John Morley.

Critical miscellanies online

. (page 3 of 29)
Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 3 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

in so far as these j)ropensities happen to influence them.
Pascal, on the other hand, leaving the afiections and inclina-
tions of man very much on one side, had directed all his efibrts
to showing the pitiful feebleness and incurable helplessness of
(1) CEuvres, ii. 170.


man in tlie sphere of the understanding. Yauvenargues is
thus confronted by two sinister pictures of humanity — the one
of its moral meanness and littleness, the other of its intellectual
poverty and impotency. He turned away from both of them,
and found in magnanimous and unsophisticated feeling, of
which he was conscious in himself and observant in others, a
compensation alike for the selfishness of some men and the
intellectual limitations of all men, which was ample enough to
restore the human self-respect that Pascal and Rochefoucauld
had done their best to weaken.

The truth in the disparagement was indisputable so far as
it went. It was not a kind of truth, however, on which it is
good for the world much to dwell, and it is the thinkers like
Yauvenargues who build up and inspire high resolve.
* Scarcely any maxim,' runs one of his own, * is true in all
respects.'^ We must take them in pairs to find out the mean
truth ; and to understand the ways of men, so far as words
about men can help us, we must read with appreciation not
only Yauvenargues, who said that great thoughts come from
the heart, but La Rochefoucauld, who called the intelligence
the dupe of the heart, and Pascal, who saw only desperate
creatures, miserably perishing before one another's eyes in the
black dungeon of the universe. Yet it is the observer in the
spirit of Yauvenargues, of whom we must always say that he
hath chosen the better part. Yauvenargues' own estimate
was sound. * The Duke of La Rochefoucauld seized to per-
fection the weak side of human nature ; maybe he knew its
strength too ; and only contested the merit of so many splendid
actions in order to unmask false wisdom. "Whatever his design,
the efiect seems to me mischievous ; his book, filled with deli-
cate invective against hypocrisy, even to this day turns men

(1) No. 111.


away from virtue, by persuading them that it is never genuine.' ^
Or, as he put it elsewhere, without express personal reference,
' You must arouse in men the feeling of their prudence and
strength, if you would raise their character ; those who only
apply themselves to bring out the absurdities and weaknesses
of mankind, enlighten the judgment of the public far less than
they deprave its inclination.'^ This principle was implied in
Goethe's excellent saying, that if you would improve a man, it
is best to begin by persuading him that he is already that
which you would have him to be.

To talk in this way was to bring men out from the pits which
cynicism on the one side and asceticism on the other had dug
so deep for them, back to the warm precincts of the cheerful
day. The cynic and the ascetic had each looked at life through
a microscope, exaggerating blemishes, distorting proportions,
filling the eye with ugly and disgusting illusions.^ Humanity,
as was said, was in disgrace with the thinkers. The maxims
of Yauvenargues were a plea for a return to a healthy and
normal sense of relations. ' These philosophers,' he cried, ' are
men, yet they do not speak in human language ; they change
all the ideas of things, and misuse all their terms.' ^ These are
some of the most direct of his retorts upon Pascal and La
Rochefoucauld : —

*I have always felt it to be absurd for philosophers to fabricate
a Yirtue that is incompatible with the nature of humanity, and
then after having pretended this, to declare coldly that there is

(1) CEuvres, ii. 74. (2) No. 285.

(3) 'A man may as well pretend to cure himself of love by viewing his mis-
tress through the artificial medium of a microscope or prospect, and beholding
there the coarseness of her skin and monstrous disproportion of her features, as
hope to excite or moderate any passion by the artificial arguments of a Seneca
or an Epictetus.' — Hume's Essays (xviii.), The Sceptic. (4) i. 163.


no virtue. If tliey are speaking of the phantom of their ima-
gination, they may of course abandon or destroy it as they
please, for they invented it ; but true virtue, which they can-
not be brought to call by this name, because it is not in con-
formity with their definitions ; which is the work of nature and
not their own ; and which consists mainly in goodness and
vigour of soul, — that does not depend on their fancies, and will
last for ever with characters that cannot be efiaced.'

* The body has its graces, the intellect its talents ; is the
heart then to have nothing but vices ? And must man, who is
capable of reason, be incapable of virtue ? '

' We are susceptible of friendship, justice, humanity, com-
passion, and reason. my friends, what then is virtue ? '

' Disgust is no mark of health, nor is appetite a disorder ;
quite the reverse. Thus we think of the body, but we judge the
soul on other principles. We suppose that a strong soul is one
that is exempt from passions, and as youth is more active and
ardent than later age, we look on it as a time of fever, and
place the strength of man in his decay.' ^

The theological speculator insists that virtue lies in a con-
stant and fierce struggle between the will and the passions,
between man and human nature. Vauvenargues founded his
whole theory of life on the doctrine that the will is not some-
thing independent of passions, inclinations, and ideas, but on
the contrary is a mere index moved and fixed by them, as the
hand of a clock follows the operation of the mechanical forces
within. Character is an integral unit. ' Whether it is reason
or passion that moves us, it is we M' ho determine ourselves ; it
would be madness to distinguish one's thoughts and sentiments

(1) Nos. 296—7—8, 148.


from one's self. .... No will in men, whicli does not owe its
direction to their temperament, their reasoning, and their actual
feelings.'^ Virtue, then, is not necessarily a condition of strife
between the will and the rest of our faculties and passions ; no
such strife is possible, for the will obeys the prejDonderant pas-
sion or idea, or group of passions and ideas ; and the contest
lies between one passion or group and another. Hence, in right
character there is no struggle at all, for the virtuous inclina-
tions naturally and easily direct our will and actions ; virtue is
then independent of struggle ; and the circumstance of our
finding pleasure in this or that practice, is no reason why both
the practice and the pleasure should not be unimpeachably

It is easy to see the connection between this theory of the
dependence of the will, and the prominence which Vauvenargues
is ever giving to the passions. These are the key to the move-
ments of the will. To direct and shape the latter, you must
educate the former. It was for his perception of this truth, we
may notice in passing, that Comte awarded to Yauvenargues a
place in the Positivist Calendar ; ' for his direct efibrt, in spite
of the universal desuetude into which it had fallen, to reorganise
the culture of the heart according to a better knowledge of
human nature, of which this noble thinker discerned the centre
to be affective.'^

This theory of the will, however, was not allowed to rest
here ; the activity of man was connected with the universal
order. 'What prevents the mind from perceiving the motive
of its actions, is only their infinite quickness. Our thoughts
perish at the moment in which their efiects make themselves
known ; when the action commences, the principle has vanished ;
the will appears, the feeling is gone ; we cannot find it our-
(1) Sur le Libre Arhitre. CEuvres, i. 199. (2) Folitique Fositive, iii. 589.


selves, and so doubt if we ever had it. But it would be an
enormous defect to have a will without a principle ; our actions
would be all haphazard; the world would be nothing but
caprice ; all order would be overturned. It is not enough,
then, to admit it to be true that it is reflection or sentiment
that leads us : we must add further that it would be monstrous
for this to be otherwise.^ ....

* The will recalls or suspends our ideas ; our ideas shape or
vary the laws of the will ; the laws of the will are thus depen-
dent on the laws of creation ; but the laws of creation are not
foreign to ourselves, they constitute our being, and form our
essence, and are entirely our own, and we can say boldly that
we act by ourselves, when we only act by them.^ ....

'Let us recognise here, then, our profoimd subjection. . .
Let us rend the melancholy veil which hides from our eyes the

eternal chain of the world and the glory of the creator

External objects form ideas in the mind, these ideas form senti-
ments, these sentiments volitions, these volitions actions in our-
selves and outside of ourselves. So noble a dependence in all
the parts of this vast universe must conduct our reflections to
the unity of its principle ; this subordination makes the true
greatness of the beings subordinated. The excellence of man
is in his dependence ; his subjection displays two marvellous
images, the infinite power of God, and the dignity of our own

soul Man independent would be an object of contempt ;

the feeling of his own imperfection his eternal torture. But
the same feeling, when we admit his dependence, is the founda-
tion of his sweetest hope ; it reveals to him the nothingness of
finite good, and leads him back to his principle, which insists
on joining itself to him, and which alone can satisfy his desires
in the possession of himself.'^

(1) Ibid. 194. (2) lb. 205. (3) lb. 206—7.


Vauvenargues showed liis genuine healthiness not more by
a plenary rejection of the doctrine of the incurable vileness and
frenzy of man, than by his freedom from the boisterous and
stupid transcendental optimism which has too many votaries in
our time. He would not have men told that they were miser-
able earth-gnomes, the slaves of a black destiny, but he still
placed them a good deal lower than the angels. For instance,

* We are too inattentive or too much occupied with ourselves,
to get to the bottom of one another's characters ; whoever has
watched masks at a ball dance together in a friendly manner
and join hands without knowing who the others are, to part
the moment afterwards never to meet again nor to regret, can
form some idea of the world.' ^ But then, as he said elsewhere,

* We can be perfectly aware of our imperfection, without being
humiliated by the sight. One of the noblest qualities of our
nature is that we are able so easily to dispense with greater per-
fection.'^ In all this we mark the large and rational humane-
ness of the new time, a tolerant and kindly and elevating
estimate of men.

The faith in the natural and simple operation of virtue,
without the aid of all sorts of valetudinarian restrictions,
comes out on every occasion. The Trappist theory of the con-
ditions of virtue found no quarter with him. Mirabeau, for
instance, complained of the atmosphere of the court, as fatal to
the practice of virtue. Vauvenargues replied that the people
there were no doubt no better than they should be, and that
vice was dominant. * So much the worse for those who have
vices. But when you are fortunate enough to possess virtue,
it is, to my thinking, a very noble ambition to lift up this
same virtue in the bosom of corruption, to make it succeed, to
place it above all, to indulge and control the j)assions without
(1) No. 330. (2) Nos. 462—3.


reproacli, to overtlirow tlie obstacles to tliem, and to surrender
yourself to tlie inclinations of an uprio;lit and magnanimous
heart, instead of combating or concealing them in retreat with-
out either satisfying or vanquishing them. I know nothing
so weak and so vain as to flee before Aaces, or to hate them
Avithout measure, for people only hate them by way of reprisal
because they are afraid of them, or else out of vengeance
because they have played them some sorry turn ; but a little
loftiness of soul, some knowledge of the heart, a gentle and
tranquil hxunour, will protect you against the risk of either
being surprised, or keenly wounded by them.' ^

There is a tolerably obvious distinction between two prin-
cipal ways of examining character. One is a musing, subjec-
tive method of delineation, in which the various shades and
windings seem to reveal themselves with a certain spontaneity,
and we follow many recesses and depths in the heart of another,
such as only music stirs into consciousness in ourselves. Besides
this rarer poetic method, there is what may be styled the diplo-
matist's method, which classifies characters objectively, accord-
ing to the outer conduct in which they manifest themselves,
and the best ways of approaching and dealing with them. The
second of these describes the spirit in which Vauvenargues
observed men. He is French, and not German, and belongs
to the eighteenth century, and not to the seventeenth or the
nineteenth. His Characters, very little known in this country,
are as excellent as any work in this kind that we are acquainted
with, or probably as excellent as such work can be. They are
real and natural, yet while abstaining as rigorously as Vauve-
nargues everywhere does from grotesque and extravagant traits,
avoid equally the vice of presenting the mere bald and sterile
flats of character, which he that runs may read. As we have said,
(1) Correspondance. (Euvrcs, ii. 103.


lie had tlie quality possessed by so few of those who write about
men ; he watched men, and drew from the life. In a word,
he studied concrete examples, and interrogated his own expe-
rience, — the only sure guarantee that one writing on his
themes has anything which it is worth our while to listen to.
Among other consequences of this reality of their source is the
agreeable fact that these pictures are free from that clever
bitterness and easy sarcasm, by which crude and jejune
observers, thinking more of their own wit than of what they
observe, sometimes gain a little reputation. Even the cox-
combs, self-duping knaves, simpletons, braggarts, and other
evil or pitiful types whom he selects, are drawn with im-
strained and simple conformity to reality. The pictures have
no moral label pinned on at the bottom. Yet Yauvenargues
took life seriously enough, and it was just because he took it
seriously, that he had no inclination to air his wit or practise
a verbal humour upon the stuff out of which happiness and
misery are made.

One or two fragments will suffice in this order. Take the
Man of the "World, for instance : —

* A man of the world is not he who knows other men best,
who has most foresight or dexterity in affairs, who is most
instructed by experience and study ; he is neither a good
manager, nor a man of science, nor a politician, nor a skilful
officer, nor a painstaking magistrate ; he is a man who is
ignorant of nothing, but who knows nothing ; who, doing his
own business ill, fancies himself very capable of doing that of
other people ; a man who has much useless wit, who has the art
of saying flattering things which do not flatter, and judicious
things which give no information, who can persuade nobody
though he speaks well ; endowed with that sort of eloquence
which can bring out trifles, and which annihilates great subjects ;


as penetrating in what is ridiculous and external in men, as he
is blind to the depths of their minds. One who, afraid of being
wearisome by reason, is wearisome by his extravagances ; is
jocose without gaiety, and lively without passion.''^

Or the two following, the Inconstant Man, and Lycas or
the Firm Man : —

' Such a man seems really to possess more than one charac-
ter. A powerful imagination makes his soul take the shape of
all the objects that affect it ; he suddenly astonishes the world
by acts of generosity and courage which were never expected
of him ; the image of virtue inflames, elevates, softens, masters
his heart ; he receives the imj)ression from the loftiest, and
he surpasses them. But when his imagination has grown cold,
his courage droops, his generosity sinks ; the vices opposed to
these virtues take possession of his soul, and after having
reigned awhile supreme, they make way for other objects. . . .
We cannot say that they have a nature great, or strong, or
weak, or light ; it is a swift and imperious imagination which
reigns with sovereign power over all their being, which sub-
jugates their genius, and which prescribes for them in turn,
those fine actions and those faults, those heights and those
littlenesses, those flights of enthusiasm and those fits of dis-
gust, which we are wrong in charging either with hypocrisy
or madness.'^

* Lycas unites with a self-reliant, bold, and impetuous nature,
a spirit of reflection and profundity which moderates the
counsels of his passions, which leads him by impenetrable
motives, and makes him advance to his ends by many paths.
He is one of those long-sighted men, who consider the suc-
(1) (Eiivrei; i. 310. (2) i. 32o.


cession of events from afar off, who always finish a design
begun ; who are capable, I do not say of dissembling either a
misfortune or an offence, but of rising above either, instead of
letting it depress them ; deep natures, independent by their
firmness in daring all and suffering all, who, whether they
resist their inclinations out of foresight, or whether, out of
pride and a secret consciousness of their resources, they defy
what is called prudence, always cheat in good as in evil the
acutest conjectures.'^

Let us note that Yauvenargues is almost entirely free from
that favourite trick of the aphoristic person, which consists in
forming a series of sentences, the predicates being various
qualifications of extravagance, vanity, and folly, and the sub-
ject being Woman. He resists this besettmg temptation of
the modern speaker of apophthegms to identify woman and
fool. On the one or two occasions in which he begins the
maxim with the fatal words, Les fenimes, he is as little profound
as other people who persist in thinking of men and wopien as
two different species. ' Women,' for example, ' have ordinarily
more vanity than temperament, and more temperament than
virtue,' — which is fairly true of all human beings, and in so
far as it is true, describes men just as exactly, and no more, as
it describes women. In truth, Yauvenargues felt too seriously
about conduct and character to go far in this direction. Now
and again he is content with a mere smartness, as when he
says, ' II y a de fort bonnes gens qui ne peuvent se desennuyer
qu'aux depens de la societe.' But such a mood is not common.
He is usually grave, and not seldom profoundly weighty, deli-
cate without being weak, and subtle without obscurity ; as for
example : —

(1) i. 326.


*' People teacTi children to fear and obey ; the avarice, pride,
or timidity of the fathers, instructs the children in economy,
arrogance, or submission. We stir them up to be yet more and
more copyists, which they are only too disposed to be, as it is ;
nobody thinks of making them original, hardy, independent.'

* If instead of dulling the vivacity of children, people did
their best to raise the impulsiveness and movement of their
characters, what might we not expect from a fine natural
temper ?'

Again, ' The moderation of the weak is mediocrity.*

* What is arrogance in the weak is elevation in the strong ;
as the strength of a sick man is frenzy, and that of the whole
is vigour.'

' To speak imprudently and to speak boldly is nearly always
the same thing ; but we may speak without prudence, and still
speak what is right ; and it is a mistake to fancy that a man
has a shallow intelligence, because the boldness of his character
or the liveliness of his temper may have drawn from him, in
spite of himself, some dangerous truth.'

' It is a great sign of mediocrity always to praise mode-

He has a saying to the effect that men very often, without
thinking of it, form an idea of their face and expression from
the ruling sentiment of which they are conscious in themselves
at the time, and hints that this is perhaps the reason why a
coxcomb always believes himself to be handsome.^ And in a
letter to Mirabeau, he describes pleasantly how sometimes, in
moments of distraction, he pictures himself with an air of lofti-
ness, of majesty, of penetration, according to the idea that is
occupying his mind, and how if by chance he sees his face in

(1) No. 236.


the mirror, lie is nearly as mueli amazed as if lie saw a Cyclops
or a Tartar.^ Yet his nature, if we may trust the portrait,
revealed itself in his face, which is one of the most delightful
to look upon, even in the cold inarticulateness of an engraving,
that the gallery of fair souls contains for us. We may read the
beauty of his character in the soft strength of the brow, the
meditative lines of mouth and chin, above all the striking
clearness, the self-collection, the feminine solicitude, that mingle
freely and without eagerness or expectancy in his gaze, as
though he were hearkening to some ever-flowing inward stream
of divine melody. If we reproach France in the eighteenth
century with its coarseness, artificiality, shallowness, because it
produced such men as the rather brutish Duclos, we ought to
remember that this was also the century of Vauvenargues, one
of the most tender, lofty, cheerful, and delicately sober of all

(1) ii. 188.


J) 2


r\¥ the illustrious thinkers and writers who for two genera-
tions had been actively scattering the seed of revolution in
France, only Condorcet survived to behold the first bitter in-
s-atherins of the harvest. Those who had sown the mnd were
no more ; he only was left to see the reaping of the whirlwind,
and to be swiftly and cruelly swept away by it. Voltaire and
Diderot, Rousseau and Helvetius, had vanished, but Condorcet
both assisted at the Encyclopedia and sat in the Convention ; the
one eminent man of those who had tended the tree, who also
came in due season to partake of its fruit ; at once a precursor,
and a sharer in the fulfilment. In neither character has he
attracted the good-will of any of those considerable sections
and schools into which criticism of the Revolution has been
mainly divided. As a thinker he is roughly classed as an
Economist, and as a practical politician he figured first in the
Legislative Assembly, and next in the Convention. Now, as a
rule, the political parties that have most admired the Conven-
tion have had least sympathy with the Economists, and the
historians who are most favourable to Turgot and his followers,
are usually most hostile to the actions and associations of the
great revolutionary chamber successively swayed by a Vergniaud,
a Danton, a Robespierre. Between the two, Condorcet' s name
has been allowed to lie hidden for the most part in a certain
obscurity, or else has been covered with those taunts and
innuendoes, which partisans are wont to lavish on men of whom
they do not know exactly whether they are with or against them.


Generally, the men of the Revolution are criticised in blocks
and sections, and Condorcet cannot be accurately placed under
any of these received schools. He was an Economist, but he
was something more ; for the most characteristic article in his
creed was a passionate belief in the infinite perfectibility of
human nature. He was more of a Girondin than a Jacobin, yet
he did not always act, any more than he always thought, with
the Girondins, and he did not fall when they fell, but was
proscribed by a decree specially levelled at himself. Isolation
of this kind is assuredly no merit in political action, but it
explains the coldness with which Condorcet's memory has been
treated ; and it flowed from some marked singularities both of
character and ojDinion, which are of the highest interest, if we
consider the position of the man, and the lustre of that ever-
memorable time. Condorcet, said D'Alembert, is a volcano
covered with snow. Said another, less picturesquely, He is a
sheep in a passion. ' You may say of the intelligence of Con-
dorcet in relation to his person,' wrote Madame Roland, ' that

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 3 of 29)