This colloquium is an opportunity to investigate the application of Epicureanism to Enlightenment strategies. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed various techniques for incorporating Epicurean elements in the fields of natural and moral philosophy, history and the science of man. What has generally been referred to as Enlightenment optimism can be characterized as the substitution of an Epicurean social theory for the Augustinian. In this analysis the Epicurean tradition has frequently been subsumed into both Augustinian and Stoic traditions in a paradigm which opposes the two and fails to take Epicureanism into account in its own right. By the same token ‘Epicurean’ has been used synonymously with Spinozism, and to indicate irreligion more generally.
The conference presents a forum to discuss the various conceptualisations of Epicureanism as it was employed by Enlightenment figures – those who were sympathetic to, or employed Epicureanism for their own ends, as well as those who were hostile to the Epicurean tradition. Perhaps the clearest failing of the oppositional paradigm mentioned above is the influence of physics on ethics: The eighteenth-century thinkers who are understood to make up the core of the French Enlightenment were heavily influenced by materialism – usually of the atomic variety. In the intellectual history of the period these thinkers are portrayed as anti-Augustinians, which they most certainly were, but frequently as neo-Stoics, which is especially common in discussions of Enlightenment figures outside France. It will be useful to investigate the extent to which this anti-Augustinianism can be considered as Epicurean.
On the question of religion, for example, it might be worthwhile to investigate what was common to the materialism of La Mettrie, d’Holbach, Helvétius and Hume, and in what manner they differed. More broadly, was there an intentional use of neo-Stoicism as a mask for the atheism so readily inferred from Epicurean materialism? Who might have felt the need for this useful conflation of doctrines, and who did not?
The Epicurean account of the genesis of language likewise appealed to various early modern thinkers who tried to reconcile a natural history of language and mind with the Biblical account of Adamic name-giving. Epicurus’s historical perspective allowed for a measure of contingency to emerge in the development of initially natural words and signs. This creative hypothesis, a third way between Aristotelian linguistic conventionality and the Platonic supernatural guarantee of congruence between words and things, was incorporated in different manners by authors as different from one another as Vico, Leibniz, and Condillac. By integrating the Epicurean account of language into their own theories, these authors revived the difficulties inherent to the ancient thesis and had to confront such problems in innovative ways.
Speakers are therefore invited to address the common appeal to the Epicurean tradition by a broad spectrum of figures. It is hoped that this approach will provide interdisciplinary insights into its uses in France, Italy, Scotland, and Germany, and illuminate the resulting Epicureanisms in each case – their commonalities and distinctivenesses. This will open onto a discussion of “what was Epicureanism?” The selection of papers and the choice of respondents will frame this discussion in terms of, but not limited to, novels of libertinism, evolutionary theories of language and society, (a)theism, and political economy.
The conference will take place in the Summer Common Room at Magdalen College, Oxford on the 17th of June. If you are interested in giving a paper please submit a one-page abstract by March 31st, as an attachment, to both of the addresses below. Those interested in attending the colloquium are requested to inform the organisers by May 31st. Equally, if you would like to be on the mailing list for updates, and the eventual programme please get in touch. The languages of the conference will be English and French.
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