Unlikely Tales of Fo and Ignatius: Rethinking the Radical Enlightenment through French Appropriation of Chinese Buddhism

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French Historical Studies




The story of how Catholic missionaries and French Enlightenment writers engrafted Chinese thought into their own contested discourses of natural religion, scientific progress, or ideal political thought is well known. However, the role that Enlightenment constructions of Chinese Buddhism played in eighteenth-century France has yet to be thoroughly examined. This article therefore emphasizes the manner in which the (mis)appropriation of Chinese Buddhism into the French Enlightenment proved a significant backdrop for the attempts of Jesuit writers, notoriously Sinophile deists like Voltaire, and more metaphysically radical writers like Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, marquis d'Argens, to understand Chinese prisca theologia (i.e., their natural, original religion, and/or philosophy). Ultimately, I argue that the rather cloudy apprehension of Chinese Buddhism throughout France in the early to middle eighteenth century reveals intriguing possibilities for rethinking, and perhaps pluralizing, the nature and significance of the so-called Radical Enlightenment.