Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.

The taste, the sense by which we distinguish the flavor of our food, has produced, in all known languages, the metaphor expressed by the word “taste”— a feeling of beauty and defects in all the arts. It is a quick perception, like that of the tongue and the palate, and in the same manner anticipates consideration. Like the mere sense, it is sensitive and luxuriant in respect to the good, and rejects the bad spontaneously; in a similar way it is often uncertain, divided, and even ignorant whether it ought to be pleased; lastly, and to conclude the resemblance, it sometimes requires to be formed and corrected by habit and experience.

To constitute taste, it is not sufficient to see and to know the beauty of a work. We must feel and be affected by it. Neither will it suffice to feel and be affected in a confused or ignorant manner; it is necessary to distinguish the different shades; nothing ought to escape the promptitude of its discernment; and this is another instance of the resemblance of taste, the sense, to intellectual taste; for an epicure will quickly feel and detect a mixture of two liquors, as the man of taste and connoisseur will, with a single glance, distinguish the mixture of two styles, or a defect by the side of a beauty. He will be enthusiastically moved with this verse in the Horatii:

Que voulez-vous qu’il fît contre trois? — Qu’il mourût!

What have him do ’gainst three? — Die!

He feels involuntary disgust at the following:

Ou qu’un beau désespoir alors le secourût.

— Act iii, sc. 6.

Or, whether aided by a fine despair.

As a physical bad taste consists in being pleased only with high seasoning and curious dishes, so a bad taste in the arts is pleased only with studied ornament, and feels not the pure beauty of nature.

A depraved taste in food is gratified with that which disgusts other people: it is a species of disease. A depraved taste in the arts is to be pleased with subjects which disgust accomplished minds, and to prefer the burlesque to the noble, and the finical and the affected to the simple and natural: it is a mental disease. A taste for the arts is, however, much more a thing of formation than physical taste; for although in the latter we sometimes finish by liking those things to which we had in the first instance a repugnance, nature seldom renders it necessary for men in general to learn what is necessary to them in the way of food, whereas intellectual taste requires time to duly form it. A sensible young man may not, without science, distinguish at once the different parts of a grand choir of music; in a fine picture, his eyes at first sight may not perceive the gradation, the chiaroscuro perspective, agreement of colors, and correctness of design; but by little and little his ears will learn to hear and his eyes to see. He will be affected at the first representation of a fine tragedy, but he will not perceive the merit of the unities, nor the delicate management that allows no one to enter or depart without a sufficient reason, nor that still greater art which concentrates all the interest in a single one; nor, lastly, will he be aware of the difficulties overcome. It is only by habit and reflection, that he arrives spontaneously at that which he was not able to distinguish in the first instance. In a similar way, a national taste is gradually formed where it existed not before, because by degrees the spirit of the best artists is duly imbibed. We accustom ourselves to look at pictures with the eyes of Lebrun, Poussin, and Le Sueur. We listen to musical declamation from the scenes of Quinalt with the ears of Lulli, and to the airs and accompaniments with those of Rameau. Finally, books are read in the spirit of the best authors.

If an entire nation is led, during its early culture of the arts, to admire authors abounding in the defects and errors of the age, it is because these authors possess beauties which are admired by everybody, while at the same time readers are not sufficiently instructed to detect the imperfections. Thus, Lucilius was prized by the Romans, until Horace made them forget him; and Regnier was admired by the French, until the appearance of Boileau; and if old authors who stumble at every step have, notwithstanding, attained great reputation, it is because purer writers have not arisen to open the eyes of their national admirers, as Horace did those of the Romans, and Boileau those of the French.

It is said that there is no disputation on taste, and the observation is correct in respect to physical taste, in which the repugnance felt to certain aliments, and the preference given to others, are not to be disputed, because there is no correction of a defect of the organs. It is not the same with the arts which possess actual beauties, which are discernible by a good taste, and unperceivable by a bad one; which last, however, may frequently be improved. There are also persons with a coldness of soul, as there are defective minds; and in respect to them, it is of little use to dispute concerning predilections, as they possess none.

Taste is arbitrary in many things, as in raiment, decoration, and equipage, which, however, scarcely belong to the department of the fine arts, but are rather affairs of fancy. It is fancy rather than taste which produces so many new fashions.

Taste may become vitiated in a nation, a misfortune which usually follows a period of perfection. Fearing to be called imitators, artists seek new and devious routes, and fly from the pure and beautiful nature of which their predecessors have made so much advantage. If there is merit in these labors, this merit veils their defects, and the public in love with novelty runs after them, and becomes disgusted, which makes way for still minor efforts to please, in which nature is still more abandoned. Taste loses itself amidst this succession of novelties, the last one of which rapidly effaces the other; the public loses its “whereabout,” and regrets in vain the flight of the age of good taste, which will return no more, although a remnant of it is still preserved by certain correct spirits, at a distance from the crowd.

There are vast countries in which taste has never existed: such are they in which society is still rude, where the sexes have little general intercourse, and where certain arts, like sculpture and the painting of animated beings, are forbidden by religion. Where there is little general intercourse, the mind is straitened, its edge is blunted, and nothing is possessed on which a taste can be formed. Where several of the fine arts are wanting, the remainder can seldom find sufficient support, as they go hand in hand, and rest one on the other. On this account, the Asiatics have never produced fine arts in any department, and taste is confined to certain nations of Europe.

§ II.

Is there not a good and a bad taste? Without doubt; although men differ in opinions, manners, and customs. The best taste in every species of cultivation is to imitate nature with the highest fidelity, energy, and grace. But is not grace arbitrary? No, since it consists in giving animation and sweetness to the objects represented. Between two men, the one of whom is gross and the other refined, it will readily be allowed that one possesses more grace than the other.

Before a polished period arose, Voiture, who in his rage for embroidering nothings, was occasionally refined and agreeable, wrote some verses to the great Condé upon his illness, which are still regarded as very tasteful, and among the best of this author.

At the same time, L’Étoile, who passed for a genius — L’Étoile, one of the five authors who constructed tragedies for Cardinal Richelieu — made some verses, which are printed at the end of Malherbe and Racan. When compared with those of Voiture referred to, every reader will allow that the verses of Voiture are the production of a courtier of good taste, and those of L’Étoile the labor of a coarse and unintellectual pretender.

It is a pity that we can gift Voiture with occasional taste only: his famous letter from the carp to the pike, which enjoyed so much reputation, is a too extended pleasantry, and in passages exhibiting very little nature. Is it not a mixture of refinement and coarseness, of the true and the false? Was it right to say to the great Condé, who was called “the pike” by a party among the courtiers, that at his name the whales of the North perspired profusely, and that the subjects of the emperor had expected to fry and to eat him with a grain of salt? Was it proper to write so many letters, only to show a little of the wit which consists in puns and conceits?

Are we not disgusted when Voiture says to the great Condé, on the taking of Dunkirk: “I expect you to seize the moon with your teeth.” Voiture apparently acquired this false taste from Marini, who came into France with Mary of Medici. Voiture and Costar frequently cite him as a model in their letters. They admire his description of the rose, daughter of April, virgin and queen, seated on a thorny throne, extending majestically a flowery sceptre, having for courtiers and ministers the amorous family of the zephyrs, and wearing a crown of gold and a robe of scarlet:

Bella figlia d’Aprile,

Verginella e reina,

Sic lo spinoso trono

Del verde cespo assisa,

De’ fior’ lo scettro in maestà sostiene;

E corteggiata intorno

Da lascivia famiglia

Di Zefiri ministri,

Porta d’or’ la corona et d’ostro il manto.

Voiture, in his thirty-fifth letter to Costar, compliments the musical atom of Marini, the feathered voice, the living breath clothed in plumage, the winged song, the small spirit of harmony, hidden amidst diminutive lungs; all of which terms are employed to convey the word nightingale:

Una voce pennuta, un suon’ volante,

E vestito di penne, un vivo fiato,

Una piuma canora, un canto alato,

Un spiritel’ che d’armonia composto

Vive in auguste viscere nascosto.

The bad taste of Balzac was of a different description; he composed familiar letters in a fustian style. He wrote to the Cardinal de la Valette, that neither in the deserts of Libya, nor in the abyss of the sea, there was so furious a monster as the sciatica; and that if tyrants, whose memory is odious to us, had instruments of cruelty in their possession equal to the sciatica, the martyrs would have endured them for their religion.

These emphatic exaggerations — these long and stately periods, so opposed to the epistolary style — these fastidious declamations, garnished with Greek and Latin, concerning two middling sonnets, the merits of which divided the court and the town, and upon the miserable tragedy of “Herod the Infanticide,”— all indicate a time and a taste which were yet to be formed and corrected. Even “Cinna,” and the “Provincial Letters,” which astonished the nations, had not yet cleared away the rust.

As an artist forms his taste by degrees, so does a nation. It stagnates for a long time in barbarism; then it elevates itself feebly, until at length a noon appears, after which we witness nothing but a long and melancholy twilight. It has long been agreed, that in spite of the solicitude of Francis I., to produce a taste in France for the fine arts, this taste was not formed until towards the age of Louis XIV., and we already begin to complain of its degeneracy. The Greeks of the lower empire confess, that the taste which reigned in the days of Pericles was lost among them, and the modern Greeks admit the same thing. Quintilian allows that the taste of the Romans began to decline in his days.

Lope de Vega made great complaints of the bad taste of the Spaniards. The Italians perceived, among the first, that everything had declined among them since their immortal sixteenth century, and that they have witnessed the decline of the arts, which they caused to spring up.

Addison often attacks the bad taste of the English in more than one department — as well when he ridicules the carved wig of Sir Cloudesley Shovel, as when he testifies his contempt for a serious employment of conceit and pun, or the introduction of mountebanks in tragedy.

If, therefore, the most gifted minds allow that taste has been wanting at certain periods in their country, their neighbors may certainly feel it, as lookers-on; and as it is evident among ourselves that one man has a good and another a bad taste, it is equally evident that of two contemporary nations, the one may be rude and gross, and the other refined and natural.

The misfortune is, that when we speak this truth, we disgust the whole nation to which we allude, as we provoke an individual of bad taste when we seek to improve him. It is better to wait until time and example instruct a nation which sins against taste. It is in this way that the Spaniards are beginning to reform their drama, and the Germans to create one.

Of National Taste.

There is beauty of all times and of all places, and there is likewise local beauty. Eloquence ought to be everywhere persuasive, grief affecting, anger impetuous, wisdom tranquil; but the details which may gratify a citizen of London, would have little effect on an inhabitant of Paris. The English drew some of their most happy metaphors and comparisons from the marine, while Parisians seldom see anything of ships. All which affects an Englishman in relation to liberty, his rights and his privileges, would make little impression on a Frenchman.

The state of the climate will introduce into a cold and humid country a taste for architecture, furniture, and clothing, which may be very good, but not admissible at Rome or in Sicily. Theocritus and Virgil, in their eclogues, boast of the shades and of the cooling freshness of the fountains. Thomson, in his “Seasons,” dwells upon contrary attractions.

An enlightened nation with little sociability will not have the same points of ridicule as a nation equally intellectual, which gives in to the spirit of society even to indiscretion; and, in consequence, these two nations will differ materially in their comedy. Poetry will be very different in a country where women are secluded, and in another in which they enjoy liberty without bounds.

But it will always be true that the pastoral painting of Virgil exceeds that of Thomson, and that there has been more taste on the banks of the Tiber than on those of the Thames; that the natural scenes of the Pastor Fido are incomparably superior to the shepherdizing of Racan; and that Racine and Molière are inspired persons in comparison with the dramatists of other theatres.

On the Taste of Connoisseurs.

In general, a refined and certain taste consists in a quick feeling of beauty amidst defects, and defects amidst beauties. The epicure is he who can discern the adulteration of wines, and feel the predominating flavor in his viands, of which his associates entertain only a confused and general perception.

Are not those deceived who say, that it is a misfortune to possess too refined a taste, and to be too much of a connoisseur; that in consequence we become too much occupied by defects, and insensible to beauties, which are lost by this fastidiousness? Is it not, on the contrary, certain that men of taste alone enjoy true pleasure, who see, hear, and feel, that which escapes persons less sensitively organized, and less mentally disciplined?

The connoisseur in music, in painting, in architecture, in poetry, in medals, etc., experiences sensations of which the vulgar have no comprehension; the discovery even of a fault pleases him, and makes him feel the beauties with more animation. It is the advantage of a good sight over a bad one. The man of taste has other eyes, other ears, and another tact from the uncultivated man; he is displeased with the poor draperies of Raphael, but he admires the noble purity of his conception. He takes a pleasure in discovering that the children of Laocoon bear no proportion to the height of their father, but the whole group makes him tremble, while other spectators are unmoved.

The celebrated sculptor, man of letters and of genius, who placed the colossal statue of Peter the Great at St. Petersburg, criticises with reason the attitude of the Moses of Michelangelo, and his small, tight vest, which is not even an Oriental costume; but, at the same time, he contemplates the air and expression of the head with ecstasy.

Rarity of Men of Taste.

It is afflicting to reflect on the prodigious number of men — above all, in cold and damp climates — who possess not the least spark of taste, who care not for the fine arts, who never read, and of whom a large portion read only a journal once a month, in order to be put in possession of current matter, and to furnish themselves with the ability of saying things at random, on subjects in regard to which they have only confused ideas.

Enter into a small provincial town: how rarely will you find more than one or two good libraries, and those private. Even in the capital of the provinces which possess academies, taste is very rare.

It is necessary to select the capital of a great kingdom to form the abode of taste, and yet even there it is very partially divided among a small number, the populace being wholly excluded. It is unknown to the families of traders, and those who are occupied in making fortunes, who are either engrossed with domestic details, or divided between unintellectual idleness and a game at cards. Every place which contains the courts of law, the offices of revenue, government, and commerce, is closed against the fine arts. It is the reproach of the human mind that a taste for the common and ordinary introduces only opulent idleness. I knew a commissioner in one of the offices at Versailles, who exclaimed: “I am very unhappy; I have not time to acquire a taste.”

In a town like Paris, peopled with more than six hundred thousand persons, I do not think there are three thousand who cultivate a taste for the fine arts. When a dramatic masterpiece is represented, a circumstance so very rare, people exclaim: “All Paris is enchanted,” but only three thousand copies, more or less, are printed.

Taste, then, like philosophy, belongs only to a small number of privileged souls. It was, therefore, great happiness for France to possess, in Louis XIV., a king born with taste.

Pauci, quos æquus amavit

Jupiter, aut ardens, evexit ad æthera virtus

Dis geniti, potuere.

— Æneid, b. vi, v. 129 and s.

To few great Jupiter imparts his grace,

And those of shining worth and heavenly race.

— Dryden.

Ovid has said in vain, that God has created us to look up to heaven: “Erectos ad sidera tollere vultus.” Men are always crouching on the ground. Why has a misshapen statue, or a bad picture, where the figures are disproportionate, never passed for a masterpiece? Why has an ill-built house never been regarded as a fine monument of architecture? Why in music will not sharp and discordant sounds please the ears of any one? And yet, very bad and barbarous tragedies, written in a style perfectly Allobrogian, have succeeded, even after the sublime scenes of Corneille, the affecting ones of Racine, and the fine pieces written since the latter poet. It is only at the theatre that we sometimes see detestable compositions succeed both in tragedy and comedy.

What is the reason of it? It is, that a species of delusion prevails at the theatre; it is, that the success depends upon two or three actors, and sometimes even upon a single one; and, above all, that a cabal is formed in favor of such pieces, whilst men of taste never form any. This cabal often lasts for an entire generation, and it is so much the more active, as its object is less to elevate the bad author than to depress the good one. A century possibly is necessary to adjust the real value of things in the drama.

There are three kinds of taste, which in the long run prevail in the empire of the arts. Poussin was obliged to quit France and leave the field to an inferior painter; Le Moine killed himself in despair; and Vanloo was near quitting the kingdom, to exercise his talents elsewhere. Connoisseurs alone have put all of them in possession of the rank belonging to them. We often witness all kinds of bad works meet with prodigious success. The solecisms, barbarisms, false statement, and extravagant bombast, are not felt for awhile, because the cabal and the senseless enthusiasm of the vulgar produce an intoxication which discriminates in nothing. The connoisseurs alone bring back the public in due time; and it is the only difference which exists between the most enlightened and the most cultivated of nations; for the vulgar of Paris are in no respect beyond the vulgar of other countries; but in Paris there is a sufficient number of correct opinions to lead the crowd. This crowd is rapidly excited in popular movements, but many years are necessary to establish in it a general good taste in the arts.

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