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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

The inward life of the heart was studied by a young moralist


The

_Esprit des Lois_ was denounced by Jansenists and Jesuits; it was placed in the Index, but in less than two years twenty-two editions had appeared, and it was translated into many languages. The author justified it brilliantly in his _Defense_ of 1750. His later writings are of small importance. With failing eyesight in his declining years, he could enjoy the society of friends and the illumination of his great fame. He died tranquilly (1755) at the age of sixty-six, in the spirit of a Christian Stoic.

II

The life of society was studied by Montesquieu; the inward life of the heart was studied by a young moralist, whose premature loss was lamented with tender passion by Voltaire.

Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de VAUVENARGUES, though neither a thinker nor a writer of the highest order, attaches us by the beauty of his character as seen through his half-finished work, more than any other author of the earlier part of the eighteenth century. He was born (1715) at Aix, in Provence, received a scanty education, served in the army during more than ten years, retired with broken health and found no other employment, lived on modest resources, enjoyed the acquaintance of the Marquis de Mirabeau and the friendship and high esteem of Voltaire, and died in 1747, at the early age of thirty-two. His knowledge of literature hardly extended beyond that of his French predecessors of the seventeenth

century. The chief influences that reached him came from Pascal, Bossuet, and Fenelon. His learning was derived from action, from the observation of men, and from acquaintance with his own heart.

The writings of Vauvenargues are the fragmentary _Introduction a la Connaissance de l'Esprit Humain_, followed by _Reflexions et Maximes_ (1746), and a few short pieces of posthumous publication. He is a moralist, who studies those elements of character which tend to action, and turns away from metaphysical speculations. His early faith in Christianity insensibly declined and disappeared, but his spirit remained religious; he believed in God and immortality, and he never became a militant philosopher. He thought generously of human nature, but without extravagant optimism. The reason, acting alone, he distrusted; he found the source of our highest convictions and our noblest practice in the emotions, in the heart, in the obscure depths of character and of nature. Here, indeed, is Vauvenargues' originality. In an age of ill living, he conceived a worthy ideal of conduct; in an age tending towards an exaggerated homage to reason, he honoured the passions: "Great thoughts come from the heart"; "We owe, perhaps, to the passions the greatest gains of the intellect"; "The passions have taught men reason."

Vauvenargues, with none of the violences of Rousseau's temperament, none of the excess of his sensibility, by virtue of his recognition of the potency of nature, of the heart, may be called a precursor of Rousseau. Into his literary criticism he carries the same tendencies: it is far from judicial criticism; its merit is that it is personal and touched with emotion. His total work seems but a fragment, yet his life had a certain completeness; he knew how to act, to think, to feel, and after great sufferings, borne with serenity, he knew how to die.


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