Page images
PDF
EPUB

the States-General closed the period of discussion and began that of action, the movement towards reform dominated French literature, gathering in intensity as it progressed, and assuming at last the proportions and characteristics of a great organised campaign.

The ideals which animated the new writers -the “Philosophes," as they came to be called-may be summed up in two words: Reason and Humanity. They were the heirs of that splendid spirit which had arisen in Europe at the Renaissance, which had filled Columbus when he sailed for the New World, Copernicus when he discovered the motion of the earth, and Luther when he nailed his propositions to the church door at Wittenberg. They wished to dispel the dark mass of prejudice, superstition, ignorance, and folly by the clear rays of knowledge and truth; and to employ the forces of society towards the benefit of all mankind. They found in France an incompetent administration, a financial system at once futile and unjust, a barbarous judicial procedure, a blind spirit of religious intolerance they found the traces of tyranny, caste-privilege, and corruption in every branch of public life; and they found that these enormous evils were the result less of viciousness than of stupidity, less of the deliberate malice of kings or ministers than of a long, ingrained tradition of narrow-mindedness and inhumanity in the principles of government. Their great object, therefore, was to produce, by means of their writings, such an awakening of public opinion as would cause an immense transformation in the whole spirit of national life. With the actual processes of political change, with the practical details of political machinery, very few of them concerned themselves. Some of them-such as the illustrious Turgot-believed that the best way of reaching the desired improvement was through the agency of a benevolent despotism; otherssuch as Rousseau-had in view an elaborate, a priori, ideal system of government; but these were exceptions, and the majority of the Philosophes ignored politics proper altogether. x This was a great misfortune; but it was inevitable. The beneficent changes which had been introduced so effectively and with such comparative ease into the government of England had been brought about by men of affairs; in France the men of affairs were merely the helpless tools of an autocratic machine, and the changes had to owe their origin to men uninstructed in affairs—to men of letters. Reform had to come from the

outside, instead of from within; and reform of that kind spells revolution. Yet, even here, there were compensating advantages. The changes in England had been, for the most part, accomplished in a tinkering, unspeculative, hole-and-corner spirit; those in France were the result of the widest appeal to first principles, of an attempt, at any rate, to solve the fundamental problems of society, of a noble and comprehensive conception of the duties and destiny of man. This was the achievement of the Philosophes. They spread far and wide, not only through France, but through the whole civilised world; a multitude of searching interrogations on the most vital subjects, they propounded vast theories, they awoke new enthusiasms, and uplifted new ideals. In two directions particularly their influence has been enormous. By their insistence on the right of free opinion and on the paramount necessity of free speculation, untrammelled by the fetters of orthodoxy and tradition, they established once for all as the common property of the human race that scientific spirit which has had such an immense effect on modern civilisation, and whose full import we are still only just beginning to understand. And, owing mainly to their efforts also, the spirit of humanity has come to be an abiding influence in the world. It was they who, by their relentless exposure of the abuses of the French judicial systemthe scandal of arbitrary imprisonment, the futile barbarism of torture, the medieval abominations of the penal code-finally instilled into public opinion a hatred of cruelty and injustice in all their forms; it was they who denounced the horrors of the slavetrade; it was they who unceasingly lamented the awful evils of war. So far as the actual content of their thought was concerned, they were not great originators. The germs of their most fruitful theories they found elsewhere chiefly among the thinkers of * England; and, when they attempted original thinking on their own account, though they were bold and ingenious, they were apt also to be crude. In some sciences-political economy, for instance, and psychology, they led the way, but attained to no lasting achievement. They suffered from the same faults as Montesquieu in his Esprit des Lois. In their love of pure reason, they relied too often on the swift processes of argument for the solution of difficult problems, and omitted that patient investigation of premises upon which the validity of all argument depends. They were too fond of systems, and those

neatly constructed logical theories into which everything may be fitted admirably-except the facts. In addition, the lack of psychological insight which was so common in the eighteenth century tended to narrow their sympathies; and in particular they failed

to realise the beauty and significance of ( religious and mystical states of mind. These

defects eventually produced a reaction against their teaching-a reaction during which the true value of their work was for a time obscured. For that value is not to be looked for in the enunciation of certain definite doctrines, but in something much wider and more profound. The Philosophes were important not so much for the answers which they gave as for the questions which they asked; their real originality lay not in their

thought, but in their spirit. They were the * first great popularisers. Other men before

them had thought more accurately and more deeply: they were the first to fling the light of thought wide through the world, to appeal, not to the scholar and the specialist, but to the ordinary man and woman, and to proclaim the glories of civilisation as the heritage of all humanity. Above all, they instilled a new spirit into the speculations of men—the spirit of hope. They believed ardently in

« PreviousContinue »