Pierre Gassendi

Priest, philosopher and amateur astronomer, Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) revitalized Epicureanism and combined it with Catholic doctrine.

Noting that the concept of mind is not necessary to explain the behavior of lower animals, he extended the argument to include humans. According to Gassendi, there are no functions of the mind that cannot be attributed to the human brain. Yet he held that humans have an immortal soul. Although his views seemed contradictory to both his Christian and secular critics, Gassendi held that his materialistic and theological explanations were compatible.

It was a time of change and diverse accomplishments. In Gassendi’s lifetime, James the VI ruled Scotland, the Ming dynasty was ending, and Don Quixote and the King James version of the Bible were published. Gassendi’s contemporaries included Milton, Shakespeare and Hobbes. He attended mass with Mersenne, corresponded with Galileo and Christina of Sweden, and argued with Descartes. 

Gassendi opposed the deductive dualism of Decartes, rejected innate ideas and replaced rationalism with materialism. Preferring an inductive approach, Gassendi noted that the behavior of lower animals could be described without reference to a “mind.” Consequently, there was no need to ascribe the presence of a mind to humans.

Like Bacon, Gassendi was the leading intellectual of his country. He is best known for his opposition to Aristotelean philosophy, his monistic materialism, and his integration of Epicurean and Christian ideals. Gassendi held that humans have immortal souls and the harmony of nature proves the existence of God. He also maintained that the senses are a primary source of knowledge and the brain is the center of human thinking.

Gassendi was born in the foothills of the Alps, and except for a trip to the Netherlands in 1628, he never ventured outside of France. He was born in Champtercier, 9km southwest of Digne-les-Bains. Although 2200 ft above sea level, Champtercier is still in the lavender region of Provence. It doesn’t have the hot springs of Digne-les-Bains but they share a similar history. The area was conquered by Augustine in 14 BC and ransacked several times during the Wars of Religion. In 1629, 85% of the population died from the Plague.

Gassendi studied Latin at Digne, philosophy at Aix, and theology at Aix and Avignon. In 1625, he was appointed the provost of the cathedral of Digne. In 1645, Gassendi was appointed to the College Royal of France in Paris. Although he returned to his country living to recover from inflammation in his lungs, he returned to Paris in 1653. When his fever grew worse, the doctors performed over a dozen blood letting operations to alleviate the problem; Gassendi never recovered. He died in Paris at the age of 63.

For more on this topic, here’s a video on the Mind-Body Problem.


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