The Clandestine and Heterodox Underground of Early Modern European Philosophy, 17th–18th Centuries

Alastair Thorne's picture
March 4, 2016 to March 5, 2016
United States
Subject Fields: 
Early Modern History and Period Studies, European History / Studies, Philosophy, German History / Studies, French History / Studies

—a conference organized by Margaret Jacob, University of California, Los Angeles; Gianni Paganini, Università del Piemonte Orientale; and John Christian Laursen, University of California, Riverside

co-sponsored by the UCLA Department of History; Università del Piemonte
Orientale, Vercelli; and Centro di Ricerca della Accademia dei Lincei, Rome

The clandestine manuscript represents a genre of philosophical communication very particular to and typical of the early modern era. The archetype of the genre was Jean Bodin’s Colloquium heptaplomeresof 1588. In the following years some 250 texts in some 2,000 manuscript copies circulated around Europe, where they are now found in both public and private libraries. After Bodin’s prototype, the purest model of the genre was the 1659 Theophrastus redivivus, which, at a relatively early date, became the model of the clandestine philosophical tract in all of its most radical aspects: rigorously anonymous (we still do not know the author); rationalist criticism of philosophy and religion, drawing on all of the classical and Renaissance alternative traditions; and critical readings of the standard texts of the official culture in order to bring out their errors and ideological slight of hand.

The clandestine manuscripts formed a braid of underground currents beneath all of early modern philosophical culture, and many of the ideas expressed in them emerged in print in the works of Voltaire, Hume, d’Holbach, and Diderot. From the era of the libertines to the full development of the Enlightenment, the clandestine manuscripts undergirded an age of important cultural changes. One cannot speak of a single current: rather, there were many currents, drawing on the skepticism of Montaigne and Bayle, the rationalism of Descartes and Malebranche, the metaphysics of Spinoza, the materialism of Hobbes, and the empiricism of Locke, among others. Above all, new paths of impact should be explored, in the conviction that European intellectual history must be read “between the lines” in the search for secret truths underneath the official professions of faith of the schools and of established authors. The greatest stage for the creation and flourishing of the most original clandestine texts was the period just preceding the “official” beginnings of the Enlightenment in the period from the publication of Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes in 1721 to Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques in 1734. John Toland’s work was one apogee. By the time of Jean Meslier’s atheist testament of 1729, most of the important manuscripts had been written.

Contact Info: 

The UCLA Center for 17th- & 18th-Century Studies
310 Royce Hall, UCLA,  Los Angeles, CA 90095-1404

P: 310-206-8552 | F: 310-206-8577 

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