Lost baroque

Luc Foisneau on the French philosophers eclipsed by rationalism

With his famous Discourse on Method, Descartes imposed from 1637 onwards a certain idea of what philosophical thinking should be: well-measured, systematic and distinctly clear. Considered as the hero of a new age of reason, the cavalier with a moustache served as the emblem, not only of a certain type of metaphysics, but also of the whole of modern philosophy. As he quickly became the symbol of the French spirit that is called “Cartesian”, designating its concern for order and measure, the philosophers who did not follow his lead were soon to be left aside. And if their names have survived in Google-book footnotes, they are often viewed not so much as “philosophers” proper, but as “writers” at large, and if as philosophers, not as classical, but as “baroque”.

But what is a baroque philosopher? Many things, since “baroque” can be taken to mean the reverse of the Cartesian coin: the taste for subtle argumentation and wistful dialogue as opposed to straightforward geometrical demonstration, a pleasure taken in esoteric theses as opposed to clear and distinct ideas, a taste for huge panoramas as opposed to the Cartesian analytical method, or, to put it in an aesthetic perspective, a sense of the fold as opposed to straight lines, as Deleuze brilliantly demonstrated concerning Leibniz in The Fold. While Descartes was promoting clear and distinct ideas, there were other distinct ways of approaching philosophy, and many of them can be called baroque.

If we start with the question of definition, it must be said that our clear-cut Cartesian conception of what philosophy is – let’s say, in short, a way to advance our learning by going from one clear and distinct idea to another – does not fit in with all the uses of the word in seventeenth-century French and Latin. The usage made of the terms “philosopher” and “philosophy” varied, of course, as is still the case today, from one philosophical school to another: Cartesianism, humanism, late scholasticism, Epicureanism, Stoicism and Augustinianism, to cite the most important, did not have the same definition.

But there was also a new meaning emerging, as “philosopher” became synonymous with “scientist” in the wake of the Galilean revolution; in numerous “academies” or “cabinets”, that is, private, and then later on, public scientific gatherings, such as Mersenne’s circle, “natural philosophers” contributed to giving seventeenth-century philosophy the naturalistic twist that characterises it today. But the philosopher of that time, whatever his inclination for physics or astronomy, is not comparable to our modern-day scientific expert: he remains a hybrid individual, uniting in a single person elements that can today appear heterogeneous.

In order to give an account of the principal facets of this baroque individuality, it is indispensable to take a look at the limits of philosophy, limits that are disciplinary, but also religious and political. Among the primary disciplines with which the seventeenth-century philosopher was confronted, theology must be cited in the first place. And this familiarity of the philosopher with the concept of God is something we are no longer familiar with, not only because faith has been fading away in Europe, but also because, even if some of us are still believers, we no longer believe that philosophy is the servant of theology. But in the age of Descartes – who provided several demonstrations of the existence of God – and of Pascal – who refused indifference and made a famous wager on life after death – theology came first among all scholarly disciplines. Since salvation of the soul was thought to be of primary concern, theology oriented the choice of philosophical authorities according to the various traditions of religious orders.

That also explains why the main intellectual divide of “Louis XIV’s century” – a divide that lasted over 150 years and deeply influenced French literary culture – the one between Jansenists and Jesuits – is hardly understandable by most people today: how could they understand that the heart of the turmoil that caused exiles, papal interdictions and, in the end, the destruction of a convent (Port-Royal des Champs, in 1713), was simply the question whether the Jansenists’ interpretation of the doctrine on divine grace was, or was not, faithful to Saint Augustine?

The two young men who started working hard together in the South of France from 1605 onwards to settle their positions on that serious matter would not have expected such a great honour, and probably did not seek the privilege, which led Jean Duvergier de Hauranne, abbot of St Cyran, to be imprisoned in Vincennes in 1638, and Jansenius to write the most discussed book of the century, his Augustinus (1640). The polemics developed after five propositions on grace, found in the Augustinus, were condemned by Pope Innocent X at the request of the Jesuits: on the one side, the Jesuits had it that those propositions – such as “In the state of fallen nature, one never resists internal grace” – were contrary to Augustine’s spirit; on the other side, the Jansenists proved that those propositions were literally in Augustine’s writings.

What is true is that the official doctrine of the Catholic Church had changed over time, and that Saint Augustine, although an official authority of the Church, did not say what the Church after the Council of Trent wanted him to have said. But it is also true that this baroque, not to say Byzantine, theological dispute was, first, the source of many philosophical discussions and, second, an act of intellectual resistance to the Sun King’s absolutism. The first point was well illustrated by the famous Lettres provinciales in which Pascal vigorously took the defence of Arnauld and his other Jansenist friends against the moral philosophy of the Jesuits, accused of being a “lax morality”. The second point was illustrated by the refusal of the Jansenists to sign the official certificate declaring that Jansenius had perverted Augustine’s doctrine of grace.

The voices echoing from the great quarrel on Jansenism are still intimate voices to us, since philosophy has to do with respect of conscience – why should I sign a certificate declaring wrong something I know to be right? But they are also distant voices to our ears, since few of us still believe in God’s efficient grace, or even know what grace is. But the fact is that Jansenism had a huge impact, not only on philosophy, but also on literature, anthropology, pedagogy, ethics and politics, and that we can’t understand that impact unless we understand something of the subtleties of God’s grace. Without this morsel of theology, we might even have difficulties understanding Racine’s Phèdre or Arnauld and Nicole’s famous Logic or art of thinking. Thus, what is baroque in Jansenism is the intricacy of nature and grace, well illustrated by Pascal and his hidden God projecting his shadow on one of the brightest philosophical and mathematical minds of all time.

Another famous, and yet surprising, example of the importance of the religious factor in seventeenth-century philosophy is that we cannot understand the thought of the Huguenot Pierre Bayle on tolerance – which he defended about the same time as Locke, but on a different philosophical basis – if we forget that all French Protestants who did not want to convert to Catholicism were forced to leave France after 1685. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes is certainly no philosophical concept, but it is a politico-theological event that prompted the emergence of new concepts, notably that of the errant conscience that no political or ecclesiastical power can ever force into believing what it does not believe.

But even when French philosophy criticises theology and faith, it is not identical with what we designate today by the name of atheism. Scholarly free-thinking is also a baroque phenomenon, as is shown by La Mothe Le Vayer, once a preceptor to Louis XIV, whose anti-religious arguments are disguised and revealed by subtleties, denials and self-contradictions. One element explaining that feeling of distance we have in reading seventeenth-century atheists is due to the importance during that period of clandestine literature, notably with the famous Treatise of the Three Impostors. Since no authority then would have accepted the public expression of a straightforward critique of the three monotheisms, this kind of philosophy had to develop a secret art of writing.

Although some sort of “underground” philosophy existed, one must nevertheless beware the temptation to project the Enlightenment back into the seventeenth century. Jonathan Israël’s Radical Enlightement gives a vivid description of Spinoza’s impact on European philosophy from the mid-seventeenth-century onwards, but one must not forget, concerning France, that the impact of Spinoza was confined to very narrow circles – notably, to the one of the former musketeers, Henri de Boulainvilliers, who only met the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in 1694, and started reading it with the intention to provide a refutation of it. More efficient, as far as atheism is concerned, were the ideas spreading from the medical faculties of the time, which produced some philosophically bizarre doctors, such as Abraham Gaultier, who developed a materialist philosophy opposed to all kinds of dualism, including Spinoza’s two attributes of God.

Another curious dimension of this early rationalism is its association with alchemy, the ancestor of our modern chemistry. It was likewise in the vicinity of the faculties of medicine that the alchemists’ Great Work developed; those secret scientists, who were often initiated into Paracelsism in Germany, distinctly claimed for themselves the title of philosophers; they also adhered to various heterodox forms of religious belief. With this hidden face of natural philosophy, we can better understand that so-called “classical science” does not put an end to baroque epistemology.

The baroque side of seventeenth-century French philosophy is also well attested by a quite illiberal intricacy between philosophy, politics and economy. Long before Oxford University invented PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics), Louis XIV had conceived a monarchical syllabus, in which philosophers and writers at large depended on political authority for financial support. The first economists, like Montchrestien, who invented the expression “political economics”, and later Boisguilbert and Vauban, did not have much success in advocating a new fiscal policy, for all political decisions remained in the hands of the absolute monarch, who needed money to wage wars.

But Louis’ aspiration to glory required not only victories, but also writers, painters, and even philosophers to say all the good they thought of his Majesty. In order to obtain that result, the absolute monarch granted allowances to put into operation what constituted probably the first example of a widespread cultural policy. Through the Royal Academies, the monarch intended to direct and control national intellectual production, including philosophy, and this control undeniably explains the extremely bridled character of the political thought of the time and the exiles of several philosophers. We know that Descartes preferred industrious Holland to the strictly policed France of Louis XIV. The lists of appointments to the Royal Academies and of allowances indicate without any doubt the chain that linked writers to their master. Jansenism again constitutes, from this point of view, a remarkable example of spiritual and intellectual resistance to absolute power.

Although some have spoken of a baroque state, the link between aesthetics, philosophy and politics is not easy to establish. Hobbes, whose work Louis XIV and Bossuet had read, undeniably left a trace in French political thought, but his contract-based reconstruction of politics is more classical than baroque; and the treatises on reason of state, such as Guez de Balzac’s Prince, are certainly baroque in their subtleties, but really contain nothing more than a eulogy of the powers in place. Thus, the cultural policy of the time throws a very useful light on the functioning of the kingdom’s Academies, but it also indicates the limits of the republican character of the Republic of Letters.

In addition, we should stress that the very few women philosophers were in the hardly enviable position of a despised minority, that of the “wise women” (femmes savantes) mocked by Molière, or of the “blue-stockings” (bas-bleus) later commented upon by Virginia Woolf. The unjustified reputation that was given to Marie de Gournay, despite the regard that Montaigne had for her intelligence, is an indication of the incongruity of the woman philosopher of the time. A baroque existence: such, indeed, was that of Gabrielle Suchon, an exact contemporary of Locke and Spinoza: a former nun, who wrote Du Célibat volontaire, ou la Vie sans engagement (On Voluntary Celibacy or A Life Without Commitment, 1700). She developed all her critical arguments on the basis of scriptural or classical texts. The first treatises on the equality of the sexes, by Scipion Dupleix notably, but not only by that author, should not disguise the fact that philosophy was, in the seventeenth century, an essentially masculine activity. Feminism has therefore much to learn from those early women philosophers, and their philosophical endeavours to justify a new status for women in an age of reason.

There is undeniably one last element that should be recalled, although it does not appear at first sight to be linked to baroque philosophy. It is the use that was made of the French language in the affirmation of a universal philosophy. Through a resolute linguistic policy that led to a considerable transformation of French between the beginning and end of the century, politics put its mark on the instrument of thought. The disappearance of provincial vocabulary, the spurning of professional language, and the birth of dictionaries concerned with good usage thus transformed the language of philosophy, and the increasingly frequent recourse to French in philosophical treatises – Descartes’ Discours de la méthode (Discourse on Method) is the classical example, but there are many others – bore the mark of this linguistic normalisation. Philosophers like Descartes and Malebranche therefore contributed to the invention or improvement of what is now known as classical French, and it is true to say that this invention entailed the disappearance of the more baroque French of Montaigne.

What is strange to modern minds is the fact that the main language of French seventeenth-century philosophy was Latin, not French; that use of Latin, inherited from the medieval Catholic Church, avoided much translation, since philosophy’s canon form was still, in colleges and convents, that of the great scholastic treatises, and, in particular, of the commentaries of Thomas Aquinas or Duns Scotus. French philosophers of the time were thinking within, and sometimes between, two languages, the vernacular and the scholastic, which situation naturally (so to speak) added to the complexity of their thought. Contemporary English-speaking philosophers might ponder this baroque, that is, uncomfortable but sometimes fruitful, situation: if going from one language to another sometimes blurred the meaning of concepts, it often added to them a depth and complexity that greatly benefited philosophers like Arnauld and Descartes.

The relation of French philosophy to Latin is also indicative of its relation to ancient literary culture in general, as is shown by a major dispute, with huge philosophical consequences, that pitted the “Ancients” – under Boileau’s lead – against the “Moderns” – led by Charles Perrault. This quarrel about the status of literary authority is extremely important, since it teaches us much about modernity in its early developments.

In our post-Humanist age, it is certainly hard for us to understand the vital role of Greek and Latin philosophers and poets: but going back to baroque French philosophy might well help us understand that what we now find baroque was classical at the time, and that what seem to us today to be normal ways of philosophising – deconstruction, post-structuralism, and even analytical philosophy – would have appeared very baroque to the contemporaries of Descartes and Pascal.

Luc Foisneau is Director of research in political philosophy at the French Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS, Paris) and is the general editor of the Dictionary of Seventeenth-Century French Philosophers (Thoemmes-Continuum)

  1. ‘a sense of the fold as opposed to straight lines’
    What a wonderful description of a baroque perspective and also of real life in all its warmth, complexity, and diversity, as opposed to the abstraction and coldness represented by the straight line which could symbolize the fact-based reality that is in vogue today.

    A new branch of psychology: ecopsychology, posits that decimated landscapes lead to psychic states of depression and meaningless. Psychology, which is supposedly a science of the mind, has looked to externals: to behavior, the physical brain, and now the environment for answers. The mind as being causal to an internal or external landscape is less a focus of any discipline anymore.

    The reason the mind is not a focus, may be due to disbelief in its independent existence. The convention wisdom is to perceive everything as biology: bios plus logos. Logos for Heraclites was much more comprehensive than mere cognition but that was before the Sophists changed and limited its meaning.

    Though science can uncover nature’s secrets; it cannot restore meaning to life. What is baroque is more representative of the meaning that life had before it was stripped of everything, except scientific facts in a universally closed physical system.

    Disciplines are succumbing to the limitations of physicality. Maybe a baroque perspective comes at too high a price in all eras; especially if it contradicts conventional wisdom.

Leave a Reply