skip to content


Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics


FR Early Modern: Searching for Happiness

FR Early Modern: Searching for Happiness

Course Convenor: Dr Emma Gilby, Section of French (

In recent years, the concept of happiness has resurfaced in moral and political debate. The identification of happiness with prosperity has been called into question; at the same time, it has been suggested that social inequality generates not only social dysfunction but individual unhappiness. It therefore seems timely to revisit early modern thinking about this topic.

The early modern period inherits two main traditions of thinking about happiness. One, from Aristotle, identifies it with the fullest realization of human capacities, under the guidance of reason (in other words, the practice of virtue and the contemplation of truth). The other, Christian, sees true happiness as impossible in this life, and as achieved only in the vision of God in the after-life. The medieval synthesis of these was fractured by the combined impact of humanism and the Reformation, humanism bringing to light alternative pagan philosophies (Stoicism, Epicureanism, scepticism), the Reformation minimizing the role of human moral effort, so as to accentuate the role of divine grace. The philosophical and religious writing of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is marked by the conflict between this-worldly and other-worldly conceptions of happiness. At the same time, literary traditions such as Petrarchism and neo-Platonism advance the claims of erotic love as central to human experience and development, a potential source of supreme happiness (though often an actual source of suffering). In politics, the collapse of social order in the Wars of Religion is followed by a period of gradual (though uneven) monarchical consolidation throughout the seventeenth century, leading some to proclaim a new Golden Age, while others see a fundamental decline from a benign social order to one vitiated by the pursuit of self-interest and luxury. From the mid-seventeenth century, ideas of scientific and technological progress offer glimpses of the possibility of radically transforming human life for the better, though Enlightenment writers stress the extent of ideological and social obstacles to progress. Engagement with other cultures leads to self-interrogation about European moral ideals. The thought and culture of the early modern period explores these contradictions both theoretically and imaginatively.

Preliminary Reading

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book I; translated by J. A. K. Thomson (London: Penguin Classics, 2004)

Michel de Montaigne, Essais, ed. by P. Villey (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2004); Book I, ch. 19: ‘Qu’il ne faut juger de nostre heur, qu’après la mort’

Pascal, Pensées, ed. Gérard Ferreyrolles and Philippe Sellier, Livre de poche classique (Paris: Libraire Générale Française, 2000)

Descartes, Les Passions de l’âme (any edition)

Diderot and d’Alembert (eds), Encyclopédie, ‘Béatitude, Bonheur, Félicité’, ‘Bonheur’,  ‘Plaisir, Délice, Volupté’ (available at


[back to Modules]
[back to Course Content]