A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 6.


The history of literature and the history of philosophy touch each other only at certain points of their course. There are periods (the nineteenth century itself is perhaps an example) when the study of philosophy is almost divorced from style. There are others when the two are intimately wedded. Nowhere is this latter more the case than in the seventeenth century, and in France. Much of the most excellent writing of the time was directed to philosophic subjects. But it so happened that the great reformer of philosophy in France was also the greatest reformer of her prose style, and that his greatest disciple carried philosophical writing, as far as style is concerned, to very nearly, if not quite, the highest pitch which it has yet attained in French. We shall not have to concern ourselves in more than the very slightest degree with the subject of the writings of Descartes and Malebranche, but they have as legitimate a place in the history of French literature as they have in that of European philosophy.


René Descartes272 was born at La Haye in Touraine on the 31st of March, 1596. His family belonged by descent to the province in which he was born, but by occupation and official position (as well it would seem as by possessions) to Britanny. It was of noble rank, though only of noblesse de robe, and possessed enough landed property to leave estates and territorial designations to two sons. Thus René was Seigneur du Perron, though, quite contrary to the wont of the day, he never made use of the title. He was of weak health both at this time and afterwards, and, unlike most of his contemporaries, did not begin his studies very early. In 1604 he was sent to the Jesuit College of La Flèche, and remained there nearly eight years. After a short stay at home he was sent to Paris, where he divided his time between ordinary pursuits and amusements on the one hand, and hard study on the other. In 1617, when he had just attained his majority, he joined the army as a volunteer, and the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War soon gave him plenty of employment. He visited various parts of Europe, partly on duty, partly as an ordinary traveller. First he served for two years at Breda under Prince Maurice of Nassau, pursuing the same mixture of study and routine employments. Then he went to Germany, where in his winter quarters his great philosophical idea, as he has told in memorable words, flashed across him. He served in various parts of the empire, and in Hungary and Bohemia, but left the army in 1621 and went to Holland, experiencing on the way a curious and dangerous adventure. After a year at the Hague he went home, and was put in possession of his share of his mother's property. He visited Italy, where he made a pilgrimage to Loretto, then returned to France, and dwelt in Paris for some time; resuming however his military character for a while, and serving at the siege of La Rochelle. At last, in 1628, being then thirty-two years old, he left the service finally, and gave himself up wholly to the study of philosophy. For this purpose he retired to Holland, where he was still somewhat restless273. But his chief centres were successively Amsterdam, Egmond, not far from Alkmaar, and Endegeest, within easy distance of the Hague. He returned to France more than once, and was asked to settle at court, receiving from Mazarin a pension of 3000 livres. But the troubles of the Fronde made Paris a distasteful and unsuitable residence for him. He then accepted, at the end of 1649, an invitation from Queen Christina of Sweden and went to Stockholm, where the severe weather and the gracious habit which the queen had of summoning him for discussion at five o'clock in the morning (he had all his life when not on active service made a point of not rising till eleven), put an end to his life, by inflammation of the lungs, on Feb. 11, 1650.

The works of Descartes are numerous, though few of them are of very great extent. He wrote a treatise (not now extant) on the art of fencing when he was but sixteen; and during the succeeding years small treatises on different points, chiefly of mathematics and natural theology, constantly issued from his pen, though he was not a ready writer. The works which alone concern us here are his famous Discours de la Méthode, 1637, and his letters. The Méditations, of equal importance philosophically with the Discours, and the Principia Philosophiæ, a rehandling of the two, were originally published in Latin. No attempt can here be made to give any account of Descartes' mathematical, physical, and metaphysical speculations, or of the means by which he endeavoured to work out his great principle, that all knowledge springs from certain ideas clearly and distinctly conceived, and is deducible mathematically, or rather logically, from these principles.

Until and including Victor Cousin, who, though his own style has some drawbacks, was a keen judge and a fervent admirer of the best classical French, French writers have always regarded the style of Descartes as one of the most remarkable, and above all the most original in the language. There cannot be the slightest doubt in the mind of any one historically acquainted with that language, and accustomed to judge style critically, that the opinion is a thoroughly sound one. Of late, however, there have been dissidents, and their opinion has been strangely adopted by the latest English biographer of Descartes274. Controversy as a rule is out of place in these pages, but on this particular point, involving as it does one of the most important questions in French literary history — the proper distribution of the epochs of style — an exception must be made. According to Mr. Mahaffy's view it is Descartes' few letters to Balzac which have gained him a reputation for style, but he is 'seldom more than clear and correct;' he is 'seldom grand, not often amusing.' The temptation to enlarge on this singular definition of style as that which is grand or amusing must be resisted. Those who have followed the foregoing pages will perceive that the refusal to recognise in a writer who is 'seldom more than clear and correct' (Descartes is a great deal more than this, but no matter) the characteristics of a master of style arises from ignorance of what the characteristics and drawbacks of French style had hitherto been.

Prose style may be divided, as conveniently as in any other way, into the style of description or narration, and the style of discussion or argument. The former deals with the imagination, with the passions, with outward events, with conversation; the latter with the reason only. The former propounds images, the latter ideas. The former constructs a picture, the latter reduces words to their simplest terms as symbols of thought. French had been making very rapid progress in the former division of style, though there was much left to be done; in the latter it was yet entirely at its rudiments. Before Descartes there are three masters of this latter style, and three only, Rabelais, Calvin, and Montaigne. There is little doubt that Rabelais might have anticipated Descartes, had it not been for the fact, first, that, except on rare occasions, he chose to wrap himself in the grotesque; and, secondly, that he came before the innovations of the Pléiade had enriched the language, and the reaction against the Pléiade had pruned off the superfluity of richness. Calvin was also exposed to this second drawback, and had besides a defect of idiosyncrasy in a certain dryness and heaviness allied with, and partly resulting from, a too close adherence to Latin forms. Montaigne again, like Rabelais, deliberately refuses to be bound by the mere requirements of argument, and expatiates into all sorts of digressions, partaking of the other style, the style of description. If any one will take the famous passage of Descartes already referred to (the passage in which he describes how being in winter quarters, with nothing to do and sitting all day long by a warm stove, he started the train of thought which ended or began in Cogito ergo sum), and, having a good acquaintance with the three authors just mentioned, will imagine how the same facts and arguments would have appeared in their language, he will not find it difficult to realise the difference. The grotesque by-play and the archaic vocabulary of Gargantua, the garrulous digression and anecdote of the Essays, are not more strikingly absent than the jejune scholasticism which is the worse side of Calvin's grave and noble style. The author does not think it necessary to attract his readers with ornament, nor to repel them with dry and barren marshalling of technicalities. All is simple, straightforward, admirably clear, but at the same time the prose is fluent, modulated, harmonious, and possesses, if not the grace of superadded ornament, those of perfect proportion and unerring choice of words.

As a prose writer Descartes is generally compared to his contemporary, and in some sort predecessor, Balzac, and his advantage over the author of the Socrate Chrétien is stated to lie chiefly in the superiority of his matter. This is not quite the fact. Balzac had, indeed, aimed at the simplicity and classical perfection of Descartes, but he had not attained it; he still has much of the quaintness of Montaigne, though it must be remembered that in comparisons of this kind censure bestowed on the authors compared is relative not positive, and that Descartes could no more have written the Essays than Montaigne the Discours. Descartes has almost entirely discarded this quaintness, which sometimes passed into what is called in French clinquant, that is to say, tawdry and grotesque ornament. It is a peculiarity of his that no single description of his sentences fully describes their form. They are always perfectly clear, but they are sometimes very long. Their length, however, as is the case with some English authors of the same century, is more apparent than real, the writer having chosen to link by conjunctions clauses which are independently finished, and which, by different punctuation even without the omission of the conjunction, might stand alone. The mistake of saying that Descartes is nothing more than clear and correct can only arise from an imperfect appreciation of the language. Let, for instance, his condemnation of scholastic method in the Discours be taken. Here the matter is interesting enough, and the comparison with the gorgeous but unphilosophical disdain which Bacon is wont to pour on the studies of the past is interesting also. But we are busied with the form. In the first place, any one must be struck with the modernness of the phrase and style. With insignificant exceptions there is nothing which would not be most excellent French to-day. Further examination of the phrase will show that there is much more in it than mere clearness and correctness, admirably clear and correct as it is. There is no 'spilth of adjectives,' as it has been termed. The words are just so many as are necessary for clear, correct, and elegant expression of the thought. But it is in the selection of them that the master of style appears. The happy phrase, 'La gentillesse des fables réveille l'esprit;' the comparison of the reading of the best authors not merely to a conversation, but a conversation étudiée, in which the speakers 'show only their best thoughts;' the contrast between eloquence and poetry (too often forgotten by the writer's countrymen); the ironic touch275 in the eulogium on philosophy; all these things show style in its very rarest and highest form — the form which enables the writer to say the most, and to say it most forcibly with the least expenditure of the stores of the dictionary. One sees at once that the requirement of one of the greatest French writers of our time, that the master of style 'shall be able to express at once any idea that presents itself requiring expression,' is fully, and more than fully, met by Descartes; and one sees also how the miracles of expression which Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, Bossuet, were to produce became possible, and who showed them the way. It may be asserted, without the slightest fear, that the more thoroughly Descartes is studied with the necessary apparatus of knowledge, the more firmly will his claims in this direction be established.

It is not superfluous to call attention to the fact that the Discours de la Méthode appeared within a few months of the Cid. Thus it happened that the first complete models of French classical style in prose and verse, and two of the most remarkable examples of that style which have ever been produced, were given to the public as nearly as possible contemporaneously. This fact, and the brilliant group of imitators who almost immediately availed themselves of the examples, prove satisfactorily how powerful were the influences which produced the change, and over how wide a circle they worked. As the influence of Descartes was thus no less literary than philosophical, it followed naturally enough that his school (which soon included almost all the men of intellectual eminence in France) preserved literary as well as philosophical traditions. This school, so far as it concerns French literature, may be said to have produced two remarkable individuals and one remarkable group. The group was the school of Port Royal; the individuals were Malebranche and Bayle.

Port Royal.

We are not here concerned with the religious fortunes of the community of Port Royal276. It is sufficient to say that it was originally a nunnery at no great distance from Versailles, that it underwent a great religious revival under the influence of St. Francis de Sales and Mère Angélique Arnauld, and that, chiefly owing to the inspiration of the Abbé de St. Cyran, there was engrafted on it a community of Solitaires of the other sex, who busied themselves in study, in religious exercises, in manual labour, and in the education of youth. The society was early imbued with Jansenist principles, which brought it into violent conflict with the Jesuits, and eventually led to its persecution and destruction. It was also the head-quarters of a somewhat modified Cartesianism, and this, with its importance as a centre of literary instruction and its intimate connection with many famous men of letters, such as Pascal, Nicole, and Racine, gives it a place in the history of literature. The most remarkable work of an educational kind which proceeded from it was the famous Port Royal Logic, or 'Art of Thinking,' which seems to have been a work of collaboration, Arnauld and Nicole being the chief authors. This, though open to criticism from the point of view of the logician, had a very great influence in making the methodical treatment and clear luminous exposition which were characteristic of the Cartesian school common in French writers. Of the two authors just mentioned, Arnauld was the greater thinker, Nicole by far the better writer. He was, in fact, a sort of minor Pascal, his Lettres sur les Visionnaires corresponding to the Provinciales of his greater contemporary, while he was the author of Pensées, which, unlike Pascal's, were regularly finished, and which, though much inferior to them, have something of the same character. The intellectual activity of Port Royal was very considerable, but most of it was directed into channels which were not purely literary, owing partly to incessant controversies brought on by the differences between the community and the Jesuits, partly to the cultivation of philosophical subjects. The age was perhaps the most controversial that Europe has ever seen, and the comparative absence of periodicals (which were only in their infancy) threw the controversies necessarily into book form, as letters, pamphlets, or even volumes of considerable size. But no very large portion of this controversial matter deserves the name of literature, and much of it was written in Latin. Thus Gassendi, the upholder of Neo-Epicurean opinions in opposition to Descartes, and beyond all question the greatest French philosopher of the century after Descartes and Malebranche, hardly belongs to French literature, though his Latin works are of great bulk and no small literary merit. The Gassendian school soon gave birth to a small but influential school of materialist freethinkers. What may be called the school of orthodox doubt, which had been represented by Montaigne and Charron, had, as has been said, a representative in La Mothe le Vayer. But this special kind of scepticism was already antiquated, if not obsolete, and it was succeeded, on the one side, by the above-mentioned freethinkers, who were also to a great extent free livers277, and whose most remarkable literary figure was Saint Evremond; on the other, by a school of learned Pyrrhonists, whose most remarkable representative in every respect was Pierre Bayle.


Bayle was born in the south of France in 1647, and, like almost all the men of letters of his time, was educated by the Jesuits. He was of a Protestant family, and was converted by his teachers, his conversion being however so little of a solid one that he reverted to Protestantism in less than two years. After this he resided for some time in Switzerland, studying Cartesianism. In 1675 he was made Professor of Philosophy at Sedan, a post which he held for six years, moving thence to Rotterdam. Here he began to write numerous articles and works in the periodicals, which were slowly becoming fashionable, especially in Holland. They were mostly critical, and dealt with scientific, historical, philosophical, and theological subjects. Bayle's utterances on the latter subject, and especially his pleas for toleration, brought him into a troublesome controversy with Jurieu, and in 1693 he was deprived of his professorship, or at least of his right to lecture. He then devoted himself to the famous Dictionary which is identified with his name, and which, though by no means the first encyclopædia of modern times (for Alsten, Moreri, Hoffmann, and others had preceded him within the century), was by far the most influential and most original yet produced. It appeared in 1696, and brought him new troubles, which were not however of a serious character. He died in 1706.

The scepticism of which Bayle was the exponent was purely critical and intellectual. He was not in the least an enemy of the moral system of Christianity, nor even, it would appear, an enemy to Christianity itself. But his intellect was constitutionally disposed to see the objections to all things rather than the arguments in their favour, and to take a pleasure in stating these objections. Thus, though he was after his religious oscillations nominally an orthodox Protestant, the tendency of his works was to impugn points held by Protestants and Catholics alike, and though he was nominally a Cartesian, he was equally far from yielding an implicit belief to the doctrines of Descartes. His most famous work is the reverse of methodical. The subjects are chosen almost at random, and are very frequently nothing but pegs on which to hang notes and digressions in which the author indulges his critical and dissolvent faculty. Nor is the style by any means a model. But it is lively, clear, and interesting, and no doubt had a good deal to do with the vast popularity of his book in the eighteenth century. Bayle had a strong influence on Voltaire, and though he had less to do with his follower's style than Saint Evremond and Pascal, he is nearer to him in spirit than either. The difference perhaps may be said to be that Bayle's pleasure in negative criticism is almost purely intellectual. There is but little in him of the half-childish mischievousness which distinguishes Voltaire.


Cartesianism was not less likely than its opposites to lead to philosophical scepticism, but in the main its professors, taking their master's conduct for model, remained orthodox. In that case, however, the Cartesian idealism had a tendency to pass into mysticism. Of those in whom it took this form Nicolas Malebranche278 was the unquestioned chief. He was born at Paris, where his father held a lucrative office; in 1638, and from his birth had very feeble health. When he was of age he became an Oratorian, and passed the whole of his long life in study and literary work, sometimes being engaged in controversies on the compatibility of his system — the famous 'Vision in God,' and 'Spiritual Existence in God'— with orthodoxy, but never receiving any formal censure from the Church. Despite his bad health he lived to the age of seventy-seven, dying in 1715. A curious story is told of a verbal argument between him and Berkeley on the eve of his death. He wrote several works in French, such as a Traité de Morale, Conversations Métaphysiques, etc., but his greatest and most remarkable contribution to French literature is his Recherche de la Vérité, published in 1674, which unfolds his system. From the literary point of view the Recherche is one of the most considerable books of the philosophical class ever produced. Unlike the various works of Descartes it is of very great length, filling three volumes in the original edition, and a thousand pages of close type in the most handy modern reprint. It also deals with subjects of an exceedingly abstract character, and is not diversified by any elaborate illustrations, any machinery like that of Plato or Berkeley, or any passages of set eloquence. The purity and beauty of the style, however, and its extraordinary lucidity, make it a book of which it is difficult to tire. The chief mechanical difference between the style of Malebranche and that of his master is that his sentences are shorter. They are, however, framed with equal care as to rhythm and to logical arrangement. The metaphor of limpidity is very frequently applied to style, but perhaps there is hardly any to which it may be applied with such propriety as to the style of Malebranche.

272 Not fully edited yet. Cousin's edition is the fullest, but the important French works figure in many popular collections and are easily accessible.

273 He was 'as restless as a hyæna,' says De Quincey, not unjustly.

274 Professor Mahaffy, Descartes. Blackwood, 1880.

275 'La philosophie donne moyen de parler vraisemblablement de toutes choses, et se faire admirer des moins savants.'

276 Sainte-Beuve, Port Royal. 6 vols. Paris, 1859-61.

277 These men, such as Saint Ibal, Bardouville, Desbarreaux, and others, figure largely in the anecdotic history of the time. In the persons of Théophile and Saint Evremond they touch on literature: but for the most part they were chiefly distinguished by revolting coarseness and blasphemy of expression, and by a childish delight in outraging religious sentiment, which was often changed into abject terror or hypocritical compliance as death approached. They were commonly called philosophes, a degradation of the word which was not much mended in the next century, though it then acquired a more strictly literary meaning.

278 Ed. Simon. 1854.


Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29