Spinoza and Friends: Religion, Philosophy and Friendship in the Berlin Enlightenment

  • Adam Sutcliffe


The topic of friendship was widely and vigorously discussed during the eighteenth century, but it was a subject on which no clear Enlightenment consensus emerged.1 The unrestrained intensity of the Renaissance ideal of friendship — most famously expressed in Michel de Montaigne’s elegiac essay, in which he describes his deceased friend as so close to him as to have been barely distinguishable from his own self2 — could no longer easily be sustained in the eighteenth century, when both changing gender relations and the competitive vigour of commercial society complicated the imagined innocence of intimacies between men. Michel Foucault has argued that it was in this century that homosexuality became a problem in Europe, concomitantly with the decline of traditional models of male friendship and the rise of modern institutions that sought to discipline these intimacies.3 For Alan Bray, too, it was in this period, in England at least, that premodern traditions of friendship were almost extinguished by the modern rationalization of interpersonal relations demanded by Kantian ethics.4 The increasing visibility of the pursuit of commercial self-interest also seemed to threaten the selflessness and mutuality on which authentic bonds of friendship were traditionally assumed to be based. Bernard Mandeville’s provocative argument, in his Fable of the Bees (1723), that ‘private vices’ produce ‘public benefits’ was an enduring provocation for the next fifty years, in particular to the leading thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, almost all of whom wrestled with Mandeville in their attempts to reconcile a theory of beneficent friendship with a positive analysis of commercial society.5


Eighteenth Century Commercial Society Queer Theory Philosophical Writing Dark Time 
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  • Adam Sutcliffe

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