Clandestine Philosophical Literature in France

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The body of clandestine literature in France that deals with philosophy, religion, ethics, and social problems is impressive. It can be traced back to the sixteenth century, and the diffusion, particularly wide between 1714 and 1740, of the allegedly atheistic treatise La béatitude des Chrétiens ou le fléau de la foy, published by Geoffroy Vallée in 1572, and of other tracts of early date bears witness to the continuity and vitality of the tradition of free thought in France. The term "Clandestine philosophical literature" usually refers to works known to have circulated in manuscript form during the first half of the eighteenth century and the importance of the subject lies in the fact that the circulation of these works provided one of the sources of the French encyclopedic movement and a solid foundation for liberalism. For the period between 1700 and 1750, I. O. Wade has listed 392 extant manuscripts of 102 different treatises, including 15 translations from other languages. Many more are known to have been in circulation.

The technique of the clandestine manuscript essay was used to circumvent the severe censorship and was most common between 1710 and 1740, when the activities of copyists, colporteurs, and the police were particularly vigorous. Works that found their way into print were often impounded, but they were copied and distributed until the French Revolution. Occasionally authors whose identities could be established were incarcerated. This happened to de Bonaventure de Fourcroy in 1698 for his Doutes sur la religion proposées à Mss. les Docteurs de Sorbonne, but he soon secured his release from the Bastille. Most often the police found it futile to make arrests and concentrated on preventing the diffusion of the tracts. Public burning, usually in effigy, of works condemned by the Parlement of Paris did not prevent reprints and manuscript copies from being made in the Low Countries, one of the centers of the clandestine trade. After 1750, however, covert circulation became increasingly unnecessary, owing to the breakdown of the censorship, and a number of the more important treatises were printed, many with the indication of a false place of publication.

Voltaire, Henri-Joseph Dulaurens, Baron d'Holbach, and Jacques-André Naigeon, in their desire to foster deism or atheism, prolonged the life of the anonymous tracts by including them in collective volumes, such as Nouvelles Libertés de penser (Amsterdam, 1743, 1770), Recueil nécessaire (by Voltaire; Geneva, 1765, 1766, 1768, 1776), L'évangile de la raison (by Voltaire; Geneva, 1764, 1765, 1767, 1768), Recueil philosophique (by Naigeon; "Londres," 1770), and Bibliothèque du bon sens portatif (by Holbach; "Londres," 1773). The treatises constituted one of the main sources from which the philosophes drew their polemics.

Through the records preserved in the Archives de la Bastille and from statements appearing in manuscripts and letters by Dubuisson, Nicolas Fréret, G. de Bure, and Charles-Marie de la Condamine, we know something of the organization and diffusion of these manuscripts. Le Coulteux, Charles Bonnet, Lépiné, and a certain Mathieu or Morléon (who was incarcerated in 1729) are known to have specialized in the works of Henri de Boulainvilliers and his friends. These works were distributed often in the vicinity of the Procope and other cafés to listed patrons and initiates, including members of the clergy and the Parlement. Copies such as those of Jean Meslier's Testament were made by professionals, occasionally the personal secretaries of men like the Comte de Boulainvilliers, the Comte d'Argenson, and Chrétien-Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, and the practice of employing copyists was continued throughout the century. The price of such copies varied greatly. A sum as prohibitively high as twenty pistoles is known to have been asked for Jean-Baptiste de Mirabaud's Examen critique du Nouveau Testament.

The clandestine movement, fed by new discoveries in science, reflected the climate of world opinion, an attitude to life and society, man and his welfare, God and the universe which, although not new, was reinforced by new arguments and gained an ever-increasing audience. Although the tracts appeared sporadically and were mostly anonymous, they share a few common characteristics and must be judged as a stage in the history of free thought, which goes back to the Renaissance in France and has its deepest roots in the works of Epicurus and Lucretius.

Theophrastus Redivivus

The Theophrastus Redivivus (1659) is significant in that it establishes a link between the atheism of men of the Renaissance and that of men of the seventeenth century (it refers, for example, to Lucilio Vanini and Cyrano de Bergerac) and also of the eighteenth century, when it was secretly circulated. The author, possibly a regent in one of the Parisian colleges, wrote in Latin a 2,000-folio-page compendium of historical references. He developed the arguments that if God exists he is the Sun and that the world is eternal. For the author all religions are false, and miracles, oracles, prophecies, and revelations are manmade. The resurrection of the dead and the immortality of the soul are absurdities; happiness is to be found only in living according to nature, which is revealed to us through experience; there is no absolute good or evil, as we may deduce from the multiplicity of customs and laws; man is a species of animal endowed with speech and reason. Animals, however, are not totally devoid of these faculties. The author referred neither to Pierre Gassendi nor to René Descartes, but he did mention the treatise De Tribus Impostoribus, attributing to Frederick II the proposition that Moses, Christ, and Muammad were three remarkable impostors.


Throughout the seventeenth century the libertins in the wake of François Rabelais and Michel Eyquem de Montaigne became erudite skeptics, radical naturalists, associating freedom of morals and freedom of belief. As freethinkers they were prompted more by a feeling of revolt against asceticism and scholasticism than by any convincing argument. Gassendi contributed to the rehabilitation of Epicurus and Lucretius. Emmanuel Maignan, too, in his Cursus, evolved a philosophy that bridged Aristotle and Epicurus, linking matter and thought, sensationism and the spiritual world, and developing the idea of a scale of being. But it was from Descartes that the movement of free thought gained its greatest impetus. Cartesian rationalism and mechanism provided freethinkers with a new certainty and their systems with a new coherence. Long after his philosophy had been adopted by the Jesuits and had consequently grown unpopular, Descartes continued to exercise a determining influence on free thought through the method he advocated. His philosophy, however, was commonly misunderstood by freethinkers and with Julien Offray de La Mettrie it culminated in an extreme mechanistic materialism that Descartes would have decried.

Benedict de Spinoza's influence on the clandestine literature was considerable but rather indirect. His work was largely known through the writings of other thinkers, like Pierre Bayle and Boulainvilliers, and his philosophy was commonly distorted by Cartesian misrepresentation. The Ethics was little known, and frequently its views were reconstituted through refutations. The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus was of interest on account of its biblical criticism, and in Holland, Jean Le Clerc, professor of philosophy and Hebrew at the University of Amsterdam, was allowed to carry on this critical work. In France, however, the uncompromising attitude of Jacques Bénigne Bossuet stifled biblical criticism. Richard Simon, a well-known teacher at the Oratorian school at Juilly who had admitted in his Histoire critique du Vieux Testament (1678) the truth of much of Spinoza's exegesis while recognizing the authority of the Bible, succeeded in offending both Catholics and Protestants and was expelled from the Oratorian congregation in 1678. He retired to continue his rational critique in two instructions pastorales (1702, 1703), Histoire critique du texte du Nouveau Testament (1683), Histoire critique des versions du Nouveau Testament (1690), and Histoire critique des principaux commentateurs du Nouveau Testament (1692).

Disputes that reached the general publicsuch as those over the authorship of the Pentateuch, in which Isaac La Peyrère, Thomas Hobbes, Spinoza, Simon, Le Clerc, and others held different viewsled to much perplexity. The body of anonymous treatises that continued such discussions and in many cases rejected revelation is naturally large. These include the Examen de la religion, the Analyse de la religion (written after 1739), and the Militaire philosophe (composed between 1706 and 1711).

Hobbes's Leviathan (1651) seems to have been little known in France. Bayle's Dictionnaire, however, enjoyed great authority, and his Lettre sur la comète de 1680 popularized the ideas that the conception of Providence did not rest on rational premises and that atheists could be good men. Bayle's views were those of a protestant, but his argument was such that his articles could easily be used to develop anti-Christian ideas. The anonymous writers also read Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle and knew something of the English deists whose thought developed along parallel lines. There were translations of works by Bernard Mandeville, Lord Bolingbroke, John Toland, Anthony Collins, and Thomas Woolston, but it was only after the publication of Voltaire's Lettres anglaises (1734), which discussed Newtonian physics and philosophy and the ideas of John Locke, that the English influence became significant. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's influence, too, was felt only at a late stage, partly because he was known primarily through Bayle and also through Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, whose ideas served to link the Monadology with Denis Diderot and materialism.

The Coterie of Boulainvilliers

The only group of writers known to have been involved in concerted action was that centered in the Comte de Boulainvilliers and closely linked with d'Argenson, the duc de Noailles, and the Académie des Inscriptions. This coterie included Nicolas Fréret, Mirabaud, César Dumarsais, and J.-B. Le Mascrier. Voltaire, in his Dîner du comte de Boulainvilliers (1767), attested to the important influence of this group, which was especially responsible for the diffusion of Boulainvilliers's Esprit de Spinoza (known to have existed by 1706 and first published in 1719 in Holland).


Nicolas Fréret (16881761), a student of law, joined the coterie of Boulainvilliers at the age of nineteen. Fréret appended to copies of the Histoire ancienne an account of Boulainvilliers's life and works. In 1714 he was admitted to the Académie des Inscriptions; in 1715 he was imprisoned for some months in the Bastille, where he read Bayle's Dictionnaire and wrote a Chinese grammar. From 1720 to 1721 he was preceptor of the duc de Noailles.

The Lettre de Thrasibule à Leucippe (written c. 1722 and published in London, probably in 1768; also published in Oeuvres de Fréret, Vol. IV, London, 1775) is generally attributed to him. Systematic and Cartesian in its presentation, this treatise combines sensationist psychology and naturalist ethics. Thrasibule, a Roman, describes the early Christians as combining Jewish beliefs with Stoicism and as influenced by both monotheist and polytheist currents. He argues that knowledge is acquired through our senses and has only relative validity. Only the truths of mathematics and reason are universal. Religious beliefs however, do not spring from reason; it is reason alone that should guide man in regulating his life, establishing society and laws, and achieving happiness. This work can be seen as an early essay in comparative religion, and it sharply reflects the growing interest in the science of law and social philosophy. It perhaps influenced Baron de Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau annotated it while engaged in writing the Discours sur l'inégalité.

Fréret is also reputed to be the author of an Examen critique des apologistes de la religion chrétienne (composed after 1733), which introduces the historical method adopted by Voltaire in, for example, the Essai sur les moeurs and the Dictionnaire philosophique, in which Voltaire acknowledged his debt. Fréret was held in high esteem as a savant. He was a chronologist, a geographer, an orientalist, and a philologist as well as a philosopher, and he delivered papers on a wide variety of subjects to the Académie des Inscriptions, becoming its permanent secretary in 1743. These Mémoires de l'Académie outline new methods for the study of prehistory and geography as well as history. Fréret specialized in mythology, opposing the évhéméristes, who believed that all myths had a basis in historical fact. A pioneer in comparative philology, he made known the Chinese linguistic system. His Oeuvres complètes were published by Leclerc de Septchênes in Paris, 17961799, but about half his works were omitted (many of his manuscripts bequeathed to the Académie des Inscriptions have never been published), and a few of the treatises included cannot be attributed to him.


Jean-Baptiste de Mirabaud (16751760) was educated by the Oratorian congregation and entered a military career. He then became secretary to the duchess of Orléans and preceptor of her two youngest daughters. In 1724 he translated Gerusalemme liberata by Torquato Tasso. He was elected to the Académie Française in 1726, becoming its secretary in 1742. Mirabaud read his manuscripts to select groups of friends. He was probably the author of four essays (described below), often to be found together, that threw new doubts on biblical chronology and promoted Fontenelle's method of oblique attack on miracles. Many of Mirabaud's notes recall ideas expressed in La religion chrétienne analysée (a popular post-1742 tract attributed by Voltaire and Claude François Nonnotte to Dumarsais). The Opinion des anciens sur le monde (c. 17061722) challenges the story of Genesis. In the Opinions des anciens sur la nature de l'âme (composed before 1728, published in Nouvelles Libertés de penser ) Mirabaud pointed out that the Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans envisaged the soul as material and that the Egyptians introduced the belief in the immortality of the soul as a restraining influence on public morals. The Opinion des anciens sur les Juifs (c. 17061722), based on Jacques Basnage's Histoire des Juifs (1706), tries to prove that the Jews had no right to claim to be a "chosen" people. The Examen critique du Nouveau Testament (c. 17061722), which deals with the canonical and the noncanonical gospels, stresses that neither Philo nor Josephus mentioned Christ and that Christian morality conflicts with natural morality. Much of our information on Mirabaud is derived from the Notice sur Jean-Baptiste de Mirabaud (Paris, 1895), by Paul Mirabaud.


César Chesneau Dumarsais (16761756), a grammarian, was personally known to Fontenelle and Voltaire and was associated with the Encyclopédie until his death. For a time he was preceptor in the family of John Law. Dumarsais edited, with Le Mascrier, some of the deistic works of Mirabaud and wrote a defense of Fontenelle's Histoire des oracles and probably the deterministic essay Le philosophe (written before 1728); edited by Herbert Dieckmann in 1948). He was probably responsible for La religion chrétienne analysée (also known as Examen de la religion and Doutes, in which inconsistencies in the Bible are shown up, the doctrine of original sin is attacked, and the doctrine of the Trinity is stated to be contrary to reason. It is argued that God should be worshiped without ceremony and that man must follow his reason, which is his lumière naturelle, and adopt a social morality incompatible with Christian dogma.


The most interesting of the clandestine authors was no doubt Jean Meslier (16641729), a priest who was directly or indirectly influenced by Spinoza. (Reading François de Salignad de La Mothe Fénelon's Démonstration de l'existence de Dieu and R.-J. de Tournemine's Réflexions sur l'athéisme helped Meslier clarify his ideas.) He identified nature with matter, which he saw as eternal and as endowed with movement. He favored a mechanical interpretation of nature, rejecting the arguments of those who believed in chance and in a divine design. In his 1,200-page Testament, Meslier listed the errors, illusions, and impostures of Christianity. His attack on Christianity is one of the most detailed and comprehensive ever written, and his materialistic system is particularly interesting in that it foreshadows many aspects of Diderot's thought.

Voltaire is known to have acquired a copy of the Testament and to have made extracts, which he dated 1742 and published in 1761 or 1762 under the title Extrait. The first edition sold out immediately and was followed in the same year by an edition of 5,000 copies. In 1772 Holbach published extracts under the title Le bon sens du curé Meslier, and in 1789 Sylvain Maréchal published Le Cathéchisme du curé Meslier.

Meslier's social ideas were remarkable for the time. He claimed in very general terms that all men are equal and have the right to live, to be free, and to share in the fruits of the earth. He divided humankind into workers and parasites and saw in revolt the best hope of better conditions. He dreamed of a class struggle, not reconciliation.

Other Works

Among other anonymous works that cast doubts on the proofs of the truth of Christianity and allege contradictions in the Bible are five manuscript volumes of the Examen de la Genèse and the Examen du Nouveau Testament (probably written in the late 1730s or early 1740s), which are attributed to Mme. du Châtelet, Voltaire's mistress. She purports to have proved that the stories of the Bible relate barbarous and cruel events and cannot have been inspired by God. No doubt she received some help from Voltaire, but she relied chiefly on the work of Meslier and Woolston and especially on the Commentaire littéral sur tous les livres de l'Ancien et du Nouveau Testament (23 vols., Paris, 17071716) by Augustin Dom Calmet.

Among other manuscripts whose authorship is now known is Le ciel ouvert à tous les hommes (also titled Le paradis ouvert and Nouveau Système de la religion chrétienne ), by the priest Pierre Cuppé, which must have been in draft in 1716. The tract never assails orthodoxy, but Cuppé submitted the Scriptures to scrutiny and preached toleration and brotherly love, concluding that all men are saved by God's love. Cuppé's stress on his respect for reason, as well as his deistic beliefs, led to his being considered a forerunner of French deism.

The author of Le militaire philosophe (17061711; published in London by Naigeon in 1768) is unknown. It is first a commentary of Nicolas Malebranche's views on religion. It gives a frank exposition of deism, which won Voltaire's commendation. After a strongly worded criticism of the Old and the New Testaments, the work rejects Christianity and develops the doctrine of natural religion, stressing the roles of reason and instinct. Man, who is both body and soul, is free and immortal, and his behavior should be governed by reason and by conscience. Man must worship God and abide by the golden rule. The author foreshadowed Montesquieu in his insistence on the absolute character of justice and the relative nature of civil laws and in his treatment of chance, which he rejected as an explanation of events. He anticipated Voltaire in his use of the figure of a watchmaker to explain the function of God. His idea that truth is to be found in the individual soul was later developed by Rousseau.

A widely disseminated treatise was Israël vengé, by Isaac Orobio, a Spanish Jew who escaped from the Inquisition to France and then to Holland and died in 1687 or 1688. His originally unpublished critical attack on the Christian religion was translated by A. Henriquez and published in London in 1770. It was circulated by Jean Lévesque de Burigny.

The Jordanus Brunus Redivivus is a materialistic compilation. The author believed in the Copernican system (and the existence of other solar systems with living beings) and in the eternity of matter. There are no innate ideas, no objective good or evil. Man is motivated by pain and by pleasure. Experience can deceive us. Reason alone is valid but must not be thought infallible. The laws of nature are eternal, but everything is in a state of flux. Certain passages of this work bring to mind Diderot's Rêve de d'Alembert. Other manuscripts whose authorship is uncertain include Lettre d'Hypocrate à Damagette (1700 at latest), Recherches curieuses de philosophie (1713), Suite des Purrhoniens: qu'on peut douter si les religions viennent immédiatement de Dieu ou de l'invention des politiques pour faire craindre et garder les préceptes de l'homme (c. 1723), Traité de la liberté (a determinist and materialist tract, probably by Fontenelle, c. 1700), Essai sur la recherche de la vérité, and Dissertation sur la formation du monde (1738), which was inspired by Lucretius and formulates transformist theories while upholding the conception of fixed species.


It will be seen that the clandestine tracts fall into two main categories, those written from the standpoint of critical deism and those that are atheistic, deterministic and materialistic. The outstanding eighteenth-century literary works based on this movement can be similarly characterized. Montesquieu's adoption of the letter form for Les lettres persanes (1731) may owe something to the Lettre à Damagette, and the views expressed in Lettre persane 46 reflect those expressed in La religion chrétienne analysée. Voltaire, who adopted the form for his Lettres philosophiques, published anonymously in 1734, wrote in the same year a Traité de métaphysique (which Mme. du Châtelet kept under lock and key), which embodied his own deism as well as many of the ideas expressed in the clandestine literature.

Toward the middle of the century atheism gained ground, no doubt encouraged by such treatises as Lettre sur la religion, sur l'âme et sur l'existence de Dieu. Diderot's Pensées philosophiques, published anonymously in 1746, allegedly at the Hague but actually in Paris, and condemned to be burned by the Parlement of Paris, is characteristic of this tendency. Although based on a translation of the Earl of Shaftesbury, the work succeeds in presenting an original and vividly expressed atheism side by side with more commonplace arguments in favor of natural religion. In particular it challenges Christian belief in miracles, outlining the principles of the new biblical criticism. In the eighteenth century alone the Pensées philosophiques ran to twenty editions (some with crude interpolations) and reprints. It was translated into German, Italian, and English and was the subject of long and heated controversy. Twelve signed or anonymous refutations by Protestants, Catholics, parliamentarians, and others were published, some of them, together with Diderot's text, being circulated in manuscript form.

As government policy wavered and censorship grew slack, an increasing number of the manuscripts of earlier date were published, and anonymity became a thin veil, if not a mere convention. The main current of what has become known as clandestine literature, which many have identified with the tradition of free thought, came to an end with the advent of Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot. In their works it found its finest literary expression, and thanks to them it became integrated into coherent patterns that have won it a place in the history of ideas.

See also Boulainvilliers, Henri, Comte de; Meslier, Jean.


The most important reference works in the field are I. O. Wade, Philosophical Ideas in France from 1700 to 1750 (Princeton, NJ, 1938), and J. S. Spink, French Free-Thought from Gassendi to Voltaire (London: University of London, Athlone Press, 1960). The following works are also very important: W. H. Barber, Leibniz in France (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955); A. Vartanian, Diderot and Descartes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953); and P. Vernière, Spinoza et la pensée française avant la Révolution (Paris, 1954).

The reader should also consult E. R. Briggs, "L'Incrédulité et la pensée anglaise en France au début de XVIIIe siècle," in Revue d'histoire littéraire de la France 41 (1934): 497538; E. R. Briggs, "Pierre Cuppé's Debts to England and Holland," in Studies on Voltaire and the XVIII Century, edited by Theodore Besterman, Vol. VI (Geneva: Institut et Musée Voltaire, 1958), pp. 3766; Pierre Brochon, Le livre de colportage en France depuis le XVIe siècle, sa littérature, ses lecteurs (Paris: Librairie Gründ, 1954); Herbert Dieckmann, ed., Le Philosophe: Texts and Interpretation, Washington University Studies, New Series, Language and Literature, No. 18 (St. Louis, MO, 1948); Herbert Dieckmann, "The Abbé Jean Meslier and Diderot's Eleuthéromanes, " in Harvard Library Bulletin 7 (Spring 1953): 231235; J. P. Free, Rousseau's Use of the Examen de la religion and of La Lettre de Thrasibule à Leucippe, unpublished doctoral dissertation (Princeton, NJ, 1935); A. D. Hole, Mirabaud's Contribution to the Deistic Movement and His Relation to Voltaire, Princeton doctoral dissertation Abstracts (Princeton, NJ, 1952); G. Lanson, "Questions diverses sur l'histoire de l'esprit philosophique en France avant 1750," in Revue d'histoire littéraire de la France 19 (1912): 129, 293317; A. R. Morehouse, Voltaire and Jean Meslier (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1936); R. R. Palmer, Catholics and Unbelievers in Eighteenth Century France (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1939); Renée Simon, "Nicolas Fréret, académicien," in Studies on Voltaire and the XVIII Century, edited by Theodore Besterman, Vol. XVII (Geneva: Institut et Musée Voltaire, 1961); J. S. Spink, "La Diffusion des idées matérialistes et anti-religieuses au début de XVIIIe siècle: Le Theophrastus Redivivus, " in Revue d'histoire littéraire de la France 44 (1937): 248255. See also Diderot's Pensées philosophiques, edited by Robert Niklaus (Geneva: Droz, 1950).

other recommended titles

Darnton, Robert. The Corpus of Clandestine Literature in France, 17691789. New York: Norton, 1995.

Sutcliffe, Adam. "Judaism in the Anti-Religious Thought of the Clandestine French Early Enlightenment." Journal of the History of Ideas 64 (1) (2003): 97117.

Robert Niklaus (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)