1902 Encyclopedia > France > 17th Century French Philosophers and Theologians

(Part 53)


17th Century Philosophers and Theologians

To these moralists we might, perhaps, not inappropriately pass at once. But it seems better to consider first the philosophical and theological developments of the age, which must share with its historical experiences and studies the credit of producing these writers. Philosophy proper, as we have already had occasion to remark, had hitherto made no use of the vulgar tongue. The 16th century had contributed a few vernacular treatises on logic, a considerable body of political and ethical writing, and a good deal of sceptical speculation of a more or less vague character, continued into our present epoch by such writers as La Mothe le Vayer (1588-1672), the last representative of the orthodox doubt of Montaigne and Charron. But in metaphysics proper it had not dabbled. The 17th century, on the contrary, was to produce in Descartes (1596-1650) at once a master of prose style, the greatest of French philosophers, and one of the greatest metaphysicians, not merely of France and of the 17th century, but of all countries and times. Even before Descartes there had been considerable and important developments of metaphysical speculation in France. Early in the century, the Italian Lucilio Vanini was burnt at Toulouse, nominally, like Bruno, for atheism, but really for the adoption of the negative philosophy of Pomponatius and others. The first eminent philosopher of French birth was Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655). Gassendi devoted himself to the maintenance of a modernized form of the Epicurean doctrines, but he wrote mainly if not entirely, in Latin. Another sceptical philosopher of a less scientific character was the physicist Naudé, who, like many others of the philosophers of time, was accused of atheism. But as none of these could approach Descartes in philosophical power and originality, so also none has even a fraction of his importance in the history of French literature. It is with this latter alone that we are here concerned. Descartes stands with Plato, and possibly Berkeley and Malebranche, at the head of all philosophers in respect of style; and in his case the excellence is far more remarkable than in others, inasmuch as he had absolutely no models, and was forced in a great degree to create the language which he used. The Discours de la Méthode is not only one of the epoch-making books of philosophy, it is also one of the epoch-making books of French style. Almost every page of it might have been written by a a master of the language at the present day, while there is the greatest possible contrast between these pages and those of even the best French prose writers a few writers a few years previously. Nor was the influence of Descartes in literature less than his influence in philosophy. The tradition of his clear and perfect style was taken up, not merely by his philosophical disciples, but also by Pascal (1623-1662) and the school of Port Royal, who will be noticed presently. The very genius of the Cartesian philosophy was intimately connected with this clearness, distinctness, and severity of style; and there is something more than a fanciful contrast between these literary characteristics of Descartes, on the one hand, and the elaborate splendour of Bacon, the knotty and crabbed strength of Hobbes, and the commonplace and almost vulgar slovenliness of Locke. Of the followers of Descartes, putting aside the Port Royalists, by far the most distinguished, both in philosophy and in literature, is Malebranche (1631-1715). His Recherche de la Vérité, admirable asit is for its subtlety and its consecutiveness of thought, is equally admirable for its elegance of style. Malebranche cannot indeed, like his great master, claim absolute originality. But his excellence as a writer is as great as, if not greater than, that of Descartes, and the Recherche remains to this day the one philosophical treatise of great length and abstruseness which, merely as a book, is delightful to read,—not like the works of Plato and Berkeley, because of the adventitious graces of dialogue or description, but from the purity and grace of the language, and its admirable adjustment to the purposes of the argument. Yet, for all this, philosophy hardly flourished in France. It was too intimately connected with theological and ecclesiastical questions, and especially with Jansenism, to escape suspicion and persecution. Descartes himself was for much of his life an exile in Holland and Sweden ; and though the unquestionable orthodoxy of Malebranche, the strongly religious cast of his works, and the remoteness of the abstruse region in which he sojourned from that of the controversies of the day protected him, other followers of Descartes were not so fortunate. Holland, indeed, became a kind of city of refuge for students of philosophy, though even in Holland itself they were by no means entirely safe from persecution. By far the msot remarkable of French philosophical sojourners in the Netherlands was Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), a name not perhaps of the first rank in respect of literary value, but certainly of the first as regards literary influence. Bayle, after oscillating between the two confessions, nominally remained a Protestant in religion. In philosophy he in the same manner oscillated between Descartes and Gassendi, finally resting in an equally nominal Cartesianism. Bayle was in fact, both in philosophy and in religion, merely a sceptic, with a scepticism at one like and unlike that of Montaigne, and differenced both of temperament and circumstance. The scepticism of Montaigne is mainly moral in character, and represents the good-humoured but satiated indifference of the gentleman of the Renaissance, who has known both business and pleasure, and, though undervaluing neither, sees the drawbacks of both. That of Bayle is the scepticism of the mere students, exercised more or less in all histories, sciences, and philosophies, and intellectually unable or unwilling to take a side. His style is hardly to be called good, being diffuse and often inelegant. But his great dictionary, though one of the most heterogeneous and unmethodical of compositions, exercised an enormous influence both on the Continent and in England, especially on the Continent. It has been or might be called the Bible of the 18th century, and contains in the germ all the desultory philosophy, the ill-ordered scepticism, and the critical but negatively critical acuteness of the Aufklärung. Locke and Newton had indeed to be super-added to Bayle, and Voltaire in matter, though by no by no means in form, represents little more than union of the three.

We have said that the philosophical, theological, and moral tendencies of the century, which produced, with the exception of its dramatic triumphs, all its greatest literary works, are almost inextricably intermingled. Its earliest years, however, bear in theological matters the complexion of the previous century. Du Perron and St Francis of Sales survived until nearly the end of its first quarter, and the most remarkable works of the latter bear the dates of 1608 and later. It was not, however, till some years had passed, till the courter-Reformation had reconverted the largest and most powerful portion of the Huguenot partly, and till the influence of Jansenius and Descartes had time to work, that the extraordinary outburst of Gallican theology, both in pulpit and press, took place. The Jansenist controversy may perhaps be awarded the merit of provoking this, as far as writing was concerned. The extraordinary eloquence of contemporary pulpit oratory may be set down partly to the zeal for conversion of which Du Perron and De Sales had given the example, partly to the same taste of the time which encouraged dramatic performances, for the sermon and the tirade have much in common. Jansenius himself, though a Dutchman by birth, passed much time in France, and it was in France that he found most disciples. These disciples consisted in the first place of the members of the society of Port Royal des Champs, a côterie after the fashion of the time, but one which devoted itself not to sonnets or madrigals but to devotional exercises, study and the teaching of youth. This côterie early adopted the Cartessian philosophy, and the Port Royal logic was the most remarkable popular hand book of that school. In theology they adopted Jansenism, and were inconsequence soon at daggers drawn with the Jesuits, according to the polemical habits of the time. The most distinguished champions on the Jansenist side were the Abbé de St Cyran and Antoine Arnauld, but by far the most important literary results of the quarrel were the famous Provinciales of Pascal, or, to give them their proper title, Lettres Écrites à Provincial. The original occasion of these remarkable letters was the condemnation of Arnauld at the Sorbonne. They produced an immense effect; their printers were subjected to vigorous police investigations, but in vain ; and the incognito of the author was long preserved. With their matter we have nothing to do here. Their literary importance consists, not merely in their grace of style, but in the application to serious discussion of the peculiarly polished and quiet irony of which Pascal is the greatest master the world has ever seen. Up to this time controversy had usually conducted either in the mere bludgeon fashion of the Scaligers and Saumaises, —of which in the vernacular the Jesuit Garasse (1585-1631) had already contributed remarkable examples to literary and moral controversy,—or else in a dull and legal style, or lastly under an envelope or Rabelaisian buffoonery, such as survives to a considerable extent in the Satire Ménippée. Pascal set the example of combining the use of the most terribly effective weapons with good humour, good breeding, and a polished style. The example was largely followed, and the manner of Voltaire and his followers in the 18th century owes at least as much to Pascal as their method and matter do to Bayle. The Jansenists, attacked and persecuted by civil power, which the Jesuits had contrived to interest, were finally suppressed. But the Provinciales had given them an unapproachable superiority in matter of argument and literature. Their other literary works were inferior, though still remarkable. Arnauld (1612-1694) and Nicole (1625-1695) manage their native language with vigour, if not exactly with grace. They maintained their orthodoxy by writings, not merely against the Jesuits, but also against the Protestants, such as the Perpétuité de la Foi due to both, and the Apologie des Catholiques written by Arnauld alone. The latter, besides being responsible for a good deal of the logic (L’Art de Penser) to which we have alluded, wrote also much of a Grammaire Génerale composed by the Port Royalist for the use of their pupils ; but his principal devotion was to theology and theological polemics. To the latter Nicole also contributed Les Visionnaires, Les Imaginaires, and other works. The studious recluses of Port Royal also produced a large quantity of miscellaneous literary work, to which full justice has been done in Sainte-Beuve’s well known volumes.

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