The French philosophical movement—the "Illumination"—of the eighteenth century, proceeds in part from the empiricism of Locke, in part from the remarkable development of physical and natural science; it incorporated the conclusions of English deism, and advanced from deism to atheism. An intellectual centre for the movement was provided by the Encyclopédie; a social centre was found in Parisian salons. It was sustained and invigorated by the passion for freedom and for justice asserting itself against the despotism and abuses of government and against the oppressions and abuses of the Church. The opposing forces were feeble, incompetent, disorganised. The methods of government were, in truth, indefensible; religion had surrendered dogma, and lost the austerity of morals; within the citadel of the Church were many professed and many secret allies of the philosophers.
While in England an apologetic literature arose, profound in thought and adequate in learning, in France no sustained resistance was offered to the inroad of free thought. Episcopal fulminations rolled like stage thunder; the Bastille and Vincennes were holiday retreats for fatigued combatants; imprisonment was tempered with cajoleries; the censors of the press connived with their victims. The Chancellor D'AGUESSEAU (1668-1751), an estimable magistrate, a dignified orator, maintained the old seriousness of life and morals, and received the reward of exile. The good ROLLIN (1661-1741) dictated lessons to youth drawn from antiquity and Christianity, narrated ancient history, and discoursed admirably on a plan of studies with a view to form the heart and mind; an amiable Christian Nestor, he was not a man-at-arms. The Abbé Guenée replied to Voltaire with judgment, wit, and erudition, in his Lettres de quelques Juifs (1769), but it was a single victory in a campaign of many battles. The satire of Gilbert, Le Dix-huitième Siècle, is rudely vigorous; but Gilbert was only an angry youth, disappointed of his fame. Fréron, the "Wasp" (frélon) of Voltaire's L'Écossaise, might sting in his Année Littéraire, but there were sharper stings in satire and epigram which he must endure. Palissot might amuse the theatrical spectators of 1760 with his ridiculous philosophers; the Philosophes was taken smilingly by Voltaire, and was sufficiently answered by Morellet's pamphlet and the bouts-rimés of Marmontel or Piron. The Voltairomanie of Desfontaines is only the outbreak of resentment of the accomplished and disreputable Abbé against a benefactor whose offence was to have saved him from the galleys.
The sensationalist philosophy is inaugurated by JULIEN OFFRAY DE LA METTRIE (1709-51) rather than by Condillac. A physician, making observations on his own case during an attack of fever, he arrived at the conclusion that thought is but a result of the mechanism of the body. Man is a machine more ingeniously organised than the brute. All ideas have their origin in sensation. As for morals, they are not absolute, but relative to society and the State. As for God, perhaps He exists, but why should we worship this existence more than any other? The law of our being is to seek happiness; the law of society is that we should not interfere with the happiness of others. The pleasure of the senses is not the only pleasure, but it has the distinction of being universal to our species.
La Mettrie, while opposing the spiritualism of Descartes, is more closely connected with that great thinker, through his doctrine that brutes are but machines, than with Locke. It is from Locke—though from Locke mutilated—that ÉTIENNE BONNOT DE CONDILLAC (1715-80) proceeds. All ideas are sensations, but sensations transformed. Imagine a marble statue endowed successively with the several human senses; it will be seen how perceptions, consciousness, memory, ideas, comparison, judgment, association, abstraction, pleasure, desire are developed. The ego is but the bundle of sensations experienced or transformed and held in recollection. Yet the unity of the ego seems to argue that it is not composed of material particles. Condillac's doctrine is sensationalist, but not materialistic. Condillac's disciple, the physician Cabanis (1757-1808), proceeded to investigate the nature of sensibility itself, and to develop the physiological method of psychology. The unnecessary soul which Condillac preserved was suppressed by Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836); his ideology was no more than a province of zoology.
The morals of the sensationalist school were expressed by CLAUDE-ADRIEN HELVÉTIUS (1715-71), a worthy and benevolent farmer-general. The motive of all our actions is self-love, that tendency which leads us to seek for pleasure and avoid pain; but, by education and legislation, self-love can be guided and trained so that it shall harmonise with the public good. It remained for a German acclimatised to Paris to compile the full manifesto of atheistic materialism. At Holbach's hospitable table the philosophers met, and the air was charged with ideas. To condense these into a system was Holbach's task. Diderot, Lagrange, Naigeon may have lent their assistance, but PAUL-HENRY THIRY, BARON D'HOLBACH (1723-89) must be regarded as substantially the author of the Système de la Nature (1770), which the title-page prudently attributed to the deceased Mirabaud. What do we desire but that men should be happy, just, benevolent? That they may become so, it is necessary to deliver them from those errors on which political and spiritual despotism is founded, from the chains of tyrants and the chimeras of priests, and to lead them back from illusions to nature, of which man is a part. We find everywhere matter and motion, a chain of material causes and effects, nor can we find aught beside these. An ever-circulating system of motions connects inorganic and organic nature, fire and air and plant and animal; free-will is as much excluded as God and His miraculous providence. The soul is nothing but the brain receiving and transmitting motions; morals form a department of physiology. Religions and governments, as they exist, are based on error, and drive men into crime. But though Holbach "accommodated atheism," as Grimm puts it, "to chambermaids and hairdressers," he would not hurry forward a revolution. All will come in good time; in some happier day Nature and her daughters Virtue, Reason, and Truth will alone receive the adoration of mankind.1
1 The Swiss naturalist Charles Bonnet (1720-93) endeavoured to reconcile his sensationalism with a religious faith and a private interpretation of Christianity.
Among the friends of Holbach and Helvétius was C.-F. de Chasseboeuf, Count de VOLNEY (1757-1820), who modified and developed the ethics of Helvétius. An Orientalist by his studies, he travelled in Egypt and Syria, desiring to investigate the origins of ancient religions, and reported what he had seen in colourless but exact description. In Les Ruines, ou Méditations sur les Révolutions des Empires, he recalls the past like "an Arab Ossian," monotonous and grandiose, and expounds the history of humanity with cold and superficial analysis clothed in a pomp of words. His faith in human progress, founded on nature, reason, and justice, sustained Volney during the rise and fall of the Girondin party.
A higher and nobler spirit, who perished in the Revolution, but ceased not till his last moment to hope and labour for the good of men, was J.-A.-N. de Caritat, Marquis de CONDORCET (1743-94). Illustrious in mathematical science, he was interested by Turgot in political economy, and took a part in the polemics of theology. While lying concealed from the emissaries of Robespierre he wrote his Esquisse d'un Tableau Historique des Progrès de l'Esprit Humain. It is a philosophy of the past, and almost a hymn in honour of human perfectibility. The man-statue of Condillac, receiving, retaining, distinguishing, and combining sensations, has gradually developed, through nine successive epochs, from that of the hunter and fisher to the citizen of 1789, who comprehends the physical universe with Newton, human nature with Locke and Condillac, and society with Turgot and Rousseau. In the vision of the future, with its progress in knowledge and in morals, its individual and social improvement, its lessening inequalities between nations and classes, the philosopher finds his consolation for all the calamities of the present age. Condorcet died in prison, poisoned, it is believed, by his own hand.
The economists, or, as Dupont de Nemours named them, the physiocrats, formed a not unimportant wing of the philosophic phalanx, now in harmony with the Encyclopædic party, now in hostility. The sense of the misery of France was present to many minds in the opening of the century, and with the death of Louis XIV. came illusive hopes of amelioration. The Abbé de Saint-Pierre (1658-1743), filled with ardent zeal for human happiness, condemned the government of the departed Grand Monarch, and dreamed of a perpetual peace; among his dreams arose projects for the improvement of society which were justified by time. Boisguillebert, and Vauban, marshal of France and military engineer, were no visionary spirits; they pleaded for a serious consideration of the general welfare, and especially the welfare of the agricultural class, the wealth-producers of the community. To violate economic laws, Boisguillebert declared, is to violate nature; let governments restrain their meddling, and permit natural forces to operate with freedom.
Such was the doctrine of the physiocratic school, of which FRANÇOIS QUESNAY (1694-1774) was the chief. Let human institutions conform to nature; enlarge the bounds of freedom; give play to the spirit of individualism; diminish the interference of government—"laissez faire, laissez passer."2 Agriculture is productive, let its burdens be alleviated; manufactures are useful but "sterile": honour, therefore, above all, to the tiller of the fields, who hugs nature close, and who enriches humankind! The elder Mirabeau—"ami des hommes"—who had anticipated Quesnay in some of his views, and himself had learnt from Cantillon, met Quesnay in 1757, and thenceforth subordinated his own fiery spirit, as far as that was possible, to the spirit of the master. From the physiocrats—Gournay and Quesnay—the noble-minded and illustrious TURGOT (1727-81) derived many of those ideas of reform which he endeavoured to put into action when intendant of Limoges, and later, when Minister of Finance. By his Réflexions sur la Formation et la Distribution des Richesses, Turgot prepared the way for Adam Smith.
2 This phrase had been used by Boisguillebert and by the Marquis d'Argenson before Gournay made it a power. On D'Argenson (1694-1757), whose Considérations sur le Gouvernement de la France were not published until 1764, see the study by Mr. Arthur Ogle (1893).
In 1770 the Abbé Galiani, as alert of brain as he was diminutive of stature, attacked the physiocratic doctrines in his Dialogues sur le Commerce des Blés, which Plato and Molière—so Voltaire pronounced—had combined to write. The refutation of the Dialogues by Morellet was the result of no such brilliant collaboration, and Galiani, proposed that his own unstatuesque person should be honoured by a statue above an inscription, declaring that he had wiped out the economists, who were sending the nation to sleep. The fame of his Dialogues was perhaps in large measure due to the party-spirit of the Encyclopædists, animated by a vivacious attack upon the physiocrats. The book was applauded, but reached no second edition.
An important body of articles on literature was contributed to the Encyclopédie by JEAN-FRANÇOIS MARMONTEL. As early as 1719 a remarkable study in æsthetics had appeared—the Réflexions Critiques sur la Poésie et la Peinture, by the Abbé Dubos. Art is conceived as a satisfaction of the craving for vivid sensations and emotions apart from the painful consequences which commonly attend these in actual life. That portion of Dubos' work which treats of "physical causes in the progress of art and literature," anticipates the views of Montesquieu on the influence of climate, and studies the action of environment on the products of the imagination. In 1746 Charles Batteux, in his treatise Les Beaux-Arts réduits à un même Principe, defined the end of art as the imitation of nature—not indeed of reality, but of nature in its actual or possible beauty; of nature not as it is, but as it may be. The articles of Marmontel, revised and collected in the six volumes of his Éléments de Littérature (1787), were full of instruction for his own time, delicate and just in observation, as they often were, if not penetrating or profound. In his earlier Poétique Française—"a petard," said Mairan, "laid at the doors of the Academy to blow them up if they should not open"—he had shown himself strangely disrespectful towards the fame of Racine, Boileau, and the poet Rousseau.
The friend of Marmontel, Antoine-Léonard Thomas (1732-85), honourably distinguished by the dignity of his character and conduct, a composer of Éloges on great men, somewhat marred by strain and oratorical emphasis, put his best work into an Essai sur les Éloges. At a time when Bossuet was esteemed below his great deserts, Thomas—almost alone—recognised his supremacy in eloquence. As the century advanced, and philosophy developed its attack on religion and governments, the classical tradition in literature not only remained unshaken, but seemed to gain in authority. The first lieutenant of Voltaire, his literary "son," LAHARPE (1739-1803) represents the critical temper of the time. In 1786 he began his courses of lectures at the Lycée, before a brilliant audience composed of both sexes. For the first time in France, instruction in literature, not trivial and not erudite, but suited to persons of general culture, was made an intellectual pleasure. For the first time the history of literature was treated, in its sequence from Homer to modern times, as a totality. Laharpe's judgments of his contemporaries were often misled by his bitterness of spirit; his mind was not capacious, his sympathies were not liberal; his knowledge, especially of Greek letters, was defective. But he knew the great age of Louis XIV., and he felt the beauty of its art. No one has written with finer intelligence of Racine than he in his Lycée, ou Cours de Littérature. As the Revolution approached he sympathised with its hopes and fears; the professor donned the bonnet rouge. The storm which burst silenced his voice for a time; in 1793 he suffered imprisonment; and when he occupied his chair again, it was a converted Laharpe who declaimed against philosophers, republicans, and atheists, the tyrants of reason, morals, art and letters.
The finest and surest judgment in contemporary literature was that of a gallicised German—MELCHIOR GRIMM (1723-1807). As Laharpe was bound in filial loyalty to Voltaire, so Grimm was in fraternal attachment to the least French of eighteenth-century French authors—Diderot. From a basis of character in which there was a measure of Teutonic enthusiasm and romance, his intellect rose clear, light, and sure, with no mists of sentiment about it, and no clouds of fancy. During thirty-seven years, as a kind of private journalist, he furnished princely and royal persons of Germany, Russia, Sweden, Poland, with "Correspondence," which reflected as from a mirror all the lights of Paris to the remote North and East. His own philosophy, his political views, were cheerless and arid; but he could judge the work of others generously as well as severely. No one of his generation so intelligently appreciated Shakespeare; no one more happily interpreted Montaigne. By swift aperçu, by criticism, by anecdote, by caustic raillery, or serious record, he makes the intellectual world of his day pass before us and expound its meanings. The Revolution, the dangers of which he divined early, drove him from Paris. In bidding it farewell he wished that he were in his grave.