Home  »  library  »  prose  »  From the ‘Preliminary Discourse to the Treatise on Literature’

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

From the ‘Preliminary Discourse to the Treatise on Literature’

By Madame de Staël (1766–1817)

MAN stands in need of support from the opinions of his fellow-beings: he dares not rely entirely on the perceptions of his conscience; he distrusts his own judgment if others do not agree with him; and such is the weakness of human nature, such is its dependence on society, that a man might almost repent of his good qualities as if they were bad qualities, did public opinion unite in blaming him for them: but he has recourse, in his uneasiness, to these books,—the records of the best and noblest sentiments of all ages. If he loves liberty,—if that name of republic, so full of power in fraternal souls, is connected in his mind with images of all virtues,—his soul, cast down by contemporary events, will be uplifted by the perusal of some of the ‘Lives’ of Plutarch, a Letter from Brutus to Cicero, the thoughts of Cato of Utica in the language of Addison, the reflections with which the hatred of tyranny inspired Tacitus, the emotions reported or imagined by historians and poets. A lofty character becomes content with itself if it finds itself in accord with these noble emotions, with the virtues which Imagination herself selects when portraying a model for all time. What consolations are bestowed on us by writers of high talents and lofty souls! The great men of the primal ages, if they were calumniated during their lives, had no resource save in themselves; but for us, the ‘Phædo’ of Socrates, the beautiful masterpieces of eloquence, sustain our souls in times of trial. Philosophers of all countries exhort us and encourage us; and the penetrating language of the moral nature, and of intimate knowledge of the human heart, seems to address itself personally to all those whom it consoles.

How human it is, how useful it is, to attach great importance to literature—to the art of thinking!