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The Myth of Renaissance Atheism and the French Tradition of Free Thought

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 6, Number 3, July 1968
pp. 233-243 | 10.1353/hph.2008.1356

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The Myth of Renaissance Atheism and the French Tradition of Free Thought

Within the vast and complex area of Renaissance philosophy, the thought of Pietro Pomponazzi and of the entire Italian school of Aristotelianism of which he is the best known representative has not yet been studied in all its aspects.1 Apart from a number of recent studies, mostly Italian or American, there is an important body of French studies on the subject that are distinguished by their ample documentation and by a general and consistent tendency of interpretation and that have exercised a predominant influence in this field of research. The fountainhead of this French scholarship on Renaissance Aristotelianism is E. Renan's book on Averroes and Averroism, a remarkable achievement for its time, and a classical study still worth reading after more than a hundred years have passed since it was first published.2 It is generally recognized that Renan's conclusions about Averroes himself and about the Latin Averroism of the thirteenth century have been superseded by the later studies of P. Mandonnet and others.3 It is less well known that, for the [End Page 233] history of Italian Aristotelianism after the thirteenth century, this book by Renan has never been completely superseded, but still constitutes the general basis for a large part of the later literature on the subject. Recent studies have added numerous details, but have failed to correct numerous errors and misconceptions.

The main thesis of Renan's book on which we shall focus our attention in this paper is the following: Paduan Averroism which includes such thinkers as Pomponazzi and Cremonini represents a phase in the history of free thought. The theory of the double truth, as it was applied especially to the problem of the immortality of the soul, separating the doctrine of Aristotle and the conclusions of natural reason from the articles of faith, was nothing but a protective device. It is this secret disbelief which makes the Paduans interesting to the modern historian whereas their positive teachings are outdated and unimportant.

In spite of his subtle qualifications, Renan's view has exercised a lasting influence upon French and other scholars, including many who by no means shared Renan's sympathy for free thought. L. Mabilleau, in his scholarly study of Cremonini, cites much interesting material on this thinker's version of the theory of double truth and rejects the charge of hypocrisy made by others against Cremonini, yet his biography is full of innuendos in Renan's style, and some anecdotes are reported without an indication of their source.4 The book by J. R. Charbonnel is probably the poorest of the whole group, and most open to criticism, but it is bulky and full of citations, and it has been influential far beyond its merit.5 His method is completely uncritical, but as a source of information he is useful, provided we do not accept his unwarranted conclusions. His thesis is the following: beginning with the early seventeenth century, there was a strong current of free thought called libertinism in France that was nourished by atheist influences from Italy, especially by the writings of Pomponazzi, Cremonini, Cardano, Vanini and Machiavelli. Without much judgment, Charbonnel assembles passages from all kinds of sources, some of them extremely dubious, such as charges made by theological polemists, Catholic and Protestant, or anecdotes reported by collectors of gossip, most of them of a rather late date, and accepts practically every such charge or story at its face value. His weaknesses have been noticed by later scholars, but this did not prevent them from using his material or his conclusions wherever these suited their own purpose.

After Charbonnel, H. Busson wrote two volumes of which the first deals with French rationalism and is especially relevant to our problem.6 Busson is a much better scholar than Charbonnel and uses a much more critical method. Yet he is convinced that the Paduan doctrine of double truth provided a basis [End Page 234] for both rationalism and fideism, and that the numerous French scholars who studied at Padua in the sixteenth century formed a kind of secret society that spread in France...