A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 6.


The philosophe movement.

The entire literary and intellectual movement of the eighteenth century is very often called the philosophe movement, and the writers who took part in it les philosophes. The word 'philosopher' is, however, here used in a sense widely different from its proper and usual one. Philosophie, in the ordinary language of the middle and later seventeenth century, meant simply freethinking on questions of religion. This freethinking, of which Saint-Evremond was the most distinguished representative, involved no revolutionary or even reforming attitude towards politics or practical affairs of any kind. As however the next century advanced, the character of French scepticism became altered. Contact with English Deism gave form and precision to its theological or anti-theological side. The reading of Locke animated it against Cartesianism, and the study of English politics excited it against the irresponsible despotism and the crushing system of ecclesiastical and aristocratic privilege which made almost the entire burden of government rest on the shoulders least able to bear it. French 'philosophism' then became suddenly militant and practical. Toleration and liberty of speculation in religion, constitutional government in politics, the equalisation of pressure in taxation, and the removal of privilege, together with reform in legal procedure, were the objects which it had most at heart. In merely speculative philosophy, that is to say, in metaphysics, it was much less active, though it had on the whole a tendency towards materialism, and by a curious accident it was for the most part rigidly conservative in literary criticism. But it was eager in the cultivation of ethics from various points of view, and busy in the study both of the philosophy of history, which may be said to date from that period, and of physical science, in which Newton took the place of Locke as guide. The almost universal presence of this practical and reforming spirit makes it not by any means so easy to subdivide the branches of literature, as is the case in the seventeenth century. La Bruyère had said, in the days of acquiescence in absolutism, that to a Frenchman 'Les grands sujets sont défendus,' meaning thereby theology and politics. The general spirit of the eighteenth century was a vigorous denial of this, and an eager investigation into these 'grands sujets.' This spirit made its appearance in the most unexpected quarters, and in the strangest forms. It converted (in the hands of Voltaire) the stiffest and most conventional form of drama ever known into a pamphlet. It insinuated polemics under the guise of history, and made the ponderous and apparently matter-of-fact folios of a Dictionary of Arts and Manufactures the vehicles of arguments for reform. It overflowed into every department of literary occupation. Some of the chief prose manifestations of this spirit have been discussed and arranged in the two previous chapters under the head of history and essay writing. The rest will be dealt with here. A certain distinction of form, though it is often rather arbitrary than real, renders such a subdivision possible, while it is desirable in the interest of clearness. It will be noticed that while the attack is voluminous and manifold, the defence is almost unrepresented in literature. This is one of the most remarkable facts in literary history. In England, from which the philosophe movement borrowed so much, the Deists had not only not had their own way in the literary battle, but had been beaten all along the line by the superior intellectual and literary prowess of the defenders of orthodoxy. The case in France went otherwise and almost by default. The only defender of orthodoxy whose name has survived in literature — for Fréron, despite his power, was little more than a literary critic — is the Abbé Guénée. In so singular a state was the church of France that scarcely a single preacher or theologian, after Massillon's death in 1742, could challenge equality with even third- or fourth-rate men of letters; while, after the death of the Chancellor d'Aguesseau in 1751, no layman of eminence can be named until Joseph de Maistre, nearly half a century later, who was at once a considerable writer and a declared defender of religion. Indeed no small proportion of the enemies of ecclesiasticism were actually paid and privileged members of the Church itself. Thus little opposition, except that of simple vis inertiae, was offered to the new views and the crusade by which they were supported. This crusade, however, had two very different stages. The first, of which the greatest representatives are Montesquieu and in a way Voltaire himself, was critical and reforming, but in no way revolutionary; the second, of whom the Encyclopædists are the representatives, was, consciously or unconsciously, bent on a complete revolution. We shall give an account first of the chief representatives of these two great classes of the general movement, and then of those offshoots or schools of that movement which busied themselves with the special subjects of economics, ethics, and metaphysics, as distinguished from general politics.


Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu et de la Brède, was born at the château, which gave him the last-named title, in the neighbourhood of Bordeaux, on the 18th of January, 1689. His family was not of the oldest, but it had, as he tells us, some two or three centuries of proved noblesse to boast of, and had been distinguished in the law. He himself was destined for that profession, and after a youth of laborious study became councillor of the parliament of Bordeaux in 1714, and in a year or two president. In 1721 he produced the Lettres Persanes, and four years later the curious little prose poem called the Temple de Gnide. Some objection was made by the minister Fleury, who was rigidly orthodox, to the satirical tone of the former book in ecclesiastical matters, but Montesquieu was none the less elected of the Academy in 1728. He had given up his position at the Bordeaux Parlement a few years before this, and set out on an extensive course of travel, noting elaborately the manners, customs, and constitution of the countries through which he passed. Two years of this time were spent in England, for which country, politically speaking, he conceived a great admiration. On his return to France he lived partly in Paris, but chiefly at his estate of La Brède, taking an active interest in its management, and in the various occupations of a country gentleman, but also working unceasingly at his masterpiece, the Esprit des Lois. This, however, was not published for many years, and was long preceded by the book which ranks second in importance to it, the Grandeur et Décadence des Romains, 1734. This was Montesquieu's first serious work, and it placed him as high among serious writers as the Lettres Persanes had among lighter authors. The Esprit des Lois itself did not appear till 1748. Montesquieu, whose life was in no way eventful, lived for some years longer, dying in Paris on the 10th of February, 1755. Besides the works mentioned he had written several dialogues and other trifles, a considerable number of Pensées, and some articles for the earlier volumes of the Encyclopædia.

Lettres Persanes.
Gradeur et Décadence des Romains

Montesquieu probably deserves the title of the greatest man of letters of the French eighteenth century, the superior versatility and more superficial brilliancy of Voltaire being compensated in him by far greater originality and depth of thought. His three principal works deserve to be considered in turn. The Lettres Persanes, in which the opinions of a foreigner on French affairs are given, is not entirely original in conception; the idea of the vehicle being possibly suggested by the Amusements Divers of Dufresny the comic author. The working out, however, is entirely Montesquieu's, and was followed closely enough by the various writers, who, with Voltaire and Goldsmith at their head, have adopted a similar medium for satire and criticism since. It is not too much to say that the entire spirit of the philosophe movement in its more moderate form is contained and anticipated in the Lettres Persanes. All the weaknesses of France in political, ecclesiastical, and social arrangements are here touched on with a light but sure hand, and the example is thus set of attacking 'les grands sujets.' From a literary point of view the form of this work is at least as remarkable as the matter. Voltaire himself is nowhere more witty, while Montesquieu has over his rival the indefinable but unquestionable advantage of writing more like a gentleman. There is no single book in which the admirable capacity of the French language for jesting treatment of serious subjects is better shown than in the Lettres Persanes. Montesquieu's next important work was of a very different character. The Considérations sur les Causes de la Grandeur et de la Décadence des Romains is an entirely serious work. It does not as yet exhibit the magnificent breadth of view and the inexhaustible fertility of explanation which distinguish the Esprit des Lois, but it has been well regarded as a kind of preliminary exercise for that great work. Montesquieu here treats an extensive but homogeneous and manageable subject from the point of view of philosophical history, after a method which had been partially tried by Bossuet, and systematically arranged by Vico in Italy, but which was not fully developed till Turgot's time. That is to say, his object is not merely to exhibit, but to explain the facts, and to explain them on general principles applicable with due modifications to other times and other histories. Accordingly, the style of the Grandeur et Décadence is as grave and dignified as that of the Lettres Persanes is lively and malicious. It is sometimes a little too sententious in tone, and suffers from the habit, induced probably by Pensée-writing, of composing in very brief paragraphs. But it is an excellent example of its kind, and especially remarkable for the extreme clearness and lucidity with which the march and sequence of events in the gross is exhibited.

Esprit des Lois.

The Esprit des Lois is, however, a far greater book than either of these, and far more original. The title may be thought to be not altogether happy, and indeed rather ambiguous, because it does not of itself suggest the extremely wide sense in which the word law is intended to be taken. An exact if cumbrous title for the book would be 'On the Relation of Human Laws and Customs to the Laws of Nature.' The author begins somewhat formally with the old distinction of politics into democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. He discusses the principles of each and their bearings on education, on positive law, on social conditions, on military strength, offensive and defensive, on individual liberty, on taxation and finance. Then an abrupt return is made from the effects to the causes of constitutions and polity. The theory of the influence of physical conditions, and especially of climate, on political and social institutions — a theory which is perhaps more than any other identified with the book — receives special attention, and a somewhat disproportionate space is given to the question of slavery in connection with it. From climate Montesquieu passes to the nature of the soil, as in its turn affecting civil polity. He then attacks the subject of manners and customs as distinct from laws, of trade and commerce, of the family, of jurisprudence, of religion. The book concludes with an elaborate examination of the feudal system in France. Throughout it the reader is equally surprised at the varied and exact knowledge of the author, and at his extraordinary fertility in general views. This fertility is indeed sometimes a snare to him, and leads to rash generalisation. But what has to be remembered is, that he was one of the pioneers of this method of historical exploration, and that hundreds of principles which, after correction by his successors, have passed into general acceptance, were discovered, or at least enunciated, by him for the first time. Nothing is more remarkable in Montesquieu, and nothing more distinguishes him from the common run of his somewhat self-satisfied and short-sighted successors, than the steady hold he keeps on the continuity of history, and his superiority to the shallow view of his day (constantly put forward by Voltaire), according to which the middle ages were a dark period of barbarism, the study of which could be of no use to any one but a mere curiosity hunter. Montesquieu too, almost alone of his contemporaries, had a matured and moderate plan of political and social reform. While some of them indulged in an idle and theoretical Republicanism, and others in the old unpractical frondeur spirit, eager to pull down but careless about building up, Montesquieu had conceived the idea of a limited monarchy, not identical with that of England, but in many ways similar to it; an ideal which in the first quarter of the eighteenth century might have been put in practice with far better chance of success than in the first quarter of the nineteenth. The merely literary merits of this great book are equal to its philosophical merits. The vast mass of facts with which the author deals is selected with remarkable judgment, and arranged with remarkable lucidity. The style is sober, devoid of ornament, but admirably proportioned and worked out. There are few greater books, not merely in French but in literature, than the Esprit des Lois.


With Voltaire the case is very different. Very many of his innumerable works have directly philosophical titles, but no one of them is a work of much interest or merit. His 'Philosophic Letters,' 1733, published after his return from England, and the source of much trouble to him, are the lively but not very trustworthy medium of a contrast between English liberty and toleration and French arbitrary government. His 'Discourses on Man,' and other verse of the same kind, are verse-philosophy of the class of Pope's. The pompously named 'Treatise on Metaphysics,' 1734, is very much the same in substance if not in form. The remarks on Pascal's Pensées are unimportant contributions to the crusade against superstition; the Philosophical Dictionary, 1764, is a heterogeneous collection of articles with the same object. The Essai sur les Mœurs, 1756, composed not improbably in rivalry with Montesquieu, contains much acute reflection on particulars, but is injured by the author's imperfect information as to the subjects of which he was treating, by his entirely unphilosophical contempt for the 'Dark Ages,' and indeed by the absence of any general conception of history which can be called philosophical. Voltaire's real importance, however, in connection with the philosophe movement is to be found, not in the merit or value of any one of his professedly philosophical books, but in the fact that all his works, his poems, his plays, his histories, his romances, his innumerable flying essays and papers of all sorts, were invariably saturated with its spirit, and helped to communicate it to others. It cannot be said that Voltaire had any clear conception of the object which he wished to attain, except in so far as the famous watchword 'Écrasez l'Infâme' goes. This means not, as has been erroneously thought, 'crush Christianity,' but 'crush persecuting superstition.' He was by no means in favour of any political reform, except as far as private rights were concerned. He would have liked the exaggerated political privileges of the Church (which enabled it to persecute dissidents, and inflicted on laymen an unfair share of taxation) to be revoked, the cruel and irrational procedure of the French tribunals to be reformed, Church lands to be in great part secularised, and so forth; but he never seems to have faced the necessity of connecting these reforms with a radical alteration of the whole system of government. The sharp point of his ridicule was, however, always at the service of the aggressive party, especially for what he had most at heart, the overthrow of dogmatic and traditional theology and ecclesiasticism. For this purpose, as has been said already, he was willing to make, and did make, all his works, no matter of what kind (except a few scattered writings on mathematics and physics, pure and simple, in which he took great interest), into more or less elaborate pamphlets, and to put at the service of the movement his great position as the head of French and indeed of European letters. His habitual inaccuracy, and the inferiority of his mind in strictly logical faculty and in commanding range of view, disabled him from really serious contributions to philosophy of any kind. The curious mixture of defects and merits in this great writer is apt to render piecemeal notice of him, such as is necessitated by the plan of this book, apparently unfavourable. But no literary historian can take leave of Voltaire with words of intentional disfavour. The mere fact that it has been necessary to take detailed notice of him in every one of the last six chapters, is roughly indicative of his unequalled versatility. But, versatile as he is, there is perhaps no department of his work, save serious poetry and criticism, in which from the literary point of view he fails to attain all but the highest rank.

The Encyclopædia.

Montesquieu and Voltaire were, as has been said, precursors rather than members of the philosophe group proper, which is identified with the Encyclopædia, and to this group it is now time to come. The history of this famous book is rather curious. The English Cyclopædia of Ephraim Chambers had appeared in 1727. About fifteen years after its publication a translation of it was offered to and accepted by the French bookseller, Le Breton. But Le Breton was not satisfied with a bare translation, and wished the book to be worked up into something more extensive. He applied to different men of letters, and finally to Diderot, who, enlisting the Chancellor d'Aguesseau in the plan, obtaining privilege for the enlarged work, and mustering by degrees a staff of contributors which included almost every man of letters of any repute in France, succeeded in carrying it out. The task was anything but a sinecure. It occupied nearly twenty years of Diderot's life; it was repeatedly threatened and sometimes actually prohibited; and D'Alembert (Diderot's principal coadjutor, and in fact co-editor) actually retired from it in disgust at the obstacles thrown in their way. The book so produced was by no means a mere pamphlet or controversial work, though many of the articles were made polemical by those to whom they were entrusted. The principal of its contributors however — Voltaire himself was one — became gradually recognised as representing the criticism of existing institutions, many of which, it must be confessed, were so bad at the time that simple examination of them was in itself the severest censure. It becomes necessary, therefore, to mention the names and works of the most remarkable of this group who have not found or will not find a place elsewhere.


Denis Diderot was born at Langres, on the 15th October, 1713. He was brilliantly successful at school, but on being required to choose a profession rejected both church and law. It appears, however, that he studied medicine. His father, a man of affectionate temper but strong will, refused to support him unless he chose a regular mode of life, and Diderot at once set up for himself and attempted literature. Not much is authentically known of his life till, in 1743, he married; but he seems to have lived partly by taking pupils, partly by miscellaneous literary hack-work. After his marriage his household expenses (and others) quickened his literary activity, and before long he received, in the editorship of the Encyclopædia, a charge which, though ridiculously ill paid and very laborious, practically secured him from want for many years, while it gave him a very important position. He made many friends, and was especially intimate with the Baron d'Holbach, a rich and hospitable man, and a great adept in chemistry and atheism. Before this Diderot had had some troubles, being even imprisoned at Vincennes for his Essai sur les Aveugles, 1749. Besides his Encyclopædia work Diderot was lavish in contributing, often without either remuneration or acknowledgment of any kind, to the work of other men, and especially to the correspondence by which his friend Grimm kept the sovereigns of Germany and Russia informed of the course of things in Paris. The most remarkable of these contributions — criticisms of literature and art — have been noticed elsewhere, as have Diderot's historical and fictitious productions. As he grew old his necessities were met by a handsome act of Catherine of Russia, who bought his library, left him the use of it, and gave him a pension nominally as payment for his trouble as caretaker. He made, in 1773, a journey to St. Petersburg to pay his thanks, and on his return stayed for some time in Holland. He died in Paris in 1784. Diderot's miscellaneous works are, like Voltaire's, penetrated by the philosophe spirit, but it is less prominent, owing to his greater acquaintance with the individual matters which he handled. His contributions to definite philosophical literature are not unimportant. He began by an 'Essay on Merit and Virtue,' 1745, imitated from Shaftesbury, and by some more original Pensées Philosophiques. These pieces were followed by La Promenade du Sceptique, written somewhat in the fashion of Berkeley's Alciphron, and by some minor treatises, the most important of which are the Lettres sur les Sourds et Muets, and by the already mentioned Lettre sur les Aveugles, which led to his imprisonment, with some 'Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature.' A singular and characteristic book containing not a few acute but fantastic ideas is Le Rêve de D'Alembert, which, like an elaborate criticism on Helvétius' De l'Homme, was not printed during Diderot's life. The Essai sur les Règnes de Claude et de Néron was one of the latest of Diderot's works, and is a kind of historico-philosophical disquisition. The last piece of any importance which is included in the philosophical works of Diderot is an extensive scheme for a Russian university.

The characteristics of Diderot's philosophical works are the same as the characteristics of those other works of his which have been noticed, and his general position as a writer may well be considered here. There has seldom been an author who was more fertile in ideas. It is impossible to name a subject which Diderot has not treated, and hardly possible to name one on which he has not said striking and memorable things. The peculiarity of his mind was, that it could adjust itself, with hardly any effort, to any subject presented to it, grasp that subject and express thoughts on it in a novel and effective manner. He had moreover, what some other men of his century, notably Voltaire, lacked, a vast supply of positive information on the subjects with which he dealt, and an entire independence of conventional points of view in dealing with them. This independence was in some respects pushed to an unfortunate length, exposing him (whether deservedly or not, is an exceedingly difficult point to resolve) to the charge of atheism, and (beyond all doubts deservedly) to the charge of wilful disregard of the accepted decencies of language. Another and very serious fault, arising partly from temperament and partly from circumstances, was the want of needful pains and deliberation which characterises most of Diderot's work. That work is extremely voluminous, and even as it is, we have not anything like the whole of it in a collected form. Indeed, by far the larger part was never given to the world by the author himself in any deliberate or finished shape, and much of what he did publish was the result of mere improvisation. The consequence is, that Diderot is accused, not without truth, of having written good passages, but no good book, and that a full appreciation of his genius is only to be obtained by a most laborious process of wading through hundreds and thousands of pages of very inferior work. The result of that process, however, is never likely to be doubtful in the case of competent examiners. It is the conviction that Diderot ranks in point of originality and versatility of thought among the most fertile thinkers of France, and in point of felicity and idiosyncrasy of expression, among the most remarkable of her writers.


His coadjutor during the earlier part of his great work was a man curiously different from himself. Diderot was a rapid and careless writer, devoted to general society and conversation, interested in everything that was brought to his notice, passionate, unselfish, frequently extravagant. Jean le Rond d'Alembert (who was really an illegitimate son of Madame de Tencin by an uncertain father) was an extraordinarily careful writer, a man of retired habits, reserved, self-centred and phlegmatic. He was born in 1717, was exposed on the steps of a church, but was brought up carefully by a foster-mother of the lower classes, to whom he was consigned by the authorities, and had a not insufficient annuity settled upon him by his supposed father. He was educated at the Collège Mazarin, and early showed great aptitude for mathematics, in which equally with literature he distinguished himself in after years. He was elected a member of the Academy of Sciences as early as at the age of four-and-twenty. After he had joined Diderot, he wrote a preliminary discourse for the Encyclopædia — a famous and admirable sketch of the sciences — besides many articles. Of these, one on Geneva brought the book into more trouble than almost any other contribution, though D'Alembert was equally moderate as a thinker and as a writer. D'Alembert, as has been said, retired from the work after this storm, being above all things solicitous of peace and quietness. His refusals of the offers of Frederick II. in 1752 to go to Berlin as President of the Academy, and of Catherine II. to undertake, at what was then an enormous salary, the education of the Grand Duke Paul, have been variously taken as evidence of his disinterestedness, and of his shrewd dislike to possibly false positions, and the chance of such experiences as those of Voltaire. In his later life he and Mademoiselle de Lespinasse, as has been mentioned, kept house together. He died shortly before Diderot, in 1783. Perhaps his best literary works are his already mentioned Academic Éloges, or obituaries on important men of letters and science. D'Alembert contributed to the movement exactness of thought and precision of style, but his influence was more purely intellectual than that of any other member of the philosophe group.


The connection of Rousseau with the Encyclopædia itself was brief and not important. Yet it is here that his personal and general literary character and achievements may be most conveniently treated. Jean Jacques Rousseau was born at Geneva, on the 28th of June, 1712, of a family which had emigrated from France during the religious troubles. His father was a watchmaker, his mother died when he was very young. His education was not exactly neglected, but he went to no regular school, which, considering his peculiarities, was perhaps a misfortune. After being introduced to the law and to engraving, in both cases with ill success, he ran away and practically continued a vagabond to the end of his life. He served as a footman, was an inmate of a kind of proselytising almshouse at Turin, and went through many odd adventures, for which there is the dubious authority of his strange Confessions. When he was just of age, he was taken in by Madame de Warens, a Savoyard lady of birth and position, who had before been kind to him. With her he lived for some time, chiefly at Les Charmettes, near Chambéry. But being superseded in her good graces, he went to Lyons, where he lived by teaching. Thence he went to Paris, having little to depend on but an imperfect knowledge of music. In 1741 he was attached to the French Embassy at Venice under M. de Montaigu, but (as he did all through his life) he quarrelled in some way with his patron, and returned to Paris. Here he became intimate with Diderot, Grimm, and all the philosophe circle, especially with Madame d'Epinay. She established him in a cottage called the Hermitage with his companion Thérèse le Vasseur, whose acquaintance he had made in Paris, and whom he afterwards married. The extraordinary quarrel which took place between Rousseau and Diderot has been endlessly written about. It need only be said that Rousseau showed his usual temper and judgment, that Diderot was to all appearance quite guiltless, and that the chief fault lay elsewhere, probably with Grimm. For a time the Duke of Luxembourg protected him, then he was obliged, or thought himself obliged, to go into exile. Marshal Keith, Governor of Neufchatel for the King of Prussia, received and protected him, with the inevitable result that Rousseau considered it impossible to continue in this as in every other refuge. David Hume was his next good angel, and carried him to England in 1766. But the same drama repeated itself, as it did subsequently with the Prince de Conti and with Madame d'Enghien. Rousseau's last protector was M. de Girardin, who gave him, after he had lived in Paris in comparative quiet for several years, a home at Ermenonville in 1778. He did not outlive the year, dying in a somewhat mysterious fashion, which has never been fully explained, on the 2nd of July.

Rousseau was a man of middle age before he produced any literary work of importance. He had in his youth been given to music, and indeed throughout his life the slender profits of music copying were almost his only independent source of income. His knowledge of the subject was far from scientific, but he produced an operetta which was not unsuccessful, and, but for his singular temperament, he might have followed up the success. His first literary work of importance was a prose essay for the Dijon Academy on the subject of the effects of civilisation on society. Either of his own motion, or at the suggestion of Diderot, Rousseau took the apparently paradoxical line of arguing that all improvements on the savage life had been curses rather than blessings, and he gained the prize. In 1755 his Discours sur l'Origine de l'Inégalité appeared at Amsterdam; in 1760 his famous novel Julie, and in 1764 Emile, both of which have been spoken of already. Between the two appeared the still more famous and influential Contrat Social. Of the other works of Rousseau published during his lifetime, the most famous, perhaps, was his letter to D'Alembert on the subject of the introduction of theatrical performances into Geneva, a characteristic paradox which made a bitter enemy of the most powerful of French men of letters. Besides these, the Rêveries d'un Promeneur Solitaire, the Lettres de la Montagne, and above all, the unique Confessions, have to be reckoned. The last, like several of Rousseau's other works, did not appear till after his death.

Of all the writers mentioned in this chapter the influence of Rousseau on literature and on life was probably the largest. He was the direct inspirer of the men who made the French Revolution, and the theories of his Contrat Social were closer at the root of Jacobin politics than any other. His fervid declamation about equality and brotherhood, and his sentimental republicanism, were seed as well suited to the soil in which they were sown as Montesquieu's reasoned constitutionalism was unsuited to it. Rousseau, indeed, if the proof of the excellence of preaching is in the practice of the hearers, was the greatest preacher of the century. He denounced the practice of putting infants out to nurse, and mothers began to suckle their own children; he recommended instruction in useful arts, and many an émigré noble had to thank Rousseau for being able to earn his bread in exile; he denounced speculative atheism, urging the undogmatic but emotional creed of his Vicaire Savoyard, and the first wave of the religious reaction was set going to culminate in the Catholic movement of Chateaubriand and Lamennais. But in literature itself his influence was quite as powerful. He was not, indeed, the founder of the school of analysis of feeling in the novel, but he was the populariser of it. He was almost the founder of sentimentalism in general literature, and he was absolutely the first to make word-painting of nature an almost indispensable element of all imaginative and fictitious writing both in prose and poetry. Some of his characteristics were taken up in quick succession by Goethe in Germany, by Bernardin de St. Pierre and Chateaubriand in France. Others were for the time less eagerly imitated, and though Madame de Stael and her lover Benjamin Constant did something to spread them, it was reserved for the Romantic movement to develop them fully. It was singular, no doubt, and this is not the place to undertake the explanation of the singularity, that Rousseau, who detested most of the conclusions, and almost all the methods of the Encyclopædists, should be counted in with them, and should have undoubtedly helped in the first place to accomplish their result. But such is the case. His peculiar literary characteristics are perhaps better exhibited in the Confessions and in the miscellaneous works, than in either of the novels. The Contrat Social is a very remarkable piece of pseudo-argument. It is felt from the first that the whole assumption on which it reposes is historically false and philosophically absurd. Yet there is an appearance of speciousness in the arguments, an adroit mixture of logic and rhetoric, of order and method, which is exceedingly seductive. The Confession du Vicaire Savoyard, with many passages allied to it in the smaller works, has, despite the staleness of the language (which was hackneyed by a thousand empty talkers during the Revolution), not a little dignity and persuasive force. But it is in the Confessions that the literary power of the author appears at its fullest. Never, perhaps, was a more miserable story of human weakness revealed, and the peculiar thing is that Rousseau does not limit his exhibitions of himself to exhibitions of engaging frailty. The acts which he admits are in many cases indescribably base, mean, and disgusting. The course of conduct which he portrays is at its best that of a man entirely destitute of governing will, petulant, often positively ungrateful, always playing into the hands of the enemies whom his hallucinations supposed to exist, and frustrating the efforts of the friends whom he allows himself, if only for a time, to have possessed. Yet the narrative and dramatic skill with which all this is presented is so great, that there is hardly room for a sense of repulsion which is merged in interest, not necessarily sympathetic interest, but still interest. Of the feeling for natural beauty, which is everywhere present in these remarkable works, it is enough to say that in French prose literature, it may almost be said in the prose literature of Europe, it was entirely original. Part of Rousseau's devotion to nature arose no doubt from his moody and retiring temperament, which led him to rejoice in anything rather than the society of his fellow men. But this would not of itself have given him the literary skill with which he expresses these feelings. It is not so much in set descriptions of particular scenes as in slight occasional thoughts, embodying the emotions experienced at the sight of a flower, a lake-surface, a mountain side, a forest glade, that this mastery is shown. Yet of the more elaborate passages of this kind in other writers few can surpass the best things of the Nouvelle Héloïse, the Confessions, and the Rêveries. There is nothing novel to readers of the present day in such things, though they are seldom done so happily. But to the readers of Rousseau's day they were absolutely novel. It is in this that the main literary importance of Rousseau consists, though it must not be forgotten that he is in many ways a master of French prose. His contemporaries made use of his Genevan origin to find fault with his style; but with a few insignificant exceptions the criticism has no foundation. It has been very frequently renewed, and sometimes with little better reason, in the case of Swiss authors.

Round these chiefs of the Encyclopædic movement were grouped many lesser men, some of whom will be most conveniently noticed here. Marmontel, Morellet, and Saint-Lambert, whose chief importance lay in other directions, were contributors. The Chevalier de Jaucourt, a man of no original power, but a hack-writer of extraordinary aptitude, took considerable part in it. There were others, however, who, partly within and partly without the range of the Encyclopædia, had no small share in the promotion of what has been called the philosophe movement. Some of these have found their place under the head of Essayists. There is, however, one remarkable division, which must be treated here — the division of economists — before we pass to the philosophers properly so called, who either continued the metaphysics of Locke in a directly materialist sense, or who, restraining themselves to sensationalism, made the most of the English philosopher in that direction.

Political Economists. Vauban, Quesnay, etc.

The science of 'Political Arithmetic,' as it was first called in England, had a somewhat earlier birth in France than in England itself. It is remarkable that the complete establishment of the royal authority under Louis XIV. preceded but by a very few years the examination of the economic condition of the kingdom by unsparing examiners. The two chief of these, both of whom fell into disgrace for their doings, were the great engineer Vauban, and the great theologian Fénelon. The latter was attracted to the subject chiefly by compassion for the sufferings of the people, and expressed his opinion in a manner more rhetorical than scientific. Vauban's course was naturally different. In the later years of his life he set himself to the collection of statistical facts as to the economic condition of France, and the result was the two books called Oisivetés de M. de Vauban and La Dîme Royale, 1707. The former of these contained the facts, the latter the deduction from them, which was, to put it briefly, that the existing system of privilege, exemption, and irregular taxation was a loss to the Crown, and a torment to the people. Vauban received the reward of his labours, attention to which would probably have prevented the French Revolution, in the shape of the royal displeasure, and nothing came immediately of his investigations. In the next century, however, a regular sect of political economists arose. They had, indeed, been preceded by an eccentric man of letters, the Abbé de Saint-Pierre, who occupied his life in propounding Utopian schemes of universal peace and general prosperity. But the first and greatest of the economists properly so called was Quesnay. The extreme misery of the common people attracted his attention, and set him upon calculating the causes and remedies of periodical failings. He was himself a frequent contributor to the Encyclopædia. Many others of the philosophe set occupied themselves with these and similar subjects, notably the Abbés Morellet and Galiani. The former was a man of a certain vigour (Voltaire called him 'L'Abbé Mord-Les'), the latter has been noticed already. His Dialogue sur le Commerce des Blés acquired for him a great reputation.


Very many writers, among them the father of the great Mirabeau (in his curious and able, though unequal and ill-proportioned Ami des Hommes), attacked economical subjects at this time. But Turgot, though not remarkable for the form of his writings, was the most original and influential writer of the liberal school in this department. He was a Norman by birth, and of a good legal family. He was born in 1727, and, being destined for the Church, was educated at the Sorbonne. Turgot, however, shared to the full the philosophe ideas of the time as to theological orthodoxy, and did not share the usual philosophe ideas as to concealment of his principles for comfort's sake. He refused to take orders, turning his attention to the law and the Civil Service instead of the Church. His family had considerable influence, and at the age of twenty-four he was appointed intendant of Limoges, a post which gave him practical control of the government of a large, though barren and neglected, province. His achievements in the way of administrative reform here were remarkable, and, had they been generally imitated, might have brought about a very different state of things in France. After the death of Louis XV., he was recommended by Maurepas to a far more important office, the controllership of finance. Here, too, he did great things; but his attack on the privileged orders was ill-seconded, and, after holding his post for about two years, he had to resign, partly, it is true, owing to a certain unaccommodating rigidity of demeanour, which was one of his least amiable characteristics. He died in 1781. Turgot's literary work is not extensive, and it is not distinguished by its style. It consists of certain discourses at the Sorbonne, of memoirs on various political occasions, of some letters on usury, of articles in the Encyclopædia, of which the most noteworthy is one on endowments, etc. All are remarkable as containing the germs of what may be accepted as the modern liberal doctrines on the various points of which they treat, while the second Sorbonne discourse is entitled to the credit of first clearly announcing the principle of the philosophy of history, the doctrine, that is to say, that human progress follows regular laws of development, certain sets of causes invariably tending to bring about certain sets of results.


With the name of Turgot that of Condorcet is inseparably connected, and though far less important in the history of thought, it is perhaps more prominent in the history of literature, for the pupil and biographer (in both of which relations Condorcet stood to Turgot) was, though a far less original and vigorous thinker, a better writer than his master and subject. Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, styled Marquis de Condorcet, was born in 1743, near St. Quentin, and early distinguished himself both in mathematics and in the belles lettres. He became Secretary of the Academy in 1777, and he afterwards wrote the Life of Turgot, whose method of dealing with economic questions (a more practical and less abstract one than that of the earlier economists) he had already followed. He took a considerable part in the French Revolution, serving both in the Legislative Assembly and in the Convention. In the latter he became identified with the Girondist party, and shared their troubles. His best known work, the Esquisse des Progrès de l'Esprit Humain, was written while he was a fugitive and in concealment. He was at last discovered and arrested, but the day after he was found dead in his prison at Bourg la Reine, having apparently poisoned himself (March, 1794). Condorcet's works are voluminous, and partake strongly of the philosophe character. He is not remarkable for originality of thought, and may indeed be said to be for the most part a mere exponent of the current ideas of the second stage of the philosophe movement. But his style has great merits, being clear, forcible, and correct, suffering only from the somewhat stereotyped forms, and from the absence of flexibility and colour which distinguish the later eighteenth century in France.


One more remarkable name deserves to be mentioned in this place as the last of the Philosophes proper, that is to say, of those writers who carried out the general principles of the Encyclopædist movement with less reference to specialist departments of literature than to a certain general spirit and tendency. This was Constantin François de Chassebœuf, Comte de Volney, by which latter name he is generally known. Volney was born in 1757, at Caron, in Anjou, and was educated at Angers, and afterwards at Paris. He studied both medicine and law, but having a sufficient fortune, practised neither. In 1783 he set out on his travels and journeyed to the East, visiting Egypt and Syria; an account of which journey he published four years later. When he returned to France he was from the beginning a moderate partisan of the Revolution, and, like most such persons, he was arrested during the Terror, though he escaped with no worse fate than imprisonment. Immediately after Thermidor, Volney published his most celebrated work, Les Ruines, a treatise on the rise and fall of empires from a general and philosophical point of view. Shortly after this he visited the United States, whence he returned in 1798. He had known Napoleon in early days, and on the establishment of the Consulate he was appointed a senator; nor was his resignation accepted, though it was tendered when Bonaparte assumed the crown. His countship was Napoleonic, but he was always an opponent of the emperor's policy. Accordingly, after the Restoration, he was nominated by Louis XVIII. as a member of the new House of Peers. He died in 1820. Besides the books already noticed he published some studies in ancient history and many miscellaneous works, including a project of a universal language. Volney was, as has been said, the last of the philosophes, exhibiting, long after a new order of thought had set in, their acute but negative and one-sided criticism, their sterile contempt of Christianity and religion generally, their somewhat theoretic acceptance of generalisations on philosophy and history, and of large plans for dealing with politics and ethics. As a traveller his observation is accurate and his expression vivid; as a philosophical historian his acuteness is perhaps not sufficiently accompanied by real breadth of view.

La Mettrie

Between these philosophers, in the local and temporary sense of the word, who dealt only with what would now be called the sociological side of philosophy in its bearings on politics, religion, ethics, and economics, and the strictly philosophical school of Condillac and his followers, a small but very influential sect of materialists, who were yet not purely philosophical materialists, has to be considered. Three members of this school have importance in literature — La Mettrie, Helvétius, and Holbach. La Mettrie was a native of Britanny: he entered the medical service of the French army, acquired a speedy reputation for heterodoxy and disorderly living, and fled for shelter to the general patron of heterodox Frenchmen, Frederick of Prussia; at whose court he died, at a comparatively early age, it is said in consequence of a practical joke. La Mettrie's chief work is a paradoxical exercise in materialist physics called L'Homme-Machine, in which he endeavours to prove the purely automatic working of the human frame, and the absence of any mind in the spiritualist sense. This he followed by a similar but less original work, called L'Homme-Plante, and by some other minor publications. La Mettrie was a very unequal thinker and writer, but he has, as Voltaire (who disliked him) expressed it, traits de flamme both in thought and style. Claude Adrian Helvétius was of Swiss descent, and of ample fortune. Born in 1715, he was appointed to the high post of Farmer-General when he was little more than twenty-three; but he did not hold this appointment very long, and became Chamberlain to the Queen. He was very popular in society, and was of a benevolent and philanthropic disposition, though he seems to have got into trouble at his country seat of Voré by excessive game preserving. He married, in 1751, the beautiful Mademoiselle de Ligneville, who was long afterwards one of the chief centres of literary society in Paris. In 1758 his book De l'Esprit appeared, and made a great sensation, being condemned as immoral, and burnt by the hangman. Helvétius subsequently travelled in England and Germany, dying in 1771. A second treatise, De l'Homme, which appeared posthumously, is much inferior to De l'Esprit in literary merit. It was even more fiercely assailed than its predecessor, and Diderot himself, the leader of the more active section of the philosophe party, wrote an elaborate refutation of it, which, however, has only recently been published. The book De l'Esprit is wanting in depth, and too anecdotic in style for a serious work of philosophy, though this very characteristic makes it all the more amusing reading. It endeavours to make out a theory of morals based on what is called the selfish system; and it was the naked manner in which this selfish system of ethics, and the materialist metaphysics which it implies, are manifested in the book which gave occasion to its ill repute. As a mere work of literature, however, it is well, and in parts even brilliantly written, and amid much that is desultory, inconclusive, and even demonstrably unsound, views of extreme shrewdness and originality on social abuses and inconsistencies are to be found.

Système de la Nature.

None of the writers hitherto mentioned made open profession of atheism, and it is doubtful whether even Diderot deserves the appellation of a consistent atheist. There was, however, a large anti-theistic school among the philosophes, which increased in numbers and strength towards the outbreak of the Revolution. The most striking work by far of this school (which included Damilaville, Naigeon, and a few other names of no great distinction in literature) was the Système de la Nature, which appeared in 1770. This remarkable book, which even Voltaire and Frederick II. set themselves seriously to refute, contains a complete materialist system in metaphysics and theology. It represents the existence of God as a mere creation of the superstition of men, unable to assign a cause for the evils under which they suffer, and inventing a supernatural entity to satisfy themselves. The book (to consider its literary style only) is extremely unequal, passages of remarkable vigour alternating with long and dreary tracts of inconclusive and monotonous declamation. It appeared under the name of a dead man, Mirabaud, a person of some slight and chiefly official name in science and letters. It is, however, believed, if not certainly known, to be the work of the Baron d'Holbach (who unquestionably wrote various other books of a similar tendency), with the assistance of divers of his friends, and especially of Diderot. The Système is a very singular production, animated by a kind of fanatical, and in parts almost poetical aspiration after the annihilation of all supernatural belief, which is hardly to be found elsewhere except in Lucretius. It had great influence, though that influence was one of repulsion as well as of conversion, and it may be said to be, up to the present day, the furthest step taken in the direction of philosophical as opposed to political Nihilism. It should, however, be observed that in parts there is a strong political tinge observable in it.


In all this century of so-called philosophy, France possessed hardly more than one really eminent and considerable metaphysician. This was Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, brother of the Abbé de Mably, who was born in 1715, and died in 1780. Condillac himself was an abbé, and possessing a sufficient benefice, he lived for the most part quietly upon it, and took no part in the political, or even the literary life of the times. In 1746 he published his Essai sur l'Origine des Connoissances Humaines; in 1749 his Traité des Systèmes, a work critical rather than constructive; and in 1754 the Traité des Sensations, his principal work, which completes his theory. The influence of Locke was the most powerful single influence in the philosophe movement of France, and Condillac took up Locke's work at exactly the point where his master had faltered. He set to work to show with great plausibility that, according to Lockeian principles, the addition of ideas of reflection to ideas of sensation is unsustainable, and that all ideas without exception are merely transformed sensations. One of the illustrations which he used to support his views, that of a statue supposed to be endowed with a single sense, and successively developing first the others, and then the powers usually classed as reflection, is famous in the history of philosophy. It concerns us only as giving an instance of the method of Condillac, which is remarkable for vividness and adaptation to the ordinary comprehension. Unlike the style of Locke himself, Condillac's style is not in the least slovenly, but polished and lucid, excellently suited to such a public as that of the eighteenth century, which was at once intelligent enough to understand, and educated enough to demand, finish of manner in discussing abstract points.

After Condillac the history of philosophy in France during the rest of the period is of no great interest to literature. He himself was continued and represented chiefly by Destutt de Tracy. The reaction against the extreme idealist and materialist constructions of Locke respectively, which had been brought about in England by Reid and Stewart, acquired in the last years of the eighteenth century, and the beginning of the nineteenth, a considerable following in France. Its chiefs were Maine de Biran, Royer Collard (who also obtained reputation as an orator and parliamentary politician), and Jouffroy. They belong, however, rather to the history of philosophy than to that of literature.

Joseph de Maistre.

After this long list of writers who advocated, more or less openly, revolution in matters political and religious, but especially in the latter, two authors who with Chateaubriand, but in a definitely philosophical manner, set the example of reaction, and who to a great extent indicated the lines which it was to follow, must be mentioned. These are Joseph de Maistre, and Louis de Bonald. Joseph, Count de Maistre, was born at Chambéry, in 1753, of a noble Savoyard family, which is said to have come originally from Languedoc. His father held important employments in the duchy, and Joseph himself entered its civil service. When, after the French Revolution, Savoy was invaded, and in a short time annexed, he returned to Lausanne, and there wrote Considérations sur la France, his first work of importance. For some years he was employed at Turin in the administration of such of his continental dominions as were left to the King of Sardinia; and then, after the practical annexation of Piedmont, he held a similar employ in the island of Sardinia itself. At the beginning of the present century, he was sent to St. Petersburg to plead the cause of his master. Here he remained till after the overthrow of Napoleon, and wrote, though he did not publish, most of his books. In 1816 he returned to Turin, and died a few years afterwards — in 1821. The three chief works of Joseph de Maistre are Du Pape, 1817, De l'Église Gallicane, and the unfinished Soirées de St. Pétersbourg. The two first compose a complete treatise on the power and position of the pope in relation both to the temporal and to the ecclesiastical form of national government. The author is the most uncompromising of ultramontanes. According to him the pope is the source of all authority on earth, and temporal princes are little more than his delegates. Except in relation to religious error, Joseph de Maistre is not hostile to a certain ordered measure of liberty accorded by their rulers to peoples and individuals. But, strongly impressed by the social and moral, as well as the political and religious anarchy brought about first by the philosophe movement, and then by the Revolution, he sees the only chance of rescue in the establishment of a hierarchy of government culminating in that from which there is no appeal, the single authority of the pope. He is thus a legitimist with a difference. The Soirées de St. Pétersbourg, which are unfinished and not entirely uniform in plan, deal nominally with the providential government of the world, but diverge to a large number of subjects. It is in this book that the author develops the kind of modified terrorism which is often, though not altogether justly, considered to be his chief characteristic, eulogising the executioner as the foundation of society.

Joseph de Maistre is unquestionably one of the greatest thinkers and writers of the eighteenth century. Paradoxical and strained as his system frequently appears, it is rigorously logical. An ordered theocracy seems to him the only polity capable of giving peace and true prosperity to the world, and he shapes all his theories so as to fit in with this central conception. On detached subjects his thoughts are always vigorous, and often strikingly original. His reading was great, and his skill in polemics of the very highest. No one possesses in larger measure the art of hostile criticism without descending to actual abuse. These merits of themselves imply purely literary accomplishments, clearness, distinctness, forcible expression, in a rare kind and degree. But Joseph de Maistre is more than this as a writer. He possesses, though he only occasionally exercises it, a brilliant faculty of rhetoric. His phrase is more than merely clear and forcible; it has a peculiar incisiveness and sharpness of outline which impress it on the memory, while, sparing as he is of ornament, his rare passages of description and fancy have great merit. The surest testimony to his value is the fact that, though both in his own day and since by far the larger number of writers and thinkers have held views more or less opposed to his, no one whose opinion is itself of the least importance has ever spoken of him without respect and even admiration. Those who, like Lamartine, qualify their admiration with a certain depreciation, show inability to recognise fully the beauty of strength undisguised by conventional elegance and grace of form.


Louis Gabriel Ambroise, Vicomte de Bonald, who is usually named with Joseph de Maistre as the leader of the Catholic-monarchist reaction, was a weaker thinker, and a writer of less accomplishment, though in both respects he has perhaps been somewhat unfairly criticised. Born at Milhaud, in the district of Rouergue, in 1754, he discharged various civil and military employments in his native province during his youth; was elected in 1790 member of the Departmental Assembly, but emigrated next year; served in Condé's army, and then established himself at Heidelberg. His first work was seized by the Directory, but he returned to France soon afterwards, and was not molested. He published a good deal during the first years of the century, and, like many other royalists, received overtures from Napoleon through Fontanes. These he did not exactly reject, but he availed himself of them very sparingly. The Restoration, on the contrary, aroused him to vigour. It was owing to him chiefly that the law of divorce was altered. He entered the Academy, and in 1823 was made a peer; an honour which he resigned at the revolution of July. He died in 1840.

Bonald's principal work is his Législation Primitive. He also wrote a book on divorce, and a considerable number of miscellaneous political and metaphysical works. His chief subjects of discussion were, first, the theory of the revelation of language; and secondly, the theory of causality: in respect of both of which he combated the materialist school of the eighteenth century. In politics Bonald was a thoroughgoing legitimist and monarchist of the patriarchal school. Although an orthodox and devout Catholic, he does not lay the stress on the temporal power of the pope that the author of Du Pape does. With him the king is the immediate instrument of God in governing. He has been accused of reducing things too much to formulas, and of repeating his formulas too often. But this itself was in great part the effect of reaction against the vague declamation of the philosophes.


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