2. HERESY: Isaac La Peyr
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26 2 5 Heresy Isaac La Peyrère and the Pre-Adamite Scandal I n february 1656 thirty armed men reportedly burst into the Brussels lodgings of an emissary of the prince of Condé and hauled him off to prison. Four months and multiple interrogations later, the prisoner agreed to be escorted to Rome in order to recant of his heresies and be received into the Catholic Church. On January 17 the following year Isaac La Peyrère—a Calvinist of Portuguese Jewish origins from Bordeaux—arrived at the Vatican to meet Pope Alexander VII, who reportedly welcomed “this man who is before Adam” and roared with laughter while they read together La Peyrère’s monumentally heretical treatise, Prae-Adamitae (Men before Adam).1 It was on Christmas Day just over a year earlier, 1655, that the book had been denounced by the bishop of Namur, just a month after its condemnation by the president and council of Holland and Zeeland, and since then its author had received nothing but critical censure. Within a year of the book’s publication more than a dozen refutations had appeared.2 Everyone , it seems, hated it. Born in Bordeaux in 1596, or thereabouts, into a wealthy and influential Protestant family, La Peyrère had already been embroiled in ecclesiastical controversy. At the age of thirty, he was accused of atheism by one of the local synods of the French Reformed Church, though the charges were dropped. Ever since then La Peyrère, a qualified lawyer, had been in the service of the Condé family, enjoying its patronage as their fortunes permitted, and had also been part of a French diplomatic mission to various European Heresy: Isaac La Peyrère and the Pre-Adamite Scandal 27 countries. Even though La Peyrère had been tinkering with his pre-adamite heresy for fifteen years or more, so long in fact that the circulated version of the manuscript had called forth an extended critique from Hugo Grotius in 1643, he had already established himself as an expert on Greenland (and later Iceland) before Prae-Adamitae made its formal appearance. Some reflections on these inquiries into the geography of the northern regions and their significance for La Peyrère’s enduring skepticism is a suitable point of departure, not least on account of their connection with the whole issue of the peopling of the Americas. Northern Geography and the Path to Skepticism On June 18, 1646, La Peyrère put the finishing touches to a letter to Fran- çois La Mothe le Vayer, a skeptical French antirationalist and, like La Peyrère himself, a member of a circle of intellectuals enjoying the patronage of the prince of Condé.3 This was the second such letter La Peyrère had sent to the same individual. The first one, an account of Iceland, had been completed in 1644, but its contents were not published until 1663. The present treatise, on Greenland, appeared in Paris in 1647.4 Taken together, these two volumes established their author’s reputation as a leading authority on the northern regions until well into the nineteenth century. This account of Greenland, while providing a regional description of the country’s features, equally approached a number of the larger issues that absorbed La Peyrère’s consciousness. By examining them, we can catch a glimpse of the early complicity of geographical inquiry in the radical project in which he was embroiled and thus in what Richard Popkin has called “the high road to Pyrrhonism”—the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century revival , courtesy of Pierre Bayle, of the ancient skeptical philosophy of Pyrrho of Elis.5 The map of Greenland that accompanied La Peyrère’s text is a useful place to begin because it gave geographical voice to some crucial ingredients in the grand profanity that La Peyrère was sculpting over the years (fig. 8). Having sought the advice of Gabriel Naudé, medical practitioner, librarian , and scholar, and the moderately skeptical anti-Aristotelian philosopher Pierre Gassendi, in preparing his text, he called upon the expertise of the mathematician Gilles Roberval and Nicolas Sanson d’Abbeville, geographer to the king of France, for cartographic assistance.6 The map revealed La Peyr ère’s uncertainties about the eastern and western reaches of the subcontinent and depicted the western coastline merging with modern-day Baffin 28 adam’s ancestors Island; Cap Farvel was shown crucially separated by a stretch of ocean from Newfoundland. Thereby he expressed his disagreement...