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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

Voltaire took Racine for model


with so vivid a lustre as in

the reign of Louis XIV.; never has it been in a greater degree the occupation and charm of mankind, never has it left nobler and rarer models behind it for the admiration and imitation of the coming race; the writers of Louis XV.'s age, for all their brilliancy and all their fertility, themselves felt their inferiority in respect of their predecessors. Voltaire confessed as much with a modesty which was by no means familiar to him. Inimitable in their genius, Corneille, Bossuet, Pascal, Moliere left their imprint upon the generation that came after them; it had judgment enough to set them by acclamation in the ranks of the classics; in their case, greatness displaced time. Voltaire took Racine for model; La Mothe imagined that he could imitate La Fontaine. The illustrious company of great minds which surrounded the throne of Louis XIV., and had so much to do with the lasting splendor of his reign, had no reason to complain of ingratitude on the part of its successors; but, from the pedestal to which they raised it, it exercised no potent influence upon new thought and new passions. Enclosed in their glory as in a sanctuary, those noble spirits, discreet and orderly even in their audacities, might look forth on commotions and yearnings they had never known; they saw, with astonishment mingled with affright, their successors launching without fear or afterthought upon that boundless world of intellect, upon which the rules of conscience and the difficulties of practical life
do not come in anywhere to impose limits. They saw the field everywhere open to human thought, and they saw falling down on all sides the boundaries which they had considered sacred. They saw pioneers, as bold as they were thoughtless, marching through the mists of a glorious hope towards an unknown future, attacking errors and abuses, all the while that they were digging up the groundwork of society in order to lay new foundations, and they must have shuddered even in their everlasting rest to see ideas taking the place of creeds, doubt substituted for belief, generous aspirations after liberty, justice, and humanity mingled, amongst the masses, with low passions and deep-seated rancor. They saw respect disappearing, the church as well as the kingly power losing prestige every day, religious faith all darkened and dimmed in some corner of men's souls, and, amidst all this general instability, they asked themselves with awe, "What are the guiding-reins of the society which is about to be? What will be the props of the new fabric? The foundations are overturned; what will the good man do?"

[Illustration: Montesquieu----269]

Good men had themselves sometimes lent a hand to the work, beyond what they had intended or foreseen, perhaps; Montesquieu, despite the wise moderation of his great and strong mind, had been the first to awaken that yearning for novelty and reforms which had been silently brooding at the bottom of men's hearts. Born in 1689 at the castle of La Brede, near Bordeaux, Montesquieu really belonged, in point of age, to the reign of Louis XIV., of which he bears the powerful imprint even amidst the boldness of his thoughts and expressions. Grandeur is the distinctive characteristic of Montesquieu's ideas, as it is of the seventeenth century altogether. He was already councillor in the Parliament of Bordeaux when Louis XIV. died; next year (1716) he took possession of a mortar-cap president's (_president d mortier_) office, which had been given up to him by one of his uncles. "On leaving college," he says, "there were put into my hands some law-books; I examined the spirit of them." Those profound researches, which were to last as long as his life, were more suited to his tastes than jurisprudence properly so called. "What has always given me rather a low opinion of


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