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ART. XVI.-Tableau de la Litterature pendant le dir-huitieme
Siecle. Paris et Londres, chez Colburn, Libraire, Conduit
Street, Hanover-Square. 1813. It is not often that we invite the attention of our readers to works in a foreign language: it is not often that they are of a description to fall naturally within the range of our inspection. But the little volume before us well deserves to be excepted from any general practice, for it is itself an exception from whatever is peculiar to the age and nation in which it has appeared. It is a literary production, remarkable for the spirit and purity of its composition, though published but a few years after a savage revolution, in which taste and manners, as well as government and religion, appeared to have perished altogether : it is distinguished by a tone of calm and steady independence, though written under the eye of a jealous despotism: and it unites to that acuteness and disposition to generalise which has distinguished most of the modern French writers, a depth, moderation, practical good sense, and real originality, which we are partial enough to think more characteristic of English than of foreign productions.
However, though we think very highly of the literary and philosophical merits of this treatise, we might not perhaps for the sake of these alone have thought it necessary to enter into an analysis of its contents. But the subject which it examines is one so interesting and so important; and the considerations which are inseparably connected with such a discussion border so closely on whatever is most momentous in religion, morals, and politics;
VOL. V. NO, X.
that we have been tempted to afford to this little work rather more of time and attention than its size appears to justify.
The author professes to give a picture of French literature during the eighteenth century, and he has fulfilled his engagement; having noticed and examined every writer of eminence, and many who are little known in this country, during that period. But he has done much more. He has taken a rapid view also of the seventeenth century; and has interspersed his sketches with a variety of reflections suggested by the subjects in hand, and with several dissertations of singular merit upon some of the most considerable questions which can be entertamed. Throughout the work his eye is directed pretty steadily, but with no tiresome uniformity, to the solution of one great problem ;-in what degree the revolution in France was occasioned or accelerated by the writers of that and of the preceding age. The style is spirited and condensed; not highly ornamented, yet occasionally embellished with some choice images, generally rather authoritative, (as indeed becomes a writer of his eminence), but free from that impertinent dogmatism which was so common among the philosophers before the revolution. We have heard the name of the author, but not feeling quite confident of our accuracy, we shall only say, that it is one little known in this country.
Before we enter more fally on an examination of this volume, we shall indulge ourselves (after the manner of reviewers) in a few remarks of our own. They have been suggested in a considerable measure by the perusal of the work before us; but though often assumed or implied, they are not in any part of it combined and satisfactorily developed.
Political institutions, in order that they may be either permanent or beneficial, as they have had their origin in the wants of those for whom they are provided, must also accord in the main with the character and wishes of the community. It is true indeed that most governments have been originally founded in violence. It is also true that an exact mathematical correspondence, a periect and unvarying sympathy between the constituted authorities of a state and the great body of its population, is neither necessary nor possible. It is moreover true, that to denounce all political establishments as illegitimate which have had their origin in violence, or which, being more quietly erected, no longer retaia in every particular their primitive character, is rash and wicked. Yet after every reasonable concession has been made, and every proper allowance for the imperfections of all human performances, it still remains certain, that wherever the government of a country, including both its formal constitution and the general spirit of its administration, is decidedly at variance with
the settled sentiments and wishes of the prevailing part of the community, there is not only a manifest departure from all just theory, but there is also imminent danger of some national convulsion.
But this is not all. The characters of nations change like the characters of individuals; not so rapidly, but almost as certainly. Wherever the advancement of industry and knowledge have not been violently excluded, a great revolution is silently effected in the morals, manners, habits, opinions, and affections of a whole people. Kings and princes are no longer the captains of their armies, renowned for courage and enterprise. The steel-clad barons of a rougher age are softened into silken courtiers, or trained perhaps by a happier discipline into well-bred and very peaceable gentlemen. The middle class of society is swelled far beyond its natural dimensions, and becomes the depository of a large part of the more active virtues and vices of the community. The sympathy between this body and the lower orders grows at the same time to be quick and powerful. Prejudices which once held the world in awe become feeble or contemptible. Sentiments and attachments which supplied the place of reason, and carried men away soinetimes to wisdom and sometimes to folly, sometimes to their benefit and sometimes to their hurt, but always with a mighty energy, are obliterated, or superseded by principles of action wholly differing in their origin and their objects. “ New forms arise and different views engage;" and for a new state of forms and views a new constitution of public authority is evidently required. It is not enough therefore that the government of a country be originally framed with wisdom, or at any given period well suited to a particular community ;--it is necessary that there should be in its organization elements of softness; a power and a disposition to conform to the varying conditions and characters of mankind; not indeed too rapidly, for it is the very office of government to forbid sudden changes, but slowly and steadily, for the purpose of preventing that very evil which an excessive pliability would occasion. It is with nations as with parties, we must follow in order that we may lead.” There must be some avenue or organ through which the public sentiments may be received, with a corresponding capacity of gradually approximating in principle and practice to the actual state of the community. Without these all is darkness and danger.
The French revolution was an earthquake. In France there was little which indicated to a superficial observer the approach of that terrible convulsion. Her temples were yet standing, and the priests ministered at the altars. The balance of justice was suspended in her halls. The palaces were blazoned with the en
signs of royalty. The whole structure of her constitution was entire, its proportions unimpaired, its bulwarks uninjured; when the wild elements of nature suddenly broke loose, and the labour and the pride of ages were ingulphed in an instant. · Men who were contemporary with this tremendous event could hardly be expected to form a just estimate of its character. They saw a furious anarchical democracy trampling on the fragments of a mild and venerable government: they saw a base and impious atheism profaning the sanctuaries of Christianity: they saw the refined and imposing manners of the politest capital in Europe succeeded by a barbarous licentiousness; they were struck with borror at the contemplation of such a spectacle, and could imagine no esplication of so astonishing a scene, but to suppose that a gang of ruffians, by the dexterous use of a momentary advantage, had possessed themselves of the seat of authority, and communicated their own savage dispositions to every thing around them.
But though this supposition was doubtless in some degree just, it was very far from embracing the whole truth. Those who have had an opportunity of contemplating “ with reverted eye” the whole of this dismal tragedy, and who have been enabled on this account to survey it, probably in its truer dimensions, certainly through a less confused medium, are disposed, we believe, to attribute much more in this portentous history to general causes which had long been silently operating, than to any momentary imprudence in the old government, or even to the ambition and ferocity of a particular class of individuals. The true explanation of the French revolution we have no doubt is given by the writer before us the perfect and radical opposition which existed between the institutions and the sentiments of the French nation.
The ancient government of France was certainly not worse than that of other neighbouring countries *; but events peculiar to herself had rendered it during a century and a half entirely monarchical. Richlieu broke the power of the old feudal aristocracy; and though the Fronde in the early part of Louis the fourteenih's reign breathed in some measure a spirit of liberty, it was irregular, unsettled, and quickly evaporated. Louis, the most dazzling and heartless of princes, parily by the splendour of his
* We are aware that this opinion has been strenuously combated by Lord Bolingbroke in his Dissertation upon Parties, who quotes Mezeray and other French writers. But it is admitted that the people were represented in the tiers états; and that these formed a part of the French constitution from the beginning of the fourteenth to the beginning of the seventeenth century. Let any map consider what our House of Commons was in early times, or even so late as the reigo of Henry VIII.