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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

The friends of Fontenelle were moderate like himself


Fontenelle

was not destined to stop here in his intellectual developments; when, at forty years of age, he became perpetual secretary to the Academy of Sciences, he had already written his book on the _Pluralite des Mondes,_ the first attempt at that popularization of science which has spread so since then. "I believe more and more," he said, "that there is a certain genius which has never yet been out of our Europe, or, at least, has not gone far out of it." This genius, clear, correct, precise, the genius of method and analysis, the genius of Descartes, which was at a later period that of Buffon and of Cuvier, was admirably expounded and developed by Fontenelle for the use of the ignorant. He wrote for society, and not for scholars, of whose labors and discoveries he gave an account to society. His extracts from the labors of the Academy of Science and his eulogies of the Academicians are models of lucidness under an ingenious and subtle form, rendered simple and strong by dint of wit. "There is only truth that persuades," he used to say, "and even without requiring to appear with all its proofs. It makes its way so naturally into the mind, that, when it is heard for the first time, it seems as if one were merely remembering."

Equitable and moderate in mind, prudent and cold in temperament, Fontenelle passed his life in discussion without ever stumbling into disputes. "I am no theologian, or philosopher, or man of any denomination, of any sort

whatever; consequently I am not at all bound to be right, and I can with honor confess that I was mistaken, whenever I am made to see it." "How did you manage to keep so many friends without making one enemy?" he was asked in his old age. "By means of two maxims," he answered: "Everything is possible; everybody may be right" (_tout le monde a raison_). The friends of Fontenelle were moderate like himself; impressed with his fine qualities, they pardoned his lack of warmth in his affections. "He never laughed," says Madame Geoffrin, his most intimate friend. "I said to him one day, 'Did you ever laugh, M. de Fontenelle?' 'No,' he answered; 'I never went ha! ha! ha!' That was his idea of laughing; he just smiled at smart things, but he was a stranger to any strong feeling. He had never shed tears, he had never been in a rage, he had never run, and, as he never did anything from sentiment, he did not catch impressions from others. He had never interrupted anybody, he listened to the end without losing anything; he was in no hurry to speak, and, if you had been accusing against him, he would have listened all day without saying a syllable."

The very courage and trustiness of Fontenelle bore this stamp of discreet moderation. When Abbe St. Pierre was excluded from the French Academy under Louis XV. for having dared to criticise the government of Louis XIV., one single ball in the urn protested against the unjust pressure exercised by Cardinal Fleury upon the society. They all asked one another who the rebel was; each defended himself against having voted against the minister's order; Fontenelle alone kept silent; when everybody had exculpated himself, "It must be myself, then," said Fontenelle half aloud.

So much cool serenity and so much taste for noble intellectual works prolonged the existence of Fontenelle beyond the ordinary limits; he was ninety-nine and not yet weary of life. "If I might but reach the strawberry-season once more!" he had said. He died at Paris on the 9th of January, 1759; with him disappeared what remained of the spirit and traditions of Louis XIV.'s reign. Montesquieu and Fontenelle were the last links which united the seventeenth century to the new era. In a degree as different as the scope of their minds, they both felt respect for the past, to which they were bound by numerous ties, and the boldness of their thoughts was frequently tempered by prudence. Though naturally moderate and prudent, Voltaire was about to be hurried along by the ardor of strife, by the weaknesses of his character, by his vanity and his ambition, far beyond his first intentions and his natural instincts. The flood of free-thinking had spared Montesquieu and Fontenelle; it was about to carry away Voltaire almost as far as Diderot.


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