XVIIème siècle : courage, les précurseurs !

They are the heirs to Humanism, which dawned at the Renaissance. And they prepared the Enlightenment, which consecrated the triumph of free spirits over ‘obscurantism.’ But who are the thinkers of the seventeenth century? They are called Galilelo, Locke, Hobbes, Pascal, Spinoza, Descartes, Leibniz, Kepler, Huygens, Gassendi… We call them philosophers, but they were also mathematicians, astronomers, logicians and, sometimes, incredibly do-it-yourself practitioners. They invented the calculating machine, the telescope, probability, infinitesimal calculus, universal gravitation and enshrined the ideas of Copernicus: the Earth is no longer at the centre of the Universe. None of them feared God any longer, but they distrusted religions which waged warfare and dreaded the harshness of the Inquisition. Because the Church did not like these thinkers, who rendered null and void the dogmas imposed by the Middle Ages, and the Holy Office was prompt to resort to torture. The majority of the savants steered clear of the university, still bogged down in Mediaeval theology, many fled to escape persecution, but despite everything they wove together networks which helped them to survive and, sometimes, establish their discoveries. It is this fascinating adventure, sprinkled with discoveries, but also savoury anecdotes, which is recounted to us by Olivier Donneau, a Research Fellow at the ULg, in his article, The Emergence of Modernity, the History of Ideas in the Seventeenth Century (1).

The historians of ideas have filed the thinkers of certain eras in categories which seem to include all of them, without distinguishing individuals too much. Thus the intellectuals of the Renaissance, in the 16th century, are for the most part termed ‘humanists.’ When humanism is mentioned one thinks of, for example, Erasmus, Machiavelli, Thomas More etc.  Two centuries later, the thinkers of the 18th century were more often than not merged with the major current of thought which marked this epoch and continues to inspire the contemporary world: the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Kant, Montesquieu, Diderot, D’Alembert, Rousseau, Voltaire and so many others who enshrined the triumph of reason over faith, religious beliefs and obscurantism. Nothing of the kind, on the other hand, for the thinkers of the 17th century. As if because they were the orphans of a dominant current of thought, they have not been ‘ranked’ in a particular conceptual drawer and thus remain individuals as of right.

It nevertheless remains the case that these individuals were born, worked and died in an era characterised by very precise political, ideological, cultural, social and material contexts, which widely influenced the course taken by their thinking . Placing these individuals back in their time, with the horizons and the constraints of the era: that is the task Olivier Donneau has set out to fulfil in this fascinating work on seventeenth century thought.

War: a tragedy, an impediment, an opportunity

Europe remained marked at the time by the religious conflicts which broke out in the previous century. The Hapsburgs of Spain and Austria dominated it for several decades, then France imposed itself. Italy was not yet unified: it remained divided and dominated by Spain. There was not yet a Germany, but a mosaic of small states which formed the fragile Germanic Empire, still stubbornly resistant to the centralisation movements France and England had already experienced. An emergent power, the United Provinces, also called ‘Holland’ or the ‘northern Netherlands,’ had recently liberated itself from Spanish domination. From 1618 to 1648, the Thirty Years War, which at the beginning opposed Catholics and the Reformed, ravaged the Germanic Empire and then brought into conflict all of the European powers. The second half of the century would be marked by the wars which the King of France would wage to increase his territory.


(1) Des savants en société : les penseus du XVIIe siècle au travail, in L’émergence de la modernité : l’histoire des idées au XVIIème siècle (The Emergence of Modernity, the History of Ideas in the Seventeenth Century), Mons, UMons, publisher: Anne Staquet, Collection Approches (ISBN 978-2-87325-O67-6) .

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