Ninon de Lenclos.

Life, Letters, and Epicurean Philosophy of Ninon de L'Enclos The Celebrated Beauty of the Seventeenth Century online

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who, even in the temples of the Most High, when her parent imagined
her to be absorbed in the contemplation of saintly things, and
imbibing inspiration from her "Hours," the "Lives of the Saints," or
"An Introduction to a Holy Life," a book very much in vogue at that
period, the child would be devouring such profane books as Montaigne,
Scarron's romances and Epicurus, as more in accordance with her trend
of mind.

Even at the early age of twelve years, she had mastered those authors,
and had laid out a course of life, not in accord with her good
mother's ideas, for it excluded the idea of religion as commonly
understood, and crushed out the sentiment of maternity, that crowning
glory to which nearly all young female children aspire, although in
them, at a tender age, it is instinctive and not based upon knowledge
of its meaning.

This beginning of Ninon's departure from the beaten path should not be
a matter of surprise, for all the young open their hearts to ideas
that spring from the sentiments and passions, and anticipate in
imagination the parts they are to play in the tragedy or comedy of
life.

It is this period of life which the moralist and educator justly
contend should be carefully guarded. It is really a concession to
environment, and a tacit argument against radical heredity as the
foundation upon which rest the character and disposition of the adult,
and which is the mainspring of his future moral conduct. It is
impossible to philosophize ourselves out of this sensible position.

In the case of Ninon, there was her mother, a woman of undoubted
virtue and exemplary piety, following the usual path in the training
of her only child and making a sad failure of it, or at least not
making any impression on the object of her solicitude. This was,
however, not due to the mother's intentions: her training was too weak
to overcome that coming from another quarter. It has been said that
Ninon's father and mother were as opposite as the Poles in character
and disposition, and Ninon was suspended like a pendulum to swing
between two extremes, one of which had to prevail, for there was no
midway stopping place. It may be that the disciple of heredity, the
opponent of environment will perceive in the result a strong argument
in favor of his view of humanity. Be that as it may, Ninon swung away
from the extreme of piety represented by her mother, and was caught at
the other extreme by the less intellectually monotonous ideas of her
father. There was no mental conflict in the young mind, nothing
difficult; on the contrary, she accepted his ideas as pleasanter and
less conducive to pain and discomfort. Too young to reason, she
perceived a flowery pathway, followed it, and avoided the thorny one
offered her by her mother.

Monsieur de l'Enclos was an Epicurean of the most advanced type.
According to him, the whole philosophy of life, the entire scheme of
human ethics as evolved from Epicurus, could be reduced to the four
following canons:

First - That pleasure which produces no pain is to be embraced.

Second - That pain which produces no pleasure is to be avoided.

Third - That pleasure is to be avoided which prevents a greater
pleasure, or produces a greater pain.

Fourth - That pain is to be endured which averts a greater pain, or
secures a greater pleasure.

The last canon is the one that has always appealed to the religious
sentiments, and it is the one which has enabled an army of martyrs to
submit patiently to the most excruciating torments, to reach the
happiness of Paradise, the pleasure contemplated as a reward for
enduring the frightful pain. The reader can readily infer, however,
from his daily experiences with the human family, that this
construction is seldom put upon this canon, the world at large,
viewing it from the Epicurean interpretation, which meant earthly
pleasures, or the purely sensual enjoyments. It is certain that
Ninon's father did not construe any of these canons according to the
religious idea, but followed the commonly accepted version, and
impressed them upon his young daughter's mind in all their various
lights and shades.

Imbibing such philosophy from her earliest infancy, the father taking
good care to press them deep into her plastic mind, it is not
astonishing that Ninon should discard the more distasteful fruits to
be painfully harvested by following her mother's tuition, and accept
the easily gathered luscious golden fruit offered her by her father.
Like all children and many adults, the glitter and the tinsel of the
present enjoyment were too powerful and seductive to be resisted, or
to be postponed for a problematic pleasure.

The very atmosphere which surrounded the young girl, and which she
soon learned to breathe in deep, pleasurable draughts, was surcharged
with the intoxicating oxygen of freedom of action, liberality, and
unrestrained enjoyment. While still very young she was introduced into
a select society of the choicest spirits of the age and speedily
became their idol, a position she continued to occupy without
diminution for over sixty years. No one of all these men of the world
had ever seen so many personal graces united to so much
intellectuality and good taste. Ninon's form was as symmetrical,
elegant and yielding as a willow; her complexion of a dazzling white,
with large sparkling eyes as black as midnight, and in which reigned
modesty and love, and reason and voluptuousness. Her teeth were like
pearls, her mouth mobile and her smile most captivating, resistless
and adorable. She was the personification of majesty without pride or
haughtiness, and possessed an open, tender and touching countenance
upon which shone friendship and affection. Her voice was soft and
silvery, her arms and hands superb models for a sculptor, and all her
movements and gestures manifested an exquisite, natural grace which
made her conspicuous in the most crowded drawing-room. As she was in
her youth, so she continued to be until her death at the age of ninety
years, an incredible fact but so well attested by the gravest and most
reliable writers, who testify to the truth of it, that there is no
room for doubt. Ninon attributed it not to any miracle, but to her
philosophy, and declared that any one might exhibit the same
peculiarities by following the same precepts. We have it on the most
undoubted testimony of contemporaneous writers, who were intimate with
him, that one of her dearest friends and followers, Saint-Evremond, at
the age of eighty-nine years, inspired one of the famous beauties of
the English Court with an ardent attachment.

The beauties of her person were so far developed at the age of twelve
years, that she was the object of the most immoderate admiration on
the part of men of the greatest renown, and her beauty is embalmed in
their works either as a model for the world, or she is enshrined in
song, poetry, and romance as the heroine.

In fact Ninon had as tutors the most distinguished men of the age, who
vied with one another in embellishing her young mind with all the
graces, learning and accomplishments possible for the human mind to
contain. Her native brightness and active mind absorbed everything
with an almost supernatural rapidity and tact, and it was not long
before she became their peer, and her qualities of mind reached out so
far beyond theirs in its insatiable longing, that she, in her turn,
became their tutor, adviser and consoler, as well as their tender
friend.




CHAPTER IV

The Morals of the Period


Examples of the precocious talents displayed by Mademoiselle de
l'Enclos are not uncommon in the twentieth century, but the
application she made of them was remarkable and uncommon. Accomplished
in music, learned and proficient in the languages, a philosopher of no
small degree, and of a personal beauty sometimes called "beauté de
diable," she appeared upon the social stage at a time when a new idol
was an imperative necessity for the salvation of moral sanity, and the
preservation of some remnants of personal decency in the sexual
relations.

Cardinal Richelieu had just succeeded in consolidating the usurpations
of the royal prerogatives on the rights of the nobility and the
people, which had been silently advancing during the preceding reigns,
and was followed by the long period of unexampled misgovernment, which
oppressed and impoverished as well as degraded every rank and every
order of men in the French kingdom, ceasing only with the Revolution.

The great Cardinal minister had built worse than he had intended, it
is to be hoped; for his clerico-political system had practically
destroyed French manhood, and left society without a guiding star to
cement the rope of sand he had spun. Unable to subject the master
minds among the nobility to its domination, ecclesiasticism had
succeeded in destroying them by augmenting royal prerogatives which it
could control with less difficulty. Public maxims of government,
connected as they were with private morals, had debauched the nation,
and plunged it into a depth of degradation out of which Richelieu and
his whole entourage of clerical reformers could not extricate a single
individual. It was a riot of theological morality.

The whole body of the French nobility and the middle class of citizens
were reduced to a servile attendance on the court, as the only means
of advancement and reward. Every species of industry and merit in
these classes was sedulously discouraged; and the motive of honorable
competition for honorable things, being withdrawn, no pursuit or
occupation was left them but the frivolous duties, or the degrading
pleasures of the palace.

Next to the king, the women naturally became the first objects of
their effeminate devotion; and it is difficult to say which were
soonest corrupted by courtiers consummate in the arts of adulation,
and unwearied in their exercise. The sovereign rapidly degenerated
into an accomplished despot, and the women into intriguers and
coquettes. Richelieu had indeed succeeded in subjecting the State to
the rule of the Church, but Ninon was destined to play an important
part in modifying the evils which afflicted society, and at least
elevate its tone. From the methods she employed to effect this
change, it may be suspected that the remedy was equivalent to the
Hanemannic maxim: "Similia similbus curantur," a strange application
of a curative agent in a case of moral decrepitude, however valuable
and effective it may be in physical ailments.

The world of the twentieth century, bound up as it is in material
progress, refuses to limit its objects and aims to the problematic
enjoyment of the pleasures of Paradise in the great hereafter, or of
suffering with stoicism the pains and misfortunes of this earth as a
means of avoiding the problematic pains of Hell. Future rewards and
punishments are no longer incentives to virtue or right living. The
only drag upon human acts of every kind is now that great political
maxim, the non-observance of which has often deluged the earth with
blood; "Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas," which is to say: So use
thine own as not to injure thy neighbor. It is a conventional
principle, one of contract in reality, but it has become a great
doctrine of equity and justice, and it is inculcated by our
educational systems to the exclusion of the purely religious idea, and
the elimination of religious dogma, which tends to oppressive
restraints, is carefully fostered.

There is another reason why men's minds are impelled away from the
purely sentimental moral doctrines insisted upon by sectarianism,
which is ecclesiasticism run riot, and the higher the education the
deeper we delve into the secret motives of that class of mankind, the
deceptive outward appearances of which dominate the pages of history,
which is, that the greatest and most glorious systems of government,
the wisest and most powerful of rulers, the greatest and most liberal
statesmen, heroes, and conspicuous conquerors, originated in
violations of the Decalogue, and those nations and kingdoms which have
been founded upon strictly ecclesiastical ideas, have all sunk beneath
the shifting sands of time, or have become so degenerate as to be
bywords and objects of derision.

From the same viewpoint, a strange phenomenon is observable in the
world of literature, arts, and sciences. The brightest, greatest
geniuses, whose works are pointed to with admiration; studied as
models and standards, made the basis of youthful education, imitated,
and even wept over by the sentimental, were, in their private lives,
persons of the most depraved morals. Why this should be the case, it
is impossible even to conjecture, the fact only remaining that it is
so. Perhaps there are so many different standards of morality, that
humanity, weary of the eternal bickering consequent upon the conflicts
entered into for their enforcement, have made for themselves a new
interpretation which they find less difficult to observe, and find
more peace and pleasure in following.

To take a further step in the same direction, it is curious that in
the lives of the Saints, those who spent their whole earthly existence
in abstinence, works of the severest penance, and mortifications of
the flesh, the tendency of demoniac influence was never in the
direction of Sabbath breaking, profanity, idolatry, robbery, murder
and covetousness, but always exerted itself to the fullest extent of
its power in attacks upon chastity. All other visions were absent in
the hair-shirted, and self-scourgings brought out nothing but sexual
idealities, sensual temptations. The reason for this peculiarity is
not far to seek. What is dominant in the minds always finds egress
when a favorable opportunity is presented, and the very thought of
unchastity as something to be avoided, leads to its contemplation, or
its creation in the form of temptation. The virtue of chastity was the
one law, and its observances and violations were studied from every
point of view, and its numberless permissible and forbidden
limitations expatiated upon to such a degree, that he who escaped them
altogether could well attribute the result to the interposition of
some supernatural power, the protection of some celestial guardian.
One is reminded of the expression of St. Paul: "I had not known lust
had the law not said: thou shalt not covet." Lord Beaconsfield's
opinion was, that excessive piety led to sexual disorders.

According to Ninon's philosophy, whatever tended to propagate
immoderation in the sexual relations was rigidly eliminated, and
chastity placed upon the same plane and in the same grade as other
moral precepts, to be wisely controlled, regulated, and managed. She
put all her morality upon the same plane, and thereby succeeded in
equalizing corporeal pleasure, so that the entire scale of human acts
produced a harmonious equality of temperament, whence goodness and
virtue necessarily followed, the pathway being unobstructed.

It is too much to be expected, or even to be hoped for, that there
will ever be any unanimity among moral reformers, or any uniformity in
their standards of moral excellence. The educated world of the present
day, reading between the lines of ancient history, and some that is
not so very ancient, see ambition for place and power as the moving
cause, the inspiration behind the great majority of revolutions, and
they have come to apply the same construction to the great majority of
moral agitations and movements for the reform of morals and the
betterment of humanity, with pecuniary reward or profit, however,
added as the sine qua non of maintaining them.

Cure the agitation by removing the occasion for it, and Othello's
occupation would be gone; hence, the agitation continues. As an
eminent theologian declared with a conviction that went home to a
multitude, at the Congress of Religions, when the Columbian Exposition
was in operation:

"If all the religions in the world are to be merged into one, who, or
what will support the clergy that will be deprived of their salaries
by the change in management?"

The Golden Calf and Aaron were there, but where was the angry Moses?




CHAPTER V

Ninon and Count de Coligny


It was impossible for a maiden trained in the philosophy of Epicurus,
and surrounded by a brilliant society who assiduously followed its
precepts to avoid being caught in the meshes of the same net spread
for other women. Beloved and even idolized on all sides, as an object
that could be worshiped without incurring the displeasure of
Richelieu, who preferred his courtiers to amuse themselves with women
and gallantries rather than meddle with state affairs, and being
disposed both through inclination and training to accept the
situation, Ninon felt the sentiments of the tender passion, but
philosophically waited for a worthy object.

That object appeared in the person of the young Gaspard, Count de
Coligny, afterwards Duc de Chatillon, who paid her assiduous court.
The result was that Ninon conceived a violent passion for the Count,
which she could not resist, in fact did not care to resist, and she
therefore yielded to the young man of distinguished family, charming
manners, and a physically perfect specimen of manhood.

It is alleged by Voltaire and repeated by Cardinal de Retz, that the
early bloom of Ninon's charms was enjoyed by Richelieu, but if this be
true, it is more than likely that Ninon submitted through policy and
not from any affection for the great Cardinal. It is certain, however,
that the great statesman's attention had been called to her growing
influence among the French nobility, and that he desired to control
her actions if not to possess her charms. She was a tool that he
imagined he could utilize to keep his rebellious nobles in his leash.
Abbé Raconis, Ninon's uncle, and the Abbé Boisrobert, her friend, who
stood close to the Cardinal, had suggested to His Eminence that the
charms of the new beauty could be used to advantage in state affairs,
and he accordingly sent for her at first through curiosity, but when
he had seen her he hoped to control her for his personal benefit.

Although occupied in vast projects which his great genius and activity
always conducted to a happy issue, the great man had not renounced the
affections of his human nature, nor his intellectual gratifications.
He aimed at everything, and did not consider anything beneath his
dignity. Every day saw him engaged in cultivating a taste for
literature and art, and some moments of every day were set apart for
social gallantries. When it came to the art of pleasing and attracting
women, we have the word of Cardinal de Retz for it, that he was not
always successful. Perhaps it is only inferior minds who possess the
art and the genius of seduction.

The intriguing Abbé, in order to bring Ninon under the influence of
his master, and to charm her with the great honor done her by a man
upon whom were fixed the eyes of all Europe, prepared a series of
gorgeous fêtes, banquets and entertainments at the palace at Rueil.
But Ninon was not in the least overwhelmed, and refused to hear the
sighs of the great man. Hoping to inspire jealousy, he affected to
love Marion de Lormes, a proceeding which gave Ninon great pleasure as
it relieved her from the importunities of the Cardinal. The end of it
was, that Richelieu gave up the chase and left Ninon in peace to
follow her own devices in her own way.

Whatever may have been the relations between Ninon and Cardinal
Richelieu, it is certain that the Count de Coligny was her first
sentimental attachment, and the two lovers, in the first intoxication
of their love, swore eternal constancy, a process common to all new
lovers and believed possible to maintain. It was not long, however,
before Ninon perceived that the first immoderate transports of love
gradually lost their activity, and by applying the precepts of her
philosophy to explain the phenomenon, came to regard love by its
effects, as a blind mechanical movement, which it was the policy of
men to ennoble according to the conventional rules of decency and
honor, to the exclusion of its original meaning.

After coldly reasoning the matter out to its only legitimate
conclusion, she tore off the mask covering a metaphysical love, which
could not reach or satisfy the light of intelligence or the sentiments
and emotions of the heart, and which appeared to her to possess as
little reality as the enchanted castles, marvels of magic, and
monsters depicted in poetry and romance. To her, love finally became a
mere thirst, and a desire for pleasure to be gratified by indulgence
like all other pleasure. The germ of philosophy already growing in her
soul, found nothing in this discovery that was essentially unnatural;
on the contrary, it was essentially natural. It was clear to her
logical mind, that a passion like love produced among men different
effects according to different dispositions, humors, temperament,
education, interest, vanity, principles, or circumstances, without
being, at the same time, founded upon anything more substantial than a
disguised, though ardent desire of possession, the essential of its
existence, after which it vanished as fire disappears through lack of
fuel. Dryden, the celebrated English poetic and literary genius,
reaches the same opinion in his Letters to Clarissa.

Having reached this point in her reasoning, she advanced a step
further, and considered the unequal division of qualities distributed
between the two sexes. She perceived the injustice of it and refused
to abide by it. "I perceive," she declared, "that women are charged
with everything that is frivolous, and that men reserve to themselves
the right to essential qualities. From this moment I shall be a man."

All this growing out of the ardour of a first love, which is always
followed by the lassitude of satiety, so far from causing Ninon any
tears of regret, nerved her up to a philosophy different from that of
other women, and makes it impossible to judge her by the same
standard. She can not be considered a woman subject to a thousand
fantasies and whims, a thousand trifling concealed proprieties of
position and custom. Her morals became the same as those of the wisest
and noblest men of the period in which she lived, and raised her to
their rank instead of maintaining her in the category of the
intriguing coquettes of her age.

It is not improbable that her experience of the suffering attendant
upon the decay of such attachments, a suffering alluded to by those
who contemplate only the intercourse of the sexes through the medium
of poetry and sentiment, had considerable influence in determining her
future conduct. At an early age, following upon her liaison with Count
Coligny, she adopted the determination she adhered to during the rest
of her life, of retaining so much only of the female character as was
forced upon her by nature and the insuperable laws of society. Acting
on this principle, her society was chiefly composed of persons of her
adopted sex, of whom the most celebrated of their time made her house
a constant place of meeting.

A curious incident in her relations with Count de Coligny was her
success in persuading him to adjure the errors of the Huguenots and
return to the Roman Catholic Church. She had no religious
predilections, feeling herself spiritually secure in her philosophic
principles, but sought only his welfare and advancement. His obstinacy
was depriving him of the advantages due his birth and personal merit.
Considering that Ninon was scarcely sixteen years of age, respiring
nothing but love and pleasure, to effect by tenderness and the
persuasive strength of her reasoning powers, such a change in a man
so obstinate as the Count de Coligny, in an obstinate and excessively
bigoted age, was something unique in the history of lovers of that
period. Women then cared very little for religious principles, and
rarely exerted themselves in advancing the cause of the dominant
religion, much less thought of the spiritual needs of their favorites.
The reverse is the rule in these modern times, when women are the most
ardent and persistent proselytizers of the various sects, a custom
which recalls the remark of a distinguished lawyer who failed to
recover any assets from a notorious bankrupt he was pursuing for the
defrauded creditors: "This man has everything in his wife's name - even
his religion."

Ninon's disinterested counsel prevailed, and the Count afterward
abjured his errors, becoming the Duc de Chatillon, Marquis d'Andelot,


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