Jean de La Bruyère (1645–1696). Characters. 1885.

Of Certain Customs


(1.)CERTAIN people want a fortune to become ennobled.

Some of these would have been ennobled if they could have put off their creditors half a year longer.

Others, again, are commoners when they lay down, and rise noblemen.

How many noblemen are there whose relatives are commoners?

(2.)Some man disowns his father, who is known to keep an office or a shop, and only mentions his grandfather, who has been dead this long time, is unknown and cannot be found now; he enjoys a large income, has a grand post, great connections, and wants nothing but a title to become a nobleman.

(3.)Formerly the words “granting letters of nobility” were considered good French and habitually employed, but now they have become antiquated and out of date, and the courts of justice use the word “rehabilitation.” To rehabilitate supposes a wealthy man to be of noble descent,—for it is absolutely requisite he should be so,—and also his father to have forfeited the title by ploughing, digging, by becoming a pedlar, or by having been a lackey; it also supposes that the son only desires to be restored to the rights of his ancestors, and to wear the coat of arms his family always wore, though, perhaps, one of his own invention, and quite different from that on his old pewter ware; thus the granting of letters of nobility does not apply to his case, for they only confer an honour on a commoner, that is, on a man who has not yet discovered the secret of becoming rich.

(4.)A man of the people, by often affirming he was present when some prodigy happened, persuades himself that he has really seen it; another person, by concealing his age, comes to believe at last he is as young as he would be thought; and thus a commoner, who habitually asserts he is descended from some ancient baron, or from some noble lord, has the ideal pleasure of fancying himself of such illustrious descent.

(5.)What man is there, however meanly born, who having acquired some fortune, can be in want of a coat of arms, and with this coat, heraldic devices of the highest rank, a crest, supporters, a motto, and perhaps a war-cry? What is become of the distinction between head-pieces and helmets? They are no longer in use and not even mentioned; it does no more matter if they are worn in front or profile, open or closed, and with more or less bars; such niceties are out of date; coronets are worn, which is far simpler, for people think they deserve wearing them, and, therefore, bestow them on themselves. Some of the better sort of citizens have still a little shamefacedness left which prevents them using the coronet of a marquess, and they content themselves with an earl’s, whilst a few do not even go a long way for their coat of arms, but take it from their sign-boards to put it on their carriages.

(6.)Provided a person is not born in a city, but in some lonely thatched house in the country, or in some ruins in the midst of marshes, dignified with the name of castle, he will be taken for a nobleman upon his own affirmation.

(7.)A man of noble descent wishes to pass for a small lord, and he compasses his end; a great lord pretends to be a prince, and employs so many precautions that, thanks to some fine appellations, quarrels about rank and precedence, and a genealogy not recognised by D’Hozier, he at last is allowed to be a petty prince.

(8.)In everything great men mould themselves, and follow the example of people of higher rank, who, on their side, that they may have nothing in common with their inferiors, willingly abandon all honorific appellations and distinctions with which their rank is burdened, and instead of their slavery prefer a life of more freedom and ease. Those who follow their steps vie already to observe the same simplicity and modesty. And thus, through a feeling of pride, all will condescend to live naturally and as the people do. How horribly inconvenient they must feel!

(9.)Some people are so fond of names that they have three for fear of wanting some; one for the country, another for the town, and a third which they use when on duty or in their office; others have a dissyllabic name which they ennoble by the particle “du” or “de” as soon as their circumstances improve; some, again, by suppressing a syllable make a name illustrious which was before obscure; by changing one letter of his name another person disguises himself, and he who formerly was Syrus becomes Cyrus. Many suppress their whole names, though far from ignominious, to adopt others which sound better, and by which they get nothing but to be always compared to the great men from whom those names are borrowed. Finally, there are some, who, though born within the walls of Paris, pretend to be Flemish or Italian, as if every country had not its commoners, lengthen their French names, and give them a foreign termination, as if names were the better for being far-fetched.

(10.)The want of money has reconciled the nobility to the commoners, and put an end to all disputes about the quartering of escutcheons.

(11.)How many persons would be gainers by a law which should decree that nobility can be inherited from the mother’s side, but how many more would be losers by it.

(12.)There are few families but who are related to the greatest princes as well as to the common people.

(13.)There is nothing lost by being a nobleman; those who have a title neither want franchises, immunities, exemptions, privileges. Do you think it was purely for the pleasure of being ennobled that certain monks have obtained a title? They are not so foolish; it is only for the advantages they receive from it. It is, after all, much better than to get money by having an interest in farming the salt tax, and that not alone for every individual of the community, for it is against their vows, but even for the community itself.

(14.)I here declare openly and desire all men to take notice of it, that none may hereafter be surprised: if ever any great man will think me worthy of his patronage, if ever I happen to make my fortune, I then shall claim descent from a certain Godfrey de la Bruyère, whom all chronicles of France mention as one of the many French noblemen of the highest rank who followed Godfrey of Bouillon to conquer the Holy Land.

(15.)If nobility be virtue, a flagitious man loses his title; and if it be not virtue, is a very trifling thing.

(16.)Certain things are astonishing and incomprehensible if we consider their principles and why they were established. Who could imagine, for example, that these abbés who dress and are as effeminate and vain as any man or woman of rank can well be, and who vie for the ladies’ favours with a marquess or a financier, and defeat them both, were originally and etymologically the fathers and heads of holy monks and humble anchorites to whom they should be exemplars. How powerful, how absolute, how tyrannical is custom! And, not to mention greater irregularities, is it not to be feared that one day or other some young abbés will figure in grey-flowered velvet dresses like a certain cardinal, or will paint and wear patches like women?

(17.)That the obscenities of the gods, the Venus, the Ganymede, and all the other nudities of Carracci are represented on pictures painted for certain princes of the Church who style themselves successors of the apostles, may be proved by visiting the palace of the Farnese.

(18.)A thing, however handsome, loses somewhat of its beauty by being out of place; decorum adds a certain perfection and is based on reason; thus we never behold a jig danced in a chapel, or hear stagey elocution in the pulpit; whilst no profane imagery is seen in churches, nor a crucifix and a picture of the Judgment of Paris in these same holy places, nor the dress and retinue of a military man in a churchman.

(19.)Shall I freely declare my thoughts about what the world calls a fine morning choral service, decorations often profane, places reserved and paid for, books distributed as in the theatre, frequent assignations and interviews, deafening murmurings and talk, a certain person mounted in the pulpit, who holds forth in a familiar and jejune manner, without any other ambition than to get the people together and to amuse them until an orchestra begins to play, and, shall I say it, until singers are heard who have rehearsed for a considerable time? Does it become me to exclaim that I burn with zeal for the Lord’s house? and must I draw aside the slender curtain which covers those mysteries, witnesses of such gross indecencies? What! must I call all this the church service because they do not yet dance at the TT….

(20.)We hear of no vows nor pilgrimages made to any saint, in order to attain a higher degree of benignity, a more grateful heart, to be more just and less evil-doing, and to be cured of vanity, restless activity, and a propensity for buffoonery?

(21.)What can be more eccentric than for a number of Christians of both sexes to meet on certain days in a large room to applaud and reward a company of excommunicated persons, who are only excommunicated for the very pleasure they give, and for which already they have been paid beforehand? Methinks either all theatres should be shut or a less severe anathema be fulminated against actors.

(22.)On those days which are called holy a monk confesses, while the vicar thunders from the pulpit against the monk and his followers. A pious woman leaves the altar and then hears the preacher state in his sermon that she has committed sacrilege. Has the church no power either to make a clergyman hold his peace, or to suspend for a time the authority of a Barnabite?

(23.)The fees in a parish church are higher for a marriage than for a christening, and amount to more for a christening than for confession; people would think them a tax laid upon the sacraments, which seem to be appreciated ad valorem; yet, after all, this is not the case; and those persons who receive money for these holy things do not think they sell them, whilst those who pay for them as little think they purchase them. Such an appearance of evil might indeed be avoided as well for the sake of the weak as for that of the scoffers.

(24.)A ruddy and quite healthy-looking parish priest, wearing fine linen and Venice lace, has his seat in church near the cardinals and the doctors of divinity, where he finishes to digest his dinner, whilst certain Bernardine or Franciscan monks come out of their cells or deserts to which decency and their own vows should confine them, to preach before him and his flock, and to be paid for their sermons as if they were vendible commodities. You will not let me continue, and you remark: “That such a censure is novel and unexpected, and that this shepherd and his flock ought not to be deprived from hearing the Word of God and receiving the bread of life.” “By no means, I would have him himself preach that word as well as administer that bread morning and evening, in the churches, in the houses, on the market-places, from the housetops, and have none assume such a grand and laborious office but with intentions, capacities, and physical strength deserving of the handsome offerings and wealthy emoluments belonging to it. However, I am compelled to excuse the vicar’s conduct, for it is customary, and he found it already established and will transmit it to his successors; but still I must blame this strange, unreasonable, and unwarrantable custom, whilst I approve still less the habit of his being paid four times for the same funeral, once for himself, a second time as his fees, a third for his being present, and a fourth for his officiating.”

(25.)Titus served the church these twenty years in a small living, and is not yet held worthy of a better which becomes vacant; neither his talents, knowledge, his exemplary life, nor the wishes of his parishioners are sufficient to get him promoted; another clergyman starts up, as it were, from underground, and he obtains the preference; Titus is sent back and put off, but he does not complain, for custom will have it so.

(26.)“Who,” asks the precentor, “will compel me to come to matins? Am I not master of the choir? My predecessor never went there, and I am as good a man as ever he was! Shall I allow my dignity to be debased while I hold office, or leave it to my successor as I found it?” The head of the school says: “I do not battle for my own interests, but for those of the prebend; it would be hard indeed for a superior canon to have to do duty with the choir, whilst the treasurer, the archdeacon, the penitentiary, and the grand vicar think themselves exempt from it.” “It is my right,” argues the head of the chapter, “to claim my dues, even if I should never come to prayers; for twenty years I slept every night without being disturbed; I will go on as I began, and never act derogatory to my dignity. Else, why should I be head of the chapter, if my example should be of no importance?” Thus each strives not to praise the Lord, and to show that, for a long time, it was neither customary nor compulsory to do so; whilst the emulation not to repair to divine service cannot be greater nor more fervent. The bells toll in the stillness of the night, and the same sounds which awaken the choristers and the singing-boys, lull the canons into a more sound and pleasant slumber, interspersed by delicious dreams; they rise late, and go to church to be paid for having slept.

(27.)Who would ever imagine, did not experience daily show it, how difficult it is for people to resign themselves to their being happy; and that there should be need of men dressed in a certain fashion, who by tender and pathetic speeches prepared beforehand, by certain inflexions of the voice, by tears and gestures, which make them perspire and exhaust them, finally induce a Christian and sensible man, who is desperately ill, not to be lost for ever but to ensure his own salvation.

(28.)Aristippus’ daughter lies dangerously ill; she sends for her father, and is anxious to be reconciled to him and die happy. Shall so wise a man, the oracle of the whole town, take such a sensible step of his own accord, and persuade his wife to do the same? No! they will not stir without the interference of a spiritual director.

(29.)If a mother does not yield to the inclinations of her daughter, but induces her to become a nun, she takes upon herself the charge of another soul beside her own, and is responsible for such a soul to God. Such a mother will be lost for ever if the daughter be not saved.

(30.)A certain man gambles and is ruined, but nevertheless, when the eldest of his two daughters gets married, he gives her as a dowry all he has been able to rescue out of the clutches of some cheat; the younger will shortly become a nun, without any vocation for it, but compelled by the losses of her father at play.

(31.)Certain maidens, virtuous, healthy, enthusiasts in religion, and who feel they have a call, have not sufficient money to enter a wealthy nunnery and to take the vows of poverty.

(32.)A woman who hesitates whether she shall enter an abbey or a nunnery revives the old question about the advantages of a popular or a despotic rule.

(33.)To play the fool and marry for love is to marry Melita, a handsome, sensible, thrifty, charming young woman who loves you, but is not so wealthy as Ægina, whose hand is proposed to you, with a large dowry, but who feels a strong inclination for spending it all, and your own fortune as well.

(34.)Formerly it was considered no trifling affair to get married; it was a settlement for life, a matter of importance which deserved a great deal of consideration; for a man had to take a wife for all his life, for better or worse; the same table and the same bed served them both; there was no getting rid of one another by separate maintenance, and a man with a household and children did not seem a rollicking bachelor.

(35.)I commend the bashfulness of a man who avoids being seen with a woman not his wife, and I can also understand his being loth to frequent persons of bad reputation. But what an impertinence for a man to blush being in the company of his own wife and being ashamed of appearing in public with a lady whom he has chosen as his companion for life, who should be his joy, his comfort, and his chief society; whom he loves and esteems, who adorns his home, and whose intelligence, merits, virtue, and connections reflect credit on him. Why did he not begin being ashamed of his marriage?

I am well aware of the tyranny, of custom, how it sways the mind and constrains the manners of men, even in things which are most senseless and needless; but I feel, nevertheless, I could be bold enough to walk on the Cours to be stared at in the company of the lady who is my wife.

(36.)It is not a fault in a young man to marry a lady advanced in age, nor should he be ashamed of it, for he not seldom shows his prudence and foresight by acting thus. But it is infamous to treat his benefactress disgracefully, and to let her see she has been imposed upon by a hypocrite and an ungrateful fellow. If dissembling be ever excusable, it is when it is done out of kindness; if deception is ever to be allowed, it is when sincerity would be cruelty. No man should behave cruelly even if his wife should live longer than he expected; for he did not stipulate, when he married her, that she should give up the ghost immediately after having made his fortune and paid his debts. Has she no longer to draw breath, and has she to take a dose of opium or hemlock after having performed such a fine stroke of business? Is it a crime in her to live? And is she to be blamed if the man should die before the woman, for whose funeral he had already made such nice arrangements, and for whom he intended to have the biggest bells tolled and the finest trappings brought out?

(37.)For some time a certain method has been in use for making the most of one’s money, which is still practised by some of our gentlemanly people, though it has been condemned by our most eminent divines.

(38.)In every commonwealth there are always some offices apparently created for no other purpose but to enrich one man at the expense of many; the property and the monies of private people flow continually and uninterruptedly in his coffers, and they hardly ever come back, or if they do, it is after a long while. Each of these chests is like an abyss, a sea, which receives the waters of many rivers but disgorges none; or, if it does, it is imperceptibly, through secret and subterranean channels, without in the least abating its size and volume, and not till it has enjoyed these waters for a good while and can keep them no longer.

(38.)To sink money in an annuity was formerly considered quite safe; it was sure to be paid, and inalienable, but, now, through the fault of administrators, it may be considered irretrievably lost. What other means are there for doubling an income or for hoarding? Shall I trust my money to the farmers of the huitième denier, or to those of the indirect taxes? Shall I become a miser, a farmer of the revenue, or an administrator of a hospital?

(40.)You have a silver coin, or even a gold coin in your possession, but that is not enough, for such coins only exercise their influence in large quantities; collect, if you can, a goodly number of them, make a heap of them, and then leave the rest to me. You are neither well-born, intelligent, talented, nor experienced, but what does it matter? only keep up your heap and I will take care to place you in such an eminent position that you shall stand covered before your master, if you have one; and he must be a very great man indeed, if, with the help of your daily increasing coin, I do not make him stand bareheaded in your presence.

(41.)Oranta has been at law these ten years to know in what court her cause is to be tried; her pretensions are well founded, of great importance, and her whole fortune is at stake. Perhaps about five years hence she may know who her judges are to be, and in what court she is to plead for the remaining years of her life.

(42.)The custom which has, of late, been adopted by our courts of judicature, of interrupting barristers whilst speaking, of preventing them from being eloquent and witty, of making them go back to the mere facts of a case, and to the bare proofs on which their clients base their rights, is very much approved of. This harsh measure, which makes orators regret they have to leave out the finest parts of their speeches, banishes eloquence from the only spot where it is not out of place, and will make of our Parliaments mute judicial tribunals, is founded on this sound and unanswerable argument, that it expedites the dispatch of business. I also wish the clerks would not forget to accelerate their business in the same way it is now done in court, and that not only barristers’ speeches but the reports in writing might be curtailed.

(43.)It is the duty of a judge to administer justice, but it is his profession to delay it; some judges know their duty and practise their profession.

(44.)Whenever a judge is solicited it reflects no credit on him, for either his knowledge or his honesty is considered doubtful, and an attempt is made to prejudice him or to get him to commit an injustice.

(45.)With certain judges court favour, authority, friendship, and family connections, damage a good cause, and an affectation of wishing to appear incorruptible induces them to become unjust.

(46.)A magistrate who is either a dandy or a gallant has a far worse influence than if he were a dissolute man, for the latter conceals his behaviour and intrigues, so that often it is not known how to approach him, whilst the former with many professed foibles may be influenced by every woman he wishes to please.

(47.)Religion and justice are almost alike respected in a commonwealth, and the character of a magistrate is considered nearly as sacred as that of a priest. A legal dignitary can hardly dance at a ball, be seen in a theatre, or doff his plain and modest apparel, without bringing contempt upon himself; it is strange a law should be necessary to regulate his outward appearance, and compel him to assume a grave and highly respectable air.

(48.)There exists no profession in which an apprenticeship is not necessary; and in considering the various stations of men, it is manifest that, from the highest to the lowest, some time has been allowed to every person for qualifying himself by practice and experience for his profession, when his errors have been of no importance, but, on the contrary, led to perfection. War itself, which seems to owe its origin to confusion and disorder, and to be fostered by them, has its own rules; people do not destroy one another in the open field, in platoons, and in bands, without having been taught it, for killing is practised methodically. There is a school for military men; then why should magistrates not have one? There are established practices, laws, and customs, but no time is allowed, or at least not sufficient time, for digesting and studying them. The first attempt and apprenticeship of a youth who, fresh from school, dons red garments, and has been made a judge on account of his money, is to decide arbitrarily of the lives and fortunes of men.

(49.)The chief qualification of an orator is probity; without it he is no more than a declaimer, and disguises or exaggerates matters of fact, makes use of falsified quotations, slanders, adopts all the injustice and malice of his client, and may be ranked among those advocates of whom the proverb says, “that they are hired to insult people.”

(50.)I have heard it said: “It is true I owe a certain sum to such and such a person, and his claim is indisputable; but I wait to see if he will execute a small matter of form, and if he omits it, he can never retrieve his error; consequently he will then lose his debt, and his claim will be undoubtedly superseded. Now, he is pretty sure to forget it!” The man who utters such words has a real pettifogger’s conscience.

An excellent, useful, sensible, wise, and just maxim for all courts of judicature would be the reverse of that which prefers form to equity.

(51.)Torture is an admirable invention, and infallibly destroys an innocent man who has a weak constitution, whilst it saves a guilty man who is hardy.

(52.)The punishment of a villain is an example for his fellows; in the condemnation of an innocent man all honest men are concerned.

Speaking of myself, I would almost affirm never to become a thief or murderer, but I would not be so bold as to infer that I might never be punished as such.

Deplorable is the condition of an innocent person whose trial has been hurried, and who is found guilty. Can even that of his judge be more lamentable?

(53.)If I had been told that in former ages a prévôt, or one of those magistrates appointed for the apprehension and destruction of rogues and thieves, had been long acquainted with all such rascals, knew their names and faces as well as the number and quantity of their robberies, and all particulars about them; and had so far penetrated all their actions and was so completely initiated in all their horrible mysteries that, to prevent the clamour some great man was about to raise for the loss of a jewel, stolen from him in a crowd when coming from some party, he knew how to restore it to him, and that Parliament interfered and had this magistrate tried; I should class such an event with many others in history, which in the course of time have become incredible. How, then, can I believe, what may be inferred from recent, well-known, and clearly proved facts, that such a pernicious connivance exists even at the present time, is made a jest of, and is looked upon as a matter of course?

(54.)There exists a large number of men, imperious towards the weak, firm and inflexible when solicited by commoners, without any regard for the inferior classes, rigid and severe in trifles, who will not accept the smallest present, nor be persuaded by their dearest friends and nearest relatives, and who only are to be bribed by women.

(55.)It is not absolutely impossible for a man who is in high favour to lose his suit.

(56.)A person who is dying may expect his last will to be listened to as if it was an oracle; every man puts his own construction on it and explains it as he pleases, or rather, as it will suit his inclination or his interest.

(57.)There are some men of whom we may truly say that death does not so much determine their last will as that it deprives them of life as well as of their irresolution and restlessness: a fit of anger moves them to make a will, whilst they are living, but when the fit is over it is torn to pieces and burnt. They have as many wills in their strong box as there are almanacs on their table, for every year is sure to produce a new one; a second will is annulled by a third, which is rendered void by another better drawn up, again invalidated by a fifth and holographic will. Yet if a person who has an interest in suppressing this last will has neither an opportunity, nor a desire, nor the means of doing so, he must stand by its clauses and conditions; for what can more clearly prove the intentions of a man, however changeable, than a last deed, under his own hand, made so lately that he had no time to change his mind?

(58.)If there were no wills to regulate the rights of lawful heirs, I question whether men would need any tribunal to adjust their differences; the functions of a judge would almost be reduced to the sad necessity of sending thieves and incendiaries to the gallows. Whom do you see in the galleries of the court, in the waiting-rooms, at the doors or in the rooms of the magistrates? Not heirs-at-law, for their rights are immutable; but legatees, going to law about the meaning of a clause or an article; disinherited persons who find fault with a will drawn up at leisure and with circumspection by a grave, able, and conscientious man, and not without the aid of a good lawyer; with a deed in which some cunning legal practitioner has not omitted an iota of his professional cant and his ordinary subtleties, signed by the testator and public witnesses, duly initialled, and which, notwithstanding all this, is set aside by the court and declared null and void.

(59.)Titius is present at the reading of a will; his eyes are red with weeping, and he is overcome with grief for the loss of a friend whose heir he expects to become. One clause of the will bequeaths him his friend’s official position, another his municipal bonds, by a third he becomes master of an estate in the country, and a fourth gives him a furnished house in the middle of town, with all its appurtenances. His grief increases, his tears flow abundantly, and he cannot contain himself; he already beholds himself in an official position, with a town and country house, both furnished in the same style; he intends to keep a good table and a carriage. “Was there ever a more gentlemanly or a better man than the deceased?” he asks. But a codicil is joined to the will which must also be read, by which Mævius is appointed sole heir, and Titius is sent back to the suburbs to trudge without money or titles. Titius wipes away his tears, and it is now Mævius’ duty to grieve.

(60.)Does not the law, in forbidding to kill, include also stabbing, poisoning, burning, drowning, lying in ambush, open violence, in a word, and all means tending to homicide? Does the law, which restrains husbands and wives from bequeathing property to one another, only refer to direct and immediate ways of giving? Has it made no provision against those that are indirect? Was it the cause of the introduction of trustees, and does it even tolerate them? When the dearest of wives outlives her husband, does a man bequeath his estate to a trusty friend as an acknowledgment of his friendship, or is it not rather a proof of his complete confidence and reliance on that friend who will make a right use of what has been intrusted to him? Will a man make over his estate to anyone whom he even suspects of not restoring it to the person for whom it is really intended? Is any speech or any letter needed, and is a contract or an oath necessary for such a collusion? Does not every man on such an occasion feel what he can expect from another man? If, on the contrary, the property of such an estate is vested in a trustee, why does he lose his reputation by retaining it? What, then, is the reason of all these satires and lampoons? Why is he compared to a guardian who betrays his trust, to a servant robbing his master of a sum of money he has to take somewhere? Such a comparison is wrong. Is it considered infamous not to perform a piece of liberality, and for a man to keep for his own use what is his own? How strangely perplexed, how terribly burdened, must such a trustee feel! If a man, out of respect for the laws, appropriates to himself a trust, he can no longer be thought an honest man; if, out of love for a deceased friend, he fulfils his intentions, and restores to the widow what has been intrusted to him, he lends his name, and transgresses the law. The law, then, does not harmonise with the opinions of men. Perhaps so, but it does not suit me to say whether the law is wrong or whether the people are mistaken.

(61.)I have been told that certain individuals or certain bodies of men contest with one another for precedence, and that presidents of Parliaments and peers dispute as to who shall go first. In my opinion either of the contending parties who avoids appearing when Parliament meets, yields, is conscious of its own weakness, and decides in favour of its competitors.

(62.)Typhon supplies a certain nobleman of high rank with horses, dogs, and everything. On the strength of that lord’s protection he behaves most audaciously, and does what he likes in his own province, without fear of being punished; he becomes a murderer, perjures himself, sets fire to his neighbours’ houses, and needs not look for a refuge. At last the prince is obliged to punish him himself.

(63.)“Stews, liqueurs, entrées, side dishes,” are words which should be foreign and unintelligible to us; such words should not be employed in times of peace, as they are only incentives to luxury and gluttony; but how come they to be continually mentioned in times of war, amidst public calamities, before an enemy, and on the very night before a battle, or during a siege? Where do we find any mention made of Scipio’s or Marius’s table? Do we read anywhere that Miltiades, Epaminondas, and Agesilaus were fond of good living? I should like no general to be commended for the goodness, elegance, and sumptuousness of his table, till everything that could be said about him had been told, and people had expatiated on all the details of some victory or the taking of some town. I should even be glad to see a general desirous of avoiding such commendations.

(64.)Hermippus makes himself a slave to what he calls “his little contrivances;” all habits, customs, fashions, decency itself, must be sacrificed to them; he looks for them everywhere, discards a lesser for a greater, and neglects none which is practicable; he studies them, and there is not a day but what he discovers a fresh one. Other men may take their dinners and suppers, but he objects to the very name of them, eats when he feels hungry, and then only of what he likes best. He must see his bed made, but no one is so skilful or fortunate to make it in such a way that he can sleep as he likes. He seldom leaves his house; he is partial to his own room, where he is neither idle nor busy, where he does no work, but muddles about in the garb of a man who has taken medicine. Other people are obliged to wait the leisure of a locksmith or a joiner, whenever they want them; but he has everything at hand: a file, if anything has to be filed: a saw, if anything has to be cut off, and a pair of pincers to pull out. You cannot mention any tools he has not got, and he fancies they are much better and more convenient than these workmen use; he has some new and unknown tools, without any name, of his own invention, and of which he has almost forgotten the use. There exists not a man who can be compared to him for performing in a short time and without much difficulty some labour which is perfectly useless. He was compelled to take ten steps to go from his bed to his lavatory; he has now so contrived his room as to reduce these ten to nine, so he saves a good many steps during the whole course of his life! Other people turn a key, and push and pull before a door opens, but this is very fatiguing and unnecessary, so he does without it. But he is not going to reveal by what means. In fact, he understands the use of springs and machinery, above all, of such machinery as the world can very well spare. Daylight is not admitted in Hermippus’ apartment through the window, but in quite a different way; he has also discovered a secret for going up and down the house otherwise than by the stairs, and is now studying how to go in and out more conveniently than by the door.

(65.)Physicians have been attacked for a long time, and yet every one consults them; neither the sallies of the stage nor of satire diminish their fees; they give dowries to their daughters, have sons magistrates and bishops; and all this is paid for by the very persons who make fun of them. People who are in good health fall ill some day or other, and then they want a man whose trade it is to assure them they shall not die. As long as men are liable to die, and are desirous to live, a physician will be made fun of, but he will be well paid.

(66.)A good physician is a man who employs specifics, or, if he has not got any, allows those persons who have them to cure his patient.

(67.)Quacks are rash, and therefore rarely successful; hence physic and physicians are in vogue; the latter let you die, the former kill you.

(68.)Carro Carri lands in France with a recipe which he says cures in a short time, and which, sometimes, is a slow poison; it has been in the hands of his family for many years, but he has improved it. It is a specific against the colic, yet he cures quartan ague, pleurisy, dropsy, apoplexy, and epilepsy. Rack your memory a little, and mention the first disease you can think of, let us say hemorrhage; he can cure it. It is true he raises no one from the dead, and does not restore men to life, but he keeps them, of course, till they are decrepit, for it is by mere chance that his father and grandfather, who were acquainted with the secret, both died very young. Physicians receive for their visits the fees people give them, and some are even satisfied with thanks; but Carro Carri is so certain of his remedy, and of its effect, that he does not hesitate to take his fee beforehand, and expects to receive before he has given anything. If the disease be incurable, so much the better; it will be the more deserving of his attention and his remedy. Begin with putting into his hands thousands of francs, make over to him some bonds, and then you have no longer any need to be more uneasy about your cure than he himself is. The world is full of men with names ending in o and i, most respectable names, who are all rivals of this man, and impose on the patients and the disease. Fagon, you will admit that neither your physicians nor those of all the faculties in the world always cure or are certain of their cure; but those who have inherited their empirical medicine from their forefathers, and whose experience has come to them in the same way, always promise, and even pledge themselves by oath, to cure their patients. How sweet it is for men not to abandon hope even when attacked by a mortal disease, and still to think they are pretty well when expiring! Death is then an agreeable surprise, and comes without striking terror beforehand; so that a man feels it before he has thought of preparing for it and giving himself up to it. O Esculapius, Fagon! Establish throughout the world the reign of Peruvian bark and of emetics; carry to its perfection the science of those plants which are given to man for prolonging life; observe in your practice, with more exactness and judgment than was ever done before, the influence of climate and weather, the various symptoms and the natural disposition of your patients; treat them in the only way which suits them and by which they can be cured; eradicate the most obscure and inveterate diseases from the human body, which has no secrets for you; but do not attempt the diseases of the mind, for they can never be cured, and leave, therefore, to Corinna, Lesbia, Canidia, Trimalcion, and Carpus, the passion, or rather the mania, they have for quacks.

(69.)Astrologers and fortune-tellers, who practise palmistry and calculate nativities, guess at things past by the motion of a sieve, and show undimmed truth in a looking-glass or in a cup of water, are publicly tolerated; such people are, indeed, not without their use; they predict to men they’ll make their fortune, to girls they shall marry their sweethearts, console those children whose fathers are too long dying, and calm the restlessness of young women married to old men; in a word, they deceive, but not at a very high rate, those who wish to be deceived.

(70.)What is to be thought of magic and sorcery? Its theory is very obscure; its principles are vague, uncertain, and visionary, but some facts have been produced which are perplexing, and certified by serious-minded men who were present when they happened, or learned them from other men as reliable as they themselves are. To admit or to deny all these facts seems equally absurd, and I venture to say that in this and in other extraordinary things which deviate from nature’s laws, a middle course has to be steered between mere credulity and obstinate rejection.

(71.)Children can scarcely know too many languages, and methinks, all means should be taken to facilitate their acquiring them; there is no condition of life in which they are not useful, for they clear the way for the acquisition of solid learning, as well as for easy and pleasant acquirements. If this somewhat difficult study is put off to that more advanced age which is called youth, people have no longer the strength of mind and the will to follow it up, and if they do, they find it impossible to persevere; for in studying those languages they consume that very time which should be applied in speaking them, and confine themselves to mastering words when they wish to proceed beyond, and require facts; and thus they lose the first and most valuable years of their life. Such a grand foundation can never rightly be laid, unless it be when the soul naturally receives everything, is deeply impressed by it, and when the memory is fresh, quick, and steady; when the mind and the heart are yet void of passions, cares, and desires, and when those who have a right to dispose of us, induce us to labour for a considerable time. I am convinced the small number of true scholars and the great number of superficial ones is owing to the neglect of this rule.

(72.)The study of the original texts can never be sufficiently recommended; it is the shortest, the safest, and the most pleasant way for all kinds of learning. Take things from the beginning, go to the main spring, read over the text repeatedly, learn it by heart, quote it upon occasions; above all, apply yourself to penetrate the sense of it to its fullest extent and in all its circumstances, reconcile an author’s various sentiments, settle his principles, and draw your own conclusions. The early commentators were in the very position I should wish you to be; never borrow their explanations nor adopt their ideas unless your own fail you, for their interpretation is not yours and may easily slip out of your memory; on the contrary, your observations have sprung up in your own mind, will abide with you, and more readily recur in your conversations, consultations, and discussions. You will be delighted to observe that in your reading no insurmountable difficulties will present themselves except those that have nonplussed commentators and scholiasts themselves, who, moreover, have at their command such a rich and abundant store of vain and useless learning when passages are sufficiently clear and present no difficulties to themselves nor to others. This system of studying the original texts will convince you that men’s laziness has encouraged pedants to increase the bulk of libraries rather than their worth, and to crush the text under a weight of commentaries; by doing this they have injured themselves and acted contrary to their own interests, as those same commentaries have caused an increase of reading, researches, and of that kind of labour which they intended to render useless.

(73.)What is it that governs men in their way of living and in their diet? Is it health and sobriety? That is the question. Whole nations first eat fruit and meat afterwards, whilst others do quite the contrary, and some begin their meal with one kind of fruit and finish it with another. Does this proceed from reason or custom? Is it for their health’s sake that men wear their clothes buttoned up to their chin, and put on ruffs and bands after going for so many ages quite open-breasted? Is it for the sake of decency, especially at a time when they have found the means of appearing undressed though they are dressed? On the other hand, are women who expose their breasts and shoulders, less delicate in their constitution than men, or less inclined to decency? It is a strange kind of modesty which induces them to hide their legs and almost their feet, and at the same time allows them to bare their arms to the elbow. How came men formerly to think they had to attack or defend themselves whilst waging war, and who taught them the use of offensive and defensive arms? What obliges them to-day to lay these aside, to put on boots to go to a ball, and to support the pioneers in the trenches, exposed to the whole fire of a counterscarp, without having any arms, and only dressed in a doublet. Were our forefathers wise or senseless in not deeming such a practice useful to their king or their country? And who are our heroes renowned in history? A du Guesclin, a Clisson, a Foix, a Boucicault, who all wore helmets and buckled on breastplates?

Who can account for the introduction of certain words and the proscription of others?

Ains is lost; the vowel beginning it, and which could so easily be cut off, could not save it; it gave way to another monosyllable which at best is but its anagram. Certes is beautiful in its old age, and has yet strength, though declining; it should be used in poetry, and our language is under some obligation to those authors who employ it in prose and defend it in their works. Maint is a word which should never have been forsaken, and on account of its adaptability for any style and for the sake of its French origin. Moult, though descended from the Latin, possessed in its time the same merit, and I do not see why beaucoup should be preferred to it. Car has endured some persecution, and if it had not been protected by some men of culture, it would have been shamefully banished from a language which it had served so long; and this without knowing what word to put in its place. When cil was in fashion it was one of the prettiest words of the French language; and it is a sad thing for the poets that it has become antiquated. Douloureux is, of course, derived from douleur, and so are chaleureux or chaloureux from chaleur: yet chaloureux is going out, though it enriched our tongue, and was employed quite correctly when chaud was not the right expression. Valeur ought also to have given us valeureux; haine, haineux; peine, peineux; fruit, fructueux; pitié, piteux; joie, jovial; foi, féal; cour, courtois; gîte, gisant; haleine, halené; vanterie, vantard; mensonge, mensonger; coutume, coutumier; just as part should have produced partial; point, pointu and pointilleux; ton, tonnant; son, sonore; frein, effréné; front, effronté; ris, ridicule; loi, légal; cœur, cordial; bien, benin; and mal, malicieux. Heur was allowed when bonheur did not suit; from the first arose heureux, which is so French and yet exists no longer; if some poets have employed it, it is more for the sake of the measure than from choice. Issue prospers, and comes from issir, no longer in existence. Fin is used, but not finer, which is derived from it, whilst cesse and cesser are still flourishing. Verd no longer gives verdoyer, nor fête, fétoyer; nor larme, larmoyer; nor deuil, se douloir and se condouloir; nor joie, s’éjouir; though it still makes se réjouir and se conjouir, whilst orgueil gives s’enorgueillir. Formerly gent was used, as in le corps gent; this easy word is not alone no longer in use, but it has involved gentil in its ruin. We employ diffamé, which proceeds from fame, which is out of date, and curieux is derived from cure, now obsolete. It was much better to say si que than de sorte que or de manière que, de moi instead of pour moi or quant à moi; je sais que c’est qu’un mal than je sais ce que c’est qu’un mal, whether you consider the Latin analogy, or the benefit we often derive from using a word less in a phrase. Custom has preferred par conséquent to par conséquence, and en conséquence to en conséquent; façons de faire to manières de faire, and manières d’agir to façons d’agir…; in the verbs travailler to ouvrer; être accoutumé to souloir; convenir to duire; faire du bruit to bruire; injurier to vilainer; piquer to poindre; and faire ressouvenir to ramentevoir…; and in the nouns pensées to pensers, which is such a beautiful word and so suited for poetry; grandes actions to prouesses; louanges to los; méchanceté to mauvaistié; porte to huis; navire to nef; armée to ost; monastère to monstier; and prairies to prées…; all words, equally fine, which might have been used together and rendered the language more copious. Through adding, suppressing, changing, or displacing some letters, custom has formed frelater from fralater; prouver from preuver; profit from proufit; froment from froument; profil from pourfil; provision from pourveoir; promener from pourmener, and promenade from pourmenade. This same custom upon occasion makes the adjectives habile, utile, facile, docile, mobile, and fertile of different genders, without changing anything in their spelling; whilst, on the contrary, the masculine vil and subtil change in the feminine and become vile and subtile. It has altered the old terminations, and of scel made sceau; of mantel, manteau; of capel, chapeau; of coutel, couteau; of hamel, hameau; of damoisel, damoiseau; of jouvencel, jouvenceau; and yet all these differences and changes have been of no perceptible advantage to the French tongue. Is it, therefore, a progress for a language to be governed by custom, and would it not be better to shake off the yoke of such despotic sway? Or shall we in a living language only listen to reason, which prevents the use of words having a double meaning, traces these words to their roots, and discovers what relation they bear to those languages from which they sprang, if that very reason bids us follow custom?

Whether our ancestors wrote better than we do, or whether we excel them in our selection of words, style, and expression, perspicuity and brevity, is a question often debated but never yet decided. But this question is not at an end, if people will compare, as they sometimes do, a dull writer of a past century to the most celebrated authors of the present age, or the verses of Laurent, who is paid for not writing any more, to those of Marot and Desportes. In order to judge sensibly in this case we should compare one age to another, and one first-rate piece of literary work to another, such as, for example, the best rondeaux of Benserade and Voiture to the following two, which tradition has handed down to us, but without transmitting to us the name of the authors, or the time when they were written:—

  • In timely sort Ogier came into Fraunce,
  • Of Paynim misbegot to rid the lond;
  • Needs not that I should tell his puissaunce,
  • Sit never foeman durst his glaunce withstond.
  • Tho’ when he hath set all in happy chaunce,
  • Forth on a perlous jorney bent, he fond
  • In Paradise the well of youth’s joyaunce,
  • Wherewith he thought to stay time’s threatening hood
  • In timely sort.
  • Tho’ by this well his body, weak with years,
  • Upon a sodain changéd quight appears
  • To youthful wight, fresh, limber eke, and straight.
  • Great pitye ’tis such lesinges tell no truth!
  • Virgins I wot of that bene past their youth,
  • To whom this bath had come, ere yet too late,
  • In timely sort.
  • Of this prow knight full many clerks have penned
  • That never daunger could his corage scare:
  • Whom natheless the foul fiend, which unaware
  • He ’spoused in woman’s shape, did foully shend.
  • So piteous case left his stout heart at end
  • Without one taint of fear or sordid care:
  • Whereof great praise throughout the world he bare—
  • If aught of credence we to tales may lend
  • Of this prow knight.
  • Eftsoones it chaunced the daughter of the king
  • Earned for his love, and made free offering
  • To Richard, of herself for second wife.
  • Then, if to keep a woman or a fiend
  • Be better, and which stirs more hellish strife,
  • He that would weet may question which was weened
  • Of this prow knight.