Copyright
John Morley.

Critical miscellanies (Volume 3) online

. (page 18 of 25)
Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies (Volume 3) → online text (page 18 of 25)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


heedless about giving us chapter and verse for their
assertions. M. Taine goes to the contrary extreme,
and pours his note-books into his text with a steady-
handed profusion that is excessively fatiguing, and



FKANCE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY. 267

makes the result far less effective than it would have
been if all this industrious reading had been thoroughly
fused and recast into a homogeneous whole. It is an
ungenerous trick of criticism to disparage good work
by comparing it with better; but the reader can
scarcely help contrasting M. Taine's overcrowded
pages with the perfect assimilation, the pithy fulness,
the pregnant meditation, of De Tocqueville's book on
the same subject. Wlien we attempt to reduce M.
Taine's chapters to a body of propositions standing
out in definite relief from one another, yet conveying
a certain unity of interpretation, we soon feel how
possible it is for an author to have literary clearness
along with historic obscurity.

In another respect Ave are inclined to question the
felicity of M. Taine's method. It does not convey
the impression of movement. The steps and changes
in the conflict among the organs of the old society are
not marked in their order and succession. The reader
is not kept alive to the gradual progress of the break-up
of old institutions and ideas. The sense of an active
and ceaseless struggle, extending in various stages
across the century, is effaced by an exclusive attention
to the social details of a given phase. We need the
story. You cannot effectively reproduce the true
sense and significance of such an epoch as the eighteenth
centuiy in France, without telling us, however barely,
the tale, for example, of the long battle of the ecclesi-
astical factions, and the yet more important series of
battles between the judiciary and the crown. If M.



268 FRANCE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY.

Taine's book were a piece of abstract social analysi.s,
the above remark would not be true. But it is a
study of the concrete facts of French life and society,
and to make such a study effective, the element of
the chronicle, as in Lacretelle or Jobez, cannot rightly
be dispensed with.

Let us proceed to the chief thesis of the book.
The new formula in which M. Taine describes the
source of all the mischiefs of the revolutionary doctrine
is this. ' When we see a man,' he says, ' who is rather
weak in constitution, but apparently sound and of
peaceful habits, drink eagerly of a new liquor, then
suddenly fall to the ground, foaming at the mouth,
delirious and convulsed, we have no hesitation in
supposing that in the pleasant draught there was
some dangerous ingredient; but we need a delicate
analysis in order to decompose and isolate the poison.
There is one in the philosophy of the eighteenth
century, as curious as it was potent : for not only is
it the product of a long historic elaboration, the final
and condensed extract in which the whole thought of
the century ends ; but more than that, its two principal
elements are peculiar in this, and when separated
they are each of them salutary, yet in combination
they produce a poisonous compound.' These two
ingredients are, first, the great and important acquisi-
tions of the eighteenth century in the domain of
physical science ; second, the fixed classic form of the
French intelligence. ' It is the classic spirit which,



FRANCE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY. 269

being applied to the scientific acquisitions of the time,
produced the philosophy of the century and the doc-
trines of the Ke volution.' This classic spirit has in its
literary form one or two well-known marks. It leads,
for instance, to the fastidious exclusion of particulars,
whether in phrases, objects, or traits of character, and
substitutes for them the general, the vague, the typic.
Systematic arrangement orders the whole structure and
composition from the period to the paragragh, from the
paragraph to the structural series of paragraphs ; it
dictates the style as it has fixed the syntax. Its great
note is the absolute. Again, ' two principal operations
make up the work of the human intelligence : placed in
face of things, it receives the impression of them more
or less exactly, completely, and profoundly; next,
leaving the things, it decomposes its impression, and
classifies, distributes, and expresses more or less
skilfully the ideas that it draws from that impression.
In the second of these processes the classic is superior.'
Classicism is only the organ of a certain reason, the
raison raisonnante ; that which insists upon thinking
with as little preparation and as much ease as possible ;
which is contented with what it has acquired, and
takes no thought about augmenting or renewing it ;
which either cannot or will not embrace the plenitude
and the complexity of things as they are.

As an analysis of the classic spirit in French
literature, nothing can be more ingenious and happy
than these pages (p. 241, etc.) But, after all, classic
is only the literary form preferred by a certain turn



270 FRANCE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY.

of intelligence ; and we shall do well to call that turn
of intelligence by a general name, that shall compre-
hend not only its literary form l3Ut its operations in
every other field. And accordingly at the end of this
very chapter we find M. Taine driven straightway to
change classic for mathematic in describing the method
of the new learning. And the latter description is
much better, for it goes beneath the siuiace of literary
expression, important as that is, down to the methods
of reasoning. It leads us to the root of the matter,
to the deductive habits of the French thinkers. The
mischief of the later speculation of the eighteenth
century in France was that men argued about the
complex, conditional, and relative propositions of
society, as if they had been theorems and problems
of Euclid. And M. Taine himself is, as we say, com-
pelled to change his term when he comes to the actual
facts and personages of the revolutionary epoch. It
was the geometric, rather than the classic, quality of
political reasoning, which introduced so much that we
now know to have been untrue and mischievous.

Even in literary history it is surely nearer the
truth to say of the latter half of the century that the
revolutionary movement began with the break-up of
classic form and the gradual dissolution of the classic
spirit. Indeed this is such a commonplace of criti-
cism, that we can only treat M. Taine's inversion of it
as a not very happy paradox. It was in literatui'e
that this genius of innovation, which afterwards ex-
tended over the whole social structure, shoAved itself



FRANCE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY. 271

first of all. Rousseau, not merely in the judgment
of a foreigner like myself, but in that of the very
highest of all native authorities, Sainte Beuve, effected
the greatest revolution that the French tongue had
undergone since Pascal. And this revolution was
more remarkable for nothing than for its repudiation
of nearly all the notes of classicism that are enumerated
by M. Taine. Diderot, again, in every page of his
work, whether he is discussing painting, manners,
science, the drama, poetry, or philosophy, abounds
and overabounds in those details, particularities, and
special marks of the individual, which are, as M.
Taine rightly says, alien to the classic genius. Both
Eousseau and Diderot, considered as men of letters,
were conscious literary revolutionists, before they were
used as half- conscious social revolutionists. They
deliberately put away from them the entire classic
tradition as to the dignity of personage proper to art,
and the symmetry and fixed method proper to artistic
style. This was why Voltaire, who was a son of the
seventeenth century before he was the patriarchal sire
of the eighteenth, could never thoroughly understand
the author of the New Heloisa, or the author of the
Pere de Famille and Jacques le Fataliste. Such work
was to him for the most part a detestable compound
of vulgarity and rodomontade. 'There is nothing
living in the eighteenth century,' M. Taine says, ' but
the little sketches that are stitched in by the way and
as if they were contraband, by Voltaire, and five or
six portraits like Turcaret, Gil Bias, Marianne, Manon



272 FRANCE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY.

Lescaut, Rameau's Nephew, Figaro, two or three hasty
sketches of Crebillon the younger and C0II6 ' (p. 258).
Nothing living but this ! But this is much and very
much. We do not pretend to compare the authors
of these admirable delineations with Moli6re and La
Bruyere in profundity of insight or in grasj) and
ethical mastery, but they are certainly altogether in a
new vein even from those two great writers, when we
speak of the familiar, the real, and the particular, as
distinguished from old classic generality. And, we
may add in passing, that the social life of France from
the death of Lewis xiv. downwards was emancipated
all round from the formality and precision of the classic
time. As M. Taine himself shows in many amusing
pages, life was singularly gay, free, sociable, and
varied. The literature of the time was sure to reflect,
and does reflect, this universal rejection of the re-
straints of the past age when the classic spirit had
been supreme.

Apart from this kind of objection to its exact ex-
pression, let us look at the substance of M. Taine's
dictum. ' It was the classic spirit, which, when
applied to the scientific acquisitions of the time, pro-
duced the philosophy of the century and the doctrines
of the Revolution.' Even if we substitute geometric
or deducti .'e spirit for classic spirit, the proposition
remains nearly as unsatisfactory. What were the
doctrines of the Revolution 1 The sovereignty of the
people, rights of man, liberty, equality, fraternity,
progress and perfectibility of the species — these were



FRANCE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY. 273

the main articles of the new creed. M. Taine, like
too many French writers, writes as if these ideas had
never been heard of before '89. Yet the most im-
portant and decisive of them were at least as old as
the Eeformation, were not peculiarly French in any
sense, and were no more the special products of the
classic spirit mixing with scientific acquisitions than
they were the products of Manicheanism. It is
extraordinary that a writer who attributes so much
importance to Rousseau, and who gives us so ample
an account of his political ideas, should not have
traced these ideas to their source, nor even told us
that they had a source wholly outside of France.
Eousseau was a Protestant ; he was a native of the
very capital and mother city of Protestantism, militant
and democratic ; and he was penetrated to his heart's
core by the political ideas Avhicli had arisen in Europe
at the Reformation. There is not a single principle
in the Social Contract which may not be found either
in Hobbes, or in Locke, or in Althusen, any more
than there is a single proposition of his deism which
was not in the air of Geneva when he wrote his
Savoyard Vicar. If this be the case, what becomes
of the position that the revolutionary philosophy was
worked out by the raison raisomiante, which is the
special faculty of a country saturated with the classic
spirit? If we must have a formula, it would be
nearer the truth to say that the doctrines of the
Revolution were the product, not of the classic
spirit applied to scientific acquisitions, but, first, of
VOL III T



274 FliANCK IN THE EIGIITEENTJI CENTURY.

the democratic ideas of the Protestant Reforma-
tion, and then of the fictions of the lawyers, both
of them aUied with certain urgent social and political
necessities.

So much, then, for the political side of the ' philo-
sophy of the century,' if we are to use this too
comj)rehcnsive expression for all the products of a
very complex and many-sided outburst of s})cculative
energy. Apart from its political side, we find M.
Taine's formula no less unsatisfactory for its other
phases. He seems to us not to go back nearly far
enough in his search for the intellectual origins, any
more than for the political origins, of his contemporary
France. He has taken no account of the progress of
the spirit of Scepticism from Montaigne's time, nor of
the decisive influence of Montaigne on the revolu-
tionary thinkers. Yet the extraordinary excitement
aroused in France by Bayle's Dictionary was a proof
of the extent to which the sceptical spirit had spread
before the Encyclopaedists were born. The great
influence of Fontenelle was wholly in the same scep-
tical direction. There was a strong sceptical element
in French Materialism, even when materialism was
fully developed and seemed most dogmatic.^ Indeed,
it may sometimes occur to the student of such a man
as Diderot to wonder how far materialism in France
was only seized upon as a means of making scepticism
both serious and philosophic. For its turn for scep-
ticism is at least as much a distinction of the French

^ See Lange's Geschichte des Maferialismus, i. 298.



FRANCE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY. 275

intelligence as its turn for classicism. And, once
more, if we must have a formula, it would be best
to say that the philosophy of the century was the
product, first of scepticism applied to old beliefs
which were no longer easily tenable, and then of
scepticism extended to old institutions that were no
longer practically habitable.

And this brings us to the cardinal reason for
demurring to M. Taine's neatly rounded proposition.
His appreciation of the speculative precursors of the
Revolution seems to us to miss the decisive truth about
them. He falls precisely into those errors of the
raison raisonnante, about which, in his description of
the intellectual preparation of the great overthrow,
he has said so many just and acute things. Nothing
can be more really admirable than M. Taine's criticism
upon Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, as
great masters of language (pp. 339-361). All this is
marked by an amplitude of handling, a variety of
approach, a subtlety of perception, a fulness of com-
prehension, which give a very dififerent notion of
M. Taine's critical soundness and power from any
that one could have got from his account elsewhere of
our English writers. Some of the remarks are open
to criticism, as might be expected. It is hard to
accept the saying (p. 278) that Montesquieu's 'cele-
brity was not an influence.' It was Montesquieu,
after all, who first introduced among the Encyclo-
paedic band a rationalistic and experiential conception
of the various legal and other conditions of the social



276 FRANCE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTUKY.

union, as distinguished from the old tlieological ex-
planation of them. The corresjiondence of Voltaire,
Rousseau, Diderot, D'Alembert, is sufficient to show
how immediately, as well as how powerfully, they
were influenced by Montesquieu's memorable book.
Again, it is surely going too far to say that Montes-
quieu's Persian Letters contained every important
idea of the century. Docs it, for instance, contain
that thrice fruitful idea which Turgot developed in
1750, of all the ages being linked together by an
ordered succession of causes and effects 1 These and
other objections, however, hardly affect the brilliance
and substantial excellence of all this part of the book.
It is when he proceeds to estimate these great men,
not as writers but as social forces, not as stylists but
as apostles, that M. Taine discloses the characteristic
weaknesses of the bookman in dealing with the facts
of concrete sociology. He shows none of this weak-
ness in what he says of the remote jjast. On the
contrary, he blames, as we have all blamed, Voltaire,
Eousseau, and the rest of the group, for their failure
to recognise that the founders of religions satisfied a
profound need in those who accepted them, and that
this acceptance was the spontaneous admission of its
relative fitness. It would be impossible to state this
important truth better than M. Tainc has done in
the following passage : —

'At certain critical moments in history,' he says,
' men have come out from the narrow and confined
track of their daily life and seized in one wide vision



FRANCE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY. 277

the infinite universe ; the august face of eternal
nature is suddenly unveiled before them; in the
sublimity of their emotion they seem to perceive the
very principle of its being; and at least they did
discern some of its features. By an admirable stroke
of circumstance, these features were precisely the
only ones that their age, their race, a group of races,
a fraction of humanity, happened to be in a condition
to understand. Their point of view was the only
one under which the multitudes beneath could place
themselves. For millions of men, for hundreds of
generations, the only one access to divine things was
along their path. They pronounced the unique word,
heroic or tender, enthusiastic or tranquillising ; the
only word that, around them and after them, the
heart and the intelligence would consent to hearken
to ; the only one adapted to the deep-growing wants,
the long-gathered aspirations, the hereditary faculties,
a whole moral and mental structure, — here to that
of the Hindu or the Mongol, there to that of the
Semite or the European, in our Europe to that of
the German, the Latin, or the Slav ; in such a way
that its very contradictions, instead of condemning
it, were exactly what justified it, since its diversity
produced its adaptation, and its adaptation produced
its benefits' (p. 272).

It is extraordinary that a thinker who could so
clearly discern the secret of the great spiritual move-
ments of human history, should fail to perceive that
the same law governs and explains all the minor



278 FRANCE IN THE ETGIITEENTIT CENTURY.

movements in which wide communities have been
suddenly agitated by the word of a teacher. It is
well — as no one would be more likely to contend
than myself, who have attempted the task — to
demonstrate the contradictions, the superficiality, the
inadcquateness, of the teaching of Rousseau, Voltaire,
or Diderot. But it is well also, and in a historical
student it is not only well, but the very pith and
marrow of criticism, to search for that ' adaptation,'
to use M. Taine's very proper expression, which gave
to the word of these teachers its mighty power and
far-spreading acceptance. Is it not as true of Eousseau
and Voltaire, acting in a small society, as it is of
Buddha or Mahomet acting on vast groups of races,
that ' leur point de vue 6tait le seul auquel les multi-
tudes echelonn^es au dessous d'eux pouvaient se
mettre V Did not they too seize, ' by a happy stroke
of circumstance,' exactly those traits in the social
union, in the resources of human nature, in its deep-
seated aspirations, which their generation was in a
condition to comprehend, — liberty, equality, fraternity,
progress, justice, tolerance 1

M. Taine shows, as so many others have shown
before him, that the Social Contract, when held up
in the light of true political science, is very poor
stuff. Undoubtedly it is so. And Quintilian — an
accomplished and ingenious Taine of the first century
— would have thought the Gospels and Epistles, and
Augustine and Jerome and Chrysostom, very poor
stuff, compared with the —



FRANCE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTUIIY. 279

MulHfluous streams that watered all the schools
Of Academics old and new, with those
Surnamed Peripatetics, and the Sect
Epicurean, and the Stoic severe.

And in some ways, from a literary or logical point
of view, the early Christian writers could ill bear
this comparison. But great bodies of men, in ages
of trouble and confusion, have an instinctive feeling
for the fragment of truth which they happen to need
at the hour. They have a spontaneous apprehension
of the formula which is at once the expression of
their miseries and the mirror of their hope. The
guiding force in the great changes of the world has
not been the formal logic of the schools or of literature,
but the practical logic of social convenience. Men
take as much of a teacher's doctrine as meets their
real wants : the rest they leave. The Jacobins
accepted Rousseau's ideas about the sovereignty of
the people, but they seasonably forgot his glorification
of the state of nature and his denunciations of civili-
sation and progress. The American revolutionists
cheerfully borrowed the doctrine that all men are
born free and equal, but they kept their slaves.

It was for no lack of competition that the ideas
of the Social Contract, of Raynal's History of the two
Indies, of the System of Nature, of the Philosophical
Dictionary, made such astounding and triumphant
way in men's minds. There was Montesquieu with
a sort of historic method. There was Turgot, and
the school of the economists. There were seventy



280 FRANCE IN THE ETOIITEENTIT CENTURY.

thousand of the secular clergy, and sixty thousand
of the regular clergy, ever proclaiming by life or
exhortation ideas of peace, submission, and a kingdom
not of this world. Why did men turn their backs
on these and all else, and betake themselves to
revolutionary ideas ? How came those ideas to rise
up and fill the whole air 1 The answer is that, with
all their contradiction, shallowness, and danger, such
ideas fitted the crisis. They were seized by virtue
of an instinct of national self-preservation. The evil
elements in them worked themselves out in infinite
mischief. The true elements in them saved France,
by firing men with social hope and patriotic faith.

How was it, M. Taine rightly asks, that the philo-
sophy of the eighteenth century, which was born in
England and thence sent its shoots to France, dried
up in the one country, and grew to overshadow the
earth in the other? Because, he answers, the new
seed fell iipon ground that was suited to it, the home
of the classic spirit, the country of raison raisonnante.
Compare with this merely literary solution the answer
given to the same question by De Tocqueville : — ' It
was no accident that the philosophers of the eighteenth
century generally conceived notions so opposed to
those which still served as the base of the society of
their time ; these ideas had actually been suggested to
them hy the very sight of that society, which they had ever
before their eyes' (Ancien Bdgime, 206). This is the
exact truth and the whole truth. The greatest enter-
prise achieved by the men of letters in the period of



FRANCE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY. 281

intellectual preparation was the Encyclopsedia ; and I
have elsewhere tried to present what seemed to be
ample evidence that the spirit and aim of that great
undertaking were social, and that its conductors, while
delivering their testimony in favour of the experiential
conception of life in all its aspects, and while repro-
ducing triumphantly the most recent acquisitions of
science, had still the keenest and most direct eye for
the abuses and injustice, the waste and disorder, of
the social institutions around them. The answer,
then, which we should venture to give to M. Taine's
cjuestion would be much simpler than his. The
philosophy of the eighteenth century fared differently
in England and in France, because its ideas did not
fit in with the economic and political conditions of the
one, while, on the contrary, they were actively warmed
and fostered by those of the other. It was not a
literary aptitude in the nation for raison raisonnante,
which developed the political theories of Eousseau,
the moral and psychological theories of Diderot, the
anti- ecclesiastical theories of Voltaire and Holbach.
It was the profound disorganisation of institutions
that suggested and stimulated the speculative agita-
tion. ' The nation,' wrote the wise and far-seeing
Turgot, ' has no constitution ; it is a society composed
of different orders ill assorted, and of a people whose
members have few social bonds with one another ;
where consequently scarcely any one is occupied with
anything beyond his private interest exclusively,' and
and so forth (Q^uv. ii. 504). Any student, uncom-



282 FRANCE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY,

mitted to a theory, who examines in close detail the
wise aims and just and conservative methods of
Turgot, and the circumstances of his utter rout after
a short experiment of twenty months of power, will
rise from that deplorable episode with the conviction
that a pacific renovation of France, an orderly read-
justment of her institutions, was hopelessly impossible.


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 18 20 21 22 23 24 25

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies (Volume 3) → online text (page 18 of 25)