Page images

of the reign, French literature achieved little of lasting value, the triumphs of the earlier period threw a new and glorious lustre over the reputation of France. The French tongue became the language of culture throughout Europe. In every department of literature, French models and French taste were regarded as the supreme authorities. Strange as it would have seemed to him, it was not as the conqueror of Holland nor as the defender of the Church, but as the patron of Racine and the protector of Molière that the superb and brilliant Louis gained his highest fame, his true immortality.



The eighteenth century in France began with Louis XIV and ended with the Revolution. It is the period which bridges the gulf between autocracy and self-government, between Roman Catholicism and toleration, between the classical spirit and the spirit of the Romantic Revival. It is thus of immense importance in the history not only of France, but of the civilised world. And, from the point of view of literature, it is also peculiarly interesting. The vast political and social changes which it inaugurated were the result of a corresponding movement in the current of ideas; and this movement was begun, developed, and brought to a triumphant conclusion by a series of great French writers, who deliberately put their literary abilities to the service of the causes which they had at heart. Thus the literature of the epoch offers a singular contrast to that of the preceding one. While the masterpieces of the Grand Siècle served no ulterior purpose,


coming into being and into immortality simply as works of beauty and art, those of the eighteenth century were works of propaganda, appealing with a practical purpose to the age in which they were written-works whose value does not depend solely upon artistic considerations. The former were static, the latter dynamic. As the century progressed, the tendency deepened; and the literature of the age, taken as a whole, presents a spectacle of thrilling dramatic interest, in which the forces of change, at first insignificant, gradually gather in volume, and at last, accumulated into overwhelming power, carry all before them. In pure literature, the writers of the eighteenth century achieved, indeed, many triumphs; but their great, their peculiar, triumphs were in the domain of thought.

The movement had already begun before the death of Louis. The evils at which La Bruyère had shuddered had filled the attention of more practical minds. Among these the most remarkable was FÉNELON, Arch- * bishop of Cambray, who combined great boldness of political thought with the graces of a charming and pellucid style. In several writings, among which was the famous Télémaquea book written for the edification of


the young Duc de Bourgogne, the heir to the French throne -Fénelon gave expression to the growing reaction against the rigid autocracy of the government, and enunciated the revolutionary doctrine that a monarch ex

isted for no other purpose than the good of his people. The Duc de Bourgogne was converted to the mild, beneficent, and openminded views of his tutor; and it is possible that if he had lived a series of judicious reforms might have prevented the cataclysm at the close of the century. But in one important respect the mind of Fénelon was not in accord with the lines on which French thought was to develop for the next eighty years. Though he was among the first to advocate religious toleration, he was an ardent, even a mystical, Roman Catholic. Now one of the chief characteristics of the coming age was its scepticism-its elevation of the secular as opposed to the religious elements in society, and its utter lack of sympathy with all forms of mystical devotion. Signs of this spirit also had appeared before the end of Louis's reign. As early as 1687—within a year of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes-FONTENELLE, the nephew of Corneille, in his Histoire des Oracles attacked the miraculous basis of Christianity under the pretence of exposing the religious credulity of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In its mingling of the sprightly and the erudite, and in the subdued irony of its apparent submission to orthodoxy, this little book forestalled a method of controversy which came into great vogue at a later date. But a more important work, published at the very end of the seventeenth century, was the Dictionary of BAYLE, in which, amid an enormous mass of learning poured out over a multitude of heterogeneous subjects, the most absolute religious scepticism is expressed with unmistakable emphasis and unceasing reiteration. The book is an extremely unwieldy one

very large and very discursive, and quite devoid of style; but its influence was immense; and during the long combat of the eighteenth century it was used as a kind of armoury, supplying many of their sharpest weapons to the writers of the time.

[ocr errors]

It was not, however, until a few years after the death of the great king that a volume appeared which contained a complete expression of the new spirit, in all its aspects. In the Lettres Persanes of MONTESQUIEU (published 1721) may be discerned the germs of the whole

thought of the eighteenth century in France. The scheme of this charming and

« PreviousContinue »