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Voltaire, was, I believe, the first who ventured to assign to La Rochefoucauld the preeminent rank which belongs to him among the French classics. 66 One of, the works,” says he,“which contributed most to form the taste of the nation to a justness and precision of thought and expression, was the small collection of maxims by Francis Duke of La Rochefoucauld. Although there be little more than one idea in the book, that self-love is the spring of all our actions, yet this idea is presented in so great a variety of forms, as to be always amusing. When it first
appeared, it was read with avidity; and it contributed, more than any other performance since the revival of letters, to improve the vivacity, correctness, and delicacy of French composition.”
Another very eminent judge of literary merit (the late Dr. Johnson) was accustomed to say of La Rochefoucauld's Maxims, that it was almost the only book written by a man of fashion, of which professed authors had reason to be jealous. Nor is this wonderful, when we consider the unwearied industry of the very accomplished writer, in giving to every part of it the highest and most finished polish which his exquisite taste could bestow. When he had committed a maxim to paper, he was in use to circulate it among his friends, that he might avail himself of their critical animadversions; and, if we may credit Ségrais, altered some of them no less than thirty times, before venturing to submit them to the public eye. That the tendency of these maxims is, upon the whole,
, unfavorable to morality, and that they always leave a disagreeable impression on the mind, must, I think, be granted. At the same time, it may be fairly questioned, if the motives of the author have in general been well understood, either by his admirers or his opponents. In affirming that self-love is the spring of all our actions, there is no good reason for supposing that he meant to deny the reality of moral distinctions as a philosophical truth ;-a supposition quite inconsistent with his own fine and deep remark, that hypocrisy is itself an homage which vice renders to virtue. He states it merely as a fact, which, in the course of his experience as a man of the world, he had found very generally verified in the higher classes of soci
ety; and which he was induced to announce without any qualification or restriction, in order to give more force and poignancy to his satire. In adopting this mode of writing, he has unconsciously conformed himself, like many other French authors, who have since followed his example, to a suggestion which Aristotle has stated with admirable depth and acuteness in his Rhetoric. Sentences or apothegms lend much aid to eloquence. One reason of this is, that they flatter the pride of the hearers, who are delighted when the speaker, making use of general language, touches upon opinions which they had before known to be true in part. Thus, a person who had the misfortune to live in a bad neighbourhood, or to have worthless children, would easily assent to the speaker who should affirm that nothing is more vexatious than to have any neighbours; nothing more irrational than to bring children into the world." * This observation of Aristotle, while it goes far to account for the imposing and dazzling effect of these rhetorical exaggerations, ought to guard us against the common and popular error of mistaking them for the serious and profound generalizations of science. As for La Rochefoucauld, we know, from the best authorities, that, in private life, he was a conspicuous example of all those moral qualities of which he seemed to deny the existence; and that he exhibited, in this respect, a striking contrast to the Cardinal de Retz, who has
presumed to censure him for his want of faith in the reality of virtue.
In reading La Rochefoucauld, it should never be forgotten, that it was within the vortex of a court he enjoyed his chief opportunities of studying the world ; and that the narrow and exclusive circle in which he moved was not likely to afford him the most favorable specimens of human nature in general. Of the Court of Louis the Fourteenth, in particular, we are told by a very nice and
"Έχουσι δε (γνώμαι) εις τους λόγους βοήθειαν μεγάλην, μίαν μεν δή δια φορτικότητα των ακροατών· χαίρουσι γαρ, εάν τις καθόλου λίγων, επιτύχη των δοξών, άς έκείοι κατά μέρος έχουσιν.-Η μεν γαρ γνώμη, ώσπερ είρηται, απόφανσίς εστι: χαίρουσι δε καθόλου λιγομίνου, και κατά μέρος προύπολαμβάνοντες τυγχάνουσιν· οίον είτις γείτοσι τύχη κεχρημένος, , ori cudir naediárigor Tsxvototas. Arist. Knet. Lib. ii. c. 21.
The whole chapier is interesting and instructive, and shows how profoundly Aris. totle had meditated the principles of the rhetorical art.
reflecting observer (Madame de la Fayette,) that “ambition and gallantry were the soul, actuating alike both men and women. So many contending interests, so many different cabals were constantly at work, and in all of these, women bore so important a part, that love was always mingled with business, and business with love. Nobody was tranquil or indifferent. Every one studied to advance himself by pleasing, serving, or ruining others. Idleness and languor were unknown, and nothing was thought of but intrigues or pleasures.”
In the passage already quoted from Voltaire, he takes notice of the effect of La Rochefoucauld's Maxims, in improving the style of French composition. We may add to this remark, that their effect has not been less sensible in vitiating the tone and character of French philosophy, by bringing into vogue those false and degrading representations of human nature and of human life, which have prevailed in that country, more or less, for a century past. Mr. Addison, in one of the papers of the Tatler, expresses his indignation at this general bias among the French writers of his age. “ It is impossible,” he observes, “ to read a passage in Plato or Tully, and a thousand other ancient moralists, without being a greater and better man for it. On the contrary, I could never read any of our modish French authors, or those of our own country, who are the imitators and admirers of that nation, without being, for some time, out of humor with myself, and at every thing about me. Their business is to depreciate human nature, and tò consider it under the worst appearances; they give mean interpretations and base motives to the worthiest actions. In short, they endeavour to make no distinction between man and man, or between the
species of man and that of the brutes." *
It is very remarkable that the censure here bestowed by Addison on the fashionable French wits of bis time, should be so strictly applicable to Helvetius, and to many other of the most admired authors whom France has produced in our own day. It is still more remarkable to find the same depressing spirit shedding its malignant influence on French literature, as early as the time of La Rochefoucauld, and even of Montaigne; and to observe how very little has been done by the successors of these old writers, but to expand into grave philosophical systems their loose and lively paradoxes ;-disguising and fortifying them by the aid of those logical principles, to which the name and authority of Locke have given so wide a circulation in Europe.
* Tatler, No. 108. The last paper of the Tatler was published in 1711 ; and, consequently, the above passage must be understood as referring to the modish tone of French philosophy, prior to the death of Louis the Fourteenth.
In tracing the origin of that false philosophy on which the excesses of the French revolutionists have entailed such merited disgrace, it is usual to remount no higher than to the profligate period of the Regency; but the seeds of its most exceptionable doctrines had been sown in that country at an earlier era, and were indebted for the luxuriancy of their harvest, much more to the political and religious soil where they struck their roots, than to the skill or foresight of the individuals by whose hands they were scattered.
I have united the names of Montaigne and of La Rochefoucauld, because I consider their writings as rather addressed to the world at large, than to the small and select class of speculative students. Neither of them can be said to have enriched the stock of human knowledge by the addition of any one important general conclusion ; but the maxims of both have operated very extensively and powerfully on the taste and principles of the higher orders all over Europe, and predisposed them to give a welcome reception to the same ideas, when afterwards reproduced with the imposing appendages of logical method, and of a technical phraseology. The foregoing reflections, therefore, are not so foreign as might at first be apprehended, to the subsequent history of ethical and of metaphysical speculation. It is time, however, now to turn our attention to a subject far more intimately connected with the general progress of human reason,—the philosophy of Descartes.
According to a late writer,* whose literary decisions (excepting where he touches on religion or politics) are justly entitled to the highest deference, Descartes has a better claim than any other individual, to be regarded as the father of that spirit of free inquiry, which, in modern Europe, has so remarkably displayed itself in all the various departments of knowledge. Of Bacon, he observes, " that though he possessed, in a most eminent degree, the genius of philosophy, he did not unite with it the genius of the sciences; and that the methods proposed by him for the investigation of truth, consisting entirely of precepts which he was unable to exemplify, had little or no effect in accelerating the rate of discovery.” As for Galileo, he remarks on the other hand, " that his exclusive taste for mathematical and physical researches, disqualified him for communicating to the general mind that impulse of which it stood in need."
“ This honor,” he adds, “was reserved for Descartes, who combined in himself the characteristical endowments of both his predecessors. If, in the physical sciences, bis march be less sure than that of Galileo—if his logic be less cautious than that of Bacon-yet the very temerity of his errors was instrumental to the progress of the hu
He gave activity to minds which the circumspection of his rivals could not awake from their lethargy. He called upon men to throw off the yoke of authority, acknowledging no influence but what reason should avow : and his call was obeyed by a multitude of followers, encouraged by the boldness, and fascinated by the enthusiasm of their leader."
In these observations, the ingenious author has rashly generalized a conclusion deduced from the literary history of his own country. That the works of Bacon were but little read there till after the publication of D'Alembert's Preliminary Discourse, is, I believe, an unquestionable fact; f not that it necessarily follows from this, that, even
* Condorcet. | One reason for this is well pointed out by D'Alembert. “Il n'y a que les chefs VOL. VI.