The eighteenth century: the Republic of Letters

French Literature - A Beginner’s Guide - Carol Clark 2011

The eighteenth century: the Republic of Letters

In 1715 Louis XIV died after a reign lasting seventy-two years, still the longest of any European monarch. He was succeeded by his five-year-old great-grandson, all intervening heirs having predeceased the old king (killed off, some said, by the most expensive doctors in the kingdom). This inevitably meant another regency. The regent this time was Philippe d’Orléans, the king’s nephew, son of La Palatine, a highly intelligent but dissipated man who took up residence away from the gloom of Versailles in the Palais-Royal in Paris. This move was marked by a change in intellectual and moral atmosphere: intellectual curiosity, scepticism and frivolity were once more welcome at court.

The young king began his official reign in 1723, aged thirteen, and occupied the throne until his death in 1774, ruling from Versailles with the help of a succession of ministers and other powers behind the throne, including, notably, the Marquise de Pompadour, who was his mistress in the 1740s but continued as a friend and adviser until her death in 1764.

Politically and militarily Louis’ reign was a period of decline for France: she lost her colonies in Canada and India, and the combined costs of foreign wars and the upkeep of the court required constant tax increases that infuriated the public. As nobles and churchmen were exempt from taxes, the costs fell on the so-called Third Estate, that is, everyone else, and in practice largely on the middle classes, though even the poor felt the weight of duties on such necessaries as salt and wine, and the country poor owed feudal taxes and labour duties to their landlords. Despite these dissatisfactions, the same period was the one in which French intellectual and artistic influence in and beyond Europe was perhaps the greatest. It was at this time that French became the language of diplomacy and of polite conversation among the upper classes in most of the European states and as far afield as Russia. The most important writers did not simply serve the court but were based in Paris, finding their patrons among the aristocracy, who were building themselves grand new town houses (hôtels) in the Saint-Germain district, or among the grands bourgeois, some of whom were now extremely rich, having made their fortunes in tax-gathering or finance or, for some of them, in trade, entrepreneurship and invention.

Many members of the Third Estate became increasingly intolerant of the inferior social status officially imposed on them, and questioned the privileges enjoyed by aristocrats simply by virtue of their birth. In an angry monologue, Figaro, the clever servant in Beaumarchais’ play Le Mariage de Figaro, lists all the advantages the count enjoys, and asks his absent master, ’What did you do to deserve all this? Vous vous êtes donné la peine de naître, et rien de plus.’ (You took the trouble to be born, nothing more).

In 1774 Louis XV was succeeded by his grandson, the somewhat lacklustre Louis XVI, under whom and his wife, the lively but ill-advised Austrian princess Marie-Antoinette, the court became ever more extravagant and (certainly not for this reason alone) the economic situation of the country more desperate. All of these factors — bourgeois resentment, desperation of the poor, interest in republican ideas among intellectuals, encouraged by the example of the American revolution of 1776 — came together to produce the revolution which started in 1789 but took three years to bring about the end of the monarchy and a further year to see the execution first of the king and later of the queen. Throughout all this time the revolutionary leaders were bourgeois intellectuals, occasionally using the Paris poor as shock-troops. But the less extreme element lost control in 1793 and for a year Paris and other cities lived under the Terror, which eventually devoured its own leaders, Robespierre and Danton, both lawyers by profession.

Other systems of government, the Convention and the Directoire, were tried, but these republican experiments were brought to an end when the successful young general Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in November 1799, creating first a Consulate headed by three consuls, and presently a personal regime with himself as First Consul and in due course as Emperor (1804).

La République des lettres

This expression came into use among the educated and intellectually curious in the late seventeenth century. The Republic of Letters had no physical existence or territory, rather, it was the network of relationships between educated people (mostly but not exclusively men) wanting to share information and ideas — something like what we call today the blogosphere. The Latin version of its name — respublica litterarum and not epistularum — shows that the ’letters’ in question were ’humane letters’: history, poetry and philosophy, which then included science. But communication between the Republic’s citizens, often across national boundaries, most often took the form of actual letters, written in ink on paper and delivered by hand on horse or mule back in a process that could take weeks. Delivery of letters within cities was of course much more rapid, and receiving and writing them, from home or elsewhere (Figure 3), was a key part of the lives of ladies and gentlemen. It was also usual to copy one’s correspondence, before posting, into a letter book.

The intellectually curious living in the same city could also exchange their ideas at meetings of learned societies created for the purpose: in London the Royal Society or Society of Antiquaries, in Paris the various Académies. But at least as important in Paris were salons, informal but regular meetings in private houses. Like the seventeenth-century salons these were typically hosted by ladies, and no doubt a good deal went on there that was not particularly serious: gossip, cards, music, flirtation. But new ideas in literature, philosophy, science and politics were also discussed in the salons, and groups formed to carry these ideas forward.

All of the writers the French call the philosophes frequented such gatherings, and so learned to formulate their ideas in language that ladies and gentlemen, and not just scholars, could understand. An early and striking example of this method is the Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes habités (Discussions about the plurality of inhabited worlds, 1686) by Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657—1757), a corresponding member of the Royal Society of London who became secretaire Perpétual of the Paris Académie des Sciences in 1697, and lived up to the title by serving for a further sixty years. The Entretiens are a series of lively, almost flirtatious conversations between the narrator and a marquise about the possibility of life on other planets, in the course of which he manages to impart a good deal of information about the structure of the cosmos and the scientific method of inquiry.


Voltaire (1694—1778) is taken as the embodiment of French literature in the eighteenth century as Victor Hugo was in the nineteenth, and for some of the same reasons. Both began writing and publishing very young and continued into old age, so that each left a very large output. Each spoke out against oppression and in favour of ’progressive’ values, thus earning censorship, legal condemnation and exile, though both returned to France in old age to public acclaim. But otherwise they are very different. Hugo made most of his effects by appealing to the emotions, using broad, sweeping rhetoric, whereas Voltaire is usually light and sprightly and always at least pretends to be appealing to reason, though he is a master of biased presentation, irony and humour.

Voltaire was born François-Marie Arouet le jeune (the younger), to a prosperous legal family, and was educated in the same Jesuit school as Molière, though its name had now been changed to the Collège Louis-le-Grand. As a schoolboy he frequented freethinking milieux, and a daring political lampoon landed him in the Bastille for eleven months. He used the time to write his first tragedy, Oedipe, and to work on an epic poem with Henri IV as its hero, later published as La Henriade. These he published under the pseudonym Voltaire, thought to be an anagram of Arouet l.j. (AROVET L I in Latin characters), a name which he kept for the rest of his life and made famous throughout Europe. Despite his bourgeois origins his wit allowed him to move in the highest social circles, until he risked a public quarrel with a member of one of the grandest families, the chevalier de Rohan, and found himself in the Bastille again. On his release he took refuge in England, where he remained for three years: his friends there came to include Congreve, Berkeley, Bolingbroke, Pope and Swift.

His time in England inspired a short set of letters published as the Lettres philosophiques or Lettres sur les Anglais (1734), contrasting English and French customs. Rather like Pascal in the Lettres provinciales, which he much admired, Voltaire writes in the character of a travelling Frenchman who has little understanding of English values. But it is plain that Voltaire himself embraced them warmly. He particularly admired England’s constitutional (as opposed to France’s absolute) monarchy, and the religious toleration that allowed Englishmen of different observances to live in peace with each other. The work was promptly condemned and ordered to be burnt by the public hangman, and the author to be arrested. Voltaire fled Paris and lived for the next ten years at the house of his mistress Madame du Châtelet (a self-funding scientist in her own right) at Cirey, near the border with Lorraine, over which he could escape if necessary.

After 1744 he was able to return to Paris and even to go to court, where he was supported by Madame de Pompadour despite the king’s mistrust, and to rebuild his reputation as a writer of tragedies. Still he never felt secure, and after Madame du Châtelet died he accepted the invitation of Frederick II of Prussia to live and work at his palace in Potsdam. Two such large egos could not easily live together, and after three years Voltaire moved to Switzerland, where he bought a country house. But his relations with the Calvinists of Geneva were no better than they had been with the Catholics of Paris, and he eventually settled at Ferney, just on the French side of the border, allowing for escape in either direction according to circumstances. In this situation of apparent instability he constructed the most stable life he had ever enjoyed. Clever investment had made him rich, and he was able to buy a large estate where he lived the life of a model improving landlord while constantly writing, publishing (often anonymously or under pseudonyms) and corresponding with members of the République des lettres throughout Europe (his collected letters fill some fifteen thousand printed pages). He lived at Ferney for eighteen years, returning to Paris for the staging of his last tragedy, Irène (1778), which was a triumph: he was crowned with a laurel wreath by the ecstatic audience of the Odéon. But he was already ill, and died in Paris some weeks later.

Voltaire’s surviving work includes dozens of plays, mostly tragedies (successful in their day but never revived now), poems, epic and didactic as well as lyric, histories of Louis XIV and Charles XII of Sweden, letters and dialogues and countless short satirical and polemical publications, many of which he disowned but which were nonetheless recognizably his. He is now chiefly remembered for his twelve ’contes philosophiques’, tales exploring epistemological and moral puzzles. Some of these were written in midlife (Zadig, 1747; Micromégas, a kind of early science-fiction story, 1739—52), but the greatest, Candide (1759) and L’Ingénu (1767), when he was already old. The second is really more of a short novel. It is the story of a young man, at first believed to be a Huron, a Native Canadian, shipwrecked on the shore of Brittany, but who turns out to be (rather like Tarzan) the orphan child of a couple of French colonists, brought up by the Hurons. The first chapters are broadly comical, as l’Ingénu (The Innocent) tries to understand French ideas and master French manners, which Voltaire takes the opportunity of mocking. But when the boy falls in love with a French girl the story turns more sentimental. She is taken from him and he has to pursue her to Versailles: cue for an angrily satirical portrait of the life of a petitioner at court. The girl, Mademoiselle de Saint-Yves, sacrifices her honour for her lover’s freedom and dies of shame, leaving a wiser but much sadder Ingénu to gain military glory in the army of Louis XIV.

Candide is shorter and more unified: most people consider it Voltaire’s masterpiece. On the level of plot, it is a parody of the ’heroic novel’ described in our previous chapter, made comical first of all by its extreme concision (one slim volume instead of ten fat ones). The hero and heroine, Candide and Cunégonde, are separated at the end of the first chapter and, like the traditional héros de roman, Candide must seek her throughout the world until he finds her — when he promptly loses her again and has to begin a second search. Every stage is marked by further disasters, until the lovers are finally reunited in Turkey. By this time Cunégonde has comprehensively lost her virginity, as well as her youthful looks and former sweet temper: yet Candide still finds an acceptable solution (see Text 7).

Why are these called ’contes philosophiques’ and Voltaire a ’philosophe’, the leader of the ’philosophes’? It is because he, and the other writers given this label, showed ’l’esprit philosophique’, that is to say, the spirit of inquiry and the desire to pursue it in the face of claims by the Church or other institutions to superior authority. The philosophers Voltaire admired were scientists like Newton (he published Eléments de la philosophie de Newton in 1736), but even they were apt to stand on their authority and draw conclusions from inadequate data. Micromégas derives much comedy from the Earth scientists’ certainty that they have all the right answers, a confidence that is unshaken even when they meet Micromégas, an inhabitant of Sirius 120,000 feet tall and his friend the Saturnian, a mere 6,000 feet. A deathless caricature of metaphysicians, and perhaps of the man learned in humanities in general, was provided in the person of Dr Pangloss (all-talk, from Greek pan and glossa), Candide’s tutor, who affirms in the face of all disasters (exile, loss of an eye to syphilis, hanging etc.) that ’All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’. An empty formula, since it simply means that nothing could be otherwise than it is, and therefore the world could not be any better — or worse.


After all their adventures and misfortunes, all the principal characters in the story and several of the subsidiary ones have met up again, this time in Turkey. They have just been to the smallholding of an elderly Turk, who works it with his children and who offers them a delicious refreshment of his own produce. Candide, too, owns a little piece of land, which is at present uncultivated. The repeated phrase ’il faut cultiver notre jardin’ is often misquoted as ’il faut cultiver son jardin’, one must cultivate one’s [own] garden. As the last paragraph makes clear, this gospel of isolation is the very opposite of what Voltaire intended. The main meaning of ’cultiver’ was (and still is) to cultivate in the agricultural sense: ’un cultivateur’ is a farmer. The expression ’un homme cultivé’ (an educated or cultured man) did not comme into use until the nineteenth century. Voltaire’s is not a secret garden for ’cultivated’ people.

Candide, en retournant dans sa métairie, fit de profondes réflexions sur le discours du Turc. Il dit à Pangloss et à Martin : ’Ce bon vieillard me paraît s’être fait un sort bien préférable à celui des six rois avec qui nous avons eu l’honneur de souper. — Les grandeurs, dit Pangloss, sont fort dangereuses, selon le rapport de tous les philosophes: car enfin Eglon, roi des Moabites, fut assassiné par Aod; Absalon fut pendu par les cheveux et percé de trois dards ; le roi Nadab, fils de Jéroboam, fut tué par Baass ; le roi Ela par Zambri ; Ochosias, par Jéhu ; Athalia, par Joiada ; les rois Joachim, Jéchonias, Sédécias, furent esclaves. Vous savez comment périrent Crésus, Astyage, Darius, Denys de Syracuse, Pyrrhus, Persée, Annibal, Jugurtha, Arioviste, César, Pompée, Néron, Othon, Vitellius, Domitien, Richard II d’Angleterre, Edouard II, Henri VI, Richard III, Marie Stuart, Charles Ier, les trois Henri de France, l’empereur Henri IV ? Vous savez ...

Je sais aussi, dit Candide, qu’il faut cultiver notre jardin. — Vous avez raison, dit Pangloss : car, quand l’homme fut mis dans le jardin d’Eden, il y fut mis ut operaretur eum, pour qu’il y travaillât ; ce qui prouve que l’homme n’est pas né pour le repos. — Travaillons sans raisonner, dit Martin ; c’est le seul moyen de rendre la vie supportable.’

Toute la petite société entra dans ce louable dessein ; chacun se mit à exercer ses talents.

La petite terre rapporta beaucoup. Cunégonde était à la vérité bien laide, mais elle devint une excellente pâtissière ; Paquette broda ; la vieille eut soin du linge. Il n’y eut pas jusqu’à Frère Giroflée qui ne rendît service ; il fut un très bon menuisier, et même devint honnête homme ; et Pangloss disait quelquefois à Candide : ’Tous les événements sont enchaînés dans le meilleur des mondes possibles ; car si vous n’aviez pas été chassé d’un beau château à grands coups de pieds dans le derrière pour l’amour de mademoiselle Cunégonde ; si vous n’aviez pas été mis à l’Inquisition ; si vous n’aviez pas couru l’Amérique â pied, si vous n’aviez pas donné un bon coup d’épée au baron, si vous n’aviez pas perdu tous vos moutons du bon pays d’Eldorado, vous ne mangeriez pas ici des cédrats confits et des pistaches. — Cela est bien dit, dit Candide, mais il faut cultiver notre jardin’.

[Returning to his little farm, Candide thought deeply about what the Turk had said. He said to Pangloss and Martin, ’That old man seems to have made a much better life for himself than the six kings we had the honour of having supper with’.

’Greatness is very dangerous’, said Pangloss, ’as all philosophers agree: for was not Eglon, the king of the Moabites, murdered by Aod; Absalom was hung by his hair and shot with three arrows; King Nadab, the son of Jeroboam, was killed by Baass; Ochosias, by Jehu; Athaliah by Joad; Kings Joachim, Jechoniah and Sedekiah were reduced to slavery. You know how Croesus died, and Astyages, Darius, Dionysius of Syracuse, Pyrrhus, Perseus, Hannibal, Jugurtha, Ariovistus, Caesar, Pompey, Nero, Otho, Vitellius, Domitian, Richard II of England, Edward II, Henry VI, Richard III, Mary Queen of Scots, Charles I, the three Henries of France, the emperor Henry IV. As you know ...’

’I also know’, said Candide, ’that we need to work on our garden’.

’Quite so’, said Pangloss,’for when man was placed in the Garden of Eden he was put there ut operaretur eum, to work in it, which proves that man was not made for idleness. — Let’s just work without so much talk, said Martin; that’s the only way to make life tolerable’.

All the group agreed with this excellent plan, and each one began to put his or her talents to use.

The little piece of land became highly productive. Cunégonde, it must be said, was very ugly now, but she became an excellent pastrycook; Paquette embroidered; the old lady took care of the linen. Even Brother Giroflée made himself useful. He proved to be an excellent carpenter and even became an honest man; and Pangloss used sometimes to say to Candide, ’Everything that happens is connected in the best of all possible worlds; for if you hadn’t been kicked out of a beautiful chateau for the love of Mademoiselle Cunégonde, if you hadn’t had to go before the Inquisition, if you hadn’t walked all across South America, if you hadn’t run through the baron with your sword, if you hadn’t lost all the sheep you brought with you from Eldorado, you wouldn’t be sitting here eating crystallised limes and pistachios.’ ’True’, said Candide, ’but we need to work on our garden’.]

Along with the medieval church, the Earth scientists in Micromégas affirm that the world and everything in it was made for man. Voltaire had always found that difficult to believe, and what finally made it impossible was the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which with the ensuing tsunami and fire destroyed the city and killed some 50,000 people. Voltaire had written a long poem on this subject (Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, 1756), and one of the most memorable chapters of Candide is set in the city after the earthquake.

Apart from the Lettres philosophiques and Candide, a good introduction to Voltaire’s ideas and style is the Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (1764). In one small volume, as its name implies, this is not a dictionary of the usual kind but a collection of short articles arranged in alphabetical order on such subjects as Ange, Baptême, Christianisme, Dieu, etc. The pieces are very varied in form, including brief essays, dialogues, little dramatic scenes and what could easily be described as further short ’contes philosophiques’. It was quickly banned and burnt in Geneva, Paris and Rome, managing to offend the orthodox everywhere.


Denis Diderot (1713—84) was born in the provinces, at Langres, the son of a prosperous cutler. Despite being educated for the law he refused to follow any of the learned professions and led a hand-to-mouth existence for much of his life, living at first by literary hackwork — occasionally managing to publish essays of his own, but otherwise translating, editing the work of others and even writing a mildly pornographic novel, Les bijoux indiscrets (1748). His true life-work began in 1750 when he accepted the commission to edit the Encyclopédie. The publishers had had in mind simply a translation of Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia (1728), but under Diderot’s direction the project developed into something far more ambitious, with the eventual title Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. It was Diderot’s task to find the contributors and commission the articles, and at first he was able to line up some of the best-known names in the intellectual world of the time, including Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau and the mathematician and physicist d’Alembert, who was to be his co-editor until 1758. At that time Diderot was left solely responsible for the vast undertaking, plagued by censorship and intermittent bans on publication. As the hostility of the authorities became apparent, some contributors deserted, and Diderot had to write more and more of the articles himself. It was not until 1772 that the last of the planned volumes appeared: seventeen volumes of text and eleven of admirably detailed plates, many of them illustrating the craft and industrial processes of the various trades, the ’métiers’ of the title. It was an entirely novel idea that ladies and gentlemen should wish to know about such things.

As well as articles for the Encyclopédie, Diderot was writing plays and dramatic theory, novels (La Religieuse (The Nun), Jacques le fataliste) and philosophical dialogues like Le Rêve de d’Alembert (D’Alembert’s Dream), Supplément au voyage de Bougainville and Le Neveu de Rameau. In the Supplément, two characters, A and B, exchange reflections on Bougainville’s recent journey to Tahiti and the customs he discovered there, while Le Neveu de Rameau is a dialogue between Moi — supposedly Diderot himself — and Lui, a nephew of the composer Rameau, whose amoral approach to life appears to scandalize ’Moi’. (But we remember the fauxnaïf letter-writers of Pascal and Voltaire and take his shocked reactions with a pinch of salt.) Of all these brilliant productions, however, as original in ideas as form, none was published in his lifetime — Le neveu de Rameau not until 1823. Many of his most original works were circulated in manuscript, thanks to a remarkable institution called the Correspondance littéraire. Created in 1747 by one Raynal, but run from 1753 onwards by the German man of letters Friedrich Melchior Grimm, it employed copyists to reproduce works likely to fall foul of the censors, which were then circulated to a select and secret list of subscribers, most of them outside France. The list included, as well as many German princelings, the king of Poland, the sister of Frederick II of Prussia, and no less a person than the Empress Catherine II of Russia, who was to become Diderot’s patron. From 1759 onwards Diderot took over partial responsibility for the Correspondance littéraire, while still working on the Encyclopédie. In 1762 when he felt obliged to sell his library to provide for his daughter, the Empress Catherine bought it en viager (that is to say, Diderot would continue to use it until his death). Not only this, she paid him a yearly salary to act as her librarian, though the books themselves remained in Paris. This generous act finally gave Diderot some financial security.

The topics addressed by Diderot bring him closer to what modern Anglo-Saxon philosophers would recognize as their discipline than do the far-ranging interests of Voltaire. He wrote two essays on sense-perception and its relation to reason and morals: Lettre sur les aveugles (Letter on blind people, 1749), which earned him three months imprisonment in the castle at Vincennes, and Lettre sur les sourds et muets, (Letter on the deaf and dumb, 1751). In his writings about human feelings and behaviour he showed himself a materialist — that is, he rejected the idea, held from Plato to Descartes, that human beings were a cohabitation of matter (the body) and spirit (the soul). Instead he argued that matter, through a process of development, could begin to feel and eventually to think. In this sense he anticipated the idea of evolution, and some undeveloped passages in his writings also hint at the idea of natural selection. In any case, he expected advances in philosophy to come from the development of the natural sciences, of which he had a better understanding than either Voltaire or Rousseau.


Of the ’philosophes’ Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712—78) is the one most likely to figure in a modern history of philosophy course. He owes this place to his treatise Du Contrat social (1762), which is usually placed, after Hobbes’s Leviathan, at the beginning of modern political philosophy. The ’social contract’ in question is the one that, according to Rousseau, marks the origin of all settled states. Governments owe their legitimacy not to, say, God’s ordinance, but to the consent of the citizens. When and how the governed gave this consent, and why they can be thought still to be giving it, are what Rousseau tries to explain in the book. He also suggests political arrangements that will make the form of government the best expression of what he calls the ’general will’. These were very powerful if very abstract ideas (Rousseau had no practical experience of politics or government whatever), and are thought to have influenced both the American and the French Revolutions.

Rousseau’s influence was felt not only in the world of politics, however: he is said to have inspired a whole new set of feelings about love, child-rearing and nature, and so to have helped originate the European movement called Romanticism. How could one man do all this? And especially such a man as Rousseau was.

Rousseau was born at Geneva, the son of a watchmaker. His mother died when he was ten and he was left to his own devices early in life, soon forming the habit of relying on patrons. His first important patron, from the age of fifteen, was a much older lady called Madame de Warens. After a few years his relationship with her became sexual, but he continued calling her ’Maman’ and living largely at her expense until his late twenties. About the age of thirty he moved to Paris, hoping to make his fortune from a new system of musical notation he had devised, but nothing came of this and he accepted a secretaryship to a nobleman with whom he soon quarrelled. In 1744, while living a hand-to-mouth existence of music-copying and literary hackwork, he formed what was to be a long-lasting relationship with Thérèse Levasseur, an illiterate seamstress who became his housekeeper. He never taught her to read, and kept her as far as possible apart from his educated friends, but he did give her five children, all of whom he persuaded her to abandon to the foundling-hospital. When this fact became generally known, and horrified even his usually pretty unsentimental literary friends, he argued that he had done it so that in later life his children would not have to face society’s cruelty to bastards. (The obvious solution to this problem does not seem to have suggested itself to him, and it is unlikely in any case that the children would have lived to grow up, given mortality rates at the Enfants-trouvés). He does not seem to have felt that the choices he made as a parent in any way disqualified him from writing a book on how to bring up children, and Emile, ou l’Education (1762), a treatment in semi-fictional form of the model upbringing offered to a fortunate boy, was a great success and enjoyed two centuries of influence in educationist circles (see Text 8). It is surprising but true that Rousseau writes very perceptively about the psychology of children; he must either have managed to observe them closely at some stage in his unsettled life, or have had excellent recall of his own thought processes as a child.

The years 1761 and 1762 were his period of greatest success: in 1761 he published the long letter-novel Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse, now quite unreadable but much read and loved well into to the nineteenth century, and in 1762 Du Contrat social and Emile.

From 1765 to 1770 he lived in England, where he quarrelled with everyone who tried to help him, notably the philosopher Hume. Towards the end of his life he sank into something resembling paranoia, though he was still constantly helped by faithful patrons.

In his last years his writings became mostly autobiographical, from the Confessions, written in 1765—70 but not published until 1782, after his death, to the Dialogues de Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques, written between 1772 and 1776 and published in 1782, and the Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (Reveries of the solitary walker), written between 1776 and 1779 and published in 1782, which remained very popular throughout the nineteenth century.

How to account for Rousseau’s popularity throughout the Romantic period? One possible explanation might be that, in contrast to Christian teaching about original sin, he taught that man was originally good. These origins are very remote — lost in the mists of time — and life in organized society has made men bad, a process that he did not believe could be reversed. The account that he gives of the state of nature in the Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité owes nothing to observation nor indeed, one might say, to common sense. But he is aware of that: in his Preface he notoriously says, ’Commençons donc par écarter tous les faits, car ils ne touchent point à la question’ (Let us then begin by setting all the facts on one side, as they have nothing to do with the matter). From first principles he derives a picture of early Man (who is definitely a man) as a hunter-gatherer, wandering alone in the forest. Reproduction must somehow have taken place, but there is no family life and men do not recognize their own children. As soon as any form of collective life (families, clans, settled agriculture, property) takes shape, evil enters the world. But the belief in essential goodness persists, whether applied to man in general or to himself. ’I am good — if bad things happen around me, society is to blame’: it is unjust to father this doctrine in its crudest form on Rousseau, but we can see its origin in his writings.


These are the opening lines of Book I of Rousseau’s Emile. The asterisk after ’tendre et prévoyante mère’ introduces a page-long footnote on mothers, how the law should give them more authority over their offspring, and how their ’tendresse’ is so much better for young children than the ’insensibilité’ of fathers. All these ideas were to be very influential in the ensuing decades.

Tout est bien, sortant de la main de l’auteur des choses : tout dégénère entre les mains de l’homme. Il force une terre à nourrir les productions d’une autre ; un arbre à produire les fruits d’un autre. Il mêle et confond les climats, les éléments, les saisons. Il mutile son chien, son cheval, son esclave. Il bouleverse tout, il défigure tout : il aime la difformité, les monstres. Il ne veut rien tel que l’a fait la nature, pas même l’homme; il le faut dresser pour lui comme un cheval de manège ; il le faut contourner à sa mode comme un arbre de son jardin.

Sans cela tout iroit plus mal encore, et nôtre espèce ne veut pas être façonnée à demi. Dans l’état où sont désormais les choses, un homme abandonné dès sa naissance à lui—même seroit le plus défiguré de tous. Les préjugés, l’autorité, la nécessité, l’exemple, toutes les institutions sociales dans lesquelles nous nous trouvons submergés, étoufferoient en lui la nature, et ne mettroient rien à la place. Elle y seroit comme un arbrisseau que le hazard fait naître au milieu d’un chemin, et que les passants font bientôt périr en le heurtant de toutes parts et le pliant dans tous les sens.

C’est à toi que je m’adresse, tendre et prévoyante mère*, qui sus t’écarter de la grande route, et garantir l’arbrisseau naissant du choc des opinions humaines. Cultive, arrose la jeune plante avant qu’elle meure; ses fruits feront un jour tes délices. Forme de bonne heure une enceinte autour de l’âme de ton enfant : un autre en peut marquer le circuit : mais toi seule y dois poser la barrière.

[Everything is good as it comes from the hand of the maker of all things: everything degenerates in the hands of man. He forces one land to grow the crops of another, one tree to produce the fruits of another.

He mixes and confuses climates, elements, seasons. He mutilates his dog, his horse, his slave.

He turns everthing upside down, disfigures everything. He loves deformed things, monsters. Nothing will do for him as nature made it, even man; a child must be trained up for him like a dressage horse, fashioned like the trees of his garden.

Without such training the child would fare even worse: our species cannot be trained by halves. As things now stand, a man left to himself from birth would be the most disfigured of all. Prejudices, authority, necessity, example: all the social institutions by which we find ourselves submerged would stifle nature in him, and put nothing in its place. It [nature in him] would be like a tree-shoot springing up by chance in the middle of a path, which the passers-by soon kill by treading on it from all sides and bending it in all directions.

This book is addressed to you, tender and far-sighted mother, who have already chosen to turn aside from the trodden path, and protect the new-born sapling from the impact of human opinions. Cultivate, water the young plant lest it die; its fruits will one day be your delight. Form without delay a protective barrier around your child’s soul; another may trace out its circuit, but it is you alone must build it.]

The novel

Popular literary forms in the eighteenth century were the memoir- and letter-novel. Both of these allow the author to pretend that the story he tells actually happened. A frame-story or preface usually recounts the finding of the manuscript, of which the author pretends to be merely the editor. This allows him to distance himself from any reprehensible behaviour by the characters. The readership for any eighteenth-century novel would have been very small compared to those reached in the nineteenth century. It was assumed that readers, like the characters in most of the stories, would be ladies and gentlemen, since only they would have had the money to buy novels or the leisure to read them. There was therefore much less need for description and explanation of setting and manners than in the later works. Since the principal subject of novels was love, it was thought that most novel-readers were likely to be women, and many ladies wrote successfully for this market. The novels still read today, however, are mostly by men. Two of the most rewarding are Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost (1697—1763), and Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1741—1803).

Manon Lescaut originally appeared as Volume VII of a ten-volume memoir-novel called Mémoires d’un homme de qualité (Memoirs of a Gentleman, 1731). The story, supposedly told to the ’homme de qualité’ by its hero or victim, the Chevalier des Grieux, is of his demoralising love for an unworthy woman (girl, rather, since she is sixteen at the beginning of the action and dies only a couple of years later). Des Grieux is a Rousseau-style hero before his time, a good person who somehow keeps doing bad things, whereas Manon is cheerfully immoral throughout. The story succeeded with readers from its first appearance, and was soon (1733) issued as a single volume. It has never been out of print since, has been filmed eight times and made the subject of two ballets and four operas (by Auber, Massenet, Puccini and Hans-Werner Henze).


Figure 3 Laclos, Les Liaisons dangereuses, London, 1796, illustration to Letter XLVIII

Les Liaisons dangereuses is a brilliantly complex letter-novel. Most such works have two, or at the most three or four, correspondents, but Laclos manages to keep seven principals in play, along with various servants, confessors and the like, to unfold a complicated but gripping story of love, lust, deception, vanity and self-reproach. No subsequent letter-novel approaches its quality, and indeed the genre lost its predominant place as the nineteenth century approached. Despite the inherent difficulty of filming a book not only written in letters, but in which the key events are the writing and reception of letters, Roger Vadim attempted an updated version in 1959, with good success, under the title Les Liaisons dangereuses 1960. The book seems to have aroused particular interest in England and America in the mid-1980s, when there were four dramatic adaptations, two for the stage, by Howard Davies and Christopher Hampton, and two films, by Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons) and Milos Forman (Valmont). In 1999 a further updating (Cruel Intentions) reset the story in an American high school.


Married at fifteen to a much older man, Madame de Merteuil, the heroine-villainess of Les Liaisons dangereuses, once she has lost her virginity, pursues her ’observations’ with male servants and country neighbours much below her rank. (This is safer, as they do not know the ’people who matter’, and so cannot damage her reputation by gossip). ’Moralistes’ in the second paragraph must here mean ’teachers of morals’. (Les Liaisons dangeruses, letter LXXXI)

La maladie de M. de Merteuil vint interrompre de si douces occupations ; il fallait le suivre à la ville, où il venait chercher des secours. Il mourut, comme vous savez, peu de temps après ; et quoique, à tout prendre, je n’eusse pas à me plaindre de lui, je n’en sentis pas moins vivement le prix de la liberté qu’allait me donner mon veuvage, et je me promis bien d’en profiter.

Ma mère comptait que j’entrerais au couvent, ou reviendrais vivre avec elle. Je refusai l’un et l’autre parti ; et tout ce que j’accordai à la décence, fut de retourner dans cette même campagne, où il me restait bien encore quelques observations à faire.

Je les fortifiai par le secours de la lecture ; mais ne croyez pas qu’elle fût toute du genre que vous la supposez. J’étudiai nos mœurs dans les romans ; nos opinions dans les philosophes ; je cherchai même dans nos plus sévères moralistes ce qu’ils exigeaient de nous, et je m’assurai ainsi de ce qu’on pouvait faire, de ce qu’on devait penser, et de ce qu’il fallait paraître. Une fois fixée sur ces trois objets, le dernier seul présenta quelques difficultés dans son exécution ; j’espérai les vaincre et j’en méditai les moyens.

[M. de Merteuil’s illness supervening, interrupted these charming pursuits; I had to follow him to the city, where he went to seek help. He died, as you know, shortly afterwards, and though, all in all, I had no reason to complain of him as a husband, I still had a lively sense of the new freedom I should enjoy as a widow, and resolved to make the most of it.

My mother thought that I would enter a convent, or go back to live with her. I refused both alternatives, and my only concession to propriety was to return to the same country estate, where I still had some further observations to make.

I supplemented them with reading, but do not suppose that it was all reading of the kind you imagine. I studied people’s behaviour in novels, their opinions in the philosophers, and I even went to our severest moralists to see what they required of us, and so gained a certain knowledge of what one could do, what one ought to think, and what one must seem to be. Once clear on those three points, I saw some difficulties only in the third; I hoped to overcome these and set my mind on the means of doing so.]

The last great memoir-novel in the eighteenth-century style was in fact written in the early nineteenth century: Adolphe by Benjamin Constant (1767—1830) was written in 1807 but not published until 1816, when the author was 49. Constant was a political philosopher and active politician: this short book, initially published in London anonymously, was his only published fictional work. Despite beginning with the usual found-manuscript story, it is plainly autobiographical. Its apparent echoes of Constant’s long relationship with Mme de Stael, the most famous or notorious literary lady of the day, ensured it a succès de scandale. But its timeless subject (how to end a failing relationship), psychological penetration and lucid style have given it a continuing place in the canon.

One eighteenth-century novelist that many literary people would have heard of but few before the 1960s would have read (Flaubert was one) was Donatien-Alphonse-François, marquis de Sade (1740—1814), since his writings could be published only clandestinely, for sale to specialized markets. His horrible novels usually quickly provoke disgust and boredom, but the twentieth-century Surrealists praised them for their shock value, and later literary figures supported their publication, either in the name of complete freedom of speech or because, in their sheer crushing repetitiveness, they somehow transcended ’literary’ values. Some critics still accept Sade’s own valuation of himself as a philosopher. But his dogmatic materialism and belief in ’Nature, red in tooth and claw’ hardly deserve that title. The way in which the spokespersons for these ideas invariably win all the arguments, as a prelude to gleefully enforcing their will upon the unfortunate believers in affection, morality or religion, has little that is philosophical about it.

The theatre

Tragedy was still officially the most highly respected form in the eighteenth century, but, perhaps because of the continuing influence of Corneille and Racine, most tragedies of this period, even Voltaire’s, are derivative and uninspired, and are never revived today. The great eighteenth-century dramatists are writers of comedy: Pierre Carlet de Chamblain Marivaux (1688—1763) and Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732—99). Marivaux’s plays, many of them written for performance by the Italiens, the theatre company descended from the commedia dell’arte players who had first settled in Paris in Louis XIV’s time, almost always have love as their subject, with plots based on misunderstanding, disguise, mismatches and pique, but always leading to a happy ending. The delicate language in which the actors work their way through these various puzzles is known in French as marivaudage.

Marivaux was also a novelist, the author of Le Paysan parvenu (The Peasant Boy’s Success, 1735—6) and La Vie de Marianne (1731—41), both tales told by young people of low or doubtful birth, recounting their struggles and progress in the world.

Beaumarchais’ two great comedies. Le Barbier de Séville (1775) and Le Mariage de Figaro (1784) are probably even better known as the source of the operas by Rossini and Mozart, but they are well worth reading, or better still seeing, for their spirit and humour and management of complicated plots.

A new kind of play that had some success in the later eighteenth century was the so-called drame bourgeois, a serious play in prose. It showed contemporary, middle-class characters facing moral dilemmas and taking noble decisions, thus lending to such characters some of the dignity that tragedy had reserved to kings and heroes. Beaumarchais wrote some plays in this vein also, notably La Mère coupable (1792) the third in the Figaro trilogy. Diderot had both contributed to the genre with Le Fils naturel (1757, not produced until 1771) and Le Père de famille (1758, produced 1761), and written its theory. Alas, these plays now seem stagy in the worst sense, hardly less artificial than the tragedy they aimed to replace.

Key features of eighteenth-century writing are therefore the ’esprit philosophique’, the determination to pursue knowledge and examine institutions, undeterred by pretensions to authority, and the continuing attempt to make the insights so achieved accessible to the well-intentioned reader of whichever sex or class, while avoiding a tiresome didacticism.