Jean de La Bruyère (1645–1696). Characters. 1885.
Of Works of the Mind
(1.)AFTER above seven thousand years, during which there have been men who have thought we come too late to say anything that has not been said already, the finest and most beautiful ideas on morals and manners have been swept away before our times, and nothing is left for us but to glean after the ancients and the ablest amongst the moderns.
(2.)We should only endeavour to think and speak correctly ourselves, without wishing to bring others over to our taste and opinions; this would be too great an undertaking.
(3.)To make a book is as much a trade as to make a clock; something more than intelligence is required to become an author. A certain magistrate was going to be raised by his merit to the highest legal dignity; he was a man of subtle mind and of experience, but must needs print a treatise of morality, which was quickly bought up on account of its absurdity.
(4.)It is not so easy to obtain a reputation by a perfect work as to enhance the value of an indifferent one by a reputation already acquired.
(5.)A satirical work or a book of anecdotes handed about privately in manuscript from one to another, passes for a masterpiece, even when it is but middling; the printing ruins its reputation.
(6.)Take away from most of our works on morality the “Advertisement to the reader,” the “Epistle dedicatory,” the “Preface,” the “Table of contents,” and the “Permission to print,” and there will scarcely be pages enough left to deserve the name of a book.
(7.)In certain things mediocrity is unbearable, as in poetry, music, painting, and eloquence. How we are tortured when we hear a dull soliloquy delivered in a pompous tone, or indifferent verses read with all the emphasis of a wretched poet!
(8.)Some poets in their tragedies employ a goodly number of big sounding verses, which seem strong, elevated, and filled with lofty sentiments. They are listened to anxiously, with eyes raised and gaping mouths, and are thought to please the public; and where they are understood the least, are admired the most; people have no time to breathe, they have hardly time to exclaim and to applaud. Formerly, when I was quite young, I imagined those passages were clear and intelligible to the actors, the pit, and the galleries; that the authors themselves understood them, and that I must have been very dull not to understand what it was all about. But now I am undeceived.
(9.)Up to the present time there exists hardly any literary masterpiece which is the joint labour of several men. Homer wrote the Iliad, Virgil the Æneid, Livy the Decades, and the Roman orator his Orations.
(10.)There is in art an acme of perfection, as there is in Nature one of goodness and completeness. Any one who feels this and loves art possesses a perfect taste; but he who is not sensible of it, and loves what is below or above that point, is wanting in taste. Thus there exists a good and a bad taste, and we are right in discussing the difference between them.
(11.)Men have generally more vivacity than judgment; or, to speak more accurately, few men exist whose intelligence is combined with a correct taste and a judicious criticism.
(12.)The lives of heroes have enriched history, and history has adorned the actions of heroes; and thus I cannot say whether the historians are more indebted to those who provided them with such noble materials, or those great men to their historians.
(13.)A heap of epithets is but a sorry commendation. Actions alone, and the manner of relating them, speak a man’s praise.
(14.)The whole genius of an author consists in giving accurate definitions and in painting well. Only Moses, Homer, Plato, Virgil, Horace, excel all other writers in their expressions and their imagery: to express truth is to write naturally, forcibly, and delicately.
(15.)People have been obliged to do with style what they have done with architecture; they wholly abandoned the Gothic style, which the barbarians introduced in their palaces and temples, and brought back the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders. That which was only seen amongst the ruins of ancient Rome and time-honoured Greece has become modernised, and now shines forth in our porticoes and colonnades. So, in writing, we can never arrive at perfection, and, if possible, surpass the ancients, but by imitating them.
How many centuries have elapsed before men were able to come back to the taste of the ancients in arts and sciences, and, finally, took up again a simple and natural style.
A man feeds on the ancients and intelligent moderns; he squeezes and drains them as much as possible; he stuffs his works with them; and when at last he becomes an author and thinks he can walk alone, he lifts up his voice against them, and ill-treats them, like those lusty children, grown strong through the healthy milk on which they have been fed, and who beat their nurses.
An author of modern times usually proves the ancients inferior to us in two ways: by reason and examples. The reason is his own opinion, and the examples are his own writings.
He confesses that the ancients, though they are unequal and incorrect, have a great many beautiful passages; he quotes them, and they are so fine, that his criticism is read only for their sake.
Some able men declare in favour of the ancients against the moderns; but we doubt them, as they seem to be judges in their own cause, for their works are so exactly written after the model of antiquity, that we cannot accept their authority.
(16.)We ought to like to read our works to those who know how to correct and appreciate them.
He who will not listen to any advice, nor be corrected in his writings, is a rank pedant.
An author ought to receive with the same moderation all praises and all criticisms on his productions.
(17.)Amongst all the various expressions which can render our thoughts, there is but one which is correct. We are not always so fortunate as to hit upon it in writing or speaking, but, nevertheless, such a one undoubtedly exists, and all others are weak, and do not satisfy a man of culture who wishes to make himself understood.
A good author, who writes carefully, often finds that the expression he has been looking for for some time, and which he did not know, proves, when found at last, to be the most simple, the most natural, and the one which was most likely to present itself to him spontaneously at first.
Fanciful authors often touch up their works. As their temper is not always the same, and as it varies on every occasion, they soon grow indifferent about those very expressions and terms they liked so much at first.
(18.)The same common-sense which makes an author write good things, makes him dread they are not good enough to deserve reading.
A shallow mind thinks his writings divine; a man of sense imagines he writes tolerably well.
(19.)Aristus says, “I was prevailed upon to read my works to Zoilus, and I did so. At first he liked them, before he had leisure to disapprove of them; he commended them coldly in my presence, and since then, has not said one word in their favour to any one. I excuse him, and desire no more from any author; I even pity him for listening to so many fine things which were not his own.”
Those men who through their rank are exempt from an author’s jealousy, have either other passions or necessities to distract them, and to make them indifferent towards other men’s conceptions. Almost no one, whether through disposition, inclination, or fortune, is willing to relish the delight that a perfect piece of work can give.
(20.)The pleasure of criticism takes away from us the pleasure of being deeply moved by very fine things.
(21.)Many people perceive the merit of a manuscript which is read to them, but will not declare themselves in its favour until they see what success it has in the world when printed, or what intelligent men will say about it. They do not like to risk their opinion, and they want to be carried away by the crowd, and dragged along by the multitude. Then they say that they were amongst the first who approved of that work, and the general public shares their opinion.
Such men lose the best opportunities of convincing us that they are intelligent, clever, and first-rate critics, and can really discover what is good and what is better. A fine work falls into their hands; it is an author’s first book, before he has got any great name; there is nothing to prepossess any one in his favour, and by applauding his writings one does not court or flatter the great. Zelotes, you are not required to cry out: “This is a masterpiece; human intelligence never went farther; the human speech cannot soar higher; henceforward we will judge of no one’s taste but by what he thinks of this book.” Such exaggerated and offensive expressions are only employed by postulants for pensions or benefices, and are even injurious to what is really commendable and what one wishes to praise. Why not merely say—“That’s a good book?” It is true you say it when the whole of France has approved of it, and foreigners as well as your own countrymen, when it is printed all over Europe, and has been translated into several languages, but then it is too late.
(22.)Some people, after having read a book, quote certain passages which they do not thoroughly understand, and moreover completely change their character by what they put in of their own. Those passages, so mutilated and disfigured that they are nothing else but their own expressions and thoughts, they expose to censure, maintain them to be bad, and the world agrees with them; but the passage such critics think they quote, and in reality do not, is not a bit the worse for it.
(23.)“What is your opinion about Hermodorus’ book?”—“That it is wretchedly written,” replies Anthymus.—“Wretchedly written! what do you mean, sir?”—“Just what I say,” he continues; “it is not a book, at least it does not deserve to be talked about.”—“Have you read it?”—“No,” replies Anthymus. Why does he not add that Fulvia and Melania have condemned it without reading, and that he is a friend of those two ladies?
(24.)Arsène, from the height of his own wisdom, contemplates men, and from the eminence he beholds them seems frightened as it were at their littleness. Commended, extolled, and raised to the skies by certain persons who have reciprocally promised to admire one another, he fancies, though he has some merit, that he has as much as any man can have, which he never will; his mind being occupied and filled with sublime ideas, he scarcely finds time to pronounce certain oracles; raised by his character above human judgments, he leaves to vulgar souls the merit of leading a regular and uniform life, being answerable for his variations to none but to a circle of friends who worship them. They alone know how to judge, to think, to write, and they only ought to write; there is no literary work, though ever so well received by the world and universally liked by men of culture, which he does approve of, nay, which he would condescend to read; he is incapable of being corrected by this picture, which will not even be read by him.
(25.)Theocrines knows a good many useless things; he is singular in his sentiments, and less profound than methodical; he only exercises his memory, is absent-minded, scornful, and seems continually laughing to himself at those whom he thinks his inferiors. By chance I one day read him something of mine: he heard it out, and then spoke about some of his own writings. “But what said he of yours?” you’ll ask me. “I have told you already; he spoke to me only of his own.”
(26.)The most accomplished literary work would be reduced to nothing by carping criticism, if the author would listen to all critics and allow every one to erase the passage which pleases him the least.
(27.)Experience tells us, that if there are ten persons who would strike a thought or an expression out of a book, we could easily find a like number who would insist upon its being put back again. The latter will exclaim: “Why should such a thought be suppressed? it is new, fine, and wonderfully well expressed.” The former, on the contrary, will maintain, “that they would have omitted such an idea, or have expressed it in another way.” “In your work,” say the first, “there is a very happy phrase which depicts most naturally what you meant to say.” The second maintain “that a certain word is venturesome, and moreover does not give the precise meaning you perhaps desired to give.” It is about the same thought and the same word those people argue; and yet they are all critics, or pass for such. What then can an author do but venture, in such a perplexity, to follow the advice of those who approve of the passage.
(28.)A serious-minded author is not obliged to trouble his head about all the foolish sayings, the obscene remarks, and bad words that are uttered, or about the stupid constructions which some men put on certain passages of his writings; much less ought he to suppress them. He is convinced that let a man be never so careful in his writings, the insipid jokes of wretched buffoons are an unavoidable evil, since they often only turn the best things into ridicule.
(29.)If certain men of quick and resolute mind are to be believed, words would even be superfluous to express feelings; signs would be sufficient to address them, or we could make ourselves be understood without speaking. However careful you may be to write closely and concisely, and whatever reputation you may have as such, they will think you diffuse. You must allow them to supply everything and write for them alone. They understand a whole phrase by reading the first word, and an entire chapter by a single phrase. It is sufficient for them to have heard only a bit of your work, they know it all and understand the whole. A great many riddles would be amusing reading to them; they regret that the wretched style which delights them becomes rare, and that so few authors employ it. Comparisons of a river flowing rapidly, though calmly and uniformly, or of a conflagration which, fanned by the winds, spreads afar in a forest, where it devours oaks and pine-trees, gives to them not the smallest idea of eloquence. Show them some fireworks to astonish them, or a flash of lightning to dazzle them, and they will dispense with anything fine or beautiful.
(30.)What a prodigious difference is there between a fine work and one that is perfect or regular. I am not aware whether a single one of the latter kind still exists. It is perhaps less difficult for uncommon minds to hit upon the grand and the sublime than to avoid all kinds of errors. The Cid, at its first appearance, was universally admired; it rose in spite of power and politics, which attempted in vain to crush it. People of rank and the general public, though always divided in their opinions and feelings, were in favour of it; they learned it by heart so as to anticipate the actors who were performing it. The Cid, in short, is one of the finest poems ever written, and one of the best criticisms on any subject is that on the Cid.
(31.)When, after having read a work, loftier thoughts arise in your mind and noble and heartfelt feelings animate you, do not look for any other rule to judge it by; it is fine and written in a masterly manner.
(32.)Capys, who sets up for a judge of style and fancies he writes like Bouhours and Rabutin, disagrees with public opinion, and is the only person who says that Damis is not a good author. Damis is of the same opinion as a large number of people, and says artlessly, as well as the public, that Capys is a dull writer.
(33.)It is the business of a newsmonger to inform us when any book is published; if it is printed by Cramoisy, and with what type; if it is well bound, and on what paper, and at what price it is sold; he ought even to know what the bookseller’s sign is; but it is foolish in him to pretend to criticise it.
The highest point a newsmonger can reach is to reason in a vague manner on politics.
A newsmonger lies down at night quietly, after having received some information, but it is spoiled overnight, and he is obliged to throw it away when he wakes in the morning.
(34.)A philosopher wastes his life in observing men, and wears himself out in exposing vice and folly. If he shapes his thoughts into words, it is not so much from his vanity as an author as to place entirely in its proper light some truth he has discovered, that it may make the desired impression. Yet some readers think they repay him with interest if they say, with a magisterial air, “that they have read his book, and that there is some sense in it;” but he does not mind their praise, for he has not laboured and passed many sleepless nights to obtain it: he has higher aims, and acts from nobler motives: he demands from mankind greater and more uncommon results than empty praise, and even than rewards; he expects them to lead better lives.
(35.)A fool reads a book and does not understand it; a man of ordinary mind reads it and fancies he perfectly understands it; a man of intelligence sometimes does not wholly understand it; he perceives what is really obscure and what is really clear, whilst witlings imagine those passages obscure which are not so, and think they do not understand what is really intelligible.
(36.)In vain an author endeavours to obtain admiration by his works. A fool may sometimes admire him, but then he is only a fool; an intelligent man has within him the germs of all truth and of all sentiments; nothing is new to him; he admires few things, but he finds that many things deserve some praise.
(37.)I question if it be possible to write more clever letters in a more agreeable manner and in a better style than those of Balzac or Voiture; but they are void of those sentiments which have swayed us since their time and originated with the ladies. That sex excels ours in this kind of writing; from their pens flow naturally those turns and expressions which often are with us the effects of tedious labour and troublesome research; they are fortunate in the selection of their wordings, which they employ so cleverly, that though they are not new, they have all the charm of novelty, and seem only designed for the use they put them to; they alone can express an entire sentiment in a single word, and render a delicate thought as delicately; their arguments are connected in an inimitable manner, follow one another naturally, and are only linked together by the sense. If the ladies wrote always correctly, I might affirm that perhaps the letters of some of them would be among the best in our language.
(38.)Terentius wanted nothing but to be less cold. What purity! what preciseness! what polish! what elegance! what characters! Molière wanted nothing but to avoid the vulgar tongue and barbarisms and to write elegantly. What fire! what artlessness! what original and good jokes! how well he imitates manners! what imagery! and how he lashes what is ridiculous! But what an author might have been formed of these two comic writers!
(39.)I have read Malherbe and Théophile. They both understood nature, with this difference: the first, in a nervous and uniform style, displays at one and the same time whatever is beautiful, noble, ingenuous and simple, and depicts or describes it; the other, without choice or accuracy, with a loose and uneven pen, some times overloads his descriptions, goes into too many details, and analyses too much; sometimes he imagines certain things, exaggerates, outstrips what is true in nature, and becomes a romancer.
(40.)In both Ronsard and Balzac, each in their kind, are found a sufficient number of good and bad things to form after them very great men either in verse or prose.
(41.)Marot, by his phraseology and style, seems to have written after Ronsard wrote; there is very little difference, except in a few words, between the style of the former and our present style.
(42.)Ronsard and his contemporaries have done more harm than good to style; they delayed its progress towards perfection, and exposed it to the danger of being always defective and of never becoming perfect again. It is astonishing that Marot’s works, which are so natural and easy, have not made of Ronsard, so full of rapture and enthusiasm, a greater poet than he or Marot ever were; and that, on the contrary, Belleau, Jodelle, and du Bartas were soon followed by a Racan and a Malherbe, and that the French language was no sooner vitiated than it recovered.
(43.)Marot and Rabelais are inexcusable for scattering so much filth in their writings: they both had genius and originality enough to be able to do without it, even for those who seek rather what is comical than what is admirable in an author. Rabelais above all is incomprehensible: his book is a mystery, a mere chimera; it has a lovely woman’s face, with the feet and tail of a serpent or of some more hideous animal; it is a monstrous jumble of delicate and ingenious morality and of filthy depravation. Where it is bad, it excels by far the worst, and is fit only to delight the rabble; and where it is good, it is exquisite and excellent, and may entertain the most delicate.
(44.)Two writers have condemned Montaigne in their works. I am of their opinion, and believe him not always free from blame; but it seems that none of these two can see anything good in him. One of these thinks too little to enjoy an author who thinks a great deal; the other thinks with too much subtlety to be pleased with thoughts that are natural.
(45.)A grave, solemn, and correct style will go a long way. Amyot and Coëffeteau are read, but who else of their contemporaries? The phraseology and the expression of Balzac have become less antiquated than those of Voiture; but if the style, the intelligence, and originality of the latter are not modern nor in anything resemble our present writers, it is because it is easier not to pay any attention to him than to imitate him, and because the few who follow him could never overtake him.
(46.)The H … G … is distinctly less than nothing, and there are a good many works like it. There is as much trickery required to grow rich by a stupid book as there is folly in buying it; a man would never know the people’s taste if he did not venture sometimes on some great piece of silliness.
(47.)We perceive that an opera is an outline of a magnificent spectacle, of which it serves to give an idea.
I cannot understand how the opera, with such perfect music and quite a regal expenditure, has been able to tire me.
There are some passages in an opera which make us long for others; it sometimes happens we wish it was all over: this is the fault of the decorations, or of a want of action or interest.
An opera is not even to this day a poem, for it contains nought but verses; nor is it a spectacle, since machinery has disappeared through the dexterous management of Amphion and his kindred; it is a concert of voices assisted by instruments. We deceive ourselves and acquire a bad taste when we state, as has been done, that machinery is only an amusement fit for children and suitable for puppet shows. Machines increase and embellish poetical fiction and maintain among the spectators that gentle illusion in which the entire pleasure of a theatre consists, to which it also adds a feeling of wonder. There is no need of flights, or cars, or changes when Bérénice or Pénélope are represented, but they are necessary in an opera, as the characteristic of such a spectacle is to enchant the mind as well as the ear and the eye.
(48.)Some busybodies have erected a theatre and machinery, composed ballets, verses, and music; theirs is the whole spectacle, even to the room where the performance was held, from the roof to the very foundation of the four walls. Who has any doubt that the hunt on the water, the delights of “La Table,” the marvels of the Labyrinth were also invented by them? I think so, at least, by the agitation they are in and by the self-satisfied air with which they applaud their success. Unless I am deceived, they have not contributed anything to a festival so splendid, so magnificent, and so long kept up, and which one person planned and paid for; so that I admire two things: the ease and quietness of him who directed everything, and the fuss and gesticulations of those who did nothing.
(49.)The critics, or those who, thinking themselves so, decide deliberately and decisively about all public representations, group and divide themselves into different parties, each of whom admires a certain poem or a certain music and damns all others, urged on by a wholly different motive than public interest or justice. The ardour with which they defend their prejudices damages the opposite party as well as their own set. These men discourage poets and musicians by a thousand contradictions, and delay the progress of arts and sciences, by depriving them of the advantages to be obtained by that emulation and freedom which many excellent masters, each in their own way and according to their own genius, might display in the execution of some very fine works.
(50.)What is the reason that we laugh so freely in a theatre but are ashamed to weep? Is it less natural to be melted by what excites pity than to burst into laughter at what is comical? Is it the alteration of our features that checks us? It is more visible in immoderate laughter than in the most passionate grief; and we avert our faces when we laugh or weep in the presence of people of rank, or of all those whom we respect. Is it because we are reluctant to let it be seen we are tender-hearted, or to show any emotion, especially at an imaginary subject, and by which it seems we are imposed upon? But without quoting those austere men, or those who do not care for the opinions of the world, who think that excessive laughter or tears betray weakness, and who forbid both, what is it that we look for in tragedy? Is it to laugh? Is truth not depicted there as vividly as in comedy? And have we not to feel that those things are realities in either case before we are moved? Or is it so easily to be pleased, and is no verisimilitude needed? It is not thought odd to hear a whole theatre ring with laughter at some passage of a comedy, but, on the contrary, it implies that it was funny, and very naturally performed; therefore the extreme restraint every one puts on himself not to shed tears and the affected laughter with which one tries to disguise them, clearly prove that the natural result of lofty tragedy should be to make us all weep without concealment and publicly, and without any other hindrance than wiping our eyes; moreover, after we have agreed to indulge in our passion, it will be found there is often less room to fear we should weep in a theatre than that we should be tired out there.
(51.)Tragedy, from its very beginning, oppresses the spectator’s feelings, and, whilst being acted, scarcely allows him liberty to breathe and leisure to recover, or if it leaves him some respite, it is only to be plunged again into fresh abysses and new alarms. Through pity he is led to terror, or reciprocally through terror to pity; it leads him through tears, sobs, uncertainty, expectation, fear, surprises and horror to a catastrophe. It should not, therefore, be a collection of pretty sentiments, tender declarations, gallant conversations, agreeable pictures, soft words, or something comical enough to produce laughter, followed, in truth, by a final scene in which the “mutineers” do not listen to reason, and in which for decency’s sake there is at last some blood spilled, and some unfortunate man’s life taken.
(52.)It is not sufficient for the manners of the stage not to be bad; they should be decent and instructive. Some comical subjects are so low, so mean, or even so dull and so insignificant, that a poet should not be permitted to write about them, nor could an audience by any possibility be diverted by them. A peasant or an intoxicated man may furnish some scenes for a farce writer; but they can scarcely be personages of true comedy; for how can they be the basis of the main action of a comedy? Perhaps it may be said that “such characters are natural.” Then, according to a similar rule, the attention of an entire audience may be occupied by a lackey whistling, or a sick person on his bed-chair, or by a drunken man snoring and being sick; for can anything be more natural? An effeminate dandy rises late, spends part of the day at his toilet, looks at himself in the glass, perfumes himself, puts patches on his face, receives his letters and answers them. But such a character brought on the stage, made to stop for any length of time, during one or two acts, and depicted as natural and as like the original as possible, will be as dull and as tedious as it well can be.
(53.)Plays and novels, in my opinion, may be made as useful as they are pernicious. They exhibit so many grand examples of constancy, virtue, tenderness and disinterestedness; so many fine and perfect characters, that when young people cast their eyes on what they see around them and find nothing but unworthy objects, very much inferior to those they just admired, it is not to be wondered at that they cannot have the least inclination for them.
(54.)Corneille cannot be equalled where he is excellent; he shows then original and inimitable characteristics, but he is unequal. His first plays are uninteresting and heavy, and did not lead us to expect that he would afterwards soar to such a height, just as his last plays make us wonder at his fall from such a pinnacle. In some of his best pieces there are unpardonable errors in the characters of the drama—a declamatory style which arrests the action and delays it, and such negligence in his versification and in his expressions that we can hardly understand how so great a man could be guilty of them. His highest individual quality is his sublime genius, to which he is beholden for some of the most beautiful verses ever read; for the plots of his plays, in which he sometimes ventures to transgress the rules of the ancients; and finally, for his catastrophes. In this he does not always follow the taste of the Greeks and their grand simplicity; on the contrary, he delights in crowding the stage with events, which he almost always disentangles successfully; and is above all to be admired for his great variety and the little similarity of his plots in the large number of dramas he has written. It seems that Racine’s plays are more like one another, and that they lead up a little more to the same ending; but he is uniform, lofty in style, and everywhere the same, as well in the plots and incidents of his plays, which are sound, regular, rational and natural, as in his versification, which is correct, rich in its rhythm, elegant, melodious, and harmonious. He is an exact imitator of the ancients, whom he carefully follows in their distinctness and simplicity of action, and like Corneille, not lacking the sublime and marvellous, the moving and the pathetic. Where can we find greater tenderness diffused than in Le Cid, Polyeucte, and Les Horaces? What grandeur do we not observe in Mithridates, Porus, and Burrhus! Both poets were well acquainted with terror and pity, those favourite passions of the ancients, which the dramatic authors were fond of producing on the stage; as Orestes in the Andromaque of Racine, Phèdre of the same author, as well as Œdipus and the Horatii of Corneille clearly prove. If, however, it is allowable to draw some comparison between them, and distinguish what are the peculiarities of each of them, as is generally discovered in their writings, I should probably say: Corneille enthralls us by his characters and ideas; Racine’s coincide with ours; the one represents men as they ought to be, the other as they are. There is in the first more of what we admire and what we ought even to imitate; and in the second more of what we perceive in others or feel within ourselves. Corneille elevates, surprises, controls and instructs us; Racine pleases, affects, moves and penetrates us. The former employs the most beautiful, the most noble, and the most commanding arguments; the latter depicts the most praiseworthy and the most refined passions. One is full of maxims, rules, and precepts; the other of taste and feeling. Our mind is kept more occupied by Corneille’s tragedies, but by Racine’s we are more softened and moved. Corneille is more moral, Racine more natural. The one seems to imitate Sophocles, the other Euripides.
(55.)What the people call eloquence is the facility some persons have of speaking alone and for a long time, aided by extravagant gestures, a loud voice, and powerful lungs. Pedants also will not recognise eloquence except in public orations, and can see no distinction between it and a heap of figures, the use of big words and flowing periods.
It seems that logic is the art of making some truth prevail, and that eloquence is a gift of the soul which renders us master of the hearts and minds of other men, so that we suggest to them, or persuade them, to do whatever we please.
Eloquence may be found in conversations and in all kind of writings; it is rarely found when looked for, and sometimes discovered where it is least expected.
Eloquence is to the sublime what the whole is to its part.
What is the sublime? It does not appear to have been defined. Is it a figure of speech? Does it spring from figures, or at least from some figures of speech? Does the sublime enter into all kinds of writings, or are grand subjects only fit for it? Can an eclogue display anything but fine simplicity, and familiar letters as well as conversation anything but great delicacy? Are simplicity and delicacy not the sublime of those works of which they are the perfection? What is this sublime? Where does it begin?
Synonyms are several words or various phrases which are the precise equivalents of each other. An antithesis is an opposition of two truths which throw light on one another. A metaphor or a comparison borrows from a foreign matter a sensible and natural image of a truth. A hyperbole exaggerates truth to enable the mind to understand it better. The sublime paints nothing but the truth, and that only in noble subjects; it depicts all its causes and effects; it is the most meritorious expression or image of this truth. Ordinary minds cannot find the only right expression, and, therefore, use synonyms. Young men are dazzled by the lustre of an antithesis, and employ it. Sensible people, who delight in exact imagery, of course, are led away by comparisons and metaphors. Sharp people, full of fire, and carried away by a lively imagination beyond all bounds and accuracy, cannot be satiated with hyperboles. As for the sublime, even among the greatest geniuses, only the highest can reach it.
(56.)Every author who wishes to write clearly should put himself in the place of his readers, examine his own work as something new to him, which he reads for the first time, is not at all concerned in, and which has been submitted to his criticism; and then be convinced that no one will understand what is written merely because the author understands it himself, but because it is really intelligible.
(57.)People write only to be understood, but they should, at least, in their writings produce very beautiful things. They ought to have a pure style, and, in truth, employ a suitable phraseology; moreover, their phrases should express noble, intense, and solid thoughts, and contain a very fine meaning. A pure and clear style is thrown away on a dry, barren subject, without either spirit, use, or novelty. What avails it to any reader to understand easily and without any difficulty some frivolous and puerile subject, not seldom dull and common, when he is less in doubt about the meaning of the author than tired with his work?
If we aim at being profound in certain writings, if we affect a polite turn, and sometimes too much delicacy, it is merely because we have a good opinion of our readers.
(58.)The disadvantage of reading books written by people belonging to a certain party or a certain set is that they do not always contain the truth. Facts are disguised, the arguments on both sides are not brought forward in all their strength, nor are they quite accurate; and what wears out the greatest patience is that we must read a large number of harsh and scurrilous reflections, tossed to and fro by serious-minded men, who consider themselves personally insulted when any point of doctrine or any doubtful matter is controverted. Such works possess this peculiarity, that they neither deserve the prodigious success they have for a certain time, nor the profound oblivion into which they fall afterwards, when the rage and contention have ceased, and they become like almanacks out of date.
(59.)It is the glory and the merit of some men to write well, and of others not to write at all.
(60.)Some persons have been writing regularly for the last twenty years; they have faithfully observed all rules of composition, enriched the language with new words, thrown off the yoke of Latinism, and given to style a pure French phraseology; they have almost recovered that harmony which Malherbe and Balzac first discovered, and which since then so many authors allowed to be lost; they have, in short, given to our style all the clearness it is capable of, and this will gradually lead to becoming easily understood.
(61.)There are some artists or men of ability whose intelligence is as extensive as the art or science they profess; they repay with interest, through their genius and inventive powers, what they borrowed from it and from its first principles; they stray from art to ennoble it, and deviate from its rules if they do not make use of them to attain the grand and the sublime; they walk alone and unaccompanied, but they soar very high and are very penetrating, always certain of the advantages sometimes to be obtained by irregularity, and assured of their success. Careful, timorous, and sedate minds not alone never obtain those advantages, but they do not admire them nor even understand them, and are much less likely to imitate them; they dwell peaceably within the compass of their sphere, go up to a certain point, which is the limit of their capacity and knowledge, but penetrate no farther, because they see nothing beyond it; they are at best but the first of a second class and excel in mediocrity.
(62.)If I may venture to say so, there are certain inferior or second-rate minds, who seem only fit to become the receptacle, register, or storehouse of all the productions of other talents; they are plagiarists, translators, compilers; they never think, but tell you what other authors have thought; and as a selection of thoughts requires some inventive powers, theirs is ill-made and inaccurate, which induces them rather to make it large than excellent. They have no originality, and possess nothing of their own; they only know what they have learned, and only learn what the rest of the world does not wish to know; a useless and dry science, without any charm or profit, unfit for conversation, nor suitable to intercourse, like a coin which has no currency. We are astonished when we read them, as well as tired out by their conversation or their works. The nobility and the common herd mistake them for men of learning, but intelligent men rank them with pedants.
(63.)Criticism is often not a science but a trade, requiring more health than intelligence, more industry than capacity, more practice than genius. If it is exercised by a person of less discernment than culture, and treats of certain subjects, it will spoil the reader’s judgment as well as that of the author criticised.
(64.)I would advise an author who can only imitate, and who is modest enough to tread in the footsteps of other men, to choose for his models writings that are full of intelligence, imagination, or even learning: if he does not come up to his originals, he may at least come somewhat near them, and be read. He ought, on the contrary, to avoid, as a rock ahead, the imitation of those authors who have a natural inclination for writing, employ phrases and figures of speech which spring from the heart, and who draw, if I may say so, from their inmost feelings all they express on paper. They are dangerous models, and induce those who endeavour to follow them to adopt a cold, vulgar, and ridiculous style. Indeed, I should laugh at a man who would seriously imitate my tone of voice, or endeavour to be like me in the face.
(65.)A man born a Christian and a Frenchman is constrained when he uses satire, for he is forbidden to exercise it on great subjects; sometimes he commences to write about them, but then turns to trifling topics, which he enhances by the splendour of his genius and style.
(66.)The turgid and puerile style of Dorilas and Handburg should always be avoided. In certain writings, on the contrary, a man sometimes may be bold in his expressions, and use metaphorical phrases which depict his subject vividly, whilst pitying those who do not feel the pleasure there is in employing and understanding them.
(67.)He who only writes to suit the taste of the age, considers himself more than his writings. We should always aim at perfection, and then posterity will do us that justice which sometimes our contemporaries refuse us.
(68.)We ought never to turn into ridicule a subject that does not lend itself to it; it spoils our taste, vitiates our judgment as well as other men’s; but we should perceive ridicule where it does exist, show it up delicately, and in a manner which both pleases and instructs.
(69.)“Horace or Boileau have said such a thing before you.”—“I take your word for it, but I have used it as my own. May I not have the same correct thought after them, as others may have after me?”