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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

I was going to see Diderot at Vincennes


et les Arts_. It has been

disputed whether the inspiration was such as he claimed for this production, the first great work which he had ever undertaken and which was to determine the direction of his thoughts. "I was going to see Diderot at Vincennes," he says, "and, as I walked, I was turning over the leaves of the _Mercure de France,_ when I stumbled upon this question proposed by the Academy of Dijon: Whether the advance of sciences and arts has contributed to the corruption or purification of morals. All at once I felt my mind dazzled by a thousand lights, crowds of ideas presented themselves at once with a force and a confusion which threw me into indescribable bewilderment; I felt my head seized with a giddiness like intoxication, a violent palpitation came over me, my bosom began to heave. Unable to breathe any longer as I walked, I flung myself down under one of the trees in the avenue, and there spent half an hour in such agitation that, on rising up, I found all the front of my waistcoat wet with tears without my having had an idea that I had shed any." Whether it were by natural intuition or the advice of Diderot, Jean Jacques had found his weapons; poor and obscure as he was, he attacked openly the brilliant and corrupt society which had welcomed him for its amusement. Spiritualistic at heart and nurtured upon Holy Scripture in his pious childhood, he felt a sincere repugnance for the elegant or cynical materialism which was every day more and more creeping over the eighteenth century.
"Sciences and arts have corrupted the world," he said, and he put forward, as proof of it, the falsity of the social code, the immorality of private life, the frivolity of the drawing-rooms into which he had been admitted. "Suspicions, heart-burnings, apprehensions, coldness, reserve, hatred, treason, lurk incessantly beneath that uniform and perfidious veil of politeness, under that so much vaunted urbanity which we owe to the enlightenment of our age."

Rousseau had launched his paradox; the frivolous and polite society which he attacked was amused at it without being troubled by it: it was a new field of battle opened for brilliant jousts of wit; he had his partisans and his admirers. In the discussion which ensued, Jean Jacques showed himself more sensible and moderate than he had been in the first exposition of his idea; he had wanted to strike, to astonish he soon modified the violence of his assertions. "Let us guard against concluding that we must now burn all libraries and pull down the universities and academies," he wrote to King Stanislaus: "we should only plunge Europe once more into barbarism, and morals would gain nothing by it. The vices would remain with us, and we should have ignorance besides. In vain would you aspire to destroy the sources of the evil; in vain would you remove the elements of vanity, indolence, and luxury; in vain would you even bring men back to that primal equality, the preserver of innocence and the source of all virtue: their hearts once spoiled will be so forever. There is no remedy now save some great revolution, almost as much to be feared as the evil which it might cure, and one which it were blamable to desire and impossible to forecast. Let us, then, leave the sciences and arts to assuage, in some degree, the ferocity of the men they have corrupted. . .. The enlightenment of the wicked is at any rate less to be feared than his brutal stupidity."


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