Navigation – Plan du site
Libertinage, athéisme, irréligion. Essais et bibliographie
IV. Discussions et disputes

Anti-libertine and anti-anarchist contemporary polemics: Catholics and Libertarians …

Jean-Pierre Cavaillé

Texte intégral

1The words “libertine”, “libertinage”, “libertinism”, since their appearance in sixteenth century Europe, have mainly targeted men and women, forms of behaviour, ways of acting, speaking and thinking, characterised by a misuse of freedom. Initially “libertinage” or “libertinism” was an accusation against the exercise of undue liberties, deemed negative, excessive and deleterious, in any area of human action, religious and moral, but also political and indeed in any social relation that requires obedience and submission to established norms. From the eighteenth century onward the term seems to have been considerably narrowed, becoming more or less synonymous with sexual practices freed from moral rules and laws, namely a particular form of transgression, limited to sexuality and limited within the sexuality itself. Indeed, “libertinism”, in that sense, is not the simple designation of any form of transgression of sexual morality. The practices which may be classified as libertine are considered as such only under certain conditions, very vague but always present, usually associated with the idea of hedonism and with highly socialised (and thus regulated) forms of sexuality, moreover not necessarily transgressive ones. In this narrow sense, the meaning has become very ambivalent in terms of values; the term can be used to condemn these practices, but also to promote them. From the eighteenth century onwards, many people have declared their libertinism. One might indeed think that with the abolition or the reduction of the prohibition of some sexual forms of behaviour (it would be foolhardy to talk about all forms in general), the use of these terms is largely neutralised and trivialised. Moreover they became, at least in French, keywords to find on search engines porno sites, addresses of swinging and SM clubs, advertising for sex chat lines or for various forms of prostitution, etc. Thus the word is almost no longer used to describe truly transgressive practices, but its mentions them within the framework of practices and discourses which are strictly codified and neutralised. Thus the reference to eighteenth century libertinism, particularly to the Marquis de Sade, remains still present, but generally devoid of any subversive issue, both morally and ideological. One example, though not exactly representative, is provided by The Libertines, a famous short-lived British rock group, whose name is a reference (made by the members themselves) to the Hundred Days of Sodom, by Sade1: their many fans relate generally the name Libertines to the supposed freedom of morals (sex and drugs) and conventions of the musicians, which certainly brings nothing much new to the aesthetics of transgression (not always but often exclusively aesthetic) of Rock and Roll, but we can observe that this supposed libertinism expresses itself mainly, in the way the group presented itself and in the reception given by the public, as involving risky individual behaviour, particularly in taking drugs and in sexual practices.

2It seems however that for many ideological movements which advocate a return to moral values, family and religion, “libertinism” understood in this sense (sex, drugs and possibly rock and roll), can still serve as a scarecrow and enjoys, for this reason, a new polemical virulence, which was believed to be exhausted.

Benedict XVI and the libertine heresy

3In this regard, for instance, we can rely on statements by Joseph Ratzinger, where the term libertinism is not uncommon. On June 5th2005, for example, in a discourse at the conference on families held by the Diocese of Rome, Benedict XVI says: “Today's various forms of dissolution of marriage, free unions, trial marriages as well as the pseudo-matrimonies between people of the same sex are instead expressions of anarchic freedom which falsely tries to pass itself off as the true liberation of man”2. In that way, quite naturally (so to speak), he comes back to something which is at the heart of the Catholic and Protestant anti libertine apologetics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: the denunciation of false freedom, corrupted freedom of the flesh, which is in fact nothing other than the captivity of sin, which Christ delivers us by his word. It is therefore not surprising to see again in the following statements of the papal discourse the very notion of libertinism. This return, however, is performed on behalf of a reassessment of the Christian body that few theologians would have argued for at the time: “A pseudo-freedom like this is based on a trivialization of the body, which inevitably includes the trivialization of man. Its assumption is that man can make of himself what he likes: Thus his body becomes something secondary, which can be manipulated from the human point of view, which can be used as one pleases. The Libertinism, which appears as discovery of the body and its value, is in reality a dualism that makes the body contemptible, leaving it, so to speak, outside the authentic being and dignity of the person."3

4What is the nature of this dualism? A dualism of body and soul, in the manner of Descartes, reducing the body to an object, just a pleasure machine, and thus dismissing its dignity? Apparently, but in the light of a sermon of 14 November 2004 dedicated to Augustine of Hippo, this libertinism is explicitly understood as a true theological dualism, i.e. the error of the Manicheans shared by the author of The Confessions in his youth. Part of the quote is not true to the letter, because it is clearly a paraphrase, but it is nonetheless illuminating: “Initially, he [Augustine] did not seek eternal love and wisdom, but happiness, being loved, having prestige and career. His purpose was freedom, autonomy, independence. He subscribed to Manichaeism, which promised him a scientific religion, where everything is rational and scientific. But thereafter, in the experience of his life, things turned out otherwise, and he found himself as the prodigal son. With all this libertinism, Augustine says, “I found myself not free, but a slave, the servant who must deal with pigs.””4 In fact, if Augustine clearly quotes the parable of the prodigal son in his Confessions, of course he doesn’t use the term libertinism, which appears in Latin only during the sixteenth century. But one can see that, for Benedict XVI, libertinism is not only debauchery, the impurity of sexual mores, but what they imply: namely a false thought of freedom of the body, which raises - no less – the old heresy of the Manicheans.

5It is in this context that we should understand Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily, on 18th April 2005, on the eve of his election to the Holy See during the mass “pro eligendo Romano Pontifice” in which libertinism is considered a false doctrine – and not simply bad behaviour – which occupies a prominent rank among the “sects” of the modern and contemporary age that threaten to sink the frail skiff of Christian thought: “How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking? The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves – flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. Every day new sects spring up…”5.

6Libertinism appears in this text as a radicalization of liberalism and apparently deals with radical individualism (which is at the other end of the error compared with collectivism, as liberalism compared to Marxism). Atheism and agnosticism are not far off either. The previous texts partly explain the polemical relevance given to libertinism, which would appear to be reduced only to the perversion of customs.

« Mass Libertinism » and the polemics concerning May 1968

7But it is important to emphasise that Ratzinger is not the first to hold up libertinism, understood both as a doctrine and a way of life, as the major danger to Christian civilization.

8He is preceded in Italy between the 60s and 80s by a thinker who would be no doubt familiar to him, Augusto del Noce, an important historian of philosophy, who has forged the concept of “mass libertinism” in order to indicate the contemporary last stage of bourgeois materialism, even more deleterious to Christian values than was the historical materialism of Marx. As Tito Perlini and Paolo Pagani write in their announcement of a quite hagiographic and apologetic conference in 1998 on these ideas of Del Noce, the first principle of contemporary bourgeois society would not be simply atheism, which remains linked to the theology it denies, but the collapse of all political ideologies and cultural traditions; nihilism that results in a “mass libertinism”, vehicle of a “negative freedom” (once again we have here libertinism as the “negative” and thence the “negation” of freedom), which is primarily the imperative expression of impulses (desires, needs, emotions) and therefore the subjective instrument of manipulation and enslavement of the masses themselves. This behaviour would be beyond atheism and would become a “natural irreligion which implies the exclusion of the sacred”, a “radical, absolutely agnostic empiricism”6. Of Del Noce himself, we will only quote here an article from 1986, which is a fine piece of anthology: “The Catholic Church, which has resisted the great opponents that the modern age ranged against it, Who number few believers today, only now risks slipping into the shifting sands of Sex”7. So it concerns first of all libertinism in the most trivial sense, which has long since been engaged in a process of trivialization. But then Del Noce articulates precisely his discourse with the history of ideas which he knows so well: “Atheism in the modern age began with the libertinism of the late Renaissance and of the seventeenth century, and it was itself linked to sexual liberalization, while remaining aristocratic; now the cycle of irreligion closes with the return to the libertine disposition in the form of mass libertinism”8.

9But this notion of “mass libertinism”, referred by Del Noce or not, is currently enjoying great popularity in right-wing and extreme right-wing literature, generally Catholic but sometimes secular, in Italian (the expression is surprisingly unknown in French, although sometimes translated as “libertinage de masse”9) and in English. It is invariably associated with the movement of May ’68 and its claims regarding freedom of customs. Without taking the trouble to mention the more extremist positions which are openly misogynist, homophobic and xenophobic, we will refer here to an article by the historian Roberto Pertici, quoting himself the posthumous book of liberal theorist Nicola Matteucci, on (and against) ’68, which contains a chapter with the title: “Critica del libertinismo di massa” (“Critique of mass libertinism”)10. Pertici, associates the culture of ’68 with the “explosion of subjectivity”: “absolute superiority attributed to the subject to any other social bond of any other kind (family, nation, class). Subject and not “person” or “individual”, because the term “person” implies a relationship with other thoughts in regard to transcendence (“therefore” reciprocity between rights and duties) and that of “individual”, according to Pertici, contains the idea of rights based on subjection to an independent moral law. On the contrary, the “subjectivity” of ’68 refers to impulses of “instincts”, “needs”, which would become a political imperative and an unconditional “right”. The author raises the question of the historical genealogy of this “mass libertinism” and first refers to the libertinism of the eighteenth century and quotes the name of Sade (decidedly central to the libertine and anti-libertine contemporary imagination), then, pell-mell, the thought of Fourier, Freudian vulgarization, Futurism, the eroticism of Surrealism, the Frankfurt School (which would reduce man to “a single dimension”, of course in reference to Marcuse)... but “all these elements, in the context of the sixties, are transformed into commodities by the nascent cultural industry, massified and turned into common sense”.

Interlude: the old libertinism in the light of the new one

10In the middle of this brief account of Pertici’s ideas on the topic, it could be worthwhile to open a parenthesis to clarify that it is not my intention to discuss these amalgams, nor the arguments, but to consider, rather, this blend of theoretical and ideological controversy as food for thought to the historian of libertinism that I am. Despite some semblance of intellectual neutrality, this discourse on contemporary mass libertinism falls squarely in the field right-wing ideas, Catholic right as well as liberal right, as we will see later, in any case a discourse that reacts negatively to the moral and cultural transformations of the last half century. The concept of “mass libertinism” in relation to the movement of May ’68 is elaborated on the basis of a single claim (among many others) heard at the time, which was taken as emblematic: the hedonistic slogan: “Jouir sans entraves” (To enjoy without restraint), which was undoubtedly very important, and could be interpreted in an absolutely different way11. Its controversial uses are quite obvious: the moral and political condemnation of all, or a great part, of the gains in the field of mores and customs – whether translated or not into law – achieved in the following decades. As long as we confine ourselves to abstraction and ideological rhetoric, i.e., at the highest level of generality, there is no problem: a position is affirmed through everything it rejects. But when it comes down to the concrete analysis of actual practices, individual behaviour, representations and subjective views expressed around us, and their compliance with the proposed analytical matrix, then things appear in a quite different way. Social reality is stubborn, and this picture of mass libertinism cannot be validated by any serious fieldwork in any of our human and social sciences (psychology, sociology, history, etc.). We can rely equally well on the empirical observation: when I leave my home and walk down the street, or I take the tube, even when I go to the supermarket, temple of modern mass consumption, I find it very difficult to see the effects of this apocalyptic "libertinism", the surge of sex and hedonistic consumption. The same can be said about the Pope’s discourse. How can one not smile, or even laugh, on hearing today that, by the very fact of opting for cohabitation rather than Christian marriage, or to living homosexuality publicly, somebody can be accused of libertinism, Gnosticism or some other dualistic heresy? The groups and individuals attacked by Catholic and Protestant antilibertine apologetics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries could not simply laugh (from this point of view, the difference of the two historical situations is huge); moreover they had to avoid laughing too loudly and they had to concede everything possible to the dominant discourse that had the legal and political means to crush them or, at the very least, impose silence or the utmost discretion upon them. Does this mean that they were not even remotely concerned with the charges against them? This is where the comparison with the contemporary anti-libertine discourse, which anyone can compare with what he experiences every day, is precious, because no one can deny the fact that claims for recognition of individual rights (and moreover collective ones) in practical life have indeed played an important role in our societies in recent decades and have led to legal changes, which are in some countries at least, not negligible, at the same time as we could see an evolution of the sexual practices in the direction of an abolition or, at least, a reduction of censorship. Thus, the fact that all these things are packaged without care under the label of “mass libertinism” tells us more about the ideology of the censors than about the practices and ideas of those whom they consider their enemies. In any case, one thing is certain: if we want to say something which makes sense about the evolution of discourses and cultural practices of recent decades, in its most common as well as its most radical forms, adopting the necessary distance of any serious analysis, we could absolutely not be satisfied with the concepts and representations provided by the discourse which is violently opposed to what we want to describe. Moreover, it does not merely describe, but manipulates and rebuilds the objects in order to fit the goals of its polemics. Now, the historiography of libertinism has long since dispensed with this elementary precaution, such that the discourse of the anti-libertine polemicists still powerfully informs the mere category of libertinism, manipulating the real issues of the sources, which are moreover multiple and changing according to the contexts and the circumstances. The speeches of Benedict XVI, no more than the texts of the right wing Catholic Del Noce or of the right wing Liberal Matteucci could not be regarded as reliable descriptions of the social, cultural and ideological phenomena they are fighting, and in any case they are not able to give an accurate account of the reality of sexual practices and other consumer practices of contemporaries (i.e. ourselves). They enlighten us first and foremost about themselves, and it is here that they are revealing and worthy of great interest, if we carry out a thorough analysis of them, which would be impossible here. At the same time, they intervene, by way of intellectual polemics, in a cultural and social reality whose existence it would be absurd to deny, especially as their conflicting relations participate in this reality and in the way it is perceived by those whose words and deeds they censor. “Mass libertinism” is not a cultural reality that would exist separately from the discourse which names and judges it; it is neither a simple effect within this discourse, words without any relevance and effectiveness over society: moreover, a public discourse, especially if it is widely distributed, cannot remain without effect, and therefore cannot be irrelevant. The very notion, when referred to analysis of an interactional type, becomes capable of clarifying some of the major conflicts which arise within contemporary political and moral culture. I would say exactly the same for that libertinism denounced by Calvin in the sixteenth century, or that persecuted by the Jesuit Garasse in the second decade of the following century, which therefore should never be taken at face value, neither considered as mere self-referential discourses, irrelevant for the way in which the individuals and groups they explicitly or implicitly pursue, speak and act.

Liberal liberty and libertine liberty

11I would ask forgiveness for this digression, which should have been kept for the conclusion of this paper, but it seemed necessary to clarify my own position in relation to a debate that I can only touch on here. These considerations now allow me to present a distinction drawn by Pertici, to which I would like to give its proper place. It is necessary, he said, to insist on the strong difference between “liberal freedom” and “mass libertinism”, often confused, as we have seen, for example with Ratziger’s representation of libertinism as the extreme form of liberalism. The liberal Matteucci has established, he says, since 1969 that “the [’68] concept of freedom as pure spontaneity, as the possibility for man to act instinctively, as individual satisfaction of needs, is at odds with our recent tradition of civil life [...] and the authentic tradition of modern liberalism, which can be grasped from Kant to Tocqueville, to indicate two markedly estranged thinkers”12. This classical liberalism, for Matteucci again, which has the merit of simplicity (and the lack of over-simplification) “asked for the freedom to be oneself, but being oneself meant the creation of values of beauty, truth, faith, not merely the liberation of instinct, which is the substratum of darkness against which we affirm ourselves as free men or men who have been freed”.13 The opposition here is between liberalism as a political and moral doctrine that promotes true freedom, creative of aesthetic, philosophical and religious values, and libertinism which values the blind and devouring instinct. Thus the liberal tradition both renews and extends the opposition that accompanies the whole history of anti-libertine polemics until Benedict XVI, as noted above. But for him, liberalism, perhaps by its claim to make man himself the source of his own freedom, understood as creator of values, leads inevitably to “libertinism”.

Libertarians are not libertines14

12An anecdotal detail will allow me to cross the Atlantic to meet the Liberals (in the sense of classical liberalism suggested by Matteucci, because we know that the meaning of “liberal” is quite different in the U.S.), often far more radical than their counterparts in Europe, who are called “libertarians”15. Some libertarians, concerned to preserve good relationships with the Catholic Church, have complained on an online forum that Cardinal Ratzinger, in his speech of 18 April 2005, has condemned them. Not at all, hastened to correct some of their fellows, because everyone knows that libertarians have nothing to do with libertinism, which was the sole target of the cardinal. As for liberalism, which should have been their concern, they could consider it – with a lot of ignorance or bad faith – in the way in which the word is spontenoulsy understood in America: a leftist ideology that promotes social progress through the intervention of the State, which could not be further removed from classical liberalism not to mention its libertarian radicalisation.

13It is true that, because of the place they give to individual freedom, which they considered the principle of their political theory with all the practical consequences that follow (the hostility towards any form of moral censorship and repression of behavior which is not physically aggressive towards others and which is based on the consent or the agreement of the interested parties), libertarians are often accused by their right-wing opponents (pro-State Conservatives) of being “libertines”. Many examples may be found by just surfing the web16. So it is less surprising to see the trouble that their theorists repeatedly take to distinguish “libertarians” from “libertines” and to preserve their doctrine from the charge of “libertinism”. In doing so, of course, they create themselves, or rather rebuild and renew a scaremongering image of libertinism.

Franck S. Meyer: against libertine libertarians

14The first text I have found where this helpful distinction is set up dates from 1969, the same year (annus horribilis whose last two digits represent in themselves a libertine program) as Matteucci set the distinction similarly in Italy (see above). It is due to Frank S. Meyer, an important theorist of libertarianism, who endeavored to make libertarian ideas concord with conservative ones. In a brief article published in the National Review of which he was one of the founders, he reacts to the effects of student movements of those years and, explicitly, to the anarchist wing of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS 1960-1969), which he describes as “untrammeled libertarianism” or “libertine libertarians” that led to “anarchy” and “nihilism”. According to him, everything separates the libertine from the libertarian: “A true libertarianism is derived from metaphysical roots in the very constitution of being, and places its defence of freedom as a political end in the context of moral responsibility for the pursuit of virtue and the underlying social necessity for the preservation of order. The libertine impulse that masquerades as libertarian, on the other hand, disregards all moral responsibility, ranges itself against the minimum needs of social order, and raises the freedom of the individual person (regarded as the unbridled expression of every desire, intellectual or emotional) to the status of an absolute end”17. Freedom is a elevated value, but its political realisation is not an end in itself, rather the condition for human beings to achieve their moral aims. The libertine believes that being free means being able to do what one wants; building on a Rousseauist conception of man who is naturally good, “He presumes that if everyone does whatever he wants, everything will be for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. In doing so, the libertine ignores “the hard facts” of history, and first of all, that it is only thought “civilization” that men are able to achieve their potential. But the essence of civilization is tradition. In rejecting tradition, the libertine seeks to destroy civilization and to lead humanity back to the stage of primitive savagery18.

Murray N. Rothbard: the « myth » of the libertine libertarian

15A decade later, the economist Murray N. Rothbard, the legendary theorist of anarcho-capitalism, discusses the “myths” forged about libertarianism; among others, the one which presents libertarians as “libertines”, “hedonists” in search of “alternative life styles”.19

16He strives to refute an article by Irving Kristol, the well-known theorist of neo-conservatism, in which libertarians were regarded with some contempt as hedonists devoted to all alternative ways of life that the capitalist profusion of wealth allows20. Rothbard’s response is that libertarianism is not a complete moral or aesthetic doctrine, but a political theory which is only interested in that part of moral theory concerned with the role of legitimate and illegitimate violence in social life. Political theory deals with what is proper or improper to the government, which has the specificity compared with other groups in society being the “institution of organized violence”. But libertarianism maintains that the only legitimate violence is one which defends people and property against violence and that any governmental violence and coercion beyond that limited use of legitimate violence is itself aggressive, unjust and criminal. Thus it recognizes the full and plain freedom of individuals to do what they want, provided that they do not physically attack others and their property. “What a person does with his or her life is vital and important, but is simply irrelevant to libertarianism”21.

17Thus, it should not be surprising that there are libertarians who are indeed hedonists and devotees of alternative lifestyles, and that there are also libertarians who are firm adherents of “bourgeois” conventional or religious morality. There are libertarian libertines and there are libertarians who cling firmly to the disciplines of natural or religious law. There are other libertarians who have no moral theory at all apart from the imperative of the non-violation of rights. That is because libertarianism per se has no general or personal moral theory. Libertarianism does not offer a way of life; it offers liberty, so that each person is free to adopt and act upon his own values and moral principles. Libertarians agree with Lord Acton that “liberty is the highest political end” – not necessarily the highest end on everyone's personal scale of values.”22 Of course, the libertarians who are supporters of the free market (Rorthbard seems to acknowledge that somebody can be libertarian and not support the free market) welcome the increased opportunities for consumption, but this satisfaction in itself has nothing to do with the adoption of a libertine way of life.23

18The important point here is obviously not just that libertarianism necessarily leads to tolerance of libertine costumes when they attack neither persons nor property, but it may indeed be possible to be libertarian and libertine. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the libertine is highly deficient in moral terms as he does nothing other with of his freedom than to enjoy it, taking advantage of all his civil rights and of everything which the free market can offer.

Walter Block: libertarian conservatism and moral censorship of libertininism

19Walter Block is known to be the author of a provocative book, published in 1975, that had a big impact in the United States and Canada: Defending the Undefendable: The pimp, prostitute, scab, slumlord, libeller, moneylender and other scapegoats in the rogue's gallery of American society24. The author seeks to defend, according to libertarian principles, professions typically held to be villainous, more or less illegal and certainly immoral in our societies. As Rothbard does, Block leaves aside the moral question, which is not under discussion in this book. This approach leads him to justify, from the perspective of the inalienable rights of individuals, but also from the standpoint of the interests of society, the professions associated with behaviour falling within that which libertarians, like supporters of conservative and reactionary ideologies, describe as moral “libertinism”, for exemple prostitution, drug traffic, etc.

20Block has, however, done precisely this, devoting a substantial text aiming to establish a clear distinction between “Libertarianism and libertinism”. Initialy this essay was designed to serve as an introduction to the Portuguese translation of the book (1993), and was published the next year in English in the Journal of Libertarian Studies. It gave him the opportunity to establish his position, and even to perfom a “mea culpa”, confessing that he sometimes went too far in the defense of “rogues”25.

21However, for the most part, he repeats and develops the arguments of Rothbard. Since they do not result in violence, the “perverse” activities which he wrote about in his book should be legalized. Apart from this requirement of legalization, the Libertarian qua Libertarian, has nothing to say against this behaviour; he will not adopt a position of moral evaluation in respect of these practices. It is only when they involve an “invasive violence” against persons or property that the libertarian asserts that the use of coercive violence is necessary and justified, not because of the “depravity” of this behaviour. One should note that their classification as “perverse” or “degenerate” is never questioned and is part of the way in which the Libertarian envisages them.

22This is why the distinction made then by Block seems to me to be a sleight of hand that does not solve the problem. Indeed, he declares that he is not only a libertarian but also a “cultural conservative”. This means – and here we have the measure of his ideological brutality –, that, he says, “I abhor homosexuality, bestiality and sado-masochism, as well as pimping, prostituting, drugging, and other such degenerate behaviour.”26 As we can see, we are here very close to the positions of the Catholic right-wing and extreme right-wing, however without the concept of Christian charity and with the adjunction of legal tolerance (which makes a huge difference).

23How then does the “cultural conservative” define what he calls a “libertine”? “A person”, says Block, “who loves, exults in, participates in, and/or advocates the morality of all sorts of perverse acts, but who at the same time eschews all acts of invasive violence. The libertine, then, will champion prostitution, drug addiction, sado-masochism, and the like, and maybe even indulge in these practices, but will not force anyone else to participate”27. For the purposes of clarity of presentation, like the negative of a photography, a strange figure of the “libertine” emerges, which is deeply contradictory and without any reality: someone who defends the morality of the depraved acts and produces a kind of inversion of values (he seems not to be seeking depravity in itself), but at the same time he is somebody who refrains from acts of violence against others, and in this denial of the exercise of violence seems to be moral in the best sense of the word, as long as he does not allow himself violence on the basis of a political and legal reasoning that led the Libertarian to challenge any form of violence except the counter-violence which ensures the reign of political freedom. But the author does not bother to develop his description, nor to show that such a figure is truly embodied, and the reason for this is easy to understand: it is a mere scarecrow, with neither theoretical nor practical consistency, to say nothing of its psychological plausibility.

24Block, in any case, can therefore raise the question which interests him: “are libertarians libertine?” Some, indeed, could be, for example as members of the North American Man-Boy Love Association, which is, or rather was (as it now appears to be dissolved or have adopted a clandestine organization), an association fighting for the decriminalisation of consensual pedophilia. On the subject of pedophilia, and therefore of the potential pedophile libertine libertarian, Block, as a conservative libertarian, shows himself extremely intransigent (and violent): any sexual relationship with a minor should be considered rape pure and simple, and judged in court as such. Hence we see what the limits of libertarian tolerance are. But in general, it is nevertheless true that the libertarian is someone who, however he may consider the acts of the libertine, asserts that the libertine “should not be incarcerated”. At the very most, he says, the libertarian is free to speak and write against such practices, or to campaign to boycott them, with probably a limited effectiveness. Nevertheless, as a “cultural conservative”, Block is in any case strongly opposed to libertinism.

25The reasons he gives are not uninteresting: “First and foremost, because it is immoral: Nothing could be clearer than that these perversions are inimicable to the interest and betterment of mankind.”28 This is obviously begging the question, since the concepts of perversion and moral depravity are not questioned in any way. But the second reason he gives supplies or rather assumes this fallacy: he appeals indeed to “tradition”. Behaviour is depraved and perverse if cultural “tradition” regards it as such. In this rehabilitation of “tradition” Block refers to the writings of Hayek, which are keen to demonstrate that violent and harmful traditions tend to disappear with the disappearance of the societies themselves which practice them. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to think that this hierarchy of societies depending on the value of their traditions (the best being those which are closest to the western world, as conservatism seems to imply) seems first of all to justify the fight to the death between those societies judged to be the most civilized and those considered by them as barbaric (and possibly “libertine”!): after all, would it not be a use of violence justified by these violent traditions themselves?

26The third reason for fighting libertinism is “religion”, which has the merit of being one of the sectors of society that condemns “perversity” strongly. The author professes to have believed in the early 1970s that religions were the embodiment of “war, killing and injustice”29. But, he now sees things in a quite different way: “Religion now seems to me one of the last best hopes for society, as it is one of the main institutions still competing valiantly with an excessive and overblown government.”30 Religion is an important counter power, and a valuable ally in the fight against the state, in addition to its moral and roborative functions...

27The last reason, he says, is more personal: “I have come to believe that each of us has a soul, or inner nature, or animating spirit, or personhood, or purity, or self respect, or decency, call it what you will.” Now, acts of libertinism damage and devalue this “inner entity”, they lead to “mental and spiritual destruction”, and “this destruction of individual character has grave repercussions for all of society.”31

28Obviously it is not difficult to show that these four reasons bring together traditional motifs of the controversial anti-libertine discourse since its origins, which at the beginning of the modern era were in fact already inseparable: libertinism was indeed conceived of as simultaneously impious and immoral, since morality had as yet little autonomy from religion (moreover those who are accused of being “libertines” have played a decisive role in this separation). The libertine was also somebody who transgressed rules and customs, ridiculed or destroyed traditions. In addition, through the perversion of his will, he tried to extinguish the light infused in him by God and so ensured his damnation. Libertarianism proposes a secularized version of the most traditional and – one would want to say (but it would be a proof of libertinism, without any doubt) – the most jaded anti-libertine polemics.

Moral ghosts and political enemies

29In this text of Block’s, however, apparently we are far removed from strictly political polemics against radical “liberals” (as the term is understood in America) and anarchists whom Meyer denounced. But, the French translation of this article shows that this controversy can be read between the lines of the text32. Indeed, the translator, Hervé de Quengo, decided to translate “libertarian” by “libéral”, “libertarianism” by “libéralisme libertarien” (which is quite defensible) but, first of all, “libertine” by ... “libertaire”. He explains: “In respect of “libertinism”, I did not want to associate it with the libertins, who in France are considered rather sympathetically. I associated it with the term “libertaire” as understood by the “soixante-huitards”. The reader must understand that in this translation, the term “libertaire” is associated with choices in opposition to the traditional morality and not to State authority. I would ask that those who call themselves “libertaires” respecting traditional morality, forgive me.” The translator has therefore held that the term “libertine” was not polemical enough in French (at least on this side of the Atlantic, because in Quebec the libertarians use the same vocabulary as their U.S. counterparts)33, and we can see indeed that its use is fully dedramatized, often ironic, and it is almost absent from moralizing discourses, nowadays quite numerous whether left or right.

30We showed that it is not the same in Italy, and even less in America. This neutralization of the word in French is interesting in itself and deserves a specific study, which I can not undertake here. In any case, we can understand the embarrassment of the translator, in his efforts not to ridicule the author. The fact remains that this translation is not innocent, as is proved by the reference to “soixante-huitards”, people thus who – in his opinion – are not regarded with the same “sympathy” as the “libertines”. At the same time, it is quite surreal to see the “libertaire” (since that is what the American “libertine” becomes) defined as “a person who exults in all sorts of perverse acts” etc. etc.

31We can see here, at least in this translation, how the more or less fantastic or fantasmatic characters, considered solely on a moral level, can hide real political opponents, who are in fact targeted through a moral caricature : here that of the libertine. More generally, it is very important to note that, through the fiction of the “libertine” produced by libertarian literature, the targets are both individuals who conservative libertarians regard as deviant, and simultaneously all those who are identified (rightly or wrongly) as supporting such practices or as refusing to condemn them on a moral level: the liberals invoking the rights of sexual minorities and fighting for social rights in the name of social equality so hated by libertarians, and especially the “libertaires”, i.e. the left-wing anarchists, absolute enemies because of their philosophical proximity and of a history partially shared. These indirect controversial devices are quite easy to set up, because we can easily grasp at least the major issues of contemporary ideological conflicts well known to everyone. The same thing is much harder to do, obviously, but equally necessary, for the “libertinism” of the early modern period, one of the origins, no doubt, of the conflicts over the concept of freedom and its political implementations.

Haut de page


1 “* What about the name?
It chose us really! One really windy day when the doorman was late at a venue, someone left us an anonymous package and it was a copy of “The Lust of The Libertines” by The Marquis de Sade - we’re not sadists though. […]
*Do you like the different connotations of the word as in the sexual one and the political one?
- Yes, and it had to have an “i” in it so we could put a little love heart above it.
* It’s got two “i”s in it...
- We used to spell it “Liberteens” until we stopped being teenagers. Apart from John who still is.” 2 octobre 2002.
2 Quoted in Zenit, The world views from Roma:
3 Ibid.
4 Translated from Italian: “Due parole chiave per capire la vita di Agostino – disse allora Ratzinger – sono amore eterno e sapienza. “Certamente – osservò – non sono parole di moda: la parola amore cosí bella, è sporcata da tanti abusi e soprattutto non si cerca l’amore eterno, si cerca l’amore facile e veloce. La parola sapienza, lo stesso Agostino che ha vissuto in tempi molto simili ai nostri, ha detto che è una parola straniera nel vocabolario del suo e del nostro tempo”. Inizialmente egli stesso non cercava amore eterno e sapienza, quanto piuttosto felcità, essere amato, avere prestigio, successo, far carriera. Il suo movente era la libertà, l'autonomia, l’indipendenza. Aderì al manicheismo che gli prometteva una religione scientifica, dove non avrebbe avuto bisogno della fede e sarebbe stato tutto razionale e scientifico. Ma poi, nell’esperienza di vita le cose andarono diversamente e si ritrovò come il figliol prodigo. Con tutto questo libertinismo, racconta Agostino “mi trovavo non libero ma schiavo, servo che deve pascolare i porci”.
6 Cycle of conferences Dall’ateismo allo spiritualismo, third conference on 29 november 1998 : Tito Perlini et Paolo Pagani : Il nichilismo moderno ; appunti da Del Noce (The modern nihislism ; notes from Del Noce).
7 “la Chiesa cattolica, che ha saputo resistere ai grandi avversari che l’età moderna le aveva opposto e che oggi trovano ben pochi credenti, minaccia ora di scivolare sulle sabbie mobili del sesso”, “Cristinatià o precipizio”, Il Sabato, 26 luglio 1986.
8 “L’ateismo dell’età moderna era cominciato col libertinismo della fine del Rinascimento e del Seicento, legato anch’esso alla liberalizzazione sessuale, ma aristocratico; ora il ciclo dell’irreligione si schiude con il ritorno alla disposizione libertina nella forma di libertinismo di massa”, “Cristianità o precipizio”, Il Sabato, 26 luglio 1986.
9 For exemple, in Paul Bercherie, Clinique psychiatrique, clinique psychanalytique études et recherches, 1980-2004, L’Harmattan, 2005 : « le consumérisme déchaîné patronne ainsi un libertinage de masse banalisant la pornographie, adonné au polymorphyisme pulsionnel, où tous les auto-érotismes (cutanés, musicaux, vidéo, sportifs) prospèrent, l’exhibition complaisante (ou l’affectation ostentatoire) de la jouissance se trouvant hautement valorisée, les comportements addictifs déculpabilisés, et la transgression de toutes les limites (légales, sexuelles, identitaires, voire biologiques) l’objet d’une surenchère permanente », p. 272. The critic Daniel Rondeau, in L’Express (29/03/2004), simply uses it to signifies… the practice of swinging!
10 Nicola Matteucci, Sul Sessantotto, Crisi del riformismo e «insorgenza populistica» nell’Italia degli anni Sessanta, A cura di Roberto Pertici. Presentazione di Gaetano Quagliariello, Rubbettino, 2008.
11 It suffices to refer to the text where it appears for the first time : the situationist pamphlet : On the misery of student life : De la misère en milieu étudiant considérée sous ses aspects économique, politique, psychologique, sexuel et notamment intellectuel, et de quelques moyens pour y remédier (Strasbourg, 1966) : « L’histoire moderne ne peut être libérée, et ses acquisitions innombrables librement utilisées, que par les forces qu'elle refoule : les travailleurs sans pouvoir sur les conditions, le sens et le produit de leurs activités. Comme le prolétariat était déjà, au xixe siècle, l'héritier de la philosophie, il est en plus devenu l'héritier de l'art moderne et de la première critique consciente de la vie quotidienne. Il ne peut se supprimer sans réaliser, en même temps, l'art et la philosophie. Transformer le monde et changer la vie sont pour lui une seule et même chose, les mots d'ordre inséparables qui accompagneront sa suppression en tant que classe, la dissolution de la société présente en tant que règne de la nécessité, et l'accession enfin possible au règne de la liberté. La critique radicale et la reconstruction libre de toutes les conduites et valeurs imposées par la réalité aliénée sont son programme maximum, et la créativité libérée dans la construction de tous les moments et événements de la vie est la seule poésie qu'il pourra reconnaître, la poésie faite par tous, le commencement de la fête révolutionnaire. Les révolutions prolétariennes seront des fêtes ou ne seront pas, car la vie qu'elles annoncent sera elle-même créée sous le signe de la fête. Le jeu est la rationalité ultime de cette fête, vivre sans temps mort et jouir sans entraves sont les seules règles qu’il pourra reconnaître » ; éd. Sulliver 1995, (« Modern history can be liberated, and its innumerable achievements can be freely put to use, only by the forces that it represses: the workers without power over the conditions, the meaning and the products of their own activities. In the nineteenth century the proletariat was already the heir of philosophy; now it has become the heir of modern art and of the first conscious critique of everyday life. It cannot suppress itself without at the same time realizing art and philosophy. To transform the world and to change life are one and the same thing for the proletariat, the inseparable passwords to its suppression as a class, the dissolution of the present reign of necessity, and the finally possible accession to the reign of freedom. The radical critique and free reconstruction of all the values and patterns of behaviour imposed by alienated reality are its maximum program. Free creativity in the construction of all moments and events of life is the only poetry it can acknowledge, the poetry made by all, the beginning of the revolutionary festival. Proletarian revolutions will be festivals or nothing, for festivity is the very keynote of the life they announce. Play is the ultimate principle of this festival, and the only rules it can recognize are to live without dead time and to enjoy without restraints.” On the Poverty of Student Life Considered in its Economic, Political, Psychological, Sexual, and Especially Intellectual Aspects, with a Modest Proposal for Doing Away With It. (translation not very accurate). It would be very interesting to compare this text with the most radical pamphlets produced during the English Revolution of the mid seventeenth century – those of the Ranters in particular - spontaneously received by contemporaries as an expression of the wildest kind of “libertinism”.
12 La «concezione [sessantottina] della libertà come mera spontaneità, come possibilità per l'agire istintivo dell'uomo, come soddisfazione individuale dei bisogni, è agli antipodi della nostra recente tradizione di vivere civile […] e con la genuina tradizione del moderno liberalismo, quale può essere colta muovendosi fra un Kant e un Tocqueville, per indicare due pensatori fra loro profondamente lontani». Pertici does not provide the source of Matteucci’s quotation.
13 « Chiedeva libertà per essere se stessi; ma essere se stessi voleva dire creare valori di bellezza, di verità, di fede, non mera liberazione dell'istinto, il quale resta il sottofondo tenebroso contro il quale ci affermiamo come uomini liberi o liberati». Quoted by Pertici, Ibid.
14 I owe a debt of gratitude to Jérémie Barthas, who introduced me to the topic of libertarianism on the issue of libertinism.
15 See on this question, from a French language point of view, Henri Arvon, Les libertariens américains. De l’anarchisme individualiste à l’anarcho-capitalisme, PUF, 1983 and more recently Alain Laurent, Le libéralisme américain. Histoire d’un détournement, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2006.
17 National Review, 1969, again, in Conservatism in America Since 1930: A Reader, By Gregory L. Schneider, NYU Press, 2003, p. 260. on line :
18 “Free, how are men to use their freedom? The libertine answers that they should do what they want. Sometimes, in the line of the philosophers of the French Revolution, he arbitrarily posits the universal benevolence of human beings. He presumes that if everyone does whatever he wants, everything will be for the best in the best of all possible worlds. But whether so optimistically qualified or not, his answer ignores the hard facts of history. For it is only in civilization that men have begun to rise towards their potentiality; and civilization is a fragile growth, constantly menaced by the dark forces that suck man back towards his brutal beginnings.”
19 Murray N. Rothbard, “Myth and Truth About Libertarianism,” Modern Age, 24, 1, Winter 1980, p. 9-15 ; now under the title “Six Myths About Libertarianism,”
20 Irving Kristol, “No Cheers for the Profit Motive,” Wall Street Journal, Feb. 21, 1979.
21 “The fact is that libertarianism is not and does not pretend to be a complete moral, or aesthetic theory; it is only a political theory, that is, the important subset. of moral theory that deals with the proper role of violence in social life. Political theory deals with what is proper or improper for government to do, and government is distinguished from every other group in society as being the institution of organized violence. Libertarianism holds that the only proper role of violence is to defend person and property against violence, that any use of violence that goes beyond such just defence is itself aggressive, unjust, and criminal. Libertarianism, therefore, is a theory which states that everyone should be free of violent invasion, should he free to do as he sees fit except invade the person or property of another.” Ibid.
22 Ibid.
23 “There is no question about the fact, however, that the subset of libertarians who are free-market economists tends to be delighted when the free market leads to a wider range of choices for consumers, and thereby raises their standard of living. Unquestionably, the idea that prosperity is better than grinding poverty is a moral proposition, and it ventures into the realm of general moral theory, but it is still not a proposition for which I should wish to apologize.” Ibid.
24 It can be read on the libertarian website Mises :
25 « Previously, when I argued for the legalization of avant-garde sexual and drug practices (…), I wrote about them far more positively than I now do. […] I was altogether too enthusiastic about the virtues of these callings. I waxed eloquent about the “value of the services” performed. I totally dismissed the moral concerns of their parties […]. Marriage, children the passage of two decades, and not a little reflection have dramatically changed my views on some of the troublesome issues addressed in this book. My present view with regard to “social and sexual perversions” is that while none should be prohibited by law, I counsel strongly against engaging in any of them », p. 127. The text can be consulted on line:
26 Ibid.
27 Ibid.
28 Ibid.
29 “For me in the early 1970s, however, religion was the embodiment of war, killing, and injustice. It was an "unholy alliance" of the Crusades, the Inquisition, religious wars, virgin sacrifice, and the burning at the stake of "witches," astronomers, non-believers, free thinkers, and other inconvenient people. At present, I view this matter very differently. Yes, these things occurred, and self-styled religious people were indeed responsible. But surely there is some sort of historical statute of limitations, at least given that present religious practitioners can in no way properly be held responsible for the acts of their forebears.” Ibid.
30 Ibid.
31 Ibid.
32 “Libéraux [libertariens] et libertaires”,
33 See for example the paper of Martin Masse, « Libertin, libertaire, libertarien », Le Québécois Libre, 4 décembre 1999 (repris sur
Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Jean-Pierre Cavaillé, « Anti-libertine and anti-anarchist contemporary polemics: Catholics and Libertarians … », Les Dossiers du Grihl [En ligne], Les dossiers de Jean-Pierre Cavaillé, Libertinage, athéisme, irréligion. Essais et bibliographie, mis en ligne le 18 mai 2009, consulté le 29 mars 2017. URL :

Haut de page


Jean-Pierre Cavaillé

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Les Dossiers du Grihl est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 3.0 France.

Haut de page