La Peyrère, Isaac (1596–1676)
LA PEYRÈRE, ISAAC
Isaac La Peyrère, or Pereira, was born in Bordeaux, France, a Calvinist of Portuguese New Christian, or converted Jewish, background. He became the Prince of Condé's secretary. Apparently he was friendly with leading Parisian avant-garde intellectuals such as Pierre Gassendi, François de La Mothe Le Vayer, Hugo Grotius, Guy Patin (1601–1672), and Ménage. La Peyrère's first book, Du rappel des juifs (1643), deals with the conversion of the Jews, their potential return to Palestine, and the beginning of the Messianic Age. In 1644 he went to Denmark and gathered there the material for his Relation de l'Islande (1663) and Relation du Groenland (1647), both written as letters to La Mothe Le Vayer. His most famous works, the Prae-Adamitae and the Systema Theologicum ex Prae-Adamitarum Hypothesi, apparently written by 1643, were published in Amsterdam in 1655. Queen Christina of Sweden (1626–1689), whom he had recently met in Belgium, offered to pay the publishing expenses, so he took his manuscript to Amsterdam to get a printer. Five editions of these works were published almost immediately, and the book appeared not only in Latin but in English and Dutch. Among the early readers of his book was the young Spinoza. La Peyrère argued that the only consistent interpretation of certain biblical passages, and of the anthropological and historical evidence about the Chinese, Mexicans, Eskimos, and other peoples, is that there were men before Adam and that the Bible deals only with Jewish history and not world history. The effect of this work was like that of a bombshell to the seventeenth-century intellectual world. It appeared at almost the same time as Archbishop James Ussher's (1581–1656) proof, on the basis of biblical data, that the world was created in 4004 BCE. La Peyrère was immediately attacked and refuted on all sides. His book was burned in Paris, and he himself was arrested and kept in prison in Belgium for six months until he retracted his views and became a Catholic. He then went to Rome and begged the pope's forgiveness, publishing a formal retraction of his views. In 1659 he entered a religious order near Paris, where he remained until his death. Despite his official retractions, it is believed that he continued to hold to his pre-Adamite views. For example, Pierre Bayle cites a letter in which La Peyrère's religious superior is supposed to have said that "he was always writing books that … would be burned as soon as the good man died. La Peyrère was the best man in the world, the sweetest, who tranquilly believed very little."
La Peyrère's revolutionary work on the pre-Adamite theory had tremendous influence on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thought. In raising the possibility that biblical data might only apply to Jewish history, he introduced a radical new conception of human development and led people to speculate on the relative merits of various cultures and religions. Further anthropological and geological studies, as well as investigations into comparative religion, soon led to the abandonment of biblical chronology and history as the framework for understanding all human history and led also to the beginning of higher criticism of the Bible by writers like Spinoza and Richard Simon and to the Enlightenment critiques of traditional religion. Pre-Adamism was a radical hypothesis in the Enlightenment that accounted for the variety of human beings.
Most writers for at least a century after La Peyrère seem to have been directly or indirectly aware of his pre-Adamite hypothesis and its extraordinary implications. In the nineteenth century La Peyrère's pre-Adamite hypothesis was developed into a racist view and finally into the ideology of British Israelites and of the Aryan Nation in the United States.
See also Bayle, Pierre; Continental Philosophy; Deism; Enlightenment; Gassendi, Pierre; Grotius, Hugo; La Mothe Le Vayer, François de; Philosophy of History; Simon, Richard; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de.
works by la peyrère
Du rappel des juifs. 1643.
Relation de Groenland. Paris: A. Covrbe, 1647.
Prae-Adamitae. Amsterdam, 1655. Translated as Men Before Adam. London, 1956.
Relation de l'islande. Paris: Iolly, 1663.
works about la peyrère
Allen, D. C. The Legend of Noah: Renaissance Rationalism in Art, Science, and Letters. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1963.
Bayle, Pierre. "Peyrère, Isaac La." In Dictionnaire historique et critique. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Reinier Leers, 1695–1697.
Katz, David S., and Richard H. Popkin. The Messianic Revolution: Radical Religious Politics to the End of the Second Millennium. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998. See especially chapter 7.
McKee, David R. "Isaac La Peyrère, a Precursor of Eighteenth-Century Critical Deists." PMLA 59 (1944): 456–485.
Popkin, Richard H. Isaac La Peyrère (1596–1676): His Life, Work and Influence. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1987.
Richard Popkin (1967, 2005)