A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 7.

Scientific Writers.

As the sciences divide and subdivide themselves more and more, the works which treat of them become less and less the subject of strictly literary history. Besides this truth, it is necessary to remember the fact that a large number of treatises, scientific in subject, were in the eighteenth century professedly popularised and addressed to unprofessional audiences. Fontenelle, D'Alembert, and many other authors already mentioned, were savants, but their manner of handling their subjects was far from being strictly or wholly scientific. Yet there remain a certain number of writers, who, their reputation being derived wholly or mainly from their treatment of subjects of science and erudition, are better dealt with separately.


The head and chief of these is beyond all question Buffon. George Louis Leclerc, who was made Count de Buffon by Louis XV., was born at Montbard in Burgundy, on Sept. 7, 1707; his father was a man of wealth and of position in the noblesse de robe. Buffon was destined for the law, but early showed an inclination towards science. He became acquainted with a young English nobleman, Lord Kingston, who with his tutor was taking the then usual grand tour, and was permitted by his father to accompany him through France and Italy, and to visit England. On the English language he spent considerable pains, translating Newton, Hales, and Tull the agriculturist. When he returned to France he devoted himself to scientific experiments, and in 1739 he was appointed intendant or director of the Jardin du Roi, which practically gave him command of the national collections in zoology, botany, and mineralogy. He was thus enabled to observe and experiment to his heart's content, and to collect a sufficient number of facts for his vast Natural History. Buffon, however, was only half a man of science. He was at least as anxious to write pompous descriptions and to indulge in showy hypotheses, as to confine himself to plain scientific enquiry. He accordingly left the main part of the hack-work of his Histoire Naturelle (a vast work extending to thirty-six volumes) to assistants, of whom the chief was Daubenton, himself contributing only the most striking and rhetorical passages. The book was very remarkable for its time, as the first attempt since Pliny at a collection of physical facts at once exhaustive, and in a manner systematised, and though there was much alloy mixed with its metal, it was of real value. Buffon's life was long, and he outlived all the other chiefs of the philosophe party (to which in an outside sort of fashion he belonged), dying at Paris in the year 1788. It is perhaps easier to condemn Buffon's extremely rhetorical style than to do justice to it. To a modern reader it too frequently seems to verge on the ridiculous, and to do more than verge on the trivial. It is necessary, however, to take the point of view of the time. Buffon found natural science in a position far below that assigned to literary erudition and to the arts in general estimation. He also found it customary that these arts and letters should be treated in pompous éloges. His real interest in science led him to think that the shortest way to raise it was to treat it in the same manner, and there is little doubt that his method was effectual in its degree. It is perhaps curious that he, the author of the phrase 'Le style c'est l'homme,' should have so completely exemplified it. Many authors of elaborate prose have been perfectly simple and unpretentious in private life. Buffon was as pompous and inflated as his style. Anecdotes respecting him are numerous; but perhaps the most instructive is that which tells how, having heard some one speak of the style of Montesquieu, he asked, 'Si M. de Montesquieu avait un style?' It is needless to say that from any just standpoint, even of purely literary criticism, the hollow pomp of the Histoire Naturelle sinks into insignificance beside the nervous and solid yet graceful vigour of the Esprit des Lois.

Lesser Scientific Writers.

No single scientific writer equals the fame of Buffon, but there are not a few who deserve to be mentioned after him. Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, a Breton by birth, who was a considerable mathematician and a physicist of more eccentricity than merit, owes most of his literary celebrity to the patronage of Frederick the Second, and the pitiless raillery of Voltaire, who quarrelled with him on his visit to Berlin, where Maupertuis was president of the Academy. Maupertuis' chief scientific performance was his mission to Lapland to determine the measurement of a degree of longitude in 1736. Of this mission he published an account. At the same time a similar mission was sent to South America under La Condamine, who underwent considerable hardship, and, like Maupertuis, published his adventures when he came back. Mathematics were indeed the favourite study of the time. Clairaut, De Moivre, Euler, Laplace, all wrote in French, or belonged to French-speaking and French-descended races; while Voltaire's own contributions to the reception of Newton's principles in France were not small, and his beloved Madame du Châtelet was an expert mathematician. Voltaire also devoted much attention to chemistry, which was the special subject of such of the Baron d'Holbach's labours as were not devoted to the overthrow of Christianity. It was not, however, till the eve of the Revolution that the most important discoveries in this science were made by Lavoisier and others. The Empire was a much more favourable time for science than for literature. Bonaparte was fond of the society of men of science, and pleased by their usual indifference to politics. Monge, Berthollet, Champollion, were among his favourites. Geoffroy St. Hilaire and Cuvier were, however, the chief men of science of this period, and Cuvier at least had no mean command of a literary style sufficient for his purposes. His chief work of a literary-scientific character was his discourse Sur les Révolutions de la Surface du Globe. Earlier than this the physician Cabanis, in his Rapports de Physique et de Morale, composed a semi-materialist work of great excellence according to eighteenth-century standards. Bichat's La Vie et la Mort, the work of an anatomist of the greatest talent, who died young, also belongs to literature.

Voyages and Travels.

Some contributions to letters were also made by the voyages of discovery which formed part of the general scientific curiosity of the time. The chief of them is that of Bougainville, 1771, which, giving the first clear notion to Frenchmen of the South Sea Islands, had a remarkably stimulating effect on the imaginations of the philosophe party.

Linguistic and Literary Study.

In works of pure erudition more directly connected with literature, the age was less fruitful than its immediate predecessor. The laborious studies of the Benedictines, however, continued. One work of theirs, important to our subject, was projected and in part carried out under the superintendence chiefly of Dom Rivet. This was the Histoire Littéraire de la France— a mighty work, which, after long interruption by the Revolution and other causes, was taken up again, and has proceeded steadily for many years, though it has not yet reached the close of the middle ages. This work was part, and a very important part, of a revival of the study of old French literature. The plan of the Benedictines led them at first into the literature of mediaeval Latin. But the works of the Trouvères, of their successors in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and of the authors of the French Renaissance, also received attention, scattered at first and desultory, but gradually co-ordinating and regulating itself. La Monnoye, Lenglet-Dufresnoy, the President Bouhier, and many others, collected, and in some cases edited, the work of earlier times. The Marquis de Paulmy began a vast Bibliothèque des Romans, for which the Comte de Tressan undertook the modernising and reproducing of all the stories of chivalry. Tressan, it is true, had recourse only to late and adulterated versions, but his work was still calculated to spread some knowledge of what the middle ages had actually done in matter of literature. La Curne de Sainte Palaye devoted himself eagerly to the study of the language, manners, and customs of chivalry. Barbazan collected the specially French product of the Fabliau, and, with his successor Méon (who also edited the Roman du Renart), provided a great corpus of lighter mediaeval literature for the student to exercise himself upon. By degrees this revived literature forced itself upon the public eye, and before the Republic had given place to the Empire, it received some attention at the hands of official teachers of literature who had hitherto scorned it. M. J. Chénier, Daunou, and others, undertook the subject, and made it in a manner popular; while towards the extreme end of the present period Raynouard and Fauriel added the subject of Provençal literature to that of the literature of Northern France, and helped to propagate the study abroad as well as at home.

In the older fields the renown of France for purely classical scholarship diminished somewhat as compared with the days of Huet, Ménage, Dacier, and the Delphin classics. The principal work of erudition was either directed towards the so-called philosophy in its wide sense of enquiry and speculation into politics and manners, or else to mathematics and physics. The Benedictines confined themselves for the most part to Christian antiquity. Yet there were names of weight in this department, such as the President Hénault, a writer something after the fashion of Fontenelle, but on classical subjects; and the President de Brosses, also an archæologist of merit, but chiefly noteworthy as having been among the founders of the science which busies itself with the manners and customs of primitive and prehistoric man291.

291 I owe to M. Scherer the indication of a misprint of 'des Brosses' for 'de' in former editions. M. Scherer says that I 'have never heard' of the President's pleasant Lettres sur l'Italie, because I do not mention them. He also says that what I do say of De Brosses is 'également surprenante pour ce qu'elle avance et par ce qu'elle omet.' I am, therefore, justified in supposing that M. Scherer 'has never heard' of the Lettres sur Herculanum, the Navigations aux Terres Australes, or the Culte des Dieux Fétiches.


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