1902 Encyclopedia > France > 18th Century French Moralists and Politicians

(Part 64)


18th Century Moralists and Politicians

Not the least part, however, of the energy of the period in thought and writing was devoted to questions of a directly moral and political kind. The grace social and economical evils under which France laboured made this devotion almost inevitable; and though we have already noticed under the head of history a certain number or works written under this inspiration, a still larger proportion remains to be mentioned—moral, political, and economical works having had, from the time of Aristotle downwards, sufficient connexion to be treated together. With regard to morality proper the favourite doctrine of the century was what is commonly called the selfish theory, the only one indeed which was suitable to be the sensationalism of Condillac and the materialism of Holbach. T he pattern book of this doctrine was the De l’Espil of Helvétius (1715-1771), the most amusing book perhaps which over pretended to the title of a solemn philosophical treatise. There is some analogy between the principles of this work and those of the Système de la Nature. With the inconsistency—some would say with the questionable honesty—which distinguished the more famous members of the Philosophe partly when their disciples spoke with what they considered imprudent outspokenness, Voltaire and even Diderot attacked Helvétius as the former afterwards attacked Holbach. Both were guilty of disregarding the curious cant of noble sentiment which was so dear to the 18th century, and with the tenacious steadiness of traditional criticism it has been usual to speak slightingly of Helvetius ever since. The truth is that, whatever may be the general value of De l’ Esprit, it is full of acutenesss, though that acuteness is as desultory and disjointed as its style. As Helvétius may be taken as the representative author of the cynical school, so perhaps Thomas (1732-1795) may be taken as representative of the votaries of noble sentiment to whom we have also alluded. The works of Thomas chiefly took the form of academic éloges or formal panegyrics, and they have all the defects, both in manner and substance, which are associated with that style. They were, however, useful in their way, as counteracting the prevailing cynicism, and have some literary importance, as being perhaps the least dead of an enormous mass of similar literature which was composed at the time. Of yet a third school, corresponding in form to La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère, and possessed of some of the antique vigour of preceding centuries, was Vauvenargues (1715-1747). This writer, who died very young, has produced maxims and reflexions of considerable mental force and literary finish. From Voltaire downwards it has been usual to compare him with Pascal. From whom he is chiefly distinguished by a striking but somewhat empty stoicism. Between the moralists, of whom we have taken these three as examples, and the politicians may be placed Rousseau, who in his novels and miscellaneous works is of the first class, in his famous Contrat Social of the second. The characteristics of Rousseau are too well known to need lengthy description. His discontent with the established social order and arrangements of the world led him, on the one hand, to advocate alterations in individual morality, such as the discarding of the vices and corruptions of civilization, and the return to a simpler and less complicated manner of living ; on the other to develop and urge theories respecting the constitution of the body politic, which if not altogether novel in their nature, were made so by the force of their statement and the literary beauties of its form. Rousseau’s work was continued on the political side by Bernardin de Saint Pierre. Of direct and avowed political writings there were few during the century, and none of anything like the importance of the Contrat Social, theoretical acceptance of the established French constitution being a point of necessity with all Frenchmen. Nevertheless it may be said that almost the whole of the voluminous writings of the Philosophes, even of those who, like Voltaire, were sincerely aristocratic and monarchic in predilection, were or more or less veiled political significance. There was one branch of political writing, moreover, which could be indulged in without much fear. The form of government was sacred, but the conduct of government could be discussed without much danger, for, whatever might be the divine rights of the best of princess, his intentions might always be frustrated by wicked or incapable ministers and officials. Political economy, therefore, and administrative theories, received much attention. The earliest writer of eminence on these subjects was the great engineer Vauban (1633-1707), whose Oisivetés and Dîme Royale exhibit both great ability and extensive observation. A more utopian economist of the same time was the Abbé de St Pierre (1658-1743), not to be confounded with the author of Paul et Virginie. Soon political economy in the hands of Quesnay (1694-1774) took a regular form, and towards the middle of the century a great number of works on questions connected with it, especially that of free trade in corn, on which the Abbé Galiani (1728-1787), Morellet, and above all Turgot, distinguished themselves. Of writers on legal subjects and of the legal profession, the century, though not less fertile than in other directions, produced few or none of any great importance from the literary point of view. The chief name which in this connexion is known is that of Chancellor d’Aguesseau (1668-1751), at the beginning of the century, an estimable writer of the Port Royal school, who took the orthodox side in the great disputes of the time, but failed to display any great ability therein. He was, as became his profession, more remarkable as an orator than a writer, and his work contain valuable testimonies to the especially perturbed and unquiet condition of his century—a disquiet which is perhaps also its chief literary note. There were other French magistrates, such as Montesquieu, Hénault (1685-1770), Des Brosses (1706-1773), and others, who made considarable mark in literature ; but it was usually (except in the case of Montesquieu) in subjects not even indirectly connected with their profession. The bench and bar of Franch were indeed at this time almost as full of abuses as the other departments of state ; and though the parliaments, metropolitan and provincial, would occasionally withstand a corrupt ministry, it was much more in the interest of their own privileges than of the community. The Esprit des Lois stands alone.

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