Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


A man who had some knowledge of the human heart, was consulted upon a tragedy which was to be represented; and he answered, there was so much wit in the piece, that he doubted of its success. What! you will exclaim, is that a fault, at a time when every one is in search of wit — when each one writes but to show that he has it — when the public even applaud the falsest thoughts, if they are brilliant? — Yes, doubtless, they will applaud the first day, and be wearied the second.

What is called wit, is sometimes a new comparison, sometimes a subtle allusion; here, it is the abuse of a word, which is presented in one sense, and left to be understood in another; there, a delicate relation between two ideas not very common. It is a singular metaphor; it is the discovery of something in an object which does not at first strike the observation, but which is really in it; it is the art either of bringing together two things apparently remote, or of dividing two things which seem to be united, or of opposing them to each other. It is that of expressing only one-half of what you think, and leaving the other to be guessed. In short, I would tell you of all the different ways of showing wit, if I had more; but all these gems — and I do not here include the counterfeits — are very rarely suited to a serious work — to one which is to interest the reader. The reason is, that then the author appears, and the public desire to see only the hero; for the hero is constantly either in passion or in danger. Danger and the passions do not go in search of wit. Priam and Hecuba do not compose epigrams while their children are butchered in flaming Troy; Dido does not sigh out her soul in madrigals, while rushing to the pile on which she is about to immolate herself; Demosthenes makes no display of pretty thoughts while he is inciting the Athenians to war. If he had, he would be a rhetorician; whereas he is a statesman.

The art of the admirable Racine is far above what is called wit; but if Pyrrhus had always expressed himself in this style:

Vaincu, chargé de fers, de regrets consumé,

Brûlé de plus de feux que je n’en allumai . . . .

Hélas! fus-je jamais si cruel que vous l’êtes?

Conquered and chained, worn out by vain desire,

Scorched by more flames than I have ever lighted . . . .

Alas! my cruelty ne’er equalled yours!

— if Orestes had been continually saying that the “Scythians are less cruel than Hermione,” these two personages would excite no emotion at all; it would be perceived that true passion rarely occupies itself with such comparisons; and that there is some disproportion between the real flames by which Troy was consumed and the flames of Pyrrhus’ love — between the Scythians immolating men, and Hermione not loving Orestes. Cinna says, speaking of Pompey:

Le ciel choisit sa mort, pour servir dignement

D’une marque éternelle à ce grand changement;

Et devait cette gloire aux manes d’un tel homme,

D’emporter avec eux la liberté de Rome.

Heaven chose the death of such a man, to be

Th’ eternal landmark of this mighty change.

His manes called for no less offering

Than Roman liberty.

This thought is very brilliant; there is much wit in it, as also an air of imposing grandeur. I am sure that these lines, pronounced with all the enthusiasm and art of a great actor, will be applauded; but I am also sure that the play of “Cinna,” had it been written entirely in this taste, would never have been long played. Why, indeed, was heaven bound to do Pompey the honor of making the Romans slaves after his death? The contrary would be truer: the manes of Pompey should rather have obtained from heaven the everlasting maintenance of that liberty for which he is supposed to have fought and died.

What, then, would any work be which should be full of such far-fetched and questionable thoughts? How much superior to all these brilliant ideas are those simple and natural lines:

Cinna, tu t’en souviens, et veux m’assassiner!

— Cinna, act v, scene i.

Thou dost remember, Cinna, yet wouldst kill me!

Soyons amis, Cinna; c’est moi qui t’en convie.

— Id., act v, scene iii.

Let us be friends, Cinna; ’tis I who ask it.

True beauty consists, not in what is called wit, but in sublimity and simplicity. Let Antiochus, in “Rodogune,” say of his mistress, who quits him, after disgracefully proposing to him to kill his mother:

Elle fuit, mais en Parthe, en nous perçant le cœur.

She flies, but, like the Parthian, flying, wounds.

Antiochus has wit; he makes an epigram against Rodogune; he ingeniously likens her last words in going away, to the arrows which the Parthians used to discharge in their flight. But it is not because his mistress goes away, that the proposal to kill his mother is revolting: whether she goes or stays, the heart of Antiochus is equally wounded. The epigram, therefore, is false; and if Rodogune did not go away, this bad epigram could not be retained.

I select these examples expressly from the best authors, in order that they may be the more striking. I do not lay hold of those puns which play upon words, the false taste of which is felt by all. There is no one that does not laugh when, in the tragedy of the “Golden Fleece,” Hypsipyle says to Medea, alluding to her sorceries:

Je n’ai que des attraits, et vous avez des charmes.

I have attractions only, you have charms.

Corneille found the stage and every other department of literature infested with these puerilities, into which he rarely fell.

I wish here to speak only of such strokes of wit as would be admitted elsewhere, and as the serious style rejects. To their authors might be applied the sentence of Plutarch, translated with the happy naïveté of Amiot: “Tu tiens sans propos beaucoup de bons propos.”

There occurs to my recollection one of those brilliant passages, which I have seen quoted as a model in many works of taste, and even in the treatise on studies by the late M. Rollin. This piece is taken from the fine funeral oration on the great Turenne, composed by Fléchier. It is true, that in this oration Fléchier almost equalled the sublime Bossuet, whom I have called and still call the only eloquent man among so many elegant writers; but it appears to me that the passage of which I am speaking would not have been employed by the bishop of Meaux. Here it is:

“Ye powers hostile to France, you live; and the spirit of Christian charity forbids me to wish your death . . . . but you live; and I mourn in this pulpit over a virtuous leader, whose intentions were pure. . . . . ”

An apostrophe in this taste would have been suitable to Rome in the civil war, after the assassination of Pompey; or to London, after the murder of Charles I.; because the interests of Pompey and Charles I. were really in question. But is it decent to insinuate in the pulpit a wish for the death of the emperor, the king of Spain, and the electors, and put in the balance against them the commanderin-chief employed by a king who was their enemy? Should the intentions of a leader — which can only be to serve his prince — be compared with the political interests of the crowned heads against whom he served? What would be said of a German who should have wished for the death of the king of France, on the occasion of the death of General Merci, “whose intentions were pure”? Why, then, has this passage always been praised by the rhetoricians? Because the figure is in itself beautiful and pathetic; but they do not thoroughly investigate the fitness of the thought.

I now return to my paradox; that none of those glittering ornaments, to which we give the name of wit, should find a place in great works designed to instruct or to move the passions. I will even say that they ought to be banished from the opera. Music expresses passions, sentiments, images; but where are the notes that can render an epigram? Quinault was sometimes negligent, but he was always natural.

Of all our operas, that which is the most ornamented, or rather the most overloaded, with this epigrammatic spirit, is the ballet of the “Triumph of the Arts,” composed by an amiable man, who always thought with subtlety, and expressed himself with delicacy; but who, by the abuse of this talent, contributed a little to the decline of letters after the glorious era of Louis XIV. In this ballet, in which Pygmalion animates his statue, he says to it:

Vos premiers mouvemens ont été de m’aimer.

And love for me your earliest movements showed.

I remember to have heard this line admired by some persons in my youth. But who does not perceive that the movements of the body of the statue are here confounded with the movements of the heart, and that in any sense the phrase is not French — that it is, in fact, a pun, a jest? How could it be that a man who had so much wit, had not enough to retrench these egregious faults? This same man — who, despising Homer, translated him; who, in translating him, thought to correct him, and by abridging him, thought to make him read — had a mind to make Homer a wit. It is he who, when Achilles reappears, reconciled to the Greeks who are ready to avenge him, makes the whole camp exclaim:

Que ne vaincra-t-il point? Il s’est vaincu lui-même.

What shall oppose him, conqueror of himself?

A man must indeed be fond of witticisms, when he makes fifty thousand men pun all at once upon the same word.

This play of the imagination, these quips, these cranks, these random shafts, these gayeties, these little broken sentences, these ingenious familiarities, which it is now the fashion to lavish so profusely, are befitting no works but those of pure amusement. The front of the Louvre, by Perrault, is simple and majestic; minute ornaments may appear with grace in a cabinet. Have as much wit as you will, or as you can, in a madrigal, in light verses, in a scene of a comedy, when it is to be neither impassioned nor simple, in a compliment, in a “novellette,” or in a letter, where you assume gayety yourself in order to communicate it to your friends.

Far from having reproached Voiture with having wit in his letters, I found, on the contrary, that he had not enough, although he was constantly seeking it. It is said that dancing-masters make their bow ill, because they are anxious to make it too well. I thought this was often the case with Voiture; his best letters are studied; you feel that he is fatiguing himself to find that which presents itself so naturally to Count Anthony Hamilton, to Madame de Sévigné, and to so many other women, who write these trifles without an effort, better than Voiture wrote them with labor. Despréaux, who in his first satires had ventured to compare Voiture to Horace, changed his opinion when his taste was ripened by age. I know that it matters very little, in the affairs of this world, whether Voiture was or was not a great genius; whether he wrote only a few pretty letters, or that all his pieces of pleasantry were models. But we, who cultivate and love the liberal arts, cast an attentive eye on what is quite indifferent to the rest of the world. Good taste is to us in literature what it is to women in dress; and provided that one’s opinions shall not be made a party matter, it appears to me that one may boldly say, that there are but few excellent things in Voiture, and that Marot might easily be reduced to a few pages.

Not that we wish to take from them their reputation; on the contrary, we wish to ascertain precisely what that reputation cost them, and what are the real beauties for which their defects have been tolerated. We must know what we are to follow, and what we are to avoid; this is the real fruit of the profound study of the belles-lettres; this is what Horace did when he examined Lucilius critically. Horace made himself enemies thereby; but he enlightened his enemies themselves.

This desire of shining and of saying in a novel manner what has been said by others, is a source of new expressions as well as far-fetched thoughts. He who cannot shine by thought, seeks to bring himself into notice by a word. Hence it has at last been thought proper to substitute “amabilités,” for “agrémens”; “négligemment” for “avec négligence”; “badiner les amours,” for “badiner avec les amours.” There are numberless other affectations of this kind; and if this be continued, the language of Bossuet, of Racine, of Corneille, of Boileau, of Fénelon, will soon be obsolete. Why avoid an expression which is in use, to introduce another which says precisely the same thing? A new word is pardonable only when it is absolutely necessary, intelligible, and sonorous. In physical science, we are obliged to make them; a new discovery, a new machine, requires a new word. But do we make any new discoveries in the human heart? Is there any other greatness than that of Corneille and Bossuet? Are there any other passions than those which have been delineated by Racine, and sketched by Quinault? Is there any other gospel morality than that of Bourdaloue?

They who charge our language with not being sufficiently copious, must indeed have found sterility somewhere, but it is in themselves. “Rem verba sequuntur.” When an idea is forcibly impressed on the mind — when a clear and vigorous head is in full possession of its thought — it issues from the brain, arrayed in suitable expressions, as Minerva came forth in full armor to wait upon Jupiter. In fine, the conclusion from this is that neither thoughts nor expressions should be far-fetched; and that the art, in all great works, is to reason well, without entering into too many arguments; to paint well, without striving to paint everything; and to be affecting, without striving constantly to excite passions. Certes, I am here giving fine counsel. Have I taken it myself? Alas! no!

Pauci quos æquus amavit

Jupiter, aut ardens evexit ad æthera virtus,

Dis geniti potuere.

— Æneid, b. vi, v. 129.

To few great Jupiter imparts this grace,

And those of shining worth and heavenly race.

— Dryden.

§ II.
Spirit — Wit.

The word “spirit,” when it signifies “a quality of the mind,” is one of those vague terms to which almost every one who pronounces it attaches a different sense; it expresses some other thing than judgment, genius, taste, talent, penetration, comprehensiveness, grace, or subtlety, yet is akin to all these merits; it might be defined to be “ingenious reason.”

It is a generic word, which always needs another word to determine it; and when we hear it said: “This is a work of spirit,” or “He is a man of spirit,” we have very good reason to ask: “Spirit of what?” The sublime spirit of Corneille is neither the exact spirit of Boileau, nor the simple spirit of La Fontaine; and the spirit of La Bruyère, which is the art of portraying singularity, is not that of Malebranche, which is imaginative and profound.

When a man is said to have “a judicious spirit,” the meaning is, not so much that he has what is called spirit, as that he has an enlightened reason. A spirit firm, masculine, courageous, great, little, weak, light, mild, hasty, etc., signifies the character and temper of the mind, and has no relation to what is understood in society by the expression “spirited.”

Spirit, in the ordinary acceptation of the word, is much akin to wit; yet does not signify precisely the same thing; for the term, “man of spirit,” can never be taken in a bad sense; but that of “a wit,” is sometimes pronounced ironically.

Whence this difference? It is that “a man of spirit” does not signify “superior wit,” “marked talent”; and “a wit” does. This expression, “man of spirit,” announces no pretensions; but “wit” is a sort of advertisement; it is an art which requires cultivation; it is a sort of profession; and thereby exposes to envy and ridicule.

In this sense, Father Bouhours would have been right in giving us to understand that the Germans had no pretensions to wit; for at that time their learned men occupied themselves in scarcely any works but those of labor and painful research, which did not admit of their scattering flowers, of their striving to shine, and mixing up wit with learning.

They who despise the genius of Aristotle should, instead of contenting themselves with condemning his physics — which could not be good, inasmuch as they wanted experiments — be much astonished to find that Aristotle, in his rhetoric, taught perfectly the art of saying things with spirit. He states that this art consists in not merely using the proper word, which says nothing new; but that a metaphor must be employed — a figure, the sense of which is clear, and its expression energetic. Of this, he adduces several instances; and, among others, what Pericles said of a battle in which the flower of the Athenian youth had perished: “The year has been stripped of its spring.”

Aristotle is very right in saying that novelty is necessary. The first person who, to express that pleasures are mingled with bitterness, likened them to roses accompanied by thorns, had wit; they who repeated it had none.

Spirited expression does not always consist in a metaphor; but also in a new term — in leaving one half of one’s thoughts to be easily divined; this is called “subtleness,” “delicacy”; and this manner is the more pleasing, as it exercises and gives scope for the wit of others.

Allusions, allegories, and comparisons, open a vast field for ingenious thoughts. The effects of nature, fable, history, presented to the memory, furnish a happy imagination with materials of which it makes a suitable use.

It will not be useless to give examples in these different kinds. The following is a madrigal by M. de la Sablière, which has always been held in high estimation by people of taste:

Églé tremble que, dans ce jour,

L’Hymen, plus puissant que l’Amour,

N’enlève ses trésors, sans qu’elle ose s’en plaindre

Elle a négligé mes avis;

Si la belle les eût suivis,

Elle n’aurait plus rien à craindre.

Weeping, murmuring, complaining,

 Lost to every gay delight,

Mira, too sincere for feigning,

 Fears th’ approaching bridal night.

Yet why impair thy bright perfection,

 Or dim thy beauty with a tear?

Had Mira followed my direction,

 She long had wanted cause of fear.

— Goldsmith.

It does not appear that the author could either better have masked, or better have conveyed, the meaning which he was afraid to express. The following madrigal seems more brilliant and more pleasing; it is an allusion to fable:

Vous êtes belle, et votre sœur est belle;

Entre vous deux tout choix serait bien doux

L’Amour était blonde comme vous,

Mais il amait une brune comme elle.

You are a beauty, and your sister, too;

In choosing ’twixt you, then, we cannot err;

 Love, to be sure, was fair like you;

But, then, he courted a brunette like her.

There is another, and a very old one. It is by Bertaut, bishop of Séez, and seems superior to the two former; it unites wit and feeling:

Quand je revis ce que j’ai tant aimé,

Peu s’en fallut que mon cœur rallumé

N’en fît le charme en mon âme renaître;

Et que mon cœur, autrefois son captif,

Ne ressemblât l’esclave fugitif,

À qui le sort fit recontrer son maître.

When I beheld again the once-loved form,

Again within my heart the rising storm

Had nearly cast the spell around my soul,

Which erst had bound me captive at her feet,

As some poor slave, escaped from rude control,

His master’s dreaded face may haply meet.

Strokes like these please every one, and characterize the delicate spirit of an ingenious nation. The great point is to know how far this spirit is admissible. It is clear that, in great works, it should be employed with moderation, for this very reason, that it is an ornament. The great art consists in propriety.

A subtle, ingenious thought, a just and flowery comparison, is a defect when only reason or passion should speak, or when great interests are to be discussed. This is not false wit, but misplaced; and every beauty, when out of its place, is a beauty no longer.

This is a fault of which Virgil was never guilty, and with which Tasso may now and then be charged, admirable as he otherwise is. The cause of it is that the author, too full of his own ideas, wishes to show himself, when he should only show his personages.

The best way of learning the use that should be made of wit, is to read the few good works of genius which are to be found in the learned languages and in our own. False wit is not the same as misplaced wit. It is not merely a false thought, for a thought might be false without being ingenious; it is a thought at once false and elaborate.

It has already been remarked that a man of great wit, who translated, or rather abridged Homer into French verse, thought to embellish that poet, whose simplicity forms his character, by loading him with ornaments. On the subject of the reconciliation of Achilles, he says:

Tout le camp s’écria dans une joie extrême,

Que ne vaincra-t-il point? Il s’est vaincu lui-même.

Cried the whole camp, with overflowing joy —

What still resist him? He’s o’ercome himself.

In the first place it does not at all follow, because one has overcome one’s anger, that one shall not be beaten. Secondly, is it possible that a whole army should, by some sudden inspiration, make instantaneously the same pun?

If this fault shocks all judges of severe taste, how revolting must be all those forced witticisms, those intricate and puzzling thoughts, which abound in otherwise valuable writings! Is it to be endured, that in a work of mathematics it should be said: “If Saturn should one day be missing, his place would be taken by one of the remotest of his satellites; for great lords always keep their successors at a distance?” Is it endurable to talk of Hercules being acquainted with physics, and that it is impossible to resist a philosopher of such force? Such are the excesses into which we are led by the thirst for shining and surprising by novelty. This petty vanity has produced verbal witticisms in all languages, which is the worst species of false wit.

False taste differs from false wit, for the latter is always an affectation — an effort to do wrong; whereas the former is often a habit of doing wrong without effort, and following instinctively an established bad example.

The intemperance and incoherence of the imaginations of the Orientals, is a false taste; but it is rather a want of wit than an abuse of it. Stars falling, mountains opening, rivers rolling back, sun and moon dissolving, false and gigantic similes, continual violence to nature, are the characteristics of these writers; because in those countries where there has never been any public speaking, true eloquence cannot have been cultivated; and because it is much easier to write fustian than to write that which is just, refined, and delicate.

False wit is precisely the reverse of these trivial and inflated ideas; it is a tiresome search after subtleties, an affectation of saying enigmatically what others have said naturally; or bringing together ideas which appear incompatible; of dividing what ought to be united; of laying hold on false affinities; of mixing, contrary to decency, the trifling with the serious, and the petty with the grand.

It were here a superfluous task to string together quotations in which the word spirit is to be found. We shall content ourselves with examining one from Boileau, which is given in the great dictionary of Trévoux: “It is a property of great spirits, when they begin to grow old and decay, to be pleased with stories and fables.” This reflection is not just. A great spirit may fall into this weakness, but it is no property of great spirits. Nothing is more calculated to mislead the young than the quoting of faults of good writers as examples.

We must not here forget to mention in how many different senses the word “spirit” is employed. This is not a defect of language; on the contrary, it is an advantage to have roots which ramify into so many branches.

“Spirit of a body,” “of a society,” is used to express the customs, the peculiar language and conduct, the prejudices of a body. “Spirit of party,” is to the “spirit of a body,” what the passions are to ordinary sentiments.

“Spirit of a law,” is used to designate its intention; in this sense it has been said: “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” “Spirit of a work,” to denote its character and object. “Spirit of revenge,” to signify desire and intention of taking revenge. “Spirit of discord,” “spirit of revolt,” etc.

In one dictionary has been quoted “spirit of politeness”; but from an author named Bellegarde, who is no authority. Both authors and examples should be selected with scrupulous caution. We cannot say “spirit of politeness,” as we say “spirit of revenge,” of “dissension,” of “faction”; for politeness is not a passion animated by a powerful motive which prompts it, and which is metaphorically called spirit.

“Familiar spirit,” is used in another sense, and signifies those intermediate beings, those genii, those demons, believed in by the ancients; as the “spirit of Socrates,” etc.

Spirit sometimes denotes the more subtle part of matter; we say, “animal spirits,” “vital spirits,” to signify that which has never been seen, but which gives motion and life. These spirits, which are thought to flow rapidly through the nerves, are probably a subtile fire. Dr. Mead is the first who seems to have given proofs of this, in his treatise on poisons. Spirit, in chemistry, too, is a term which receives various acceptations, but always denotes the more subtile part of matter.

§ III.

Is not this word a striking proof of the imperfection of languages; of the chaos in which they still are, and the chance which has directed almost all our conceptions? It pleased the Greeks, as well as other nations, to give the name of wind, breath —“pneuma” — to that which they vaguely understand by respiration, life, soul. So that, among the ancients, soul and wind were, in one sense, the same thing; and if we were to say that man is a pneumatic machine, we should only translate the language of the Greeks. The Latins imitated them, and used the word “spiritus,” spirit, breath. “Anima” and “spiritus” were the same thing.

The “rouhak” of the Phœnicians, and, as it is said, of the Chaldæans likewise, signified breath and wind. When the Bible was translated into Latin, the words, breath, spirit, wind, soul, were always used differently. “Spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas” — the breath of God — the spirit of God — was borne on the waters.

Spiritus vitæ” — the breath of life — the soul of life. “Inspiravit in faciem ejus spiraculum,” or “spiritum vitæ” — And he breathed upon his face the breath of life; and, according to the Hebrew, he breathed into his nostrils the breath, the spirit, of life.

Hæc quum dixisset, insufflavit et dixit eis, accipite spiritum sanctum” — Having spoken these words, he breathed on them, and said: Receive ye the holy breath — the holy spirit.

Spiritus ubi vult spirat, et vocem ejus audis; sed nescis unde veniat” — The spirit, the wind, breathes where it will, and thou hearest its voice (sound); but thou knowest not whence it comes.

The distance is somewhat considerable between this and our pamphlets of the Quay des Augustins and the Pont-neuf, entitled, “Spirit of Marivaux,” “Spirit of Desfontaines,” etc.

What we commonly understand in French by “esprit,” “bel-esprit,” “trait d’esprit,” are — ingenious thoughts. No other nation has made the same use of the word “spiritus.” The Latins said “ingenium”; the Greeks, “eupheuia”; or they employed adjectives. The Spaniards say “agudo,” “agudeza.” The Italians commonly use the term “ingegno.”

The English make use of the words “wit,” “witty,” the etymology of which is good; for “witty” formerly signified “wise.” The Germans say “verständig”; and when they mean to express ingenious, lively, agreeable thoughts, they say “rich in sensations”—“sinnreich.” Hence it is that the English, who have retained many of the expressions of the ancient Germanic and French tongue, say, “sensible man.” Thus almost all the words that express ideas of the understanding are metaphors.

Ingegno,” “ingenium,” comes from “that which generates”; “agudeza,” from “that which is pointed”; “sinnreich,” from “sensations”; “spirit,” from “wind”; and “wit,” from “wisdom.”

In every language, the word that answers to spirit in general is of several kinds; and when you are told that such a one is a “man of spirit,” you have a right to ask: Of what spirit?

Girard, in his useful book of definitions, entitled “French Synonymes,” thus concludes: “In our intercourse with women, it is necessary to have wit, or a jargon which has the appearance of it. (This is not doing them honor; they deserve better.) Understanding is in demand with politicians and courtiers.” It seems to me that understanding is necessary everywhere, and that it is very extraordinary to hear of understanding in demand.

“Genius is proper with people of project and expense.” Either I am mistaken, or the genius of Corneille was made for all spectators — the genius of Bossuet for all auditors — yet more than for people of expense.

The wind, which answers to “Spiritus,” — spirit, wind, breath — necessarily giving to all nations the idea of air, they all supposed that our faculty of thinking and acting — that which animates us — is air; whence our “souls are a subtile air.” Hence, manes, spirits, ghosts, shades, are composed of air.

Hence we used to say, not long ago, “A ‘spirit’ has appeared to him; he has a ‘familiar spirit;’ that castle is haunted by ‘spirits;’ ” and the populace say so still.

The word “spiritus” has hardly ever been used in this sense, except in the translations of the Hebrew books into bad Latin.

Manes,” “umbra,” “simulacra,” are the expressions of Cicero and Virgil. The Germans say, “geist”; the English, “ghost”; the Spaniards, “duende,” “trasgo”; the Italians appear to have no term signifying ghost. The French alone have made use of the word “spirit” (esprit). The words for all nations should be, “phantom,” “imagination,” “reverie,” “folly,” “knavery.”

§ IV.

When a nation is beginning to emerge from barbarism, it strives to show what we call wit. Thus, in the first attempts made in the time of Francis I., we find in Marot such puns, plays on words, as would now be intolerable.

Remorentin la parte rememore:

Cognac s’en cogne en sa poitrine blême,

Anjou faict jou, Angoulême est de même.

These fine ideas are not such as at once present themselves to express the grief of nations. Many instances of this depraved taste might be adduced; but we shall content ourselves with this, which is the most striking of all.

In the second era of the human mind in France — in the time of Balzac, Mairet, Rotrou, Corneille — applause was given to every thought that surprised by new images, which were called “wit.” These lines of the tragedy of “Pyramus” were very well received:

Ah! voici le poignard qui du sang de son maître

S’est souillé lâchement; il en rougit, le traître!

Behold the dagger which has basely drunk

Its master’s blood! See how the traitor blushes!

There was thought to be great art in giving feeling to this dagger, in making it red with shame at being stained with the blood of Pyramus, as much as with the blood itself. No one exclaimed against Corneille, when, in his tragedy of “Andromeda,” Phineus says to the sun:

Tu luis, soleil, et ta lumière

Semble se plaire à m’affliger.

Ah! mon amour te va bien obliger

À quitter soudain ta carrière.

Viens, soleil, viens voir la beauté,

Dont le divin éclat me dompte,

Et tu fuiras de honte

D’avoir moins de clarté.

O sun, thou shinest, and thy light

 Seems to take pleasure in my woe;

But soon my love shall shame thee quite,

 And be thy glory’s overthrow.

Come, come, O sun, and view the face

Whose heavenly splendor I adore;

 Then wilt thou flee apace,

 And show thy own no more,

The sun flying because he is not so bright as Andromeda’s face, is not at all inferior to the blushing dagger. If such foolish sallies as these found favor with a public whose taste it has been so difficult to form, we cannot be surprised that strokes of wit, in which some glimmering of beauty is discernible, should have had these charms.

Not only was this translation from the Spanish admired:

Ce sang qui, tout versé, fume encor de courroux,

De se voir répandu pour d’autres que pour vous.

— Cid, act ii, sc. 9.

This blood, still foaming with indignant rage,

That it was shed for others, not for you; —

not only was there thought to be a very spirited refinement in the line of Hypsipyle to Medea, in the “Golden Fleece”: “I have attractions only; you have charms;” but it was not perceived — and few connoisseurs perceive it yet — that in the imposing part of Cornelia, the author almost continually puts wit where grief alone was required. This woman, whose husband has just been assassinated, begins her studied speech to Cæsar with a “for”:

Cesar, car le destin que dans tes fers je brave

M’a fait ta prisonnière, et non pas ton esclave;

Et tu ne prétends pas qu’il m’abatte le cæur.

Jusqu’ à te rendre hommage et te nommer seigneur.

— Mort de Pompée, act iii, sc. 4.


For the hard fate that binds me in thy chains,

Makes me thy prisoner, but not thy slave;

Nor wouldst thou have it so subdue my heart

That I should call thee lord and do thee homage.

Thus she breaks off, at the very first word, in order to say that which is at once far-fetched and false. Never was the wife of one Roman citizen the slave of another Roman citizen: never was any Roman called lord; and this word “lord” is, with us, nothing more than a term of honor and ceremony, used on the stage.

Fille de Scipion, et, pour dire encor plus,

Romaine, mon courage est encore au-dessus.

— Id.

Daughter of Scipio, and, yet more, of Rome,

Still does my courage rise above my fate.

Besides the defect so common to all Corneille’s heroes, of thus announcing themselves — of saying, I am great, I am courageous, admire me — here is the very reprehensible affectation of talking of her birth, when the head of Pompey has just been presented to Cæsar. Real affliction expresses itself otherwise. Grief does not seek after a “yet more.” And what is worse, while she is striving to say “yet more,” she says much less. To be a daughter of Rome is indubitably less than to be daughter of Scipio and wife of Pompey. The infamous Septimius, who assassinated Pompey, was Roman as well as she. Thousands of Romans were very ordinary men: but to be daughter and wife to the greatest of Romans, was a real superiority. In this speech, then, there is false and misplaced wit, as well as false and misplaced greatness.

She then says, after Lucan, that she ought to blush that she is alive:

Je dois rougir, partout, après un tel malheur,

De n’avoir pu mourir d’un excès de douleur.

— Id.

However, after such a great calamity,

I ought to blush I am not dead of grief.

Lucan, after the brilliant Augustan age, went in search of wit, because decay was commencing; and the writers of the age of Louis XIV. at first sought to display wit, because good taste was not then completely found, as it afterwards was.

César, de ta victoire écoute moins le bruit;

Elle n’est que l’effet du malheur qui me suit.

— Id.

Cæsar, rejoice not in thy victory;

For my misfortune was its only cause.

What a poor artifice! what a false as well as impudent notion! Cæsar conquered at Pharsalia only because Pompey married Cornelia! What labor to say that which is neither true, nor likely, nor fit, nor interesting!

Deux fois du monde entier j’ai causé la disgrâce.

— Id.

Twice have I caused the living world’s disgrace.

This is the “bis nocui mundo” of Lucan. This line presents us with a very great idea; it cannot fail to surprise; it is wanting in nothing but truth. But it must be observed, that if this line had but the smallest ray of verisimilitude — had it really its birth in the pangs of grief, it would then have all the truth, all the beauty, of theatrical fitness:

Heureuse en mes malheurs, si ce triste hyménée

Pour le bonheur du monde à Rome m’eût donnée

Et si j’eusse avec moi porté dans ta maison.

D’un astre envenimé l’invincible poison!

Car enfin n’attends pas que j’abaisse ma haine:

Je te l’ai déjà dit, César, je suis Romaine;

Et, quoique ta captive, un cœur tel que le mien,

De peur de s’oublier, ne te demande rien.

— Id.

Yet happy in my woes, had these sad nuptials

Given me to Cæsar for the good of Rome;

Had I but carried with me to thy house

The mortal venom of a noxious star!

For think not, after all, my hate is less:

Already have I told thee I am a Roman;

And, though thy captive, such a heart as mine,

Lest it forget itself, will sue for nothing.

This is Lucan again. She wishes, in the “Pharsalia,” that she had married Cæsar.

Atque utinam in thalamis invisi Cæsaris essem

Infelix conjux, et nulli lœta marito!

Lib., viii, v. 88, 89.

Ah! wherefore was I not much rather led

A fatal bride to Cæsar’s hated bed, etc.

— Rowe.

This sentiment is not in nature; it is at once gigantic and puerile: but at least it is not to Cæsar that Cornelia talks thus in Lucan. Corneille, on the contrary, makes Cornelia speak to Cæsar himself: he makes her say that she wishes to be his wife, in order that she may carry into his house “the mortal poison of a noxious star”; for, adds she, my hatred cannot be abated, and I have told thee already that I am a Roman, and I sue for nothing. Here is odd reasoning: I would fain have married thee, to cause thy death; and I sue for nothing. Be it also observed, that this widow heaps reproaches on Cæsar, just after Cæsar weeps for the death of Pompey and promises to avenge it.

It is certain, that if the author had not striven to make Cornelia witty, he would not have been guilty of the faults which, after being so long applauded, are now perceived. The actresses can scarcely longer palliate them, by a studied loftiness of demeanor and an imposing elevation of voice.

The better to feel how much mere wit is below natural sentiment, let us compare Cornelia with herself, where, in the same tirade, she says things quite opposite:

Je dois toutefois rendre grâce aux dieux

De ce qu’en arrivant je trouve en ces lieux,

Que César y commande, et non pas Ptolemée.

Hélas! et sous quel astre, ô ciel, m’as-tu formée,

Si je leur dois des vœux, de ce qu’ils ont permis,

Que je recontre ici mes plus grands ennemis,

Et tombe entre leurs mains, plutôt qu’aux mains d’un prince

Qui doit à mon époux son trône et sa province.

— Id.

Yet have I cause to thank the gracious gods,

That Cæsar here commands — not Ptolemy.

Alas! beneath what planet was I formed,

If I owe thanks for being thus permitted

Here to encounter my worst enemies

And fall into their hands, rather than those

Of him who to my husband owes his throne?

Let us overlook the slight defects of style, and consider how mournful and becoming is this speech; it goes to the heart: all the rest dazzles for a moment, and then disgusts. The following natural lines charm all readers:

O vous! à ma douleur objet terrible et tendre,

Éternel entretien de haine et de pitié,

Restes de grand Pompée, écoutez sa moitié, etc.

O dreadful, tender object of my grief,

Eternal source of pity and of hate,

Ye relics of great Pompey, hear me now —

Hear his yet living half.

It is by such comparisons that our taste is formed, and that we learn to admire nothing but truth in its proper place. In the same tragedy, Cleopatra thus expresses herself to her confidante, Charmion:

Apprends qu’une princesse aimant sa renommée,

Quand elle dit qu’elle aime, est sure d’être aimée;

Et que les plus beaux feux dont son cœur soit épris

N’oseraient l’exposer aux hontes d’un mépris.

— Act ii, sc. 1.

Know, that a princess jealous of her fame,

When she owns love, is sure of a return;

And that the noblest flame her heart can feel,

Dares not expose her to rejection’s shame.

Charmion might answer: Madam, I know not what the noble flame of a princess is, which dares not expose her to shame; and as for princesses who never say they are in love, but when they are sure of being loved — I always enact the part of confidante at the play: and at least twenty princesses have confessed their noble flames to me, without being at all sure of the matter, and especially the infanta in “The Cid.”

Nay, we may go further: Cæsar — Cæsar himself — addresses Cleopatra, only to show off double-refined wit:

Mais, ô Dieux! ce moment que je vous ai quittée

D’un trouble bien plus grand à mon âme agitée;

Et ces soins importans qui m’arrachaient de vous,

Contre ma grandeur même allumaient mon courroux;

Je lui voulais du mal de m’être si contraire;

Mais je lui pardonnais, au simple souvenir

Du bonheux qu’à ma flamme elle fait obtenir.

C’est elle, dont je tiens cette haute espérance,

Qui flatte mes désirs d’une illustre apparence . . . .

C’était, pour acquérir un droit si précieux;

Que combattait partout mon bras ambitieux;

Et dans Pharsale même il a tiré l’épée

Plus pour le conserver que pour vaincre Pompée.

— Act iv, sc. 3.

But, O the moment that I quitted you,

A greater trouble came upon my soul;

And those important cares that snatched me from you

Against my very greatness moved my ire;

I hated it for thwarting my desires . . . .

But I have pardoned it — remembering how

At last it crowns my passion with success:

To it I owe the lofty hope which now

Flatters my view with an illustrious prospect.

’Twas but to gain this dearest privilege,

That my ambitious arm was raised in battle;

Nor did it at Pharsalia draw the sword,

So much to conquer Pompey, as to keep

This glorious hope.

Here, then, we have Cæsar hating his greatness for having taken him away a little while from Cleopatra; but forgiving his greatness when he remembers that this greatness has procured him the success of his passion. He has the lofty hope of an illustrious probability; and it was only to acquire the dear privilege of this illustrious probability, that his ambitious arm fought the battle of Pharsalia.

It is said that this sort of wit, which it must be confessed is no other than nonsense, was then the wit of the age. It is an intolerable abuse, which Molière proscribed in his “Précieuses Ridicules.”

It was of these defects, too frequent in Corneille, that La Bruyère said: “I thought, in my early youth, that these passages were clear and intelligible, to the actors, to the pit, and to the boxes; that their authors themselves understood them, and that I was wrong in not understanding them: I am undeceived.”

§ V.

In England, to express that a man has a deal of wit, they say that he has “great parts.” Whence can this phrase, which is now the astonishment of the French, have come? From themselves. Formerly, we very commonly used the word “parties” in this sense. “Clelia,” “Cassandra,” and our other old romances, are continually telling us of the “parts” of their heroes and heroines, which parts are their wit. And, indeed, who can have all? Each of us has but his own small portion of intelligence, of memory, of sagacity, of depth and extent of ideas, of vivacity, and of subtlety. The word “parts” is that most fitting for a being so limited as man. The French have let an expression escape from their dictionaries which the English have laid hold of: the English have more than once enriched themselves at our expense. Many philosophical writers have been astonished that, since every one pretends to wit, no one should dare to boast of possessing it.

“Envy,” it has been said, “permits every one to be the panegyrist of his own probity, but not of his own wit.” It allows us to be the apologists of the one, but not of the other. And why? Because it is very necessary to pass for an honest man, but not at all necessary to have the reputation of a man of wit.

The question has been started, whether all men are born with the same mind, the same disposition for science, and if all depends on their education, and the circumstances in which they are placed? One philosopher, who had a right to think himself born with some superiority, asserted that minds are equal; yet the contrary has always been evident. Of four hundred children brought up together, under the same masters and the same discipline, there are scarcely five or six that make any remarkable progress. A great majority never rise above mediocrity, and among them there are many shades of distinction. In short, minds differ still more than faces.

§ VI.
Crooked or Distorted Intellect.

We have blind, one-eyed, cross-eyed, and squinting people — visions long, short, clear, confused, weak, or indefatigable. All this is a faithful image of our understanding; but we know scarcely any false vision: there are not many men who always take a cock for a horse, or a coffeepot for a church. How is it that we often meet with minds, otherwise judicious, which are absolutely wrong in some things of importance? How is it that the Siamese, who will take care never to be overreached when he has to receive three rupees, firmly believes in the metamorphoses of Sammonocodom? By what strange whim do men of sense resemble Don Quixote, who beheld giants where other men saw nothing but windmills? Yet was Don Quixote more excusable than the Siamese, who believes that Sammonocodom came several times upon earth — and the Turk, who is persuaded that Mahomet put one-half of the moon into his sleeve? Don Quixote, impressed with the idea that he is to fight with a giant, may imagine that a giant must have a body as big as a mill, and arms as long as the sails; but from what supposition can a man of sense set out to arrive at a conclusion, that half the moon went into a sleeve, and that a Sammonocodom came down from heaven to fly kites at Siam, to cut down a forest, and to exhibit sleight-of-hand?

The greatest geniuses may have their minds warped, on a principle which they have received without examination. Newton was very wrongheaded when he was commenting on the Apocalypse.

All that certain tyrants of souls desire, is that the men whom they teach may have their intellects distorted. A fakir brings up a child of great promise; he employs five or six years in driving it into his head, that the god Fo appeared to men in the form of a white elephant; and persuades the child, that if he does not believe in these metamorphoses, he will be flogged after death for five hundred thousand years. He adds, that at the end of the world, the enemy of the god Fo will come and fight against that divinity.

The child studies, and becomes a prodigy; he finds that Fo could not change himself into anything but a white elephant, because that is the most beautiful of animals. The kings of Siam and Pegu, say he, went to war with one another for a white elephant: certainly, had not Fo been concealed in that elephant, these two kings would not have been so mad as to fight for the possession of a mere animal.

Fo’s enemy will come and challenge him at the end of the world: this enemy will certainly be a rhinoceros; for the rhinoceros fights the elephant. Thus does the fakir’s learned pupil reason in mature age, and he becomes one of the lights of the Indies: the more subtle his intellect, the more crooked; and he, in his turn, forms other intellects as distorted as his own.

Show these besotted beings a little geometry, and they learn it easily enough; but, strange to say, this does not set them right. They perceive the truths of geometry; but it does not teach them to weigh probabilities: they have taken their bent; they will reason against reason all their lives; and I am sorry for them.

Unfortunately, there are many ways of being wrong-headed. 1. Not to examine whether the principle is true, even when just consequences are drawn from it; and this is very common.

2. To draw false consequences from a principle acknowledged to be true. For instance: a servant is asked whether his master be at home, by persons whom he suspects of having a design against his master’s life. If he were blockhead enough to tell them the truth, on pretence that it is wrong to tell a lie, it is clear that he would draw an absurd consequence from a very true principle.

The judge who should condemn a man for killing his assassin, would be alike iniquitous, and a bad reasoner. Cases like these are subdivided into a thousand different shades. The good mind, the judicious mind, is that which distinguishes them. Hence it is, that there have been so many iniquitous judgments; not because the judges were wicked in heart, but because they were not sufficiently enlightened.

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