The Interlacing of Secular Implications and Sacred Discourse in the French Enlightenment: Toleration and Freedom of Expression in the Works of Abbé Claude Yvon

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The Sources of Secularism






In his long life, Abbé Claude Yvon (1714–1789) was a member of the Paris Faculty of Theology, a contributor to Diderot’s Encyclopédie, a founding officer of a Freemasonic Lodge in the Netherlands, an associate of many radical journalists‚ but also an apologist for the Gallican Church, a secretary of the libertine Marc-René de Voyer d’Argenson , and a royal historian to the future Charles X . Despite such a fascinating and seemingly contradictory career, Yvon’s contributions to major currents of Enlightenment thought have never been adequately studied. No critical biography of his place in the Enlightenment or Enlightenment Catholicism exists in any major European language, to my knowledge. My contribution to this volume will focus on Yvon’s views on civil toleration and freedom of expression . Some contemporaries (as well as subsequent scholars) considered Yvon to be a second-rate companion of “free-thinkers” and atheists; others (including noted historian R. R. Palmer ) have hastily dismissed him as a “hopelessly confused” apologist who rebuked the philosophes throughout much of his career. I argue to the contrary that Yvon’s views on the importance of free expression and civil toleration remained strikingly consistent throughout his life and works. Yvon’s social and intellectual engagement with young theologians and theological students at the University of Paris Faculty of Theology, his controversial contributions to Diderot’s Encyclopédie, and his brief career as an Orator for the Freemasonic society of Concordia Vincit Animos in Amsterdam all contributed to his insistence, first, that freedom of expression was as vital to theological debate and the search for divine truth as it was to the enlightenment of society as a whole, and second, that toleration of dissent and dialog with “heretics” was quintessential to the elaboration of the Catholic orthodox tradition. Moreover, Yvon’s defense of toleration and free expression, it is argued, derived from an eclectic array of sources. Yvon’s eclectic philosophy was informed by voluminous immersion in Descartes, Locke, and Leibniz; Dutch and French medical treatises; Jesuit translations of ancient Confucian texts; Epicurean and Stoic thought; and the works of the early Church fathers . As such, this chapter’s focus on Yvon’s contribution to debates concerning free expression and toleration further underscores the rich entanglement of theological, philosophical, and political discourses during the early modern period. In short, this chapter further develops a growing recognition by historians that the secular and the sacred are inextricably implicated in the origins of the Enlightenment.


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