Œuvres Complètes. V. 1, Gallimard, 1998.

Mesnard, Jean. Pascal et Les Roannez. Desclée, De Brouwer, 1965.

Pascal, Blaise, and Michel Le Guern. Pensées. Œuvres Complètes. V. 2, Gallimard, 2000.

—. Suite de l’histoire de la roulette. Œuvres Complètes. V. 2, Gallimard, 2000.

Vaculík, Ludvík. “My Philosophers.” A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator : The Prague Chronicles of Ludvík Vaculík. Trans. George Theiner, Readers International, 1987.


April 2024


“Would Humanity Be Healthier Without The State?”

by A. Scott Buch

The Power of All Powers: Yogic and European Philosophies of Power in Conversation

by Aamir Kaderbhai

Understanding Edgar Allan Poe

by Ermanno Bencivenga

Diverse Thoughts on the Lightly Enlightened, circa 17th Century France

by Trent Portigal