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[Part II]

We are now going to consider this work as a Reasoned Dictionary of the Sciences and the Arts. This object is all the more important, since it may possibly be of greater interest to the majority of our readers [than the object of Part I], and fulfilling it has required the most care and work. But before entering upon this subject in all the detail which may legitimately be required of us, it will be worth our while to examine at some length the present state of the sciences and the arts, and to show what series of steps have led us to it. Our metaphysical analysis of the origin and connection of the sciences has been of great utility in designing the encyclopedic tree; an historical analysis of the order in which our knowledge has developed in successive steps will be no less useful in enlightening us concerning the way we ought to convey this knowledge to our readers. Moreover, the history of the sciences is naturally bound up with that of the small number of great geniuses whose works have helped to spread enlightenment among men. And since these works have been helpful in a general way to our own, we ought to begin by speaking of them before giving account of the particular contributions and assistance that we have obtained. So as not to go back too far, let us turn our attention to the renaissance of letters.

When we consider the progress of the mind since that memorable epoch, we find that this progress was made in the sequence it should naturally have followed. It was begun with erudition, continued with belles-lettres, and completed with philosophy. This sequence differs, it is true, from that which a man would necessarily follow if left to his own intelligence or limited to exchanges with his contemporaries—a sequence that we analyzed in the first part of this Discourse. [1] For indeed we have demonstrated that a mind left in isolation would of necessity encounter philosophy before it arrived at belles-lettres; whereas the regeneration of ideas, if we can speak thus, must necessarily have been different from their original generation, as it involved moving out of a long interval of ignorance that had been preceded by centuries of enlightenment. We are going to try to demonstrate this.

The masterpieces that the ancients left us in almost all genres were forgotten for twelve centuries. The principles of the sciences and the arts were lost, because the beautiful and the true, which seem to show themselves everywhere to men, are hardly noticed unless men are already apprised of them. Not that these unfortunate times were less fertile than others in rare geniuses; Nature is always the same. [2] But what could these great men do, scattered as they always are, from place to place, occupied with different purposes, and left to their solitary enlightenment with no cultivation of their abilities? Ideas which are acquired from reading and from association with others are the germ of almost all discoveries. It is like the air one breathes without thinking about it, to which one owes life; and the men of whom we are speaking were deprived of such sustenance. They were like the first creators of the sciences and the arts who have been forgotten because of their illustrious successors, and who, had they but come later, would themselves have caused the memory of the others to fade. The man who first discovered wheels and pinions would have invented watches in another century. Gerbert, situated in the time of Archimedes, would perhaps have equaled him. [3]

Most of the superior intelligences of those dark times called themselves poets or philosophers. And indeed what did it cost them to usurp two titles with which people bedeck themselves at so little expense, ever flattering themselves that they can hardly owe them to borrowed wit? They thought it useless to seek models for poetry in the works of the Greeks and the Romans, whose language was no longer spoken; and they mistook for the true philosophy of the ancients a barbarous tradition which disfigured it. [4] Poetry for them was reduced to a puerile mechanism. The careful examination of Nature and the grand study of mankind were replaced by a thousand frivolous questions concerning abstract and metaphysical beings—questions whose solution, good or bad, often required much subtlety, and consequently a great abuse of intelligence. Added to this confusion were the condition of slavery into which almost all of Europe was plunged and the ravages of superstition which is born of ignorance and which spawns it in turn. If one considers all these difficulties it will be plain that nothing was lacking to the obstacles that for a long time delayed the return of reason and taste. For liberty of action and thought alone is capable of producing great things, and liberty requires only enlightenment to preserve itself from excess.

And so one of those revolutions which make the world take on a new appearance was necessary to enable the human species to emerge from barbarism. The Greek [Byzantine] empire was destroyed, and its ruin caused the small remainder of knowledge in the world to flow back into Europe. The invention of printing and the patronage of the Medici and of Francis I revitalized minds, and enlightenment was reborn everywhere. [5]

People turned first to the study of languages and history, which had perforce been abandoned during the centuries of ignorance. On emerging from barbarism, the human mind found itself in a sort of infancy. It was eager to accumulate ideas, but incapable at first of acquiring those of a higher order because of the kind of sluggishness in which the faculties of the soul had for so long a time been sunk. Of all these faculties, memory was the one which was cultivated first, because it is the easiest to satisfy and because the knowledge that is obtained with its help can be built up most easily. Thus they did not begin by studying Nature as the first men had had to do. They enjoyed an advantage which the earliest men lacked: they had the works of the ancients, which printing and the generosity of men of power and noble birth began to make common. They thought they needed only to read in order to become learned; and it is far easier to read than to understand. And so they devoured indiscriminately everything that the ancients left us in each genre. They translated them, commented on them, and out of a kind of gratitude began to worship them, although they were far from knowing their true worth.

These circumstances gave rise to that multitude of erudite men, immersed in the learned languages to the point of disdaining their own, who knew everything in the ancients except their grace and finesse, as a celebrated author has said, and whose vain show of erudition made them so arrogant because the cheapest advantages are rather often  [6] those whose vulgar display gives most satisfaction. They acted like great lords who do not resemble their forefathers in any real merit but who are excessively proud of their ancestry. Moreover, that vanity was not without some degree of plausibility. The realm of erudition and of facts is inexhaustible; the effortless acquisitions made in it lead one to think that one’s substance is continually growing, so to speak. On the contrary, the realm of reason and of discoveries is rather small. Through study in that realm, men often succeed only in unlearning what they thought they knew, instead of learning what they did not know. That is why a scholar of most unequal merit must be much more vain than a philosopher or even perhaps a poet. For the inventive mind is always dissatisfied with its progress because it sees beyond, and for the greatest geniuses, even their self-esteem may harbor a secret but severe judge whom flattery may momentarily silence but never corrupt. Thus we should not be surprised that the scholars of whom we speak gloried so proudly in practicing a science that was thorny, often ridiculous, and sometimes barbarous. [7]

It is true that our century, which believes itself called upon to change every type of law and to render equitable judgments, does not think very well of these men who were formerly so celebrated. Belittling them is nowadays considered the proper thing to do; indeed many men pride themselves on it. We seem to be trying with our contempt to punish these scholars for their excessive self-esteem or for the unenlightened approbation of their contemporaries; and in trampling these idols under foot it appears we would wish to cause their very names to be forgotten. But any excess is unjust. Let us instead gratefully make use of the work of these industrious men. While making available to us everything that could be useful from the works of the ancients, it was inevitable that they would turn up what was useless also. We would not be able to mine gold without extracting many baser or less precious materials at the same time; these men would have separated out the good from the bad just as we do, if they had come later. Erudition was therefore necessary to lead us to belles-lettres.

Indeed, it was not necessary to read the writings of the ancients for long to be convinced that there were better things to learn in those very works in which formerly only facts or words were sought. Men soon perceived the beauties that the ancients had lavished upon them; for, if men need to be apprised of what is true, as we have stated above, in compensation, that is all they need. Their former admiration for the ancients could not have been livelier; now it became more judicious. However, it was still far from being wise. They believed that the only way to imitate the ancients was to copy them slavishly and that it was possible to speak well only in an ancient tongue. They did not realize that the study of words is a kind of passing inconvenience, necessary insofar as it facilitates the study of things, but becoming a real evil whenever it retards that study; that therefore their endeavor should have been restricted to familiarizing themselves with the Greek and Roman authors so as to profit from their finest thoughts; and that the trouble it took to write in an ancient language was just so much time lost from the advancement of reason. Furthermore, they did not see that if there were great beauties of style in the ancients that are lost to us, for the same reason there must also be many defects in them which escape our notice and which we run the risk of copying, mistaking them for beauties. And lastly, they did not realize that the best for which one could hope from the slavish use of ancient languages would be a weirdly diverse style conglomerated from an infinite number of different ones. This composite style would be correct and even admirable in the view of our moderns, but Cicero or Virgil would have found it ridiculous. In the same way we would laugh at a work in our language in which the author had collected together sentences from Bossuet, La Fontaine, La Bruyère, and Racine, quite correctly persuaded that, taken individually, each of these writers is an excellent model.

Such prejudice on the part of the first scholars produced in the sixteenth century a multitude of Latin poets, orators, and historians whose works, we must confess, too often draw their principal merit from a latinity which we can hardly evaluate. Some of these works can be compared to the harangues of most of our rhetoricians—they are empty, resembling bodies without substance. One would need only to put them into French, and no one would read them.

Little by little men of letters at last recovered from this kind of mania. It seems that we owe their change, at least in part, to the patronage of the great, who are quite happy to be learned on the condition that they can become so without trouble, and who wish to be able to judge a work of intelligence without hard study, in exchange for the benefits they promise to the author or for the friendship with which they think they honor him. Men began to understand that beauty lost none of its advantages for being expressed in the common tongue, that it even gained by becoming more accessible to the generality of men, and that there was no merit in saying common or ridiculous things in any language whatever, especially in those languages which of necessity were spoken the worst. Therefore, men of letters turned their thoughts to perfecting the vulgar tongues. They tried first to say in these languages what the ancients had said in theirs. But, as a result of that prejudice which had been so hard to uproot, they began by distorting the French tongue instead of enriching it. Ronsard created a barbarous jargon, bristling with Greek and Latin; but fortunately he made it so unrecognizable that it became ridiculous. Men soon saw that it was the beauties and not the words of ancient languages which should be translated into our own. Guided and perfected by good taste, it rather quickly acquired an infinite number of pleasing and happy expressions. Finally, men no longer limited themselves to copying the Romans and the Greeks, or even to imitating them; they tried to surpass them, if possible, and to think according to their own intelligence. Thus, the imagination of the moderns was reborn little by little from that of the ancients; and all the masterpieces of the past century were seen to burst forth almost simultaneously—masterpieces in eloquence, in history, in poetry, and in the different literary genres.

Malherbe, nurtured by the reading of the excellent poets of antiquity and taking nature as a model as they had done, was the first to enhance our poetry with a harmony and beauty which it had never known before. Balzac, who is today held too much in contempt, gave nobility and balance to our prose. [8] The writers of Port-Royal continued what Balzac had begun. [9] They added that precision, that happy choice of terms, and that purity which make most of their works seem almost modern even now and which set them apart from a great many antiquated books written at the same time. Corneille [1606–1684], after having for several years made concessions to poor taste in his career as a dramatist, finally freed himself of it; by the strength of his genius more than by reading he discovered the laws of the theater and set them forth in his admirable Discourses on tragedy, in his Reflections upon each of his plays, but principally in his plays themselves. Racine [1639–1699], opening another route, brought to the stage a passion that the ancients had hardly known. Unfolding the motives of the human heart, he joined a consistent elegance and truth with certain traits of the sublime. In his Art poétique, Despréaux made himself the equal of Horace at the same time that he modeled his work after him. [10] Molière [1622–1673] left ancient comedy far behind him in the subtle portrayal of the absurdities and the mores of his time. La Fontaine [1621–1695] almost caused Aesop and Phaedrus to be forgotten, and Bossuet succeeded in putting himself in the same rank with Demosthenes. [11]

The Fine Arts are so closely united with belles-lettres that the taste which cultivates one impels men to perfect the other. During the same time that our literature was being enriched by so many fine works, Poussin produced his paintings and Puget created his statues; Le Sueur painted the cloister of the Chartreux, and Le Brun the battles of Alexander; finally [12] Lully, creator of song appropriate for our language, gave immortality to the poems of Quinault through his music, which in turn was made immortal by them. [13]

It must be admitted, however, that the renaissance of painting and sculpture was much more rapid than that of poetry and music, and the reason is not difficult to understand. After men began to study ancient works of every kind, the rather large number of masterworks of antiquity that had escaped from superstition and barbarism immediately caught the attention of enlightened artists. The only way to imitate sculptors like Praxiteles and Phidias  [14] was to do exactly as they did, and talent needed only to be instructed by a discerning eye. Thus, it did not take Raphael and Michelangelo long to bring their art to a point of perfection which has not yet been surpassed. Since the object of painting and of sculpture falls more within the domain of the senses, these arts in general could not fail to precede poetry. The senses must have been more promptly affected by the palpable and sensible beauties of ancient statues than was the imagination in perceiving the fugitive and intellectual beauties of the ancient writers. Indeed, even when men’s imagination began to perceive these beauties, their manner of imitating them, this servile copying in a foreign tongue, was defective and would almost certainly have impeded the progress of the imagination. Imagine for a moment our painters and sculptors deprived of the advantage they enjoyed in using the same raw materials as the ancients. If they, like our literary men, had wasted their time seeking out and approximating that material poorly instead of using another for the purpose of imitating the works they admired, their progress would doubtless have been much less rapid, and they would still not have found true marble. [15]

As for music, it could achieve a certain degree of perfection only much later, because it is an art which the moderns have been obliged to create. Time destroyed all the models which the ancients may have left us in this genre. Their writers, at least those who remain for us, have conveyed only the most obscure knowledge on this subject, or only stories that are more likely to astound us than to instruct. Several of our scholars, perhaps activated by a sort of proprietary love, have alleged that we have carried this art much further than the Greeks. Because of the lack of remains from antiquity, it is as difficult to support as to destroy this claim, and the true or supposed prodigies of ancient music are only feeble proof against it. Perhaps we could conjecture with some probability that ancient music was completely different from ours and that if the ancient was superior in melody, harmony gives certain advantages to the modern.

We would be unjust if we did not acknowledge what we owe to Italy in the matters we have just been discussing. It is from her that we have received the sciences which have since flourished so abundantly in all Europe. It is to her above all that we owe the fine arts and good taste, of which she has furnished us a large number of inimitable models.

While the arts and belles-lettres were held in honor, philosophy was far from making the same progress, at least in each nation taken as a whole; it reappeared only much later. It is not that to excel in belles-lettres is essentially easier than in philosophy; superiority in all genres is equally difficult to attain. But the reading of the ancients was to contribute more promptly to the advancement of belles-lettres and of good taste than to the progress of the natural sciences. Literary beauties do not have to be viewed for a long time in order to be felt; and as men feel before they think, for the same reason they judge their sensations before judging their thoughts. Moreover, as philosophers the ancients did not approach the perfection they achieved as writers [of literature], and indeed, though in the sequence of our ideas the first operations of reason precede the first efforts of the imagination, the imagination moves much faster than reason once it has made its first steps. Imagination has the advantage of operating on objects which it produces itself, whereas reason all too often exhausts itself in fruitless investigations, since perforce it is limited to the ideas which lie before it, and forced to check itself at each instant. The universe and reflections [of the mind] are the first book of the true philosophers, and the ancients doubtless had studied it; thus men should have done what the ancients did. That study could not be replaced by a study of their works, most of which had been destroyed. The small number [that survived], mutilated by time, could give us only very uncertain and much corrupted ideas on so vast a matter.

Scholasticism, which constitutes the whole of so-called science of the centuries of ignorance, still was prejudicial to the progress of true philosophy in that first century of enlightenment. Since time immemorial, so to speak, men had been persuaded that they possessed the doctrine of Aristotle in all its purity, [even though it had been] commented on by the Arabs and corrupted by thousands of absurd or childish additions. So great was their respect for the ancients that they did not even think of ascertaining whether that barbarous philosophy was really the philosophy of this great man. It is in this fashion that many peoples, born and confirmed by education in their errors, believe in all sincerity that they are on the road to truth, because it has never even occurred to them to form the least doubt about it. And so, in the time when several writers were rivals of the Greek orators and poets, marching in the same rank as their models and perhaps even surpassing them, Greek philosophy, although very imperfect, was not even well known.

This multitude of prejudices, which was partially supported by blind admiration for antiquity, seemed to be strengthened further by the abuse which a few powerful theologians dared to make of the submission of peoples. I say a few, for I am far from extending an accusation that concerns only some of its members to an entire respectable and highly enlightened body. [16] Poets were permitted to sing of the divinities of paganism, because men were rightly persuaded that using the names of these divinities could be no more than a game from which there was nothing to fear. If, on the one hand, the religion of the ancients, thinking of every object as being alive, opened a broad scope to the imagination of literary men, on the other hand its principles were so absurd that no one needed to worry about a revival of Jupiter or Pluto by some sect of innovators. But some people did fear, or appeared to fear, the blows which blind reason might deliver against Christianity. How did they fail to see that such a feeble attack was not of the slightest danger to them? Christianity was sent to men from heaven, and the promises of God himself assured forever that righteous and ancient veneration which people manifested towards it. Moreover, however absurd a religion might be (a reproach which only impiety can make of ours), it is never the philosophers who destroy it. Even when they teach truth, they are satisfied to demonstrate it without forcing recognition from anyone. Such a power belongs only to the Omnipotent Being. It is the inspired men who enlighten the people and the enthusiasts who lead them astray. The bridle that we are obliged to impose upon the license of the latter should in no way harm that liberty which is so necessary to true philosophy and from which religion can draw the greatest advantages. If Christianity brings to philosophy the enlightenment that it lacks and if grace alone can force the incredulous to submit, it is reserved for philosophy to reduce them to silence. To assure the triumph of faith, the theologians of whom we speak needed only to employ those weapons which were supposed to constitute a threat to it.

But some among these men had much more compelling reasons to oppose the advance of philosophy. Falsely persuaded that the faith of peoples becomes firmer as the different objects upon which it is exercised become more numerous, they were not content to require a legitimate submission to our mysteries. They tried to elevate their individual opinions into dogmas. And it was these opinions themselves, far more than the dogmas, which they wanted to make secure. They would by this means have inflicted the most terrible blow upon religion, had religion been the work of men. For there was a danger that once these opinions were recognized as false, the common people (who have no discernment) might treat the truths of religion and the false opinions with which some had wished to confound them in the same way.

Other theologians who were of better faith, but equally dangerous, joined with the first for different motives. Although religion is intended uniquely to regulate our mode of life and our faith, they believed it was to enlighten us also on the system of the world—in short, on matters which the All-Powerful has expressly left to our own disputations. They did not make the reflection that the sacred books and the works of the Fathers, which were created to teach the common people as well as the philosophers the requirements of practice and belief, would have spoken only the language of the common people when it came to indifferent questions. However, theological despotism or prejudice won out. A tribunal whose name still cannot be spoken without fear in France became powerful in the south of Europe, in the Indies, and the New World. Faith in no way ordained belief in it, nor charity the approval of it. [17] It condemned a celebrated astronomer for having maintained that the earth moved and declared him a heretic, almost in the way that Pope Zachary had, some centuries before, condemned a bishop for not having thought as St. Augustine did concerning the antipodes, and for having guessed their existence six hundred years before Christopher Columbus discovered them. [18] It was thus that the abuse of the spiritual authority, conjoined with the temporal, forced reason to silence; and they were not far from forbidding the human race to think.

While poorly instructed or badly intentioned adversaries made open war on it, philosophy sought refuge, so to speak, in the works of a few great men. They had not the dangerous ambition of removing the blindfolds from their contemporaries’ eyes; yet silently in the shadows they prepared from afar the light which gradually, by imperceptible degrees, would illuminate the world.

The immortal Chancellor of England, Francis Bacon [1561–1626], ought to be placed at the head of these illustrious personages. His works, so justly esteemed (and more esteemed, indeed, than they are known), merit our reading even more than our praises. [19] One would be tempted to regard him as the greatest, the most universal, and the most eloquent of the philosophers, considering his sound and broad views, the multitude of objects to which his mind turned itself, and the boldness of his style, which everywhere joined the most sublime images with the most rigorous precision. Born in the depths of the most profound night, Bacon was aware that philosophy did not yet exist, although many men doubtless flattered themselves that they excelled in it (for the cruder a century is, the more it believes itself to be educated in all that can be known). Therefore, he began by considering generally the various objects of all the natural sciences. He divided these sciences into different branches, of which he made the most exact enumeration that was possible for him. He examined what was already known concerning each of these objects and made the immense catalogue of what remained to be discovered. This is the aim of his admirable book The Advancement of Learning. In his Novum Organum, he perfects the views that he had presented in the first book, carries them further, and makes known the necessity of experimental physics, of which no one was yet aware. Hostile to systems, he conceives of philosophy as being only that part of our knowledge which should contribute to making us better or happier, thus apparently confining it within the limits of the science of useful things, and everywhere he recommends the study of Nature. His other writings were produced on the same pattern. Everything, even their titles, proclaims the man of genius, the mind that sees things in the large view. He collects facts, he compares experiments and points out a large number to be made; he invites scholars to study and perfect the arts, which he regards as the most exalted and most essential part of human science; he sets forth with a noble simplicity his Conjectures and Thoughts on the different objects worthy of men’s interest; [20] and he would have been able to say, like that old man in Terence, that nothing which touches humanity was alien to him. Natural science, ethics, politics, economics, all seem to have been within the competence of that brilliant and profound mind. And we do not know which we ought to admire more, the riches he lavishes upon all the subjects he treats or the dignity with which he speaks of them. His writings can best be compared to those of Hippocrates on medicine; and they would be no less admired, nor less read, if the culture of the mind were as dear to mankind as the conservation of health. But in every area only the works of those who head a school of disciples make a brilliant impression. Bacon was not of that number, and the form of his philosophy prevented it; it was too wise to astonish anyone. Scholasticism, which continued to dominate, could not be overthrown except by bold and new opinions. And apparently circumstances are not such that a philosopher who is content to say to men: “Here is the little that you have learned, there is what remains for you to find,” is destined to cause much stir among his contemporaries. If we did not know with what discretion, and with what superstition almost, one ought to judge a genius so sublime, we might even dare reproach Chancellor Bacon for having perhaps been too timid. He asserted that the scholastics had enervated science by their petty questions, and that the mind ought to sacrifice the study of general beings for that of individual objects; nonetheless, he seems to have shown a little too much caution or deference to the dominant taste of his century in his frequent use of the terms of the scholastics, sometimes even of scholastic principles, and in the use of divisions and subdivisions, fashionable in his time. After having burst so many irons, this great man was still held by certain chains which he could not, or dared not, break.

We declare here that we owe principally to Chancellor Bacon the encyclopedic tree of which we have already spoken at length and which will be found at the end of this Discourse. We have stated this in several places in the Prospectus, we come back to it again, and we will not lose any opportunity to repeat it. However, we have not believed it necessary to follow on every point the great man whom we acknowledge here to be our master. If we have not put reason after imagination as he did, it is because we have followed the metaphysical order of the operations of the mind in the encyclopedic system rather than the historical order of its progress since the renaissance of letters. The illustrious Chancellor of England perhaps had this latter order in mind to some extent when he made what he called “the census” and the enumeration of the parts of human knowledge. Moreover, since the plan of Bacon is different from ours, and since the sciences have subsequently made great progress, it should not be surprising that we have sometimes taken a different route.

Besides the changes that we have already explained we have made in the sequence of the general distribution of knowledge, we have in certain respects pushed the subdivisions further, especially in the part on mathematics and on particular physics. [21] On the other hand, we have abstained from extending as far as he does the subdivision of certain sciences, which he follows to the last twigs of their branches. These, which ought properly to enter into the body of our Encyclopedia, would only have enlarged the “general system” rather uselessly in our opinion. The encyclopedic tree of the English philosopher will be found immediately following ours. That is the shortest and easiest way to distinguish between what comes from us and what we have borrowed from him. [22]

Chancellor Bacon was followed by the illustrious Descartes [1596–1650]. That exceptional man, whose fortune has varied so much in less than a century, possessed all the qualities necessary for changing the face of philosophy: a strong imagination, a most logical mind, knowledge drawn from himself more than from books, great courage in battling the most generally accepted prejudices, and no form of dependence which forced him to spare them. Consequently, he experienced even in his own life what ordinarily happens to any man who has too marked an ascendancy over others. He had few enthusiasts and many enemies. Whether because he knew his country or only because he distrusted it, he took refuge in an entirely free land in order to meditate with less possibility of disturbance. Though he was much less concerned with attracting disciples than with deserving them, persecution went to search him out in his retreat, and the secluded life he led could not protect him from it. In spite of all the sagacity that he had employed to prove God’s existence, he was accused of denying it by some officials who perhaps did not believe in it themselves. Tormented and slandered by foreigners, and rather poorly received by his compatriots, he went to die in Sweden, doubtless far from anticipating the brilliant success that his opinions would one day have.

One can view Descartes as a geometer or as a philosopher. Mathematics, which he seems to have considered lightly, nevertheless today constitutes the most solid and the least contested part of his glory. Algebra, which had been virtually created by the Italians and prodigiously augmented by our illustrious Viète, received new acquisitions in the hands of Descartes. [23] One of the most considerable is his method of indeterminates, a very ingenious and very subtle artifice, which we have since been able to apply to a large number of investigations. But above all what immortalized the name of this great man is the application he was able to make of algebra to geometry, one of the grandest and most fortunate ideas that the human mind has ever had. It will always be the key to the most profound investigations, not only in sublime geometry, but also in all the physico-mathematical sciences.

As a philosopher he was perhaps equally great, but he was not so fortunate. Geometry, which by the nature of its object always gains without losing ground, could not fail to make a progress that was most sensible and apparent for everyone when plied by so great a genius. Philosophy found itself in quite a different state. There everything remained to be done, and what do not the first steps in any branch of knowledge cost? One is excused from making larger steps by the merit of taking any at all. If Descartes, who opened the way for us, did not progress as far along it as his sectaries believe, nevertheless the sciences are far more indebted to him than his adversaries will allow; his method alone would have sufficed to render him immortal. His Dioptrics is the greatest and the most excellent application that has yet been made of geometry to physics. In a word, we see his inventive genius shining forth everywhere, even in those works which are least read now. If one judges impartially those vortices which today seem almost ridiculous, it will be agreed, I daresay, that at that time nothing better could be imagined. [24] The astronomical observations which served to destroy them were still imperfect or hardly established. Nothing was more natural than to postulate a fluid which carried the planets. Only a long sequence of phenomena, of reasonings, and of calculations, and consequently a long sequence of years, could cause such an attractive theory to be renounced. Moreover, it had the singular advantage of explaining gravitation of bodies by the centrifugal force of the vortex itself, and I am not afraid to assert that this explanation of weight is one of the finest and most ingenious hypotheses that philosophy has ever imagined. Thus, physicists had to be carried forward almost in spite of themselves by the theory of central forces and by experiments made much later before they would abandon it. Let us recognize, therefore, that Descartes, who was forced to create a completely new physics, could not have created it better; that it was necessary, so to speak, to pass by way of the vortices in order to arrive at the true system of the world; and that if he was mistaken concerning the laws of movement, he was the first, at least, to see that they must exist. [25]

His metaphysics, as ingenious and new as his physics, suffered virtually the same fate. And it too can be justified by more or less the same reasons; for such is the fortune of that great man today, that after having had innumerable disciples, he is reduced to a handful of apologists. No doubt he was mistaken in admitting the existence of innate ideas. But had he retained that single truth taught by the Aristotelians concerning the origin of ideas through the senses, perhaps it would have been more difficult to uproot the errors that debased this truth by being alloyed with it. Descartes dared at least to show intelligent minds how to throw off the yoke of scholasticism, of opinion, of authority—in a word, of prejudices and barbarism. And by that revolt whose fruits we are reaping today, he rendered a service to philosophy perhaps more difficult to perform [26] than all those contributed thereafter by his illustrious successors. He can be thought of as a leader of conspirators who, before anyone else, had the courage to arise against a despotic and arbitrary power and who, in preparing a resounding revolution, laid the foundations of a more just and happier government, which he himself was not able to see established. If he concluded by believing he could explain everything, he at least began by doubting everything, and the arms which we use to combat him belong to him no less because we turn them against him. Moreover, when absurd opinions are of long duration, one is sometimes forced to replace them by other errors, if one cannot do better, in order to disabuse the human race. The uncertainty and the vanity of the mind are such that it always needs an opinion to which to cleave. It is a child to whom one must offer a toy in order to take a dangerous weapon away from him. He will quit this toy by himself when he reaches the age of reason. In thus deceiving the philosophers, or those who believe themselves such, one teaches them at least to distrust their intelligence, and that frame of mind is the first step toward truth. Thus was Descartes persecuted in his own lifetime, as if he had come to bring truth to men.

Newton [1642–1727], whose way had been prepared by Huyghens, appeared at last, and gave philosophy a form which apparently it is to keep. That great genius saw that it was time to banish conjectures and vague hypotheses from physics, or at least to present them only for what they were worth, and that this science was uniquely susceptible to the experiments of geometry. [27] It was perhaps with this aim that he began by inventing calculus and the method of series, whose applications are so extensive in geometry itself and still more so in explaining the complicated effects that one observes in Nature, where everything seems to take place by various kinds of infinite progressions. The experiments on weight and the observations of Kepler led the English philosopher to discover the force which holds the planets in their orbits. Simultaneously he showed how to distinguish the causes of their movements and how to calculate them with a precision such as one might reasonably expect only after several centuries of labor. Creator of an entirely new optics, he made the properties of light known to men by breaking it up into its constituent parts. Anything we could add to the praise of the great philosopher would fall far short of the universal testimonial that is given today to his almost innumerable discoveries and to his genius, which was at the same time far-reaching, exact, and profound. He has doubtless deserved all the recognition that has been given him for enriching philosophy with a large quantity of real assets. But perhaps he has done more by teaching philosophy to be judicious and to restrict within reasonable limits the sort of audacity which Descartes had been forced by circumstances to bestow upon it. His Theory of the World (for I do not mean his System) is today so generally accepted that men are beginning to dispute the author’s claim to the honor of inventing it (because at the beginning great men are accused of being mistaken, and at the end they are treated as plagiarists). To the people who find everything in the works of the ancients I leave the pleasure of discovering gravitation of planets in those works, even if it is not there. But even supposing that the Greeks had had the idea of it, what was only a rash and romantic system with them became a demonstration in the hands of Newton. That demonstration, which belongs exclusively to him, constitutes the real merit of his discovery. Without such support, the theory of attraction would only be an hypothesis like so many others. If today some celebrated writer takes it into his head to predict without any proof that one day we will succeed in making gold, would our descendants be justified in trying on this pretext to deprive a chemist who actually achieved it of the glory of the great work? And does the invention of telescopes belong any less to its authors, even though some ancient might have thought it possible that we would one day extend the range of our vision?

Other scholars believe they are making a far better founded criticism of Newton by accusing him of reviving the “occult qualities” of the scholastics and ancient philosophers in physics. [28] But are the scholars of whom we are speaking quite sure that these two words were anything for the ancient philosophers but the modest expression of their ignorance? They were empty of sense among the scholastics, though intended to designate a being of which they thought they could conceive. Newton, who had studied Nature, did not flatter himself that he knew more than the ancients concerning the first cause which produces phenomena. But he refrained from employing the same language, in order not to offend some contemporaries who would have attached an idea to it other than what he intended. He contented himself with proving that the vortices of Descartes could not reasonably explain the movement of the planets, that phenomena and the laws of mechanics unite in overthrowing the vortices, that there is a force through which the planets tend toward one another, whose principle is entirely unknown to us. He did not reject impulsion; he limited himself to asking that it be employed more felicitously than it had been up to that time to explain the movement of the planets. His desires have not yet been fulfilled and perhaps will not be for a long time. After all, by giving us grounds to think that matter may have properties which we did not suspect and by disabusing us of our ridiculous confidence that we know everything, what harm could he have done to philosophy?

It appears that Newton had not entirely neglected metaphysics. He was too great a philosopher not to be aware that it constitutes the basis of our knowledge and that clear and exact notions about everything must be sought in metaphysics alone. Indeed, the works of this profound geometer make it apparent that he had succeeded in constructing such notions for himself concerning the principal objects that occupied him. However, he abstained almost totally from discussing his metaphysics in his best known writings, and we can hardly learn what he thought concerning the different objects of that discipline, except in the works of his followers. This may have been because he himself was somewhat dissatisfied with the progress he had made in metaphysics, or because he believed it difficult to give mankind sufficiently satisfactory and extensive enlightenment on a discipline too often uncertain and disputed. Or finally, it may have been because he feared that in the shadow of his authority people might abuse his metaphysics as they had abused Descartes’, in order to support dangerous or erroneous opinions. Therefore, since he has not caused any revolution here, we will abstain from considering him from the standpoint of this subject.

Locke [1632–1704] undertook and successfully carried through what Newton had not dared to do, or perhaps would have found impossible. It can be said that he created metaphysics, almost as Newton had created physics. He understood that the abstractions and ridiculous questions which had been debated up to that time and which had seemed to constitute the substance of philosophy were the very part most necessary to proscribe. He sought the principal causes of our errors in those abstractions and in the abuse of signs, and that is where he found them. In order to know our soul, its ideas, and its affections, he did not study books, because they would only have instructed him badly; he was content with probing deeply into himself, and after having contemplated himself, so to speak, for a long time, he did nothing more in his treatise, Essay Concerning Human Understanding [1690], than to present mankind with the mirror in which he had looked at himself. In a word, he reduced metaphysics to what it really ought to be: the experimental physics of the soul—a very different kind of physics from that of bodies, not only in its object, but in its way of viewing that object. In the latter study we can, and often do, discover unknown phenomena. In the former, facts as ancient as the world exist equally in all men; so much the worse for whoever believes he is seeing something new. Reasonable metaphysics can only consist, as does experimental physics, in the careful assembling of all these facts, in reducing them to a corpus of information, in explaining some by others, and in distinguishing those which ought to hold the first rank and serve as the foundation. In brief, the principles of metaphysics, which are as simple as axioms, are the same for the philosophers as for the general run of people. But the meager progress that this science has made for such a long time shows how rarely these principles are applied felicitously, whether because of the difficulty that surrounds such an application, or perhaps also because of the natural temptations that prevent us from holding ourselves within bounds when we engage in metaphysical speculations. Nevertheless, the title of metaphysician, and even of great metaphysician, is still rather common in our century, for we love to squander everything. But how few persons are really worthy of that name! How many are there who earn it only by the unfortunate talent of obscuring clear ideas with a great deal of subtlety and of preferring their own extraordinary notions to true ones which are always simple? One should not be astonished, therefore, if the majority of those who are called metaphysicians have so little regard for one another. I have no doubt that this title will soon become an insult for our men of intelligence, as the name “sophist,” degraded by those who bore it in Greece, was rejected by true philosophers, even though it means “a sage.”

We may conclude from all this history that England is indebted to us for the origins of that philosophy which we have since received back from her. It is perhaps a greater distance from substantial forms to vortices than from vortices to universal gravitation; just as perhaps a greater interval exists between pure algebra and the idea of applying it to geometry than between the small triangle of Barrow and differential calculus. [29]

Such are the principal geniuses that the human mind ought to regard as its masters. Greece would have raised statues to them, even if she had been obliged to tear down those of a few conquerors in order to give them room.

The limits of the Preliminary Discourse prevent us from speaking of several illustrious philosophers who, without proposing views as great as those which we have just mentioned, have contributed much to the advancement of the sciences through their works and lifted, so to speak, a corner of the veil that concealed truth from us. Among these are: Galileo [1564–1642], whose astronomical discoveries contributed so much to geography, as did his theory of acceleration to mechanics; Harvey [1578–1657], who will be immortalized by his discovery of the circulation of blood; Huyghens, whom we have already named, and whose forceful and ingenious works have served geometry and physics so well; [30] Pascal, author of a treatise on the cycloid which ought to be regarded as a prodigy of wisdom and of penetration, and of a treatise on the equilibrium of liquids and the weight of air which has opened a new science to us—a sublime and universal genius whose talents could not be too much mourned by philosophy, if religion had not profited from them; [31] Malebranche, who unraveled the errors of the senses so well, and who knew the errors of the imagination—as if he had not often been misled by his own; [32] Boyle [1627–1691], the father of experimental physics; and several others, among whom men like Vesalius, Sydenham, Boerhaave, and an infinite number of celebrated anatomists and physical scientists ought to be counted with distinction. [33]

Among these great men there is one whose philosophy, which is today both very well received and strongly opposed in the north of Europe, obliges us not to pass over him in silence. This is the illustrious Leibniz. If he had had nothing more than the glory of sharing, or even the suspicion of sharing, the invention of differential calculus with Newton, he would deserve honorable mention on that score alone. [34] But we wish to examine him principally for his metaphysics. Like Descartes, he seems to have recognized the inadequacy of all previous solutions to those lofty questions concerning the union of the body and the soul, Providence, and the nature of matter. He seems even to have had the advantage of setting forth the difficulties which can be raised on these questions more forcefully than anyone else. But, less judicious than Locke and Newton, he was not contented with formulating doubts; he tried to dissipate them, and in that respect he was perhaps no more fortunate than Descartes. His principle of sufficient reason, excellent and very true in itself, does not seem very useful to beings so poorly enlightened as we regarding the primary reasons of all things. His monads at most prove that he understood better than anyone else our incapacity to form a clear idea of matter; but they do not appear to be such as to give us that clear idea. His pre-established harmony seems only to add a further difficulty to the opinion of Descartes concerning the union of the body and the soul. [35] Finally, his system of Optimism is perhaps dangerous because of the alleged advantage that it has of explaining everything. [36]

We will conclude with an observation which will not appear surprising to philosophers. The great men of whom we have just spoken changed the face of the sciences but little during their own lives. We have already seen why Bacon was not the head of a school of disciples. In addition to the reason which we have already given for this fact are two more. This great philosopher wrote several of his works in a seclusion to which his enemies had forced him, and the evil they had done to the statesman could not fail to harm the author as well. Moreover, uniquely occupied in being useful, he perhaps embraced too many matters for his contemporaries to allow themselves to be enlightened simultaneously on such a great number of objects. People hardly permit great geniuses to know so much; they are quite happy to learn something from them on a limited subject, but they do not want to be obliged to remodel all their ideas upon those of the great geniuses. Partly for this reason the works of Descartes underwent more persecution in France after his death than their author had suffered in Holland during his life; it was only with great difficulty that the schools finally dared admit a physics which they imagined to be contrary to that of Moses. It is true that Newton found less opposition among his contemporaries. This may have been because he first became known through his geometrical discoveries, which were of unquestioned propriety and reality, and these discoveries inclined people to admire and praise him more gradually and somewhat without constraint; or because his superior ability imposed silence on envy, or finally—and this seems more difficult to believe—because he was dealing with a nation that was less unjust than others. He had the singular advantage of seeing his philosophy generally accepted in England during his life and of having all his compatriots for partisans and admirers. [37] However, at that time it would have taken a good deal to make Europe likewise accept his works. Not only were they unknown in France, but scholastic philosophy was still dominant there when Newton had already overthrown Cartesian physics; the vortices were destroyed even before we considered adopting them. It took us as long to get over defending them as it did for us to accept them in the first place. It is necessary only to open our books in order to see with surprise that twenty years have not yet passed since we began to renounce Cartesianism in France. The first among us who dared declare himself openly Newtonian was the author of the Discours sur la figure des Astres [1732], who combines a very extensive knowledge of geometry with the kind of philosophical mind not always found in conjunction with it, and also a talent for writing to which his geometrical knowledge certainly does no harm, as will be seen upon reading his works. [38] Maupertuis believed that one could be a good citizen without blindly adopting the physics of one’s country; and we ought to be grateful to him for the courage he had to display in attacking that physics. In fact our nation, which is singularly eager for novelties in matters of taste, is on the contrary very much attached to ancient opinions in matters of science. Two such apparently contrary dispositions have their foundation in several causes, above all in that eagerness to enjoy, which seems to constitute our character. Things that have to do with feeling are not of a nature to be sought after for long, and they cease to be attractive when they are not presented all at once; but at the same time the ardor with which we apply ourselves to matters of feeling is soon exhausted. Disenchanted as soon as it is sated, the soul flies toward a new object, which it will likewise abandon. On the contrary, only through meditation does the mind achieve what it is after. For that very reason it tries to enjoy for as long as it has sought, especially when it is only a matter of an hypothetical and conjectural philosophy, which is much less toilsome than exact calculations and combinations. Physicists, who are attached to their theories with the same zeal and for the same motives as artisans to their practices on this point, resemble the common run of people much more than they imagine. Let us always respect Descartes, but let us readily abandon opinions which he himself would have combatted a century later. Above all, let us not confound his cause with that of his sectaries. The genius that he manifested in seeking out a new, albeit false, route in the darkest night was unique with him. Those who have dared make the first steps into darkness have at least shown courage; but once it is light there is no longer any glory in losing one’s way following those first footsteps. Of the few remaining partisans of his doctrine, he himself would have disavowed those who defend it purely out of slavish attachment to what they learned in their infancy or through some sort of national prejudice, the shame of philosophy. With such motives one can be the last of his partisans, but one would not have had the merit of being his first disciple. Rather, such a person would have been Descartes’ adversary at a time when to be so would have been entirely unjust. In order to have the right to admire the errors of a great man, one must be able to recognize them when time has brought them out into broad daylight. Thus young men, whom we ordinarily regard as rather bad judges, are perhaps the best judges in philosophical and many other matters, when they are not deprived of enlightenment. Everything is equally new to them; thus their sole interest lies in making the right choice.

In fact, it is the young geometers in France as well as in foreign countries who have directed the fate of the two philosophies. The old one is proscribed to such an extent that its most zealous partisans no longer even dare mention the vortices with which they formerly stuffed their works. If Newtonianism were to be destroyed in our time by any cause whatsoever—the numerous partisans that it now has would doubtless play the same role that they have made others play. Such is the nature of minds; such are the results of self-esteem, which governs philosophers at least as much as other men, and of the opposition that all discoveries, both real and apparent, must meet.

Almost the same thing has been true of Locke as of Bacon, Descartes, and Newton. Forgotten for a long time in favor of Rohault and Régis, [39] and still rather poorly known by the multitude, Locke is finally beginning to have some readers and a few partisans among us. It is thus that the efforts of illustrious persons, who are often too far above their time, are almost inevitably of no profit to their own centuries. It is reserved for following ages to receive the fruit of their enlightenment. Thus the restorers of the sciences almost never enjoy all the glory they merit. Far inferior men [40] wrest it away from them, because great men devote themselves to their own genius and mediocre people to that of their nation. It is true that the awareness of superiority, which is inevitably enjoyed by those who possess it, is sufficient to compensate for the lack of popular recognition. Superiority nourishes itself on its own substance; and often that repute for which people are so eager only serves to console mediocrity for the advantages that talent has over it. One may say, indeed, that Fame, as she tells all the news, relates hearsay more often than what she sees with her own eyes, and the poets who have portrayed her with a hundred mouths should also have given her a blindfold.

By the progress that it is making among us, philosophy, which constitutes the dominant taste of our century, seems to be trying to make up for the time that it has lost and to avenge itself for the sort of contempt our fathers showed for it. Today this disdain has fallen on erudition, and is no more just for having changed its object. Men imagine that we have [already] drawn everything worth knowing from the works of the ancients, and on this basis they would willingly spare those who still wish to consult them the trouble. It seems that antiquity is regarded as an oracle that it is useless to consult because it has said everything it is going to say. Nowadays men have hardly more regard for the restitution of a lost passage than for the discovery of a small subdivision of a vein in the human body. But just as it would be ridiculous to believe that there is no more to be discovered in anatomy because the anatomists sometimes give themselves over to apparently useless researches (which are often useful by their consequences), it would be no less absurd to try to forbid erudition because of the rather unimportant researches our scholars may engage in. It would be ignorant and presumptuous to believe that everything is known concerning any subject whatsoever, and that we no longer have any advantage to draw from the study and reading of the ancients.

The practice today of writing everything in the vulgar tongue has doubtless contributed to strengthening this prejudice, and perhaps is more pernicious than the prejudice itself. Since our language was spread throughout all Europe, we decided that it was time to substitute it for Latin, which had been the language of our scholars since the renaissance of letters. I acknowledge that it is much more excusable for a philosopher to write in French than for a Frenchman to make Latin verses. I would be willing even to agree that this practice has contributed to making enlightenment more general, if indeed broadening the outer surface also broadens the mind within. However, an inconvenience that we certainly ought to have foreseen results from it. The scholars of other nations for whom we have set the example have rightly thought that they would write still better in their own language than in ours. Thus England has imitated us. Latin, which seemed to have taken refuge in Germany, is gradually losing ground there. I have no doubt that Germany will soon be followed by the Swedes, the Danes, and the Russians. Thus, before the end of the eighteenth century, a philosopher who would like to educate himself thoroughly concerning the discoveries of his predecessors will be required to burden his memory with seven or eight different languages. And after having consumed the most precious time of his life in learning them, he will die before beginning to educate himself. The use of the Latin language, which we have shown to be ridiculous in matters of taste, is of the greatest service in works of philosophy, whose merit is entirely determined by clarity and precision, and which urgently require a universal and conventional language. It is therefore to be hoped that this usage will be re-established, yet we have no grounds to hope for it: the abuse of which we make bold to complain is too favorable to vanity and sloth for one to hope to uproot it. Philosophers, like other writers, want to be read, and above all by their own people. If they used a less familiar language, they would have fewer voices to praise them and a multitude could not boast of understanding them. It is true that with fewer admirers they would have better judges, but such an advantage affects them little, because fame has more to do with the number of those who give it than with their merit.

In recompense (for one must not overdo anything), our books of science appear to have acquired even the sort of advantage which seemed to belong specifically to works of belles-lettres. A respectable writer, whom our century still has the good fortune to possess and whose different productions I would praise here if I were not limiting myself to viewing him as a philosopher, has taught scholars to throw off the yoke of pedantry. [41] Superior in the art of elucidating the most abstract ideas, he has been able through the utmost method, precision, and clarity, to bring them down within the compass of minds which one would have believed least capable of grasping them. To philosophy he even dared lend the ornaments which seemed most foreign to it and which seemed to be most rigorously proscribed. And this boldness has been justified by the most general and flattering success. But like all original writers, he has left those who believed themselves able to imitate him far behind.

The author of l’Histoire naturelle has followed an entirely different route. [42] Rivaling Plato and Lucretius, he has lavished upon his work, whose reputation grows from day to day, that nobility and elevation of style which are so suited to philosophical matters and which, in the writings of the wise man, must be the picture of his soul.

But while intending to please, philosophy seems not to have forgotten that it is designed principally to instruct. For that reason the taste for systems—more suited to flatter the imagination than to enlighten reason—is today almost entirely banished from works of merit. One of our best philosophers seems to have delivered the death blow to it. [43] The spirit of hypothesis and conjecture formerly was perhaps quite useful and even necessary for the renaissance of philosophy, because at that time judiciousness was less important than acquiring independence of thought. But times have changed, and a writer among us who praised systems would have come too late. The advantages now afforded by that spirit are too small to counterbalance the resulting disadvantages, and if the very small number of discoveries they once occasioned are claimed as proof of the usefulness of systems, one might just as well counsel our geometers to apply themselves to squaring the circle, because the efforts of several mathematicians to do so have given us a few theorems. The spirit of systems [44] is in physics what metaphysics is in geometry. [45] If it may sometimes be required in order to start us on the way, it is almost never capable by itself of leading us to truth. It can glimpse the causes of phenomena when enlightened by the observation of Nature; but it is for calculations to assure, so to speak, the existence of these causes by determining exactly the effects they can produce and by comparing these effects with those revealed to us by experience. Any hypothesis without such a support rarely acquires that degree of certitude which ought always to be sought in the natural sciences, and which is so seldom found in those frivolous conjectures honored by the name of “systems.” If all he could have were conjectures of that kind, the principal merit of the physicist would be, properly speaking, to have the spirit of system but never to create one. [46] Thousands of experiments prove how dangerous the use of systems is in the other sciences.

Physics is therefore confined solely to observations and to calculations; medicine to the history of the human body, of its maladies and their remedies; natural history to the detailed description of vegetables, animals, and minerals; chemistry to the composition and experimental decomposition of bodies. In a word, all the sciences are confined, as much as possible, to facts and to consequences deduced from them, and do not concede anything to opinion except when they are forced to. I do not speak of geometry, astronomy, and mechanics, which are destined by their nature always to be perfecting themselves.

Men abuse the best things. That philosophic spirit so much in fashion today which tries to comprehend everything and to take nothing for granted extends even into belles-lettres. Some claim that it is even harmful to their progress, and indeed it is difficult to conceal that fact. Our century, which is inclined toward combination and analysis, seems to desire to introduce frigid and didactic discussions into things of sentiment. It is not that the passions and tastes do not have their own sort of logic, but their logic has principles completely different from those of ordinary logic; these principles must be unraveled within us, and it must be confessed that ordinary philosophy is quite unsuited for the task. Totally immersed in the analysis of our perceptions, philosophy disentangles their nuances much more readily when the soul is in a state of tranquillity than when it is in the throes of passions or of the lively sentiments which affect us. In truth, how could it possibly be easy to analyze such feelings as these with precision? We must indeed surrender ourselves to them in order to know them, even though the moment in which the soul is affected by them is the very time when it is least capable of study. It must be admitted, however, that this spirit of discussion has contributed to freeing our literature from blind admiration for the ancients; it has taught us to value in them only the beauties that we would be compelled to admire in the moderns. But it is perhaps also to the same source that we owe that species of metaphysics of the heart which has seized hold of our theaters. [47] While we do not have to banish it entirely, still less are we obliged to let it thus hold sway. This “anatomy of the soul” has even slipped into our conversations; people make dissertations, they no longer converse; and our societies have lost their principal ornaments—warmth and gaiety.

Thus, let us not be astonished that our literary works are generally inferior to those of the preceding century. One can find the reason for this circumstance in the very efforts we make to surpass our predecessors. Taste and the art of writing make rapid progress in a short time, once the true route is open; hardly does a great genius glimpse the beautiful before he sees it in its entire extent, and imitation of la belle Nature seems restricted to certain limits which are reached in only a generation or two at the most, so that for the following generation imitation is all that remains. Yet this next generation is not content with this share: the riches that it has inherited authorize the desire to increase them. It strives to add to what it has received, and it misses the mark while trying to surpass it. Thus, we have at the same time more principles for good judgment, a larger fund of enlightenment, more good judges, and fewer good works. We do not say of a book that it is good, but that it is the book of a man of intelligence. In this manner did the century of Demetrius of Phalerum immediately follow that of Demosthenes, the century of Lucan and of Seneca that of Cicero and of Virgil, and our century that of Louis XIV. [48]

I refer here only to the century in general, for I am far from satirizing a few men of rare merit with whom we live. The physical constitution of the literary world, like that of the material world, follows unavoidable revolutions of which it would be as unjust to complain as it would be of the change of the seasons. Moreover, even as we owe to the century of Pliny the admirable works of Quintilian and of Tacitus, which the preceding generation would perhaps not have been in a position to produce, our own century will leave monuments to posterity for which it may rightfully glorify itself. A poet, famous for his talents and his misfortunes, has overshadowed Malherbe in his odes and Marot in his epigrams and epistolary verses. [49] We have seen the birth of the sole epic poem which France can set over against those of the Greeks, the Romans, the Italians, the English, and the Spanish. Two illustrious men, among whom our nation seems divided and whom posterity will know how to rank in their proper places, compete for the glory of the buskin, and we see their tragedies with an extreme pleasure even after those of Corneille and of Racine. [50] One of the two men, to whom we owe the Henriade, is sure of obtaining a distinguished and most particular place among the very small number of great poets, and at the same time he possesses to the highest degree a talent which hardly any poet has had even to a mediocre degree: that of writing in prose. No one has better known the rare art of presenting each idea effortlessly in the phrase which is proper to it, of embellishing everything without mistaking the proper shading for each thing, and finally, of never being either above or below his subject—a quality that characterizes great writers more than we would imagine. His Essay on the Century of Louis XIV [1739] is all the more precious because the author had no model for this type of writing, either from among the ancients or ourselves. By the swiftness and nobility of its style his History of Charles XII [1731] is worthy of the hero that he was to portray. His occasional writings, which are superior to all those we hold in highest regard, would be sufficient in their number and their merit to immortalize several writers. Would that I could touch on his numerous and admirable works here in order to pay to that rare genius the tribute of praises that he merits, that he has received so many times from his compatriots, from foreigners, and from his enemies, and to which posterity will give the crowning touch when he is no longer able to enjoy it! [51]

These are not our only riches. A judicious writer [Montesquieu], who is as good a citizen as he is a great philosopher, [52] has given us a work on the principles of the laws which is disparaged by a few Frenchmen and honored by all Europe. [53] Excellent authors have written history; [54] precise and enlightened minds have probed its meaning. Comedy has acquired a new form which we would be mistaken to reject, since it has added one more pleasure to our lives; and this form of literature was not as unknown to the ancients as some would like to persuade us is the case. [55] Finally, we have several novels which prevent us from regretting those of the last century.

The Fine Arts are not less honored in our nation. If I can believe the enlightened amateurs, our school of painting is the foremost in Europe, and several works of our sculptors would not have been disowned by the ancients. Perhaps of all these arts, music is the one which has made the most progress among us in the last fifteen years. Thanks to the labors of a manly, courageous, and fruitful genius, foreigners who could not bear our “symphonies” are beginning to enjoy them, and the French at last appear to be persuaded that Lully left much to be done in this branch of the arts. In carrying the practice of his art to such a high degree of perfection, M. Rameau has become simultaneously the model and the object of jealousy of a large number of artists, who deprecate him at the same time they are trying to imitate him. [56] But what more specifically distinguishes him is the fact that he has very successfully pondered on the theory of music; that he has been capable of finding the principle of harmony and of melody in the chord root, [57] that by this method he has reduced to more certain and more simple laws a science which was formerly given over to arbitrary rules, or rules dictated by blind experiment. I readily take the opportunity of celebrating this artist-philosopher in a Discourse directed principally to the praise of great men. His merit, which he has forced our century to acknowledge, will be well known only when time has made envy hold its tongue; and his name, which is dear to the most enlightened part of our nation, cannot offend anyone here. But though it might displease some alleged patrons of the arts, a philosopher would certainly be worthy of pity if even in matters of science and taste he did not permit himself to speak the truth.

Such is the wealth that we possess. What an idea of our literary treasures would result if we added to the works of so many great men those of all the scholarly associations which maintain the taste for sciences and letters and to which we owe so many excellent works! Such societies most assuredly are of great advantage in a state, if certain conditions are observed: they should not be multiplied excessively, thus facilitating the entry of an excessive number of mediocre persons; they should banish all inequalities that might exclude or discourage men who are endowed with talents that will enlighten others. Genius should be the only superiority recognized by them, and within their ranks honor should be the reward for work. Finally, a way should be found so that talents receive their due and are not deprived by intrigue of their just compensation. [58] For let us not be mistaken: we do more harm to the progress of the mind by misplacing such rewards than in suppressing them. To the honor of letters, let us confess that even without the promise of compensation, scholars do yet increase in number. Witness England, a country to which the sciences owe so much, although their government does nothing for them. It is true that the English nation is not neglectful of the sciences, that it even respects them, and this kind of reward, superior to all others, is doubtless the surest means of making the sciences and arts flourish; because while the government distributes offices, it is the public which bestows esteem. Love of letters, a virtue among our neighbors, is still, in truth, only a fashion among ourselves, and perhaps it will never be anything else. But however dangerous might be that mode which produces a hundred proud and ignorant amateurs for every enlightened patron of the arts, perhaps we owe to it the fact that we have not returned to the barbarism into which a multitude of circumstances tends to precipitate us.

One of the chief of these circumstances is that love of false wit and brilliance that protects ignorance, prides itself in it, and sooner or later will extend it everywhere. Ignorance will be the final fruit and ultimate degree of bad taste—yet also its remedy. For everything has regular revolutions, and the darkness will be like a sort of anarchy, which is most baleful in itself, but sometimes useful in its consequences. However, let us not hope for such a fearful upset. Barbarism lasts for centuries; it seems that it is our natural element; reason and good taste are only passing. [59]

This would perhaps be the place to parry the recent thrusts of an eloquent and philosophical writer [60] who accused the sciences and the arts of corrupting human mores. [61] It would hardly be appropriate for us to concur with his opinion at the head of a work such as this and, indeed, the worthy man of whom we speak seems himself to have given suffrage to our work by the zeal and the success of his collaboration on it. We will not reproach him for having confused the cultivation of the mind with the abuse that can be made of it, since he would doubtless answer that this abuse is inseparable therefrom. But we would ask him to examine whether the majority of the evils which he attributes to the sciences and to the arts are not due to completely different causes, whose enumeration would be a long and delicate operation. Letters certainly contribute to making society more pleasing; it would be difficult to prove that because of them men are better and virtue is more common. But one can question whether even ethics has that privilege. And furthermore, is it necessary to abolish certain [62] laws because in their name a few crimes are protected whose authors would be punished in a republic of savages? In sum, even assuming that we might be ready to yield a point to the disadvantage of human knowledge, which is far from our intention here, we are even farther from believing that anything would be gained by destroying it. Vices would remain with us, and we would have ignorance in addition. [63]

Let us end this history of the sciences by noting that the different forms of government, which have so much influence on [men’s] minds and on the cultivation of letters, also determine the principal types of knowledge which are to flourish under them, each of these types having its particular merits. In general, there should be more orators, historians, and philosophers in a republic and more poets, theologians, and geometers in a monarchy. This rule is not, however, so absolute that it cannot be altered and modified by an infinite number of causes.

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