A libertine is one devoid of most moral restraints, which are seen as unnecessary or undesirable, especially one who ignores or even spurns accepted morals and forms of behaviour sanctified by the larger society. Libertines put value on physical pleasures, meaning those experienced through the senses. As a philosophy, libertinism gained new-found adherents in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, particularly in France and Great Britain. Notable among these were John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, and the Marquis de Sade.
History of the term
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The word "Libertine" was originally coined by John Calvin to negatively describe opponents of his policies in Geneva, Switzerland. This group, led by Ami Perrin, argued against Calvin's "insistence that church discipline should be enforced uniformly against all members of Genevan society". Perrin and his allies were elected to the town council in 1548, and "broadened their support base in Geneva by stirring up resentment among the older inhabitants against the increasing number of religious refugees who were fleeing France in even greater numbers". By 1555, Calvinists were firmly in place on the Genevan town council, so the Libertines, led by Perrin, responded with an "attempted coup against the government and called for the massacre of the French. This was the last great political challenge Calvin had to face in Geneva".
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the term became more associated with debauchery. Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand wrote that Joseph Bonaparte "sought only life's pleasures and easy access to libertinism" while on the throne of Naples.
...the mere analysis of libertinism... carried out by a novelist with such a prodigious command of his medium... was enough to condemn it and play a large part in its destruction.
Agreeable to Calvin's emphasis on the need for uniformity of discipline in Geneva, Samuel Rutherford (Professor of Divinity in the University of St. Andrews, and Christian minister in 17th Century Scotland) offered a rigorous treatment of "Libertinism" in his polemical work "A Free Disputation against pretended Liberty of Conscience" (1649).
A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind is a poem by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester which addresses the question of the proper use of reason, and is generally assumed to be a Hobbesian critique of rationalism. The narrator subordinates reason to sense. It is based to some extent on Boileau's version of Juvenal's eighth or fifteenth satire, and is also indebted to Hobbes, Montaigne, Lucretius and Epicurus, as well as the general libertine tradition. Confusion has arisen in its interpretation as it is ambiguous as to whether the speaker is Rochester himself, or a satirised persona. It criticises the vanities and corruptions of the statesmen and politicians of the court of Charles II.
The libertine novel was an 18th century literary genre of which the roots lay in the European but mainly French libertine tradition. The genre effectively ended with the French Revolution. Themes of libertine novels were anti-clericalism, anti-establishment and eroticism.
Authors include Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon (Les Égarements du cœur et de l'esprit, 1736; Le Sopha, conte moral, 1742), Denis Diderot (Les bijoux indiscrets, 1748), Marquis de Sade (L'Histoire de Juliette, 1797-1801), Choderlos de Laclos (Les Liaisons dangereuses, 1782), John Wilmot (Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery, 1684).
Robert Darnton is a cultural historian who has covered this genre extensively.
During the Baroque era in France, there existed a freethinking circle of philosophers and intellectuals who were collectively known as libertinage érudit and which included Gabriel Naudé, Élie Diodati and François de La Mothe Le Vayer. The critic Vivian de Sola Pinto linked John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester's libertinism to Hobbesian materialism.
Theatre and film
A play, The Libertine (1994), was written by Stephen Jeffreys, and staged by the Royal Court Theatre based on the life of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. The 2004 film The Libertine, based on Jeffreys' play, starred Johnny Depp as Rochester. Michael Nyman set to music an excerpt of Rochester's poem, "Signor Dildo" for the film.
Some notable libertines include:
- "Libertine" at the Free Dictionary
- Zophy, Johnathan W. (2003). A Short History of Renaissance and Reformation Europe: Dances Over Fire and Water (Third ed.). Prentice Hall. p. 226. ISBN 0-13-097764-0.
- Michel Delon, ed. (2013). Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment. Routledge. pp. 2362–2363. ISBN 978-1-135-96005-6.
- Talleyrand, Charles-Maurice de (2008). "Napoleon's European Legacy, 1853". In Blaufarb, Rafe. Napoleon: Symbol for an Age, A Brief History with Documents. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's. p. 151. ISBN 978-0-312-43110-5.
- Young, Wayland (1966). Eros Denied. New York: Grove.
- Fisher, Nicholas (2006). "The Contemporary Reception of Rochester's A Satyr against Mankind". The Review of English Studies 57 (229): 185–220. doi:10.1093/res/hgl035.
- Jenkinson, Matthew (2010). Culture and Politics at the Court of Charles II, 1660–1685. Boydell & Brewer. p. 101. ISBN 978-1-84383-590-5.
- Jenkinson, Matthew (2010). Culture and Politics at the Court of Charles II: 1660–1685. Boydell & Brewer. p. 99. ISBN 978-1-84383-590-5. Retrieved 4 April 2013.
- Thormählen, Marianne (25 June 1993). Rochester. Cambridge University Press. p. 191. ISBN 978-0-521-44042-4. Retrieved 4 April 2013.
- René Pintard (2000). Le Libertinage érudit dans la première moitié du XVIIe siècle. Slatkine. p. 11. ISBN 978-2-05-101818-0. Retrieved 24 July 2012.
- "Fideism". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- "A Martyr to Sin". New York Times. September 15, 1974.
- "Signior Dildo by Lord John Wilmot - All Poetry". Oldpoetry.com. Retrieved 2011-06-12.