God’s Anarchist: Part 1

Of the various terms used to describe Casanova, one that frequently pops up is ‘libertine’: ‘a person who leads a licentious life, a rake or debauchee’ (Chambers Concise Dictionary, 1991).  And this would seem to fit in pretty well with the Casanova of popular imagination: the archetypal sexual predator who flits from bed to bed with no thought for the consequences of his actions or for anyone or anything beyond his own personal gratification.   However, Casanova’s conception of ‘libertine’ and that of his contemporaries was far more layered.

‘God’s Anarchist:  Part 1’ will focus on the origins, evolution and usage of the word, ‘God’s Anarchist: Part 2’ will give a brief sketch of the values, attitudes and moral landscape of Europe and America in the early eighteenth century while ‘God’s Anarchist: Part 3’ will focus on what the term ‘libertine’ reveals about Casanova himself.

Although the word ‘libertine’ existed as early as the fourteenth century to signify a freed slave, or ‘freedman’, (derived from the Latin ‘libertinus’), the derogatory moral connotations which are now part of its modern usage did not appear until the sixteenth century and were the result of religious doctrinal and political conflicts triggered by the protestant reformation.  ‘Libertine’, or ‘libertin’ in French, seems to have been first used in a morally derogatory sense by the second-generation French protestant reformer and theologian John Calvin (1509 – 1564).

Calvin was a central figure in the establishment of the Reformed tradition, commonly known as Calvinism, whose key work was the ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’, a textbook on the Protestant faith.  His teachings in particular emphasized divine predestination and the ultimate authority of the Bible in defining truth.  Persecution of protestant dissenters in France led Calvin in 1534 to flee to Switzerland, eventually settling in the independent city-state of Geneva which had recently embraced the reformation and had become a magnet for protestant refugees from around Europe.  There he became involved in the struggle to develop and establish a form of church government known as Reformed or Presbyterian.

During this struggle in the late 1540s, early 1550s, Calvin was opposed by several groups.  It was one these, the Spirituels, that Calvin labelled Libertines.  This was a reference to the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament where, at the Synagogue of the Freedmen (hence Libertines from ‘libertini’), a group of Hellenistic Jews fell into a dispute with Stephen.  Stephen won the dispute but, to avenge their humiliation, the Jews falsely accused him of blasphemy, leading to him being stoned to death and becoming the first Christian martyr.  The Spirituels attracted particular support from amongst the social elites of French society.  According to Philip Schaff (‘The History of the Christian Church’), they managed to convert several thousand and gained the favour of Queen Margarite of Navarre.

It would appear that the Spirituels believed God’s grace exempted them from church or civil law and that, therefore, they were subject only to their own will and desires.  According to Calvin, their particular interpretation of divine providence (that all events were decided by God) denied the reality of free will and therefore denied the reality of sin, evil and the devil.  He claimed that Libertines wanted ‘to turn heaven and earth upside down, to annihilate all religion, to efface all knowledge of human understanding, to deaden consciences, and to leave no distinction between men and beasts’.  There will, however, always be some uncertainty as to the specific doctrine and practices of the Spirituels as first-hand accounts published by members of the sect itself appear to have been lost.  Historians are reliant upon the writings of political and theological opponents such as Calvin whose criticisms, to say the least, are unlikely to be very balanced.  Mirjan Van Veen comments, in his 2005 introduction to Calvin’s ‘Contre la secte phantastique…’, ‘It can be questioned for example whether Calvin’s accusation about the libertines’ lack of morality and their polygamy was in accordance with the facts. It is very well imaginable that these accusations were part of the reformer’s tactic of discrediting his opponents’.

‘Libertine’ gradually became a pejorative term for nonconformist unorthodox Christianity that went beyond the Spirituels and included a long list of groups such as Antinomians, Annabaptists, Ranters, Millenarians, Apostolics, Seekers and so on.  Amongst these groups could be found a range of heretical beliefs: that the sins of those chosen by God and predestined for salvation could not be described as sins; that sin was a regenerative act; that the differences between religions were unimportant; that there was no hell; that your actions on earth are irrelevant to whether or not you will be saved.  Sects such as the Seekers were specifically anticlerical, rejecting all forms of organised cults and ceremonies, casting doubt on many aspects of Christian dogma and appealing for unlimited religious tolerance.  Amongst some of these groups characterised as ‘Libertine’ we therefore find the development of a philosophical criticism of religion itself.  Jean-Pierre Cavaillé notes: ‘Free from all forms of power, the libertine is, properly speaking, an anarchist of God, free to do as he pleases, first and foremost to conform or not to the laws and obligations of the cult’ (‘Libertine and Libertinism’). By the end of the sixteenth century, however, ‘libertine’ had also started to be used in a more generalised derogatory sense that was less closely attached to specific doctrinal disputes.  For example, it begins to appear in the works of Shakespeare from 1597, as in ‘Henry IV: part I’ where Hotspur comments on Prince Hal:

Cousin, I think thou art enamoured
On his follies: never did I hear
Of any prince so wild a libertine. (V.ii.69-71)

and, in 1598, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ where Beatrice gives her assessment of Benedick:

 Why, he is the Prince’s jester, a very dull fool, only his gift is in devising impossible slanders. None but libertines delight in him, and the commendation is not in his wit but in his villainy, for he both pleases men and angers them, and then they laugh at him and beat him. (II.i.114-118)

In the seventeenth century, due to the hugely important Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677), ‘libertine’ becomes entwined with the ideas of the Enlightenment.  Influenced by the swirl of reformation and nonconformist ‘libertine’ ideas, Spinoza played a crucial role in the genesis and development of Enlightenment thinking, characterised by its emphasis upon reason and progress and its criticism of religion.  Spinoza was of Sephardic Jewish descent but expelled from the Jewish community due to his radical ideas.  He became interested in an anti-clerical sect called the Collegiants who placed emphasis upon reason as a source and test of knowledge.  Spinoza’s powerful philosophy constructed an abstract and impersonal God who was not a transcendent being with directive power over human affairs.  He argued that free will was an illusion, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ were relative qualities not absolutes, that the universe and all its forms were variations of a single substance, and that God and nature were part of the same reality.  In addition, Spinoza was a strict determinist and believed that the more we knew, the more like God we became and the freer we were.  So far was Spinoza’s conception of God from the Judeo-Christian tradition that many accused him of atheism.

Into the eighteenth century, the term became increasingly tied to immorality and debauchery, in particular with regards to the pleasure seeking lives of the French aristocracy as characterised though the genre of the libertine novel in works such as ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ by Laclos (1741-1803) and the writings of other authors such as Crébillon fils (1707-1777), Diderot (1713-1784) and Sade (1740-1814).  The libertine novel contained anti-clerical and anti-authoritarian themes typical of Enlightenment attitudes and often fused eroticism with militant rationalism.  Karen Taylor, in her ‘Companion to the French Novel’, writes: ‘Libertine novels are marked by an abandonment of metaphysics for a world, this world, in which each creature exists for its own sake and for the sake of immediate pleasure of the senses and mind.  Such an approach may be carried to extremes in the case of Laclos (cruel manipulation) or Sade (violence)’.

By the mid-eighteenth century, therefore, the concept of ‘libertine’ had acquired a range of associated meanings and connotations most of which would have been treated with suspicion, if not downright alarm, by mainstream opinion of the time.  These included freethinking, an Enlightenment concern for reason, anti-clericalism, a willingness to question received ideas and practices, impiety, promiscuity and generally a greater concern for the temporal world of the now rather than the sacred world of the hereafter.  The libertine novel through its emphasis on individual pleasure and elite society added yet more dimensions and the popularity of the genre ensured that these ideas and sentiments became widely circulated and covertly fashionable.  No doubt the perceived danger and sophistication of libertinism added to its allure.  To be a libertine in the eighteenth century was to be much more than just a debauchee or a bad boy.

Dave Thompson (2017)

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