The role of the political intellectual in 18th century France is not easy to understand without a broad knowledge of French political and cultural life. I will put a few facts on the table to help. First, in the 17th and 18th century, the French not only dominated European literature but had no serious competitors. Some people outside England admired Shakespeare, it is true, but the French and nearly everyone else preferred Racine and Corneille, and, beside Shakespeare, most major English writers were enamored of French literature. Moliere, Boileau, La Fontaine, La Bruyére–along with Racine and Corneille–were adored throughout Europe. Read in translation, they (except for Moliere) fail to impress English-speakers, but they were masters of verse and of prose. Unfortunately, this meant that when far inferior minds and characters mastered the French language–Voltaire and Rousseau,, to name two–they too were adored. A second fact is that French political life, from Louis XIII on down, was dominated by the court. There were no parties, only court factions and favorites. (I am of course exaggerating a bit). There was no Locke because there was no Shaftsbury. The best that one aspire to was to be a tutor to one of the princes, as Fenelon had been. As for the English Enlightenment, it had the great advantage of being second-rate, provincial, and behind the times. In Britain, the really smart moralists and political intellectuals were the Scots–Hutcheson, Hume, Kames, Smith. Voltaire, who had an entirely second-rate mind that harnessed a first-rate literary talent, admired Locke, but second-raters often admire their equals.
Unfortunately, as Americans we tend to view the period from 1500-1800 from the English point of view and we overrate, as a result, the English contribution to European culture and fail to grasp the greater significance of France. For reasons I do not understand even today, I liked French literature in my youth and had enough hours in college for a major. While I am far from being a learned student of French literature, I count myself very lucky to have accidentally (it seems) fallen in with the French. This week I am reading Balzac’s wonderful first signed novel, Les Chouans, and the poetry of André Chénier, whom I have not read since a college survey course. In English, I am reading the Guizots’ popular history of France for children–some children is all I can say–and they spend about 100 pp. on the literature of Louis XIV’s reign. To think of a period that included all the writers I have already mentioned, but also Bossuet and Pascal–two of the most brilliant religious writers of the past 500 years and absolute literary masters–staggers a mind that is used to thinking of 17th century England as a high point.
From Organized Coercion:
There is an important sense in which we must live in the past if we are to experience the present sanely and fully. It is only knowledge of earlier generations and their accomplishments that makes it possible to judge our own generation and to strive for higher standards. Reading even Wodehouse reminds me of how far we have fallen from the excellence of his plots and the grace of his imaginary world. I read yesterday an account of someone who had been in company with the great French dramatist Racine. The subject of Sophocles came up, and Racine whipped out a Greek text of the Oedipus and translated it for his friends, who knew the French theater well. The writer who tells the story says it was the most moving dramatic experience he had ever had. My point is that Racine did not measure himself by the contemporaries he excelled but by the best. That is the trouble with generational jingoism–the Rush-Sean-Mark twaddle about America as the greatest little country in the history of the world. Even if it were true, this attitude breeds complacency, a satisfaction with the second, or in our case third and fourth rate, that prevents us from ever striving to do better.
National chauvinism, or self-esteem writ large...
Implications for Western acculturation and the creation of an American English rite?