Right off the bat, Chesneau Du Marsais is skeptical about the label “philosopher.” He claims that “nothing is easier to acquire today than the name philosopher; an obscure and retired life, a few outward signs of wisdom, with a bit of reading, are enough to attract this name to people who are honored by it without deserving it.” He then turns to those who have labeled themselves (erroneously) as philosophers, and subsequently look down upon others “as weak souls, servile geniuses, pusillanimous minds.” After these two somewhat cynical definitions of philosopher, Marsais changes his tune, asserting that “one ought to have a more just idea of the philosopher” and proceeds to give his own definition for and champion of the philosopher.
Most of the qualities that Marsais attributes to the philosopher are those that defined the Enlightenment. He describes true philosophers as men of reason, governed by knowledge and understanding. Marsais celebration of the philosopher and his commitment to reason mirrors what the scholars of the Enlightenment were all about. He lauds the philosopher as being keenly aware of what to speak on and what to leave alone. Comparing true philosophers to their more ignorant counterparts, he claims that the philosopher’s genius can often lie in his silence, for “when he has no proper motive for judging, he remains undecided.” Here Marsais differentiates between those who are truly seeking knowledge and those who are merely seeking attention.
Marsais’ language also highlights the optimism of the time. He asserts that rather than being disgusted with the state of things, one who truly understands the world around him “wants to enjoy like a wise housekeeper the goods that nature offers him.” Much of the literature during the Enlightenment echoed this sentiment; that a man truly committed to the expansion of human knowledge has infinite power to change and better the world around him. D’Alembert injects this ideology throughout the entirety of The Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot. The whole purpose of the primer was to instill in readers the belief that education and the circulation of knowledge in the Encyclopédie was an honorable and important endeavor. He not only explains their philosophies on the importance of knowledge and its widespread availability, but attempts to persuade the reader to join the quest for a better understanding in all branches of the arts and sciences. Even for their somewhat frequent pretentiousness, the Enlightenment writers were truly more concerned with creating a lucrative and accessible bank of human knowledge.
Marsais goes on to discuss the roles of honor and probity in the philosopher. According to him, civil society is “divinity on earth” for philosophers, and they “honor it by […] a desire not to be a useless or embarrassing member of it.” In this paragraph, Marsais is particularly zealous in his defense of the philosopher. He is governed not by appearances, but by his moral compass. Marsais’ philosopher does what he believes is right regardless of the outcome of his reputation, for he is a philosopher not for the glory, but for the good of mankind. As stated by Marsais, “crime would find in him too much opposition, he would have too many natural ideas and too many acquired ideas to destroy.” According to his somewhat overly idealistic definition, a true philosopher is one who is governed entirely by his own sense of what is right and wrong. These values are so engrained in his mind that he simply could not ignore them. It would be impossible for a philosopher to do what he knows is wrong, even if that proves to be the easiest or most self-serving thing for him, for to be a philosopher means to be completely devout in one’s commitment to the betterment of society, and guided by one’s own ethics.
However, this self-sufficiency does not mean that Marsais’ philosopher is unreligious. This article was written during a time when even some of the most forward thinking, radical men were still committed to their God. In fact, for Marsais, being a philosopher not only allows for religious belief, but requires it. According to him, a philosopher’s commitment to friendship and gratitude with fellow men is “nourished at the bottom of his heart by religion, where the natural lights of his reason led him.” Here, we see that Marsais sees the way of thinking for philosophers as almost divine. Rather than the reason and commitment to logic rousing doubts about a God, it is instilled in man by God himself. Because philosophers are truly honorable, they must be religious, for the difference between enlightenment and stupidity is akin to the difference between a good man and a sinner, as “one sins only because one’s enlightenment is weaker than one’s passions.” A philosopher is governed by his God-given ability to discern what is right and what is easiest. A sinner is governed in more hedonistic terms, letting passion rule over reason and logic.
This parallel between philosophers’ enlightenment and God was also drawn by Joseph Addison in Spectator No. 10, The Spectator and Its Readers. Here, Addison says that as “it was said of Socrates, that he brought philosophy down from heaven, to inhabit among men; and I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea tables, and in coffeehouses.” Here, we can see how the writers of the Enlightenment view themselves and their fellow philosophers: as middlemen. Reason and truth come directly from God, and it is the job of the philosopher to bring this knowledge and values system to the common man.
Clearly, the men who championed the philosopher the strongest were extremely reverent. This sort of intense morality led to an often over-idealized concept of the philosopher. The notion that a philosopher is one who takes the knowledge from the heavens and makes it accessible to the common man is not only a bit overzealous, but can prove dangerous. Certain writers of the Enlightenment gleaned a holier-than-thou attitude from this kind of thinking. For example, Aphra Behn. In Oroonoko—often discussed as one of the early novels—Behn exhibits a troubling sense of entitlement. She often describes Oroonoko almost reverently, marveling at his beauty, strength and intelligence. However, she does not reject his standing as a slave, nor does she attempt to change it. She admires him from a safe distance, while still keeping him where she feels most comfortable—beneath her. The idealized attitude surrounding philosophers and their absolute correctness could—and often did—lead to hypocritical behavior of this sort.
This article draws tight comparisons between the ideals of philosophers and those of the Enlightenment writers. Marsais’ description of what it means to be a true philosopher reinforces the ideals that drove the creation of the Encyclopedie. The desire for accessible knowledge and public discourse is what distinguishes philosophers, who are “not at all tormented by ambition, but wish to have the comforts of life; beyond what is strictly necessary, require an honest superfluity necessary to an honorable man, and by means of which alone are happy.”