Designing and Turbulent Epicureans
Part of the Recovering Political Philosophy book series (REPOPH)


In his Thoughts on French Affairs , Edmund Burke draws attention to the “old Epicureans” to highlight the radicalism of French revolutionary thinking. The atheism of the French revolutionaries, Burke remarks, represents a departure from the atheism of old. Unlike the “old Epicureans” who, Burke says, were “an unenterprizing race,” Enlightenment atheists—whom Burke implicitly identifies as adopting a new Epicureanism—have “grown active, designing, turbulent, and seditious.”1 The quest of the French revolutionaries, those “pettifoggers run mad in Paris,” for “abstract and unlimited perfection of power” does not comprehend that a sound constitution is an “elaborate contrivance of a fabric fitted to unite private and public liberty with public force, with order, with peace, with justice, and above all, with institutions formed for bestowing permanence and stability through ages.”2 The fanaticism of revolutionary fervor to “go beyond the barrier” of sound constitutional equilibrium of liberty and order is the necessary outgrowth of theoretical abstraction unhinged from the practicalities of political life. Ultimately for Burke, an “untempered spirit of madness, blindness, immorality, and impiety” defines the revolutionary project.3 The radicalism of the new atheists is a consequence of the two predominant principles of the revolutionary ethos: the fundamental equality of all men and the sovereignty of the people.


Political Life Philosophic Life Sound Constitution Theoretical Abstraction Turbulent Epicurean 
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  1. 1.
    Edmund Burke, Further Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Daniel E. Ritchie (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1992), 237.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    See, Catherine Wilson’s wonderful study, Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2008);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Alison Brown, The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010);Google Scholar
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    See Robert Bartlett’s excellent treatment of Bayle’s project “On the Politics of Faith and Reason: The Project of Enlightenment in Pierre Bayle and Montesquieu,” Journal of Politics 63, no. 1 (Feb. 2001): 1–28.Google Scholar
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© John Colman 2012

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