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suffers, when a timid prudence prevents it from rising in flight
and forces it to creep along in bonds.' ^ He was true to the
coimsel which he had thus given years before, and with the
consciousness that death was rapidly approaching, and that all
hope of advancement in the ordinary way was at an end, even
if there were any chance of his life, he persevered in his project
of going to Paris, there to earn the fame which he instinctively
felt that he had it in him to achieve. Neither scantiness of
means nor the vehement protests of friends and relations, who
are always the worst foes to superior character on critical
occasions, could detain him in the obscurity of Provence ; and
in 1745 he took up his quarters in Paris in a humble house
near the School of Medicine. Literature had not yet acquired
that importance in France which it was so soon to obtain. The
Encyclopaedia was still unconceived, and the momentous work
which that famous design was to accomplish, of organising the
philosophers and men of letters into an army with banners, was
still unexecuted. Voltaire, indeed, had risen, if not to the full
height of his reputation, yet high enough both to command the
admiration of peoj^le of quality, and to be the recognised chief
of the new school of literature and thought. Voltaire had been
struck by a letter which Vauvenargues, then unknown to him,
had sent containing a criticism in which Corneille was dis-

(1) Conseils a un Jeune Homme, i. 124.


advantageously compared with Racine, Coming from a young
officer, the member of a profession which Voltaire frankly
described as ' very noble, in truth, but slightly barbarous,'
this criticism was peculiarly striking. A great many years
afterwards Voltaire was surprised in the same way, to find that
an officer could write such a book as the FiliciU Publiquc of the
Marquis de Chastellux. He replied with many compliments,
and thought it worth while to point out with a good deal of
pains the injustice which the young critic had done to the
great author of Cinna. It is the part of a man like you, he
said admirably, to have preferences, hut no exclusions} The
correspondence thus begun was kept up with ever-growing
warmth and mutual respect. ' If you had been born a
few years earlier,' Voltaire wrote to him, 'my works would
be worth all the more for it ; but at any rate, even at the
close of my career, you confirm me in the path that you

The personal impression was as fascinating as that which
had been conveyed by Vauvenargues' letters. Voltaire took
every opportunity to visit his unfortunate friend, then each
day drawing nearer to the grave. Men of humbler stature
were equally attracted. ' It was at this time,' says the light-
hearted Marmontel, ' that I first saw at home the man who had
a charm for me beyond all the rest of the world, the good, the
virtuous, the wise Vauvenargues. Cruelly used by nature in
his body, he was in soul one of her rarest masterpieces. I
seemed to see in him Fenelon weak and suffering. I could
make a good book of his conversations, if I had had a chance
of collecting them. You see some traces of it in the selection
that he has left of his thoughts and meditations. But all
eloquent and full of feeling as he is in his writings, he was
^ (1) ii. 232. (2) ii. 272.


even more so still in his conversation.'^ Marmontel was
stricken by sincere grief when Vauvenargues died, and in the
Epistle to Yoltaire expressed his sorrow in some fair lines,
containing the happy phrase applied to Vauvenargues, ce cceur
sto'ique et tendre?

In religious sentiment Vauvenargues was out of the groove
of his time. That is to say, he was not unsusceptible of it.
Accepting no dogma, so far as we can judge, and complying
with no observances, very faint and doubtful as to even the
fundamentals — God, immortality, and the like — he never par-
took of the furious and bitter antipathy of the best men of that
century against the church, its creeds, and its book. At one
time, as will be seen from a passage which will be quoted by-
and-by, his leanings were towards that vague and indefinable
doctrine which identifies God with all the forces and their
manifestations in the universe. Afterwards even this adum-
bration of a theistic explanation of the world seems to have
passed from him, and he lived, as many other not bad men
have lived, with that fair working substitute for a religious
doctrine which is provided by the tranquil search, or the accept-
ance in a devotional spirit, of all larger mortal experiences and
higher human impressions. There is a Meditation on the Faithy
including a Prayer, among his writings ; and there can be
little doubt, in spite of Condorcet's incredible accomit of the
circumstances of its composition, that it is the expression of
what was at the time a sincere feeling.^ It is, however, rather
the straining and ecstatic rhapsody of one who ardently seeks
faith, than the calm and devout assurance of him who already

(1) Memoires de Marmontel, toI. i. 189.

(2) The reader of Marmontel' s Memoirs will remember the extraordinary
and grotesque circumstances under which a younger brother of Mirabeau (of
Vanii des homines, that is, appealed to the memory of Vauvenargues. See vol. i.
256—260. (3) (Euvres, i. 225—32.


possesses it. Yauvenargues was religious by temperament, but
lie could not entirely resist the intellectual influences of the
period. The one fact delivered him from dogma and super-
stition, and the other from scoffing and harsh mispirituality.
He saw that apart from the question of the truth or falsehood
of its historic basis, there was a balance to be struck between
the consolations and the afflictions of the faith.^ Practically
he was content to leave this balance unstruck, and to pass by
on the other side. Scarcely any of his maxims concern reli-
gion. One of the few is worth quoting, where he says, ' The
strength or weakness of our belief depends more on our courage
than our light ; not all those who mock at auguries have more
intellect than those who believe in them.'^

The end came in the spring of 1747, when Yauvenargues
was no more than thirty-two. Perhaps in spite of his physical
miseries, these two years in Paris were the least unhappy time
in his life. He was in the great centre where the fame which
he longed for was earned and liberally awarded. A year of
intercourse with so full and wide and brilliant a mind as
Yoltaire's, must have been more to one so appreciative of
mental greatness as Yauvenargues than many years of inter-
course with subalterns in the Regiment of the King. With
death, now known to be very near at hand, he had made his
account before. ' To execute great things,' he had written in
a maxim which gained the lively praise of Yoltaire, ' a man
must live as though he had never to die.' This mood was
common among the Greeks and Pomans ; but the religion
which Europe accepted in the time of its deepest corruption
and depravation, retained the mark of its dismal origin nowhere
so strongly as in the distorted prominence which it gave in the
minds of its votaries to the dissolution of the body. It was
(1) letter to Saint- Vineens, ii. 146. (2) No. 318.


one of the first conditions of tlie Revival of Reason that tlie
dreary memento mori and its hatefid emblems should be deli-
berately efiaced. ' The thought of death,' said Yauvenargues,
' leads us astray, because it makes us forget to live.' He did
not understand living in the sense which the dissolute attach
to it. The libertinism of his regiment called no severe rebuke
from him, but his meditative temper drew him away from it
even in his youth. It is not impossible that if his days had
not been cut short, he might have impressed Parisian society
with ideas and a sentiment, that would have left to it all its
cheerfulness, and yet prevented that laxity which so fatally
weakened It. Turgot, the only other conspicuous man who
could have resisted the license of the time, had probably too
much of that austerity which is in the fibre of so many great
characters, to make any moral counsels he might have given
widely efiective.

Vauvenargues was sufiiciently free from all taint of the
pedagogue or the preacher to have dispelled the sophisms of
license, less by argument than by the gracious attraction of
virtue in his own character. The stock moralist, like the
commonplace orator of the pulpit, fails to touch the hearts of
men or to affect their lives, for lack of delicacy, of sympathy,
and of freshness ; he attempts to compensate for this by excess
of emphasis, and that more often disgusts us than persuades.
Vauvenargues, on the other hand. Is remarkable for delicacy
and half-reserved tenderness ; everything he has said is coloured
and warmed with feeling for the Infirmities of men. He writes
not merely as an analytical outsider. Hence, unlike most
moralists, he is no satirist. He had borne the burdens. * The
looker-on,' runs one of his maxims, 'softly lying in a carpeted
chamber, inveighs against the soldier, who passes winter nights
on the river's edge, and keeps watch In silence over the safety


of the land.' ^ Vauvenargues had been something very dif-
ferent from the safe and sheltered critic of other men's battles,
and this is the secret of the hold which his words have upon
us. They are real, with the reality that can only come from
two sources ; from high poetic imagination, which Vauvenargues
did not possess, or else from experience of life acting on and
strengthening a friendly nature. * The cause of most books of
morality being so insipid is,' he says, 'that their authors are
not sincere ; is that, being feeble echoes of one another, they
could not venture to publish their own real maxims and private
sentiments.' ^ One of the secrets of his own freedom from this
ordinary insipidity of moralists was his freedom also from
their pretentiousness and insincerity.

Besides these positive merits, he had, as we have said, the
negative distinction of never being emphatic. His sayings are
nearly always moderate and persuasive, alike in sentiment and
in phrase. Sometimes they are almost tentative in the diffi-
dence of their turn. Compared with him La Rochefoucauld's
manner is hard, and that of La Bruyere sententious. In the
moralist who aspires to move and win men by their best side
instead of their worst, to which the appeal is so usually made,
the absence of this hardness and the presence of a certain
lambency and play even in the exposition of truths of perfect
assurance, are essential conditions of psychagogic quality. In
religion the law does not hold equally, and the contagion of
fanaticism is usually most rapidly spread by a rigorous and
cheerless example.

"We may notice in passing that Vauvenargues has the

defects of his qualities, and that with his aversion to emphasis

was bound up a certain inability to appreciate even grandeur

and originality, if they were too strongly and boldly marked.

(1) No. 223. (2) No. 300.


' It is easy to criticise an author,' he has said, * but hard to
estimate him.' ^ This was never more unfortunately proved
than in the remarks of Vauvenargues himself upon the great
Moliere. There is almost a difficulty in forgiving a writer
who can say that ' La Bruyere, animated with nearly the same
genius, painted the crookedness of men with as much truth
and as much force as Moliere ; but I believe that there is more
eloquence and more elevation to be found in La Bruyere's
images.'^ Without at all undervaluing La Bruyere, one of the
acutest and finest of writers, we may ask if this is not an
incredible piece of criticism ? Quite as unhappy is the prefer-
ence given to Racine over Moliere, not merely for the conclu-
sion arrived at, but for the reasons on which it is founded.
Moliere's subjects, we read, are low, his language negligent
and incorrect, his characters bizarre and eccentric. Racine, on
the other hand, takes sublime themes, presents us with noble
types, and writes with elegance and simplicity. It is not
enough to concede to Racine the glory of art, while giving to
Moliere or Corneille the glory of genius. ' When people speak
of the art of Racine, the art which puts things in their place ;
which characterises men, their passions, manners, genius ;
which banishes obscurities, superfluities, false brilliances ; which
paints nature with fire, sublimity, and grace ; what can we
think of such art as this, excej)t that it is the genius of extra-
ordinary men, and the origin of those rules that writers with-
out genius embrace with so much zeal and so little success ? ' ^
And it is certainly true that the art of Racine implied genius.
The defect of the criticism lies, as usual, in a failure to see that
there is glory enough in both ; in the art of highly-finished
composition and presentation, and in the art of bold and strik-
ing creation. Yet Vauvenargues was able to discern the secret
(1) No. 264. (2) Eejiexions Critiques sur Quelques Foetes, i. 237. (3) i. 248.


of the popularity of Moliere, and the foundation of the common
opinion that no other dramatist had carried his own kind of
art so far as Moliere had carried his ; * the reason is, I fancy,
that he is more natural than any of the others, and this Is an
important lesson for everybody who wishes to write.' ^ He did
not see how nearly everything went In this concession, that
Moliere was above all natural. With equal truth of percep-
tion he condemned the affectation of grandeur lent by the
French tragedians to classical personages who were in truth
simple and natural, as the principal defect of the national
drama, and the common rock on which their poets made ship-
wreck.^ Let us, however, rejoice for the sake of the critical
reputation of Vauvenargues that he was unable to read Shake-
speare. One for whom Moliere is too eccentric, grotesque,
inelegant, is not likely to do much justice to the mightiest
but most irregular of all dramatists.

A man's prepossessions in dramatic poetry, supposing him
to be cultivated enough to have any prepossessions, furnish the
most certain clue that we can get to the spirit in which he
inwardly regards character and conduct. The uniform and
reasoned preference which Vauvenargues had for Racine over
Moliere and Cornellle, was only the transfer to art of that
balanced, moderate, normal, and emphatically harmonious
temper, which he brought to the survey of human nature.
Excess was a condition of thought, feeling, and speech, that in
every form was disagreeable to him ; alike in the gloom of
Pascal's reveries, and In the inflation of speech of some of the
heroes of Cornellle. He failed to relish even Montaigne as he
ought to have done, because his method was too prolix, his
scepticism too universal, his egoism too manifest, and because
he did not produce complete and artistic wholes.^
(1) Reflexions Critiques sur Qiulques Foetes, i. 238. (2) i. 243. (3) CEia-rcs, i. 275.



Reasonableness is the strongest mark in his thinking ;
balance, evenness, purity of vision, penetration finely toned with
indulgence. He is never betrayed into criticism of men from
the point of view of immutable first principles. Perhaps this
was what the elder Mirabeau meant when he wrote to Vauve-
nargues, who was his cousin, ' You have the English genius to
perfection,' and what Vauvenargues meant when he wrote of
himself to Mirabeau, 'Nobody in the world has a mind less
French than I.' ^ These international comparisons are among
the least fruitful of literary amusements, even when they
happen not to be extremely misleading ; as when, for example,
Voltaire called Locke the English Pascal, a description which
can only be true on condition that the qualifying adjective is
meant to strip either Locke or Pascal of most of his charac-
teristic traits. And if we compare Vauvenargues with any
of our English aphoristic writers, there is not resemblance
enough to make the contrast instructive. The obvious truth
is that in this department our literature is particularly weak,
while French literature is particularly strong in it. With the
exception of Bacon, we have no writer of apophthegms of the
first order ; and the difierence between Bacon as a moralist and
Pascal or Vauvenargues, is the difference between Polonius's
famous discourse to Laertes and the soliloquy of Hamlet. His
precepts refer rather to external conduct and worldly fortune,
than to the inner composition of character, or to the 'wide,
grey, lampless ' depths of human destiny. We find the same
national characteristic, though on an infinitely lower level, in
Franklin's oracular saws. Among the French sages a psycho-
logical element is predominant, as well as an occasional trans-
cendent loftiness of feeling, not to be found in Bacon's wisest
maxims, and which from his point of view in their composition
(1) Correspondance. CEuvres, ii. 131 and 207.


we could not expect to find there. We seek in vain amid the
positivity of Bacon, or the quaint and timorous j)aradox of
Browne, or the acute sobriety of Shaftesburj^, for any of that
poetic pensiveness which is strong in Yauvenargues, and reaches
tragic heights in PascaL^ Addison may have the delicacy of
Yauvenargues, but it is a delicacy that wants the stir and
warmth of feeling. It seems as if with English writers poetic
sentiment naturally sought expression in poetic forms, while
the Frenchmen of nearly corresponding temperament were
restrained within the limits of prose by reason of the vigorously
prescribed stateliness and stiffness of their verse at that time.
A man in this country with the quality of Yauvenargues, with
his delicacy, tenderness, elevation, would have composed lyrics.
We have undoubtedly lost much by the laxity and irregularity
of our verse, but as undoubtedly we owe to its freedom some
of the most perfect and delightful of the minor figures that
adorn the noble gallery of English poets.

It woidd be an error to explain the superiority of the great
French moralists by supposing in them a fancy and imagina-
tion too defective for poetic art. It was the circumstances of
the national literature during the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries, which made Yauvenargues, for instance, a composer
of aphorisms, rather than a moral poet like Pope. Let us
remember some of his own most discriminating words. ' Who
has more imagination,' he asks, ' than Bossuet, Montaigne,
Descartes, Pascal, all of them great philosophers ? Who more
judgment and wisdom than Pacine, Boileau, La Fontaine,
Moliere, all of them poets full of genius ? It is not true, then,

(1) Long-winded and tortuous and difficult to seize as Shaftesbury is as a
■whole, in detached sentences he shows marked aphoristic quality, e.g., 'The
most ingenious way of becoming foolish is by a system ; ' ' The liker anything
is to wisdom, if it be not plainly the thing itself, the more directly it becomes its

c 2


that the ruling qualities exclude the others; on the contrary, they
suppose them. I should be much surprised if a great poet were
without vivid lights on philosophy, at any rate moral philo-
sophy, and it will very seldom happen for a true philosopher
to be totally devoid of imagination.'^ With imagination in
the highest sense Vauvenargues was not largely endowed, but
he had as much as is essential to reveal to one that the hard
and sober-judging faculty is not the single, nor even the main
element, in a wise and full intelligence. * All my philosophy,'
he wrote to Mirabeau, when only four or five and twenty years
old, an age when the intellect is usually most exigent of supre-
macy, ' all my philosophy has its source in my heart.' ^

In the same spirit he had well said that there is more
cleverness in the world than greatness of soul, more people
with talent than with lofty character.^ Hence some of the
most peculiarly characteristic and impressive of his aphorisms ;
that famous one, for instance, Great thoughts come from
the heart, and the rest which hang upon the same idea.
'Virtuous instinct has no need of reason, but suj)plies it.'
* Reason misleads us more often than nature.' ' Reason does
not know the interests of the heart.' ' Perhaps we owe to the
passions the greatest advantages of the intellect.' Sayings,
which are only true on condition that instinct and nature and
passion have been already moulded under the influence of
reason ; just as this other saying, which won the warm admira-
tion of Voltaire, ' Magnanimity owes no account to prudence
of its motives,' is only true, on condition that by magnanimity
we understand a mood not out of accord with the loftiest kind
of prudence. But in the eighteenth century reason and pru-
dence were words current in their lower and narrower sense,
and thus one coming like Vauvenargues to see this lo-\vness
(1) No. 278 (i. 411). (2) (Euvres, ii. 115. (3) i. 87.


and narrowness, sought to invest ideas and terms that in fact
only involved modifications of these, with a significance of
direct antagonism. Magnanimity was contrasted inimically
with prudence, and instinct and natiu-e were made to thrust
from their throne reason and reflection. Carried to its limit,
this tendency developed the speculative and social excesses of
the great sentimental school. In Yauvenargues it was only
the moderate, just, and most seasonable protest of a fine
observer, against the supremacy among ideals of a narrow,
deliberative, and calcidating spirit.

His exaltation of virtuous instinct over reason is in a curious
way parallel to Burke's memorable exaltation over reason of
prejudice. ' Prejudice,' said Burke, ' previously engages the
mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not
leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical,
puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man's virtue his
habit, and not a series of unconnected acts ; through just pre-
judice his duty becomes a part of his nature.' ] What Burke
designated as prejudice, Yauvenargues less philosophically
styled virtuous instinct ; each meant precisely the same thing,
though the difference of phrase implied a different view of its
origin and growth ; and the side opposite to each of them was
the same — namely, a sophisticated and over-refining intelli-
gence, narrowed to the consideration of particular circumstances
as they presented themselves.

Translated into the modern equivalent, the heart, nature,
instinct, of Yauvenargues mean character. He insisted upon
spontaneous impulse as a condition of all greatest thought and
action. Men think and work on the highest level when they
move without conscious and deliberate strain after virtue —
when, in other words, their habitual motives, aims, methods,
(1) Eeflections on the French Revolution, Works (ed. 1842), i. 414.


their character, in short, naturally draw them into the region
of what is virtuous. ' It is hy our ideas that we ennoble our
passions or ive debase them ; they rise high or sink low according
to the man's soul.'^ All this has ceased to be new to our
generation, but a hundred and thirty years ago, and indeed
much nearer to us than that, the key to all nobleness was
thought to be found only by cool balancing and prudential
calculation. A book like Clarissa Harlowe shows us this
prudential and calculating temper underneath a varnish of
sentimentalism and fine feelings, an incongruous and extremely
displeasing combination, particularly characteristic of certain
sets and circles in that many-sided century. One of the
distinctions of Yauvenargues is that exaltation of sentiment
did not with him cloak a substantial adherence to a low
prudence, nor to that fragment of reason which has so con-
stantly usurped the name and place of the whole. He eschewed
the too common compromise which the sentimentalist makes
with reflection and calculation, and it was this which saved
him from being a sentimentalist.

That doctrine of the predominance of the heart over the
head, which has brought forth so many pernicious and destruc-
tive phantasies in the history of social thought, represented in
his case no more than a reaction against the great detractors of
humanity. Rochefoucauld had surveyed mankind exclusively
from the point of view of their vain and egotistic propensities,
and his aphorisms are profoundly true of all persons in whom
these propensities are habitually supreme, and of all the world

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 2 of 29)