Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


It is very strange that since the French people became literary they have had no book written in a good style, until the year 1654, when the “Provincial Letters” appeared; and why had no one written history in a suitable tone, previous to that of the “Conspiracy of Venice” of the Abbé St. Réal? How is it that Pellisson was the first who adopted the true Ciceronian style, in his memoir for the superintendent Fouquet?

Nothing is more difficult and more rare than a style altogether suitable to the subject in hand.

The style of the letters of Balzac would not be amiss for funeral orations; and we have some physical treatises in the style of the epic poem or the ode. It is proper that all things occupy their own places.

Affect not strange terms of expression, or new words, in a treatise on religion, like the Abbé Houteville; neither declaim in a physical treatise. Avoid pleasantry in the mathematics, and flourish and extravagant figures in a pleading. If a poor intoxicated woman dies of an apoplexy, you say that she is in the regions of death; they bury her, and you exclaim that her mortal remains are confided to the earth. If the bell tolls at her burial, it is her funeral knell ascending to the skies. In all this you think you imitate Cicero, and you only copy Master Littlejohn. . . . .

Without style, it is impossible that there can be a good work in any kind of eloquence or poetry. A profusion of words is the great vice of all our modern philosophers and anti-philosophers. The “Système de la Nature” is a great proof of this truth. It is very difficult to give just ideas of God and nature, and perhaps equally so to form a good style.

As the kind of execution to be employed by every artist depends upon the subject of which he treats — as the line of Poussin is not that of Teniers, nor the architecture of a temple that of a common house, nor music of a serious opera that of a comic one — so has each kind of writing its proper style, both in prose and verse. It is obvious that the style of history is not that of a funeral oration, and that the despatch of an ambassador ought not to be written like a sermon; that comedy is not to borrow the boldness of the ode, the pathetic expression of the tragedy, nor the metaphors and similes of the epic.

Every species has its different shades, which may, however, be reduced to two, the simple and the elevated. These two kinds, which embrace so many others, possess essential beauties in common, which beauties are accuracy of idea, adaptation, elegance, propriety of expression, and purity of language. Every piece of writing, whatever its nature, calls for these qualities; the difference consists in the employment of the corresponding tropes. Thus, a character in comedy will not utter sublime or philosophical ideas, a shepherd spout the notions of a conqueror, not a didactic epistle breathe forth passion; and none of these forms of composition ought to exhibit bold metaphor, pathetic exclamation, or vehement expression.

Between the simple and the sublime there are many shades, and it is the art of adjusting them which contributes to the perfection of eloquence and poetry. It is by this art that Virgil frequently exalts the eclogue. This verse: Ut vidi ut perii, ut me malus abstulit error! (Eclogue viii, v. 41)— I saw, I perished, yet indulged my pain! (Dryden)— would be as fine in the mouth of Dido as in that of a shepherd, because it is nature, true and elegant, and the sentiment belongs to any condition. But this:

Castaneasque nuces me quas Amaryllis amabat.

Eclogue, ii, v. 52

And pluck the chestnuts from the neigboring grove,

Such as my Amaryllis used to love.

— Dryden.

belongs not to an heroic personage, because the allusion is not such as would be made by a hero.

These two instances are examples of the cases in which the mingling of styles may be defended. Tragedy may occasionally stoop; it even ought to do so. Simplicity, according to the precept of Horace, often relieves grandeur. Et tragicus plerumque dolet sermone pedestri (Ars Poet., v. 95)— And oft the tragic language humbly flows (Francis).

These two verses in Titus, so natural and so tender:

Depuis cinq ans entiers chaque jour je la vois.

Et crois toujours la voir pour la première fois.

— Bérénice, acte ii, scene 1.

Each day, for five years, have I seen her face,

And each succeeding time appears the first.

would not be at all out of place in serious comedy; but the following verse of Antiochus: Dans l’orient desert quel devint mon ennui! (Id., acte i, scene 4)— The lonely east, how wearisome to me! — would not suit a lover in comedy; the figure of the “lonely east” is too elevated for the simplicity of the buskin. We have already remarked, that an author who writes on physics, in allusion to a writer on physics, called Hercules, adds that he is not able to resist a philosopher so powerful. Another who has written a small book, which he imagines to be physical and moral, against the utility of inoculation, says that if the smallpox be diffused artificially, death will be defrauded.

The above defect springs from a ridiculous affectation. There is another which is the result of negligence, which is that of mingling with the simple and noble style required by history, popular phrases and low expressions, which are inimical to good taste. We often read in Mézeray, and even in Daniel, who, having written so long after him, ought to be more correct, that “a general pursued at the heels of the enemy, followed his track, and utterly basted him”— à plate couture. We read nothing of this kind in Livy, Tacitus, Guicciardini, or Clarendon.

Let us observe, that an author accustomed to this kind of style can seldom change it with his subject. In his operas, La Fontaine composed in the style of his fables; and Benserade, in his translation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” exhibited the same kind of pleasantry which rendered his madrigals successful. Perfection consists in knowing how to adapt our style to the various subjects of which we treat; but who is altogether the master of his habits, and able to direct his genius at pleasure?

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