The Persecution of Philosophers


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    It is putting a very high value on one's conjectures,
    to have a man roasted alive because of them
    Montaigne, Essais


    From the earliest days philosophers were critical of Christianity. They found no substantial arguments, and pointed out a number of weaknesses in Christian reasoning. Christians for their part were suspicious of philosophy which they regarded as at best unnecessary and at worst the work of Satan. As one authority writes of Tertullian's Accusations of the Gentiles

    He declares that the Holy Scriptures are a treasure from which all the true wisdom in the world has been drawn; that every philosopher and every poet is indebted to them. He labors to show that they are the standard and measure of all truth, and that whatever is inconsistent with them must necessarily be false*.

    As soon as they had the power to do so, Christians destroyed books of philosophy. This is why so little pagan philosophy has survived - those works of philosophy were not really "lost" - they were sought out and burned by zealous Christians. This is why we know next to nothing about atheist philosophers such as Diagoras of Melos (known as the Atheist of Milos) and Theodorus the Atheist. As soon as Christians were able to do so, they sought the destruction of living philosophers as well. Sopater of Apamea was a distinguished Neoplatonist philosopher. He was put to death by the Bishop of Bishops, Pontifex Maximux, His Holiness the Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, sometime before 337. Sopater had had the temerity to critisise the dissolute lifestyles of the emperor and a powerful Christian called Ablabius. He was apparently accused of practising magic. This accusation would become the standard accusation against philosophers who made any criticism of Christianity - like mathematicians, genuine philosophers were thought to be in league with the devil and to consort with demons.

    Hypatia of Alexandria was particularly hated by Christians because she was not only a philosopher and a mathematician, but also a woman. She contravened biblical teaching about the role of women and consequently was murdered by a Christian mob, led by a bishop, in March 415. Here is another bishop's account of her murder:

    And thereafter a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the magistrate - now this Peter was a perfect believer in all respects in Jesus Christ - and they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments. And when they learnt the place where she was, they proceeded to her and found her seated on a [teaching] chair; and having made her descend they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesarion. Now this was in the days of the fast. And they tore off her clothing and dragged her through the streets of the city till she died. And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire. And all the people surrounded the patriarch Cyril and named him 'the new Theophilus'; for he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city.
    You can read the full text by John, Bishop of Nikiu, here. (He omits some of the gory details of her death, which we have from other sources).

    The bishop, Cyril of Alexandria, later used his bands of violent monks to influence Christian"orthodoxy" and is now considered a saint. The death of Hypatia signaled a Christian uprising against the 'learned scholars' of Alexandria, and the end of the city as a centre of knowledge throughout the ancient world. Her murder is generally held to mark the end of classical philosophy.

    In about 520 the philosopher Boethius became magister officiorum (head of all the government and court services) to Theodoric the Great. Boethius was a man of science, a dedicated Hellenist keen on translating all the works of Aristotle into Latin and harmonizing them with the works of Plato. For reasons unknown, but apparently politico-religious in nature, Theodoric, an Arian Christian, ordered Boethius killed. Boethius was executed at the age of 44 years on 23rd October, 524, after a period in prison during which he wrote his most famous work, Consolation of Philosophy.

    For a thousand years the only philosophers in Christendom were those the Church would allow. Many thousands of men pursued "Scholasticism" - a philosophical dead end that is now of interest only to historians. Afew individuals investigated philosophy for themselves and were condemned as magicians or heretics for doing so, many of them dying in mysterious circumstances after their condemnation, or less mysteriously burned at the stake.


    Peter Abélard was a philosopher with original ideas - probably the finest clerical philosopher of the 12th Century. His fame won him much animosity from his fellow scholastics and he was repeatedly tried for heresy.

    He was charged with the heresy of Sabellianism at a provincial synod at Soissons in 1121, and his teachings were official condemned. He was made to burn his book before being shut up in the convent of St. Medard at Soissons. Later, in 1141 a Church council at Sens arraigned him on a number of new charges of heresy. His condemnation was confirmed by Rome a year later. He died on his way to Rome, intending to appeal.


    Amaury de Chartres or Amalric de Chartres, was a native of Bene, near Chartres. He lived at Paris, where he gave lessons in logic. He is said to have taught a kind of Pantheism..

    A work by him bearing the title of Physion, was condemned by a bull of Pope Innocent III. in 1204. Ten of his disciples were burnt at Paris 20 December, 1210. As Amoury had already died, his bones were exhumed and placed in the flames.

    Followers of Amaury de Chartres, were condemned by a Council in Paris in 1210, and burned outside the city, beyond the porte des Champeaux. This illustration shows the Condemnation and Execution of the Amauricians (followers of Amaury) in the presence of Philippe II (Philippe Auguste) (1165-1223)., from the MS Grand Chroniques de France, c 1455-60


    Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1294). Bacon, was an English philosopher and Franciscan friar who placed emphasis on the study of nature through empirical methods. He is sometimes credited as one of the earliest European advocates of the modern scientific method and is known as Doctor Mirabilis, ("wonderful teacher").

    Bacon's Opus Majus contains treatments of mathematics and optics, alchemy, and the positions and sizes of the celestial bodies. Under the Church physical science was not then carried out by observations from the natural world: arguments were framed solely on tradition and prescribed authorities such as the Bible and Aristotle. In his writings, Bacon called for a reform of theological study. He was fluent in several languages and lamented the corruption of scripture and the works of the Greek philosophers by mistranslations and misinterpretations. He championed experimental study over reliance on authority, and rejected the blind following of prior authorities, both in theological and scientific study. Bacon also attributed witchcraft and sorcery to either fraud or delusion.

    Bacon criticized the Julian calendar, describing it as laughable, and proposed its reform. He pointed out that "the things of this world cannot be made known without a knowledge of mathematics", and criticised the Church's scholastic philosophers. He seems to have been periodically persecuted and imprisoned, although the records are thin. He was also accused of practicing magic - a standard accusation against original thinkers. He was accused of "suspected novelties". Certainly the Church did not like his originality and his activities after 1250 were restricted by a Franciscan statute prohibiting friars from publishing books or pamphlets without specific approval. Sometime between 1277 and 1279, Bacon was imprisoned. The circumstances are still mysterious. He is believed to have died in 1294.


    Pietro d'Abano (c.1257– 1316) (aka Petrus De Apono or Aponensis). d'Abano was an Italian philosopher, mathematician, physicist, and professor of medicine in Padua. He was charged with practising magic: the specific accusations being that with the aid of the Devil, he got back any money he paid out, and that he possessed the philosopher's stone. His real crime seems to have been that he had "acquired the knowledge of the seven liberal arts" and denied the role of angels and demons in controlling nature.

    He was twice brought before the Medieval Inquisition. On the first occasion he was acquitted (Notable academics like d'Abano sometimes were acquitted). But inquisotors were rarely satisfied by an acquital, and he died in an Inquisition prison in 1315 before his second trial was completed. He was found guilty, even though already dead, and his body was ordered to be exhumed and burned; but a friend had secretly removed it, and the Inquisition had to content itself with the public proclamation of its sentence and the burning of Abano in effigy.


    Cecco d'Ascoli (1257 – 1327) (AKA Francesco degli Stabili). d'Ascoli was was another Italian polymath. He studied mathematics and astrology [ie astronomy]. In 1322 he was made professor of astrology at the University of Bologna.

    His freethinking and plain speaking had made him many enemies in the Church;and he was accused of impiety He was condemned for heresy in 1324 to fasts and prayers, and to the payment of a fine, but this did not stop him.

    He was tried and sentenced for relapse into heresy, and was burned alive at Florence on 26 September, 1327, in his seventieth year, the day after the sentence, the first in a line of university scholars to be burned by the Inquisition.


    Eckhart von Hochheim (c. 1260 – c. 1327), commonly known as Meister Eckhart, was a German theologian and philosopher. His work has influenced major German philosophers for centuries to come. Concepts introduced into metaphysics by Eckhart deviate from the common scholastic canon, and his novel ideas excited the animosity of other churchmen. He was repeatedly accused of heresy, but initially escaped the accusations alive. In Cologne, Archbishop, Hermann von Virneburg, again accused him of heresy, and again he was protected by his Dominican superior. The archbishop pressed his charges of heresy against Eckhart and now also his protector, so they appealed to the Pope, without success. The Inquisition refused to accept their appeal on 22 February 1327, so Eckhart was left to be arraigned for heresy by his enemy. Nothing more is known of him, and he is assumed to have died soon afterwards. Pope John XXII issued a bull (In agro dominico), dated 27 March 1329, in which statements from Eckhart are characterised as heretical. Eckhart was excommunicated by the same bull. After his excommunication his writings were kept intact in some monasteries by putting the names of other authors on them


    William of Ockham (1288 – c. 1348). Occam was an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher. He studied theology at the University of Oxford from 1309 to 1321. He enjoys the distinction of being the only scholastic philosopher to make any impact on modern philosophy – he was known in his time as the Doctor Invincibilis or "Unconquerable Teacher." He advocated a reform of scholasticism, both in method and in content – so could reasonably be classed along with the other Renaissance thinkers who advanced scientific thought while criticizing scholasticism.

    His most important contribution to modern intellectual culture was the principle of parsimony in explanation and theory building, known as Occam's Razor. This maxim, as interpreted by Bertrand Russell, states that if one can explain a phenomenon without assuming this or that hypothetical entity, there is no ground for assuming it, in other words that one should always opt for an explanation in terms of the fewest possible causes, factors, or variables. Though he did not realize it, this principle would eventually remove the Christian God from the domain of science. He made other significant advances in logic. Ockham wrote down in words a formulae that in propositional logic, would later be called De Morgan's Laws. He investigated ternary logic, a concept that would be taken up again in the mathematical logic of the 19th century.

    Ockham's commentary Peter Lombard's Sentences was not well received by the church authorities. In 1324, this commentary was condemned as unorthodox by a synod of bishops, and he was ordered to Avignon to defend himself before a papal court. For two years, he was confined to a Franciscan house, until he was condemned as a heretic in 1326. Fearing execution, Ockham, and other Franciscan sympathizers fled Avignon on 26 May 1328, and eventually took refuge in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV of Bavaria. Ockham wrote treatises that argued for King Louis to have supreme control over church and state in the Holy Roman Empire. For this Ockham was excommunicated by Pope John XXII.


    Michael Servetus (1511 – 1553). Servetus was a Spanish humanist. He was a polymath versed in mathematics, astronomy and meteorology, geography, cartography, human anatomy, medicine and pharmacology, as well as jurisprudence, translation, poetry and the scholarly study of the Bible in its original languages. He is renowned in the history of several of these fields, particularly medicine. He was the first European to correctly describe the function of pulmonary circulation.

    He participated in the Protestant Reformation, and later became a Unitarian. For denying the Trinity, he was condemned by Catholics and Protestants alike. On 4 April 1553 he was arrested by Roman Catholic authorities, and imprisoned in Vienne. Servetus escaped from prison three days later. An effigy and his books were burned in his absence. Fleeing to Italy, Servetus stopped in Geneva, where Calvin and his Reformers had denounced him. He was arrested in Geneva and on 17 June, he was convicted of heresy, "thanks to the 17 letters sent by Jehan Calvin" and sentenced to be burned. French Inquisitors asked that Servetus be extradited to them for execution, but Calvin preferred Servetus to be executed by Protestants. He was burnt at the stake as a heretic on 27 October 1553 by order of the Protestant Geneva governing council.


    Gerolamo (or Girolamo, or Geronimo) Cardano ;(1501 - 1576). Cardano, known in French as Jérôme Cardan was an Italian philosopher and polymath. He wrote more than 200 works on philosophy, medicine, mathematics, physics, religion, and music. He formulated rules in probability, making him one of the founders of the field. He was the first mathematician to make systematic use of negative numbers. He published the solutions to the cubic and quartic equations in his 1545 book Ars Magna. In medicine, he was the first to describe typhoid fever. He invented several mechanical devices including the combination lock, the gimbal, and the Cardan shaft with universal joints. He claimed that deaf people were capable of using their minds, argued for the importance of teaching them, and was one of the first to state that deaf people could learn to read and write without learning how to speak first.

    Cardano was accused of heresy in 1570 allegedly because he had computed and the horoscope of Jesus sixteen years earlier - but more likely because of his original and inquiring rationalist mind. He was arrested, and spent several months in prison. He was forced to abjure his professorship but seems to have survived the Inquisition thanks to friends in high places. He was awarded a pension by Pope Gregory XIII.


    Erasmus (1466? – 1536). Desiderius Erasmus, known as Erasmus of Rotterdam, a Dutch was a classical scholar, Renaissance humanist thinker, social critic, writer and teacher. He was born illegitimate, his father, Gerard, being a Catholic priest and curate in Gouda. Illegitimacy was a bar to ordination, so his family had to buy an exemption for him. Erasmus was an early proponent of religious toleration, and enjoyed the sobriquet "Prince of the Humanists"; He prepared new Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament which raised questions that would be influential in the Protestant Reformation.

    He was critical of the widespread abuses within the Catholic Church. Among the chief objects of his attack in his lifelong assault on Church excesses were the tenets of life in Religious Orders. Members of the Catholic Counter-Reformation movement often condemned Erasmus as having "laid the egg that hatched the Reformation." His scholarship and enormous popularity ensured his personal safety, but all of his works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books by Pope Paul IV


    Étienne Dolet (1509 - 1546). Dolet was a French scholar, translator and printer. While studying Law at Toulouse University, he was thrown into prison and finally banished by a decree of the parliament - apparently for his religious views.

    Dolet was criticised by Catholics and Protestants alike, partly because of his anti-Trinitarian views and partially because of his advocacy of rationalism, which the Churches saw as anti-Christian.

    His enemies succeeded in imprisoning him in 1542 on the charge of atheism. After imprisonment for fifteen months, he was released. He escaped from a further imprisonment in Piedmont in 1544 by his own ingenuity, but, venturing back to Paris, he was again arrested, and branded as a relapsed atheist by the theological faculty of the Sorbonne. He was first tortured, then on 3 August 1546 , he was strangled and burned in the Place Maubert. It was his 37th birthday. A “martyr of the Renaissance” he was compelled for his heresy to carry a bundle of his publications to the market-place, where he and his books were burned together. His goods were confiscated, so his widow and children were reduced to beggary.


    Bernardino Telesio (1509 - 1588). Telesio was an Italian philosopher and natural scientist. His emphasis on observation made him the "first of the moderns" who eventually developed the scientific method. He studied classics, science and philosophy, which constituted the curriculum of the Renaissance savants. Like other philosophers he attacked the medieval Aristotelianism and scholasticism.

    His great work De Rerum Natura Iuxta Propria Principia (On the Nature of Things according to their Own Principles), was followed by a large number of scientific and philosophical works. Telesio writes in De Rerum Natura that "the construction of the world and the magnitude of the bodies contained within it, and the nature of the world, is to be searched for not by reason as was done by the ancients, but is to be understood by means of observation.". This statement summarizes Telesian philosophy. His views aroused the anger of the Church not least because of his rationalism, and his compelling arguments against Aristotelianism. He also made no distinction between superlunar and sublunar physics, as the Church did at the time. He also reasoned that if the soul is influenced by material conditions then the soul must have a material existence. He was a major influence in the development of scientific and philosophical empiricism - and is thus a major figure in the history of philosophy. A short time after his death his books were placed on the Index.


    Pierre Charron (1541 - 1603). Charron was a French 16th-century Catholic theologian and philosopher, and a disciple and contemporary of Michel Montaigne. After studying law he became a priest, rising to become a canon. He promoted a number of ideas that could easily have lead to his arrest by the Church authorities, including the impossibility of an immaterial soul and criticisms of superstition. He was attacked, in particular by the Jesuit François Garasse, who considered him an atheist. He managed to retain the patronage of powerful sympathisers, and so escaped imprisonment, and execution for voicing his original ideas. He died suddenly of a stroke in 1600, as his works, especially his sceptical book, De la sagess, which considered anti-rational aspects of Christianity, were receiving renewed attention. Today, Charron is regarded as a founder of modern secularism.


    Giordano Bruno (1548 – 1600). Bruno was an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer. He developed and wrote about mnemonic systems which enabled him to perform prodigious feats of memory. Although the techniques were clearly documented, some of his contemporaries attributed them to magical powers.

    He was an outstanding scholar, teaching in many of the leading European universities. He spent most of his life under suspicion and was arrested by the Church authorities. Among the numerous charges of blasphemy and heresy brought against him in Venice, was his belief in the plurality of worlds. Bruno defended himself skillfully. The Roman Inquisition asked for his transferal to Rome. After several months the Venetian authorities consented and Bruno was sent to Rome in February 1593. Bruno proposed that the Sun was essentially a star, and, that other stars were solar systems, with an infinite number of inhabited worlds populated by other intelligent beings. He also held that matter was the essentially the same throughout the universe, made up of discrete atoms and obeying the same physical laws. In technical terms, Bruno's cosmology is marked by infinitude, homogeneity, and isotropy, with planetary systems distributed evenly throughout - all of which contradicted Church teaching. In addition his ideas were distinctly Pantheistic. Furthermore, a copy of the banned writings of Erasmus, annotated by Bruno, had been discovered.

    He was imprisoned for seven years in Rome, during his trial. Some important documents about the trial are mysteriously "lost", but a summary of the proceedings was rediscovered in 1940. The numerous charges against Bruno, based on some of his books as well as on witness accounts, included blasphemy, immoral conduct, and heresy in matters of dogmatic theology, philosophy and cosmology. The charges reduced to:

    • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith (five counts);
    • claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity;
    • believing in metempsychosis and in the transmigration of the human soul into animals,
    • dealing in magics and divination.

    Pope Clement VIII declared Bruno a heretic. The Roman Inquisition issued a sentence of death. On February 17, 1600 in the Campo de' Fiori, a central Roman market square, "his tongue imprisoned because of his wicked words" he was burned at the stake. His ashes were dumped into the Tiber river. All of his works were placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1603.


    Pomponio Algerio (1531–1556). Pomponio Algerio was a civil law student at the University of Padua whose pholosophical ideas attracted the attention of the Roman Inquisition. Among other ideas he believed that

    ... the Roman Catholic Church is a particular Church and no Christian should restrict himself to any particular Church. This Church deviates in many things from truth."

    After a year in prison, he still refused to recant. The Venetian authorities would not consent to an execution, so Pope Paul IV sent officials to extradite him to Rome. In Rome, on August 21, 1555, a monk visited Pomponio in his cell urging him to repent. If he repented, he would be strangled before burning. The 24-year-old student refused, and an alternative method of torture-execution was found that did not involve the shedding of blood. On 22 August 22, 1556 Algerio was executed in the Piazza Navona. Maintaining his composure while he was boiled in oil. He remained alive for 15 minutes.


    Lucilio Vanini (1585 – 1619). Vanini was an Italian freethinker, who in his works styled himself Giulio Cesare Vanini. He studied philosophy, theology, medicine and astronomy. Like Giordano Bruno, he showed up the weaknesses of scholasticism (Church philosophy). He became a priest and a teacher, travelling around Europe, always under suspicion for his views. He wrote against atheism, apparently in an attempt to allay suspicion about his unconventional beliefs. He began to teach in Toulouse. In November 1618, aged 33, he was arrested, and after a trial was condemned to have his tongue cut out, and to be strangled at the stake, his body to be afterwards burned to ashes. The sentence was carried out on 9 February 1619.


    Galileo Galilei (1564– 1642), was an Italian physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher. In 1589, he was appointed to the chair of mathematics in Pisa. Galileo made significant discoveries in fundamental science as well as applied science. He played a major role in the Scientific Revolution and has been called the "father of modern observational astronomy", the "father of modern physics", and "the Father of Modern Science". His contributions to observational astronomy - all of which undermined the Church's cosmology - include the telescopic confirmation of the phases of Venus, the discovery of the four largest satellites of Jupiter (named the Galilean moons in his honour), and the observation and analysis of sunspots. Galileo also worked in applied science and technology, inventing an improved military compass and other instruments.

    For advocating a more realistic cosmology, he was tried by the Roman Inquisition, in 1615, The sentence of the Inquisition was delivered on June 22. It was in three essential parts:

    • Galileo was found "vehemently suspect of heresy", namely of having held the opinions that the Sun lies motionless at the centre of the universe, that the Earth is not at its centre and moves, and that one may hold and defend an opinion as probable after it has been declared contrary to Holy Scripture. He was required to "abjure, curse and detest" those opinions.
    • He was sentenced to formal imprisonment at the pleasure of the Inquisition. (On the following day this sentence was commuted to house arrest, which he remained under for the rest of his life).
    • His offending Dialogue was banned; and in an action not announced at the trial, publication of any of his works was forbidden, including any he might write in the future

    Had he not been a friend of the Pope, or if he had not abjured his views, he would undoubtedly have been burned at the stake, like Bruno a few years earlier.



    Cesare Cremonini (1550 - 1631), Cremonini, sometimes known as Cesare Cremonino was an Italian professor of natural philosophy, supporting rationalism and Aristotelian materialism within the scholastic tradition. These two views were anathema to the Church as they were seem as opposing revelation and dualist immortality of the soul. Jesuits in Venice accused him of materialism (and therefore atheism) and then their accusations to Rome. He was prosecuted in 1604 by the Roman Inquisition for atheism and the Averroist heresy of "double truth". Because Padua was then under tolerant Venetian rule, he was kept out of reach of the Inquisition, so avoided trial.

    He is an outstanding example of the effect of the Church on freethinking philosophers of the period. Although recognised as a brilliant mind, he made almost no contribution to modern science or philosophy, and is mainly remembered as one of the scholars who refused to look through Galileo's telescope. When Galileo announced that he had discovered mountains on the Moon in 1610, he offered Cremonini the chance to observe the evidence through a telescope. Cremonini, aware of the Inquisition's power, and reluctant to prompt their renewed interest in him, refused even to look through the telescope and insisted that Aristotle had proved the Moon could only be a perfect sphere, in line with Church teaching.



    Tommaso Campanella (1568 - 1639). Campanella was an Italian philosopher, theologian, astrologer, and poet. His views, especially his opposition to the authority of Aristotle, brought him into conflict with the ecclesiastical authorities.

    He was denounced to the Roman Inquisition and cited before the Holy Office in Rome, he was confined in a convent until 1597. He was later captured and incarcerated in Naples, where he was tortured on the rack. He made a full confession and would have been put to death if he had not feigned madness and set his cell on fire. He was tortured further (a total of seven times) and then, crippled and ill, was sentenced to life imprisonment. Campanella spent twenty-seven years imprisoned in Naples, in the most appalling conditions. During this detention, he wrote his most important works. He was finally released from his prison in 1626, through Pope Urban VIII, who personally interceded on his behalf with Philip IV of Spain. Taken to Rome and held for a time by the Inquisition, Campanella was restored to liberty in 1629. He lived for five years in Rome, where he was Urban's advisor in astrological matters. In 1634 a new conspiracy in Calabria, led by one of his followers, threatened fresh troubles. With the aid of Cardinal Barberini and the French Ambassador de Noailles, he fled to France, where he was received at the court of Louis XIII.. Protected by Cardinal Richelieu and granted a pension by the king, he spent the rest of his days in the convent of Saint-Honoré in Paris.


    François de La Mothe Le Vayer, (1588 - 1672). Le Vayer was a French writer, teacher and thinker. He was admitted to the French Academy in 1639, and was the tutor of Louis XIV. He wrote a series of books covering geography, rhetoric, morality, economics, politics and logic. Modest and sceptical he became popular at the French court. He practiced an erudite but savage (and carefully concealed) criticism of religious hypocrisy. He was instrumental is popularizing Skepticism in France.

    His philosophical works include De la vertu des païens (1642; “On the Goodness of the Pagans”); a treatise entitled Du peu de certitude qu’il y a dans l’histoire (1668; “On the Lack of Certitude in History”), which marked a beginning of historical criticism in France; and five skeptical Dialogues, published posthumously under the pseudonym Orosius Tubero, which are concerned with diversity in opinions, variety in customs of life and sex roles, the value of solitude, the virtue of the fools of his time, and differences in religion. Had he published during his lifetime, there can be little doubt that he would have found himself burned at the stake by the Inquisition.



    Théophile de Viau (1590 - 1626). Théophile came into contact with the Epicurean ideas of the Italian philosopher Lucilio Vanini which questioned the immortality of the soul.

    In 1622, a collection of licentious poems, "Le Parnasse satyrique", was published under his name, and de Viau was denounced by the Jesuits the following year, accused of atheism. He was sentenced to appear barefoot before Notre Dame in Paris and to be burned alive.

    He went into hiding, so the sentence was carried out in effigy. The verdict caused such an outcry in an increasingly secular and liberal society that when he was captured his sentence was changed to permanent banishment. de Viau spent the remaining months of his life in Chantilly under the protection of the Duke of Montmorency before dying in Paris in 1626.



    René Descartes (1596 - 1650). Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician, and writer who spent most of his adult life in the Dutch Republic. He has been dubbed the 'Father of Modern Philosophy', and much subsequent Western philosophy is a response to his writings, which are studied to this day. Although he claimed to be a Roman Catholic, his sceptical approach opened to way to the end of scolasticism and the birth of modern philosophy. He realised the need for discretion. When Galileo was condemned by the Roman Inquisition in 1633, Descartes abandoned plans to publish Traite du Monde (Treatise on the World), his work of the previous four years, and burned the manuscript. In his own era, Descartes was accused of harboring secret Deist or atheist beliefs. In 1641 his Meditations upon First Philosophy gave such offence to the clergy that he was forced to fly his country “because it was too hot for him.” His philosophy was condemned at the University of Utrecht in 1643. He was offered an asylum by Christina, Queen of Sweden, and died at Stockholm in. 1650.

    In 1663, the Pope placed his works on the Index of Prohibited Books. These works, and especially his Meditations on First Philosophy continue to be a standard texts at most philosophy departments in western universities.



    Kazimierz Lyszczynsk (1634–1689). Lyszczynsk was a Polish nobleman and philosopher, and also an atheist. A book annotated by Lyszczynsk was passed to a local bishop, who along with a second bishop, sought his condemnation and execution. He was discovered to have written a treatise entitled "De non existentia Dei" (the non-existence of God), which stated that God does not exist and that religions are the inventions of man.

    The king, who was very far from countenancing such enormities, attempted to save the unfortunate Lyszczynski, by ordering that he should be judged at Vilna; but nothing could shelter the unfortunate man against the fanatical rage of the clergy represented by the two bishops; and the first privilege of a Polish noble, that he could not be imprisoned before his condemnation, and which had theretofore been sacredly observed even with the greatest criminals, was violated. On the simple accusation of his debtor, supported by the bishops, the affair was brought before the diet of 1689, before which the clergy, and particularly the bishop Zaluski, accused Lyszczynski of having denied the existence of God, and uttered blasphemies against the blessed Virgin and the saints. The unfortunate victim, terrified by his perilous situation, acknowledged all that was imputed to him, made a full recantation of all he might have said and written against the doctrine of the Roman Catholic church, and declared his entire submission to its authority. This was, however, of no avail to him, and his accusers were even scandalized that the diet permitted him to make a defence, and granted the term of three days for collecting evidence of his innocence, as the accusation of the clergy ought, in their judgment, to be sufficient evidence on which to condemn the culprit. The fanaticism of the diet was excited in a most scandalous manner by the blasphemous representation that divinity should be propitiated by the blood of its offenders.

    Bishop Zaluski gave the following account of the execution, seeing it as a sacrifice to God:

    After recantation the culprit was conducted to the scaffold, where the executioner tore with a burning iron the tongue and the mouth, with which he had been cruel against God; after which his hands, the instruments of the abominable production, were burnt at a slow fire, the sacrilegious paper was thrown into the flames; finally himself, that monster of his century, this deicide was thrown into the expiatory flames; expiatory if such a crime may be atoned for

    “O, travellers! Do not pass these stones. You will not stumble upon them if you do not stumble upon the truth. Recognise the truth: for even those who know that it is the truth teach that it is a lie. The teachings of the wise are bound by deceit.”


    Pierre Bayle (1647 - 1706). Bayle was a French philosopher and writer whose work influenced the Enlightenment. He was converted to Romanism while studying at the Jesuit College in Toulouse in 1669, but his new faith lasted only seventeen months. He abjured Catholicism and became sceptic, as evidenced by Thoughts on the Comet, in which he compares the supposed mischiefs of atheism with the real mischiefs of fanaticism. Vulnerable and aware of the fate of other secular thinkers in Toulouse he fled to Switzerland, and later to the Dutch Republic. Where he advocated a separation between faith and reason, and occupied a number of academic posts, often losing them when religious authorities objected to his teachings - though in the Dutch Republic he was relatively safe from his greatest critics, including the Inquisition. Bayle was deprived of his chair in 1693. One of his works was ordered ordered to be burnt by the public hangman.

    Bayle worked on his massive Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (Historical and Critical Dictionary), one of the first encyclopaedias of ideas and their originators. It expressed the view that much that was considered to be truth was actually just opinion, and that gullibility and stubbornness were prevalent. The Dictionary would remain an important scholarly work for several generations after its publication and remains a work of value for its learning and observation. Bayle's works ushered in and influenced the Enlightenment. In modern times, Bayle has been called the Father of Free Discussion



    John Toland ( 1670 - 1722)

    Toland, born in Ireland, renounced his Catholic faith in early youth, and went to Edinburgh University, where he became M.A. in 1690. He went on to Leyden, where he developed his sceptical ideas.

    In his first book Christianity not Mysterious (1696), he argued that the divine revelation of the Bible contains no true mysteries. All genuine dogmas of the faith can be understood and demonstrated by properly trained reason from natural principles. For this he was prosecuted by a grand jury in London. As he was a subject of the Kingdom of Ireland, members of the Irish parliament proposed that he should be burnt at the stake, and in his absence copies of the book were burnt by the public hangman in Dublin. Toland compared the Protestant legislators to "Popish Inquisitors who performed that Execution on the Book, when they could not seize the Author, whom they had destined to the Flames"

    Toland was denounced by Dr. Blackhall before Parliament for another of his works, to which he wrote a reply before fleeing abroad to be received by the Queen of Prussia. Toland was probably an atheist, but he identified himself as a Pantheist in his publication Socinianism Truly Stated - possibly because he was anticipating capture and trial.



    Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679). Hobbes was one of the principal founders of modern political philosophy. He also contributed to a diverse array of other fields, including history, geometry, the physics of gases, theology, ethics,

    An Englishmen, he developed some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought: the right of the individual; the natural equality of all men; the artificial character of the political order; the view that all legitimate political power must be "representative" and based on the consent of the people; and a liberal interpretation of law which leaves people free to do whatever the law does not explicitly forbid.

    Hobbes was accused of atheism, and of teaching views that could lead to atheism. In parliament the Bishops wanted him tried and executed as a heretic, but could find no law to justify it. The king played an important role in protecting Hobbes when, in 1666, the House of Commons introduced a bill against atheism and profaneness. That same year, on 17 October 1666, it was ordered that the committee to which the bill was referred "should be empowered to receive information touching such books as tend to atheism, blasphemy and profaneness... in particular... the book of Mr. Hobbes called The Leviathan". Hobbes was frightened at the prospect of being treated as a heretic, and burned some of his papers.

    The only consequence that came of the committee was that Hobbes could never thereafter publish anything in England on subjects relating to human conduct. The 1668 edition of his works was printed in Amsterdam because he could not obtain the censor's licence for its publication in England. Other writings were not made public until after his death. Hobbes was not even allowed to respond to his religious enemies, whatever they said and wrote about him. Even so, his reputation abroad was formidable. Noble or learned foreigners who came to England rarely neglected to pay their respects to him up until his death in 1679..



    Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach (1723 - 1789). d'Holbach was a French philosopher, scientist, writer and translator. Although noble, rich and influential, his atheist views would have been enough to have him burned alive, so he published under pseudonyms and had his work printed outside the country. His philosophy was expressly materialistic and atheistic and is today categorised into the philosophical movement called French materialism. He saw Christianity in particular and religion in general as an impediment to the moral advancement of humanity. Renowned for his generosity, he was the patron of the Encyclopædists, and contributed some four hundred articles to the Encyclopédie.

    He translated from the German several works on chemistry and mineralogy, and from the English, Mark Akenside’s Pleasures of the Imagination. In 1765 he visited England, and from this time produced numerous Freethought works. He wrote or translated, and had published at Amsterdam Christianity Unveiled, The Spirit of the Clergy, Sacred Contagion or Natural History of Superstition. This work was condemned to be burnt by a decree of the French parliament on 8 August 1770. D’Holbach also wrote and published The Critical History of Jesus Christ, Portable Theology, an Essay on Prejudices, Religious Cruelty, Hell Destroyed, and other works. These works were mostly conveyed to the printer at Amsterdam, and the secret of their authorship was carefully preserved, so d’Holbach escaped persecution.

    In 1770 he published his principal work The System of Nature, or The Laws of the Physical and Moral World, a text-book of atheistic philosophy, (purporting to be the posthumous work of Mirabaud). It made a great sensation. The explicitly atheistic ideas prompted a strong reaction. The Catholic Church threatened the French crown with withdrawal of financial support unless it suppressed the book. d'Holbach then published a sort of summary under the title Good Sense, attributed to the curé Meslier. In 1773 he wrote on Natural Politics and the Social System. His last important work was Universal Morality; or the Duties of Man founded upon Nature. He died, just before the French Revolution, having outwitted those who would have persecuted him if they had known his identity, his personal good qualities testified to by many. He was depicted in Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloise as the benevolent atheist Wolmar.



    Jean Meslier (1664 - 1729). Meslier was a French village Catholic priest who was found, on his death, to have written a book-length philosophical essay, entitled Common Sense promoting atheism and denouncing all religion.

    The work was described by the author as his "testament" to his parishioners, and is commonly referred to as Meslier's Testament. In the three copies discovered after his death he repudiated Christianity, called into question all its dogmas, requested to be buried in his own garden, and left his property to his parishioners. Voltaire published the work under the title of Extract from the sentiments of Jean Meslier.


    Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715 - 1771). Helvétius was a French philosopher. Descended from a line of celebrated physicians, he had a large fortune which he dispensed in works of benevolence. Attracted by reading Locke he devoted himself to philosophy and retired to a country estate, where he employed his fortune in the relief of the poor, the encouragement of agriculture and the development of new industries.

    In August 1758 he published a work On the Mind (De L’Esprit) which contained ideas considered utilitarian, materialistic and atheistic. According to Helvétius all human faculties may be reduced to physical sensation, even memory, comparison, and judgment. Our only difference from the lower animals lies in our external organization. There is no such thing as absolute right. Ideas of justice and injustice change according to customs. The ends of government are to ensure the maximisation of pleasure. Public ethics have a utilitarian basis, and he insisted on the importance of culture and education in national development. Education is the method by which to reform society, and there are few limits to the social improvements that could be brought about by the appropriate distribution of education. His atheistic, utilitarian and egalitarian doctrines caused an outcry from the Church. The Sorbonne condemned the book, while the priests persuaded the court that it was full of dangerous atheistic doctrines. The book was declared to be heretical and was condemned by both Church and State. It was condemned by Pope Clement XIII on 31 January 1759, and burnt by the order of the French Parliament on 6 February 1759.

    Terrified at the storm he had raised, Helvétius wrote three separate and humiliating retractions. But times had changed. Most educated people regarded him as saying nothing new, merely repeating obvious truths. It was only saying things out loud that caused a fuss. In Paris salons his ideas were already widely accepted. Mme. du Deffand said “he told everybody’s secret.” Madame de Graffigny claimed that all the good things in the book had been picked up in her own salon. As a result of the publicity Helvétius became a celebrity across the continent. His book was republished in Amsterdam and London, and translations were made into all the main languages of Europe. The age of Persecution by Christians was almost over.


    As it became increasingly unacceptable for the Church to burn scientists and philosophers, the Catholic Church contented itself with forbidding and burning the written works of philosophers. Some notable Philosophers whose works were included on the Index included:

    • Erasmus (1466? - 12 July 1536)
    • Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533 - 1592)
    • Thomas Hobbes of (1588 - 1679)
    • René Descartes (1596 - 1650)
    • Blaise Pascal (1623 -1662)
    • Baruch Spinoza (1632 - 1677)
    • John Locke (1632 -1704)
    • Bishop Berkeley (1685 - 1753)
    • Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689 -1755)
    • Voltaire — François-Marie Arouet (1694 – 1778)
    • David Hume (1711 - 1776)
    • Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 -1778)
    • Denis Diderot (1713 - 1784)
    • Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715 -1771)
    • Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715 -1780)
    • Jean-Baptiste le Rond d'Alembert (1717 - 1783)
    • Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach (1723 -1789)
    • Immanuel Kant (1724 -1804)
    • Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (1743 - 1794)
    • John Stuart Mill (1806 - 1873)
    • Jean -Paul Charles Aymard Sartre (1905 - 1980)


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