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Joseph Joubert (1754–1824). Joubert: A Selection from His Thoughts. 1899.

Chapter XXIII.

Literary Judgments. IV. Prose Writers, Philosophers, Political Writers

[1]ALL the old French prose was modified by the style of Amyot, and by the character of the work that he had translated. The rest were but commentators. Plutarch himself is nothing more; a commentator, not of words, but of thoughts.

[2]In France, Amyot’s translation has become an original work from which people like to quote.

[3]Nothing illuminates like a joke; nothing is so nimble and gay as the wantonness of wit. The gaiety of Gramont and Hamilton is less elegant than that of Voltaire; but it is more exquisite, more charming, more perfect.

[4]In Montesquieu there are political ideas, but no political feeling. His works are nothing but a series of considerations. It is political feeling, however, that makes the soul and life of a State. Apart from it, the activity of empires has no motive power from within.

[5]Montesquieu was a fine brain without discretion.

[6]The mind of Montesquieu perpetually emits sparks which dazzle, delight, and even inflame, but illuminate little. His is a mind full of juggleries, with which he blinds his readers. One learns better how to be a king from one page of The Prince than from four volumes of the Esprit des Lois.

[7]Montesquieu was a master of terse expression; he knew how to make little phrases say great things.

[8]Voltaire has spread an elegance throughout the language which tends to banish kindliness. Rousseau has robbed souls of their wisdom, whilst talking to them of virtue. Buffon gives the mind a taste for magniloquent phrases. Montesquieu is the wisest; but he seems to teach the art of making empires; one thinks one learns it by listening to him; and every time one reads him, one is tempted to try and build one.

[9]Voltaire’s mind came to its maturity twenty years earlier than the minds of other men, and remained in full vigour thirty years later. Our ideas sometimes lend charm to our style; his style lent it to all his ideas.

[10]Voltaire’s mind was skilful, adroit, doing everything that he wanted, and doing it well and quickly, but incapable of maintaining the highest level. He had the gift of raillery, but he did not know the science of it; he never knew what things may be laughed at, and what things may not. He is a writer against whose wonderful elegance we should be on our guard, or we shall never think anything serious. At once active and brilliant, he occupied the region that lies between folly and good sense, and alternated perpetually between the two. He had a great deal of the good sense that is useful to satire; that is to say, an unfailing eye for the ills and defects of society; but he never looked for the remedy. One would have said that they existed solely for his malice and amusement; for he either mocked at them or was irritated by them, without ever pausing to pity them.

[11]Voltaire would have patiently read through thirty or forty folio volumes to find one small irreligious joke.

[12]Voltaire is sometimes sad: he has emotion; but he is never serious. His very graces have an effrontery about them.

[13]There are some faults that are difficult to perceive, which have not been classified or determined, and which have no name. Voltaire is full of them.

[14]Voltaire knew the light and disported himself in it, but in order that he might scatter and deflect all its rays, like a mischievous child. He is a goblin, who in the course of his evolutions sometimes takes on the shape and air of high genius.

[15]Voltaire had correctness of judgment, liveliness of imagination, nimble wits, quick taste, and a moral sense in ruins.[M.A.]

[16]Voltaire is never alone with himself in his writings. Like a perpetual journalist, he entertained the public every day with the events of the day before. His temper was of more use to him in writing than his reason or his knowledge. Some hatred or some scorn made him write all his works. Even his tragedies are but a satire on some opinion.

[17]To despise and cry down the times of which we treat, as Voltaire did, is to take all the interest out of the history we write.

[18]Voltaire is the most debauched of spirits, and the worst of him is that one gets debauched along with him. If he had been a wise man, and had had the self-discipline of wisdom, beyond a doubt half his wit would have been gone; it needed an atmosphere of licence in order to play freely…. [M.A.] Those people who read him every day, create for themselves, by an invincible law, the necessity of liking him. But those people who, having given up reading him, gaze steadily down upon the influences which his spirit has shed abroad, find themselves in simple justice or duty compelled to detest him.

[19]It is impossible to be satisfied with Voltaire, and impossible not to be fascinated by him.

[20]Voltaire has charming movements, and hideous features, like the monkey. One can always see in him, behind the skilful hand, an ugly face.

[21]Voltaire had the art of familiar style. He gave it every form, every charm, every beauty of which it is susceptible; and because he used it in treating all subjects, his deluded age believed that he had excelled in all. Those who praise him for his taste perpetually confound taste and brilliance. One never likes him; but one admires him. He enlivens, he dazzles; it is to the mind’s love of movement that he appeals, and not to taste.

[22]I see very well that a Rousseau, I mean an amended Rousseau, might be very useful nowadays, might even be necessary; but at no time can a Voltaire be good for anything.

[23]Voltaire has introduced a fashion of such luxury, in intellectual work, that one can no longer offer ordinary viands in anything but gold and silver dishes. So much trouble to please the reader is rather a sign of vanity than virtue, of the wish to beguile than the wish to serve, of ambition rather than authority, of art rather than nature; and all these charms point rather to a great master than a great man.

[24]Voltaire, by his influence and the lapse of time, has blunted the severity of reason in most of us. He has infected the air of his age, and imposed his taste even on his enemies, and his judgments on his critics.

[25]J. J. Rousseau had a voluptuous mind. The soul in his writings is always mingled with the body, and never separates from it. No man has made us feel more vividly than he the contrast of flesh with spirit, and the delights of their union.

[26]Rousseau imparted, if I may so speak, bowels of feeling to the words he used (donna des entrailles ô tous les mots), and poured into them such a charm, sweetness so penetrating, energy so puissant, that his writings have an effect upon the soul something like that of those illicit pleasures which steal away our taste, and intoxicate our reason.[M.A.]

[27]Give malice to Fénelon and calm to Rousseau—you would make out of them two bad authors. The gift of the first lay in his reasonableness; of the second in his folly. So long as nothing stirred his passions, Rousseau was second-rate: everything that made him good made him vulgar. The genius of Fénelon, on the contrary, lay in his goodness.

[28]When we have read Buffon, we think ourselves learned. When we have read Rousseau we think ourselves virtuous; for all that, we are neither the one nor the other.

[29]An irreligious piety, a corrupting austerity, a dogmatism that destroys all authority; that is the character of Rousseau’s philosophy.

[30]Life without actions; life entirely resolved into affections and half-sensual thoughts; do-nothingness setting up for a virtue; cowardliness with voluptuousness; fierce pride with nullity underneath it; the strutting phrase of the most sensual of vagabonds, who has made his system of philosophy and can give it eloquently forth; [M.A.] the beggar warming himself in the sun, and finding his delight in scorning the human race—that is Rousseau.

[31]I speak to the tender souls, the ardent souls, the lofty souls, to the souls born with one or other of these distinctive characters of religion, and I say to them, ‘Nothing but Rousseau can separate you from religion, and nothing but religion can cure you of Rousseau.’

[32]Diderot and the philosophers drew their learning from their brains, and their arguments from their passions or their fancies.

[33]There is, in the style of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, a prism, which tires the eyes. When one has been reading him for a long time, it is delightful to see that the grass and the trees in the country have less colour than they have in his writings. His harmonies make us love the dissonances that he banished from the world, and that we meet with at every step. Nature has its music certainly; but happily it is rare. If real life gave us the melodies that these gentlemen find everywhere, we should live in a state of ecstatic langour; and we should die of drowsiness.