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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

Illustration Fontenelle 274 Born at Rouen in February


Montesquieu

was at Paris, ill and sad at heart, in spite of his habitual serenity; notwithstanding the scoffs he had admitted into his _Lettres persanes,_ he had always preserved some respect for religion; he considered it a necessary item in the order of societies; in his soul and on his own private account he hoped and desired rather than believed. "Though the immortality of the soul were an error," he had said, "I should be sorry not to believe it; I confess that I am not so humble as the atheists. I know not what they think, but as for me I would not truck the notion of my immortality for that of an ephemeral happiness. There is for me a charm in believing myself to be immortal like God himself. Independently of revealed ideas, metaphysical ideas give me, as regards my eternal happiness, strong hopes which I should not like to give up." As he approached the tomb, his views of religion appeared to become clearer. "What a wonderful thing!" he would say, "the Christian religion, which seems to have no object but felicity in the next world, yet forms our happiness in this." He had never looked to life for any very keen delights; his spirits were as even as his mind was powerful. "Study has been for me the sovereign remedy against the disagreeables of life," he wrote, "never having had any sorrow that an hour's reading did not dispel. I awake in the morning with a secret joy at beholding the light; I gaze upon the light with a sort of enchantment, and all the rest of the day I am content.
I pass the night without awaking, and in the evening, when I go to bed, a sort of entrancement prevents me from giving way to reflections."

Montesquieu died as he had lived, without retracting any of his ideas or of his writings. The priest of his parish brought him the sacraments, and, "Sir," said he, "you know how great God is!" "Yes," replied the dying man, "and how little men are!" He expired almost immediately on the 10th of February, 1755, at the age of sixty-six. He died at the beginning of the reign of the philosophers, whose way he had prepared before them without having ever belonged to their number. Diderot alone followed his bier. Fontenelle, nearly a hundred years old, was soon to follow him to the tomb.

[Illustration: Fontenelle----274]

Born at Rouen in February, 1657, and nephew of Corneille on the mother's side, Fontenelle had not received from nature any of the unequal and sublime endowments which have fixed the dramatic crown forever upon the forehead of Corneille; but he had inherited the wit, and indeed the brilliant wit (_bel esprit_), which the great tragedian hid beneath the splendors of his genius. He began with those writings, superfine (_precieux_), dainty, tricked out in the fashion of the court and the drawing-room, which suggested La Bruyere's piquant portrait.

"Ascanius is a statuary, Hegio a metal-founder, AEschines a fuller, and Cydias a brilliant wit. That is his trade; he has a sign, a workshop, articles made to order, and apprentices who work under him. Prose, verse, what d'ye lack? He is equally successful in both. Give him an order for letters of consolation, or on an absence; he will undertake them. Take them ready made, if you like, and enter his shop; there is a choice assortment. He has a friend whose only duty on earth is to puff him for a long while in certain society, and then present him at their houses as a rare bird and a man of exquisite conversation, and thereupon, just as the musical man sings and the player on the lute touches his lute before the persons to whom he has been puffed, Cydias, after coughing, pulling up his wristband, extending his hand and opening his fingers, gravely spouts his quintessentiated ideas and his sophisticated arguments."


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