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Philosophy and Literature 27.2 (2003) 304-317

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Sovereign Love and Atomism in Racine's Bérénice

Ellen Mcclure

ALTHOUGH CRITICS HAVE NOTED links between the new science of the seventeenth century and the works of La Fontaine and Molière, 1 a similar influence of Epicureanism or even Cartesianism upon French classical tragedy is harder to trace. No two areas of seventeenth-century cultural life would seem farther apart than the emerging science, with its rejection of Aristotelian categories as inadequate to experienced reality, and classical French tragedy, with its antimaterialism and claims to universal truth often bolstered by references to none other than Aristotle himself. Yet René Pintard reminds us that the 1660s and 1670s—the period when many of the tragedies we regard as "classical" were written—saw a strong renewal of interest in the philosophies articulated in the first half of the century. 2 So widespread was this interest that Pierre Gassendi's friend and follower Bernier was able to publish an edition and translation of the philosopher's works in 1674-1675 which proved to be a resounding success. It is hard to believe that the much-discussed new science somehow missed writers of tragedies, especially given the extensive contacts between Molière, La Fontaine and Racine.

In this article, I demonstrate this influence by positing that Racine's play Bérénice, ostensibly a reworking of a well-known love story that Corneille was also producing on the Paris stage at the same time, is in part a reflection on the pressing question of what holds the universe together. Through his exploration of the possibility of satisfactory love between two independent sovereigns, Racine explores issues that the revival of Epicureanism had brought into the philosophical foreground. This reading of the play brings into focus the incredibly [End Page 304] important, yet too-often neglected, 3 role of Antiochus, the character whom Racine invented for his version of the play. I will show that his tragic in-betweenness offers a necessary alternative to Titus' and Bérénice's valorization of self-contained sovereignty.


Before embarking on a close reading of the play itself, however, I would like to offer a brief survey of the debate to which I believe Racine refers. Both Michel Foucault and Timothy Reiss have identified the seventeenth century as a transitional period between the age of correspondences exemplified in Aristotelian philosophy and the age of representation and quantification that characterized eighteenth-century thought. 4 This transition, however, was far from smooth, as philosophers sought to articulate a universe whose separate and radically de-hierarchized elements remained somehow joined together.

For most seventeenth-century philosophers, the sacrifice of Aristotelian categories and scholasticism in no way lessened the imperative for a sense of divine order and causation. Gassendi's often self-contradictory efforts to reconcile Epicurus and Christianity provide perhaps the most striking example of this transitional struggle. The atomism posited by Epicurus through Lucretius posed particular difficulties for a Christian worldview. A world governed by the chance interactions of atoms eliminates any sense that things happen for a purpose; God cannot be the benevolent author and overseer of the universe. Gassendi's equal respect for atomism and for Christianity should be read as evidence of the profound struggle between separateness and interconnection (or, as Gassendi would call it, harmony) taking place during this period. 5 For, as Bloch points out, although Gassendi partially reconciled the demands of the two systems by situating atoms in an uncreated, infinite, and contiguous space and time, he continued to hold to the profoundly troubling existence of the void in the universe. Once again, the chief objection to the void implicit in atomism was religious, since if God is everywhere, the void cannot exist, and likewise, God cannot create nothing. The revival of stoicism supplied instead a vision of the universe ultimately comprised and held together by an ethereal pneuma that some neo-Stoics did not hesitate to identify as a sort of divine presence. 6 Descartes himself made heroic attempts, in his Principes...


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