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From Bayle To Constant

In the francophone world, the Huguenot refugee Pierre Bayle (1647–1706) penned the first general justification of the publication of obscenity. His "An Explanation Concerning Obscenities" (1702) argued that outright recommendation of lewdness and debauchery should be punished, but anything less than that should be left to the people to judge for themselves. The works of great authors such as Giovanni Boccaccio are protected by a "right" of the republic of letters, he argued, and even the Bible contains accounts of lewdness. Finally, he said that historians can report obscene things as mere facts of history, and no one is forced to read them. Bayle also wrote against censorship of atheists.

In 1747 Elie Luzac (1723–1796) published the atheistic Man a Machine by J. O. de La Mettrie, which resulted in much scandal. He was forced to turn over most copies for burning. Luzac then wrote his Essay on Freedom of Expression (1749) in order to defend freedom of the press. He relied on the tradition of natural law and claimed that the expression of ideas can never be harmful to society: false ideas will be refuted, and even true ideas will not be fully convincing unless we have seen the false alternatives. Luzac also pointed out that prohibited books will circulate underground anyway. He was no social or political radical, and his work demonstrates that conservatives can oppose censorship.

When her work was attacked in the press, Germaine de Staël (1766–1817) wrote in favor of censorship. Her intellectual companion, Benjamin Constant (1767–1830), countered with the case against censorship in many writings, including Principles of Government Applicable to All Representative Governments (1815). He agreed that writers who preach murder, theft, and pillage should be punished, but he argued that most pamphlets are harmless.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Categorical judgement to ChimaeraCensorship - Blasphemy, Heresy, And Atheism, Political Subversion, The Netherlands And England, From Bayle To Constant