Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

ELEGANCE.

According to some authors this word comes from “electus,” chosen; it does not appear that its etymology can be derived from any other Latin word, since all is choice that is elegant. Elegance is the result of regularity and grace.

This word is employed in speaking of painting and sculpture. Elegans signum is opposed to signum rigens — a proportionate figure, the rounded outlines of which are expressed with softness, to a cold and badly-finished figure.

The severity of the ancient Romans gave an odious sense to the word “elegantia.” They regarded all kinds of elegance as affectation and farfetched politeness, unworthy the gravity of the first ages. “Vitæ non laudi fuit,” says Aulus Gellius. They call him an “elegant man,” whom in these days we designate a petit-maître (bellus homuncio), and which the English call a “beau”; but towards the time of Cicero, when manners received their last degree of refinement, elegans was always deemed laudatory. Cicero makes use of this word in a hundred places to describe a man or a polite discourse. At that time even a repast was called elegant, which is scarcely the case among us.

This term among the French, as among the ancient Romans, is confined to sculpture, painting, eloquence, and still more to poetry; it does not precisely mean the same thing as grace.

The word “grace” applies particularly to the countenance, and we do not say an elegant face, as we say elegant contours; the reason is that grace always relates to something in motion, and it is in the countenance that the mind appears; thus we do not say an elegant gait, because gait includes motion.

The elegance of a discourse is not its eloquence; it is a part of it; it is neither the harmony nor metre alone; it is clearness, metre, and choice of words, united.

There are languages in Europe in which nothing is more scarce than an elegant expression. Rude terminations, frequent consonants, and auxiliary verbs grammatically repeated in the same sentence, offend the ears even of the natives themselves.

A discourse may be elegant without being good, elegance being, in reality, only a choice of words; but a discourse cannot be absolutely good without being elegant. Elegance is still more necessary to poetry than eloquence, because it is a part of that harmony so necessary to verse.

An orator may convince and affect even without elegance, purity, or number; a poet cannot really do so without being elegant: it is one of the principal merits of Virgil. Horace is much less elegant in his satires and epistles, so that he is much less of a poet sermoni proprior.

The great point in poetry and the oratorical art is that the elegance should never appear forced; and the poet in that, as in other things, has greater difficulties than the orator, for harmony being the base of his art, he must not permit a succession of harsh syllables. He must even sometimes sacrifice a little of the thought to elegance of expression, which is a constraint that the orator never experiences.

It should be remarked that if elegance always appears easy, all that is easy and natural is not, however, elegant.

It is seldom said of a comedy that it is elegantly written. The simplicity and rapidity of a familiar dialogue exclude this merit, so proper to all other poetry. Elegance would seem inconsistent with the comic. A thing elegantly said would not be laughed at, though most of the verses of Molière’s “Amphitryon,” with the exception of those of mere pleasantry, are elegantly written. The mixture of gods and men in this piece, so unique in its kind, and the irregular verses, forming a number of madrigals, are perhaps the cause.

A madrigal requires to be more elegant than an epigram, because the madrigal bears somewhat the nature of the ode, and the epigram belongs to the comic. The one is made to express a delicate sentiment, and the other a ludicrous one.

Elegance should not be attended to in the sublime: it would weaken it. If we read of the elegance of the Jupiter Olympus of Phidias, it would be a satire. The elegance of the “Venus of Praxiteles” may be properly alluded to.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25