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

Chapter XVII.

Of the Present Time

[1]WE live in an age when superfluous ideas abound, and necessary ideas are lacking.

[2]To make our temper the rule of our judgments, and to let our whims decide our actions, is a terrible habit of the time.

[3]There are no irreconcilable enmities at the present day, because disinterested sentiments no longer exist; it is a good born of an evil.

[4]The age suffers from that most terrible malady of the mind, a disgust for religion. It is not religious liberty, but irreligious liberty that it claims.

[5]Men have torn up the roads which led to Heaven, and which all the world followed; now we have to make our own ladders.

[6]Irreligion, in the world, is nothing more than a prejudice; for if some springs from inheritance and the time, there is another which is the product of books and of fashion.

[7]Politics are a matter rather of the practical than the scientific reason, of the faculty of choice rather than of logic, of judgment rather than demonstration. Thus, treated as they are nowadays, we mistake the nature, kind and classification of politics, and make use of unfit methods and instruments.

[8]In political institutions nearly everything that we now call an abuse, was once a remedy.

[9]The salons have ruined morals; raillery has destroyed society and the throne.

[10]Self-indulgence has destroyed religion, morality, and politeness.

[11]Whenever the words altar, tombs, inheritance, native land, ancient custom, foster-mother, master, piety, are heard or pronounced with indifference, all is lost.

[12]In all our plans of improvement and reform there is a perpetual hyperbole of intention, which makes us aim above and beyond the mark.

[13]Filled with a gigantic pride and, like giants at enmity with the gods, this century, in all its ambitions, has taken colossal proportions; a true Leviathan among the ages, it would have liked to devour them all.

[14]There are a great many people in the world holding wrong opinions, who were made to have right ones, and others holding right opinions who were made to have wrong ones.

[15]To be capable of respect is almost as rare in these days as to be worthy of it.

[16]Where the age is breaking down, it must be propped up.

[17]If nations have an old age, let it at least be grave and holy, and not frivolous and profligate.

[18]Let our philosophy be in sympathy with antiquity and not with novelty, aiming rather at utility than brilliance, and loving to be wise rather than bold. The presumption is always in favour of what has been; for if it has lasted so long, there has been some reason for its existence and its duration, and this reason can have been nothing but its harmony with already existing things, with a need of the time, or a natural want, with some necessity in fact which will restore it if it be destroyed, or will make the absence of it be felt by some grave inconvenience.

[19]There can be no good time in the future that does not resemble the good times of the past.

[20]In literature nothing makes minds so imprudent, and so bold, as ignorance of past times and contempt for old books.

[21]There was a time when the world influenced books, now books influence the world.

[22]After the Nouvelle Héloïse young people made a pose of being lovers, as before they had done of being drinkers or fencers. It is rather to the shame of the age than to the honour of books, when it happens that romances exercise such an ascendency over habits and customs.

[23]In most books I perceive will rather than intelligence.—Ideas! who has ideas? There are approvals and disapprovals; the mind works by assent or refusal; it judges, but it does not see.

[24]Everything that is easy to say well has been perfectly said; the rest is our business, or our task; and how great a task!

[25]Nowadays, nearly everybody excels in refinement of style; it has become a common art. The exquisite may be found everywhere, the satisfying nowhere. ‘I should like to smell of the dungheap,’ said a witty woman.

[26]One can hardly express how sensual the mind has become in literature. People will have some beauty, some bait in the most austere writing. They thus confound what pleases with what is beautiful.

[27]The reason why we have no poets is because we can do without them. Our taste does not insist upon them because they are essential neither to our morals, our laws, our political festivals, nor our domestic pleasures.

[28]The first poets and writers made mad men wise; modern writers try and make wise men mad.

[29]Taste in literature is become so domestic, and approbation so dependent on pleasure, that in a book we look first of all for the author, and in the author for his humours and his passions. We ask that the soul of a writer should show itself with the strength and the weakness, the knowledge and the errors, the wisdom and the illusions, which bring a man down to our level, and are such as we like to find in our friends. We ask no longer for a wise guide, but for a lover or friend, or at least an actor, who shows himself off and charms our taste much more than our reason, by his part and by his play. We want books that will keep us in a good humour, not that will make us better; we ask that we should be able to touch and handle those who have written them, that they should have, in fact, flesh and blood. We have scarcely any admiration left for pure mind….

[30]One of the ills of our literature is that our educated men have little genius, and our geniuses have little education.

[31]Rude minds with robust organs have come bursting into literature, and it is they who weigh down its flowers.

[32]How many learned men are working at the forge of science—laborious, ardent, tireless Cyclops, but one-eyed!