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A libertine is a person devoid of most moral principles, a sense of responsibility, or sexual restraints, which they see as unnecessary or undesirable, and is especially someone who ignores or even spurns accepted morals and forms of behaviour observed by the larger society. [1] [2] Libertinism is described as an extreme form of hedonism. [3] Libertines put value on physical pleasures, meaning those experienced through the senses. As a philosophy, libertinism gained new-found adherents in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, particularly in France and Great Britain. Notable among these were John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, and the Marquis de Sade.


History of the term

The word libertine was originally coined by John Calvin to negatively describe opponents of his policies in Geneva, Switzerland. [4] The group, led by Ami Perrin, argued against Calvin's "insistence that church discipline should be enforced uniformly against all members of Genevan society". [5] Perrin and his allies were elected to the town council in 1548, and "broadened their support base in Geneva by stirring up resentment among the older inhabitants against the increasing number of religious refugees who were fleeing France in even greater numbers". [5] By 1555, Calvinists were firmly in place on the Genevan town council, so the Libertines, led by Perrin, responded with an "attempted coup against the government and called for the massacre of the French. This was the last great political challenge Calvin had to face in Geneva". [5] In England, some Lollards held libertine views such as that adultery and fornication were not sin, or that "whoever died in faith would be saved irrespective of his way of life". [6]

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the term became more associated with debauchery. [7] Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand wrote that Joseph Bonaparte "sought only life's pleasures and easy access to libertinism" while on the throne of Naples. [8]


Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons, 1782), an epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, is a trenchant description of sexual libertinism. Wayland Young argues: "... the mere analysis of libertinism ... carried out by a novelist with such a prodigious command of his medium ... was enough to condemn it and play a large part in its destruction." [9]

Agreeable to Calvin's emphasis on the need for uniformity of discipline in Geneva, Samuel Rutherford (Professor of Divinity in the University of St. Andrews, and Christian minister in 17th-century Scotland) offered a rigorous treatment of "Libertinism" in his polemical work "A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience" (1649).

A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind is a poem by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester which addresses the question of the proper use of reason, and is generally assumed to be a Hobbesian critique of rationalism. [10] The narrator subordinates reason to sense. [11] It is based to some extent on Boileau's version of Juvenal's eighth or fifteenth satire, and is also indebted to Hobbes, Montaigne, Lucretius, and Epicurus, as well as the general libertine tradition. [12] Confusion has arisen in its interpretation as it is ambiguous as to whether the speaker is Rochester himself, or a satirised persona. [13] It criticises the vanities and corruptions of the statesmen and politicians of the court of Charles II. [12]

The libertine novel was a primarily 18th-century literary genre of which the roots lay in the European but mainly French libertine tradition. The genre effectively ended with the French Revolution. Themes of libertine novels were anti-clericalism, anti-establishment and eroticism.

Authors include Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon ( Les Égarements du cœur et de l'esprit , 1736; Le Sopha, conte moral , 1742), Denis Diderot ( Les bijoux indiscrets , 1748), Marquis de Sade ( L'Histoire de Juliette , 1797–1801), Choderlos de Laclos ( Les Liaisons dangereuses , 1782), and John Wilmot ( Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery , 1684).

Other famous titles are Histoire de Dom Bougre, Portier des Chartreux (1741) and Thérèse Philosophe (1748).

Precursors to the libertine writers were Théophile de Viau (1590–1626) and Charles de Saint-Evremond (1610–1703), who were inspired by Epicurus and the publication of Petronius.

Robert Darnton is a cultural historian who has covered this genre extensively. [14] A three part essay in The Book Collector by David Foxen explores libertine literature in England, 1660-1745. [15]

Critics have been divided as to the literary merits of William Hazlitt's Liber Amoris, a deeply personal account of frustrated love that is quite unlike anything else Hazlitt ever wrote. Wardle suggests that it was compelling but marred by sickly sentimentality, and also proposes that Hazlitt might even have been anticipating some of the experiments in chronology made by later novelists. [16]

One or two positive reviews appeared, such as the one in the Globe, 7 June 1823: "The Liber Amoris is unique in the English language; and as, possibly, the first book in its fervour, its vehemency, and its careless exposure of passion and weakness—of sentiments and sensations which the common race of mankind seek most studiously to mystify or conceal—that exhibits a portion of the most distinguishing characteristics of Rousseau, it ought to be generally praised". [17] Dan Cruickshank in his book London's Sinful Secret summarized Hazlitt's infatuation stating: "Decades after her death Batsy (Careless) still haunted the imagination of the essayist William Hazlitt, a man who lodged near Covent Garden during the 1820s, where he became unpleasantly intimate with the social consequences of unconventional sexual obsession that he revealed in his Liber Amoris of 1823, in which he candidly confessed to his infatuation with his landlord's young daughter." [18]


During the Baroque era in France, there existed a freethinking circle of philosophers and intellectuals who were collectively known as libertinage érudit and which included Gabriel Naudé, Élie Diodati and François de La Mothe Le Vayer. [19] [20] The critic Vivian de Sola Pinto linked John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester's libertinism to Hobbesian materialism. [21]

Notable libertines

Some notable libertines include:

Rulers and political figures

Religious leaders





See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">John Calvin</span> French Protestant reformer (1509–1564)

John Calvin was a French theologian, pastor and reformer in Geneva during the Protestant Reformation. He was a principal figure in the development of the system of Christian theology later called Calvinism, including its doctrines of predestination and of God's absolute sovereignty in the salvation of the human soul from death and eternal damnation. Calvinist doctrines were influenced by and elaborated upon the Augustinian and other Christian traditions. Various Congregational, Reformed and Presbyterian churches, which look to Calvin as the chief expositor of their beliefs, have spread throughout the world.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aphra Behn</span> British playwright, poet and spy (1640–1689)

Aphra Behn was an English playwright, poet, prose writer and translator from the Restoration era. As one of the first English women to earn her living by her writing, she broke cultural barriers and served as a literary role model for later generations of women authors. Rising from obscurity, she came to the notice of Charles II, who employed her as a spy in Antwerp. Upon her return to London and a probable brief stay in debtors' prison, she began writing for the stage. She belonged to a coterie of poets and famous libertines such as John Wilmot, Lord Rochester. Behn wrote under the pastoral pseudonym Astrea. During the turbulent political times of the Exclusion Crisis, she wrote an epilogue and prologue that brought her into legal trouble; she thereafter devoted most of her writing to prose genres and translations. A staunch supporter of the Stuart line, Behn declined an invitation from Bishop Burnet to write a welcoming poem to the new king William III. She died shortly after.

<i>The 120 Days of Sodom</i> Unfinished 1785 erotic novel by the Marquis de Sade

The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinage is an unfinished novel by the French writer and nobleman Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, written in 1785 and published in 1904 after its manuscript was rediscovered. Described as both pornographic and erotic, its plot revolves around the activities of four wealthy libertine men who spend four months seeking out the ultimate sexual gratification through orgies, sealing themselves away in an inaccessible castle in the heart of the Black Forest in Germany with four madams and a harem of thirty-six victims, mostly male and female teenagers. The madams relate stories of their most memorable clients, whose crimes and tortures inspire the libertines to likewise and increasingly abuse and torture their victims to their eventual deaths.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Elizabeth Barry</span> English actress (1658–1713)

Elizabeth Barry was an English actress of the Restoration period.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">William Hazlitt</span> 19th-century English essayist and critic

William Hazlitt was an English essayist, drama and literary critic, painter, social commentator, and philosopher. He is now considered one of the greatest critics and essayists in the history of the English language, placed in the company of Samuel Johnson and George Orwell. He is also acknowledged as the finest art critic of his age. Despite his high standing among historians of literature and art, his work is currently little read and mostly out of print.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester</span> English poet and courtier (1647–1680)

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester was an English poet and courtier of King Charles II's Restoration court. The Restoration reacted against the "spiritual authoritarianism" of the Puritan era. Rochester embodied this new era, and he became as well known for his rakish lifestyle as for his poetry, although the two were often interlinked. He died as a result of venereal disease at the age of 33.

The role of sadism and masochism in fiction has attracted serious scholarly attention. Anthony Storr has commented that the volume of sadomasochist pornography shows that sadomasochistic interest is widespread in Western society; John Kucich has noted the importance of masochism in late-19th-century British colonial fiction. This article presents appearances of sadomasochism in literature and works of fiction in the various media.

This article contains information about the literary events and publications of 1680.

This article contains information about the literary events and publications of 1679.

This article contains information about the literary events and publications of 1675.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rake (stock character)</span> Man habituated to immoral conduct

In a historical context, a rake was a man who was habituated to immoral conduct, particularly womanizing. Often, a rake was also prodigal, wasting his fortune on gambling, wine, women, and song, and incurring lavish debts in the process. Cad is a closely related term. Comparable terms are "libertine" and "debauchee".

<i>Philosophy in the Bedroom</i> 1795 book by the Marquis de Sade

Philosophy in the Boudoir is a 1795 book by the Marquis de Sade written in the form of a dramatic dialogue. Though initially considered a work of pornography, the book has come to be considered a socio-political drama. Set in a boudoir the two lead characters make the argument that the only moral system that reinforces the recent political revolution is libertinism, and that if the people of France fail to adopt the libertine philosophy, France will be destined to return to a monarchic state. In the chapter titled "Fifth Dialogue", there is a lengthy section where the character Chevalier reads a philosophical pamphlet titled "Frenchmen, Some More Effort If You Wish To Become Republicans". The pamphlet clearly represents Sade's philosophy on religion and morality, a philosophy he passionately hopes the citizens of France will embrace and codify into the laws of their new republican government. Continually throughout the work, Sade makes the argument that one must embrace atheism, reject society's beliefs about pleasure and pain, and further makes his argument that if any crime is committed while seeking pleasure, it cannot be condemned.

<i>The Libertine</i> (2004 film) 2004 British-Australian drama film

The Libertine is a 2004 period drama film, the first film directed by Laurence Dunmore. It was adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from his play of the same name, and stars Johnny Depp and Samantha Morton as John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester and Elizabeth Barry, with John Malkovich, Rosamund Pike, Rupert Friend and Kelly Reilly in supporting roles. Set in 1675 England, the film chronicles the life of the decadent but brilliant Earl of Rochester, who is asked by King Charles II to write a play celebrating his reign, while simultaneously training Elizabeth Barry to improve her acting.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Henry Wilmot, 1st Earl of Rochester</span>

Lieutenant-General Henry Wilmot, 1st Earl of Rochester, known as The Lord Wilmot between 1643 and 1644 and as The Viscount Wilmot between 1644 and 1652, was an English Cavalier who fought for the Royalist cause during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

The libertine novel was an 18th-century literary genre of which the roots lay in the European but mainly French libertine tradition. The genre effectively ended with the French Revolution. Themes of libertine novels were anti-clericalism, anti-establishment and eroticism.

Anne Wharton was an English poet and verse dramatist. Little of her work was published in her lifetime, but some 45 pieces have been ascribed to her.

Nationality words link to articles with information on the nation's poetry or literature.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Marquis de Sade</span> French nobleman, revolutionary politician, philosopher and writer of erotic works (1740-1814)

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, was a French nobleman, revolutionary politician, philosopher and writer famous for his literary depictions of a libertine sexuality as well as numerous accusations of sex crimes. His works include novels, short stories, plays, dialogues, and political tracts. In his lifetime some of these were published under his own name while others, which Sade denied having written, appeared anonymously.

Nationality words link to articles with information on the nation's poetry or literature.

"A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind" is a satirical poem by the English Restoration poet John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester.


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