Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

Of the Different Significations of the Word.

Fineness either in its proper or its figurative sense does not signify either light, slender, fine, or of a rare thin texture; this word expresses something delicate and finished. Light cloth, soft linen, thin lace, or slender galloon, are not always fine.

This word has a relation to the verb “to finish,” whence come the finishings of art; thus, we say, the finishings of Vanderwerff’s pencil or of Mieris; we say, a fine horse, fine gold, a fine diamond. A fine horse is opposed to a clumsy one; the fine diamond to a false one; fine or refined gold to gold mixed with alloy.

Fineness is generally applied to delicate things and lightness of manufacture. Although we say a fine horse, we seldom say, “the fineness of a horse.” We speak of the fineness of hair, lace, or stuff. When by this word we should express the fault or wrong use of anything, we add the adverb “too”; as — This thread is broken, it was too fine; this stuff is too fine for the season.

Fineness or finesse, in a figurative sense, applies to conduct, speech, and works of mind. In conduct, finesse always expresses, as in the arts, something delicate or subtile; it may sometimes exist without ability, but it is very rarely unaccompanied by a little deception; politics admit it, and society reproves it.

Finesse is not exactly subtlety; we draw a person into a snare with finesse; we escape from it with subtlety. We act with finesse, and we play a subtle trick. Distrust is inspired by an unsparing use of finesse; yet we almost always deceive ourselves if we too generally suspect it.

Finesse, in works of wit, as in conversation, consists in the art of not expressing a thought clearly, but leaving it so as to be easily perceived. It is an enigma to which people of sense readily find the solution.

A chancellor one day offering his protection to parliament, the first president turning towards the assembly, said: “Gentlemen, thank the chancellor; he has given us more than we demanded of him”— a very witty reproof.

Finesse, in conversation and writing, differs from delicacy; the first applies equally to piquant and agreeable things, even to blame and praise; and still more to indecencies, over which a veil is drawn, through which we cannot penetrate without a blush. Bold things may be said with finesse.

Delicacy expresses soft and agreeable sentiments and ingenious praise; thus finesse belongs more to epigram, and delicacy to madrigal. It is delicacy which enters into a lover’s jealousies, and not finesse.

The praises given to Louis XIV. by Despréaux are not always equally delicate; satires are not always sufficiently ingenious in the way of finesse. When Iphigenia, in Racine, has received from her father the order never to see Achilles more, she cries: “Dieux plus doux, vous n’aviez demandé que ma vie!” —“More gentle gods, you only ask my life!” The true character of this partakes rather of delicacy than of finesse.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01