Page images
PDF
EPUB

In a view of the writers of the eighteenth century it is impossible that D'Alembert should be omitted. He occupies some space in this work, but he is not a favourite of the writer. His scientific acquirements are not disputed, and that part of his preliminary discourse to the Encyclopædia which relates to the exact sciences is highly applauded; but he is described as rather a shallow metaphysician; and his pretensions in literature are dismissed somewhat contemptuously with the terms“un ecrivain assez froid.”

We have not much disposition to become the champions of D'Alembert in any thing. He probably was not very profound in metaphysics. Indeed, we suspect that the French writers of this age were in general but superficial in the science of mind.

Their extravagant admiration of Locke, whom they but half understood ; the bustle and parade they kept up about sensations, connected with a certain prevailing and almost instinctive tendeney towards materialism, concur to make it probable that they were neither deep nor original in this part of knowledge. Indeed, we do not recollect that a new hypothesis in metaphysics was started by any of the modern French writers, or any old one considerably illustrated or improved. The schools in that science have been English, Scotch, or German. However, it is no inconsiderable compliment to D'Alembert, that he is placed next to De Gerando among the French metaphysicians, by the most competent judge* upon such subjects of this, or perhaps any, age. As a writer, it is perhaps true, that D'Alembert is cold; but so were Middleton, Hume, and others, whom it would be idle to depreciate. He is certainly acute, discriminating, and elegant. His éloges are generally interesting; and the conclusion of that upon M. de Sacy is exceedingly eloquent. Yet it is by an effort of candour that we make these concessions. We have lately had the misfortune to read for the first time some of this writer's correspondence with Frederick the Second, and the temerity of some passages, in which he insolently impeaches and ridicules-not Christianity, for that all the philosophers thonght they were privileged to insult--but the ordinary providence and economy of God, is sò offensive, that we could almost wish that the very name of the writer and all his productions were buried in oblivion. Better were it that science and literature should perish forever; better that men should crawl upon the earth in brutish stupidity and ignorance; than that the best gifts of God should be employed by his ungrateful creatures to desecrate his name and insult bis goodness. Is there in the universe a spectacle so wretched, so disgnsting, so contemptible, as that of a being dependent for his

• Mr. D. Stewart

hourly existence on the will of his Creator, and spending a portion of the little breath he has in blaspheming him?

Among the lesser writers noticed in this work before us, there are several with whom we are wholly unacquainted. Wherever we happen to possess the means of judging, we have almost always been struck with the great justness as well as originality of the criticisms here presented to us.

Of Marivana the author says, " that he does not give the result of his observation, but the act of observation itself. A scene of Molière is a representation of nature; a scene of Marivana is a commentary upon it.” Nothing can be more accurate or more happy.

Thomas, we believe, all are agreed to consider as a vapid, elaborate, and tedious declaimer.

“ Marmontel,” says our author, “ tried to be a poet, and will only leave the reputation of a prose writer ; but that he has merited; he has always facility and elegance.'

egance.” It is perfectly provoking, and a marvellous instance of the mischiefs of bad company, that Marmontel, who was formed by nature to write pretty little stories, and really succeeded admirably, could not be satisfied without interrupting his narratives to read lectures to priests and princes. One quite longs to have him slightly whipped for his vagrancy, and passed to his parish.

There is much good criticism on La Harpe's writings in the 157th page, but the subject is not considerable enough to deserve an extract. La Harpe was undoubtedly a man of talents, and his voluminous correspondence, though stuffed with trifles, is amusing, because it makes us acquainted with all the follies of Paris during his day. It contains, too, the most authentic account of the last days of Voltaire with which we happen to be acquainted. The Elogue du Catinal, which carried the prize in the academy against Monsieur Guibert, to the great indignation of Mademoiselle de L'Espinasse, has been, we think, quite as much admired as it deserves. It is a correct, and, in parts, though rarely, an eloquent composition ; but it has no decisive traits of genius. By far the finest piece of La Harpe's, which we recollect to have seen, is a most impassioned and energetic declamation against the philosophers, written in the last years of the author's life ; and after he had lived to see what desolation their profligate speculations in religion, morals, and politics, had contributed to bring down upon France. It is the more valuable because the writer had, during many years of his life, lived in much familiarity with the sect, and probably favoured their principles. It is in the Catilinarian style, and is extremely powerful.

After the extracts which we have given, it is needless to say much of the writer. Our praise cannot add to his reputation, nor our criticism detract from it. But, in truth, we

are litile disposed to criticise. The rare combination of talents which were requisite for the composition of this little voluine is what we contemplate with delight; and they have been employed by their possessor so honourably, with such unvarying candour and respect for truth, that we feel a sentiment of reverence, mingling with and exalting the admiration which his genius and attainments enable biai to command.

But before we close this long article we must be allowed a few hasty remarks on some peculiarities which distinguished French philosophy during the eighteenth century. One naturally conceives of philosophers as of a serious, reflective class of men: the subjects about which they are conversant are both grave and important; the investigation of truth necessarily demands the exercise of the severer powers of the understanding; and the results of their inquiries so nearly affect the happiness of the human race, that the alliance of frivolity with such pursuits exhibits an incongruity of ideas that would be ridiculous if it were not shocking; a confusion of images too monstrous to be comical. In perusing the works of the French writers who called theinselves philosophers during the last age, the first feeling is a sort of distressing amazeinent, a kind of horrible surprise; such as overtakes us on beholding an extravagance of nature, or which travellers are said to experience on entering the mansion of the Prince Palagonia in Sicily, who has crowded into his rooms every fantastic image which a depraved and unnatural fancy could assort. These men write of God; of creation, providence, redemption; of man and virtue; of life, death, and eternity ;-ideas of which the very bames are awful;-to which the mind approaches purified and chastised by reverence;—and they are as merry as monkeys. They chatter and grin, and talk of the government of the universe, and jest a little, and come back with a light turn to the origin of morals, and then a clever story against priestcraft, and a merry pass at providence, and adieu mon cher philosophe ! What shall we say to reasoners such as these? Were they sane? Is it rational for beings who can think and feel, who hope, and fear, and suffer—for mortal beings, who in a few years must mingle with the dust they tread, to sport with the things in which they are the most vitally concerned, and wbich may determine their happiness or misery forever? Is it decent for a feeble creature, crawling upon the earth for a moment, and ready to sink under the pressure of the very atmosphere he breathes, to canvass with levity the ways of his Creator, and clap or hiss as if it were a scene at the opera ? If this be the fruit of knowledge, indeed “ ignorance is bliss.” If this be philosophy, it is that of the petites-maisons.

We always suppose philosophers to be possessed of some fixed principles, whether right or wrong; a system, a centre of opinions.

Vol. IV. New Series. 26

Else why do they think; what is the value of reflection, if they are exactly as ignorant as their neighbours ? If philosophers, therefore, attack existing institutions or sentiments, thor:gh we may doubt their wisdom, we at least give them credit for wishing to substitute notions which they think sounder and more valuable. But the philosophers of France had no opinions at all; they were mere haters; they attacked everything and recommended nothing. We have difficulties enough to perplex us upon any hypothesis ; but these inen, instead of applying their skill to unravel the entanglement, only wove new labyrinths in every direction. They contradicted one another, and they contradicted themselves;

“Chaos umpire sits, And by decision niore embroils the fray.”

Neither in the works of the philosophical writers of France comsidered as a body, nor in the productions of the individuals, is there any thing to be found worthy of the name of a religious and moral system; unless Helvetius's Paradoxes, which they all laughed at, are to clain, such a character. They dismissed, indeed, Revelation by general consent, as quite unworthy of the just ideas of a Deity, and having mastered so easily the great despot which had subdued mankind, it was to be imagined that they would open some peculiarly nuble and comprehensive views of God and his government, and furnish a solution to some of the great moral questions that had so long distressed the contemplative part of mankind. How did they answer to these expectations ? The more daring spirits, such as Diderot and Condorcet, shot up boldly into atheism; defied religion, and insulted morality. D'Alembert, more cool and cautious, seems to have oscillated long, but at last (as La Harpe tells us) judged that probability was in favour of the existence of a God. However, he had so little respect for his probable divinity, that he could sneer bitterly at the moral administration of the world; and declare, in one of his letters, that he was much of the same mind with Alphonsus, who said, that if he had been in the divine councils at ihe commencement of things, he could have shown how to make a better creation. Voltaire and Rousseau clung stoutly to their theism; but the former, who furiously assailed the Pentateuch, because it dishonoured God by the representations it gives of his character, has more passages in his writings of scandalous impiety and profaneness than could, we verily believe, be collected from all the works of Jews and christians during three thousand years: and the latter, though less impious, has done more to recommend licentiousness and confound all moral sentiments than perhaps any

[ocr errors]

other author that ever lived. So it was in substance with the rest. They patronised negatives. And though our very instincts direct us to the attainment of knowledge, and truth has been the object most ardently pursued by the highest minds in every age, these great masters of wisdom were content to live and die, in a willing and senseless scepticism respecting every thing which best deserves to be investigated--which speaks in accents the most thrilling to our hopes and our fears.

Philosophers should be humble. Those, more especially, who question rather than decide, should recommend their doubts by a tone of caution and modesty. The new academy never dogmatized: but the philosophers of France were superior to precedent and authority. If a prize were offered to the most imperious, irritable, scornful, dogmatic, and polemical body that has ever existed among lettered men, the authors of the Encyclopædia would bear away the palm. Not their brethren the old Epicureans; not the followers of Abelard and Ockham among

the schoolmen; not the pedants of the sixteenth century; not the colleges of the Jesuits, or the doctors of the Sorbonne, could in such a contest maintain a rivalry with that illustrious fraternity. Touch but one of the brotherhood and all the corporation was in arms; neither virtue, nor talents, nor character, nor station, could protect the miserable offender from the stings of the exasperated hive. Almost all who were not their friends were treated as their enemies; and their enemies were fools or hypocrites.

They despised every thing and every body, (themselves excepted,) and at last they despised one another. It is quite amusing to see how by continually living in their own little circle of antipathies they acquired the true sectarian spirit; and, though they began with exclaiming against want of charity in the churchmen, learnt to discard even the appearance of charity towards all but men of their own party. It was thus towards Frenchmen, it was thus towards foreigners. Hume and Gibbon were tolerated, but Johnson was “a superstitious dog ;” and Mr. Burke complains that there was an air of contemptuousness about them which greatly detracted from the pleasure of their society. Among all the European communities they seem to have respected none but this country; and one of the principal reasons for this partiality appears to have been given by the learned Marquis de Condorcet, who tells us that “ the philosophy of Bolingbroke commented on by Pope had established in England a system of rational theism, with morals suited to firm and reflective spirits. However, as Frenchmen are apt to ridicule without reason, so for once they applauded without knowledge: for Bolingbroke's pompous inanities never deceived any body but his scholar, who was frightened out of his wits when he heard they meant infidelity; and in spite of

« PreviousContinue »