1902 Encyclopedia > France > 16th Century French Moralists and Political Writers

(Part 46)


16th Century Moralists and Political Writers

The religious dissensions and political disturbances of the time could not fail to exert an influence on ethical and philosophical thought. Yet, as we have said, the century was not prolific of pure philosophical speculation. The scholastic tradition, though long sterile, still survived, and with it the habit of composing in Latin all works in any way connected with philosophy. The logic of Ramus in 1555 is cited as the first departure from this rule. Other philosophical works are few, and chiefly express the doubt and the freethinking which were characteristic of the time. This doubt assumes the form of positive religious scepticism only in the Cymbalum Mundi of Bonaventure des Periers, a remarkable series of dialogues which excited a great storm, and ultimately drove the author to commit suicide. The Cymbakum Mundi is a curious anticipation of the 18th century. The literature of doubt, however, was to receive its principal accession in the famous essays of Montaigne (1533-1592). It would be a mistake to imagine the existence of any sceptical propaganda in this charming and popular book. Its principle is not scepticism but egotism; and as the author was profoundly sceptical, this quality necessarily rather than intentionally appears. We have here to deal very superficially with this as with other famous books, but it cannot be doubted that it expresses the mental attitude of the latter part of the century as completely as Rabelais expresses the mental attitude of the early part. There is considerably less vigour and life in this attitude. Inquiry and protest have given way to a placid conviction that there is not much to be found out, and that it does not much matter; the erudition though abundant is less indiscriminate, and is taken in and given out with less gusto; exuberant drollery has given way to quiet irony; and though neither business nor pleasure is decried, they are regarded rather as useful pastimes incident to the life of man than with the eager appetite of the Renaissance. From the purely literary point of view, the style is remarkable from its absence of pedantry in construction, and yet for its rich vocabulary and picturesque brilliancy. The follower and imitator of Montaigne, Pierre Charron (1541-1603), carried his master’s scepticism to a somewhat more positive degree. His principal book, De la Sagesse, scarcely deserves the comparative praise which Pope has given it. On the other hand Du Vair (1556-1621), a lawyer and orator, takes the positive rather than the negative side in morality, and regards the vicissitudes in human affairs from the religious and teleological point of view in a series of works written in a style less diffuse than that of Montaigne, and characterized by the special merits which the style of great orators often though not always has when they betake themselves to literary composition.

The revolutionary and innovating instinct which showed itself in the 16th century with reference to church government and doctrine, and even in some respects with regard to religious principles generally, spread naturally enough to political matters. The intolerable misgovernment which prevailed during the greater part of the century in France in consequence of religious dissensions, naturally set the thinkers of the age speculating on the doctrines of government in general. The favourite and general study of antiquity helped this tendency, and the great accession of royal power in all the monarchies of Europe invited a speculative if not a practical reaction. The persecutions of the Protestants naturally provoked a republican spirit among them, and the violent antipathy of the League to the houses of Valois and Bourbon made its partisans adopt almost openly the principles of democracy and tyrannicide.

The greatest political writer of the age is Jean Bodin (1550-1596), whose Républiquie is founded partly on speculative considerations like the political theories of the ancients, and partly on an extended historical inquiry. Bodin, like most lawyers who have taken the royalist side, is for unlimited monarchy, but notwithstanding this, he condemns religious persecution and discourages slavery. In his speculations on the connexion between forms of government and natural causes, he serves as a link between Aristotle and Montesquien. On the other hand, the causes which we have mentioned made a large number of writers adopt opposite conclusions. Etienne de la Boétie (1530-1563), the friend of Montaigne’s youth, composed the Contre Un or Discours de la Servitude Volontaire, a protest against the monarchical theory. The boldness of the protest and the affectionate admiration of Montaigne, have given La Boétie amuch higher reputation than any extant work of his actually deserves. The Contre Un is a kind of prize essay, full of empty declamation borrowed from the ancients, and showing no grasp of the practical conditions of politics. Not much more historically based, but far more vigorous and original, is the Franco-Gallia of Hotmann, a work which appeared both in Latin and French, which extols the authority of the states-general, and represents them as direct successors of the political institutions of Gauls and Franks. In the last quarter of the century political animosity knew no bound. The Protestants beheld a divine instuments in Poltrot de Méré, the Catholic in Jacques Clément. The Latin treatises of Languet and Buchanan formally vindicated the first the right of rebellion, the second the right of tyrannicide. Indeed, as Montaigne confesses, divine authorization for political violence was claimed and denied by both parties according as the possession or the expectancy of power belonged to each, and the excesses of the preachers and pamphleteers knew no bounds.

Every one, however, was not carried away, The literary merits of the Chancelor l’Hôpitak (1503-1575) are not very great, but his effort to promote peace and moderation were unceasing. On the other side Lanoue, with far greater literary gifts, pursued the same ends, and pointed out the ruinous consequences of continued dissension. Du Plessis Mornay took a part in political discussion even more important than that which he bore in religious polemics, and was of the utmost service to Henri Quatre in defending his cause against the League, as was also Hurault, another author of state papers. Du Vair, already mentioned, powerfully assisted the same cause by his successful defence of the Salic law, the disregard of which by the Leaguer states-general was intended to lead to the admission of the Spanish claim to the crown. But the foremost work against the Leahue was the famous Satire Menippée, in a literary point of view one of the most remarkable of political works. The Menippée was the work of no single author, but was due, it is said, to the collaboration of five, Leroi, gillot, Chrétien, Rapin, and Pithou, with some assistance in verse from Passerat. The book is a kind of burlesque report of the meeting of the states-general, called for the purpose of supporting the views of the League in 1593. It gives an account of the procession of opening, and then we have the supposed speeches of the principal characters, -- the Ducde Mayenne, the papal legate, the rector of the university (a ferocious Leaguer), and others. But by far the most remarkable is that attributed to Claude d’Aubray, the leader of the Tiers Etat, in which all the evils of the time and the malpractices of the leaders of the League are exposed and branded. The satire is extra ordinarily bitter and yet perfectly good-homoured. It resembles in character rather that of Butler, who unquestionably imitated it, than any other. The style is perfectly suited to the purpose, having got rid of almost all vestiges of the cumbrousness of the older tongue without losing its picturesque quiantness. It is no wonder that, as we are told by contemporaries, it did more for Henri Quatre than all other writings in his cause. In connexion with politics some mention of legal orators and writers may be necessary. In 1539 the ordinance of Villers-Cotterest enjoined the exclusive use of the French language in legal procedure. The bar and bench of France during the century produced, however, besides those names already mentioned in other connexions, only one deserving of special notice, that of Etienne Pasquier, author of a celebrated speech against the right of the Jesuits to take part in public teaching. This he inserted in his great work, Recherches de la France, a work dealing with almost every aspect of French history whether political, antiquarian, or literary.

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