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Title: Critical Miscellanies (Vol. 3 of 3) - Essay 8: France in the Eighteenth Century
Author: Morley, John, 1838-1923
Language: English
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Essay 8: France in the Eighteenth Century



  M. Taine as a man of letters                              261

  Political preparation needed for the historian            262

  M. Taine's conception of history                          265

  Its shortcomings                                          266

  Chief thesis of his book                                  268

  The expression of this thesis not felicitous              269

  Its substance unsatisfactory                              272

  Cardinal reason for demurring to it                       275

  Adaptation of the literary teaching of the eighteenth
       century to the social crisis                         277

  Why that teaching prevailed in France while it withered
       in England                                           280

  Social Elements. The French Court                         282

  The Nobility                                              283

  M. Taine exaggerates the importance of literature         286

  Historic doctrine could have saved nothing                287

  Lesson of the American Revolution                         288

  Conclusion                                                289


The announcement that one of the most ingenious and accomplished men
of letters in Europe was engaged upon a history of the French
Revolution, raised some doubts among those who have thought most
about the qualifications proper to the historian. M. Taine has the
quality of the best type of a man of letters; he has the fine
critical aptitude for seizing the secret of an author's or an
artist's manner, for penetrating to dominant and central ideas, for
marking the abstract and general under accidental forms in which
they are concealed, for connecting the achievements of literature
and art with facts of society and impulses of human character and
life. He is the master of a style which, if it seems to lack the
breadth, the firmness, the sustained and level strength of great
writing, is yet always energetic, and fresh, and alive with that
spontaneous reality and independence of interest which distinguishes
the genuine writer from the mere weaver of sentences and the servile
mechanic of the pen. The matter and form alike of M. Taine's best
work--and we say best, for his work is by no means without degrees
and inequalities of worth--prove that he has not shrunk from the
toil and austerity of the student, from that scorn of delight and
living of laborious days, by which only can men either get command
of the art of just and finished expression, or gather to themselves
much knowledge.

[1] _Les Origines de la France Contemporaine_. Tom. i. _L'Ancien
Régime._ Par H. Taine. Paris: Hachette. 1876.

But with all its attractiveness and high uses of its own, the genius
for literature in its proper sense is distinct from the genius for
political history. The discipline is different, because the matter
is different. To criticise Rousseau's Social Contract requires one
set of attainments, and to judge the proceedings of the Constituent
Assembly or the Convention requires a set of quite different
attainments. A man may have the keenest sense of the filiation of
ideas, of their scope and purport, and yet have a very dull or
uninterested eye for the play of material forces, the wayward tides
of great gatherings of men, the rude and awkward methods that
sometimes go to the attainment of wise political ends.

It would perhaps not be too bold to lay down this proposition; that
no good social history has ever been written by a man who has not
either himself taken a more or less active part in public affairs,
or else been an habitual intimate of persons who were taking such a
part on a considerable scale. Everybody knows what Gibbon said about
the advantage to the historian of the Roman Empire of having been a
member of the English parliament and a captain in the Hampshire
grenadiers. Thucydides commanded an Athenian squadron, and Tacitus
filled the offices of prætor and consul. Xenophon, Polybius, and
Sallust, were all men of affairs and public adventure. Guicciardini
was an ambassador, a ruler, and the counsellor of rulers; and
Machiavel was all these things and more. Voltaire was the keen-eyed
friend of the greatest princes and statesmen of his time, and was
more than once engaged in diplomatic transactions. Robertson was a
powerful party chief in the Assembly of the Scotch Church. Grote and
Macaulay were active members of parliament, and Hallam and Milman
were confidential members of circles where affairs of State were the
staple of daily discussion among the men who were responsible for
conducting them to successful issues. Guizot was a prime minister,
Finlay was a farmer of the Greek revenue. The most learned of
contemporary English historians a few years ago contested a county,
and is habitually inspired in his researches into the past by his
interest in the politics of the present. The German historians,
whose gifts in reconstructing the past are so valuable and so
singular, have for the most part been as actively interested in the
public movements of to-day, as in those of any century before or
since the Christian era. Niebuhr held more than one political post
of dignity and importance; and of historical writers in our time,
one has sat in several Prussian parliaments; another, once the tutor
of a Prussian prince, has lived in the atmosphere of high politics;
while all the best of them have taken their share in the preparation
of the political spirit and ideas that have restored Germany to all
the fulness and exaltation of national life.

It is hardly necessary to extend the list. It is indeed plain on the
least reflection that close contact with political business, however
modest in its pretensions, is the best possible element in the
training of any one who aspires to understand and reproduce
political history. Political preparation is as necessary as literary
preparation. There is no necessity that the business should be on
any majestic and imperial scale. To be a guardian of the poor in an
East-End parish, to be behind the scenes of some great strike of
labour, to be an active member of the parliamentary committee of a
Trades Council or of the executive committee of a Union or a League,
may be quite as instructive discipline as participation in mightier
scenes. Those who write concrete history, without ever having taken
part in practical politics, are, one might say, in the position of
those ancients who wrote about the human body without ever having
effectively explored it by dissection. Mr. Carlyle, it is true, by
force of penetrating imaginative genius, has reproduced in stirring
and resplendent dithyrambs the fire and passion, the rage and tears,
the many-tinted dawn and the blood-red sunset of the French
Revolution; and the more a man learns about the details of the
Revolution, the greater is his admiration for Mr. Carlyle's
magnificent performance. But it is dramatic presentation, not
social analysis; a masterpiece of literature, not a scientific
investigation; a prodigy of poetic insight, not a sane and
quantitative exploration of the complex processes, the deep-lying
economical, fiscal, and political conditions, that prepared so
immense an explosion.

We have to remember, it is true, that M. Taine is not professing to
write a history in the ordinary sense. His book lies, if we may use
two very pompous but indispensable words, partly in the region of
historiography, but much more in the region of sociology. The study
of the French Revolution cannot yet be a history of the past, for
the French still walk _per ignes suppositos_, and the Revolution is
still some way from being fully accomplished. It was the disputes
between the Roman and the Reformed churches which inspired
historical research in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; it
is the disputes among French parties that now inspire what professes
to be historiography, but what is really a sort of experimental
investigation in the science of society. They little know how long
and weary a journey lies before them, said Burke, who undertake to
bring great masses of men into the political unity of a nation. The
process is still going on, and a man of M. Taine's lively
intellectual sensibility can no more escape its influences than he
can escape the ingredients of the air he breathes. We may add that
if his work had been really historic, he must inevitably have gone
further back than the eighteenth century for the 'Origins' of
contemporary France. The very slight, vague, and unsubstantial
chapter with which he opens his work cannot be accepted as a
substitute for what the subject really demanded--a serious summary,
however condensed and rapid, of the various forces, accidents,
deliberate lines of policy, which, from the breaking up of the great
fiefs down to the death of Lewis the Fourteenth, had prepared the
distractions of the monarchy under Lewis's descendants.

Full of interest as it is, M. Taine's book can hardly be described
as containing much that is new or strikingly significant. He
develops one idea, indeed, which we have never before seen stated in
its present form, but which, if it implies more than has been often
advanced by previous writers in other forms, cannot be accepted as
true. This is perhaps a point better worth discussing than any other
which his book raises. The rest is a very elaborate and thorough
description of the structure of society, of its physiognomy in
manners and characteristics, the privileges, the burdens, the daily
walk and conversation of the various classes which made up the
French people between the Regency and the Revolution. M. Taine's
method of description does not strike one as altogether happy. It is
a common complaint against French historians that they are too lax
about their authorities, and too heedless about giving us chapter
and verse for their assertions. M. Taine goes to the contrary
extreme, and pours his note-books into his text with a steady-handed
profusion that is excessively fatiguing, and makes the result far
less effective than it would have been if all this industrious
reading had been thoroughly fused and recast into a homogeneous
whole. It is an ungenerous trick of criticism to disparage good work
by comparing it with better; but the reader can scarcely help
contrasting M. Taine's overcrowded pages with the perfect
assimilation, the pithy fulness, the pregnant meditation, of De
Tocqueville's book on the same subject. When we attempt to reduce M.
Taine's chapters to a body of propositions standing out in definite
relief from one another, yet conveying a certain unity of
interpretation, we soon feel how possible it is for an author to
have literary clearness along with historic obscurity.

In another respect we are inclined to question the felicity of M.
Taine's method. It does not convey the impression of movement. The
steps and changes in the conflict among the organs of the old
society are not marked in their order and succession. The reader is
not kept alive to the gradual progress of the break-up of old
institutions and ideas. The sense of an active and ceaseless
struggle, extending in various stages across the century, is effaced
by an exclusive attention to the social details of a given phase. We
need the story. You cannot effectively reproduce the true sense and
significance of such an epoch as the eighteenth century in France,
without telling us, however barely, the tale, for example, of the
long battle of the ecclesiastical factions, and the yet more
important series of battles between the judiciary and the crown. If
M. Taine's book were a piece of abstract social analysis, the above
remark would not be true. But it is a study of the concrete facts of
French life and society, and to make such a study effective, the
element of the chronicle, as in Lacretelle or Jobez, cannot rightly
be dispensed with.

       *       *       *       *       *

Let us proceed to the chief thesis of the book. The new formula in
which M. Taine describes the source of all the mischiefs of the
revolutionary doctrine is this. 'When we see a man,' he says, 'who
is rather weak in constitution, but apparently sound and of peaceful
habits, drink eagerly of a new liquor, then suddenly fall to the
ground, foaming at the mouth, delirious and convulsed, we have no
hesitation in supposing that in the pleasant draught there was some
dangerous ingredient; but we need a delicate analysis in order to
decompose and isolate the poison. There is one in the philosophy of
the eighteenth century, as curious as it was potent: for not only is
it the product of a long historic elaboration, the final and
condensed extract in which the whole thought of the century ends;
but more than that, its two principal elements are peculiar in this,
and when separated they are each of them salutary, yet in
combination they produce a poisonous compound.' These two
ingredients are, first, the great and important acquisitions of the
eighteenth century in the domain of physical science; second, the
fixed classic form of the French intelligence. 'It is the classic
spirit which, being applied to the scientific acquisitions of the
time, produced the philosophy of the century and the doctrines of
the Revolution.' This classic spirit has in its literary form one or
two well-known marks. It leads, for instance, to the fastidious
exclusion of particulars, whether in phrases, objects, or traits of
character, and substitutes for them the general, the vague, the
typic. Systematic arrangement orders the whole structure and
composition from the period to the paragraph, from the paragraph to
the structural series of paragraphs; it dictates the style as it has
fixed the syntax. Its great note is the absolute. Again, 'two
principal operations make up the work of the human intelligence:
placed in face of things, it receives the impression of them more or
less exactly, completely, and profoundly; next, leaving the things,
it decomposes its impression, and classifies, distributes, and
expresses more or less skilfully the ideas that it draws from that
impression. In the second of these processes the classic is
superior.' Classicism is only the organ of a certain reason, the
_raison raisonnante_; that which insists upon thinking with as
little preparation and as much ease as possible; which is contented
with what it has acquired, and takes no thought about augmenting or
renewing it; which either cannot or will not embrace the plenitude
and the complexity of things as they are.

As an analysis of the classic spirit in French literature, nothing
can be more ingenious and happy than these pages (p. 241, etc.) But,
after all, classic is only the literary form preferred by a certain
turn of intelligence; and we shall do well to call that turn of
intelligence by a general name, that shall comprehend not only its
literary form but its operations in every other field. And
accordingly at the end of this very chapter we find M. Taine driven
straightway to change classic for mathematic in describing the
method of the new learning. And the latter description is much
better, for it goes beneath the surface of literary expression,
important as that is, down to the methods of reasoning. It leads us
to the root of the matter, to the deductive habits of the French
thinkers. The mischief of the later speculation of the eighteenth
century in France was that men argued about the complex,
conditional, and relative propositions of society, as if they had
been theorems and problems of Euclid. And M. Taine himself is, as we
say, compelled to change his term when he comes to the actual facts
and personages of the revolutionary epoch. It was the geometric,
rather than the classic, quality of political reasoning, which
introduced so much that we now know to have been untrue and

Even in literary history it is surely nearer the truth to say of the
latter half of the century that the revolutionary movement began
with the break-up of classic form and the gradual dissolution of the
classic spirit. Indeed this is such a commonplace of criticism, that
we can only treat M. Taine's inversion of it as a not very happy
paradox. It was in literature that this genius of innovation, which
afterwards extended over the whole social structure, showed itself
first of all. Rousseau, not merely in the judgment of a foreigner
like myself, but in that of the very highest of all native
authorities, Sainte Beuve, effected the greatest revolution that the
French tongue had undergone since Pascal. And this revolution was
more remarkable for nothing than for its repudiation of nearly all
the notes of classicism that are enumerated by M. Taine. Diderot,
again, in every page of his work, whether he is discussing painting,
manners, science, the drama, poetry, or philosophy, abounds and
overabounds in those details, particularities, and special marks of
the individual, which are, as M. Taine rightly says, alien to the
classic genius. Both Rousseau and Diderot, considered as men of
letters, were conscious literary revolutionists, before they were
used as half-conscious social revolutionists. They deliberately put
away from them the entire classic tradition as to the dignity of
personage proper to art, and the symmetry and fixed method proper to
artistic style. This was why Voltaire, who was a son of the
seventeenth century before he was the patriarchal sire of the
eighteenth, could never thoroughly understand the author of the New
Heloisa, or the author of the Père de Famille and Jacques le
Fataliste. Such work was to him for the most part a detestable
compound of vulgarity and rodomontade. 'There is nothing living in
the eighteenth century,' M. Taine says, 'but the little sketches
that are stitched in by the way and as if they were contraband, by
Voltaire, and five or six portraits like Turcaret, Gil Blas,
Marianne, Manon Lescaut, Rameau's Nephew, Figaro, two or three
hasty sketches of Crebillon the younger and Collé' (p. 258). Nothing
living but this! But this is much and very much. We do not pretend
to compare the authors of these admirable delineations with Molière
and La Bruyère in profundity of insight or in grasp and ethical
mastery, but they are certainly altogether in a new vein even from
those two great writers, when we speak of the familiar, the real,
and the particular, as distinguished from old classic generality.
And, we may add in passing, that the social life of France from the
death of Lewis XIV. downwards was emancipated all round from the
formality and precision of the classic time. As M. Taine himself
shows in many amusing pages, life was singularly gay, free,
sociable, and varied. The literature of the time was sure to
reflect, and does reflect, this universal rejection of the
restraints of the past age when the classic spirit had been supreme.

Apart from this kind of objection to its exact expression, let us
look at the substance of M. Taine's dictum. 'It was the classic
spirit, which, when applied to the scientific acquisitions of the
time, produced the philosophy of the century and the doctrines of
the Revolution.' Even if we substitute geometric or deductive
spirit for classic spirit, the proposition remains nearly as
unsatisfactory. What were the doctrines of the Revolution? The
sovereignty of the people, rights of man, liberty, equality,
fraternity, progress and perfectibility of the species--these were
the main articles of the new creed. M. Taine, like too many French
writers, writes as if these ideas had never been heard of before
'89. Yet the most important and decisive of them were at least as
old as the Reformation, were not peculiarly French in any sense, and
were no more the special products of the classic spirit mixing with
scientific acquisitions than they were the products of Manicheanism.
It is extraordinary that a writer who attributes so much importance
to Rousseau, and who gives us so ample an account of his political
ideas, should not have traced these ideas to their source, nor even
told us that they had a source wholly outside of France. Rousseau
was a Protestant; he was a native of the very capital and mother
city of Protestantism, militant and democratic; and he was
penetrated to his heart's core by the political ideas which had
arisen in Europe at the Reformation. There is not a single principle
in the Social Contract which may not be found either in Hobbes, or
in Locke, or in Althusen, any more than there is a single
proposition of his deism which was not in the air of Geneva when he
wrote his Savoyard Vicar. If this be the case, what becomes of the
position that the revolutionary philosophy was worked out by the
_raison raisonnante_, which is the special faculty of a country
saturated with the classic spirit? If we must have a formula, it
would be nearer the truth to say that the doctrines of the
Revolution were the product, not of the classic spirit applied to
scientific acquisitions, but, first, of the democratic ideas of the
Protestant Reformation, and then of the fictions of the lawyers,
both of them allied with certain urgent social and political

So much, then, for the political side of the 'philosophy of the
century,' if we are to use this too comprehensive expression for all
the products of a very complex and many-sided outburst of
speculative energy. Apart from its political side, we find M.
Taine's formula no less unsatisfactory for its other phases. He
seems to us not to go back nearly far enough in his search for the
intellectual origins, any more than for the political origins, of
his contemporary France. He has taken no account of the progress of
the spirit of Scepticism from Montaigne's time, nor of the decisive
influence of Montaigne on the revolutionary thinkers. Yet the
extraordinary excitement aroused in France by Bayle's Dictionary was
a proof of the extent to which the sceptical spirit had spread
before the Encyclopædists were born. The great influence of
Fontenelle was wholly in the same sceptical direction. There was a
strong sceptical element in French Materialism, even when
materialism was fully developed and seemed most dogmatic.[2] Indeed,
it may sometimes occur to the student of such a man as Diderot to
wonder how far materialism in France was only seized upon as a means
of making scepticism both serious and philosophic. For its turn for
scepticism is at least as much a distinction of the French
intelligence as its turn for classicism. And, once more, if we must
have a formula, it would be best to say that the philosophy of the
century was the product, first of scepticism applied to old beliefs
which were no longer easily tenable, and then of scepticism,
extended to old institutions that were no longer practically

[2] See Lange's _Geschichte des Materialismus_, i. 298.

And this brings us to the cardinal reason for demurring to M.
Taine's neatly rounded proposition. His appreciation of the
speculative precursors of the Revolution seems to us to miss the
decisive truth about them. He falls precisely into those errors of
the _raison raisonnante_, about which, in his description of the
intellectual preparation of the great overthrow, he has said so many
just and acute things. Nothing can be more really admirable than M.
Taine's criticism upon Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, as
great masters of language (pp. 339-361). All this is marked by an
amplitude of handling, a variety of approach, a subtlety of
perception, a fulness of comprehension, which give a very different
notion of M. Taine's critical soundness and power from any that one
could have got from his account elsewhere of our English writers.
Some of the remarks are open to criticism, as might be expected. It
is hard to accept the saying (p. 278) that Montesquieu's 'celebrity
was not an influence.' It was Montesquieu, after all, who first
introduced among the Encyclopædic band a rationalistic and
experiential conception of the various legal and other conditions of
the social union, as distinguished from the old theological
explanation of them. The correspondence of Voltaire, Rousseau,
Diderot, D'Alembert, is sufficient to show how immediately, as well
as how powerfully, they were influenced by Montesquieu's memorable
book. Again, it is surely going too far to say that Montesquieu's
Persian Letters contained every important idea of the century. Does
it, for instance, contain that thrice fruitful idea which Turgot
developed in 1750, of all the ages being linked together by an
ordered succession of causes and effects? These and other
objections, however, hardly affect the brilliance and substantial
excellence of all this part of the book. It is when he proceeds to
estimate these great men, not as writers but as social forces, not
as stylists but as apostles, that M. Taine discloses the
characteristic weaknesses of the bookman in dealing with the facts
of concrete sociology. He shows none of this weakness in what he
says of the remote past. On the contrary, he blames, as we have all
blamed, Voltaire, Rousseau, and the rest of the group, for their
failure to recognise that the founders of religions satisfied a
profound need in those who accepted them, and that this acceptance
was the spontaneous admission of its relative fitness. It would be
impossible to state this important truth better than M. Taine has
done in the following passage:--

'At certain critical moments in history,' he says, 'men have come
out from the narrow and confined track of their daily life and
seized in one wide vision the infinite universe; the august face of
eternal nature is suddenly unveiled before them; in the sublimity of
their emotion they seem to perceive the very principle of its being;
and at least they did discern some of its features. By an admirable
stroke of circumstance, these features were precisely the only ones
that their age, their race, a group of races, a fraction of
humanity, happened to be in a condition to understand. Their point
of view was the only one under which the multitudes beneath could
place themselves. For millions of men, for hundreds of generations,
the only one access to divine things was along their path. They
pronounced the unique word, heroic or tender, enthusiastic or
tranquillising; the only word that, around them and after them, the
heart and the intelligence would consent to hearken to; the only one
adapted to the deep-growing wants, the long-gathered aspirations,
the hereditary faculties, a whole moral and mental structure,--here
to that of the Hindu or the Mongol, there to that of the Semite or
the European, in our Europe to that of the German, the Latin, or the
Slav; in such a way that its very contradictions, instead of
condemning it, were exactly what justified it, since its diversity
produced its adaptation, and its adaptation produced its benefits'
(p. 272).

It is extraordinary that a thinker who could so clearly discern the
secret of the great spiritual movements of human history, should
fail to perceive that the same law governs and explains all the
minor movements in which wide communities have been suddenly
agitated by the word of a teacher. It is well--as no one would be
more likely to contend than myself, who have attempted the task--to
demonstrate the contradictions, the superficiality, the
inadequateness, of the teaching of Rousseau, Voltaire, or Diderot.
But it is well also, and in a historical student it is not only
well, but the very pith and marrow of criticism, to search for that
'adaptation,' to use M. Taine's very proper expression, which gave
to the word of these teachers its mighty power and far-spreading
acceptance. Is it not as true of Rousseau and Voltaire, acting in a
small society, as it is of Buddha or Mahomet acting on vast groups
of races, that 'leur point de vue était le seul auquel les
multitudes échelonnées au dessous d'eux pouvaient se mettre?' Did
not they too seize, 'by a happy stroke of circumstance,' exactly
those traits in the social union, in the resources of human nature,
in its deep-seated aspirations, which their generation was in a
condition to comprehend,--liberty, equality, fraternity, progress,
justice, tolerance?

M. Taine shows, as so many others have shown before him, that the
Social Contract, when held up in the light of true political science,
is very poor stuff. Undoubtedly it is so. And Quintilian--an
accomplished and ingenious Taine of the first century--would have
thought the Gospels and Epistles, and Augustine and Jerome and
Chrysostom, very poor stuff, compared with the--

          Mellifluous streams that watered all the schools
          Of Academics old and new, with those
          Surnamed Peripatetics, and the Sect
          Epicurean, and the Stoic severe.

And in some ways, from a literary or logical point of view, the
early Christian writers could ill bear this comparison. But great
bodies of men, in ages of trouble and confusion, have an instinctive
feeling for the fragment of truth which they happen to need at the
hour. They have a spontaneous apprehension of the formula which is
at once the expression of their miseries and the mirror of their
hope. The guiding force in the great changes of the world has not
been the formal logic of the schools or of literature, but the
practical logic of social convenience. Men take as much of a
teacher's doctrine as meets their real wants: the rest they leave.
The Jacobins accepted Rousseau's ideas about the sovereignty of the
people, but they seasonably forgot his glorification of the state of
nature and his denunciations of civilisation and progress. The
American revolutionists cheerfully borrowed the doctrine that all
men are born free and equal, but they kept their slaves.

It was for no lack of competition that the ideas of the Social
Contract, of Raynal's History of the two Indies, of the System of
Nature, of the Philosophical Dictionary, made such astounding and
triumphant way in men's minds. There was Montesquieu with a sort of
historic method. There was Turgot, and the school of the economists.
There were seventy thousand of the secular clergy, and sixty
thousand of the regular clergy, ever proclaiming by life or
exhortation ideas of peace, submission, and a kingdom not of this
world. Why did men turn their backs on these and all else, and
betake themselves to revolutionary ideas? How came those ideas to
rise up and fill the whole air? The answer is that, with all their
contradiction, shallowness, and danger, such ideas fitted the
crisis. They were seized by virtue of an instinct of national
self-preservation. The evil elements in them worked themselves out
in infinite mischief. The true elements in them saved France, by
firing men with social hope and patriotic faith.

How was it, M. Taine rightly asks, that the philosophy of the
eighteenth century, which was born in England and thence sent its
shoots to France, dried up in the one country, and grew to
overshadow the earth in the other? Because, he answers, the new seed
fell upon ground that was suited to it, the home of the classic
spirit, the country of _raison raisonnante_. Compare with this
merely literary solution the answer given to the same question by De
Tocqueville:--'It was no accident that the philosophers of the
eighteenth century generally conceived notions so opposed to those
which still served as the base of the society of their time; _these
ideas had actually been suggested to them by the very sight of that
society, which they had ever before their eyes_' (_Ancien Régime_,
206). This is the exact truth and the whole truth. The greatest
enterprise achieved by the men of letters in the period of
intellectual preparation was the Encyclopædia; and I have elsewhere
tried to present what seemed to be ample evidence that the spirit
and aim of that great undertaking were social, and that its
conductors, while delivering their testimony in favour of the
experiential conception of life in all its aspects, and while
reproducing triumphantly the most recent acquisitions of science,
had still the keenest and most direct eye for the abuses and
injustice, the waste and disorder, of the social institutions around
them. The answer, then, which we should venture to give to M.
Taine's question would be much simpler than his. The philosophy of
the eighteenth century fared differently in England and in France,
because its ideas did not fit in with the economic and political
conditions of the one, while, on the contrary, they were actively
warmed and fostered by those of the other. It was not a literary
aptitude in the nation for _raison raisonnante_, which developed the
political theories of Rousseau, the moral and psychological theories
of Diderot, the anti-ecclesiastical theories of Voltaire and
Holbach. It was the profound disorganisation of institutions that
suggested and stimulated the speculative agitation. 'The nation,'
wrote the wise and far-seeing Turgot, 'has no constitution; it is a
society composed of different orders ill assorted, and of a people
whose members have few social bonds with one another; where
consequently scarcely any one is occupied with anything beyond his
private interest exclusively,' and so forth (_[OE]uv_. ii. 504). Any
student, uncommitted to a theory, who examines in close detail the
wise aims and just and conservative methods of Turgot, and the
circumstances of his utter rout after a short experiment of twenty
months of power, will rise from that deplorable episode with the
conviction that a pacific renovation of France, an orderly
readjustment of her institutions, was hopelessly impossible. '_Si on
avait été sage!_' those cry who consider the Revolution as a futile
mutiny. If people had only been prudent, all would have been
accomplished that has been accomplished since, and without the
sanguinary memories, the constant interpolations of despotism, the
waste of generous lives and noble purpose. And this is true. But
then prudence itself was impossible. The court and the courtiers
were smitten through the working of long tradition by judicial
blindness. If Lewis XVI. had been a Frederick, or Marie Antoinette
had been a Catherine of Russia, or the nobles had even been
stout-hearted gentlemen like our Cavaliers, the great transformation
might then have been gradually effected without disorder. But they
were none of these, and it was their characters that made the fate
and doom of the situation. As for the court, Vergennes used an
expression which suggests the very keyword of the situation. He had
been ambassador in Turkey, and was fond of declaring that he had
learnt in the seraglio how to brave the storms of Versailles.
Versailles was like Stamboul or Teheran, oriental in etiquette,
oriental in destruction of wealth and capital, oriental in
antipathy to a reforming grand vizier. It was the Queen, as we now
know by incontestable evidence, who persuaded the King to dismiss
Turgot, merely to satisfy some contemptible personal resentments of
herself and her creatures.[3] And it was not in Turgot's case only
that this ineptitude wrought mischief. In June 1789 Necker was
overruled in the wisest elements of his policy and sent into exile
by the violent intervention of the same court faction, headed by the
same Queen, who had procured the dismissal of Turgot thirteen years
earlier. And it was one long tale throughout, from the first hour of
the reign down to those last hours at the Tuileries in August 1792;
one long tale of intrigue, perversity, and wilful incorrigible

[3] _Cor. entre Marie Thérèse et le Comte Mercy-Argenteau_, vol. iii.

Nor was the Queen only to blame. Turgot, says an impartial
eye-witness--Creutz, the Swedish ambassador--is a mark for the most
formidable league possible, composed of all the great people in the
kingdom, all the parliaments, all the finance, all the women of the
court, and all the bigots. It was morally impossible that the
reforms of any Turgot could have been acquiesced in by that
emasculated caste, who showed their quality a few years after his
dismissal by flying across the frontier at the first breath of
personal danger. 'When the gentlemen rejoiced so boisterously over
the fall of Turgot, their applause was blind; on that day they threw
away, and in a manner that was irreparable, the opportunity that
was offered them of being born again to political life, and changing
the state-candlestick of the royal household for the influence of a
preponderant class. The nobility, defeated on the field of feudal
privilege, would have risen again by the influence of an assembly
where they would have taken the foremost place; by defending the
interests of all, by becoming in their turn the ally of the third
estate, which had hitherto fought on the side of the kings, they
would have repaired the unbroken succession of defeats that had been
inflicted on them since Lewis the Fat.'[4] It would be easy to name
half a dozen patricians like the Duke d'Ayen, of exceptional public
spirit and capacity, but a proud order cannot at the first exigency
of a crisis change its traditional front, and abandon the maxims of
centuries in a day. As has been said more than once, the oriental
policy of the crown towards the nobles had the inevitable effect of
cutting them off from all opportunity of acquiring in experience
those habits of political wisdom which have saved the territorial
aristocracy of our own country. The English nobles in the eighteenth
century had become, what they mostly are now, men of business;
agriculturists at least as much as politicians; land agents of a
very dignified kind, with very large incomes. Sully designed to
raise a working agricultural artistocracy, and Colbert to raise a
working commercial aristocracy. But the statesman cannot create or
mould a social order at will. Perhaps one reason why the English
aristocracy became a truly agricultural body in the eighteenth
century was the circumstance that many of the great landowning
magnates were Tories, and remained sulking on their estates rather
than go to the court of the first two kings of the Hanoverian line;
just as the dependence of these two sovereigns of revolutionary
title upon the revolution families is one reason why English
liberties had time to root themselves thoroughly before the
monarchical reaction, under George III. In France, for reasons which
we have no room to expatiate upon, the experiments both of Sully and
of Colbert failed. The result may be read with graphic effect in the
pages of Arthur Young, both before the Revolution broke out and
again after Burke's superb rhetoric had biassed English opinion
against it.

[4] _Turgot_, _Philosophe et Economiste_. Par A. Batbie, p. 380.

M. Léonce de Lavergne, it is true, in his most interesting book upon
the Provincial Assemblies under Lewis XVI., has endeavoured to show
that in the great work of administrative reform all classes between
1778 and 1787 had shown themselves full of a liberal and practical
spirit. But even in his pages we see enough of apprehensions and
dissensions to perceive how deep was the intestine disorganisation;
and the attitude of the nobles in 1789 demonstrated how incurable it
was by any merely constitutional modifications. Sir Philip Francis,
to whom Burke submitted the proof-sheets of the Reflections, at
once with his usual rapid penetration discerned the weakness of the
anti-revolutionary position. 'The French of this day,' he told
Burke, 'could not act as we did in 1688. They had no constitution as
we had to recur to. They had no foundation to build upon. They had
no walls to repair. Much less had they "_the elements of a
constitution very nearly as good as could be wished_." A proposition
so extraordinary as this last ought to have been made out _in
limine_, since the most important deductions are drawn from it.'[5]
But, though Burke insisted on drawing his deductions from it with
sweeping impetuosity, neither he nor any one else has yet succeeded
in establishing that all-important proposition.

[5] Burke's _Correspondence_, iii. 157.

What we desire to say, then, comes, in short, to this, that M. Taine
has given an exaggerated importance to the literary and speculative
activity of the last half century of the old monarchy. In measuring
the force of the various antecedents of the Revolution, he has
assigned to books and philosophical ideas a place in the scale of
dissolvent conditions that belongs more rightly to decayed
institutions, to incompetent and incorrigible castes, to economic
incongruities that could only be dealt with trenchantly. Books and
ideas acquired a certain importance after other things had finally
broken up the crumbling system. They supplied a formula for the
accomplished fact. 'It was after the Revolution had fairly begun,'
as a contemporary says, 'that they sought in Mably and Rousseau for
arms to sustain the system towards which the effervescence of some
hardy spirits was dragging affairs. It was not the above-named
authors who set people's heads aflame. M. Necker alone produced this
effect, and determined the explosion.'[6]

[6] Sénac de Meilhan, _Du Gouvernement en France_, 129, etc. (1795).

The predominance of a historic, instead of an abstract, school of
political thought could have saved nothing. It could have saved
nothing, because the historic or conservative organs and elements of
society were incompetent to realise those progressive ideas which
were quite as essential to social continuity as the historic ideas.
The historic method in political action is only practicable on
condition that some, at any rate, of the great established bodies
have the sap of life in their members. In France not even the
judiciary, usually the last to part from its ancient roots, was
sound and quick. 'The administration of justice,' says Arthur Young,
'was partial, venal, infamous. The conduct of the parliament was
profligate and atrocious. The bigotry, ignorance, false principles,
and tyranny of these bodies were generally conspicuous.'[7] We know
what the court was, we know what the noblesse was, and this is what
the third great leading order in the realm was. We repeat, then,
that the historic doctrine could get no fulcrum or leverage, and
that only the revolutionary doctrine, which the eighteenth century
had got ready for the crisis, was adequate to the task of social

[7] _Travels in France_, i. 603.

Again, we venture to put to M. Taine the following question. If the
convulsions of 1789-1794 were due to the revolutionary doctrine, if
that doctrine was the poison of the movement, how would he explain
the firm, manly, steadfast, unhysterical quality of the American
Revolution thirteen years before? It was theoretically based on
exactly the same doctrine. Jefferson and Franklin were as well
disciplined in the French philosophy of the eighteenth century as
Mirabeau or Robespierre. The Declaration of Independence recites the
same abstract and unhistoric propositions as the Declaration of the
Rights of Man. Why are we to describe the draught which Rousseau and
the others had brewed, as a harmless or wholesome prescription for
the Americans, and as maddening poison to the French? The answer
must be that the quality of the drug is relative to the condition of
the patient, and that the vital question for the student of the old
_régime_ and the circumstances of its fall is what other drug, what
better process, could have extricated France on more tranquil terms
from her desperate case? The American colonists, in spite of the
over-wide formulæ of their Declaration, really never broke with
their past in any of its fundamental elements. They had a historic
basis of laws and institutions which was still sound and whole, and
the political severance from England made no breach in social
continuity. If a different result followed in France, it was not
because France was the land of the classic spirit, but because her
institutions were inadequate, and her ruling classes incompetent to
transform them.

M. Taine's figure of the man who drains the poisonous draught, as
having been previously 'a little weak in constitution, but still
sound and of peaceful habits,' is entirely delusive. The whole
evidence shows that France was not sound, but the very reverse of
sound, and no inconsiderable portion of that evidence is to be found
in the facts which M. Taine has so industriously collected in his
own book. The description of France as a little weak in
constitution, but still sound and of peaceful habits, is the more
surprising to us because M. Taine himself had in an earlier page (p.
109), when summing up the results of Privilege, ended with these
emphatic words: 'Déjà avant l'écroulement final, la France est
dissoute, et elle est dissoute parce que les privilégiés ont oublié
leur caractère d'hommes publics.' But then is not this rather more
than being only a little weak in constitution, and still sound?


Page 269: Corrected "paragragh" to "paragraph."

Page 281: Removed duplicate _and_ from the sentence: "'The nation,'
wrote the wise and far-seeing ... and and so forth (_[OE]uv_. ii.

Page 281: The "OE" ligature in OEuv is represented as [OE].

Page 287: Standardized punctuation in footnote 6.

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