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Title: Enthusiasm
Original Title: Enthousiasme
Volume and Page: Vol. 5 (1755), pp. 719–722
Author: Louis de Cahusac
Translator: Sarah Kennedy [University of Wales Swansea,]
Subject terms:
Original Version (ARTFL): Link

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Citation (MLA): Cahusac, Louis de. "Enthusiasm." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Sarah Kennedy. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2006. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <>. Trans. of "Enthousiasme," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 5. Paris, 1755.
Citation (Chicago): Cahusac, Louis de. "Enthusiasm." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Sarah Kennedy. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2006. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Enthousiasme," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 5:719–722 (Paris, 1755).

Enthusiasm. We have no definition for this word that is entirely satisfactory. Nevertheless, I believe that it will further progress in the arts if we seek to find its true meaning and clarify its meaning, if possible. By enthusiasm , we commonly understand a kind of frenzy that seizes and overpowers the mind, that fires the imagination, elevates it and makes it fertile. It is said to be a transport that makes a person say or do extraordinary and astonishing things; but what is this frenzy and where does it come from? What is this transport and what is its origin? It seems to me that this is what it should have been necessary to teach us, but it seems, however, that little attention has been paid to this.

First, I believe that this movement that elevates the mind and heats the imagination is anything but a frenzy . This unsuitable appellation came from a state of sang froid , to indicate a cause whose effects (when one is in that peaceable state) will never fail to seem most extraordinary. It was believed that a man had to be entirely out of himself, in order to be able to produce creations that really took clean out of themselves those who saw or heard them. Add to this first idea the fake or real enthusiasm of pagan priests, which their trickery obliged them to load with grimaces and contortions, and you will find the origin of this false appellation. The people had entitled this last enthusiasm prophetic frenzy , and the pedants of antiquity (another section of the public perhaps even more short-sighted than the first) gave in their turn to poetic eloquence, whose origin unheated minds cannot penetrate, the superb name of poetic frenzy .

Poets, flattered to be thought of as inspired beings, took good care not to undeceive the multitude; on the contrary, they asserted in their verses that they were indeed inspired, and perhaps they believed it, in good faith, themselves.

So that is how poetic frenzy came to be established in the world as a transcendent ray of light, as a sublime emanation from above, as divine inspiration. In Greece and Rome, all these expressions were synonyms of words from which we have formed the French word enthusiasm .

But frenzy is only a violent fit of madness, and madness is an absence or a distraction of reason; thus to define enthusiasm as a frenzy or a transport is the same as calling it an increase of madness , which would therefore be eternally incompatible with reason. However, it is reason which gives birth to enthusiasm; enthusiasm is a pure fire which reason kindles in its greatest moments. Enthusiasm has always been the most rapid and lively of all the operations of reason. Enthusiasm presupposes an infinite multitude of previous combinations, which could only have been made with and by the use of reason. Enthusiasm is, dare I say, the masterpiece of reason. How can it be then defined, as one would define a fit of madness?

Supposing that, unexpectedly, you see a fine painting in top condition. A sudden surprise brings you to a standstill, you experience a general emotion, your eyes remain as if absorbed in a sort of immobility, your entire mind considers a crowd of objects which occupy it at the same time, but, soon returning to its own activity, your mind runs over the different parts of the whole which has astounded it, its heat is communicated to your senses, your eyes obey it and inform it: a keen fire animates them; you notice, detail and compare the attitudes, contrasts, lighting, the characters' features, their passions, the choice of activity represented, the skill, force and boldness of the brushstrokes, and notice that your attention, surprise, emotion and heat in this situation will be more or less keen, according to the varying degree of knowledge that you have previously acquired, and the amount of taste, delicacy, wit, sensibility and judgement that you have received from Nature.

Now, what you experience in that moment is an image (an imperfect one, it's true, but sufficient to clarify my idea) of what takes place in the mind of a man of genius, when reason, in a rapid operation, presents to him a new and striking painting which halts, arouses, delights and absorbs him.

Observe that I am speaking of a man of genius, because I understand by the word genius , the natural aptitude to receive, to feel, to render the impressions of the supposed painting. I see genius as a painter's paintbrush, which paints pictures on the canvas, which in effect creates them, but which is always guided by previous inspirations. In books, as in conversation, we start from this paintbrush of genius, as though it were the primum mobile or prime mover. A figurative style, among educated people, as in our society, imperceptibly becomes the customary style, and it is by this process that the word genius , which designates only the instrument indispensable for creation, has successively come to be used to express the cause that creates.

Observe further that I have not used the word imagination at all, which is commonly believed to be the only source of enthusiasm , because, in my hypothesis, I see it only as one of the secondary causes, such as (in order to assist me again with a comparison taken from painting) is the canvas in the hand of the painter. The imagination receives the rapid drawing of the scene which is presented to the mind, and it is on this preliminary sketch that genius distributes the colours.

In my proposed definition, I come to a new painting; for we are not speaking here of a cold and common operation of the memory. There is no-one to whom memory does not often recall the different objects that he has seen: but these are only feeble sketches that pass before his understanding, like faint shadows, without surprising, affecting or moving his mind, they are some sensations already experienced, and no previous combinations. Memory is perhaps only one of the privileges of instinct; here I intend to develop one of the finest privileges of reason.

So our concern is a painting which has never yet been seen, a painting which reason has just created, of an image all of fire which reason presents all of a sudden to a lively, keen and delicate mind; the emotion which seizes the mind will be in proportion to its vivacity, knowledge and subtlety.

For the nature of things is such that the mind cannot experience a sentiment without forming a rapid and keen wish to express it; all the movements of the mind are only a continuous succession of sentiments and expressions; the mind is like the heart, whose operational practice is to ceaselessly open itself to give and to receive: therefore it needs must be that as soon as this striking painting which occupies the mind comes suddenly into view, the mind seeks to pour out to the outside the vivid impression that the painting makes on it. The impulse which has shaken it, which fills it and which carries it away, is such that everything yields to it, and it is the most dominant sentiment. Thus, without anything being able to distract or stop him, the painter seizes his paintbrush, and the canvas fills with colour, the pictures are arranged, the dead come back to life, the chisel is already in the sculptor's hand, and the marble becomes animated, lines of poetry flow from the poet's hand, and the theatre bejewels itself with a thousand new plots which interest and surprise us; the musician tunes up his lyre and the orchestra fills the air with a sublime harmony, an unknown show that Quinault's genius has created and embellished starts off a brilliant career in the various Arts that it brings together; disgusting dilapidated hovels disappear, and the superb façade of the Louvre arises, regular and magnificent gardens take the place of an arid wasteland or a poisonous swamp; a noble and forceful eloquence, accents worthy of humanity, make the lawcourts, our rostrums and our pulpits resound; thus the face of France changes quickly like a beautiful piece of scenery for the theatre; the names of Corneille, Molière, Quinault, Lully, Lebrun, Bossuet, Perrault and Le Nôtre fly from mouth to mouth and the whole of Europe repeats and admires them; they are henceforward permanent monuments to the glory of our nation and of humankind.

So enthusiasm is that impetuous movement, the blossoming of which gives life to all masterpieces, and that movement is always produced by an operation of reason, as rapid as it is sublime. In fact, what previous knowledge does it not presuppose? What combinations must education not have brought about? What previous study need not have been undertaken? In how many ways must reason have been exercised, to be able to all at once create a great painting with nothing missing, and which still seems to the man of genius , to whom it serves as a model, to be superior to the one that his enthusiasm makes him produce? From these reflections which take as their inspiration a not very abstract metaphysics, and which I believe to be quite solid, I would venture to define enthusiasm as a keen emotion of the mind when faced with a NEW and well-ordered painting which strikes the mind and which reason presents to it .

This emotion - in truth less keen, but of the same kind - is felt by all those who are able to enjoy the various productions of the Arts. One does not behold a moving tragedy, a fine opera, an excellent specimen of the painter's art, a magnificent building, etc., without enthusiasm , and thus the definition that I propose seems equally to apply to the enthusiasm that admires, as well as the enthusiasm that produces.

I fear few objections from those whose experience has enlightened on this subject; but this mental painting, this rapid operation of the reason, this mutual accord between mind and senses from which is produced the swift expression of the impressions the mind has received, may perhaps seem fanciful to those cold minds, who always remember, and who will never create.

Why, they will say, alter things? What good are new systems? Until now we believed enthusiasm to be a kind of frenzy, this received idea is just as good as the new one; and if the former, received idea was in error, what disadvantage would result from this for the Arts? Great poets, good painters, excellent musicians who were believed and who believed themselves to be inspired people, were such without all this metaphysics: we are cooling minds and weakening genius by all these inconclusive or at least useless research into causes; we should content ourselves with effects. We know that people with genius create; what does it matter to us to know how? Even if it has been discovered that reason is the prime mover of the workings of the mind, and not imagination, as was believed to have that task until now, do we really think that genius or talent can be given to those to whom nature has refused such a rare gift?

To these general objections I would answer: 1º. That there is no error, of whatever nature, in the Arts, that it would not seem obviously useful to do away with.

2º. That the error that concerns us here is infinitely detrimental to Artists and to the Arts.

3º. That to seek, to find and to establish first principles is to facilitate routes which are still quite difficult. The rules we have were only based on the mechanism of the Arts, and while seeming to hinder them, rules have guided the Arts to the happy state in which we see them today. That if it is possible to shed new light on their purely mental constituent, on the driving principle from which all their operations derive, these operations will then become equally reliable and easy. As in Navigation, so in Art; before the discovery of the compass, one could only sail the seas by trial and error.

4º. We should not fear weakening the mind or cooling down genius by explaining them. If everything that we admire in artistic productions is the work of reason, this discovery will elevate the mind of the artist, giving him a still more confident opinion of the excellence of his being, and from this elevation, new creative miracles will come, without the fear of increased pride. Vanity is the chief motivating force only of little minds; genius always supposes there to be a greater mind somewhere else.

5º. The words imagination, genius, wit and talent are only terms dreamed up to express the different operations of reason: they are analogous to the minor deities of paganism: in the eyes of the wise, these were only useful names to express the various attributes of a sole Deity; the ignorance of the multitude alone made them split up the powers of the Divine.

6º. If enthusiasm , to which alone we owe the beautiful creations of the Arts, comes only from reason as prime cause; if it is this more or less great emanation from a supreme Being, that continually causes the marvels that human hands produce, then all the prejudices harmful to the glory of the Arts are destroyed forever, and the Artists have triumphed. Henceforward one can be an excellent poet, while still being thought of as a wise man; a musician can be sublime, without necessarily being thought of as mad. No longer will the most exceptional of men be seen as almost useless individuals, perhaps one day it will even be imagined that they can think, live and act like the rest of humanity. Thus they will have more encouragement to hope, and fewer objections to put up with. These empty, proud and braying heads, these heavy and disdainful automatons who ordain as masters in our society, will perhaps in the end be persuaded that an artist or man of letters are in the scheme of things on a higher rung than the bureaucrat who has oppressed and ruined them, than the base servile character who deludes and deceives them, than the cashier who refuses them their money in order to invest it to his own profit, even than the secretary who carries out his work for them badly, but who is adept at making his own fortune.

Besides, whether truth triumphs at last over error, or whether the most potent prejudice remains the everlasting tyrant of contemporary opinion, our distinguished moderns should be consoled and reassured: the works of the last century are now seen, without any objection, as masterpieces of human reason, and there is no danger that anyone would dare to claim that they were made without enthusiasm : the same fate will await all the various monuments of the coming century, glorifying the Arts and our nation, which are developing before our eyes. The multitude are struck by them without appreciating them, it's true; the demi-connoisseurs discuss them without being affected by them: today we pay them less attention than we give to a witless parody we are not ashamed to laugh at: what does it matter, will they, one day, be for all that any the less the school and the source of admiration for all minds and all ages?

But does the definition I am proposing apply to all kinds of enthusiasm and to all types of talents? One might perhaps say: what kind of painting can reason offer for the musician's art to paint? In music it is a question of a geometrical arrangement of tones, and so on. Moreover, eloquence is sublime without enthusiasm , and this article must overlook all that has been said about the orators of the last century.

I reply 1º. That there exists no music worthy of the name that has not painted one or many images: its goal is to affect us by expression, and there is no expression without painting. See this topic discussed at greater length in the articles: Expression, Music, Opera.

2º. To question the enthusiasm of the orator is to want to question the very existence of eloquence, whose only purpose is to inspire enthusiasm . The speech that moves you, that interests or disgusts you; the details, the successive images that bind you, that imperceptibly open your heart to those sentiments that the orator wants to inspire in you, all of that is and can only be the effect of the keen emotion that has preceded in the mind of the orator the emotion that slips into your mind. A declamation, a harangue, perhaps even an academic lecture can be made without enthusiasm , but it is only enthusiasm that produces a good sermon, a sublime speech for the defence, a funeral oration that brings forth tears. See Elocution.

I end this article with some observations useful to those with real talent, and I beg all those who set themselves up as reigning critics of the Arts to permit me to express them.

Without enthusiasm there is no creation, and without creation, Artists and the Arts grovel in the mass of common affairs. In that case, all that remain are cold copies, fashioned in a thousand different little ways: men have disappeared; all that remains in their place are monkeys and parrots.

I said above that there are two kinds of enthusiasm ; one that produces, another that admires; the latter follows on from and is the reward of the former, and is the positive proof that there has been true enthusiasm .

There thus exist false enthusiasms . A man may believe himself to have talent or genius, but only have recollections, an unsuccessful aptitude and its result (almost always) a ridiculous penchant for this or that genre or art.

There can be no enthusiasm without genius, the name given to reason at the moment it produces enthusiasm ; nor without talent, another name which has been given to the natural aptitude of the mind for giving and receiving enthusiasm. See Genius, Talent.

Enthusiasm throws those privileged persons who are susceptible to it into an almost constant forgetting of all that is foreign to the arts that they practice. Their whole behaviour is generally so far removed from what we see as the usual course of conduct adopted by society that one can be brought, almost without wishing to be, to see them as singular, a race apart; it is to anything other than reason that one attributes what are called their eccentricities or their inconsistencies , and from which all the prejudices stem, which education has much difficulty in breaking down. But has anyone yet seen a type of man that is perfect? Has anyone found many people who show a superior reason in many areas? Suffice it to say that in those of real talent is commonly found a natural sincerity, an openness of character, and above all a most decided dislike for everything that has the whiff of intrigue, trickery or conspiracy. Do we really think that these last are in the least the works of reason? Also, when you see a man of letters, a painter, or a musician who is complaisant, grovelling, skilled in subterfuge, a shrewd sycophant, do not seek in him what we call real talent . Perhaps he will have some success: it is thus with short-lived celebrity that cabal procures. Do not be at all surprised to see him conquer all circles of his profession, even those which seem the most foreign to him; he has the kind of worth that obtains them: but a renowned name, a perfect long-lasting glory, that flattering esteem which is the honourable privilege of eminent talents will never be his lot. Trickery deceives fools, carries away the crowd, dazzles the great, but it only gives short-lived rapture. In order to create works that endure, to acquire fame that posterity will uphold, works and success that stand the test of time and stand up to the scrutiny of critics are necessary; one must have felt a real enthusiasm , and to have communicated it to all minds; time must maintain it, and reflection, far from snuffing it out, must justify it.

It is in the nature of enthusiasm to communicate itself and to reproduce; it is a living flame that grows gradually, that is nourished by its own fire, and which, far from weakening in spreading out, takes on new strength as it is scattered and passed on.

Let us imagine the public have gathered to see an outstanding work put on; the curtain is raised, the actors appear, the action unfolds, a general transport suddenly interrupts the play; it is enthusiasm which makes itself felt, it builds up by degrees, it passes from the actor's mind to that of the audience; and note that in proportion to the latter's excitement, the former's acting becomes more animated; their mutual firing up is like a tennis ball that the lively, quick skill of the players returns; in this situation we should always be certain to gain pleasure in proportion to the sensibility we show for the pleasure which is given to us.

In those magnificent plays, on the other hand, which the most ardent zeal has prepared, but where respect has tied the hands, you will feel a kind of languor round about the middle of the performance, this increases by degrees until the end, and it is rare that a work intended to be moving does not leave you in a tranquil state. The reason for this kind of phenomenon is in the minds of the actor and the spectator. You will never see a perfect performance without that mutual heat which keeps alive the vivacity of the actor and the spellboundness of those who listen to him; it is a continual mechanism founded in Nature. This kind of enthusiasm , even at its most lively, dies if it is not communicated.

In all of us there is a secret analogy between what we can produce and what we have learnt. The reason of a man of genius breaks down the different ideas it has received, makes them its own and makes of them a whole which, if I may be allowed to express it thus, takes on a character peculiar to him; the more knowledge he acquires, the more ideas he collects, and the more frequent his moments of enthusiasm are, and the paintings that reason presents to his mind are bolder, nobler, more extraordinary and so on.

Thus it is only by a painstaking and profound study of nature, of the passions, of the masterpieces of the Arts, that one can develop, nourish, kindle and increase genius . It could be compared with those great rivers, which at their source only appear as small streams: they flow, meander, spread out, and the mountain torrents, the plains rivers mix with their current, expand their waters and make a whole with them: now no longer a quiet murmur, they give out an impressive noise; they majestically roll their waters into the ocean's bosom, after having enriched the grateful lands that they have watered. This has been a philosophical analysis of enthusiasm ; see article Eclecticism, especially page 276, for an historical summary of some of its effects.