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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

And advanced from deism to atheism


His

correspondence presents a vivid image of the man and of the group of philosophers to which he belonged; the letters addressed to Mlle. Volland, to whom he was devotedly attached during many years, are frank betrayals of his character and his life. Her loss saddened his last days, but the days of sorrow were few. In July 1784, Diderot died. His reputation and influence were from time to time enhanced by posthumous publications. Other writers of his century impressed their own personalities more distinctly and powerfully upon society; no other writer mingled his genius so completely with external things, or responded so fully and variously to the stimulus of the spirit of his age.

II

The French philosophical movement--the "Illumination"--of the eighteenth century, proceeds in part from the empiricism of Locke, in part from the remarkable development of physical and natural science; it incorporated the conclusions of English deism, and advanced from deism to atheism. An intellectual centre for the movement was provided by the _Encyclopedie_; a social centre was found in Parisian _salons_. It was sustained and invigorated by the passion for freedom and for justice asserting itself against the despotism and abuses of government and against the oppressions and abuses of the Church. The opposing forces were feeble, incompetent, disorganised. The methods of government were, in truth, indefensible; religion had surrendered

dogma, and lost the austerity of morals; within the citadel of the Church were many professed and many secret allies of the philosophers.

While in England an apologetic literature arose, profound in thought and adequate in learning, in France no sustained resistance was offered to the inroad of free thought. Episcopal fulminations rolled like stage thunder; the Bastille and Vincennes were holiday retreats for fatigued combatants; imprisonment was tempered with cajoleries; the censors of the press connived with their victims. The Chancellor D'AGUESSEAU (1668-1751), an estimable magistrate, a dignified orator, maintained the old seriousness of life and morals, and received the reward of exile. The good ROLLIN (1661-1741) dictated lessons to youth drawn from antiquity and Christianity, narrated ancient history, and discoursed admirably on a plan of studies with a view to form the heart and mind; an amiable Christian Nestor, he was not a man-at-arms. The Abbe Guenee replied to Voltaire with judgment, wit, and erudition, in his _Lettres de quelques Juifs_ (1769), but it was a single victory in a campaign of many battles. The satire of Gilbert, _Le Dix-huitieme Siecle_, is rudely vigorous; but Gilbert was only an angry youth, disappointed of his fame. Freron, the "Wasp" (_frelon_) of Voltaire's _L'Ecossaise_, might sting in his _Annee Litteraire_, but there were sharper stings in satire and epigram which he must endure. Palissot might amuse the theatrical spectators of 1760 with his ridiculous philosophers; the _Philosophes_ was taken smilingly by Voltaire, and was sufficiently answered by Morellet's pamphlet and the _bouts-rimes_ of Marmontel or Piron. The _Voltairomanie_ of Desfontaines is only the outbreak of resentment of the accomplished and disreputable Abbe against a benefactor whose offence was to have saved him from the galleys.

The sensationalist philosophy is inaugurated by JULIEN OFFRAY DE LA METTRIE (1709-51) rather than by Condillac. A physician, making observations on his own case during an attack of fever, he arrived at the conclusion that thought is but a result of the mechanism of the body. Man is a machine more ingeniously organised than the brute. All ideas have their origin in sensation. As for morals, they are not absolute, but relative to society and the State. As for God, perhaps He exists, but why should we worship this existence more than any other? The law of our being is to seek happiness; the law of society is that we should not interfere with the happiness of others. The pleasure of the senses is not the only pleasure, but it has the distinction of being universal to our species.


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