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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Animated by a vivacious attack upon the physiocrats


In

1770 the Abbe Galiani, as alert of brain as he was diminutive of stature, attacked the physiocratic doctrines in his _Dialogues sur le Commerce des Bles_, which Plato and Moliere--so Voltaire pronounced--had combined to write. The refutation of the _Dialogues_ by Morellet was the result of no such brilliant collaboration, and Galiani, proposed that his own unstatuesque person should be honoured by a statue above an inscription, declaring that he had wiped out the economists, who were sending the nation to sleep. The fame of his _Dialogues_ was perhaps in large measure due to the party-spirit of the Encyclopaedists, animated by a vivacious attack upon the physiocrats. The book was applauded, but reached no second edition.

An important body of articles on literature was contributed to the _Encyclopedie_ by JEAN-FRANCOIS MARMONTEL. As early as 1719 a remarkable study in aesthetics had appeared--the _Reflexions Critiques sur la Poesie et la Peinture_, by the Abbe Dubos. Art is conceived as a satisfaction of the craving for vivid sensations and emotions apart from the painful consequences which commonly attend these in actual life. That portion of Dubos' work which treats of "physical causes in the progress of art and literature," anticipates the views of Montesquieu on the influence of climate, and studies the action of environment on the products of the imagination. In 1746 Charles Batteux, in his treatise _Les Beaux-Arts reduits a un meme Principe_,

defined the end of art as the imitation of nature--not indeed of reality, but of nature in its actual or possible beauty; of nature not as it is, but as it may be. The articles of Marmontel, revised and collected in the six volumes of his _Elements de Litterature_ (1787), were full of instruction for his own time, delicate and just in observation, as they often were, if not penetrating or profound. In his earlier _Poetique Francaise_--"a petard," said Mairan, "laid at the doors of the Academy to blow them up if they should not open"--he had shown himself strangely disrespectful towards the fame of Racine, Boileau, and the poet Rousseau.

The friend of Marmontel, Antoine-Leonard Thomas (1732-85), honourably distinguished by the dignity of his character and conduct, a composer of _Eloges_ on great men, somewhat marred by strain and oratorical emphasis, put his best work into an _Essai sur les Eloges_. At a time when Bossuet was esteemed below his great deserts, Thomas--almost alone--recognised his supremacy in eloquence. As the century advanced, and philosophy developed its attack on religion and governments, the classical tradition in literature not only remained unshaken, but seemed to gain in authority. The first lieutenant of Voltaire, his literary "son," LAHARPE (1739-1803) represents the critical temper of the time. In 1786 he began his courses of lectures at the Lycee, before a brilliant audience composed of both sexes. For the first time in France, instruction in literature, not trivial and not erudite, but suited to persons of general culture, was made an intellectual pleasure. For the first time the history of literature was treated, in its sequence from Homer to modern times, as a totality. Laharpe's judgments of his contemporaries were often misled by his bitterness of spirit; his mind was not capacious, his sympathies were not liberal; his knowledge, especially of Greek letters, was defective. But he knew the great age of Louis XIV., and he felt the beauty of its art. No one has written with finer intelligence of Racine than he in his _Lycee, ou Cours de Litterature_. As the Revolution approached he sympathised with its hopes and fears; the professor donned the _bonnet rouge_. The storm which burst silenced his voice for a time; in 1793 he suffered imprisonment; and when he occupied his chair again, it was a converted Laharpe who declaimed against philosophers, republicans, and atheists, the tyrants of reason, morals, art and letters.


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