Volume 2, Issue 3, 2018
Ancient Greek Philosophy: Hellenistic Philosophy
Epicureanism of Pierre Gassendi
Pierre Gassend, or, as he is widely known, Gassendi, was a French materialist philosopher, physicist, astronomer, theologian and Catholic priest. He was the son of Antoine Gassend2 and Françoise Fabry, and was born on January 22nd in 1592 in Champtercier, a village of Provence, and died on October 24th in 1655 in Paris. He received his first education in the cities Digne and Riez and by the age of twelve (1604) he began his initiation to Catholicism. He belonged to the Franciscan Order.3 The continuation of his formal education was supported by the Catholic Church as an aspect of his preparation for priesthood.4 He studied Aristotelian philosophy and Catholic theology for the next eight years (1604-1611) at the College of Aix in Provence. Pierre Gassendi is typically remembered for introducing the ancient atomic philosophy of Epicurus in 17th century European thought. Gassendi aspired to articulate a new philosophy of nature, in order to replace Aristotelianism, which had been prominent in the context of scholastic thought for centuries, and had constituted the foundation of physics as well as moral philosophy. Gassendi was a priest and an ardent follower of the new scientific methodology of empiricism and of experimental trial. He devoted his life’s work to bringing together the Christian doctrines with the principles of the new science. Gassendi, along with Francis Bacon and Descartes, was one of the most significant figures who exerted influence on the development of science and mechanistic philosophy in the second half of the 17th century, especially in England. His views can be seen throughout the summary of Francois Bernier (1678/84), a work that emphasizes the atomic views, and materialistic tendencies, of philosophical thought. Gassendi’s adapted Epicurean philosophy spread to Britain with Opera Omnia and the Abregé of Bernier, and also due to Walter Charleton, who published a modified English translation of parts of Animadversiones in 1648. There was also a group of enthusiastic empiricists, who belonged to the circle of Newcastle, as well as a small Epicurean club whose members were among others Kenelm Digby and Nathaniel Highmore. All of the above saw a deep and pervasive influence of Gassendi’s views on British thought. His influence is seen in the writings of major thinkers, such as Boyle, Locke, Hobbes, Newton, Hume, Reid, and in the early works of Leibniz. The multi-dimensional personality of Gassendi, as a pastor, humanist and physical philosopher, accords with a moral and the physical universe in which the Creator God of the Christian faith holds a prominent role. He has been characterized by many researchers as the founder of mechanical philosophy, and as the successor of humanistic historiography. He was a defender of atomic theory, which was flourishing in the second half of 17th century, and also inspired Locke, one of the major proponents of moral theory. Gassendi’s contribution in moral philosophy is unexceptionable; his notions of freedom and pleasure formed the basis of the liberal tradition of late 17th and 18th centuries.