Article ID: CBB465549268

The Poison and the Spider's Web: Diderot and Eighteenth-Century French Epicureanism (2015)


This article argues that the term ‘Epicurean’ had multiple meanings in the moral and political thought of the eighteenth century. Concentrating on the reception of Epicureanism in France, it shows that some critics focused on Epicurus’ hedonistic moral psychology and labelled Epicurean those thinkers who denied natural sociability; for others, who instead focused on Epicurus’ materialist natural philosophy, to label a thinker an Epicurean was to label them an atheist. This polyvalence is presented as a salutary caution against essentialising claims about the content of eighteenth-century Epicureanism per se. Despite this sceptical stance, however, the article goes on to argue that it is nevertheless fruitful to investigate the engagement with Epicureanism by particular thinkers or in particular texts. Indeed, a comparative reading of Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie entry on ‘Epicuréisme’ and his source material in Johan Jakob Bruker and Pierre Bayle demonstrates that Diderot used his discussion of Epicureanism to intervene directly in contemporary theological controversies over the immortal soul and a providential god.

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Authors & Contributors
Darnton, Robert
Swiggers, Pierre
Rey, Roselyne
Giovanni Cristiani
Roe, Shirley A.
Nuovo, Victor
History of European Ideas
Revue Historique
Journal of the History of Ideas
Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation
Cambridge University Press
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Fordham University
Other Press
Atheism; agnosticism; irreligion
Moral philosophy
Encyclopedias (history)
Science and religion
Diderot, Denis
Holbach, Paul Henri Dietrich, Baron d'
Locke, John
Helvétius, Claude Adrien
Laplace, Pierre Simon
Reid, Thomas
Great Britain
18th century
17th century
19th century

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