Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The Feeble.

Weakness of the heart is not that of the mind, nor weakness of the soul that of the heart. A feeble soul is without resource in action, and abandons itself to those who govern it. The heart which is weak or feeble is easily softened, changes its inclinations with facility, resists not the seduction or the ascendency required, and may subsist with a strong mind; for we may think strongly and act weakly. The weak mind receives impressions without resistance, embraces opinions without examination, is alarmed without cause, and tends naturally to superstition.

A work may be feeble either in its matter or its style; by the thoughts, when too common, or when, being correct, they are not sufficiently profound; and by the style, when it is destitute of images, or turns of expression, and of figures which rouse attention. Compared with those of Bossuet, the funeral orations of Mascaron are weak, and his style is lifeless.

Every speech is feeble when it is not relieved by ingenious turns, and by energetic expressions; but a pleader is weak, when, with all the aid of eloquence, and all the earnestness of action, he fails in ratiocination. No philosophical work is feeble, notwithstanding the deficiency of its style, if the reasoning be correct and profound. A tragedy is weak, although the style be otherwise, when the interest is not sustained. The best-written comedy is feeble if it fails in that which the Latins call the “vis comica,” which is the defect pointed out by Cæsar in Terence: “Lenibus atque utinam scriptis adjuncta foret vis comica!”

This is above all the sin of the weeping or sentimental comedy (larmoyante). Feeble verses are not those which sin against rules, but against genius; which in their mechanism are without variety, without choice expression, or felicitous inversions; and which retain in poetry the simplicity and homeliness of prose. The distinction cannot be better comprehended than by a reference to the similar passages of Racine and Campistron, his imitator.

Flowery Style.

“Flowery,” that which is in blossom; a tree in blossom, a rose-bush in blossom: people do not say, flowers which blossom. Of flowery bloom, the carnation seems a mixture of white and rose-color. We sometimes say a flowery mind, to signify a person possessing a lighter species of literature, and whose imagination is lively.

A flowery discourse is more replete with agreeable than with strong thoughts, with images more sparkling than sublime, and terms more curious than forcible. This metaphor is correctly taken from flowers, which are showy without strength or stability.

The flowery style is not unsuitable to public speeches or addresses which amount only to compliment. The lighter beauties are in their place when there is nothing more solid to say; but the flowery style should be banished from a pleading, a sermon, or a didactic work.

While banishing the flowery style, we are not to reject the soft and lively images which enter naturally into the subject; a few flowers are even admissible; but the flowery style cannot be made suitable to a serious subject.

This style belongs to productions of mere amusement; to idyls, eclogues, and descriptions of the seasons, or of gardens. It may gracefully occupy a portion of the most sublime ode, provided it be duly relieved by stanzas of more masculine beauty. It has little to do with comedy, which, as it ought to possess a resemblance to common life, requires more of the style of ordinary conversation. It is still less admissible in tragedy, which is the province of strong passions and momentous interests; and when occasionally employed in tragedy or comedy, it is in certain descriptions in which the heart takes no part, and which amuse the imagination without moving or occupying the soul.

The flowery style detracts from the interest of tragedy, and weakens ridicule in comedy. It is in its place in the French opera, which rather flourishes on the passions than exhibits them. The flowery is not to be confounded with the easy style, which rejects this class of embellishment.

Coldness of Style.

It is said that a piece of poetry, of eloquence, of music, and even of painting, is cold, when we look for an animated expression in it, which we find not. Other arts are not so susceptible of this defect; for instance, architecture, geometry, logic, metaphysics, all the principal merit of which is correctness, cannot properly be called warm or cold. The picture of the family of Darius, by Mignard, is very cold in comparison with that of Lebrun, because we do not discover in the personages of Mignard the same affliction which Lebrun has so animatedly expressed in the attitudes and countenances of the Persian princesses. Even a statue may be cold; we ought to perceive fear and horror in the features of an Andromeda, the effect of a writhing of the muscles; and anger mingled with courageous boldness in the attitude and on the brow of Hercules, who suspends and strangles Antæus.

In poetry and eloquence the great movements of the soul become cold, when they are expressed in common terms, and are unaided by imagination. It is this latter which makes love so animated in Racine, and so languid in his imitator, Campistron.

The sentiments which escape from a soul which seeks concealment, on the contrary, require the most simple expression. Nothing is more animated than those verses in “The Cid”: “Go; I hate thee not — thou knowest it; I cannot.” This feeling would become cold, if conveyed in studied phrases.

For this reason, nothing is so cold as the timid style. A hero in a poem says, that he has encountered a tempest, and that he has beheld his friend perish in the storm. He touches and affects, if he speaks with profound grief of his loss — that is, if he is more occupied with his friend than with all the rest; but he becomes cold, and ceases to affect us, if he amuses us with a description of the tempest; if he speaks of the source of “the fire which was boiling up the waters, and of the thunder which roars and which redoubles the furrows of the earth and of the waves.” Coldness of style, therefore, often arises from a sterility of ideas; often from a deficiency in the power of governing them; frequently from a too common diction, and sometimes from one that is too far-fetched.

The author who is cold only in consequence of being animated out of time and place, may correct this defect of a too fruitful imagination; but he who is cold from a deficiency of soul is incapable of self-correction. We may allay a fire which is too intense, but cannot acquire heat if we have none.

On Corruption of Style.

A general complaint is made, that eloquence is corrupted, although we have models of almost all kinds. One of the greatest defects of the day, which contributes most to this defect, is the mixture of style. It appears to me, that we authors do not sufficiently imitate the painters, who never introduce the attitudes of Calot with the figures of Raphael. I perceive in histories, otherwise tolerably well written, and in good doctrinal works, the familiar style of conversation. Some one has formerly said, that we must write as we speak; the sense of which law is, that we should write naturally. We tolerate irregularity in a letter, freedom as to style, incorrectness, and bold pleasantries, because letters, written spontaneously, without particular object or act, are negligent conversations; but when we speak or treat of a subject formally, some attention is due to decorum; and to whom ought we to pay more respect than to the public?

Is it allowable to write in a mathematical work, that “a geometrician who would pay his devotions, ought to ascend to heaven in a right line; that evanescent quantities turn up their noses at the earth for having too much elevated them; that a seed sown in the ground takes an opportunity to release and amuse itself; that if Saturn should perish, it would be his fifth and not his first satellite that would take his place, because kings always keep their heirs at a distance; that there is no void except in the purse of a ruined man; that when Hercules treats of physics, no one is able to resist a philosopher of his degree of power?” etc.

Some very valuable works are infected with this fault. The source of a defect so common seems to me to be the accusation of pedantry, so long and so justly made against authors. “In vitium ducit culpæ fuga.” It is frequently said, that we ought to write in the style of good company; that the most serious authors are becoming agreeable: that is to say, in order to exhibit the manners of good company to their readers, they deliver themselves in the style of very bad company.

Authors have sought to speak of science as Voiture spoke to Mademoiselle Paulet of gallantry, without dreaming that Voiture by no means exhibits a correct taste in the species of composition in which he was esteemed excellent; for he often takes the false for the refined, and the affected for the natural. Pleasantry is never good on serious points, because it always regards subjects in that point of view in which it is not the purpose to consider them. It almost always turns upon false relations and equivoque, whence jokers by profession usually possess minds as incorrect as they are superficial.

It appears to me, that it is as improper to mingle styles in poetry as in prose. The macaroni style has for some time past injured poetry by this medley of mean and of elevated, of ancient and of modern expression. In certain moral pieces it is not musical to hear the whistle of Rabelais in the midst of sounds from the flute of Horace — a practice which we should leave to inferior minds, and attend to the lessons of good sense and of Boileau. The following is a singular instance of style, in a speech delivered at Versailles in 1745:

Speech Addressed to the King (Louis XV.) by M. le Camus, First President of the Court of Aids.


“— The conquests of your majesty are so rapid, that it will be necessary to consult the power of belief on the part of posterity, and to soften their surprise at so many miracles, for fear that heroes should hold themselves dispensed from imitation, and people in general from believing them.

“But no, sire, it will be impossible for them to doubt it, when they shall read in history that your majesty has been at the head of your troops, recording them yourself in the field of Mars upon a drum. This is to engrave them eternally in the temple of Memory.

“Ages the most distant will learn, that the English, that bold and audacious foe, that enemy so jealous of your glory, have been obliged to turn away from your victory; that their allies have been witnesses of their shame, and that all of them have hastened to the combat only to immortalize the glory of the conqueror.

“We venture to say to your majesty, relying on the love that you bear to your people, that there is but one way of augmenting our happiness, which is to diminish your courage; as heaven would lavish its prodigies at too costly a rate, if they increased your dangers, or those of the young heroes who constitute our dearest hopes.”

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