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Title: Elegance
Original Title: Elégance
Volume and Page: Vol. 5 (1755), pp. 482–483
Author: [François-Marie Arouet] de Voltaire
Translator: Theodore E. D. Braun [University of Delaware (emeritus professor),]
Subject terms:
Original Version (ARTFL): Link

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Citation (MLA): Voltaire, [François-Marie Arouet] de. "Elegance." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Theodore E. D. Braun. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2003. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <>. Trans. of "Elégance," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 5. Paris, 1755.
Citation (Chicago): Voltaire, [François-Marie Arouet] de. "Elegance." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Theodore E. D. Braun. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2003. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Elégance," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 5:482–483 (Paris, 1755).

Elegance [1]. This word comes, according to some [erudite persons], from electus , chosen; it cannot be seen how its etymology can stem from any other Latin word; choice is present in everything that is elegant.  [2] Elegance is a result of appropriateness and attractiveness. This word is used in painting and sculpture. Elegans signum was opposed to signum rigens ;  [3] a well-proportioned figure with outlines expressed with a certain softness, [opposed] to a figure excessively stiff and poorly completed. But the severity [of taste] of the early Romans gave this word, elegantia , an offensive meaning. They considered elegance , in any context, to be an affectation, a kind of studied politeness, unworthy of the gravity of the olden days: vitii, non laudis fuit , said Aulu-Gelle.  [4] They called un homme élégant a bellus homuncio,  [5] what we call a petit-maître , and what the English call a beau .  [6] But about the time of Cicero, when mores had achieved the utmost degree of politeness, elegans was still a word of praise. Cicero uses this word in a hundred places to a polite man, a polished speech;  [7] at that time they still spoke of an elegant meal , which would be said only rarely nowadays. This term is traditionally used in French, as it was among the ancient Romans, to refer to sculpture, painting, eloquence, and especially poetry. In painting and sculpture it does not mean precisely the same as grace , which is used in particular when referring to the face, and you don't say "an elegant face" as you would “elegant surfaces:” the reason is that grace always evokes an animation, and the soul always appears in the face. For this reason, too, one doesn't say “an elegant gait,” because the gait is always animated.

Elegance in a speech is not eloquence, it is only a part of it; it is not harmony alone, nor roundedness or richness alone, it is the clarity, the number and the choice of words. There are languages in Europe in which nothing is rarer than an elegant speech. Rough endings, numerous consonants, auxiliary verbs needlessly repeated in a single sentence offend the ear, even the ear of native speakers.

A speech can be elegant without being a good speech, elegance being in fact only the value of the words; but a speech cannot be absolutely good without being elegant.

Elegance is even more necessary in poetry than eloquence because it is one of the principal components of harmony, which is necessary in verse. An orator may convince or even move [his audience] without elegance , purity, or richness of speech. A poem cannot have an effect if it is not elegant: elegance is one of Virgil's principal merits: Horace is much less elegant in his satires, in his epistles; therefore he is less of a poet, sermoni propior .  [8]

The major point in poetry and in oratory art is that elegance must never weaken to power of the work; and the poet has greater difficulties to overcome than the orator in this, as in everything else: for, since harmony is the basis of his art, he must never tolerate a run of rough syllables. He must even, at times, sacrifice a little of the thought of the expression for the sake of its elegance: this is a constraint that the orator never feels.

Even if elegance always appears to be easy, it is nevertheless true that not everything that has an simple and natural appearance is elegant. There is nothing simpler or more natural than The cricket having sung all summer long , and Master Crow perched on a tree . Why are these lines not elegant? It's because this naïveté lacks harmony and a careful choice of words. Happy and fortunate lovers, do you want to travel? Go then to nearby shores ,  [9] and hundreds of other lines are blessed with elegance , along with other merits.

Rarely is it said of a comedy that it is elegantly written. The naïveté and the rapidity of a colloquial dialogue rule out this quality which is properly a part of all other forms of poetry. Elegance seems to take something away from what is comical, we don't laugh at something expressed with elegance; however, most of the lines in Molière's Amphitryon , with the exception of those put in for the sheer fun of it, are elegant. The mixing of gods with humans in this play that is unique in its kind, and the irregular lines that make up most of the madrigals in it, can perhaps explain this exception.  [10]

A madrigal has to be somewhat more elegant than an epigram because the madrigal is of a lyrical nature while the epigram is of a comic nature; the madrigal is created to express a delicate sentiment, and the epigram to comment on something ridiculous.

Elegance should not be noticeable in and expression of the sublime because it would weaken the effect. If the elegance of Jupiter the Olympian of Faddiest had been praised, that would have made a satire out of it. The elegance of Praxiteles' Venus could be noted. See Eloquence, Eloquent, Style [Style (Grammar. Rhetoric. Eloquence. Literature), Oriental Style (Prose. Poetry), Style (Poetry), Style (Literature)], Taste, etc. [11]

This article is by M. de Voltaire.


1. This article, along with "Eloquence," seems to date from 1754. [ See the article “Élégance”, edited by Theodore E. D. Braun and Henry A. Stavan, in the Complete Works of Voltaire , 33 ( Articles alphabétiques I), critical edition edited by Jeroom Vercruysse, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1987, pp.37-40, n. 1. Unless encased in brackets [ ], the notes are adapted from this edition.]

2. This word seems to have entered the language around 1150 (see Bloch and von Wartburg, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue française , Paris 1968, p. 216). It was rarely seen before the fifteenth century, and its semantic field has grown considerably since Voltaire's time. Elegant is derived from elegans , which in turn is derived from eligere , to choose, to select. For Voltaire, elegance is a mark of good taste, an active faculty that perceives and judges, and that results in a choice, the expression of a harmonie between civilized usage and the naïveté of spontaneous nature. Elegance is therefore less a special quality than a synthesis of diverse merits (see Raymond Naves, Le Goût de Voltaire , Paris 1968, pp. 98, 237, 394). A virtually identical definition can be found in the Dictionnaire of the Académie Française (Paris, 1762, I, 598); see also the Dictionnaire universel françois et latin [usually referred to as the Dictionnaire de Trévoux ], 4th edition, Paris 1743, II 783-784.

3. See Cicero, De oratore , II.(lix) 214; De officiis , I.(xxix) 104. The opposition is strong in Brutus , LXXXV.292.

4. [Aulus Gellius, Latin grammarian, 2nd century A.D.] "Elegans homo non dicebatur cum laude sed id fere verbum ad aetatem M. Catonis vitii non laudis fuit" ( Noctis atticae , XI.ii.1).

5. Affected, effeminate man ( homuncio , puny little man; bellus , elegant, effeminate). Cicero, Academica , II.(xliii).134; Seneca, Epistulae , cxvi; Plautus, Captivi , V.ii.iii.

6. "Beau" is defined as “a fop, a dandy” towards 1687, and as an “attendant or suitor of a lady” by 1720 ( The Oxford English Dictionary , Oxford 1933).

7. In fact, this word has various meanings in Cicero. Three general orientations can be discerned: a) the witty and tasteful man in In Verrem II.iv.98, in Epistulae , VII.xiii.1, and in De fines , ii.23; b) an object of value, quality style in De fines , I.1 and 1v.24, Brutus , lxxvii.272 and lxxx11.285, De oratore , II.(lix).241, De officiis , I.(xxix).104; c) the good writer in Brutus , xxxix.148 and Orator ix.30.

8. Horace, Sermones , I.iv.42.

9. La Fontaine, Fables , "The Cricket and the Ant," I.i.1-2; “The Crow and the Fox,” I.ii.1; “The Two Pigeons,” IX.ii.65.

10. Voltaire was particularly fond of Molière's Amphitryon ; cf. the "Catalogue of Authors" in his Century of Louis XIV ; his Vie de Molière ; the “Remarks on the speeches” in his Commentaries on Corneille ( Complete Works of Voltaire , Oxford, 55, 1038-1039; and D2985.

11. Voltaire wrote the articles "Eloquence" and “Taste” (V.529-531, VII.761), d'Alembert wrote “Eloquent” (V.531), and Jaucourt is the author of “Style.”