Is atomism atheism? A trial (Naples 1688-1697) and a controversy (Giovanni Battista De Benedictis vs. Francesco d’Andrea)

30-01-2020 from 14:00 to 16:00
Simon Stevin Room, Plateau-Rozier, Jozef Plateaustraat 22
Leen Spruit (Radboud Universiteit)

From 1688 to 1697, Naples, capital of the Spanish kingdom in South Italy, provided the stage for a large-scale inquisitorial trial against a great number of persons accused of embracing atomism and therefore of subscribing to atheism. In the early 1670s, Naples’ ecclesiastical authorities had begun to warn against the spread of the mechanical philosophy and atomism. Notably the members of the Accademia degli Investiganti (1663-1670) had been much taken by these new ideas. After the official closure of the Academy, this circle enlarged, began to meet in less secluded places and discussed its ideas more openly, thereby attracting a new generation of intellectuals to the “new philosophy”. The Church responded to this situation with hitherto unseen determination. Prominent Church leaders delivered fiery sermons condemning a doctrine that, according to them, denied the existence of God, the immortality of the soul and the possibility of miracles.

In 1688, a certain Francesco Paolo Manuzzi presented himself “spontaneously” to the representative of the Holy Office in Naples to denounce a group of persons in Naples who endorsed the “philosophy of the atoms” and who had lost their faith. Manuzzi’s deposition contains a series of extraordinary claims purportedly made by the ‘atomist’ Neapolitans, concerning the existence of pre-Adamitic humans; errors and abuses of Christ and the pope; and the inexistence of God, hell, purgatory, paradise and the sacraments. None of these claims can be found in any other early-modern atomistic or corpuscular philosophy.

When the Roman Holy Office sought to involve the Neapolitan archbishop and the political authorities in both Naples and Madrid in its battle against atheism and atomism, the representatives of the nobility and the rising middle class reacted forcefully, organizing themselves in a “Permanent Deputation” that aimed to abolish the Inquisition in Naples and delegating two members to Rome to negotiate this matter with the cardinals and the pope.

The trial produced important texts: the fierce attack on modern philosophy by Jesuit Giovanni Battista de Benedictis (1694); the two replies to it by Francesco d’Andrea (ca. 1695-1697, both unpublished); and the extensive set of replies by Costantino Grimaldi (published in 1699-1703). A further important onslaught on modern philosophy is contained in the 1696 pamphlet Turris fortitudinis.

The mass of mostly unexamined documents of this trial and the books, manuscripts and pamphlets surrounding it offer a unique experimental garden for research into the broader cultural and political context of the spread of the corpuscular philosophy. Indeed, this trial seems an ideal case to confront the local with the international dimensions of the new philosophical and scientific currents involving atomistic and corpuscular notions, which were as difficult to delineate then as they are today.