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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

Suard afterwards perpetual secretary to the French Academy


On

returning to his castle of La Brede after so many and such long travels, Montesquieu resolved to restore his tone by intercourse with the past. "I confess my liking for the ancients," he used to say; "this antiquity enchants me, and I am always ready to say with Pliny, 'You are going to Athens; revere the gods.'" It was not, however, on the Greeks that he concentrated the working of his mind; in 1734, he published his _Considerations sur les causes de la grandeur et de la decadence des Romaine_. Montesquieu did not, as Bossuet did, seek to hit upon God's plan touching the destinies of mankind; he discovers in the virtues and vices of the Romans themselves the secret of their triumphs and of their reverses. The contemplation of antiquity inspires him with language often worthy of Tacitus, curt, nervous, powerful in its grave simplicity. "It seemed," he says, "that the Romans only conquered in order to give; but they remained so positively the masters that, when they made war on any prince, they crushed him, so to speak, with the weight of the whole universe."

Montesquieu thus performed the prelude to the great work of his life; he had been working for twenty years at the _Esprit des lois,_ when he published it in 1748. "In the course of twenty years," he says, "I saw my work begin, grow, progress, and end." He had placed as the motto to his book this Latin phrase, which at first excited the curiosity of readers: _Prolem sine matre creatam_

(Offspring begotten without a mother). "Young man," said Montesquieu, by this time advanced in years, to M. Suard (afterwards perpetual secretary to the French Academy), "young man, when a notable book is written, genius is its father, and liberty its mother; that is why I wrote upon the title-page of my work, "Prolem sine matre creatam."

It was liberty at the same time as justice that Montesquieu sought and claimed in his profound researches into the laws which have from time immemorial governed mankind; that new instinctive idea of natural rights, those new yearnings which were beginning to dawn in all hearts, remained as yet, for the most part, upon the surface of their minds and of their lives; what was demanded at that time in France was liberty to speak and write rather than to act and govern. Montesquieu, on the contrary, went to the bottom of things, and, despite the natural moderation of his mind, he propounded theories so perilous for absolute power that he dared not have his book printed at Paris, and brought it out in Geneva; its success was immense; before his death, Montesquieu saw twenty-one French editions published, and translations in all the languages of Europe. "Mankind had lost its titledeeds," says Voltaire; "Montesquieu recovered and restored them."

The intense labor, the immense courses of reading, to which Montesquieu had devoted himself, had exhausted his strength. "I am overcome with weariness," he wrote in 1747; "I propose to rest myself for the remainder of my days." "I have done," he said to M. Suard; "I have burned all my powder, all my candles have gone out." "I had conceived the design of giving greater breadth and depth to certain parts of my _Esprit;_ I have become incapable of it; my reading has weakened my eyes, and it seems to me that what light I have left is but the dawn of the day when they will close forever."


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