Another abbé returns to our story, and this time we must give him his due. We have seen Charles Irénée Castel, Abbé de Saint-Pierre, shocking the diplomats at Utrecht (1712) with Mémoire pour rendre la paix perpètuelle, which was to fascinate both Rousseau and Kant. And we have seen him proposing to the Club de l’Entresol a medley of ideas and reforms so advanced that Cardinal Fleury felt inspired to close the club and save the state (1731). What were these ideas?

Like so many rebels, his mind was sharpened by a Jesuit education. It did not take him long to shed the popular faith; and though he continued to profess Catholicism, he did it some sly damage by his Discourse against Mohammedanism, in which his arguments, like Voltaire’s in Mahomet, could readily be applied to orthodox Christianity. His Physical Explanation of “the pretended miracles told by Protestants, schismatics, and Mohammedans” was obviously intended to question Catholic miracles as well.

In 1717, and again in 1729, he republished in expanded form his Projet de paix perpétuelle. He pleaded with the sovereigns of Europe, including the Sultan, to enter into a sacred pact that would mutually guarantee their present possessions, would renounce war as a means of settling international disputes, and would submit these to a European Union armed with force to compel the acceptance of its decisions. He drew up a model charter for the Union, with rules of procedure for its assembly, and specified the financial contributions to be made to the Union by each member state. He could not be expected to foresee that the Congress of Vienna (1815) would form on these lines a Holy Alliance to perpetuate monarchical and feudal institutions, and suppress all revolutionary movements.

No difficulties could shake the confidence of the resilient abbé. He adopted with religious ardor the rising faith in progress; and in Observations on the Continuous Progress of Universal Reason (1737) he proclaimed, long before Condorcet, the indefinite perfectibility of mankind through the agency of reason in scientists and governments. After all, he mused, the human race, on accepted authority, is not more than seven or eight thousand years old; therefore it is only “in the infancy of reason”; what may we not expect of its virile youth six thousand years hence, and of its glorious flowering in the maturity of mankind a hundred thousand years from now?25

Saint-Pierre foresaw our modern problem: that while science and knowledge have made immense advances, there has been no commensurate progress in morals or politics; knowledge implements vice as much as it enlightens morality. How could the growth of knowledge be turned to the improvement of conduct in individuals and nations? In A Project to Perfect the Governments of States (1737) Saint-Pierre proposed the formation of a Political Academy, to be composed of the wisest men in the land, and to act as an advisory body to the ministers of state in matters of social or moral reform. He made many specific proposals: universal education under governmental (not ecclesiastical) control, religious toleration, marriage of the clergy, the unification of French laws, the promotion of public welfare by the state, and the enlargement of national revenues by progressive taxes on incomes and inheritances.26 The abbé in 1725 added to the French language the word bienfaisance, beneficence, to distinguish the humanitarianism that he preferred to the condescending charities of the Old Regime. And long before Helvétius and Bentham he laid down the utilitarian principle that “the value of a book, of a regulation, of an institution, or of any public work is proportioned to the number and grandeur of the actual pleasures it produces, and of the future pleasures which it is calculated to procure for the greatest number of men.”27 Most of the basic ideas of the philosophes appeared as a prelude in Saint-Pierre, even to the hope for an enlightened king as an agent of reform. With all his simplicity, naïveté, and prolixity he was one of the seminal minds of the Enlightenment.

Charles Pinot Duclos must have scorned him as a visionary quite uncongenial to a realistic mind. Born at Dinan in Brittany, he kept to the end the sturdy, cautious, obstinate character of the Breton. Son of a well-to-do bourgeois, and of a mother who died at 101, he had in him the iron to survive his wild youth in the Paris of the Regency. He received his higher education from the Jesuits and the filles de joie, sowing wild oats lavishly and sharpening his wit in the cafés. Soon his reputation for repartee gave him access to society and the salons. He added to his fame with a novel, Histoire de la baronne de Luz (1741), which was almost an indictment of God. The Baroness repels all other assaults upon her marital fidelity, but yields herself to a corrupt magistrate to save the life of her husband, implicated in a conspiracy against the King. She is twice raped. In hysterical anger she cries out, “Cruel Heaven! In what way have I deserved your hatred? Can it be that virtue is hateful to you?”28

Despite the tenor and eroticism of this book Duclos was elected to the Academy in 1746 through the influence of Mme. de Pompadour. He entered vigorously into its operations, reorganized it, and brought it into vitalizing touch with the literature and philosophy of the time. In 1751 he succeeded Voltaire as historiographer to the King; in 1754 he maneuvered the election of d’Alembert to the Academy; in 1755 he was elected its permanent secretary, and remained its dominating spirit till his death. He won the Academy to liberal ideas, but he deplored the precipitancy of d’Holbach, Helvétius, and Diderot. “This band of little atheists,” he said, “will end by driving me back to the confessional.”

We remember him chiefly for his Considérations sur les moeurs de ce siècle (1750),III a work of calm and often penetrating analysis of French morals and character. Written before he was forty-five, it begins with the solemnity of a senile sage: “I have lived; I wish to be useful to those who shall live.” He regrets that “the most civilized peoples are not also the most virtuous.”

The happiest epoch would be that in which virtue would not be considered a merit. When it begins to be remarked, manners are already altered; and if it becomes an object of ridicule, that is the last stage of corruption.29

“The great defect of the Frenchman,” in his judgment, “is to have always a youthful character; thereby he is often amiable, rarely stable; he has almost no age of maturity, but passes from youth to decrepitude.… The Frenchman is the child of Europe”30—just as Paris is its playground. Duclos does not entirely sympathize with the Age of Reason, which he feels swirling around him: “I am not sure that I have too high an opinion of my century, but it seems to me that a certain fermentation of reason tends to develop everywhere.”31

We declaim a great deal in these days against prejudices; perhaps we have too much destroyed them. Prejudice is a kind of common law among men.… In this matter I cannot avoid blaming those writers who, … wishing to attack a superstition (a motive that could be praiseworthy and useful if the discussion were kept on a philosophical plane), sap the foundations of morality and weaken the bonds of society.… The sad effect which they produce on their readers is to make, of the young, bad citizens and scandalous criminals, and to engender unhappiness in old age.32

Grimm, the Parisian correspondent of foreign dignitaries, was one of many who resented these delicate aspersions on philosophy by one who had sampled many bosoms—“When one has a cold heart and a spoiled taste, he should not write on morals and the arts”;33 but Grimm had been Duclos’ rival for the favors of Mme. d’Épinay. The Mémories of that tender lady picture Duclos as rough and tyrannical in possession, and coarsely bitter in defeat; but Grimm edited those Mémories. If we may believe these hot and tearful pages, Madame drove Duclos from her home as a treacherous satyr. The learned Academician wandered to other beds and other lands, and so, at sixty-seven, to death.

Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues, was more lovable. At the age of eighteen he joined the army, drunk with Plutarch and with ambition to earn glory in the service of the King. He took part in the disastrous adventure of Maréchal de Belle-Isle in the Bohemian campaign of 1741–43; in the bitter retreat from Prague his legs were frozen; he fought at Dettingen (1743), but his health was so impaired that he was soon afterward retired from the army. He sought employment as a diplomat, and through Voltaire’s help was on the point of securing it, when an attack of smallpox disfigured his face. His eyesight began to fail, and a chronic consumptive cough disabled him from active life.

Books became his consolation. After all, he said, “the best things are the most common; you can purchase the mind of Voltaire for a crown.”34 He warned against judging books by their weight; “even the best authors talk too much,” and many are ponderously obscure; “clearness is the ornament of deep thought.”35 The volume that he himself sent to the press in 1746 was a seventy-five-page Introduction à la connoissance de l’ esprit humain, followed by 607 réflexions et maximes in 115 pages. A year later, in a dingy Paris hotel, he died, aged thirty-two, the Mozart and Keats of French philosophy.

“Philosophy,” said Vauvenargues, “has its fashions, like dress, music, and architecture.”36 His own ideas took little color from his time. Only a few years before Rousseau’s idealization of nature and equality, he pictured “nature” as a brutal struggle for power, and equality as a delusion.

Among kings, among peoples, among individuals, the stronger gives himself rights over the weaker, and the same rule is followed by animals and inanimate beings, so that everything in the universe is executed by violence; and this order, which we blame with some semblance of justice, is the most general law, the most immutable, and the most important in nature.37

All men are born unfree and unequal.

It is not true that equality is a law of nature. Nature has made nothing equal; her sovereign law is subordination and dependence.… He who is born to obey will obey even on the throne.38

As for free will, that too is a myth. “The will is never the first cause of an action, it is the last spring.” If you give the classic instance of free will, that you can choose odd or even “at will,” Vauvenargues replies: “If I choose even, it is because the necessity of making a choice offers itself to my thought at the instant that ‘even’ is present to it.”39 The belief in God, however, is indispensable; only through that faith, Vauvenargues felt, could life and history have any meaning other than everlasting strife and final defeat.40

The most individual feature of Vauvenargues’ philosophy is his defense of the passions. They must not be destroyed, for they are the root of personality, genius, and all vigor of thought.

The mind is the eye of the soul, but not its force. Its force is in the heart; that is to say, in the passions. The most enlightened reason does not give us the power to act and to will. …41 Great thoughts come from the heart.… Perhaps we owe to the passions the greatest accomplishments of the intellect. …42 Reason and feeling advise and supplement each other turn by turn. Whoever consults only one of them, and renounces the other, foolishly deprives himself of a part of the resources given us for our conduct.43

Vauvenargues admitted the pervasiveness of self-love, but refused to consider it a vice, since it is the first necessity of nature’s first law, self-preservation. Neither is ambition a vice, it is a necessary spur; “the love of glory makes great careers of nations.”44 He adds that “one is not born to glory if he does not recognize the value of time.”45 There are real vices, however, which must be controlled by laws and moral codes; and “the science of government lies in guiding them [vices] to the public good.”46 There are real virtues too, and “the first days of spring have less grace and charm than the growth of virtue in a youth.”47

Despite his concessions to Hobbes and La Rochefoucauld, and despite his own experience of evil in life, Vauvenargues kept his faith in mankind. Said his friend Marmontel:

He knew the world and did not despise it. Friend of men, he ranked vice among the misfortunes [rather than among the crimes] of men, and pity held in his heart the place of indignation and hatred.… He never humiliated anyone.… An unalterable serenity concealed his pains from the eyes of his friends. To sustain adversity one needed only his example; seeing the equanimity of his spirit, we did not dare be unhappy before him.48

Voltaire described him as “the most unfortunate of men, and the most tranquil.”49

One of the most gracious aspects of French literature in the eighteenth century is the warm sympathy and friendly aid that Voltaire, apostle of reason, extended to Vauvenargues, defender of Pascal and the “heart.” The youthful philosopher confessed his admiration for “a man who honors our century, and who is not less great, nor less celebrated, than his predecessors.”50 And the older man wrote to him in a moment of modesty: “If you had been born a few years earlier, my writings would have had more worth.”51The most eloquent passage in all the hundred volumes of Voltaire is his funeral eulogy of Vauvenargues.52

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!