Joseph Forster.

Some French and Spanish men of genius. Sketches of Marivaux, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Beaumarachais, Mirabeau, Danton and Robespierre, Béranger, Victor Hugo, Eugéne Sue and Zola, Cervantes and Lope de Vega, Calderon online

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Online LibraryJoseph ForsterSome French and Spanish men of genius. Sketches of Marivaux, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Beaumarachais, Mirabeau, Danton and Robespierre, Béranger, Victor Hugo, Eugéne Sue and Zola, Cervantes and Lope de Vega, Calderon → online text (page 5 of 19)
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menced to deal with philosophical questions after the
manner of the guests described by Plutarch in his table-

' He spoke to me of Emile, and wished me to con-
tinue it after his plan. " I should die contented if I left
that work in your hands;" on which I replied, I could
never make Sophy unfaithful. " I have always figured
to myself that a Sophy would one day make my happiness.
Besides, do you not fear that in seeing Sophy guilty,
people would ask what is the use of so many preparations,
so many cares ? Is that, therefore, the fruit of education
and nature?" " That subject, even," he replied, " is use-
ful ; it is not sufficient to prepare for virtue, one must
shield from vice. Women have more to fear from women
than from men." " I fear," I replied, " that the faults
of Sophy are more contrary to morals than the example
of her virtue is favourable : besides, her repentance may
be more touching than her innocence ; and such an effect
would not be without danger to virtue." As I finished
these words the waiter of the inn entered, and said loudly,
" Gentlemen, your coffee is ready." " Stupid fellow ! " I
exclaimed ; " did I not tell you to inform me hi secret
when the water boiled?" " What !" said Eousseau, "are
we to have coffee 1" The coffee was brought, and we
continued our conversation on Emile. Rousseau pressed
me again to write on that subject : he would put into my
hands all that he had written ; but I begged him to
excuse me. "I have not your style," I said. "The
work would be of two colours. I prefer your lessons
in botany." "Ah, well!" said he, "I will give them


' We returned to Paris by a pleasant road, talking of
Plutarch. Rousseau called him the great painter of
misfortune. He referred to the death of Agis, that
of Antony, that of Monime, the wife of Mithridates, the
triumph of Paul us Emilius, and the sorrows of the
children of Perseus. Tacitus withdraws us from man ;
but Plutarch teaches us to sympathise with and to under-
stand him. In talking thus, we passed under the shadow
of some superb chestnut-trees in full flower. Rousseau
plucked a bunch of blossoms, and made me admire the
exquisite bloom. He made me promise to go with him
to Sevres. " There are there," he said, " fine pine-trees
and fields of violets : we will start early." I love what-
ever reminds me of the North. This induced me to tell
him my adventures in Russia, including the particulars of
my unhappy love affair in Poland. He pressed my hand
and said, on leaving me, " I needed to pass this day with
you." '

How delightful is the intercourse of intellectual
equals ! How they understand and almost go before
each other in the rapidity of their comprehension !
A man can be judged only by his peers. Wnat
simple tastes ! a cup of coffee after their simple,
frugal meal made a little treat. But what conver-
sation ! What geniality, wit, and wisdom ! But
before quitting St. Pierre, I must quote one more
passage from another of his little -known works,
in which he gives another estimate of Rousseau's
character and genius :

* Rousseau, troubled by the hatred of nations, the


divisions of philosophers, the systems of savants, adopted
no religion, to enable him to examine them all ; and,
rejecting the testimony of men, he decided in favour of
the Christian religion, because of the sublimity of its
morality, and the Divine character he saw in its author.
Voltaire removed faith from the doubter. Rousseau made
those doubt who did not believe. If he speaks of Pro-
vidence, it is with enthusiasm, with love ; it is that
which gives to his works an inexpressible charm, a
character of virtue, of which the impression can never
be effaced.'

That is very true and very interesting. Rousseau
had a truly sentimental love for religion, duty, and
truth, which nothing could ever kill. That spirit
shines through, beautifies, and excuses his many
faults of conduct. Had he put this belief into con-
crete actions, it would undoubtedly have been better,
especially for himself. No man of genius can do
wrong with impunity : he poisons the fountain of
his inspiration.

Now as to the infinite capacity for taking
pains. He told St. Pierre that there was no
work of his that he had not re-copied four or five
times, and that the last copy contained as many
erasures as the first; that he had been some-
times eight days in finding just the expression he
required. His conversation was very interesting,
especially with a friend ; but the arrival of a stranger
sufficed to silence him. ' It only requires,' he said,
' a little argument to upset me ; my wit arrives half
an hour after that of other people ; I know exactly


what to answer when it is too late.' He had the
gold but not the gilt coppers of conversation ; and, -
besides, how can you expect the people with gilt
coppers to like the man with real gold?

Now we will turn to one of the most extra-
ordinary books in the world's literature Rousseau's
Confessions a book which, whether we take it as
literature or as a vivid portrait of a unique genias,
ranks with Wilhelm Meister, and with that alone, in
what it tells us, and what, infinitely more, it suggests.
This extraordinary man forgot nothing worth re-
membering. His heart and mind received impres-
sions with the greatest facility, and retained them
with the greatest tenacity. Then it is not only what
he tells, extraordinary though it be ; it is the clear,
simple, fascinating style of the man which enthrals
one. The form is delightful, and the matter of
absorbing interest. Listen to the opening of this
unequalled book :

' I form an enterprise which has no example, and
which will never have an imitator. I would display to
my fellow-men a man in all the truth of nature : and that
man shall be myself.

' Myself alone. I understand my heart, and I know
mankind. I am unlike all those whom I have met ; I
dare to believe that I am not made like any one else
existing. If I am not better, at least I ana different.
Whether Nature has done well or ill in breaking the mould
in which she has cast me, is a question that can only be
decided after having read me.

'Let the last trumpet sound when it will, I will


appear, with this book in my hand, before the Sovereign
Judge. I will then say boldly : " Behold, what I have
done, what I have thought, what I have been. I have
spoken of the good and the bad with the same frankness.
I have hidden nothing bad, added nothing good ; and if I
have occasionally employed some indifferent ornament, it
has only been to fill a void caused by a failure of memory.
I have shown myself that which I was : despicable and
vile when I have been so; good, generous, sublime,
when I was so ; I have unveiled my interior such as
Thou Thyself hast seen it, Eternal Being ! Assemble
around me the innumerable crowd of my fellow-men;
let them listen to my confessions, let them sigh at my
indignities, let them blush at my disgraces. Then let
each one open his heart at the foot of Thy throne with
the same sincerity; and then let one alone say if he
dare : I am better than that man." '

The man who wrote the above daring and un-
paralleled passage was born at Geneva on the 28th
June, 1712. His father was a watchmaker, and
after the birth of his first child, went to Constan-
tinople. Rousseau was born after the return of his
father to Geneva. His birth cost his mother's life,
whom his father loved very ardently. The boy, like
many other great men, was miserably infirm and
sickly. His father never consoled himself for the
loss of his wife. ' He never caressed me/ says
Rousseau, 'without my feeling by his sighs and
his convulsive embraces, that bitter regrets were
mixed with his endearments. When he said to
me, " Jean- Jacques, talk of your mother," I would


say to him, ""Well, father, we are going to weep
then." " Ah ! " said he, sighing, " restore her to
me, console me for her loss, fill the void she has left
in my soul. Should I love you as I do if you were
only my son?"

The fragile life of Rousseau was saved by his
aunt. Rousseau was the kind of man that every
tender-hearted woman would feel it her duty to protect
from the hard world in which he appeared to be lost.
The truth of this appears again and again in his

He felt before thinking, and did not remember
how he learnt to read. His mother had been fond of
reading, and had left a collection of novels, which he
and his father read after supper. They were both
so fond of reading that they would forget the hour,
and read on till they were surprised by the morning
song of the birds. His father would then say : ' Go
to bed ; I am more a child than thou.'

This excessive culture of the emotions explains
the ardent sensibility of the man. This reading of
romance continued till 1719, when Rousseau was
seven years old. He then commenced his life-long
study of Plutarch, which coloured his thinking and
feeling more than any other reading. He says :

' Plutarch especially became my favourite reading.
The pleasure I took in reading him cured me a little
of my love for novels, and I quickly preferred Brutiis
and Aristides to Orondate and Artamene. These in-
teresting studies, and the conversations on them with
my father, made my mind firm and republican, my


character indomitable and free, impatient of the chain
of servitude, which feelings have tormented me all my
life, in situations where it was most dangerous to act
up to them.

' Always occupied with Rome and Athens, living one
may say with their great men ; born myself the citizen
of a republic, and son of a father whose love of his
country was his greatest passion I inflamed myself
by his example ; I believed myself Greek or Roman ;
I became the personage of whom I read : the story of
traits of constancy and intrepidity which struck me
made my eyes sparkle and my voice firm."

Rousseau lived with loving friends and relations.
His father was as excitable and romantic as the boy.
His aunt loved him, caressed him, and taught him a
multitude of songs, which she sang to the delighted
boy in a thin, sweet voice. In fact, she cultivated
and made into a passion his taste for music, from
which he afterwards derived the greatest solace
during his stormy and unhappy life. Every circum-
stance of the boy's early life appeared to develop
the feminine, sentimental strain in his character.
Had his father been different the boy would have
had a chance ; but with a father who was as fond of
sentimental novels as the son, what hope was there
for the boy overcoming the essential weakness of his
nature ?

Rousseau was placed with an engraver, M.
Ducommun, a rude and brutal man, who succeeded
in brutifying the lad's passionate and. sensitive


nature. He forgot his studies, his music ; in fact,
he became, under the influence of his hard master,
an ordinary, stupid apprentice. His father, when he
visited him, did not find his former idol in him ; he
was no longer the polite and refined Jean-Jacques ;
but developed into a low blackguard of vile tastes
and habits. He must, he admits, have had a great
bias towards degradation, because his fall brought
him no pain and was made without any difficulty.

The occupation itself did not repel him ; he had
a taste for design, which was destroyed by the brutal
treatment of his master, who quite demoralised the
boy's nature.

The lad was persuaded to steal asparagus for a
companion of his master. The proceeds of the theft
very little were spent on breakfasts, in which
Rousseau shared.

After this, the boy took to stealing apples, and
was discovered in the act by his master. The author,
in recalling his punishment, significantly says : ' The
pen falls from my hand.'

We will here quote a very interesting passage
from this wonderful book :

' I have very ardent passions, and while they agitate
me nothing equals my impetuosity ; I know nothing of
self-restraint, nor fear, nor appearances ; I ana cynical,
impudent, violent, intrepid ; no shame arrests me, no
danger daunts me ; compared to the one object which
absorbs, the universe is nothing to me. But that en-
dures but a moment, and the next instant I collapse.
When I am calm, I am indolence and timidity them-


selves ; all repulses, all terrifies me ; a word, a gesture
alarms my laziness ; fear and shame conquer me to such
a point that I would bury myself from the eyes of all
mortals. If I must act, I know not what to do; if I
must speak, I know not what to say ; if people look at me,
I lose countenance. When I am excited I sometimes
find words; but in ordinary intercourse I find nothing,
nothing at all ; it is insupportable to me to be obliged to
talk. Add to that, no bought pleasures gratify my taste.
My pleasures must be pure, and money poisons all. I
love, for instance, those of the table; but, unable to
endure either the restraints of good company, or the
coarseness of an inn, I can only taste them with a
friend ; because to enjoy them alone appears to me im-
possible ; my imagination occupies itself with something
else, and I have no pleasure in eating.'

Rousseau was an idealist to the core : he had no
real sympathy with the ordinary facts, people, and
pleasures of life. He was only vulnerable through
the imagination : he was, to a great extent, a prose
Shelley. There are men who gather strength when
they touch the earth, and these men are the greatest,
and there are others who lose it. The two types are
well represented by Browning and Shelley.

I must hasten on with my account of Rousseau's
early life. At last he could bear the tyranny of his
brutal master no longer, and one night he escaped
from his slavery. The world was all before him
where to choose, but his purse was limited, and,
therefore, his * choice ' was limited also. He at last
took refuge in a place where Protestant renegades


were received, in order to be restored to the bosom
of the Catholic and Apostolic Church. There he
met probably the worst villains to be found in
Europe. Rousseau had fallen, indeed, but not to
the awful depths of degradation to which these
scoundrels had sunk.

From this abominable refuge of crime and hypo-
crisy, Rousseau passed to his protector and friend,
Madame de Warens, one of the most abnormal
specimens of human nature it is possible to conceive,
and that only a Rousseau could describe. His
attachment to this middle-aged and good-natured
lady became of the most passionate kind. He doubt-
less derived great assistance from her kindness and
protection. She rescued him from starvation, and
gave him time to think, read, and observe. He
showed hardly any indication of genius or even talent ;
in fact, he was looked upon, by smart, clever people,
as hopelessly stupid. While they were exulting in
their superficial knowledge of the mere outsides of
things, which they shared with every ordinary man
not quite an idiot, Rousseau was brooding over
principles and causes. His thoughts ripened slowly ;
but when they had reached that stage of develop-
ment they had a flavour and a value of their own,
peculiar and priceless. His adventures and troubles,
his grandeur and his meanness, are all unveiled by
him in the Confessions with an apparently artless
frankness and freedom, which makes the book to a
man who thinks that the only, or, at all events, the
supremely interesting study is the marvellous heart


of humanity the most instructive and fascinating
work ever produced. I repeat, apparently artless
frankness and freedom, because a more carefully
composed work, better adapted to effect the purpose
and produce the effect designed by the writer, was
never written than the Confessions of Rousseau : in
it appears the consummate art which hides itself.

In speaking of Madame de Warens' very peculiar
ideas of religion, Rousseau said :

' She was systematic in all things, even in religion,
and her system was composed of ideas very incongruous
some sensible, some very absurd ; of sentiments in
accordance with her character, and of prejudices springing
from her education. As a rule, believers make God like
themselves the good make Him good, the wicked make
Him wicked ; the bigots, bitter and bilious, see nothing
but hell, because they would damn all the world ; loving
and sweet souls think differently. And one thing which
inspires me with an astonishment, from which I can never
recover, is that the good F&ielon speaks of hell in
Telemaque as if he believed in it; but I hope that he
lied then, because, however truthful one may be, one
must lie sometimes when one is a bishop. Maman
never lies to me, and her soul without gall could not
imagine a God vindictive and always angry; she saw
only clemency and pity where bigots see justice and
punishment. She often said to me that there would
be no justice in God being only just to us, because
not having given us the capacity to be so, that would be
to demand more than we had received. A strange thing
with her was, that, without believing in hell, she did not
cease to believe in purgatory. That was because she


did not know what to do with the wicked ; feeling unable
to damn them, or to place them with the good before
they had become so. And one must admit that in this
world and the other the wicked are always very em-

This passage proves that with all his sentiment,
Rousseau knew how to use the subtle vein of irony
he possessed ; and when tears stop, irony begins.

There is one passage of this unique work which is
of the greatest possible interest and value. In it he
tells us how and what he read. At first he tried
to harmonise the different teachings of contra-
dictory philosophers. In this hopeless task even
Rousseau failed ; any one with smaller brain would
have gone mad. He gave that Utopian plan up, and
thus found his way out of the philosophical jungle.
This was his plan ; I think a wise one :

' In reading each author I made it my rule to adopt
and follow his ideas without mixing mine or those of
others with them, and never to dispute with him. I
said to myself, Begin by making an arsenal of ideas,
true or false, but clear, until your head is sufficiently
furnished to enable you to compare and choose. This
method has its drawbacks, I know, but it has contented
me. At the end of some years spent in thinking after
others, without reflecting and nearly without reasoning, I
found myself sufficiently strong in ideas gained from
books to suffice for myself, and to enable me to think
without the help of others. Then, when travel and
business have prevented me consulting books, I have


amused myself by turning over in my mind what I have
read, and weighing each thing in the balance of reason,
and sometimes judging my masters. My judicial faculty
was not impaired because I exercised it late ; and when
I published my own ideas, I was not accused of being
a servile disciple and of swearing by any particular

What a lesson of modesty that passage teaches !
Before Rousseau attempted to teach, he painfully and
laboriously learnt. Then, when by dint of steady,
incessant, and unwearying study, he had something
worth hearing to say, he said it in his own brilliant,
clear, fearless, and eloquent way. Rousseau perfectly
understood the infinite value of style in writing.
Before long, only books that have individuality of
style, that is the breath of life, will be read by any
one. People who don't care for style will read
newspapers only.

I must now confine myself to a few passages
from the Confessions.

The following on mercenary writing is, I think,
yery striking, and might be useful to some of the
disinterested scribes who write for the Pharisees of
to-day :

' I felt that to write for bread was to quickly stifle
my genius and kill my talent, which was less in my pen
than in my heart ; and born only of a manner of think-
ing, elevated and proud, which could alone nourish my
powers. Nothing vigorous, nothing grand could come
from a venal pen. Necessity, avarice, perhaps, would
have made me work quickly rather than well. If the



need of success had not plunged me in cabals, it would
have made me try to say, instead of things useful and
true, those which please the multitude ; and, instead of
being a distinguished author, I should have become a
mere spoiler of good paper. No, no; I have always
felt that the condition of an author was, and could be,
illustrious and worthy only because it was not a trade.
It is difficult to think for a living. To be able, and to
dare to say grand truths, one must not depend upon
their success. I threw my books to the public with the
full conviction of having spoken for the common good,
and without care for anything else.'

Then Rousseau clearly sets forth the great literary
problem : How to do good, noble, disinterested work
and live by it. So far as I know that problem has
not yet been solved :

' If the work were repulsed, so much the worse for
those who would not profit by it ; for myself, I had not
need of their approbation to live. My business could
nourish me ; and that was precisely why my books sold.'

He made his humble living by copying music.
He dared to be poor, and, therefore, sympathised
with and loved the poor. As he says, his heart beat
in every word he wrote ; and that is why his books
pierced through the most corrupt city in the world
Paris. The fashionable people, artificial and
false to their finger-ends, were carried away by his
eloquence, tenderness, and enthusiasm. The success
of Julie was unprecedented. Everybody of cul-
ture and education devoured it. It was, to the


corrupt and enervated minds and hearts of fashion-
able society, what the sea air is to their poor, worn-
out bodies after the dissipation of the season I
suppose the hardest work poor mortals can be con-
demned to.

They had lost the capacity for true love ; their
hearts and minds were corrupt to their foundations.
But the tenderness, the burning passion, the en-
thusiastic love for humanity, the rushing torrent
of eloquence, logic, wit, and irony, created a new
sensation. It was original, .daring, striking, and
held them enthralled. He did not learn to write
like that by imitating others. No ; he had seen,
felt, thought, suffered all the agonies of poverty, all
the insults that ' patient ' or impatient ' merit of the
unworthy takes;' but out of all that chaos of
misery and contumely he created a cosmos of genius
and thought, enriched by his very heart's blood.
He knew his work was great and good. Could he
have supported all his sufferings and agonies had he
not been sustained by the sublime and all-conquering
consciousness of genius ? He felt the Divinity
within him. When he measured himself with the
other great men of his time, he, poor, miserable,
suffering, felt his innate superiority.

There was no mock-modesty in our author. He
did not try to make himself a dwarf to keep dwarfs
in countenance. No! he knew his powers, and would
never lower his crest to his inferiors and detractors.

His body was puny, his health was weak; but
his soul was that of a Spartan, unbendable by any


blow in man's or Fortune's power. This man, great
in spite of great faults, was our friend, and the
friend of justice, truth, and libertj', and was, there-
fore, worthy of our respect and love.

We can say of Rousseau that he thought nobly
of the soul ; and, as a rule, in his best works, obeyed
its dictates.

The following passage from JEmile, with which
I will conclude my sketch, is very characteristic of
the author, and displays his peculiar power of
welding sentiment and reason together :

' Our passions are the principal instruments of our
preservation : it would therefore be as ridiculous as vain
to attempt to destroy them ; it would be an attempt to
control nature, to reform the work of God. If God
commanded man to destroy the passions He gave him,
God would contradict himself. He has never given so
insane an order ; and nothing of the kind is written in
the human heart. And the commandments of God to
man are not passed through the lips of another man :
God himself writes them at the bottom of the heart.'



GREAT men may be defined as leaders and misleaders
of the ordinary rank and file. In spite of the
sins of the flesh, Diderot, Mirabeau, Burns, and
other hot-blooded sons of women belonged to the

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Online LibraryJoseph ForsterSome French and Spanish men of genius. Sketches of Marivaux, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Beaumarachais, Mirabeau, Danton and Robespierre, Béranger, Victor Hugo, Eugéne Sue and Zola, Cervantes and Lope de Vega, Calderon → online text (page 5 of 19)