« PreviousContinue »
the fundamental goodness of mankind, and they looked forward into the future with the certain expectation of the ultimate triumph of what was best. Though in some directions their sympathies were limited, their love of humanity was a profound and genuine feeling which moved them to a boundless enthusiasm. Though their faith in creeds was small, their faith in mankind was great. The spirit which filled them was well shown when, during the darkest days of the Terror, the noble Condorcet, in the hiding-place from which he came forth only to die, wrote his historical Sketch of the Progress of the Human Mind, with its final chapter foretelling the future triumphs of reason, and asserting the unlimited perfectibility of man.
The energies of the Philosophes were given a centre and a rallying-point by the great undertaking of the ENCYCLOPÆDIA, the publication of which covered a period of thirty years (1751-80). The object of this colossal work, which contained a survey of human activity in all its branches-political, scientific, artistic, philosophical, commercial—was to record in a permanent and concentrated form the advance of civilisation. A multitude of writers contributed to it, of varying merit and of various opinions, but all animated by the new belief in reason and humanity. The ponderous volumes are not great literature; their importance lies in the place which they fill in the progress of thought, and in their immense influence in the propagation of the new spirit. In spite of its bulk the book was extremely successful; edition after edition was printed; the desire to know and to think began to permeate through all the grades of society. Nor was it only in France that these effects were visible;. the prestige of French literature and French manners carried the teaching of the Philosophes all over Europe; great princes and ministers—Frederick in Prussia, Catherine in Russia, Pombal in Portugal- eagerly joined the swelling current; enlightenment was abroad in the world.
The Encyclopædia would never have come into existence without the genius, the energy, and the enthusiasm of one man- DIDEROT. In him the spirit of the age found its most typical expression. He was indeed the Philosophe-more completely than all the rest universal, brilliant, inquisitive, sceptical, generous, hopeful, and humane. It was he who originated the Encyclopædia, who, in company with Dalembert, undertook its editorship, and who, eventually alone, accomplished the herculean task of bringing the great production, in spite of obstacle after obstacle-in spite of government prohibitions, lack of funds, desertions, treacheries, and the mischances of thirty years—to a triumphant conclusion. This was the work of his life; and it was work which, by its very nature, could leave except for that long row of neglected volumes-no lasting memorial. But the superabundant spirit of Diderot was not content with that: in the intervals of this stupendous labour, which would have exhausted to their last fibre the energies of a lesser man, he found time not only to pour out a constant flow of writing in a multitude of miscellaneous forms—in dramas, in art criticism, in philosophical essays, and in a voluminous correspondence, but also to create on the sly as it were, and without a thought of publication, two or three finished masterpieces which can never be forgotten. Of these, the most important is Le Neveu de Rameau, where Diderot's whole soul gushes out in one clear, strong, sparkling jet of incomparable prose. In the sheer enchantment of its vitality this wonderful little book has certainly never been surpassed. It enthrals the reader as completely as the most exciting romance, or the talk of some irresistibly brilliant raconteur. Indeed, the writing, with its ease, its vigour, its colour, and its rapidity, might almost be taken for what, in fact, it purports to be
conversation put into print, were it not for the magical perfection of its form. Never did a style combine more absolutely the movement of life with the serenity of art. Every sentence is exciting, and every sentence is beautiful. The book must have been composed quickly, without effort, almost off-hand; but the mind that composed it was the mind of a master, who, even as he revelled in the joyous manifestation of his genius, preserved, with an instinctive power, the master's control. In truth, beneath the gay galaxies of scintillating thoughts that strew the pages, one can discern the firm, warm, broad substance of Diderot's very self, underlying and supporting all. That is the real subject of a book which seems to have taken all subjects for its province from the origin of music to the purpose of the universe; and the central figure—the queer, delightful, Bohemian Rameau, evoked for us with such a marvellous distinctness—is in fact no more than the reed with many stops through which Diderot is blowing. Of all his countrymen, he comes nearest, in spirit and in manner, to the great Curé of Meudon. The rich, exuberant, intoxicating tones of Rabelais vibrate in his voice. He has not all, for no son of man will ever again have that; but he has some of Rabelais' stupendous breadth, and he has yet more of Rabelais' enormous optimism. His complete materialism his disbelief in any Providence or any immortality-instead of depressing him, seems rather to have given fresh buoyancy to his spirit; if this life on earth were all, that only served, in his eyes, to redouble the intensity of its value. And his enthusiasm inspired him with a philanthropy unknown to Rabelais-an active benevolence that never tired. For indeed he was, above all else, a man of his own age: a man who could think subtly and work nobly as well as write splendidly; who could weep as well as laugh. He is, perhaps, a smaller figure than Rabelais; but he is much nearer to ourselves. And, when we have come to the end of his generous pages, the final impression that is left with us is of a man whom we cannot choose but love.