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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823–1911)

By Joseph Joubert (1754–1824)

JOSEPH JOUBERT, who has now succeeded to the place long held by La Rochefoucauld as the best author of aphorisms, was first introduced to the general world of English-speaking readers by Matthew Arnold in 1865: but he was known to many, at least in America, through what Sainte-Beuve had said of him; and Mr. Stedman thinks that Edgar Poe, whose French reading was very discursive, had known him even before Sainte-Beuve wrote. Joubert, who was born in 1754, died May 4th, 1824; and a tribute was paid to his memory, a day or two after his death, by Chateaubriand, which might well have arrested the attention of Poe. In 1838 Chateaubriand edited his works. It is, however, fair to say that as Ruskin vastly expanded the reputation of Turner, though he did not create it, so the present renown of Joubert is due largely to the generous tribute of Arnold.

With the praise due to generosity the recognition of Arnold’s service must end. It was hardly possible to set readers more distinctly on the wrong track in respect to an author than to compare, as Arnold does, Joubert to Coleridge; making this comparison indeed the keynote of his essay. It is difficult—were not Arnold so emphatically a man of whims—to find common ground between the tersest writer of his time and the most diffuse; the most determined and the most irresolute; the most clear-cut and the most misty. With all the great merits and services of Coleridge, and the fact that he had occasionally the power of making an incisive detached remark, the fact remains undisputed of the wandering and slumberous quality of his mind, and of the concentration in him of many of the precise qualities that Joubert spent his life in combating. The best course to be adopted by any reader of Joubert is therefore to cut adrift from Arnold, and turn to the original book,—not the volume of letters, which is less satisfactory, but to the original volume of ‘Pensées,’ which contain within four hundred pages more of the condensed essence of thought than can be found anywhere else in a series of volumes.

Joubert was born in 1754 in Montignac, a small town of Périgord, France; studied and also taught at the College of Toulouse; went in 1778 to Paris; knew Diderot, Marmontel, Chateaubriand, d’Alembert; was chosen during his absence in 1790 chief magistrate of his native town, served in that capacity two years and was re-elected, but declined to serve; took up his residence in 1792 at Villeneuve in Brittany, and spent his later life between that town and Paris; in 1809 was appointed by Napoleon Bonaparte a regent of the University, and died in 1824. He lived through the French Revolution, and through the period of the Encyclopædists; but he preserved not merely his life but his faith. He was in the habit, from twenty years old to seventy, of writing down his detached thoughts, often previously molded by conversation; his rooms at the top of a tall house in the Rue St. Honoré being the resort of the brightest minds in Paris. Fourteen years after his death, both his thoughts and his correspondence were collected and given to the world; but the thoughts afford by far the more interesting volume of the two.

As Arnold has misled readers by his comparison with Coleridge, so his total estimate of Joubert is probably below the truth; because the crowning quality of Joubert—severe and sublimated concentration—was remote from Arnold’s own temperament. The Englishman was constitutionally discursive and long-winded. Nothing better was ever said about Homer than he has incidentally said in his essay on translating him: the trouble is that it takes him nearly a hundred and fifty pages to say it. It is certain that Joubert never would have written such a paper; it is very doubtful whether he could even have read it. Arnold’s favorite amusement—perhaps a tradition from his father’s sermons—was to begin an essay with a quotation from some one, to attach every succeeding point of his essay to this text, to play with it as a cat plays with a mouse, and then at the close to take it for granted that he had proved its soundness: this was wholly foreign to Joubert. It is however in Joubert that we find invariably the sweetness and light which Arnold preached, but did not always practice.

It is for this reason perhaps that Arnold dislikes the first or personal chapter of Joubert’s ‘Pensées’: “It has,” he says, “some fancifulness and affectation about it; the reader should begin with the second.” But if the reader takes this unwise advice he will miss the whole “personal equation” of Joubert, and misinterpret him again and again. He will miss also some of his finest thoughts; as where he anticipates Emerson in one of the latter’s most noted passages by saying, “I dislike to quit Paris, because it involves separation from my friends; and to quit the country, because it implies separation from myself.” He also anticipates a passage once famous in Miss Edgeworth’s ‘Helen’ when he writes, “I even like better those who make vice amiable than those who make virtue unattractive.” He writes finely of his own experience: “My soul dwells in a region where all passions have passed; I have known them all.” With the experience which years bring to all writers, he thus sums up their result: “I needed age in order to learn what I desired to know; and I should need youth in order to utter well what I now know.” This suggests, but not too sadly, that great summary of existence by St. Augustine,—“Now that I begin to know something, I die.” And he thus sums up the beginning and the end of his method of writing, the very keystone of the arch of his fame: “If there is a man tormented by the accursed ambition to put a whole book into a page, a whole page into a phrase, and that phrase into a word, it is I.”

All these passages are from that first chapter, ‘The author portrayed by himself,’ which Mr. Arnold injudiciously advises readers to omit. Then follows his chapter on piety, of which he finely says: “Piety is a sublime wisdom, surpassing all others; a kind of genius, which gives wings to the mind. No one is wise unless he is pious.” Again, “Piety is a species of modesty. It leads us to shield our thought, as modesty bids us shield our eyes, before all forbidden things.” And again, in one of his fine condensations he says, “Heaven is for those who think about it” (Le ciel est pour ceux qui y pensent). Then follow chapters covering Man, The Soul, Modesty, The Various Times of Life, Death, The Family, Good Manners, Truth, Illusion, Philosophy, Light, Governments, Liberty and Law, Antiquity, Education, The Fine Arts, Style, The Qualities of an Author; including also many other themes, and finally closing with Literary Judgments—these covering authors ancient and modern. The book is admirably edited, and adds to its merits that of an analytical table at the end, so that it is practically a dictionary of quotations. The late Mr. George H. Calvert, of Newport, Rhode Island, translates a portion of it—less than half—with a preliminary notice (Boston, 1867); but the translations are not always felicitous, though the feeling shown is always sympathetic.

Joubert sometimes suggests Montaigne, but with great differences: he is never garrulous and never coarse. In him we taste in full the exquisite felicity, the limpid clearness, the well-defined accuracy of the French tradition, without the smallest trace of that refined indelicacy in which vice does not lose half its evil by losing all its grossness. In him his native idiom stands out clearly for what it is,—the lineal successor of the Greek, if the Greek can have a successor. Then, the national virtues of courtesy, amiability, and bonhomie shine out supreme: he goes, for instance, the whole round of his contemporaries, speaking his mind freely, yet without an unkind word; and although a devout Catholic, he handles the Jansenists without a trace of the odium theologicum.

This refinement is the more remarkable in Joubert, because he owed much to Rousseau in style, and was the originator of that often-quoted phrase concerning him, that he was the first person who gave bowels to words,—in the sense used symbolically for that word in the Bible. But he demands that this power of tender expression should be always chaste; and in the very last of his maxims says that art should always keep within the realm of beauty, and should never forget the ancient religious precept, “Outside the temple and the sacrifice, make no display of the intestines of the victim.” And he indicates the high standard of French courtesy by uniformly resting it on noble motives. “Politeness,” he says, “is to kindness of heart [bonté] what words are to thought. It does not merely influence the manners, but even the mind and heart; it moderates and softens all feelings, opinions, and words.” And in another place he says in yet more condensed form, “Courtesy is the very flower of humanity. He who is not quite courteous is not quite human.”