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1.2 Recent Gassendi Scholarship


There have been several significant scholarly projects on Gassendi, some of them quite recent. However, because Gassendi left a massive amount of work behind him, there has been no comprehensive treatment of all his works. Much of what has been written focuses on his relationship to Descartes. Almost all Gassendi scholarship examines one aspect of Gassendi’s work: his science, epistemology, relation to Christianity, or his historicism. As Saul Fisher put it, Gassendi scholarship suffers from “that difficulty which afflicts the blind man relative to the elephant; we get starkly different and exaggerated notions of the creature from the perception of its vastly different parts.”6

In the preface to Gassendi the Atomist, Lynn Joy has categorized four problems (or parts of the elephant) in Gassendi scholarship;7 first, the importance of Gassendi as a natural philosopher; second, the importance of skepticism and his epistemology; third, the importance of Christianity to Gassendi; and fourth, the importance of humanists methodologies to Gassendi. Joy placed her own work in this last category.

Her analysis stills holds good twenty years later. Most scholars writing about Gassendi stake out one of the preceding positions as the basis of their own analysis. This dissertation is no exception to Joy’s categories; it most definitely falls within the third category, Gassendi’s relationship to Christianity, but with an ‘assist’ from the humanist methodologies employed in the fourth category.

The range of Joy’s categorizations highlights one of the main problems for any Gassendi researcher: it is hardly possible to do justice to more than one aspect of his work. No scholar completely ignores any aspect of his work, but it is only possible to focus on one. Joy’s categories provide a useful way to organize the current state of Gassendi studies.



1.2.1 Studies of Gassendi’s Natural Philosophy (Physics)

Scholars focusing on this aspect of Gassendi’s work emphasize his careful experimentation and his development of a scientific method. Key works for these scholars are Gassendi’s Insititutio Logica, his publications on astronomical observations, his De Motu Impresso on dynamics, and parts of the Physica in the Syntagma Philosophicum.

Through careful examination of Gassendi’s letters, Bernard Rochot’s Les Travaux de Gassendi (Librairie Philosophique: Paris, 1944) traces how Gassendi’s development of Epicureanism evolved. Rochot was among the first modern scholars to seriously evaluate Gassendi’s work as a natural philosopher. In particular he studied how Gassendi used Epicurus to “support valid solutions for the most current problems.”8 Rochot structured his analysis of Gassendi to highlight the impact of current scientific questions and discoveries on Gassendi’s work. For instance, an entire chapter is devoted to Gassendi’s journey to Holland and his interaction with Isaac Beeckmann,9 to whom Rochot attributes the impetus for Gassendi’s increased interest in natural philosophy (science). Although Rochot greatly respects Gassendi’s contributions to astronomy and dynamics, he criticizes Gassendi’s scientific method because of its reliance on analogy, its skepticism about the role of mathematics in physics, and its mixing faith and science.10

Saul Fisher’s recent study Pierre Gassendi’s Philosophy and Science, Atomism for Empiricists (Leiden: Brill, 2005) seeks to emphasize Gassendi as a philosopher of science. Fisher presents Gassendi as one of the pioneers of the modern philosophy of science and the scientific method. He describes in some detail several of Gassendi’s most important experiments, such as his extension of Torricelli and Pascal’s experiments with mercury columns. Examining Gassendi’s probabilistic epistemology, he argues that it is well suited to empirical science. In emphasizing Gassendi the experimental physicist, Fisher gives short shrift to Gassendi’s use of ancient authors in his philosophy. Thus this work focuses on Gassendi the empiricist, rather than Gassendi the humanist. Fisher concludes that Gassendi’s attempt to combine empiricism with atomism led him into circular reasoning. If empiricism is the only means of knowing, and atoms have not been observed, then the justification for atomism in Gassendi’s philosophy is quite thin. On the other hand, as Fisher points out, Gassendi uses ancient Epicureanism and atomism to justify his epistemology.


The most recently published work on Gassendi is Antonia Lolordo’s Pierre Gassendi and the Birth of Early Modern Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). Lolordo is primarily concerned with Gassendi as a natural philosopher. Her emphasis is on physics, but it is physics as Gassendi understood it. Therefore, she considers aspects of Gassendi’s work that touch upon theology, anthropology and metaphysics. Lolordo suggests that Gassendi was not conflicted between his faith and physics. Rather he achieved some level of success at resolving the possible inconsistencies between them. Unfortunately, Lolordo does not extend her analysis to Gassendi’s treatment of ethics. Her primary source materials are the Physics in the Syntagma.


1.2.2 Studies of Gassendi’s epistemology and skepticism

Much of the research in this area focuses on Gassendi’s early skepticism, as he used it against the Aristotelians, and on his empiricism. Gassendi believed that the senses report accurately and it is the mind which makes errors in judgment. However, he also believed that we could never know anything with certainty; that future observations and experiments would reveal new facts that require adjustments to our knowledge of how the world works (e.g., physics). Works that tend to be the focus of these studies are Gassendi’s Disquisitio Metaphysica in opposition to Descartes, and the Exercitationes against Aristotle. Two books are particularly important in this area.

Richard Popkin’s The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (New York: Harper Row, 1965) is recognized as the ground-breaking study of the revival of skepticism in the seventeenth century. Popkin traces the rise of skepticism in the seventeenth century to the intellectual crises caused by the Reformation. In turn, skepticism gave rise to both fideism and the libertins erudits movement. Popkin places Gassendi within the libertins erudits movement, not as one who wanted to undermine Christianity, but as a fideistic Catholic. I agree with Popkin’s assessment of Gassendi’s skepticism, but not with his dismissal of Gassendi’s faith as being fideistic, which would negate its importance to Gassendi’s overall philosophy. Further while Gassendi was a friend of and indebted to libertines such as Francois Luillier, there is no indication that Gassendi lived the ‘libertin’ life style himself. Rather, for Gassendi, the ethics of freedom was associated with virtue, not a hedonism.


Thomas Lennon focuses on the epistemological differences between Gassendi and Descartes. In The Battle of the Gods and Giants, the Legacies of Descartes and Gassendi (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993) he casts Gassendi and Descartes in the mold of Plato’s giants and gods at odds over theories of perception and knowledge. Lennon traces the legacy of the Descartes vs. Gassendi battle to subsequent philosophers, especially Malebranche and Locke, respectively.


1.2.3 Relationship between Gassendi and Orthodox Christianity

Almost all researchers into Gassendi’s works run into the problem of reconciling his Epicureanism with his Catholicism. It is now almost inconceivable to a twenty-first century scholar that someone of Gassendi’s scientific talents would not only openly espouse Catholic doctrine, but attempt to reconcile his science with his doctrinal beliefs. The works of Gassendi that are emphasized here tend to be his Ethics and some parts of the Physica in the Syntagma Philosophicum, and the De Vita et Moribus Epicuri.

The most comprehensive analysis of Gassendi’s works is Olivier Bloch’s La philosophie de Pierre Gassendi. Nominalisme, materialisme et metaphysique ( La Haye: Martinus Niejhoff, 1971). Bloch’s primary thesis is that Gassendi was an atheistic libertine, and that his claims to orthodox beliefs were only a ‘mask’ to avoid trouble with the ecclesial authorities and to press his Epicurean ideology. Bloch points to Gassendi’s empiricism, especially in astronomy, as being in opposition to his stated acceptance of the Tychonian cosmology because it supported Church teaching.11 He claims that although Gassendi suggested many modern concepts of physics, because he developed those concepts with the aid of philosophy from antiquity, Gassendi inevitably to ambiguities and even contradictions in his philosophy.12 Bloch makes an important, perhaps the most important, contribution to Gassendi scholarship to date. However, his insistence that Gassendi’ faith was not genuine is now disputed by more recent scholarship, including this dissertation.


Like Bloch, Rene Pintard Le libertinage érudit dans la première moitié du XVIIe siècle (Genève: Slatkine, 1983. Reprint Paris: Boivon, 1943) places Gassendi among the libertins erudits, and an heir to Montaigne. Also like Bloch, Pintard saw Gassendi as probably agnostic.13 But unlike Bloch, he does not find Gassendi guilty of duplicity in the service of pressing an ideology. Rather, he suggests that Gassendi professed Catholic doctrine only to avoid problems with the ecclesial authorities. Pintard sees Gassendi as someone more interested in loyal friendships than loyalty to an institution; and more interested in searching for the truth than in making ideological claims to have found it.

Harry Brundell, in Pierre Gassendi, From Aristotelianism to a New Philosophy (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1987) takes as his starting point that Gassendi was genuinely a devout Catholic. On this point, he is opposed to Pintard and Bloch. Brundell explores how, as a devout Catholic, Gassendi opposed Aristotelianism in support of Catholic doctrines. Brundell uses as his primary example Gassendi’s astronomy and the issues that developed around replacing the Aristotelian cosmological model with the mechanical universe model. Brundell understands Gassendi’s Epicureanism as a possible means of reconciling Church doctrine with new physical discoveries.14

In Divine Will and the Mechanical Philosophy, Gassendi and Descartes on Contingency and Necessity in the Created World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) Margaret Osler traces the deep differences between Gassendi and Descartes to their respective intellectual traditions rooted in the Middle Ages. She also coined the phrase that “Gassendi tried to baptize Epicurus.” Osler argues that Gassendi was following in the footsteps of the voluntarism and nominalism represented by Ockham; while Descartes was following in the scholastic and rationalists footsteps of Aquinas. She finds the root philosophical difference between the two was their idea of God: Gassendi emphasized divine will and omnipotence; while Descartes stressed divine intellect and omniscience. Osler provides excellent background to the Scholastic arguments between an intellectualist and a voluntarist account of God’s power. However, she overstates the case for the medieval theological impact on Descartes and Gassendi (she acknowledges that neither of them used the terms potentia Dei absoluta or potential Dei ordinata15). By emphasizing the medieval conflicts between Aquinas and Ockham, Osler neglects the importance of the sixteenth and seventeenth century arguments between the Dominicans and Jesuits concerning the relationship between human free will and divine providence. Nevertheless her book does provide invaluable background to the earlier theological debates that form the backdrop to the philosophical developments of Descartes and Gassendi.


Lisa Sarasohn, like Osler, accepts that theology was one of the driving factors for Gassendi’s philosophical system. In Gassendi’s Ethics. Freedom in a Mechanistic Universe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996) she examines in detail the Ethics of The Syntagma Philosophicum in order to describe how Gassendi reconciled the Epicurean ethics of pleasure with Christian morality. She also examines the relationship between Gassendi and Thomas Hobbes, the influence they had on each other, and the very different approaches they ultimately take to an ethics based on pleasure. She concludes by suggesting how the legacy of Gassendi’s work affected Enlightenment thinkers, especially John Locke.


1.2.4 Gassendi the Humanist

This perspective focuses on Gassendi’s use of humanist methods in his historical analysis of texts. Like the humanists of the Renaissance, he looked back to the understanding of ancient sources and analyzed them with the philological tools. His careful translation and detailed commentary on Book X of Diogenes Laertius Lives of Eminent Philosophers is a case in point as is De Vita et Moribus Epicuri.

Lynn Sumida Joy’s Gassendi the Atomist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) emphasizes the importance of history to Gassendi, not merely as context for his philosophy and physics, but as vital ‘data’ in the development of philosophy. She gives an excellent example of Gassendi’s observation and explanation for the transit of Mercury across the Sun to determine approximate sizes of astronomical bodies. She notes how Gassendi includes as an integral part of his analysis ancient physical models, especially Epicureanism. Joy suggests that Gassendi’s attachment to belles lettres and humanism distinguished him not only from his contemporary Descartes, but from later seventeenth-century physicists, and it also contributed to making Gassendi look anachronistic to later generations.


In her lengthy introduction to her recent French translation of Gassendi’s Vita et Moribus Epicurui (Traduction, introduction, annotations Vie et Moeurs d’Epicure . Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2006) Sylvie Taussig attends to the philological aspects of Gassendi’s work. She examines Gassendi’s erudition in service of writing his apology for Epicureanism.


1.2.5 Anthologies of Scholarship

Finally, mention should be made of two anthologies of recent scholarship. The first, the two volume Cambridge History of Seventeenth Century Philosophy, ed. Daniel Garber and Michael Ayers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) is an extremely helpful collection. While Gassendi is often overlooked in some discussions of seventeenth-century philosophy and history of physics, a perusal of the index to these volumes shows that Gassendi is given as much attention as Hobbes, Spinoza, Liebniz and Locke; and rather more than Pascal. The only philosopher who receives significantly more attention than Gassendi is his nemesis, Descartes.

The other anthology of note is the two-volume The Reception of the Church Fathers in the West, ed. Irena Backus (Leiden: Brill, 2001). This work purports to study the reception of the Church Fathers from the ninth to the eighteenth centuries. It contains many fine articles, with Hurel’s article on the Benedictines of St. Maur being the most useful for my research. However I find it surprising that a work that claims to cover the sixteenth and seventeenth century makes not a single mention of Copernicus, Galileo, Gassendi, Pascal, Boyle or Newton nor any other pioneers of the scientific revolution and their use of the Church Fathers.

All of these sources, and many others, have significantly contributed to my research. However, none of them have focused on the details of Gassendi’s use of the Christian classics in service of his revised Epicureanism and his new model of physics and ethics. Attention to this part of the Gassendian ‘elephant’ is my purpose in this dissertation.



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