Shall we make a final pause on our way to Descartes and contemplate the mystery of a Catholic priest reviving the materialism of Epicurus? It was some measure of Europe’s mental development that the Greek philosopher of pleasure, whose name had been for centuries a synonym for atheist, should now, in the spreading distaste for Aristotle, come into honor at the hands of a pious and irreproachable vegetarian who died from fasting too rigorously in Lent.
Pierre Gassendi began as a peasant’s son near Digne in Provence. He showed so sharp and avid a mind that at the age of sixteen he was appointed teacher of “rhetoric” (literature), and at twenty-five professor of philosophy in the University of Aix. He took holy orders and became a canon and provost of the cathedral at Digne. By that time he had already begotten a passionate book of “paradoxical exercises” against Aristotle. Most of these he burned on the advice of friends, but the parts that he published in 1624 supported the Copernican astronomy, the atomism of Lucretius, and the moral philosophy of Epicurus. Here was a crying invitation to martyrdom, but Pierre was so amiable a youth, so modest in conduct, so regular in his religious duties, that nobody seems to have thought of burning him. Throughout his life he professed the doctrine of the “two truths”—that the conclusions apparently compelled by reason could be accepted in philosophy, while in religion one might still follow the orthodox faith and ritual as an obedient son of the Church. Gassendi ate his cake and had it.
At the invitation of Descartes’ friend Mersenne he proposed some powerful objections to the Cartesian philosophy; let us defer them. In 1645 he took the chair of mathematics at the Collège Royal in Paris; but soon he fell sick with a lung ailment, and he returned to the sunnier climate of Digne. There he wrote his major works, all around Epicurus: De vita, moribus, et doctrina Epicuri (1647); De vita, moribus, et placitis Epicuri (1649); and a 1,600-page double-column Syntagma philosophiae Epicuri (1649).
While continuing to affirm his Catholic faith, Gassendi expounded to the Latin-reading world the philosophy of Epicurus and Lucretius—materialism, atomism, and the legitimacy of happiness. The “first cause” of all things is God; but after that initial push everything proceeded by its own inherent forces and laws. All knowledge comes from the senses and is of individual entities; “universals” or general ideas are useful tools of thought, but have no objective correlate. The soul is doubtless immaterial and immortal, but seems dependent upon the body, and memory is apparently a function of the brain. Sensual pleasure is not immoral if it is prudently moderate; but the least treacherous delights are those of the mind; mathematics, for example, can cause transports of joy. Gassendi himself, of course, was an Epicurean, not an epicurean; i.e., he accepted the philosophy of Epicurus, but he was not an addict of sensual pleasure; on the contrary, he led an extremely abstemious life. Attacked by fever after too long a fast, he was finished by his physicians through thirteen bloodlettings (1655).
Molière and Cyrano de Bergerac were among his disciples at Paris; Fontenelle, Saint-Évremond, and Ninon de Lenclos accepted his philosophy without his theology; Hobbes profited from talks with him; Locke may have taken from him some elements of sensationalist psychology through Gassendi’s pupil and Locke’s friend, François Bernier, who published an Abrégé de la philosophie de Gassendi in 1678. Newton preferred the atoms of Gassendi to the corpuscles of Descartes, and found in the Provençal priest an inkling of gravitation.77 In the eighteenth century the latent materialism in Gassendi, and his emphasis on science and experience as against the logic of Aristotle or the metaphysics of Descartes, gave him a greater influence among the philosophes than any other French thinker but Descartes. What is it, then, that made Descartes for a century the fountainhead of an engulfing stream in modern philosophy?