Argens, Jean Baptiste de Boyer°

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ARGENS, JEAN BAPTISTE DE BOYER ° (Marquis d' ; 1704–1771), French novelist and deist. Using the then current method of ascribing bold ideas to fictitious foreigners (as for example Montesquieu's Lettres persanes), Argens chose to couch his religious and social criticism in the form of an exchange of letters between three Jews who combined a general education with loyalty to Jewish tradition: Lettres juives (6 vols., 1736–38), Lettres cabalistiques (6 vols., 1737–41), and then Lettres chinoises (5 vols., 1739–40), were all published in The Hague, Holland, where he stayed for some time. The English edition appeared under the title The Jewish Spy (first 40 letters, London, 1739; complete in 5 vols., London, 1739–40; and many other editions). The "Jews" and "kabbalists" whom Argens introduces in his works are, in fact, "philosophers," who treat their religion lukewarmly and criticize its ritual and institutions. Argens confronts Judaism with Christianity, showing that mythological dogmas are absent from Judaism. However, in places his characters make remarks openly hostile to Judaism, in conformity with Argens' deistic views. He also had a personal grievance since the Jewish community of Amsterdam refused to grant him a subsidy (cf. his ironical dedication to this community in vol. 3 of his Lettres juives). After moving to Berlin, he became acquainted with Jewish scholars. A. *Gomperz, the teacher of Moses *Mendelssohn, was Argens' secretary for a time.

Argens is reported to have interceded with Frederick ii of Prussia (being then his chamberlain) to grant Mendelssohn the protected status of a Schutzjude. He is quoted as having said, "A bad Catholic pleads with a bad Protestant for a bad Jew."


E. Johnston, Le marquis d'Argens (1928); R.N. Bush, Marquis d'Argens and his Philosophical Correspondence (1953); Brav, in: sbb, 4 (1959/60), 133–41.

[Leon Poliakov]