F. (François) Arago.

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quire to be recognized ; it is in Europe what the sun is
on the horizon : so much the worse for those who will
not see and profit by it." Is it then surprising, Gentle-
men, I ask you, that in so favourable a position of our
foreign affairs, Carnot believed in the possibility of a
conciliation between the political parties into which the
country was divided ; that he refused (I purposely use
his own words) to exorcise danger by going beyond the
limits of the Constitution ; that he firmly repelled any
thought of a covp-cTetat, — a very convenient way as-
suredly of getting out of a scrape ; but a dangerous
way, and one that almost always ends by becoming
injurious to the very persons who expected to benefit
by it?

I should have much wished. Gentlemen, to have en-
tered more deeply into an examination of the part that
Carnot acted at that critical epoch of the Revolution. I
have not neglected any thing to raise at least a corner of
the veil which still covers an event that so greatly in-
fluenced the fate of our colleague, and that of the country;
but my efforts, I acknowledge, have been unsuccessful.
Documents are not wanting, but they almost all emanate
from writers too much intei'ested, either in excusing or
in branding the 18th of Fructidor, not to be suspected.
The recriminations full of bitterness, of violence against
each other, to which some old colleagues then abandoned
themselves, have reminded me of that wise declaration
by Montesquieu : " Do not listen either to Father Tour-
nemine or to me, when we are speaking of each other,
for we have ceased to be friends." The antecedents, the
opinions, the character, the known and avowed actions of
the various persons who caused the coiip-d'etat, — or be-


came the victims of it, would not have been any better
guide. I should have seen Hoche march at one moment
against his constant and zealous protector, against him
"who had saved his life under the rule of Robespierre, and
who, in 1793, transformed the trimmings of the young
sergeant into the epaulettes of a full general. I should
have found Bonaparte contributing by his delegate Auge-
reau, to the upsetting, and to the proscription of the only
Director with whom he had continued intimately con-
nected during the campaign of Italy. I should have
seen him on his journey to Geneva have the banker
Bontemps arrested, under pretext that he had favour-
ed the escape of that same Carnot to whom a few
months before, he, Bonaparte, wrote from Plaisance
(20th of Floreal, year IV.), from Milan (the 20th of
Prairial, the same year), from Verona (the 9th of Plu-
viose, year V.) : " I owe you special thanks for the at-
tention that you kindly show to my wife ; I recommend
her to you ; she is a sincere patriot, and I love her to
madness .... I will deserve your esteem ; I beg of

you to continue your friendship for me The

sweetest recompense for the fatigues, the dangers, the
chances of this profession, is the approbation of the small

number of men whom we ajipreciate I have

alw^ays had to rejoice in the marks of friendship that you
have shown to me and mine, and I shall always be truly

grateful to you for them The esteem of a small

number of persons like yourself, that of my brother
officers, of the soldier, interest me deeply."

Of the two sincere Republicans included in the execu-
tive Directory, I should have met one among the Fruc-
tidorisants, the other among the Fructidorises ; the
satrap Barras — of whom it might have been said, with-


out exciting contradiction, that he was always sold, and
always for sale — would have oftered himself to me as
the friend, as the ally, or at least as the intimate confi-
dant, of the austere, the honest La Revelliere ; I should
have seen that same Barras, who already, perhaps, at
that epoch, corresponded directly with the Count de
Provence, surrounded by a crowd of myrmidons, of
whom none, be it said in passing, afterwards refused the
imperial livery, — upset, by incessant accusations of roy-
alty, the only man of our assemblies who, always constant
in his convictions, battled foot by foot against the insati-
able ambition of Bonaparte.

Seeking in the sequel by facts, and only by facts,
whether the majority of the counsellors was really
factious ; whether the counter-revolution could not be
avoided but by a coup-d' itat ; in a word, whether the
18th of Fructidor was inevitable, I should have found,
and this notwithstanding the mutual concessions which
the authors of the proscription no doubt made, as in the
time of Octavius, of Lepidus, of Anthony, — I should
have found an elimination, or, if you will, a filtering of
forty-one members only, in the Council of the Five-Hun-
dred, and of eleven in the Council of the Elders.

The thread that could safely guide the historian in
this labyrinth of contradictory facts, I repeat it, I have
not found. The memoirs snatched from the family of
Barras by order of Louis XVIIL ; the memoirs that
were left by La Revelliere, and of which it is so desir-
able that the public should be no longer deprived ; the
confessions which on the other hand, we have a right to
expect on the part of some of the victims of the Direc-
torial covp-(Vkat, may, perhaps, dissii)ate all the clouds.
Would to God, for the honour of the country, that in the


end, the violent and illegal mutilation of the national rep-
resentation may not appear to be the exclusive result of
the animosities and personal antipathies excited, or, at
least, in great measure fostered, by the intrigues of several
notorious women. Still the investigations of future his-
torians, however extended and complicated they may be,
can never militate against the perfect uprightness of our
co-academician. Already there remain no vestiges of
the accusations detailed in the official report presented in
the year VI. to the Council of the Five-Hundred : in a
few pages, Carnot reduced them to nought. All that
malevolence or mere preconception dares to borrow now
from the pamphlet elaborated with so much artifice by
Bailleul, is reduced to an empty reproach coarsely ex-
pressed, and which I should have disdained to mention,
had not Carnot himself indicated on what conditions he
accepted it.

Political hacks call by the name of simpletons, all men
who would disdain such advantages as are bought at the
expense of good faith, honesty, and morality. But we
must not be deceived ; simpleton is the polite epithet ;
blockhead is prefeiTcd when we do not feel ourselves
bound to keep within limits or to adhere to the language
of good society. This epithet, disdainfully cast by Bail-
leul in the official report, had cruelly mortified Carnot ;
it is ironically repeated in almost every page of our col-
league's answer. He says in one part : " Yes ! the
blockhead Aristides is chased from his country ; the
blockhead Socrates drank hemlock ; the blockhead Cato
is reduced to commit suicide ; the blockhead Cicero is
assassinated by order of the triumvirs. Yes ! the block-
head Phocion is also led to the scaffold, but glorying ia
having to undergo the fiite reserved in all ages for those
who serve their country well."


Carnot escaped from the Luxembourg at the moment
that the myrmidons were entering his room, to arrest
him. A family of Burgundian artisans received and
concealed him. Those whose life is an uninteiTupted
series of privations, know well how to compassionate
misfortune. Our colleague afterwards sought refuge in
the house of M. Oudot, a great partisan of the coup-rT etat
on the 18th Fructidor ; and where, from that date, no
one would have thought of seeking the proscribed Direc-
tor. Carnot had not yet left Paris, when his name was
erased from the list of the members of that national
Institute, to the creation of which he had so much con-

Some laws proclaimed on the 19th and 20th of Fruc-
tidoi", year V., declared all the places vacant that had
been held by the citizens struck by the coup-d' etat of the
18lh. The Minister of the Interioi", Letourneux, there-
fore wrote to the Institute enjoining it to proceed to the
naming of a successor to Carnot. The three classes
then proceeded to the nomination of the members of
each class. One hundred and four voters took part in
the election ; but the urn did not receive one white ball !

I know, Gentlemen, how much, in Revolutionary
times, the most upright, the most firm minds, are influ-
enced by public opinion ; I know that after the lapse of
time that separates us from the 18th of Fructidor, no
one can conceive that he has a right to blame the Insti-
tute at all for having yielded to the ministerial orders ;
still, I will here express freely my regret, that imperious
circumstances did not permit our honourable predeces-
sors, since the Fructidorian era, to draw a marked line
of distinction between the politician and the philosojdier.
Under the Regency, in the affair of the Abbe Saint-


Pierre, Fontenelle had already, by a courageous stroke,
protested against the powers attempting to confound that
which the interests of science, of literature, and of art
bid us keep for ever apart. If, in the year V. of the
Republic, fifty-three voters had had the manliness to
imitate Fontenelle, the Institute would not have suffered
such cruel mutilations at the Restoration ; deprived of
the support afforded by unfortunate precedents, certainly
not many ministers would have entertained the unpar-
donable thought of creating an Academy of Sciences at
Paris without Monge, an Academy of Fine Arts with-
out David !

You are surprised, no doubt, that I have not yet
informed you of the name of the person wlio succeeded
Carnot in the first class of the Institute ; well, Gentle-
men, it is because I have refrained, as much as possible,
from performing a painful duty. When it proceeded to
elect a successor to one of its founders, to one of its
most illustrious members, the Institute obeyed, at least,
an established law proceeding from the powers of the
State ; but is there, I ask you, any consideration in the
world that should induce a man to accept the academic
spoils of a learned victim of party rage, and especially
so, when that man is General Bonaparte ? Like all of
you, Gentlemen, I have often indulged in a just feeling
of pride, on seeing the admirable proclamations of the
army of the East, signed: Member of the Institute,
General-in-Chief ; but a heart-grief followed the first
sensation, when it occurred to my mind, that the Member
of the Institute had arrayed himself with a title which
had been torn from his first patron and friend.

I have never thought, Gentlemen, that it was useful
to create beings of ideal perfection, at the expense of


truth ; and this is the reason why, notwithstanding some
friendly advice, I have persisted in divulging what you
have just heard, relative to the nomination of (reneral
Bonaparte to the Institute. " But," said a Napoleonist
to me, " coming from you, the story has no weight ; for
does not all the world know that you astronomers seek
to find spots in the sun ! " Thus, Gentlemen, my posi-
tion has given me the j^rivilege of telling truth without
offending any one, which, by the by, is extremely rare !

I regret not being able to discover the name of the
generous citizen who snatched Carnot from his retreat,
and carried him safely in his postchaise to Geneva.

On arriving in that city, Cai'not engaged lodgings at a
laundryman's, under the name of Jacob. Prudence re-
quired his being entirely unknown ; but the wish of
getting certain news from his beloved country carried
the day ; he went out, he was recognized in the street
by some spies of the Directory, who followed him, dis-
covered his retreat, and immediately set a watch on it.
Some French agents who had influence in the Genevese
Republic, exclaimed loudly that he ought to be given up
to the laws of his country, and even made an official
representation to the Genevese Government. The mao -
istrate into whose hands this diplomatic affair fell, was
fortunately a man of feeling, and conscientious withal,
and who felt what a great blemish would be inflicted on
his country thereby. This magistrate was named M.
Didier. On such an occasion, Gentlemen, it would be a
crime not to cite a name known also in literature, thus
connected with a humane action. M. Didier wrote to
Carnot ; he warned him of his danger, entreated him to
quit the house immediately, and directed him to a spot
on the lake where a boatman would await him, to take


him over to Nyon. It was already very late ; the con-
stables of the Directory were watching their prey. Our
colleague goes direct to his host, and, without any pre-
amble, asks pardon for having introduced himself into
his house under a false name. " I am proscribed, I am
Carnot, they are going to arrest me ; my fate is in your
hands : will you save me ? " said he. The honest laun-
dryman replied, " Without any doubt." Immediately
he muffled up Carnot with a blouse, Avith a cotton cap,
with a dossier ; he lays on his head a large loose
bundle of dirty linen, which hung down to the shoulders
of the pretended Jacob, and hid his figure. By favour
of such a disguise, the man who a short time before by
writing a few lines could scatter or arrest in their march
armies commanded by a Marceau, a Hoche, a Moreau, a
Bonaparte ; to shed hope or fear at Naples, at Rome, at
Vienna ; now — melancholy vicissitude of things hei'e
below, — having borrowed the trappings of a laundry-
man's labourer, reaches in safety the little boat, in which
he is to escape from being sent a prisoner back to France.
In the boat, a new and strange emotion awaited Carnot.
In the boatman appointed by M. Didier he recognizes
that same Pichegru, whose culpable intrigues had per-
haps rendered the ISth Fructidor inevitable. During
all the time occupied in crossing the lake, not a single
word was exchanged between the two proscribed men.
Indeed, the time, the place, the circumstances were not
suitable for political debates, for recriminations ! Car-
not, moreover, had soon to congratulate himself on his
reserve ; on reading the French journals at Nyon, he
learnt that he had been deceived by a fortuitous resem-
blance ; that his travelling companion, far from being a
general, had never manoeuvred any thing more than his


frail boat, and that Pichegru, being arrested by Auge-
reau, was expecting to be taken back to one of the pris-
ons in Paris. Carnot was still at Nyon when Bonaparte,
returning from Italy, passed through that little town on
his way to Rastadt. Like all the other inhabitants, he
illuminated his windows to do homage to the general.

If the plan that I have proposed to myself were to
allow me at present to speak of Carnot's rare and sin-
cere modesty, I hope his little illumination at Nyon
would not be opposed to me. When he placed two
candles in his window, in honour of victories to which
he had contributed by his orders, or at least, by his
counsels, Carnot proscribed, Carnot labouring under the
menace of a forced journey back to Paris, and then of
exile in the deserts of Guyana, must certainly have
been agitated by far different sentiments ; nor can we
presume that pride showed itself in any of them.




During upwards of two years, Carnot had disappeared
from the arena of politics ; during upwards of two years
he had lived at Augsbourg under a feigned name, ex-
clusively occupied in the cultivation of the sciences and
of literature, when General Bonaparte returned from
Egypt, and with a breath reversed the 18th Brumaire,
a government that had never been able to take root in
the country. One of his first acts was his recalling the
iHustrious exile, and nominating him to be Minister of
War. The enemy was then at our gates. Carnot did
not hesitate to accept ; but a few months after, when the
immortal victories of Marengo and of Hohenlinden had


given an incontestable superiority to our arms, when the
independence of the country was again assured, Carnot
resif^ned his ajipointment. He would not consent to
appear an accomplice in the changes that were prepar-
ing in the form of the government. Accordingly, on
the 16th Vendemiaire, year IX., he wrote as follows:
"Citizen Consuls, I again send you my resignation ; I
beg you will not defer accepting it."

It is not from a trifling cause that people part thus
laconically. The letter I have just given was a corollary
of the earnest disputes that were daily occurring between
the Republic and the Empire, in the persons of tJie First
Consul and the Minister of War.

Recalled to public aflfiiirs as a Tribune in 1802, Car-
not opposed the creation of the Legion of Honour. He
thinks — I was going to say, he foresees — that a distinc-
tion bestowed without inquiry by the uncontrolled will of
one man, will end, notwithstanding its imposing title, and
according to the natural course of things in this world,
by no longer being any more than the means of attaching
followers, and reducing to silence a swarm of little vani-
ties. Carnot also with all his might opposed the creation
of a Consulate for life ; but it was especially at the
moment when it was proposed to raise Bonaparte to the
Imperial Tiirone, that he redoubled his energy and
ardour. History has already recorded his noble words ;
she will also say, that surrounded by old Jacobins, sur-
rounded even by those same men who, on the 18th
Fructidor, had persecuted him as a royalist, Carnot re-
mained standing nearly alone in the midst of the general
apostasy, as if at least to prove to the world that politi-
cal conscience is not quite an empty word.

The Tribunate was soon suppressed. Carnot retii'ed


again into private life ; I will not say with joy, Gentle-
men, for in our colleague's bosom the virtues of a citizen
always occupied the principal place ; for he had hoped,
that, like another Washington, General Bonaparte would
avail himself of this unique opportunity to found in
France order and liberty on a stable basis ; for no man
initiated in public aifairs, and endowed with some fore-
sight, could without uneasiness see the reins of govern-
ment placed beyond control, and without guarantee, in
the hands of an ambitious soldier. I shall be able at
least to show you that Carnot's leisure was nobly and
gloriously employed.


There is a story told of a young student who, almost
discouraged with some difficulties inherent in the first
elements of mathematics, went to consult D'Alembert,
when this great geometer answered him, " Go on, sir,
go on, and faith will come to you." *

The advice was good, and geometers have followed it
generally : they " go on," also ; they perfect methods,
and multiply the applications of them, without pre-
occupying themselves about the two or thi-ee points
whei-e the metaphysics of the science offer obscurities.
Shall it be said on that account that the filling up of

* D'Alembert's advice requires much explanation; as it stands it
would be a good motto for Jesuits. It reads altogether contrary to
the spirit of mathematics, where one step is made sure of before
looking out for another, — where the self-secured truth is in place of
smy faith. It is meant, perhaps, to encourage the student to disregard
contingent apparent puzzles; it should then be rendered, "Hold on
in the path whose truth is evident to you, and after a time you will
get a clearer view of those collateral circumstances which now con-
fuse you, while looking every way at once." — Translator.


these gaps should be altogether neglected ? Such was
not Carnot's view. "We have already seen him devoting
the short moments of repose Avhich his Directorial duties
left him to the metaphysics of the Infinitesimal Calculus ;
the suppression of the Tribunate will permit him to sub-
mit to similar investigations an equally arduous question
— that of negative quantities.

It often happens that, after having reduced a problem
to the form of an equation, analysis offers you some neg-
ative numbers amongst the solutions sought for ; for
example minus 10, minus 50, minus 100 ; these solutions
the ancient analysts did not know how to interpret.
Vieta himself neglected them as absolutely useless and
insignificant. By degrees they got into the habit of re-
garding negative numbers as quantities less than zero.
Newton and Euler gave no other definition of them
( Universal Arithmetic, and Introduction to Infinitesimal
Analysis). This notion has in modern times introduced
itself into the vulgar tongue : the merchant on the most
petty scale understands exactly the position of a corre-
spondent who announces to him negative profits ; poetry
has also given its sanction to the same thought, as we
see in these two verses, by which Chenier stigmatized
his political enemies, the editors of the 3Iercure de
France : —

" Which these lettered dwarfs have done, who without literature,
Beneath noHenUty. sustain the MtrcureJ''' *

"Well, Gentlemen, it is a notion thus supported by the
authority of the greatest geometers of modern times,
consecrated by the assent of one who has, they say, more

* " Qu'ont fait ces iiains ]ettr(5s qui, sans litterature,
Au-dessQus du neant, soutiennent le Mercure.''''


talent than Voltaire, or Rousseau, or Bonaparte, and by
the assent of the generality of the public, that Carnot
has combated with the keen weapons of logic.

Certainly nothing is more simple than the notion of a
negative quantity, when it is attached to a positive quan-
tity greater than itself; but a detached negative quantity,
a detached quantity looked upon as isolated, must it be
really considered less than zero, and a fortiori, inferior
to a positive quantity ? Carnot, agreeing on this point
with D'Alembert, who, most amongst the great mathe-
maticians of the last century, occupied himself with the
philosophy of science, maintains that negative isolated
quantities figure in operations admitted by everybody,
and in which, nevertheless, it would be impossible to
suppose them beneath zero. Notwithstanding the dry-
ness of such details, I will quote one of these operations.
No one denies that

-j_ 10 is to — 10 as — 10 is to -f 10.

In order that four numbers should form a proportion,
it is necessary, and, in ftict, it suffices that, if the four
numbers are fittingly ranged in order, the product of the
extremes should be equal to that of the means. "We
must not be startled at this. Gentlemen ; the principle I
call in here, is no other than that of the famous rule of
three of the teachers of writing and arithmetic ; it is the
principle of the calculation which is executed some hun-
dreds of thousands of times daily in the shops of the
metropolis. Now, in the proportion which I have just
cited, the product of the extremes is -|- 100, as it is also
of the means ; therefore

4- 10 : — 10 :: — 10 : -f- 10.

Nevertheless, if -\- 10, the first term of the proportion,
surpasses the second term — 10, it is impossible to sup-


pose at the same time that — 10, the first term of the
second ratio, surpasses -)- 10, the second term of the
same ratio ; — 10 cannot be, at the same time, both infe-
rior and sujierior to -j- 10.*

Such is, in substance, one of the principal arguments
on which our member grounds his view, that the notion
of absolute or comparative magnitude should not be ap-
plied to negative quantities any more than to imaginary
ones ; that we cannot examine whether they are greater
or less than zero ; that they must be considered "as
creations of our reason, as mere algebraical forms."

"When the genius of Descartes had shown that the posi-
tions of all possible curves, their forms, and the whole of
their properties, might be exactly included in analytical
equations, the question of negative quantities presented
itself under an entirely new light. The illustrious philos-

* — 10 is neither inferior nor superior to -)- 10; it is equal to it;
though not algebraically =; but in taking, as our author does, the
sense of mathematical formulas, — 10 is just as good and as strong in
its way as + 10 in its other way. Indeed — and + are merely sym-

Online LibraryF. (François) AragoBiographies of distinguished scientific men (Volume 2) → online text (page 6 of 38)