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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

Dominant in the eighteenth century

in its ideas and of decay in

its morals, of senselessness in its pretensions and of futility in its creative power, has been strikingly revealed to us by experience; we have learned it to our cost. We know, we feel the evil bequeathed to us by that memorable epoch. It preached doubt, egotism, materialism. It laid for some time an impure and blasting hand upon noble and beautiful phases of human life. But if the eighteenth century had done only that, if such had been merely its chief characteristic, can any one suppose that it would have carried in its wake so many and such important matters, that it would have so moved the world? It was far superior to all its sceptics, to all its cynics. What do I say? Superior? Nay, it was essentially opposed to them and continually gave them the lie. Despite the weakness of its morals, the frivolity of its forms, the mere dry bones of such and such of its doctrines, despite its critical and destructive tendency, it was an ardent and a sincere century, a century of faith and disinterestedness. It had faith in the truth, for it claimed the right thereof to reign in this world. It had faith in humanity, for it recognized the right thereof to perfect itself and would have had that right exercised without obstruction. It erred, it lost itself amid this twofold confidence; it attempted what was far beyond its right and power; it misjudged the moral nature of man and the conditions of the social state. Its ideas as well as its works contracted the blemish of its views.
But, granted so much, the original idea, dominant in the eighteenth century, the belief that man, truth, and society are made for one another, worthy of one another, and called upon to form a union, this correct and salutary belief rises up and overtops all its history. That belief it was the first to proclaim and would fain have realized. Hence its power and its popularity over the whole face of the earth. Hence also, to descend from great things to small, and from the destiny of man to that of the drawing-room, hence the seductiveness of that epoch and the charm it scattered over social, life. Never before were seen all the conditions, all the classes that form the flower of a great people, however diverse they might have been in their history and still were in their interests, thus forgetting their past, their personality, in order to draw near to one another, to unite in a communion of the sweetest manners, and solely occupied in pleasing one another, in rejoicing and hoping together during fifty years which were to end in the most terrible conflicts between them."

At the death of King Louis XV., in 1774, the easy-mannered joyance, the peaceful and brilliant charm of fashionable and philosophical society were reaching their end: the time of stern realities was approaching with long strides.


[Illustration: Louis XVI.----347]

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