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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

It was the task of RENE DESCARTES 1596 1650


In

what may be called the regulation of French prose the influence of JEAN-LOUIS GUEZ DE BALZAC (1594-1654) was considerable. He had learnt from Malherbe that a literary craftsman should leave nothing to chance, that every effect should be exactly calculated. It was his task to apply to prose the principles which had guided his master in verse. His _Lettres_, of which a first series appeared in 1624, and a second twelve years later, are not the spontaneous intercourse of friend with friend, but rather studious compositions which deal with matters of learning, literature, morals, religion, politics, events, and persons of the time. Their contents are of little importance; Balzac was not an original thinker, but he had the art of arranging his ideas, and of expressing them in chosen words marshalled in ample and sonorous sentences. A certain fire he had, a limited power of imagination, a cultivated judgment, a taste, which suffered from bad workmanship; a true affection for rural life. These hardly furnished him with matter adequate to support his elevated style. His letters were regarded as models of eloquence; but it is eloquence manufactured artificially and applied to subjects, not proceeding from them. His _Prince_, a treatise on the virtues of kings, with a special reference to Louis XIII., was received coldly. His _Aristippe_, which dealt with the manners and morals of a court, and his _Socrate Chretien_, a study in ethics and theology, were efforts beyond his powers. His gift
to literature was a gift of method and of style; others who worked in marble learned something from his studious modellings in clay.

To regulate thought required an intellect of a different order from that of Balzac, "emperor of orators." It was the task of RENE DESCARTES (1596-1650). A child of delicate health, born at La Haye, near Tours, he became, under Jesuit teachers, a precocious student both in languages and science. But truth, not erudition, was the demand and the necessity of his mind. Solitary investigations in mathematics were for a time succeeded by the life of a soldier in the Netherlands and Holland. The stream of thought was flowing, however, underground. Suddenly it emerged to light. In 1619, when the young volunteer was in winter quarters at Neuburg, on the Danube, on a memorable day the first principles of a new philosophical method presented themselves to his intellect, and, as it were, claimed him for their interpreter. After wanderings through various parts of Europe, and a period of studious leisure in Paris, he chose Holland for his place of abode (1629), and though often shifting his residence, little disturbed save by the controversies of philosophy and the orthodox zeal of Dutch theologians, he gave his best hours during twenty years to thought. An invitation from Queen Christina to the Swedish court was accepted in 1649. The change in his habits and the severity of a northern winter proved fatal to the health which Descartes had carefully cherished; in February of 1650 he was dead.

The mathematical cycle in the development of Descartes' system of thought preceded the metaphysical. His great achievements in analytical geometry, in optics, in physical research, his explanation of the laws of nature, and their application in his theory of the material universe, belong to the history of science. Algebra and geometry led him towards his method in metaphysical speculation. How do all primary truths verify themselves to the human mind? By the fact that an object is clearly and distinctly


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