Libertine has come to mean one devoid of any restraints, especially one who ignores or even spurns religious norms, accepted morals, and forms of behavior sanctioned by the larger society. The philosophy gained new-found adherents in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in France and Britain. Notable among these were John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, and the Marquis de Sade. "Libertine", like many words, is an evolving one, defined today as "a dissolute person; usually a person who is morally unrestrained". Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand wrote that Joseph Bonaparte "sought only life's pleasures and easy access to libertinism," while on the throne of Naples. In modern times, libertinism has been associated with sado-masochism, nihilism and free love.
Libertine was originally a negative term, derived by John Calvin, for opponents of his policies in Geneva, Switzerland. This group, led by Ami Perrin, argued against Calvin's "insistence that church discipline should be enforced uniformly against all members of Genevan society". Perrin and his allies were elected to the town council in 1548, and "broadened their support base in Geneva by stirring up resentment among the older inhabitants against the increasing number of religious refugees who were fleeing France in even greater numbers". By 1555, Calvinists were firmly in place on the Genevan town council, so the Libertines, led by Perrin, responded with an "attempted coup against the government and called for the massacre of the French ... This was the last great political challenge Calvin had to face in Geneva."
Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons, 1782), an epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, is a trenchant description of sexual libertinism. Wayland Young argues that "…the mere analysis of libertinism… carried out by a novelist with such a prodigious command of his medium… was enough to condemn it and play a large part in its destruction." (Young, 1966, 246)
- John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester
- Marquis de Sade
- Giacomo Casanova
- Lord Byron
- Arthur Rimbaud
- Jim Morrison