« PreviousContinue »
ability. He was also a man of extraordinary piety. Immersed as he was in politics and in wars, ruling and even administering great and dissimilar kingdoms, surrounded by enemies both foreign and domestic, managing the home affairs and the foreign affairs of Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy, providing and then commanding their armies and their fleets, his principal business, the matter which engrossed the most of his attention, was the working out his own salvation. And he believed the first requisite to salvation to be a correct faith. Such, however, was his conduct as to involve him in errors, the public mischief of which cannot be exaggerated, or, if there be any guilt in error, the private guilt. In the first place, his errors belonged to the class which we have termed voluntary. They were the result of his obstinate determination not to inquire. If on a march he had been told, Your maps are false, your guides are ignorant or treacherous, if you advance in this direction you will destroy your army. Here are the proofs;' would he have refused to look at the evidence, burnt alive the informants, and continued his course?
In the second place, his errors led him not merely to reliance on useless observances and charms, but to ferocious cruelties, and, what was much worse, because much more permanent, than any death or torture inflicted on individuals, to measures which have kept in darkness and semi-barbarism one of the most energetic races, and perhaps the finest country, in Europe.
This is not the place to discuss Charles's chances of happiness in another world. We have to do only with his reputation in this. And we must say that, judging by the event, estimating him by the influence which his conduct has had over the subsequent fortunes of Europe, and indeed of America, we allot to him a conspicuous station among the enemies of mankind. He might have done more good, and he actually did more harm, than any sovereign that has reigned since Charlemagne.
ART. IV.-1. Etudes sur la Littérature Française du Dixneuvième Siècle. Par A. VINET, 2. Histoire de la Littérature Française du Dix-huitième Siècle. Par A. VINET. Paris: 1853.
SUMMARY views and elaborate expositions of the History of French Literature having been already given to the world by men of the accomplished erudition and masterly grasp of
mind of Barante and Villemain, it might have seemed that a work on the same subject by a writer of certainly not equal though more than respectable powers, was scarcely needed. But there is this valid plea for the publication of the lectures which we have placed at the head of our article: - The authors we have named approached their task mainly, if not exclusively, in an æsthetic or a philosophic spirit; Vinet approaches it mainly, though not exclusively, in a religious temper. On the debateable ground where Literature and Christianity mingle they were neutral; he is an earnest and sincere believer, and is disposed to regard and judge the great writers of this age and of past ages by a standard which, if severer, is certainly in some respects loftier and purer, than that which it has been the custom to apply. Not that we mean to intimate that Vinet's estimates are either bigoted or narrow, but they are those natural to a mind coloured and imbued with earnest feelings and rooted convictions on the great subject of Religious Faith.
Alexandre Vinet, who died about seven years ago, was Professor of French language and literature, first at the Gymnasium at Basle, and afterwards at the Academy of Lausanne, his native city, where he delivered, in 1844, the lectures that are now before us. At an early age he became a minister of the Gospel in the Protestant Church of Switzerland-a Church remarkable for its liberality, or what many would call its latitudinarianism. The tendencies of Vinet were, however, more evangelical than was usual among his brethren, and a spirit of deep and somewhat enthusiastic piety breathes through his numerous brochures; and when, in 1841, the constitution of the Church was modified by the Council of State in a manner he could not approve, he resigned his position, both as preacher and as Professor of Theology at Lausanne (to which he had been appointed in 1837), and devoted the remainder of his life to his favourite pursuit that of Literary History.
Abridgments are notoriously profitless, meagre and jejune; the attempt to sketch in a few pages the characteristics of a whole century of intellectual production must always be unsuccessful and unsatisfactory, and the more fertile the age the more inadequate must generally be the portraiture. Yet it cannot be doubted that generations and epochas have for the most part certain distinctive features, at once salient and pervading, which, as they belong to the political circumstances or the social condition of the period,-to those influences, that is, which most powerfully modify the intellect of the time and country, are traceable in all departments in which that intellect exerts itself, and give a peculiar cast and colouring alike to the
poetry, the fiction, the oratory, the philosophy, and the controversy to which that age gives birth. More powerful still, perhaps, are they in deciding on what departments the intellect of the time shall be most active; determining its bent sometimes towards religion, sometimes towards speculation, at one period towards the realms of fancy, at another towards those of practical life.
The seventeenth century was one of vast mental activity and vigour. Few eras present such a galaxy of great names in nearly every walk of literature-great preachers, great poets, great dramatists, great moralists,-Bossuet and Massillon, Pascal and Fenelon, La Bruyère and La Rochefoucauld, Corneille and Racine, Molière and Descartes. These were men of various genius, of discrepant opinions, of irreconcilable tastes. Still, certain qualities and certain negations characterise all their productions. Their age was preeminently the age of settled, though not of earnest convictions, of unquestioning but scarcely of stirring faith. It was an age of obedience,-when the yoke of authority weighed upon every channel of intellectual pursuit, but was not yet felt to be a yoke. The literary world then embraced but a narrow circle, and on that circle the influence of the court rested with a pervading pressure that was scarcely recognised as pressure, because never resisted. Philosophers speculated energetically, but always with submission, under correction, and within the limits which the Church prescribed. Literary talent was never more active, but it expatiated under the overshadowing authority of the ancients, and according to the conventional rules of polished society. All the productions of the time bore the classic stamp. They were 'correct' above every thing. It is impossible to call them shallow, yet they were scarcely profound. They did not stir the secret depths of the inner man. They contain no aspirations after the Infinite, no pictures of a soul in conflict with the primary mysteries of its being, no subtle questionings and gropings about the roots of the Tree of Knowledge, no thoughts that wander through Eternity and find no resting-place.' On the other hand, there is nothing wild, nothing morbid, nothing extravagant. The age has all the characteristics of a classic, as distinguished from a romantic epoch.
Other features, too, distinguish it notably from the age which followed. The subjects selected by men of letters were different, their interests ran in a different channel, their ambition was directed to a different aim. They were more purely literary than their successors. They were immeasurably more exclusive in their social sympathies. They wrote for Court circles, and
spoke of citizens only in the way of ridicule. Of THE PEOPLE, their wants, their pleasures, their interests, their sorrows, they knew little and cared less. The problems of social life, dark, sad and disturbing, never troubled them. They never perceived that the world was out of joint, or fancied they were born to set it right. They aspired to no political influence; the only politics with which they had any concern were those of Court intrigue the miserable strifes of personal ambition; the Government of the country was the business of the monarchthey did not aspire to share either his labours or his prerogative; practically to influence society, to modify or meddle with the destiny of nations, to put forth thoughts which should agitate, convulse, or re-organise the world, was a presumption which never visited them even in dreams. Their highest aim was to instruct, to amuse, to interest, to melt, to sway, the cultivated and the great.
The seventeenth century threw its shadows so far over the eighteenth, that it is not till about 1746 that the peculiar features which we are accustomed to consider as characteristic of the latter epoch began to be prominently developed. The change which then became manifest, and grew more and more marked till the outbreak of the Revolution, had, however, been gradually preparing. Its seeds were sown before the seventeenth century was ended. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantz had operated as a narcotic on the religious spirit and religious literature of France. All the vitality which had of late so distinguished it died out. The Gallican Church had gained a triumph as ruinous as the victories of Pyrrhus. She had silenced or exiled all her enemies and critics. But what was the result? Where after this period' (says Robert Hall) are we to look for her Fenelons and her Pascals, where for those bright 'monuments of piety and learning which were the glory of her better days? As for piety, she perceived that she had no 'occasion for it, when there was no lustre of Christian holiness surrounding her; nor for learning, when there were no longer any opponents to confute, nor any controversies to maintain. She felt herself at liberty to become as ignorant, as secular, as 'irreligious as she pleased; and, amid the silence and darkness she had created around her, she drew the curtains and retired to rest.' She became more exclusive, more narrow, more oppressive as she became more unenlightened and unintelligent, till shrewd and reflecting minds could tolerate her irrationalities no longer; and Thought, thrust out from her gates with suspicion and dislike, inevitably took service with her rival. Philosophy, finding that religion would not own her or converse
with her, became irreligious, naturally, and in self-defence. Nor was this all. The writings of the exiled Protestants, now free from any terror or restraint, penetrated, though partially, into literary circles; and among the refugees was one whose wit and learning secured him a partial and attentive audience, and had a vast influence in stimulating the scepticism of the coming age. This was Bayle, the very incarnation of the spirit of placid, relentless, comfortable Doubt; to whom nothing was sacred, for whom nothing was certain; essentially a critic and a questioner; probably the only great thinker who ever breathed freely in an absolute vacuum of faith.
Another cause operated simultaneously to liberate men's minds from the trammels of authority. The respect, the enthusiasm, the sincere but servile loyalty with which the monarch had been long regarded, melted away under the disasters, the follies, and the scandals of his later years. The great Image which the Nation had set up and worshipped so devoutly was at length discovered to be made of clay,—and scarcely of finer clay than ordinary men. While young, gracious, imposing in demeanour, royal in his tastes, victorious in his wars, endowed and surrounded with everything that looked like greatness, it was easy for courtiers to fancy him omnipotent and infallible, and to transmit their fancy to the nation. But when success abroad, and wise policy at home, began alike to fail him; when he endeavoured to atone for the criminal and shameful license of his life by puerile austerities at least as shameful, and barbarous persecutions incalculably more criminal; when he exacted from those around him, who felt none of his compunction, his own rigid penances and his own formal asceticism, and prescribed a hypocritical and gloomy puritanism as the sole path to court favour among a keen-witted, laughing, mocking, pleasure-loving tribe, -the overstrained cord gave way; the sacred prestige of Royalty was gone; and power, ceasing to be venerated, soon ceased to be feared.
At the same time, a long reign of lavish luxury and splendour had done its work in other directions. Abuses of all descriptions crept into every branch of the Administration, and were rife and riotous in every hole and corner of the land. The state of matters became too scandalous and too notorious to be endured in silence by any in whom patriotism and a sense of justice were not utterly extinct; the profligacy, both political and personal, of the Regency, was such as to place the whole weight of public sympathy on the side of frondeurs, investigators, and reformers; and the same circumstances which stimulated as