1902 Encyclopedia > France > 17th Century French Moralists

(Part 55)


17th Century Moralists

It is not surprising that the works of Montaigne and Charron, with the immense popularity of the former, should have inclined the more thoughtful minds in France to moral reflexion, especially as many other influences, both and indirect, contributed to produce the same result. The constant tendency of the refinements in French prose was towards clearness, succinctness, and precision, the qualities most necessary in the moralist. The characteristics of the prevailing philosophy, that of Descartes, pointed in the same direction. It so happened, too, that the times were more favourable to the thinker and writer on ethical subjects than to the speculator in philosophy proper, in theology, or in politics. Both the former subjects exposed their cultivators, as we have seen, to the suspicion of unorthodoxy ;and to political speculation of any kind the rule of Richelieu, and still more that of Louis XIV., were in the highest degree unfavourable. No sucessors to Bodin and Du Vair appeared ; and even in the domain of legal writings, which comes nearest to that of politics, but few names of eminence are to be found. The parliaments were rapidly becoming the submissive instruments of the monarch, and might be expected soon to degenerate into the assemblies which, in the next century, disgraced into the assemblies themselves for ever in the affairs of Calas and Sirve, La Barre and Lally. Only the name of Omer-Talon (1595-1657) really illustrates the legal annals or France at this period on the bench, and that of Patru (1604-1681) at the bar. Thus it happened that the interest of many different classes of persons were concentrated upon moralizings, which took indeed very different forms in the hands of Pascal and other grave and serious thinkers of the Jansenist complexion in theology, and in those of literary courtiers like St Evremond (1613-1703) and la Rochefoucauld, whose chief object was to depict the motives and characters prominent in the brilliant and not altogether frivolous society in which they moved. Both classes, however, were more or less tempted by the cast of their thoughts and the genius of the languages to adopt the tersest and most epigrammatic form of expression possible, and thus to originate the "pensés" in which, as its greatest writer of this century has said, "the ambition of the author is to put a book into a page, a page into a phrase, and a phrase, and a phrase into a word." The great genius and admirable style of Pascal are certainly not less shown in his Pensées than in his Provinciales, though perhaps the literary form of the former is less strikingly supreme than that of the latter. The author is more dominated by his subject, and dominates it less. The depth of his thought, of his doubt, of his belief troubles sometimes the literary perfection of his style, but after all the excellence as literature of the Pensées is rather different from that of the Provinciales than inferior to it. Nicole, a far inferior writers as well as thinker, has also left a considerable number of Pensées, which have about them something more of the essay and less of the aphorism. They are, however, though not comparable to Pascal, excellent in matter and style, and go far to justify Bayle in calling their author. "l’une des plus belles plumes de l’Europe." In sharp contrast with these thinkers, who are invariably not merely respecters of religion but ardently and avowedly religious, who treat morality from the point of view of the Bible and the church, there arose side by side with them, or only a little later, a very different group of moralists, whose writings have been as widely read, and who have had as great a practical and literary influence as perhaps any other class of authors. The earliest to be born and the last to die of these was St Evremond. St Evremond was long known rather as a conversational wit, some of whose good things were handed about in manuscript, or surreptitiously printed in foreign lands, than as a writer, and this is still to a certain extent his reputation. He was at least as cynical as his still better known contemporary La Rochefoucauld, if not more or so, and he had less intellectual force and less nobility of character. But his wit was very great, and it was not restrained by any inconvenient convictions or scruples. Presiding as he did in the society of Ninon de l’Enclos, and over a considerable number of lesser wits, he set the example of the brilliant societies of the next century. These in turn culminated in the Holbachian group which was to render such powerful assistance in the diffusion of philosophism, and to distinguish itself by the freedom, in every sense of the word, of its style of thought and conversation. Many of St Evremond’s printed works are nominally works of literary criticism, but the moralizing spirit pervades all of them. No writer had a greater influence on Voltaire, and though Voltaire on the whole course of French literature after him. In direct literary value, however, no comparison can be made between St Evremond and the author of the Sentences et Maximes Morales. The Duc de la Rochefoucauld has other literary claims besides those of this famous book. His Mémoires were very favourably judged by his contemporaries, and they are still held to deserve no litlte praise even among the numerous and excellent works of the kind which that age of memoir writers produced. But while the Mémoires thus invite comparison, the Maximes et Sentences stand alone. Even allowing that the mere publication of detached reflexions in terse language was not absolutely new, it had never been carried, perhaps has never since been carried, to such a perfection. Beside La Rochefoucauld all other writers are diffuse, vacillating, unfinished, rough. A very large number of his maxims do not exceed two lines ; many are contained in half a dozen words ; and though he has no prudish or childish objection to more lengthy reflexions, these lengtheir section are proportionately as much crammed and packed with thought as the shorter. The most remarkable thing, however, about them is not that there is never a word too much but that, pregnant as they are, there is never a word too little. The thought is always fully expressed, not compressed. Frequently as the metaphor of minting or stamping coin has been applied to the art of managing words, it has never been applied so appropriately as to the maxims of La Rochefoucauld, each of which has the beauty, the value, and the clear-cut compactness of a medal, Such criticism as has been directed against them has invariably and necessarily busied itself with their matter, and with the supposed selfish and cynical character of their thought. The form of them is almost beyond praise, and its excellencies, combined with their immense and enduring popularity have had a very considerable share in influencing the character of subsequent French literature. Of hardly less importance in this respect, though of considerably less intellectual and literary individuality, was the translator of Theophrastus and the author of the ‘Caractères, La Bruyère. La Bruyère, though frequently epigrammatic, did not aim at the same incredible terseness as the author of the Maximes. His plan did not, indeed, render it necessary. Both in England and in France there had been during the whole of the century a mania for character writing, both of the general and Theophrastic kind and of the historical and personal order. The latter, of which our own Clarendon is perhaps the greatest master, abound in the French memoirs of the period. The former, of which the naïve sketches of Earle and Overbury are English examples, culminated in those of La Bruyère. These sketches were made palatable originally, though they are perhaps rendered less attractive now, by the multitude of half-veiled allusions to contemporary characters. They do not contain any of the appalling an to some persons repulsive directness and ruthlessness of La Rochefoucauld. They are not only light and easy in manner in matter, but also in style, and in this respect, as in most others, the contrast is remarkable. The work of La Bruyère is essentially amusing, though it is instructive as well. It is the work of a man o great talent, acuteness, and observation, but tolerant to a certain extent of commonplaces and compromises. There is neither compromise nor commonplace in La Rochefoucauld. We have dwelt on these two remarkable books somewhat longer than on most single chef d’aeuvres of French literature, because of their extraordinary and enduring effect on the literature which followed them—an effect perhaps superior to that exercised by any other single work except the Roman de la Rose and the Essais of Montaigne.

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