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(Part 66)


18th Century Savants

In science and general erudition the 18th century in France was at first much occupied with the mathematical studies for which the French genius is so peculiarly adapted, which the great discoveries of Descartes had made possible and popular, and which those of his supplanter Newton only made more popular still. Voltaire took to himself the credit which he fairly deserves of first introducing the Newtonian systems into France, and it was soon widely popular—even ladies devoting themselves to the exposition of mathematical subjects, as in the case of the Marquise du Chatelet. Many of the greatest mathematicians of the age, such as De Moivre and Laplace, were French by birth, while others like Euler belonged to French-speaking races, and wrote in French. The physical sciences were also ardently cultivated, the impulse to them being given partly by the generally materialistic tendency of the age, partly by the Newtonian system, and partly also by the extended knowledge of the world provided by the circumnavigatory voyage Bougainville (1729-1811), and other travels. Maupertuis (1698-1759) and La Condamine (1701-1774) made long journeys for scientific purposes, and duly recorded their experiences. The former, a mathematician and physicist of some ability but more oddity, is chiefly known to literature by the ridicule of Voltaire in the Diatribe du Docteur Akakia. D’Alembert (1713-1783), a great mathematician and a writer of considerable though rather academic excellence, is principally known from his connexion with and introduction to the Encylopédie, of which more presently. Chemistry was also assiduously cultivated, the Baron d’Holbach, among others, being a devotee thereof, and helping to advanve the science to the point where, at the conclusion of the century, it was illustrated by Berthollet and Lavoisier. During all this devotion to science in its modern acceptation, the older and more literary forms of erudition were not neglected, especially by the illustrious Benedictines of the abbey of St Maur. Calmet (1672-1757), the author of the well known Dictionary of the Bible, belonged to this order, and to them also (in particular to Dom Rivet) was due the beginning of the immense Histoire Littéraire de la France, a work interrupted by the Revolution and long suspended, but for the last quarter of a century diligently continued. Of less orthodox names distinguished for erudition, Fréret (1688-1749), secretary of the Academy, is perhaps the most remarkable. But in the consideration of the science and learning in the 18th century from a literary point of view, there is one man and one book which require particular and, in the case of the book, somewhat extended mention. The man is Buffon (1747-1780), the book the Encyclopédie. The immense Natural History of Buffon, though not entirely his own, is a remarkable monument of the union of scientific tastes with literary ability. As has happened in many similar instances, there is in parts more literature than science to be found in it; and from the point of view of the latter, Buffon was far too careless in observation and far too solicitous of perfection of style and grandiosity of view. The style of Buffon has sometimes been made the subject of the highest eulogy, and it is at its best admirable; but one still feels in it the fault of all serious French prose in this century before Rousseau,--the presence, that is to say, of an artificial spirit rather than of natural variety and power. The Encyclopédie, unquestionably on the whole the most important French literacy production of the century, if we expect the works of Rousseau and Voltaire, was conducted for a time by Diderot and D’Alembert, afterwards by Diderot alone. It numbered among its contributors almost every Frenchman of eminence in letters. It is often spoken of as if, under the guise of an encyclopaedia, it had been merely a plaidoyer against religion, but this is entirely erroneous. Whatever anti-ecclesiastical bent some of the articles may have, the book as a whole is simply what it professes to be, a dictionary,--that is to say, not merely an historical and critical lexicon, like those of Bayle Moreri (indeed, history and biography were nominally excluded), but a dictionary of arts, sciences, trades, and technical terms. Diderot himself had perhaps the greatest faculty of any man that ever lived for the literary treatment in a workman-like manner of the most heterogeneous and in some cases rebellious subjects; and his untiring labour, not merely in writing original articles, but in editing the contributions of others, determined the character of the whole work. There is no doubt that it had, quite independently of any theological or political influence, an immense share in diffusing and gratifying the taste for the general information by which the century which has succeeded its publication has been more distinguished than perhaps any other in history.

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