History of Literature

French literature



The Middle Ages

The 16th century

The 17th century

The 18th century to the Revolution of 1789

From 1789 to the mid-19th century

19th-century thought

The 20th century. From 1900 to 1940

The mid-20th century. Approaching the 21st century

French literature

The 16th century

Jean Lemaire de Belges
Marc-Antoine de Muret
Jacques Amyot
John Calvin
Petrus Ramus
Joachim du Bellay
Jean Dorat
Jean-Antoine de Baif
Rémy Belleau
Pontus de Tyard
Jean Bodin
Clément Marot
Maurice Scève
Louise Labé
Pierre de Ronsard  "Poems" Matisse’s Amours: Illustrations of Pierre de Ronsard’s Love Poems
Jacques Peletier
Etienne Jodelle
Robert Garnier
Théodore-Agrippa d’Aubigné
Francois Rabelais  "
Gargantua and Pantagruel"    BOOK I, BOOK II, BOOK III, BOOK IV, BOOK V Illustrations by Gustave Dore
Michel de Montaigne  "The  Letters of Montaigne", "The Essays"  BOOK THE FIRST,   BOOK THE SECOND,   BOOK THE THIRD
Blaise Pascal
René Descartes  



The 16th century

Language and learning in 16th-century Europe

The cultural field linking the Middle Ages and the early modern period is vast and complex in every sense. Chronologically, there is no simple or single break across the turn of the century, though there is indeed among many writers of the period the sense of a cultural rebirth, or Renaissance. The term, first used during the 18th century, was given currency in the 19th century by Jacob Burckhardt and Jules Michelet, who used it to describe what they perceived as a movement representing a clean break with the medieval past and inaugurating the forms and values of modern European secular and progressive nation-states. But the turn to antiquity was already visible in France in the 12th century, and echoes of Classical literature and traces of Latinizing style are present again from the mid-15th century in the work of the Grands Rhétoriqueurs (poets such as Guillaume Crétin, Octovien de Saint-Gellais, Jean Marot, Jean Bouchet, and Jean Lemaire de Belges), better known for their commitment to formal play, rhyme games, and allegorizing, in the medieval tradition. Writing inspired by the medieval tradition continued to be produced well into the 16th century. Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible were as much a sourcebook as any Latin or Greek text, especially with the new impetus provided by the Catholic Reformation. Writers were certainly grouping in new ways around their patron courts, and their writing was becoming attached to the defense of particular positions within the nascent nation-state. Themes and forms would mutate within the developing context, but the processes making the literature of early modern France are characterized by struggle rather than by any clear moment of change.

Many of the thinkers and writers of the 16th century belong to Europe as a whole as much as to a particular nation. Many still wrote and thought in Latin, and neo-Latin literature continued to thrive. Even those who preferred the vernacular, however, saw themselves as heirs and contributors to a European as much as a local inheritance. Erasmus, though born in Rotterdam, Holland, lived in France, England, and Switzerland. The assignment of Jean Lemaire de Belges to a particular country is equally difficult, for he was a Walloon who wrote in French and traveled among various courts. During this period writers made many journeys, either by choice or by necessity. François Rabelais, Joachim du Bellay, and Michel de Montaigne all made the trip from France to Italy. Clément Marot died in Turin, and Marc-Antoine de Muret, after a long exile, died in Rome. This was a time of intensive and varied cultural exchanges, which focused on, for example, the crossroads city of Lyon, turned as much toward Italy as toward Paris, or on the courts of a succession of great royal patrons, such as Marguerite de Navarre (Margaret of Angoulême), in Béarn, and Charles IX, in Paris. The craving for new knowledge was fueled by the books coming off the recently developed printing press, both original works and the great texts newly come into translation that were to form the mind and manners of the cultured European: the Bible (available in full for the first time in 1530, in the translation by Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples); Baldassare Castiglione’s Il cortegiano (Book of the Courtier), translated into French by Jacques Colin in 1537; and Plutarch’s Bioi paralleloi (Parallel Lives), translated by Jacques Amyot in 1559. Martin Luther’s writings helped spread the ideas of the Protestant Reformation swiftly through France from 1519 onward. In 1536 the first version of the refugee John Calvin’s study of Christianity was distributed from Basel; by the early 1540s Calvin was finally settled in Geneva, with the resources of Geneva’s publishing trade at his disposal to disseminate the French version of his work. The classical texts of Renaissance humanism moved with equal speed, disseminating across Europe the Neoplatonism of Marsilio Ficino and the morality of Plutarch and Seneca, along with the poetic forms of Ovid and Horace.


Jean Lemaire de Belges

born c. 1473, Bavai, Hainaut [now in Belgium]
died c. 1525

Walloon poet, historian, and pamphleteer who, writing in French, was the last and one of the best of the school of poetic rhétoriqueurs (“rhetoricians”) and the chief forerunner, both in style and in thought, of the Renaissance humanists in France and Flanders.

Lemaire led a wandering life in the service of various princes and was often at the court of Margaret of Austria, the regent of the Netherlands; he was her librarian at Malines. An innovator of wide intellectual curiosity, he had a sense of literary beauty that set his works apart from those of his contemporaries. Most of his poems are occasional pieces in memory of a prince. His Épitres de l’amant vert (1505; “Letters of a Green Lover”) contains two charming and witty letters in light verse describing the grief of Margaret of Austria’s parrot during her mistress’s absence. Lemaire traveled in Italy and was an admirer of Italian culture. His La Concorde des deux langages (“The Harmony of the Two Languages,” after 1510; modern ed. 1947) attempts to reconcile the influence of the Italian Renaissance with French tradition. His most extensive work is Les Illustrations de Gaule et singularitéz de Troye (1511, 1512, 1513; “Illustrations of Gaul and Peculiarities of Troy”), a legendary prose romance published in three books; it demonstrates an exuberant imagination and a modern appreciation of classical antiquity



Marc-Antoine de Muret

born April 12, 1526, Muret, near Limoges, France
died June 4, 1585, Rome [Italy]

French humanist and classical scholar, celebrated for the elegance of his Latin prose style.

From age 18 Muret taught classics at various schools; Michel de Montaigne was among his pupils. During the 1540s his play Julius Caesar, written in Latin, was performed; it is the first tragedy on a secular theme known to have been written in France. In the early 1550s he lectured on philosophy and civil law in Paris. He became intimate with the poets of La Pléiade, and in 1553 he published a commentary on Pierre de Ronsard’s Les Amours. Juvenilia, a collection of Muret’s own poems, many of them on erotic themes, was published at about the same time. In 1554, after being condemned for sodomy and heresy, Muret fled to Italy, settling in Rome in 1563. His lectures at the University of Rome earned him a European reputation. He entered holy orders in 1576.

Muret was a good textual critic; his Variae lectiones contains annotations and expositions of many passages from ancient authors. He also wrote commentaries on works by Cicero, Catullus, Tacitus, Plato, and Aristotle.



Jacques Amyot


born Oct. 30, 1513, Melun, near Paris, France
died Feb. 6, 1593, Auxerre

French bishop and classical scholar famous for his translation of Plutarch’s Lives (Les Vies des hommes illustres Grecs et Romains, 1559), which became a major influence in shaping the Renaissance concept of the tragic hero.

Amyot was educated at the University of Paris and at Bourges, where he became professor of Latin and Greek and translated Heliodorus’ Aethiopica. For this King Francis I gave him the abbey of Bellozane and commissioned him to complete his translation of Plutarch’s Lives, on which he had been engaged for some time. He went to Rome to study the Vatican text of Plutarch’s Bioi paralleloi (Parallel Lives). On his return to France he was appointed tutor to the sons of Henry II. Both favoured him on accession, making him grand almoner and, in 1570, bishop of Auxerre, where he spent the rest of his life. Amyot translated seven books of the Bibliotheca historica of Diodorus Siculus in 1554, the Daphnis and Chloé of Longus in 1559, and the Moralia of Plutarch in 1572, as well as the Lives.

Amyot’s Vies was an important contribution to the development of Renaissance humanism in France and England, and Plutarch was an ideal choice because he presented the moral hero as an individual rather than in abstract, didactic terms. Moreover, Amyot supplied his readers with a sense of identification with the past and the writers of many generations with characters and situations to build upon. He also gave the French an example of simple and pure style; Montaigne observed that without Amyot’s Vies, no one would have known how to write. The work was translated into English by Sir Thomas North (1579); this rendition was the source for William Shakespeare’s Roman plays.




John Calvin


French theologian
French Jean Calvin, or Cauvin

born July 10, 1509, Noyon, Picardy, France
died May 27, 1564, Geneva, Switz.

theologian and ecclesiastical statesman. He was the leading French Protestant Reformer and the most important figure in the second generation of the Protestant Reformation. His interpretation of Christianity, advanced above all in his Institutio Christianae religionis (1536 but elaborated in later editions; Institutes of the Christian Religion), and the institutional and social patterns he worked out for Geneva deeply influenced Protestantism elsewhere in Europe and in North America. The Calvinist form of Protestantism is widely thought to have had a major impact on the formation of the modern world.

This article deals with the man and his achievements. For a further treatment of Calvinism, see Calvinism and Protestantism.

Life and works
Calvin was of middle-class parents. His father, a lay administrator in the service of the local bishop, sent him to the University of Paris in 1523 to be educated for the priesthood but later decided that he should be a lawyer; from 1528 to 1531, therefore, Calvin studied in the law schools of Orléans and Bourges. He then returned to Paris. During these years he was also exposed to Renaissance humanism, influenced by Erasmus and Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, which constituted the radical student movement of the time. This movement, which antedates the Reformation, aimed to reform church and society on the model of both classical and Christian antiquity, to be established by a return to the Bible studied in its original languages. It left an indelible mark on Calvin. Under its influence he studied Greek and Hebrew as well as Latin, the three languages of ancient Christian discourse, in preparation for serious study of the Scriptures. It also intensified his interest in the classics; his first publication (1532) was a commentary on Seneca’s essay on clemency. But the movement, above all, emphasized salvation of individuals by grace rather than good works and ceremonies.
Calvin’s Paris years came to an abrupt end late in 1533. Because the government became less tolerant of this reform movement, Calvin, who had collaborated in the preparation of a strong statement of theological principles for a public address delivered by Nicolas Cop, rector of the university, found it prudent to leave Paris. Eventually he made his way to Basel, then Protestant but tolerant of religious variety. Up to that point, however, there is little evidence of Calvin’s conversion to Protestantism, an event difficult to date because it was probably gradual. His beliefs before his flight to Switzerland were probably not incompatible with Roman Catholic orthodoxy. But they underwent a change when he began to study theology intensively in Basel. Probably in part to clarify his own beliefs, he began to write. He began with a preface to a French translation of the Bible by his cousin Pierre Olivétan and then undertook what became the first edition of the Institutes, his masterwork, which, in its successive revisions, became the single most important statement of Protestant belief. Calvin published later editions in both Latin and French, containing elaborated and in a few cases revised teachings and replies to his critics. The final versions appeared in 1559 and 1560. The Institutes also reflected the findings of Calvin’s massive biblical commentaries, which, presented extemporaneously in Latin as lectures to ministerial candidates from many countries, make up the largest proportion of his works. In addition he wrote many theological and polemical treatises.
The 1536 Institutes had given Calvin some reputation among Protestant leaders. Therefore, on discovering that Calvin was spending a night in Geneva late in 1536, the Reformer and preacher Guillaume Farel, then struggling to plant Protestantism in that town, persuaded him to remain to help in this work. The Reformation was in trouble in Geneva, a town of about 10,000 where Protestantism had only the shallowest of roots. Other towns in the region, initially ruled by their prince-bishops, had successfully won self-government much earlier, but Geneva had lagged behind in this process largely because its prince-bishop was supported by the neighbouring duke of Savoy. There had been iconoclastic riots in Geneva in the mid-1520s, but these had negligible theological foundations. Protestantism had been imposed on religiously unawakened Geneva chiefly as the price of military aid from Protestant Bern. The limited enthusiasm of Geneva for Protestantism, reflected by a resistance to religious and moral reform, continued almost until Calvin’s death. The resistance was all the more serious because the town council in Geneva, as in other Protestant towns, exercised ultimate control over the church and the ministers, all French refugees. The main issue was the right of excommunication, which the ministers regarded as essential to their authority but which the council refused to concede. The uncompromising attitudes of Calvin and Farel finally resulted in their expulsion from Geneva in May 1538.
Calvin found refuge for the next three years in the German Protestant city of Strasbourg, where he was pastor of a church for French-speaking refugees and also lectured on the Bible; there he published his commentary on the Letter of Paul to the Romans. There too, in 1540, he married Idelette de Bure, the widow of a man he had converted from Anabaptism. Although none of their children survived infancy, their marital relationship proved to be extremely warm. During his Strasbourg years Calvin also learned much about the administration of an urban church from Martin Bucer, its chief pastor. Meanwhile Calvin’s attendance at various international religious conferences made him acquainted with other Protestant leaders and gave him experience in debating with Roman Catholic theologians. Henceforth he was a major figure in international Protestantism.
In September 1541 Calvin was invited back to Geneva, where the Protestant revolution, without strong leadership, had become increasingly insecure. Because he was now in a much stronger position, the town council in November enacted his Ecclesiastical Ordinances, which provided for the religious education of the townspeople, especially children, and instituted Calvin’s conception of church order. It also established four groups of church officers: pastors and teachers to preach and explain the Scriptures, elders representing the congregation to administer the church, and deacons to attend to its charitable responsibilities. In addition it set up a consistory of pastors and elders to make all aspects of Genevan life conform to God’s law. It undertook a wide range of disciplinary actions covering everything from the abolition of Roman Catholic “superstition” to the enforcement of sexual morality, the regulation of taverns, and measures against dancing, gambling, and swearing. These measures were resented by a significant element of the population, and the arrival of increasing numbers of French religious refugees in Geneva was a further cause of native discontent. These tensions, as well as the persecution of Calvin’s followers in France, help to explain the trial and burning of Michael Servetus, a Spanish theologian preaching and publishing unorthodox beliefs. When Servetus unexpectedly arrived in Geneva in 1553, both sides felt the need to demonstrate their zeal for orthodoxy. Calvin was responsible for Servetus’ arrest and conviction, though he had preferred a less brutal form of execution.
The struggle over control of Geneva lasted until May 1555, when Calvin finally prevailed and could devote himself more wholeheartedly to other matters. He had constantly to watch the international scene and to keep his Protestant allies in a common front. Toward this end he engaged in a massive correspondence with political and religious leaders throughout Protestant Europe. He also continued his commentaries on Scripture, working through the whole New Testament except the Revelation to John and most of the Old Testament. Many of these commentaries were promptly published, often with dedications to such European rulers as Queen Elizabeth, though Calvin had too little time to do much of the editorial work himself. Committees of amanuenses took down what he said, prepared a master copy, and then presented it to Calvin for approval. During this period Calvin also established the Genevan Academy to train students in humanist learning in preparation for the ministry and positions of secular leadership. He also performed a wide range of pastoral duties, preaching regularly and often, doing numerous weddings and baptisms, and giving spiritual advice. Worn out by so many responsibilities and suffering from a multitude of ailments, he died in 1564.

Unlike Martin Luther, Calvin was a reticent man; he rarely expressed himself in the first person singular. This reticence has contributed to his reputation as cold, intellectual, and humanly unapproachable. His thought, from this perspective, has been interpreted as abstract and concerned with timeless issues rather than as the response of a sensitive human being to the needs of a particular historical situation. Those who knew him, however, perceived him differently, remarking on his talent for friendship but also on his hot temper. Moreover, the intensity of his grief on the death of his wife, as well as his empathic reading of many passages in Scripture, revealed a large capacity for feeling.
Calvin’s facade of impersonality can now be understood as concealing an unusually high level of anxiety about the world around him, about the adequacy of his own efforts to deal with its needs, and about human salvation, notably including his own. He believed that every Christian—and he certainly included himself—suffers from terrible bouts of doubt. From this perspective the need for control both of oneself and the environment, often discerned in Calvinists, can be understood as a function of Calvin’s own anxiety.
Calvin’s anxiety found expression in two metaphors for the human condition that appear again and again in his writings: as an abyss in which human beings have lost their way and as a labyrinth from which they cannot escape. Calvinism as a body of thought must be understood as the product of Calvin’s effort to escape from the terrors conveyed by these metaphors.

Intellectual formation
Historians are generally agreed that Calvin is to be understood primarily as a Renaissance humanist who aimed to apply the novelties of humanism to recover a biblical understanding of Christianity. Thus he sought to appeal rhetorically to the human heart rather than to compel agreement, in the traditional manner of systematic theologians, by demonstrating dogmatic truths. His chief enemies, indeed, were the systematic theologians of his own time, the Scholastics, both because they relied too much on human reason rather than the Bible and because their teachings were lifeless and irrelevant to a world in desperate need. Calvin’s humanism meant first that he thought of himself as a biblical theologian in accordance with the Reformation slogan scriptura sola. He was prepared to follow Scripture even when it surpassed the limits of human understanding, trusting to the Holy Spirit to inspire faith in its promises. Like other humanists, he was also deeply concerned to remedy the evils of his own time; and here too he found guidance in Scripture. Its teachings could not be presented as a set of timeless abstractions but had to be brought to life by adapting them to the understanding of contemporaries according to the rhetorical principle of decorum—i.e., suitability to time, place, and audience.
Calvin’s humanism influenced his thought in two other basic ways. For one, he shared with earlier Renaissance humanists an essentially biblical conception of the human personality, comprehending it not as a hierarchy of faculties ruled by reason but as a mysterious unity in which what is primary is not what is highest but what is central: the heart. This conception assigned more importance to will and feelings than to the intellect, and it also gave new dignity to the body. For this reason Calvin rejected the ascetic disregard of the body’s needs that was often prominent in medieval spirituality. Implicit in this particular rejection of the traditional hierarchy of faculties in the personality, however, was a radical rejection of the traditional belief that hierarchy was the basis of all order. For Calvin, instead, the only foundation for order in human affairs was utility. Among its other consequences this position undermined the traditional one subordinating women to men. Calvin believed that, for practical reasons, it may be necessary for some to command and others to obey, but it could no longer be argued that women must naturally be subordinated to men. This helps to explain the rejection in Geneva of the double standard in sexual morality.
Second, Calvin’s utilitarianism, as well as his understanding of the human personality as both less and more than intellectual, was also reflected in deep reservations about the capacity of human beings for anything but practical knowledge. The notion that they can know anything absolutely, as God knows, so to speak, seemed to him highly presumptuous. This conviction helps to explain his reliance on the Bible. Calvin believed that human beings have access to the saving truths of religion only insofar as God has revealed them in Scripture. But revealed truths were not given to satisfy human curiosity but were limited to meeting the most urgent and practical needs of human existence, above all for salvation. This emphasis on practicality reflects a basic conviction of Renaissance humanism: the superiority of an active earthly life devoted to meeting practical needs to a life of contemplation. Calvin’s conviction that every occupation in society is a “calling” on the part of God himself sanctified this conception. Calvin thus spelled out the theological implications of Renaissance humanism in various ways.
But Calvin was not purely a Renaissance humanist. The culture of the 16th century was peculiarly eclectic, and, like other thinkers of his time, Calvin had inherited a set of contrary tendencies, which he uneasily combined with his humanism. He was an unsystematic thinker not only because he was a humanist but also because 16th-century thinkers lacked the historical perspective that would have enabled them to sort out the diverse materials in their culture. Thus, even as he emphasized the heart, Calvin continued also to think of the human personality in traditional terms as a hierarchy of faculties ruled by reason. He sometimes attributed a large place to reason even in religion and emphasized the importance of rational control over the passions and the body. The persistence of these traditional attitudes in Calvin’s thought, however, helps to explain its broad appeal; they were reassuring to conservatives.


Calvin has often been seen as little more than a systematizer of the more creative insights of Luther. He followed Luther on many points: on original sin, Scripture, the absolute dependence of human beings on divine grace, and justification by faith alone. But Calvin’s differences with Luther are of major significance, even though some were largely matters of emphasis. Calvin was thus perhaps more impressed than Luther by God’s transcendence and by his control over the world; Calvin emphasized God’s power and glory, whereas Luther often thought of God as the babe in the manger, here among human beings. Contrary to a general impression, Calvin’s understanding of predestination was also virtually identical with Luther’s (and indeed is close to that of Thomas Aquinas); and, although Calvin may have stated it more emphatically, the issue itself is not of central importance to his theology. He considered it a great mystery, to be approached with fear and trembling and only in the context of faith. Seen in this way, predestination seemed to him a comforting doctrine; it meant that salvation would be taken care of by a loving and utterly reliable God.
But in major respects Calvin departed from Luther. In some ways Calvin was more radical. Though he agreed with Luther on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, he understood this in a completely spiritual sense. But most of his differences suggest that he was closer to the old church than was Luther, as in his ecclesiology, which recognized the institutional church in this world, as Luther did not, as the true church. He was also more traditional in his clericalism; his belief in the authority of clergy over laity was hardly consistent with Luther’s stress on the priesthood of all believers. He insisted, too, on the necessity of a holy life, at least as a sign of genuine election. Even more significant, especially for Calvinism as a historical force, was Calvin’s attitude toward the world. Luther had regarded this world and its institutions as incorrigible and was prepared to leave them to the Devil, a far more important figure in his spiritual universe than in Calvin’s. But for Calvin this world was created by God and still belonged to him. It was still potentially Christ’s kingdom, and every Christian was obligated to struggle to make it so in reality by bringing it under God’s law.

Calvin’s reservations about the capacities of the human mind and his insistence that Christians exert themselves to bring the world under the rule of Christ suggest that it is less instructive to approach his thought as a theology to be comprehended by the mind than as a set of principles for the Christian life—in short, as spirituality. His spirituality begins with the conviction that human beings do not so much “know” God as “experience” him indirectly, through his mighty acts and works in the world, as they experience but can hardly be said to know thunder, one of Calvin’s favourite metaphors for religious experience. Such experience of God gives them confidence in his power and stimulates them to praise and worship him.
At the same time that Calvin stressed God’s power, he also depicted God as a loving father. Indeed, although Calvinism is often considered one of the most patriarchal forms of Christianity, Calvin recognized that God is commonly experienced as a mother. He denounced those who represent God as dreadful; God for him is “mild, kind, gentle, and compassionate.” Human beings can never praise him properly, Calvin declared, “until he wins us by the sweetness of his goodness.” That God loves and cares for his human creatures was, for Calvin, what distinguished his doctrine of providence from that of the Stoics.
Calvin’s understanding of Christianity is thus in many ways gentler than has been commonly supposed. This is also shown in his understanding of original sin. Although he insisted on the “total depravity” of human nature after the Fall, he did not mean by this that there is nothing good left in human beings but rather that there is no agency within the personality left untouched by the Fall on which to depend for salvation. The intention of the doctrine is practical: to reinforce dependence on Christ and the free grace of God. In fact, unlike some of his followers, Calvin believed in the survival after the Fall, however weak, of the original marks of God’s image, in which human beings were created. “It is always necessary to come back to this,” he declared, “that God never created a man on whom he did not imprint his image.” At times, to be sure, Calvin’s denunciations of sin give a very different impression. But it should be kept in mind that as a humanist and a rhetorician Calvin was less concerned to be theologically precise than to impress his audience with the need to repent of its sins.
The problem posed by sin was, for Calvin, not that it had destroyed the spiritual potentialities of human beings but rather that human beings had lost their ability to use their potentialities. Through the Fall they had been alienated from God, who is the source of all power, energy, warmth, and vitality. Sin, on the contrary, had exposed the human race to death, the negation of God’s life-giving powers. Human beings thus experience the effects of sin as drowsiness when they should be alert, as apathy when they should feel concern, as sloth when they should be diligent, as coldness when they should be warm, as weakness when they need strength. Thus also, since the Devil, who seeks to drain human beings of their God-given spirituality, tries to lull them to sleep, God must employ various stratagems to awaken them. This helps to explain the troubles that afflict the elect: God threatens, chastises, and compels them to remember him by making their lives go badly.
The effect of sin also prevents human beings from reacting with appropriate wonder to the marvels of the world. The failure of spirituality is the primary obstacle to an affective knowledge that, unlike mere intellectual apprehension, can move the whole personality. Calvin attached particular importance to the way in which sin deadens the feelings, but spiritual knowledge renews the connection, broken by sin, between knowledge, feeling, and action. Thus God’s spirit, in all its manifestations, is the power of life. Calvin’s understanding of sin is closely related to his humanistic emphasis on activity.
As his emphasis on sanctification for the individual believer and on reconquering the world for Christ implies, Calvin’s spirituality also included a strong sense of history, which he perceived as a process in which God’s purposes are progressively realized. Therefore, the central elements of the Gospel—the Incarnation and Atonement, the grace available through them, the gift of faith by which human beings are enabled to accept this grace for themselves, and the sanctification that results—together describe objectively how human beings are enabled, step by step, to recover their original relationship with God and regain the energy coming from it. Calvin described this as a “quickening” that, in effect, brings the believer back from death to life and makes possible the most strenuous exertion in God’s service.
Calvin exploited two traditional metaphors for the life of a Christian. Living in an unusually militant age, he drew on the familiar idea of the believer’s life as a ceaseless, quasi-military struggle against the powers of evil both within the self and in the world. The Christian, in this conception, must struggle against his own wicked impulses, against the majority of the human race on behalf of the Gospel, and ultimately against the Devil. Paradoxically, however, Christian warfare consists less in inflicting wounds on others than in suffering the effects of sin patiently, that is, by bearing the cross. In Calvin’s thought the metaphor for the Christian life as conflict thus takes on the added meaning of acquiescence in suffering. The disasters that afflict human existence, though punishments for the wicked, are an education for the believer; they strengthen faith, develop humility, purge wickedness, and compel him to keep alert and look to God for help.
The second traditional metaphor for the Christian life employed by Calvin, that of a journey or pilgrimage—i.e., of a movement toward a goal—equally implied activity. “Our life is like a journey,” Calvin asserted; yet “it is not God’s will that we should march along casually as we please, but he sets the goal before us, and also directs us on the right way to it.” This way is also a struggle because no one moves easily forward and most are so weak that, “wavering and limping and even creeping along the ground, they move at a feeble pace.” Yet with God’s help everyone can daily make some advance, however slight. Notable in this conception is a single-mindedness often associated with Calvinism: Christians must look straight ahead to the goal and be distracted by nothing, looking neither to the right nor left. Calvin allows them to love the good things in this life, but only within limits.
Thus the Christian life is a strenuous progress in holiness, which, through the constant effort of the individual to make the whole world obedient to God, will also be reflected in the progressive sanctification of the world. These processes, however, will never be completed in this life. For Calvin even the most developed Christian in this world is like an adolescent, yearning to grow into, though still far from, the full stature of Christ. But, Calvin assured his followers, “each day in some degree our purity will increase and our corruption be cleansed as long as we live in the world,” and “the more we increase in knowledge, the more should we increase in love.” Meanwhile the faithful experience a vision, always more clear, of “God’s face, peaceful and calm and gracious toward us.” So the spiritual life, for Calvin as for many before him, culminates in the vision of God.

Calvin’s influence has persisted not only in the Reformed churches of France, Germany, Scotland, the Netherlands, and Hungary but also in the Church of England, where Calvin was long at least as highly regarded as among those Puritans who separated from the Anglican establishment. The latter organized their own churches, Presbyterian or Congregational, which brought Calvinism to North America. Even today these churches, along with the originally German Evangelical and Reformed Church, recall Calvin as their founding father. Eventually Calvinist theology was also widely accepted by major groups of Baptists; and even Unitarianism, which broke away from the Calvinist churches of New England in the 18th century, reflected the more rational impulses in Calvin’s theology. More recently Protestant interest in the social implications of the Gospel and Protestant neo-orthodoxy, as represented by Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr, reflects the continuing influence of John Calvin.
Calvin’s larger influence over the development of modern Western civilization has been variously assessed. The controversial “Weber thesis” attributed the rise of modern capitalism largely to Puritanism, but neither Max Weber, in his famous essay of 1904, “Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus” (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), nor the great economic historian Richard Henry Tawney, in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), implicated Calvin himself in this development. Much the same thing can be said about efforts to link Calvinism to the rise of modern science; although Puritans were prominent in the scientific movement of 17th-century England, Calvin himself was indifferent to the science of his own day. A somewhat better case can be made for Calvin’s influence on political theory. His own political instincts were highly conservative, and he preached the submission of private persons to all legitimate authority. But, like Italian humanists, he personally preferred a republic to a monarchy. In confronting the problem posed by rulers who actively opposed the spread of the Gospel, he advanced a theory of resistance, kept alive by his followers, according to which lesser magistrates might legitimately rebel against kings. Unlike most of his contemporaries, furthermore, Calvin included among the proper responsibilities of states not only the maintenance of public order but also a positive concern for the general welfare of society.
Calvinism has a place, therefore, in the development of liberal political thought. Calvin’s major and most durable influence, nevertheless, has been religious. From his time to the present Calvinism has meant a peculiar seriousness about Christianity and its ethical implications.

William J. Bouwsma

The elevation of the French language

Latin remained important as the language of diplomats, theologians, philosophers, and jurists; though the Edict of Villers-Cotterêts (1539), requiring judgments in the law courts to be given solely in French, marked a turning point. Erasmus polemicized in Latin with the Sorbonne or with Luther. Calvin used Latin to write the first version of his Christianae Religionis Institutio (1536; definitive Latin version, 1559; Institutes of the Christian Religion). Petrus Ramus (Pierre de la Ramée) created a sensation when, after earlier writings in Latin, he produced his Dialectique (1555; “Dialectics”), the first major philosophical work in French. In 1562 his Gramère (“Grammar”) was a significant contribution to a host of new studies produced in the midcentury of the vocabulary and syntax of French. At the same time, the poets began to declare their mission to work, through their writing, for the elevation of the national language. Thomas Sébillet, a humanist of the school of Clément Marot, who also looked back to the later Middle Ages, produced his Art poétique français (“The Art of French Poetry”) in 1548. It was overshadowed in the following year by Joachim du Bellay’s Deffence et illustration de la langue francoyse (1549; The Defence and Illustration of the French Language), which came to be considered as a manifesto by the group of young poets known as the Pléiade (Pierre de Ronsard, du Bellay, Jean Dorat, Jean-Antoine de Baïf, Rémy Belleau, Étienne Jodelle, and Pontus de Tyard), who were totally committed to the new learning in its classical forms, and who attached themselves to the service of the Valois court. As the century drew to its close, the great political thinker Jean Bodin, the first theorist who sought to define the powers and the limits of sovereignty, published in French his Six livres de la République (1576; The Six Books of a Commonweale). The Latin version of the work followed 10 years later.


Petrus Ramus

born 1515, Cuts, Picardy, Fr.
died Aug. 26, 1572, Paris

French philosopher, logician, and rhetorician.

Educated at Cuts and later at the Collège de Navarre, in Paris, Ramus became master of arts in 1536. He taught a reformed version of Aristotelian logic at the Collège du Mans, in Paris, and at the Collège de l’Ave Maria, where he worked with Audomarus Talaeus (Omer Talon). Talaeus, under Ramus’ influence, reformed Ciceronian rhetoric upon the principles applied by Ramus to the rearrangement of Aristotle’s Organon. These innovations so provoked the orthodox Aristotelian philosophers at the University of Paris that they induced Francis I in 1544 to suppress Ramus’ works on the reformed logic and forbid him to teach that subject. Cardinal Charles de Lorraine used his influence with Henry II to have the ban against Ramus lifted (1547), and in 1551 Ramus was appointed regius professor of philosophy and eloquence at the Collège de France. About 1561 he was converted to Protestantism, and the last years of his life were marked by mounting persecution from his academic and ecclesiastical enemies. He was murdered by hired assassins two days after the outbreak of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day.

Ramus, identifying logic with dialectic, neglected the traditional role that logic played as a method of inquiry and emphasized instead the equally traditional view that logic is the method of disputation, its two parts being invention, the process of discovering proofs in support of the thesis, and disposition, which taught how the materials of invention should be arranged.

Ramus’ logic had an enormous vogue in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. He was a prolific writer; among his most celebrated works are Dialecticae partitiones (1543), Aristotelicae animadversiones (1543), Dialectique (1555), and Dialecticae libri duo (1556).



Joachim du Bellay

born c. 1522, Liré, Fr.
died Jan. 1, 1560, Paris

French poet, leader with Pierre de Ronsard of the literary group known as La Pléiade. Du Bellay is the author of the Pléiade’s manifesto, La Défense et illustration de la langue française (The Defence & Illustration of the French Language).

Du Bellay was born into a noble family of the Loire River valley, and he studied law and the humanities in Poitiers and Paris. He published The Defence & Illustration of the French Language in 1549. In it he asserted that French is capable of producing a modern literature equal in quality and expressiveness to that of ancient Greece and Rome. He argued that French writers should look not only to Classical texts but also to contemporary Italy for literary models. In 1549–50 du Bellay published his first sonnets, inspired by the Italian poet Petrarch.

In 1553 he went with his cousin Jean du Bellay, a prominent cardinal and diplomat, on a mission to Rome. By this time Joachim du Bellay had started to write on religious themes, but his experience of court life in the Vatican seems to have disillusioned him. He turned instead to meditations on the vanished glories of ancient Rome in the Antiquités de Rome and to melancholy satire in his finest work, the Regrets (both published after his return to France in 1558).

Throughout his life du Bellay suffered ill health and intermittent deafness. His portraits show a withdrawn and austere figure and reinforce the impression of a man totally dedicated to his art. He had a sincere affection for his country and determined that it should have a literature to rival that of any other nation. He introduced new literary forms into French, with the first book of odes and the first of love sonnets in the language. Abroad, he influenced the English lyric poets of the 16th century, and some of his work was translated by Edmund Spenser in Complaints . . . (1591).



Jean Dorat

born 1508, Le Dorat, near Limoges, Fr.
died Nov. 1, 1588, Paris

French humanist, a brilliant Hellenist, one of the poets of the Pléiade, and their mentor for many years.

Dorat belonged to a noble family; after studying at the Collège de Limoges, he became tutor to the pages of Francis I. He tutored Jean-Antoine de Baïf, whose father he succeeded as director of the Collège de Coqueret. There, besides Baïf, his pupils included Pierre de Ronsard, Rémy Belleau, and Pontus de Tyard. Joachim du Bellay was added to this group by Ronsard, and these five young poets, along with and under the direction of Dorat, formed a society for the reform of French language and literature. They increased their number to seven with the dramatist Étienne Jodelle and named themselves La Pléiade, in emulation of the seven Greek poets of Alexandria. The election of Dorat as their president proved his personal influence, but as a writer of French verse he is the least important of the seven.

Dorat stimulated his students to intensive study of Greek and Latin poetry, while he himself wrote incessantly in both languages. He is said to have composed more than 15,000 Greek and Latin verses.

His influence and fame as a scholar extended to England, Italy, and Germany. In 1556 he was appointed professor of Greek at the Collège Royal, a post that he held until he retired in 1567. He published a collection of the best of his Greek and Latin verse in 1586.



Jean-Antoine de Baïf

born 1532, Venice [Italy]
died October 1589, Paris, France

most learned of the seven French poets who constituted the group known as La Pléiade.

Baïf received a classical education and in 1547 went with Pierre de Ronsard to study under Jean Dorat at the Collège de Coqueret, Paris, where they planned, with Joachim du Bellay, to transform French poetry by imitating the ancients and the Italians. To this program Baïf contributed two collections of Petrarchan sonnets and Epicurean lyrics, Les Amours de Méline (1552) and L’Amour de Francine (1555). In 1567 Le Brave, ou Taillebras, Baïf’s lively adaptation of Plautus’ Miles gloriosus, was played at court and published.

Baïf—who was the natural son of Lazare de Baïf, humanist and diplomat—enjoyed royal favour and received pensions and benefices from Charles IX and Henry III. His Euvres en rime (1573; “Works in Rhyme”) reveal great erudition: Greek (especially Alexandrian), Latin, neo-Latin, and Italian models are imitated for mythological poems, eclogues, epigrams, and sonnets. His verse translations include Terence’s Eunuchus and Sophocles’ Antigone.

Baïf was a versatile, inventive poet and experimenter who, for example, invented and made use of a system of phonetic spelling. With the musician Thibault de Courville, Baïf founded a short-lived Academy of Poetry and of Music in order to promote certain Platonic theories on the union of poetry and music. His metrical inventions included a vers baïfin, a verse of 15 syllables. His theories were exemplified in Etrénes de poezie fransoèze en vers mezurés (1574; “Gifts of French Poetry in Quantitative Verse”) and in his little songs, Chansonnettes mesurées (1586), with music written by Jacques Mauduit. His Mimes, enseignements et proverbes (1576; “Mimes, Lessons, and Proverbs”) is considered to be his most original work.

Baïf was a personal poet whose gifts were inferior to his genius for invention of form and language; but he had a talent for vivid, realistic description, particularly in scenes of country life and in satire.



Rémy Belleau

born 1528, Nogent-le-Rotrou, near Chartres, France
died March 6, 1577, Paris

Renaissance scholar and poet who wrote highly polished portraits known as miniatures. He was a member of the group called La Pléiade, a literary circle that sought to enrich French literature by reviving classical tradition.

A contemporary of the poet Pierre de Ronsard at the Collège de Cocqueret, Belleau at first gained the patronage of the Abbé Chretophle de Choiseul and later of Charles IX and Henry III, who made him secretary of the king’s chamber. He took part in a campaign against Naples in 1557 and from about 1563 lived at Joinville as tutor and counselor to the Guises, a powerful Catholic family. Living at the Château de Guise inspired Belleau to write La Bergerie (1565–72; “The Shepherd’s Song”), a collection of pastoral odes, sonnets, hymns, and amorous verse. Belleau’s detailed descriptions of nature and works of art earned him a reputation as a miniaturist in poetry and prompted Ronsard to characterize him as a “painter of nature.” His other poetic works include didactic verse; Les Amours et nouveaux échanges des pierres précieuses (1576), a commentary on exotic stones and their inherent secret virtues written in the tradition of the medieval lapidaries; and La Reconnue (1577; “The Rediscovered Daughter”), a comedy in verse based on Plautus’ Casina. His erudite translations of Anacreon’s Odes (1556) won him the seventh seat or “star” in the constellation of La Pléiade, a name the group adopted in imitation of a group of eminent Greek poets of about 250 bc. Belleau’s collected works were edited by A. Gouverneur and published in 1867.



Pontus de Tyard

born c. 1522, Bissy-sur-Fley, Burgundy, Fr.
died Sept. 23, 1605, Bragny-sur-Saône

Burgundian poet and member of the literary circle known as La Pléiade who was a forthright theorist and a popularizer of Renaissance learning for the elite.

Tyard was seigneur (lord) of Bissy-sur-Fley and an associate of the Lyonese poets, especially Maurice Scève. In 1551 he translated León Hebreo’s Dialoghi di amore (“Dialogues of Love”), the breviary of 16th-century philosophic lovers. His poetry collection Erreurs amoureuses (1549; “Mistakes in Love”), which include one of the first French sonnet sequences, also revived the sestina in France. The Erreurs was augmented in successive editions, as was his important prose work, Discours philosophiques (“Philosophical Discourses”), a Neoplatonic encyclopaedia finally completed in 1587. Its first treatise, the Solitaire premier (1552), complements Joachim du Bellay’s Défense et illustration de la langue française (1549), which expounded the theories on poetic diction and language reform of La Pléiade. In 1578 Tyard was given the bishopric of Chalon-sur-Saône, from which he retired in 1594.

In his enthusiasm for enriching the French language and adapting classical imagery and genre, Tyard shared the contempt for the masses felt by his associates. In the Solitaire premier he praised those poets who decorated their verse so richly with the ornaments of antiquity that the ignorant could not comprehend them. He remarked that the purpose of the poet is not to be understood by nor to lower himself to accommodate a popular audience still fond of medieval genres. It was this hauteur and this sense of mission without contact beyond the protective society of the court that caused La Pléiade to shine so briefly and to become within a generation as dead as the Greek poets from whom they took their name.



Jean Bodin

born 1530, Angers, France
died June 1596, Laon

French political philosopher whose exposition of the principles of stable government was widely influential in Europe at a time when medieval systems were giving way to centralized states. He is widely credited with introducing the concept of sovereignty into legal and political thought.

In 1551 Bodin went to the University of Toulouse to study civil law. He remained there as a student and later as a teacher until 1561, when he abandoned the teaching of law for its practice and returned to Paris as avocat du roi (French: “king’s advocate”) just as the civil wars between Roman Catholics and Huguenots were beginning. In 1571 he entered the household of the king’s brother, François, duc d’Alençon, as master of requests and councillor. He appeared only once on the public scene, as deputy of the third estate for Vermandois at the Estates-General of Blois in 1576. His uninterested conduct on that occasion lost him royal favour. He opposed the projected resumption of war on the Huguenots in favour of negotiation, and he also opposed the suggested alienation, or sale, of royal domains by Henry III as damaging to the monarchy. When the duc d’Alençon died in 1583, Bodin retired to Laon as procurateur to the presidial court. He remained there until his death from the plague 13 years later.

Bodin’s principal writing, The Six Bookes of a Commonweale (1576), won him immediate fame and was influential in western Europe into the 17th century. The bitter experience of civil war and its attendant anarchy in France had turned Bodin’s attention to the problem of how to secure order and authority. Bodin thought that the secret lay in recognition of the sovereignty of the state and argued that the distinctive mark of the state is supreme power. This power is unique; absolute, in that no limits of time or competence can be placed upon it; and self-subsisting, in that it does not depend for its validity on the consent of the subject. Bodin assumed that governments command by divine right because government is instituted by providence for the well-being of humanity. Government consists essentially of the power to command, as expressed in the making of laws. In a well-ordered state, this power is exercised subject to the principles of divine and natural law; in other words, the Ten Commandments are enforced, and certain fundamental rights, chiefly liberty and property, are extended to those governed. But should these conditions be violated, the sovereign still commands and may not be resisted by his subjects, whose whole duty is obedience to their ruler. Bodin distinguished only three types of political systems—monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy—according to whether sovereign power rests in one person, in a minority, or in a majority. Bodin himself preferred a monarchy that was kept informed of the peoples’ needs by a parliament or representative assembly.

Major authors and influences


The art of Clément Marot, at least at the beginning of his career, took its inspiration and the forms to express it from the Grands Rhétoriqueurs, as in the allegorical poem “Le Temple de Cupidon” (“The Temple of Cupid”). But aspects of humanism in his culture, life at court (a protégé of Marguerite de Navarre throughout his life, he succeeded his father as valet de chambre to Francis I in 1527), and, above all, the events of his day gave his works a new dimension. Practitioner of a wide range of forms—including the medieval fixed forms of the ballade and the rondeau, chansons, blasons (poems employing descriptive details to praise or to satirize), and elegies—Marot preferred the epistle for its freedom of style and the epigram for its vivacity. With the epistle he reached the summit of the highly subtle art by which he defined himself, a poet of the court and also a Protestant, aspiring to a pure and simple happiness of true religious faith. He wrote his allegorical satire on justice, L’Enfer (“Hell”), in 1526 after his brief imprisonment on charges of violating Lenten regulations, and he fled into exile in 1534 to avoid persecution after the Affaire des Placards (in which placards attacking the Mass appeared in several cities and on the king’s bedchamber door). His return to Paris in 1537 made him no more prudent; he continued his translations of the Psalms, a brilliant literary achievement, publishing the first collection in 1539. Marot’s translation, continued by the Calvinist theologian Theodore Beza, became the Huguenot psalter.

While Marot was translating the Psalms, other poets were engaged with a different kind of mysticism. In Lyon an important group including Maurice Scève, Pernette du Guillet, and Louise Labé were writing Neoplatonist and Petrarchan love poetry, highly stylized in form, in which desire for an earthly Beauty inflames the poet with an inspirational frenzy that elevates his creative powers and draws him toward the spiritual Beauty, Truth, and Knowledge that she mirrors. In her Euvres (1555; Louise Labé’s Complete Works), Labé presents a collection of elegies, sonnets, and prose reversing the usual gender perspective and summoning other women to follow her example in search of poetic fame. The love poetry of the Pléiade is in similar mode, as reflected in the sonnet cycles of Joachim du Bellay (L’Olive, 1549) and Pierre de Ronsard (from Les Amours [1552] to the Sonnets pour Hélène [1578, 1584, 1587; Eng. trans. Sonnets pour Hélène]) and in the metrical experiments of Baïf. It is more varied in its inspirations and in its technique; Ronsard, for example, uses a wide range of Classical models to write poems in different registers to different mistress-figures, and he often brings more sensuous variations to the stylized motifs. There is also a conscious foregrounding of a more worldly dimension, especially in Ronsard. The desire for fame, the recognition of one’s creative genius by contemporaries and posterity, merges with the aspiration to possess the mistress and the divine Truth she represents.

The themes and modes of Pléiade poetry, however, ranged wider than love, even the love that presides over the life of the entire cosmos, as sung by Jacques Peletier in L’Amour des amours (1555; “The Love of Loves”). Ronsard’s poetic debut, the first four books of his Odes (1550), mixed politics and the pastoral, celebrating in Pindaric mode the great men and women of Henry II’s court—both politicians and poets—and turning to Horace and Anacreon for models to evoke the natural beauties of the landscape of a peaceful and idyllic France. Du Bellay’s sonnet collection, Les Regrets (1558), combines satire and pastoral to depict the corruption of society in Rome, to which diplomatic duties had exiled him, and to express his yearning for the beauty and peace of his native Anjou. A “scientific” and philosophical poetry appeared, taking many forms—not least the hymn, reinvented by Ronsard (Les Hymnes, 1555–56). In drama, Étienne Jodelle revived the themes and forms of Classical tragedy. Whatever form inspiration took—love, nature, knowledge—Art dominated them all. Refining the forms elaborated by fellow-craftsmen from the high ages of human art, the poet demonstrated his ability to match the creative powers that move the cosmos.

When the civil wars broke out in 1562, the Pléiade was on the side of the great Catholic families who occupied the throne. Ronsard eloquently defended the cause of Catholic reform against the Protestant Reformers and their aristocratic allies in his Discours (1562–63). Not all the members of the Pléiade, however, were as absolute against the Protestant enemy, especially as the century advanced and the atrocities increased. In the massacre that began on St. Bartholomew’s Day (August 24/25, 1572), some 3,000 Huguenots in Paris alone were murdered by Catholics on the rampage. The plays of Robert Garnier frequently took subjects of biblical as well as humanist inspiration that reflected the pain of all those caught in the violence of the times (Les Juifves, 1583).

The warrior-poet of Protestantism, Théodore-Agrippa d’Aubigné, represented the perfect synthesis of humanism and Calvinism. He studied to perfection the three traditional languages, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; and he was familiar with modern languages, especially Italian. In his youth, between 1571 and 1573, he wrote love poetry modeled on Petrarch. His master poem, Les Tragiques, composed for the most part at the end of the century but not published until 1616, is a visionary, apocalyptic account of the civil conflict from the perspective of the Protestant Reformers.


Clément Marot

born 1496?, Cahors, Fr.
died September 1544, Turin, Savoy [now in Italy]

one of the greatest poets of the French Renaissance, whose use of the forms and imagery of Latin poetry had marked influence on the style of his successors. His father, Jean, was a poet and held a post at the court of Anne de Bretagne and later served Francis I.

In 1514 Marot became page to Nicolas de Neufville, seigneur de Villeroi, secretary to the king. Wishing to follow in his father’s footsteps by obtaining a place as court poet, he entered the service of Margaret of Angoulême, sister of Francis I and later queen of Navarre. On his father’s death, he became valet de chambre to Francis I, a post he held, except for his years of exile (1534–36), until 1542.

Marot was arrested in 1526 for defying Lenten abstinence regulations, behaviour that put him under suspicion of being a Lutheran. A short imprisonment inspired some of his best-known works, especially “L’Enfer” (“The Inferno”), an allegorical satire on justice, and an epistle to his friend Lyon Jamet (1526). In 1527 he was again imprisoned, this time for attacking a prison guard and freeing a prisoner; an epistle, addressed to the king and begging for his deliverance, won his release. In 1531 Marot was again arrested for eating meat during Lent, but this time he avoided imprisonment. By 1530, in any event, his fame had become firmly established, and his many poems seem to have enjoyed a wide circulation.

After the Affaire des Placards, when placards attacking the Mass were posted in the major cities and on the door of the king’s bedchamber (1534), Marot fled to Navarre, where he was protected by Margaret. When persecution of the Protestants increased, he again fled, this time to the court of Renée de France in Ferrara, Italy. Marot subsequently returned to Paris in 1537 after Francis I had stopped the persecutions.

When he was not engaged in writing the official poems that his duties at the French court compelled him to write, Marot spent most of his time translating the Psalms; a first edition of some of these appeared in 1539, the Trente Pseaulmes de Davíd in 1542. These translations were notable for their sober and solemn musicality. Their condemnation by the Sorbonne caused Marot to go into exile again. But they were greatly admired by John Calvin, who gave Marot sanctuary in Geneva. Marot’s behaviour became unacceptable in that strict and sober city, however, and he was forced to return to Italy.

Although Marot’s early poems were composed entirely in the style of the late medieval poets known as rhétoriqueurs, he soon abandoned the established genres of that school as well as its conceits, its didactic use of allegory, and its complicated versification. Instead, his knowledge of the Latin classics and his contacts with Italian literary forms enabled him to learn to imitate the styles and themes of antiquity. He introduced the elegy, the eclogue, the epigram, the epithalamium (nuptial poem), and the one-stanza Italian satiric strambotto (French estrabot) into French poetry, and he was one of the first French poets to attempt the Petrarchan sonnet form. His epigrams and epistolary poems (épîtres), in particular, display those qualities of wit, intellectual refinement, and sincerity and naturalness that were to characterize the French use of these genres for the next two centuries. He was also a master of the chant royal and infused some Horatian wit into the old forms of the ballade and the rondeau.

Marot attempted to create new or to improve existing lyrical forms, composing chansons and cantiques and originating the blason (1536), a satiric verse describing, as a rule, some aspect of the female body in minute detail. The blason found immediate popularity and was so widely imitated that it was possible to publish an anthology in 1555. Marot translated Catullus, Virgil, and Ovid and edited the works of François Villon and the Roman de la rose. He added grace, elegance, and personal warmth to French light verse. Much of his achievement was temporarily eclipsed by La Pléiade, a group of poets who dominated the literary scene for a period shortly after his death. But the influence of Marot was evident in England among the Elizabethans, notably Edmund Spenser, and was revived in France in the 17th century.



Maurice Scève

born c. 1501, Lyon, France
died 1560/64?, Lyon

French poet who was considered great in his own day, then long neglected. Reinstated by 20th-century critics and poets, chiefly for his poem cycle, Délie, Scève has often been described as the leader of the Lyonese school of writers (including Pernette du Guillet and Louise Labé), although there is no evidence of an organized school. Lyon, on the trade route between northern and southern Europe, was a centre of humanism, and Scève first achieved fame in 1533 by his “discovery” of the tomb of Petrarch’s Laura at Avignon and again in 1536 with his Blason du sourcil (“Description of an Eyebrow”), adjudged the best entry in a poetic competition held at Ferrara. This poem was later published in the anthology Les Blasons du corps féminin (“Descriptions of the Feminine Body”), often reprinted between 1537 and 1550.

Scève’s Délie, objet de plus haute vertu (1544; “Délie, Object of Highest Virtue”) is a poetic cycle of 449 highly organized decasyllabic 10-line stanzas (dizains), rich in imagery and Platonic and Petrarchan in theme and style. “Délie” (an anagram of “L’Idée,” “The Idea”), long thought to be an imaginary ideal, may have been Pernette du Guillet, whose death seems to have partly inspired Scève’s Saulsaye, églogue de la vie solitaire (1547; “Willow Row, an Eclogue on the Solitary Life”), written in retirement in the country.



Louise Labé

born c. 1524, Lyon, France
died 1566, Parcieux-en-Dombes

French poet, the daughter of a rope maker (cordier).

Labé was a member of the 16th-century Lyon school of humanist poets dominated by Maurice Scève. Her wit, charm, accomplishments, and the freedom she enjoyed provoked unverifiable legends, such as those claiming she rode to war, was taken to dressing like a man, and was a cultured courtesan. In 1555 she published a book of love sonnets, which are remarkable for their emotional intensity and their stylistic simplicity and which probably relate to her passion for the poet Olivier de Magny. The same volume also contained a prose dialogue, Débat de Folie et d’Amour (“Debate of Love and Folly”).




Pierre de Ronsard


Matisse’s Amours: Illustrations of Pierre de Ronsard’s Love Poems

born , Sept. 11, 1524, La Possonnière, near Couture, Fr.
died Dec. 27, 1585, Saint-Cosme, near Tours

poet, chief among the French Renaissance group of poets known as La Pléiade.

Ronsard was a younger son of a noble family of the county of Vendôme. He entered the service of the royal family as a page in 1536 and accompanied Princess Madeleine to Edinburgh after her marriage to James V of Scotland. On his return to France two years later, a court appointment or a military or diplomatic career seemed to be open before him, and in 1540 he accompanied the diplomat Lazare de Baïf on a mission to an international conference at Haguenau in Alsace. An illness contracted on this expedition left him partially deaf, however, and his ambitions were deflected to scholarship and literature. For someone in his position, the church provided the only future, and he accordingly took minor orders, which entitled him to hold ecclesiastical benefices, though he was never an ordained priest. A period of enthusiastic study of the classics followed his convalescence; during this time he learned Greek from the brilliant tutor Jean Dorat, read all the Greek and Latin poetry then known, and gained some familiarity with Italian poetry. With a group of fellow students he formed a literary school that came to be called La Pléiade, in emulation of the seven ancient Greek poets of Alexandria: its aim was to produce French poetry that would stand comparison with the verse of classical antiquity.

The title of his first collection of poems, Odes (4 books, 1550), emphasizes that he was attempting a French counterpart to the odes of the ancient Roman poet Horace. In Les Amours (1552) he also proved his skill as an exponent of the Italian canzoniere, animating the compliments to his beloved, entreaties, and lamentations traditional to this poetic form by the vehemence of his manner and the wealth of his imagery. Always responsive to new literary influences, he found fresh inspiration in the recently discovered verse of the Greek poet Anacreon (6th century bc). The more playful touch encouraged by this model is to be felt in the Bocage (“Grove”) of poetry of 1554 and in the Meslanges (“Miscellany”) of that year, which contain some of his most exquisite nature poems, and in the Continuation des amours and Nouvelles Continuations, addressed to a country girl, Marie. In 1555 he began to write a series of long poems, such as the “Hymne du Ciel” (“Hymn of the Sky”), celebrating natural phenomena, abstract ideas like death or justice, or gods and heroes of antiquity; these poems, published as Hymnes (following the 3rd-century-bc Greek poet Callimachus, who had inspired them), contain passages of stirring eloquence and vivid description, though few of them can hold the modern reader’s interest from beginning to end. Reminiscences of his boyhood inspired other poems, such as his “Complainte contre fortune,” published in the second book of the Meslanges (1559), which contains a haunting description of his solitary wanderings as a child in the woods and the discovery of his poetic vocation. This poem is also notable for a celebrated denunciation of the colonization of the New World, whose people he imagined to be noble savages living in an unspoiled state of nature comparable to his idealized memories of childhood.

The outbreak of the religious wars found him committed to an extreme royalist and Catholic position, and he drew upon himself the hostility of the Protestants. To this period belong the Discours des misères de ce temps (1562; “Discourse on the Miseries of These Times”) and other Discours attacking his opponents, whom he dismissed as traitors and hypocrites with ever-increasing bitterness. Yet he also wrote much court poetry during this period, encouraged by the young king Charles IX, a sincere admirer, and, on the king’s marriage to Elizabeth of Austria in 1571, he was commissioned to compose verses and plan the scheme of decorations for the state entry through the city of Paris. If he was by now in some sense the poet laureate of France, he made slow progress with La Franciade, which he intended to be the national epic; this somewhat halfhearted imitation of Virgil’s great Latin epic, the Aeneid, was abandoned after the death of Charles IX, the four completed books being published in 1572. After the accession of Henry III, who did not favour Ronsard so much, he lived in semi-retirement, though his creativity was undiminished. The collected edition of his works published in 1578 included some remarkable new works, among them the so-called “Elegy Against the Woodcutters of Gâtine” (“Contre les bucherons de la forêt de Gastine”), lamenting the destruction of the woods near his old home; a sequel to Les Amours de Marie; and the Sonnets pour Hélène. In the latter, which is now perhaps the most famous of his collections, the veteran poet demonstrates his power to revivify the stylized patterns of courtly love poetry. Even in his last illness, Ronsard still wrote verse that is sophisticated in form and rich with classical allusions. His posthumous collection, Les Derniers Vers (“The Final Verses”), poignantly expresses the anguish of the incurable invalid in nights spent alone in pain, longing for sleep, watching for the dawn, and praying for death.

Ronsard perfected the 12-syllable, or alexandrine, line of French verse, hitherto despised as too long and pedestrian, and established it as the classic medium for scathing satire, elegiac tenderness, and tragic passion. During his lifetime he was recognized in France as the prince of poets and a figure of national significance. This prominence, scarcely paralleled until Victor Hugo in the 19th century, faded into relative neglect in the 17th and 18th centuries; but his reputation was reinstated by the critic C.-A. Sainte-Beuve, and it has remained secure.

To the modern reader Ronsard is perhaps most appealing when celebrating his native countryside, reflecting on the brevity of youth and beauty, or voicing the various states of unrequited love, though he is also effective when identifying himself imaginatively with some classical mythological character and when expressing sentiments of fiery patriotism or deep humanity. He was a master of lyric themes and forms, and his poetry remains attractive to composers; some of his odes, such as “Mignonne, allons voir si la rose . . . ,” were set to music repeatedly and have become as familiar to the general public in France as folk songs.

Annette Elizabeth Armstrong



Jacques Peletier

born 1517, Le Mans, France
died 1582, Paris

Jacques Pelletier du Mans, also spelled Peletier, (1517–1582) was a humanist, poet and mathematician of the French Renaissance.

Born at Le Mans into a bourgeois family, he studied at the Collège de Navarre (in Paris) where his brother Jean was a professor of mathematics and philosophy. He subsequently studied law and medicine, frequented the literary circle around Marguerite of Navarre and from 1541-43 was secretary to René du Bellay. In 1541 he published the first French translation of Horace's Ars poetica and during this period he also published numerous scientific and mathematical treatises.

In 1547 he pronounced a funeral oration for Henry VIII of England and published his first poems "Œuvres poétiques", which included translations from the first two cantos of Homer's Odyssey and the first book of Virgil's Georgics, twelve Petrarchian sonnets, three Horacian odes and a Martial-like epigram; this poetry collection also included the first published poems of Joachim Du Bellay and Pierre de Ronsard (Ronsard would include Jacques Peletier into his list of revolutionary contemporary poets "La Pléiade"). He then began to frequent a humanist circle around Théodore de Bèze, Jean Martin, Denis Sauvage.

Jacques Pelletier tried to reform French spelling (which in the Renaissance had, through a misguided attempt to model French words on their Latin roots, acquired many inconsistencies (see Middle French)) in a treatise (1550) advocating a phonetic-based spelling using new typographic signs which Pelletier would continue to use in all his published works (because of this system, "Peletier" is consistently spelled with one "l").

After years spent in Bordeaux, Poitiers, Piedmont (where Peletier may have been the tutor of the son of Maréchal de Brissac) and Lyon (where he frequented the poets and humanists Maurice Scève, Louise Labé, Olivier de Magny and Pontus de Tyard). In 1555 he published a manual of poetic composition, "Art poétique français", a Latin oration calling for peace from Henry II of France and emperor Charles V and a new collection of poetry, L'Amour des amours (consisting of a sonnet cycle and a series of encyclopedic poems describing meteors, planets and the heavens) which would influence poets Guillaume du Bartas and Jean-Antoine de Baïf.

His last years were spent in travels (Savoy, Germany, Switzerland, maybe Italy, and various regions in France) and in publishing numerous works in Latin on algebra, geometry and mathematics, medicine (a refutation of Galen, a work on the Plague). In 1572 he was briefly director of the College of Aquitaine (Bordeaux), but, bored by the position, he resigned. During this period he was friends with Michel de Montaigne and Pierre de Brach. In 1579 he returned to Paris and was named director of the College of Le Mans. A final collection of poetry "Louanges" was published in 1581.

Pelletier died at Paris in July or August 1582.



Etienne Jodelle


born 1532, Paris, France
died July 1573, Paris

French dramatist and poet, one of the seven members of the literary circle known as La Pléiade, who applied the aesthetic principles of the group to drama.

Jodelle aimed at creating a classical drama that in every respect would be different from the moralities and mysteries then occupying the French stage; he succeeded in producing the first modern French tragedy and comedy. These plays have the reputation of being unactable and unreadable, but they set a new example that prepared the ground for the great Neoclassical tragedians Corneille and Racine. His first play, Cléopâtre captive, a tragedy in verse, was presented before the court at Paris in 1553. The cast included his friends Rémy Belleau and Jean de La Péruse. Jodelle wrote two other plays, Eugène (1552), a comedy, and Didon se sacrifiant, another verse tragedy, based on Virgil’s account of Dido.

In the prologue to Eugéne Jodelle explained his theory of comedy. It must deal with people of low or middle class because, he argued, among them can be found the crudity and ignorance that are the stuff of comedy. Tragedy, on the other hand, must have as its characters kings or other nobility, like the audiences for which it is written, because the populace would not understand the classical allusions of tragedy.




Robert Garnier

born c. 1545, La Ferté Bernard, France
died September 20, 1590, Le Mans

outstanding French tragic dramatist of his time.

While a law student at Toulouse, Garnier won two prizes in the jeux floraux, or floral games (an annual poetry contest held by the Académié des Jeux Floraux). He published his first collection of lyrical pieces (now lost), Plaintes Amoureuses de Robert Garnier, in 1565. After practice at the Parisian bar he became conseiller du roi in his native district and later lieutenant-général criminel.

Garnier’s early plays—Porcie (1568), Hippolyte (1573), and Cornélie (1574)— are in the style of the Senecan school. His next group of tragedies—Marc-Antoine (1578), La Troade (1579), and Antigone (1580)—show an advance in technique beyond the plays of Étienne Jodelle, Jacques Grévin, and his own early work, since the rhetoric is accompanied by some action.

In 1582 and 1583 he produced his two masterpieces, Bradamante and Les Juifves. In Bradamante, the first important French tragicomedy, which alone of his plays has no chorus, he turned from Senecan models and sought his subject in Ludovico Ariosto. The romantic story becomes an effective drama in Garnier’s hands. Although the lovers, Bradamante and Roger, never meet on the stage, the conflict in the mind of Roger supplies a genuine dramatic interest. Les Juifves, Garnier’s second great work, is the story of the barbarous vengeance of Nebuchadnezzar on King Zedekiah and his children. This tragedy, almost entirely elegiac in conception, is unified by the personality of the prophet.

Garnier was a Roman Catholic and a patriot: he used his tragedies to convey moral and religious arguments to his contemporaries, who were then suffering in the Wars of Religion. His fine verse reflects the influence of his friend Pierre de Ronsard. His plays, which contain many affecting emotional scenes, were performed to the end of the 16th century.



Théodore-Agrippa d’Aubigné

born Feb. 8, 1552, Pons, Fr.
died April 29, 1630, Geneva

major late 16th-century poet, renowned Huguenot captain, polemicist, and historian of his own times. After studies in Paris, Orléans, Geneva, and Lyon, he joined the Huguenot forces and served throughout the Wars of Religion on the battlefield and in the council chamber. He was écuyer (“master of horse”) to Henry of Navarre. After Henry’s accession to the French throne as Henry IV (1589) and his abjuration of Protestantism, Aubigné withdrew to his estates in Poitou. Under the regency of Marie de Médicis, his intransigence estranged him from his Huguenot brethren. Proscribed in 1620, he took refuge in Geneva, where he remained until his death. His closing years were clouded by the disreputable conduct of his son Constant—father of Madame de Maintenon, second and secret wife of Louis XIV.

Among Aubigné’s prose works, the Confession catholique du sieur de Sancy, first published in 1660, is a parody, ironically dedicated to Cardinal Duperron, of the tortuous explanations offered by Protestants who followed Henry IV’s example of abjuration. His comment on life and manners ranges more widely in the Adventures du baron de Faeneste (1617), in which the Gascon Faeneste represents attachment to outward appearances (le paraître) while honest squire Énay, embodying the principle of true being (l’être), tries to clear Faeneste’s mind of cant. The Histoire universelle deals with the period from 1553 to 1602, with an appendix to cover the death of Henry IV (1610); an unfinished supplement was meant to bring the story up to 1622. The chief interest of the Histoire lies in its eyewitness accounts and in the liveliness of Aubigné’s writing.

His major poem in seven cantos, the Tragiques, begun in 1577 (published 1616), celebrates the justice of God, who on the Day of Doom will gloriously avenge his slaughtered saints. The subject matter, the sectarian bias, and the uneven composition and expression are offset by many passages of great poetic power, often lyrical in their Biblical language and noble in the despairing intensity of their invective. The scope of the design confers epic grandeur on the work. Modern research on Baroque literature has awakened interest in Aubigné’s youthful love poetry, collected in the Printemps (1570–73, unpublished). It remained in manuscript until 1874. In these poems the stock characters and phraseology, modelled on Petrarch, are transmuted into a highly personal style, full of tragic resonances, by Aubigné’s characteristic vehemence of passion and force of imagination.


The production of poetry in the 16th century did not outdo the other genres in quantity. Readers turned above all to works in prose, for accounts of voyages, lives of saints, and collections of diverse leçons or lectures (readings). Prose was slow in freeing itself from the heavy yoke thrown over it by the medieval humanists. But with Jean Lemaire de Belges prose became eloquent, and with François Rabelais it became a prodigious domain of experimentation.

Rabelais’s writing found some of its most appreciative readers and critics in the 20th century, not least the great Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, who celebrated the revolutionary power of Rabelais’s “carnivalesque” discourse. Humanism rightfully claims Pantagruel (1532; Eng. trans. Pantagruel) and Gargantua (1534; Eng. trans. Gargantua), with their celebrated giants, feasting, drinking, and discovering and proclaiming the new and better ways of learning, of the conduct of war and peace, and of the true religion, which, for Rabelais resided in individual prayer, charity, and the virtuous life. He called Erasmus his spiritual father and befriended numerous Protestants. But uniquely, this voice of Evangelical humanism speaks through the thundering roll of a laughter that spares no one and nothing, keeping its best aim for the worst, most benighted, and most grotesque exponents of the medieval theology, scholarship, medicine, and law that sought to stifle the emerging individual. Rabelais’s last three books, published long after the first two, continue the search for the good life: Le Tiers Livre (“The Third Book”) in 1546, Le Quart Livre (“The Fourth Book”) in 1552, and Le Cinquième Livre (“The Fifth Book”) in 1564 (of questionable authenticity); these can be found in English translation in The Works of François Rabelais (1970). The terror of cuckoldry experienced by Pantagruel’s all-too-human companion, Panurge, and the churchmen’s theological nitpicking over doctrinal irrelevancies and absurdities—these are so many examples of what Rabelais considered the absurd but tragic way men wasted in idle discourse time that could be spent in the search for sound religion, good companionship, and the intoxicating wine of the new life.

Rabelais Dissecting Society--portrait2
Francois Rabelais
"Gargantua and Pantagruel" Illustrations by Gustave Dore

Rabelais dedicated his Tiers Livre to Marguerite de Navarre, patron of Evangelical humanist reform and author of religious poetry. She is best known in the modern era, however, for her Heptaméron (published posthumously, 1558–59; The Heptameron), modeled on Boccaccio’s Decameron. Marguerite’s collection of tales held together in a narrative frame is one of the major landmarks in the creation of the modern French realist novel. The games of courtly love are here played in the context of court life while more ribald games are played by serving men, maids, and monks, and the players’ motives and behaviour are commented on by the courtiers, men and women, who form the audience for the tales. Marguerite’s language is more discreet than that of Rabelais, but there is the same mixture of styles and tones, seriousness and bawdy, and the same awareness of the resources of both spirit and body. With her fellow novelist Hélisenne de Crenne (Les Angoysses Douloureuses qui procèdent d’amours [1538; The Torments of Love]), Marguerite is one of the few writers to mark the making of the new culture with a distinctive female sensibility and voice.

In the closing years of the century, Michel de Montaigne continued his predecessors’ exploration of the newly discovered realms of body and mind and of the delights of humanist learning and language, but he employed a very different tone and form. Engaged in his youth in politics, war, and diplomacy alongside his peers, Montaigne largely withdrew from public life in 1570 and thereafter spent much of his time in his library, writing the works that established him as the founder of the tradition of self-exploration and self-writing as well as an emblem of modern liberal individualism. The first two volumes of his "The Essays"  were published in 1580. A third was added in 1588, along with an enlarged edition of the first two. When he died in 1592, he left his own copy of the Essays, with numerous revisions written in his own hand. This revised text was published in 1595. The earliest essais were to a large degree developments, increasingly elaborate, on the themes suggested by his extensive readings in ancient authors, particularly Plutarch’s Lives. But as he wrote, Montaigne became more and more his own subject, exploring through introspection his own experience—not just as his own but also as the mirror of the universal human condition, a life subject to death and defined by the relative circumstance of historical place, moment, and society in which it is situated. Remembering, analyzing, imagining, considering the operations of his intellectual faculties and his bodily functions, observing himself sick, well, aging, Montaigne is especially concerned with the concept of change. He is the writer who perhaps best represents the 16th century’s achievement in placing the individual, body and soul, in the flow of history. The form he conceived to carry the results of his meditations is perfectly adapted to this purpose. Free in form, the sentences and paragraphs of the essai follow seamlessly the movement of ideas, linked by their author’s own associations and changing moods. The language is clear, simple, and measured, giving a calculated but effortless appearance of spontaneity, engaging readers in a conversation that takes them gently into the paths of self-discovery.

The legacy to posterity of this most moderate and self-moderating of thinkers is a double one. Montaigne’s invention and celebration of the individual subject also contributes to the antiauthoritarian direction of Western thought. In the 17th century he was anathematized by Blaise Pascal for his “foolish” project to paint himself, which the Jansenist saw as a challenge to the religious values of self-abnegation and submission. In the 18th century Jean-Jacques Rousseau acknowledged the influence of Montaigne on his Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (1782; The Reveries of the Solitary Walker), celebrating radical individualism. No Western proponent of absolute authority or order would be immune to the challenge posed by the humanist’s discovery of the central place of change in the affairs of men or by his unswerving advocacy of Pyrrhonism, the skeptical mind-set opposed to all dogmas and dismissive of all claims by the human mind to possess absolute truth. Corrosive and cleansing, Montaigne’s skepticism cleared the way for the scientific rationalism of René Descartes and the Enlightenment.

Daniel Ménager
Jennifer Birkett


Francois Rabelais

Gargantua and Pantagruel"    BOOK I, BOOK II, BOOK III, BOOK IV, BOOK V

Illustrations by Gustave Dore

born c. 1494, Poitou, France
died probably April 9, 1553, Paris

pseudonym Alcofribas NasierFrench writer and priest who for his contemporaries wasan eminent physician and humanist and for posterity is the author of the comic masterpiece Gargantua and Pantagruel . The four novels composing this work are outstanding for their rich use of Renaissance French and for their comedy, which ranges from gross burlesque to profound satire. They exploit popular legends, farces, and romances, as well as classical and Italian material, but were written primarily for a court public and a learned one. The adjective Rabelaisian applied to scatological humour is misleading; Rabelais used scatology aesthetically, not gratuitously, for comic condemnation. His creative exuberance, colourful and wide-ranging vocabulary, and literary variety continue to ensure his popularity.


Details of Rabelais's life are sparse and difficult to interpret. He was the son of Antoine Rabelais, a rich Touraine landowner and a prominent lawyer who deputized for the lieutenant-général of Poitou in 1527. After apparentlystudying law, Rabelais became a Franciscan novice at La Baumette (1510?) and later moved to the Puy-Saint-Martin convent at Fontenay-le-Comte in Poitou. By 1521 (perhaps earlier) he had taken holy orders.

Rabelais early acquired a reputation for profound humanist learning among his contemporaries, but the elements of religious satire and scatological humour in his comic novels eventually left him open to persecution. He depended throughout his life on powerful political figures (Guillaume du Bellay, Margaret of Navarre) and on high-ranking liberal ecclesiastics (Cardinal Jean du Bellay, Bishop Geoffroy d'Estissac, Cardinal Odet de Chatillon) for protection in thosedangerous and intolerant times in France.

Rabelais was closely associated with Pierre Amy, a liberal Franciscan humanist of international repute. In 1524 the Greek books of both scholars were temporarily confiscated by superiors of their convent, because Greek was suspect to hyperorthodox Roman Catholics as a “heretical” language that opened up the original New Testament to study. Rabelais then obtained a temporary dispensation from Pope Clement VII and was removed to the Benedictine houseof Saint-Pierre-de-Maillezais, the prior of which was his bishop, Geoffroy d'Estissac. He never liked his new order, however, and he later satirized the Benedictines, although he passed lightly over Franciscan shortcomings.

Rabelais studied medicine, probably under the aegis of the Benedictines in their Hôtel Saint-Denis in Paris. In 1530 he broke his vows and left the Benedictines to study medicine at the University of Montpellier, probably with the support of his patron, Geoffroy d'Estissac. Graduating within weeks, he lectured on the works of distinguished ancient Greek physicians and published his own editions of Hippocrates' Aphorisms and Galen's Ars parva (“The Art of Raising Children”) in 1532. As a doctor he placed great reliance on classical authority, siding with the Platonic school of Hippocrates but also following Galen and Avicenna. During this period an unknown widow bore him two children (François and Junie), who were given their father's name and were legitimated by Pope Paul IV in 1540.

After practicing medicine briefly in Narbonne, Rabelais was appointed physician to the hospital of Lyon, the Hôtel-Dieu, in 1532. In the same year, he edited the medical letters of Giovanni Manardi, a contemporary Italian physician. It was during this period that he discovered his true talent. Fired by the success of an anonymous popular chapbook, Les Grandes et inestimables cronicques du grant et énorme géant Gargantua, he published his first novel, Les horribles et épouvantables faits et prouesses du très renommé Pantagruel, roy des Dipsodes (1532; “The Horrible and Terrifying Deeds and Words of the Renowned Pantagruel, King of the Dipsodes”), under the pseudonym Alcofribas Nasier (an obvious anagram of his real name). Pantagruel is slighter in length and intellectual depth than his later novels,but nothing of this quality had been seen before in French in any similar genre. Rabelais displayed his delight in words, his profound sense of the comedy of language itself, his mastery of comic situation, monologue, dialogue, and action,and his genius as a storyteller who was able to create a worldof fantasy out of words alone. Within the framework of a mock-heroic, chivalrous romance, he laughed at many types of sophistry, including legal obscurantism and hermeticism, which he nevertheless preferred to the scholasticism of the Sorbonne. One chapter stands out for its sustained seriousness, praising the divine gift of fertile matrimony as acompensation for death caused by Adam's fall. Pantagruel borrows openly from Sir Thomas More's Utopia in its reference to the war between Pantagruel's country, Utopia, and the Dipsodes, but it also preaches a semi-Lutheran doctrine—that no one but God and his angels may spread thegospel by force. Pantagruel is memorable as the book in which Pantagruel's companion, Panurge, a cunning and witty rogue, first appears.

Though condemned by the Sorbonne in Paris as obscene, Pantagruel was a popular success. It was followed in 1533 bythe Pantagrueline Prognostication, a parody of the almanacs, astrological predictions that exercised a growing hold on the Renaissance mind. In 1534 Rabelais left the Hôtel-Dieu to travel to Rome with the bishop of Paris, Jean duBellay. He returned to Lyon in May of that year and publishedan edition of Bartolomeo Marliani's description of Rome, Topographia antiquae Romae. He returned to the Hôtel-Dieubut left it again in February 1535, upon which the authorities of the Lyon hospital appointed someone else to his post.

La vie inestimable du grand Gargantua (“The Inestimable Life of the Great Gargantua”) belongs to this period. The second edition is dated 1535; the first edition was probably published in 1534, though it lacks the title page in the only known copy. In Gargantua Rabelais continues to exploit medieval romances mock-heroically, telling of the birth, education, and prowesses of the giant Gargantua, who is Pantagruel's father. Much of the satire—for example, mockery of the ignorant trivialization of the mystical cult of emblems and of erroneous theories of heraldry—is calculated to delight the court; much also aims at delighting the learned reader—for example, Rabelais sides with humanist lawyers against legal traditionalists and doctors who accepted 11-month, or even 13-month, pregnancies. Old-fashioned scholastic pedagogy is ridiculed and contrasted with the humanist ideal of the Christian prince, widely learned in art, science, and crafts and skilled in knightly warfare. The war between Gargantua and his neighbour, the “biliously choleric” Picrochole, is partly a private satire of an enemy of Rabelais's father and partly a mocking of Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor, and the imperial design of world conquest. Gargantua commands themilitary operations, but some of the exploits are carried out by Frère Jean (the Benedictine). Though he is lean, lecherous,dirty, and ignorant, Frère Jean is redeemed by his jollity and active virtue; for his fellow monks are timorous and idle, delighting in “vain repetitions” of prayers. Gargantua's last major episode centres on the erection of the Abbey of Thélème, a monastic institution that rejects poverty, celibacy, and obedience; instead it welcomes wealth and the well-born, praises the aristocratic life, and rejoices in good marriages.

After Gargantua, Rabelais published nothing new for 11 years, though he prudently expurgated his two works of overbold religious opinions. He continued as physician to Jean du Bellay, who had become a cardinal, and his powerful brother Guillaume, and in 1535 Rabelais accompanied the cardinal to Rome. There he regularized his position by making a “supplication” to the pope for his “apostasy” (i.e., his unauthorized departure from the Benedictine monastery); the pope issued a bull freeing Rabelais from ecclesiastical censure and allowing him to reenter the Benedictine order. Rabelais then arranged to enter the Benedictine convent at Saint-Maur-les-Fossés, where Cardinal Jean du Bellay was abbot. The convent was secularized six months later, and Rabelais became a secular priest, authorized to exercise his medical profession.

In May 1537 Rabelais was awarded the doctorate of medicine of Montpellier; and he delivered, with considerable success, a course of lectures on Hippocrates' Prognostics. Hewas at Aigues-Mortes in July 1538 when Charles V met the French king Francis I, but his movements are obscure until hefollowed Guillaume du Bellay to the Piedmont in 1542. Guillaume died in January 1543, and to Rabelais his death meant the loss of an important patron. That same year Geoffroy d'Estissac died as well, and Rabelais's novels were condemned by the Sorbonne and the Parlement of Paris. Rabelais sought protection from the French king's sister Margaret, queen of Navarre, dedicating to her the third book of the Gargantua-Pantagruel series, Tiers livre des faitset dits heroiques du noble Pantagruel (1546; “Third Book of the Heroic Deeds and Words of the Noble Pantagruel”). Despite its royal privilege (i.e., license to print), the book wasimmediately condemned for heresy by the Sorbonne, and Rabelais fled to Metz (an imperial city), remaining there until 1547.

The Tiers livre is Rabelais's most profound work. Pantagruelhas now deepened into a Stoico-Christian inerrant sage; Panurge, a lover of self and deluded by the devil, is now an adept at making black seem white. Panurge hesitates: Should he marry? Will he be cuckolded, beaten, robbed by hiswife? He consults numerous prognostications, both good Platonic ones and less reputable ones—all to no effect because of his self-love. He consults a good theologian, a Platonic doctor, and a Skeptic philosopher approved of by the learned giants, but his problem is not treated by the judge Bridoye, who—like Roman law in cases of extreme perplexity—trusts in Providence and decides cases by casting lots. Panurge trusts in no one, least of all in himself. Itis therefore decided to consult the oracle of the Dive Bouteille (“Sacred Bottle”), and the travelers set out for the temple. The Tiers livre ends enigmatically with a mock eulogy in which hemp is praised for its myriad uses.

From 1547 onward, Rabelais found protection again as physician to Cardinal Jean du Bellay and accompanied him toRome via Turin, Ferrara, and Bologna. Passing through Lyon, he gave his printer his incomplete Quart livre (“Fourth Book”), which, as printed in 1548, finishes in the middle of a sentence but contains some of his most delightful comic storytelling. In Rome Rabelais sent a story to his newest protector in the Guise family, Charles of Lorraine, 2nd Cardinal de Lorraine; the story described the “Sciomachie” (“Simulated Battle”) organized by Cardinal Jean to celebrate the birth of Louis of Orléans, second son of Henry II of France.

In January 1551 the Cardinal de Guise presented him with two benefices at Meudon and Jambet, though Rabelais never officiated or resided there. In 1552, through the influence of the cardinal, Rabelais was able to publish—with a new prologue—the full Quart livre des faits etdits héroïques du noble Pantagruel (“Fourth Book of the Heroic Deeds and Words of the Noble Pantagruel”), his longest book. Despite its royal privilège, this work, too, was condemned by the Sorbonne and banned by Parlement, but Rabelais's powerful patrons soon had the censorship lifted. In 1553 Rabelais resigned his benefices. He died shortly thereafter and was buried in Saint-Paul-des-Champs, Paris.

In 1562 there appeared in Lyon the Isle sonante, allegedly by Rabelais. It was expanded in 1564 into the so-called Cinquiesme et dernier livre (“Fifth and Last Book”). This workis partly satirical, partly an allegory; the Sacred Bottle—the ostensible quest of the Quart livre—is consulted, and the heroes receive the oraculous advice: “drink” (symbolizing wisdom?). This work cannot be by Rabelais as it stands. Some scholars believe it to be based on his (lost) drafts, while others deny it any authenticity whatsoever.

Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rabelais's purpose in the four books of his masterpiece wasto entertain the cultivated reader at the expense of the follies and exaggerations of his times. If he points lessons, it is because his life has taught him something about the evils of comatose monasticism, the trickery of lawyers, the pigheaded persistence of litigants, and the ignorance of grasping physicians. Rabelais was a friar with unhappy memories of his monastery; his father had wasted his moneyon lengthy litigation with a neighbour over some trivial waterrights; and he himself was earning his living by medicine in an age when the distinction between physician and quack was needle-fine. Though it is an entertainment, therefore, Gargantua and Pantagruel is also serious. Its principal narrative is devoted to a voyage of discovery that parodies the travelers' tales current in Rabelais's day. Rabelais begins lightheartedly; his travelers merely set out to discover whether Panurge will be cuckolded if he marries. A dozen oracles have already hinted at Panurge's inevitable fate, yet each time he has reasoned their verdict away; and the voyage itself provides a number of amusing incidents. Yet, like Don Quixote's, it is a fundamentally serious quest directed toward a true goal, the discovery of the secret of life.

Intoxication—with life, with learning, with the use and abuse of words—is the prevailing mood of the book. Rabelais himself provides the model of the exuberant creator. His four books provide a cunning mosaic of scholarly, literary, and scientific parody. One finds this in its simplest form in the catalog of the library of St. Victor, in the list of preposterous substantives or attributes in which Rabelais delights, and in the inquiry by means of Virgilian lots into thequestion of Panurge's eventual cuckoldom. But at other times the humour is more complicated and works on several levels. Gargantua's campaign against King Picrochole (book 1), for instance, contains personal, historical, moral, and classical points closely interwoven. The battles are fought inRabelais's home country, in which each hamlet is magnifiedinto a fortified city. Moreover, they also refer to the feud between Rabelais the elder and his neighbour. They also comment on recent historical events involving France and the Holy Roman Empire, however, and can even be read as propaganda against war, or at least in favour of the more humane conduct of hostilities. On yet another level, Rabelais's account of this imaginary warfare can be taken as mockery of the classical historians: Gargantua's speech to his defeated enemy (book 1, chapter 50) echoes one put into the mouth of the Roman emperor Trajan by Pliny the Younger.

Despite these complex levels of reference, Rabelais was not a self-conscious writer; he made his book out of the disorderly contents of his mind. As a result it is ill-constructed, and the same thoughts are repeated in Gargantua that he had already set down in Pantagruel; the nature of an ideal education, for example, is examined in both books. Moreover, the main action of the story, which arises from the question of Panurge's intended marriage, only begins in the third book. The first, Gargantua, throws up the enormous contradiction that has made the interpretationof Rabelais's own intellectual standpoint almost impossible. On the one hand we have the rumbustious festivities that celebrate the giant's peculiarly miraculous birth and the “Rabelaisian” account of his childish habits; and on the other a plea for an enlightened education. Again, the brutal slaughter of the Picrocholine wars, in which Rabelais obviously delights, is followed by the utopian description of Thélème, the Renaissance ideal of a civilized community. Pantagruel follows the same pattern with variations, introducing Panurge but omitting Frère Jean, and putting Pantagruel in the place of his father, Gargantua. In fact the characters are not strongly individualized. They exist only in what they say, being so many voices through whom the author speaks. Panurge, for instance, has no consistent nature. A resourceful and intelligent poor scholar in Pantagruel, he becomes a credulous buffoon in the third book and an arrant coward in the fourth.

The third and fourth books pursue the story of the inquiry andvoyage, and in them Rabelais's invention is at its height. The first two books contain incidents close in feeling to the medieval fabliaux, but the third and fourth books are rich in anew, learned humour. Rabelais was a writer molded by one tradition, the medieval Roman Catholic, whose sympathies lay to a greater extent with another, the Renaissance or classical. Yet when he writes in praise of the new humanist ideals—in the chapters on education, on the foundation of Thélème, or in praise of drinking from the “sacred bottle” of learning or enlightenment—he easily becomes sententious. His head is for the new learning, while his flesh and heart belong to the old. It is in his absurd, earthy, and exuberant inventions, which are medieval in spirit even when they mock at medieval acceptances, that Rabelais is a great, entertaining, and worldly wise writer.

M.A. Screech




Michel de Montaigne   


"The Essays" 

born Feb. 28, 1533, Chateau de Montaigne, near Bordeaux, France
died Sept. 23, 1592, Château de Montaigne

in full Michel Eyquem de Montaigne French writer whose Essais (Essays ) established a new literary form. In his Essays he wrote one of the most captivating and intimate self-portraits ever given, on apar with Augustine's and Rousseau's.

Living, as he did, in the second half of the 16th century, Montaigne bore witness to the decline of the intellectual optimism that had marked the Renaissance. The sense of immense human possibilities, stemming from the discoveries of the New World travelers, from the rediscovery of classical antiquity, and from the opening of scholarly horizons through the works of the humanists, was shattered in France when the advent of the Calvinistic Reformation was followed closely by religious persecution and by the Wars of Religion (1562–98). These conflicts, which tore the country asunder, were in fact political and civil as well as religious wars, marked by great excesses of fanaticism and cruelty. At once deeply critical of his time and deeply involved in its preoccupations and its struggles, Montaigne chose to write about himself—“I am myself the matter of my book,” he saysin his opening address to the reader—in order to arrive at certain possible truths concerning man and the human condition, in a period of ideological strife and division when all possibility of truth seemed illusory and treacherous.


Born in the family domain of Château de Montaigne in southwestern France, Michel Eyquem spent most of his life at his château and in the city of Bordeaux, 30 miles to the west. The family fortune had been founded in commerce by Montaigne's great-grandfather, who acquired the estate and the title of nobility. His grandfather and his father expanded their activities to the realm of public service and established the family in the noblesse de robe, the administrative nobility of France. Montaigne's father, PierreEyquem, served as mayor of Bordeaux.

As a young child Montaigne was tutored at home according to his father's ideas of pedagogy, which included the creation of a cosseted ambience of gentle encouragement and the exclusive use of Latin, still the international language of educated people. As a result the boy did not learn French until he was six years old. He continued his education at the College of Guyenne, where he found the strict discipline abhorrent and the instruction only moderately interesting, and eventually at the University of Toulouse, where he studied law. Following in the public-service tradition begun by his grandfather, he enteredin to the magistrature, becoming a member of the Board of Excise, the new tax court of Perigueux, and, when that body was dissolved in 1557, of the Parliament of Bordeaux, one of the eight regional parliaments that constituted the French Parliament, the highest national court of justice. There, at the age of 24, he made the acquaintance of Etienne de la Boetie, a meeting that was one of the most significant events in Montaigne's life. Between the slightly older La Boetie (1530–63), an already distinguished civil servant, humanist scholar, and writer, and Montaigne an extraordinary friendship sprang up, based on a profound intellectual and emotional closeness and reciprocity. In his essay “On Friendship” Montaigne wrote in a very touching manner about his bond with La Boetie, which he called perfect and indivisible, vastly superior to all other human alliances. When La Boetie died of dysentery, he left a void in Montaigne's life that no other being was ever able to fill, and it is likely that Montaigne started on his writing career, six years after La Boetie's death, in order to fill the emptiness left by the loss of the irretrievable friend.

In 1565 Montaigne was married, acting less out of love than out of a sense of familial and social duty, to Françoise de la Chassaigne, the daughter of one of his colleagues at the Parliament of Bordeaux. He fathered six daughters, five of whom died in infancy, whereas the sixth, Léonore, survived him.

In 1569 Montaigne published his first book, a French translation of the 15th-century Natural Theology by the Spanish monk Raymond Sebond. He had undertaken the taskat the request of his father, who, however, died in 1568, before its publication, leaving to his oldest son the title and the domain of Montaigne.

In 1570 Montaigne sold his seat in the Bordeaux Parliament, signifying his departure from public life. After taking care of the posthumous publication of La Boetie's works, together with his own dedicatory letters, he retired in 1571 to the castle of Montaigne in order to devote his time to reading, meditating, and writing. His library, installed in the castle's tower, became his refuge. It was in this round room, lined with a thousand books and decorated with Greek and Latin inscriptions, that Montaigne set out to put on paper his essais, that is, the probings and testings of his mind. He spent the years from 1571 to 1580 composing the first two books of the Essays, which comprise respectively 57 and 37 chapters of greatly varying lengths; they were published in Bordeaux in 1580.

Although most of these years were dedicated to writing, Montaigne had to supervise the running of his estate as well, and he was obliged to leave his retreat from time to time, not only to travel to the court in Paris but also to intervene as mediator in several episodes of the religious conflicts in his region and beyond. Both the Roman Catholic king Henry III and the Protestant king Henry of Navarre—who as Henry IV would become king of France and convert to Roman Catholicism—honoured and respected Montaigne, but extremists on both sides criticized and harassed him.

After the 1580 publication, eager for new experiences and profoundly disgusted by the state of affairs in France, Montaigne set out to travel, and in the course of 15 months he visited areas of France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. Curious by nature, interested in the smallest details of dailiness, geography, and regional idiosyncrasies, Montaigne was a born traveler. He kept a record of his trip, his Journal de voyage (not intended for publication and not published until 1774), which is rich in picturesque episodes, encounters, evocations, and descriptions.

While still in Italy, in the fall of 1581, Montaigne received the news that he had been elected to the office his father hadheld, that of mayor of Bordeaux. Reluctant to accept, because of the dismal political situation in France and because of ill health (he suffered from kidney stones, which had also plagued him on his trip), he nevertheless assumed the position at the request of Henry III and held it for two terms, until July 1585. While the beginning of his tenure was relatively tranquil, his second term was marked by an acceleration of hostilities between the warring factions, and Montaigne played a crucial role in preserving the equilibrium between the Catholic majority and the important Protestant League representation in Bordeaux. Toward the end of his term the plague broke out in Bordeaux, soon raging out of control and killing one-third of the population.

Montaigne resumed his literary work by embarking on the third book of the Essays. After having been interrupted again, by a renewed outbreak of the plague in the area that forced Montaigne and his family to seek refuge elsewhere, by military activity close to his estate, and by diplomatic duties, when Catherine de Médicis appealed to his abilities as a negotiator to mediate between herself and Henry of Navarre—a mission that turned out to be unsuccessful—Montaigne was able to finish the work in 1587.

The year 1588 was marked by both political and literary events. During a trip to Paris Montaigne was twice arrested and briefly imprisoned by members of the Protestant League because of his loyalty to Henry III. During the same trip he supervised the publication of the fifth edition of the Essays, the first to contain the 13 chapters of Book III, as well as Books I and II, enriched with many additions. He also met Marie de Gournay, an ardent and devoted young admirer of his writings. De Gournay, a writer herself, is mentioned in the Essays as Montaigne's “covenant daughter” and was to become his literary executrix. After the assassination of Henry III in 1589, Montaigne helped to keep Bordeaux loyal to Henry IV. He spent the last years of his life at his château, continuing to read and to reflect and to work on the Essays, adding new passages, which signify not so much profound changes in his ideas as further explorations of his thought and experience. Different illnesses beset him during this period, and he died after an attack of quinsy, an inflammation of the tonsils, which had deprived him of speech. His death occurred while he was hearing mass in hisroom.

The Essays

Montaigne saw his age as one of dissimulation, corruption, violence, and hypocrisy, and it is therefore not surprising that the point of departure of the Essays is situated in negativity: the negativity of Montaigne's recognition of the rule of appearances and of the loss of connection with the truth of being. Montaigne's much-discussed skepticism results from that initial negativity, as he questions the possibility of all knowing and sees the human being as a creature of weakness and failure, of inconstancy and uncertainty, of incapacity and fragmentation, or, as he wrote in the first of the essays, as “a marvelously vain, diverse, and undulating thing.” His skepticism is reflected in the French title of his work, Essais, or “Attempts,” which implies not a transmission of proven knowledge or of confident opinion but a project of trial and error, of tentative exploration. Neither a reference to an established genre (for Montaigne's book inaugurated the term essay for the short prose composition treating a given subject in a rather informal and personal manner) nor an indication of a necessary internal unity and structure within the work, the title indicates an intellectual attitude of questioning and of continuous assessment.

Montaigne's skepticism does not, however, preclude a belief in the existence of truth but rather constitutes a defense against the danger of locating truth in false, unexamined, and externally imposed notions. His skepticism, combined with his desire for truth, drives him to the rejection of commonly accepted ideas and to a profound distrust of generalizations and abstractions; it also shows him the way to an exploration of the only realm that promises certainty: that of concrete phenomena and primarily the basic phenomenon of his own body-and-mind self. This self, with all its imperfections, constitutes the only possible site where the search for truth can start, and it is thereason Montaigne, from the beginning to the end of the Essays, does not cease to affirm that “I am myself the matter of my book.” He finds that his identity, his “master form” as he calls it, cannot be defined in simple terms of a constant and stable self, since it is instead a changeable andfragmented thing, and that the valorization and acceptance of these traits is the only guarantee of authenticity and integrity, the only way of remaining faithful to the truth of one's being and one's nature rather than to alien semblances.

Yet, despite his insistence that the self guard its freedom toward outside influences and the tyranny of imposed customs and opinions, Montaigne believes in the value of reaching outside the self. Indeed, throughout his writings, as he did in his private and public life, he manifests the need to entertain ties with the world of other people and of events. For this necessary coming and going between the interiority of the self and the exteriority of the world, Montaigne uses the image of the back room: human beings have their front room, facing the street, where they meet and interact with others, but they need always to be able to retreat into the back room of the most private self, where they may reaffirm the freedom and strength of intimate identity and reflect upon the vagaries of experience. Given that always-available retreat, Montaigne encourages contact with others, from which one may learn much that is useful. In order to do so, he advocates travel, reading, especially of history books, and conversations with friends. These friends, for Montaigne, are necessarily men. While none can ever replace La Boetie, it is possible to have interesting and worthwhile exchanges with men of discernment and wit. As for his relations with women, Montaigne wrote about them with a frankness unusual for his time. The only uncomplicated bond is that of marriage, which reposes, for Montaigne, on reasons of family and posterity and in which one invests little of oneself. Love, on the other hand, with its emotional and erotic demands, comports the risk of enslavement and loss of freedom. Montaigne, often designated as a misogynist, does in fact recognize that men and women are fundamentally alike in their fears, desires, and attempts to find and affirm their own identity and that only custom and adherence to an antiquated status quo establish the apparent differences between the sexes, but he does not explore the possibility of overcoming that fundamental separation and of establishing an intellectual equality.

Montaigne extends his curiosity about others to the inhabitants of the New World, with whom he had become acquainted through his lively interest in oral and written travel accounts and through his meeting in 1562 with three Brazilian Indians whom the explorer Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon had brought back to France. Giving an example of cultural relativism and tolerance, rare in his time, he finds these people, in their fidelity to their own nature and in their cultural and personal dignity and sense of beauty, greatly superior to the inhabitants of western Europe, who in the conquests of the New World and in their own internal wars have shown themselves to be the true barbarians. The suffering and humiliation imposed on the New World's natives by their conquerors provoke his indignation and compassion.

Involvement in public service is also a part of interaction with the world, and it should be seen as a duty to be honourably and loyally discharged but never allowed to become a consuming and autonomy-destroying occupation.

Montaigne applies and illustrates his ideas concerning the independence and freedom of the self and the importance of social and intellectual intercourse in all his writings and in particular in his essay on the education of children. There, aselse where, he advocates the value of concrete experience over abstract learning and of independent judgment over an accumulation of undigested notions uncritically accepted from others. He also stresses, throughout his work, the role of the body, as in his candid descriptions of his own bodily functions and in his extensive musings on the realities of illness, of aging, and of death. The presence of death pervades the Essays, as Montaigne wants to familiarize himself with the inevitability of dying and so to rid himself of the tyranny of fear, and he is able to accept death as part of nature's exigencies, inherent in life's expectations and limitations.

Montaigne seems to have been a loyal if not fervent Roman Catholic all his life, but he distrusted all human pretenses to knowledge of a spiritual experience which is not attached to a concretely lived reality. He declined to speculate on a transcendence that falls beyond human ken, believing in God but refusing to invoke him in necessarily presumptuous and reductive ways.

Although Montaigne certainly knew the classical philosophers, his ideas spring less out of their teaching than out of the completely original meditation on himself, which he extends to a description of the human being and to an ethics of authenticity, self-acceptance, and tolerance. The Essays are the record of his thoughts, presented not in artificially organized stages but as they occurred and reoccurred to him in different shapes throughout his thinking and writing activity. They are not the record of an intellectualevolution but of a continuous accretion, and he insists on theimmediacy and the authenticity of their testimony. To denote their consubstantiality with his natural self, he describes them as his children, and, in an image of startling and completely nonpejorative earthiness, as the excrements of his mind. As he refuses to impose a false unity on the spontaneous workings of his thought, so he refuses to impose a false structure on his Essays. “As my mind roams, so does my style,” he wrote, and the multiple digressions, the wandering developments, the savory, concrete vocabulary, all denote that fidelity to the freshness and the immediacy of the living thought. Throughout the text he sprinkles anecdotes taken from ancient as well as contemporary authors and from popular lore, which reinforcehis critical analysis of reality; he also peppers his writing with quotes, yet another way of interacting with others, that is, with the authors of the past who surround him in his library. Neither anecdotes nor quotes impinge upon the autonomy of his own ideas, although they may spark or reinforce a train of thought, and they become an integral part of the book's fabric.

Montaigne's Essays thus incorporate a profound skepticism concerning the human being's dangerously inflated claims to knowledge and certainty but also assert that there is no greater achievement than the ability to accept one's being without either contempt or illusion, in the full realization of its limitations and its richness.


Throughout the ages the Essays have been widely and variously read, and their readers have tended to look to them, and into them, for answers to their own needs. Not all his contemporaries manifested the enthusiasm of Marie de Gournay, who fainted from excitement at her first reading. She did recognize in the book the full force of an unusual mind revealing itself, but most of the intellectuals of the period preferred to find in Montaigne a safe reincarnation of stoicism. Here started a misunderstanding that was to last a long time, save in the case of the exceptional reader. The Essays were to be perused as an anthology of philosophical maxims, a repository of consecrated wisdom, rather than as the complete expression of a highly individual thought and experience. That Montaigne could write about his most intimate reactions and feelings, that he could describe his own physical appearance and preferences, for instance, seemed shocking and irrelevant to many, just as the apparent confusion of his writing seemed a weakness to be deplored rather than a guarantee of authenticity.

In the 17th century, when an educated nobility set the tone, he was chiefly admired for his portrayal of the honnete homme , the well-educated, nonpedantic man of manners, asmuch at home in a salon as in his study, a gentleman of smiling wisdom and elegant, discreet disenchantment. In the same period, however, religious authors such as Francis of Sales and Blaise Pascal deplored his skepticism as anti-Christian and denounced what they interpreted as an immoral self-absorption. In the pre-Revolutionary 18th century the image of a dogmatically irreligious Montaigne continued to be dominant, and Voltaire and Denis Diderot saw in him a precursor of the free thought of the Enlightenment. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, however, the encounter with the Essays was differently and fundamentally important, as he rightly considered Montaigne the master and the model of the self-portrait. Rousseau inaugurated the perception of the book as the entirely personal project of a human being in search of his identity and unafraid to talk without dissimulation about his profound nature. In the 19th century some of the old misunderstandings continued, but there was a growing understanding and appreciation of Montaigne not only as a master of ideas but also as the writer of the particular, the individual, the intimate—the writer as friend and familiar. Gustave Flaubert kept the Essays on his bedside table and recognized in Montaigne an alter ego, as would, in the 20th century, authors such as André Gide, Michel Butor, and Roland Barthes.

The Essays were first translated into English by John Florio in1603, and Anglophone readers have included Francis Bacon, John Webster, William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, William Makepeace Thackeray, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, and Aldous Huxley.

Today Montaigne continues to be studied in all aspects of his text by great numbers of scholars and to be read by people from all corners of the earth. In an age that may seemas violent and absurd as his own, his refusal of intolerance and fanaticism and his lucid awareness of the human potential for destruction, coupled with his belief in the human capacity for self-assessment, honesty, and compassion, appeal as convincingly as ever to the many who find in him a guide and a friend.

Tilde A. Sankovitch



Blaise Pascal

French philosopher and scientist

born June 19, 1623, Clermont-Ferrand, France
died August 19, 1662, Paris

French mathematician, physicist, religious philosopher, and master of prose. He laid the foundation for the modern theory of probabilities, formulated what came to be known as Pascal’s law of pressure, and propagated a religious doctrine that taught the experience of God through the heart rather than through reason. The establishment of his principle of intuitionism had an impact on such later philosophers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Henri Bergson and also on the Existentialists.

Pascal’s life to the Port-Royal years
Pascal’s father, Étienne Pascal, was presiding judge of the tax court at Clermont-Ferrand. His mother died in 1626, and in 1631 the family moved to Paris. Étienne, who was respected as a mathematician, devoted himself henceforth to the education of his children. While his sister Jacqueline (born in 1625) figured as an infant prodigy in literary circles, Blaise proved himself no less precocious in mathematics. In 1640 he wrote an essay on conic sections, Essai pour les coniques, based on his study of the now classical work of Girard Desargues on synthetic projective geometry. The young man’s work, which was highly successful in the world of mathematics, aroused the envy of no less a personage than the great French Rationalist and mathematician René Descartes. Between 1642 and 1644, Pascal conceived and constructed a calculating device to help his father—who in 1639 had been appointed intendant (local administrator) at Rouen—in his tax computations. The machine was regarded by Pascal’s contemporaries as his main claim to fame, and with reason, for in a sense it was the first digital calculator since it operated by counting integers. The significance of this contribution explains the youthful pride that appears in his dedication of the machine to the chancellor of France, Pierre Seguier, in 1644.

Until 1646 the Pascal family held strictly Roman Catholic principles, though they often substituted l’honnêteté (“polite respectability”) for inward religion. An illness of his father, however, brought Blaise into contact with a more profound expression of religion, for he met two disciples of the abbé de Saint-Cyran, who, as director of the convent of Port-Royal, had brought the austere moral and theological conceptions of Jansenism into the life and thought of the convent. Jansenism was a 17th-century form of Augustinianism in the Roman Catholic Church. It repudiated free will, accepted predestination, and taught that divine grace, rather than good works, was the key to salvation. The convent at Port-Royal had become the centre for the dissemination of the doctrine. Pascal himself was the first to feel the necessity of entirely turning away from the world to God, and he won his family over to the spiritual life in 1646. His letters indicate that for several years he was his family’s spiritual adviser, but the conflict within himself—between the world and ascetic life—was not yet resolved. Absorbed again in his scientific interests, he tested the theories of Galileo and Evangelista Torricelli (an Italian physicist who discovered the principle of the barometer). To do so, he reproduced and amplified experiments on atmospheric pressure by constructing mercury barometers and measuring air pressure, both in Paris and on the top of a mountain overlooking Clermont-Ferrand. These tests paved the way for further studies in hydrodynamics and hydrostatics. While experimenting, Pascal invented the syringe and created the hydraulic press, an instrument based upon the principle that became known as Pascal’s law: pressure applied to a confined liquid is transmitted undiminished through the liquid in all directions regardless of the area to which the pressure is applied. His publications on the problem of the vacuum (1647–48) added to his reputation. When he fell ill from overwork, his doctors advised him to seek distractions; but what has been described as Pascal’s “worldly period” (1651–54) was, in fact, primarily a period of intense scientific work, during which he composed treatises on the equilibrium of liquid solutions, on the weight and density of air, and on the arithmetic triangle: Traité de l’équilibre des liqueurs et de la pesanteur de la masse de l’air (Eng. trans., The Physical Treatises of Pascal, 1937) and also his Traité du triangle arithmétique. In the last treatise, a fragment of the De Alea Geometriae, he laid the foundations for the calculus of probabilities. By the end of 1653, however, he had begun to feel religious scruples; and the “night of fire,” an intense, perhaps mystical “conversion” that he experienced on November 23, 1654, he believed to be the beginning of a new life. He entered Port-Royal in January 1655, and though he never became one of the solitaires, he thereafter wrote only at their request and never again published in his own name. The two works for which he is chiefly known, Les Provinciales and the Pensées, date from the years of his life spent at Port-Royal.

“Les Provinciales”
Written in defense of Antoine Arnauld, an opponent of the Jesuits and a defender of Jansenism who was on trial before the faculty of theology in Paris for his controversial religious works, Pascal’s 18 Lettres écrites par Louis de Montalte à un provincialdeal with divine grace and the ethical code of the Jesuits. They are better known as Les Provinciales. They included a blow against the relaxed morality that the Jesuits were said to teach and that was the weak point in their controversy with Port-Royal; Pascal quotes freely Jesuit dialogues and discrediting quotations from their own works, sometimes in a spirit of derision, sometimes with indignation. In the two last letters, dealing with the question of grace, Pascal proposed a conciliatory position that was later to make it possible for Port-Royal to subscribe to the “Peace of the Church,” a temporary cessation of the conflict over Jansenism, in 1668.

The Provinciales were an immediate success, and their popularity has remained undiminished. This they owe primarily to their form, in which for the first time bombast and tedious rhetoric are replaced by variety, brevity, tautness, and precision of style; as Nicolas Boileau, the founder of French literary criticism, recognized, they marked the beginning of modern French prose. Something of their popularity, moreover, in fashionable, Protestant, or skeptical circles, must be attributed to the violence of their attack on the Jesuits. In England they have been most widely read when Roman Catholicism has seemed a threat to the Church of England. Yet they have also helped Catholicism to rid itself of laxity; and, in 1678, Pope Innocent XI himself condemned half of the propositions that Pascal had denounced earlier. Thus, the Provinciales played a decisive part in promoting a return to inner religion and helped to secure the eventual triumph of the ideas set forth in Antoine Arnauld’s treatise De la fréquente communion (1643), in which he protested against the idea that the profligate could atone for continued sin by frequent communion without repentance, a thesis that thereafter remained almost unchallengeable until the French church felt the repercussion of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (which had granted religious freedom to French Protestants) in 1685. Whereas the Jesuits seemed to represent a Counter-Reformation predominantly concerned with orthodoxy and obedience to ecclesiastical authority, the Provinciales advocated a more spiritual approach, emphasizing the soul’s union with the Mystical Body of Christ through charity.

Further, by rejecting any double standard of morality and the distinction between counsel and precept, Pascal aligned himself with those who believe the ideal of evangelical perfection to be inseparable from the Christian life. Although there was nothing original in these opinions, Pascal nevertheless stamped them with the passionate conviction of a man in love with the absolute, of a man who saw no salvation apart from a heartfelt desire for the truth, together with a love of God that works continually toward destroying all self-love. For Pascal, morality cannot be separated from spirituality. Moreover, his own spiritual development can be traced in the Provinciales. The religious sense in them becomes progressively refined after the first letters, in which the tone of ridicule is smart rather than charitable.

Pascal finally decided to write his work of Christian apologetics, Apologie de la religion chrétienne, as a consequence of his meditations on miracles and other proofs of Christianity. The work remained unfinished at his death. Between the summers of 1657 and 1658, he put together most of the notes and fragments that editors have published under the inappropriate title Pensées (“Thoughts”; Eng. trans., Pensées, 1962). In the Apologie, Pascal shows the man without grace to be an incomprehensible mixture of greatness and abjectness, incapable of truth or of reaching the supreme good to which his nature nevertheless aspires. A religion that accounts for these contradictions, which he believed philosophy and worldliness fail to do, is for that very reason “to be venerated and loved.” The indifference of the skeptic, Pascal wrote, is to be overcome by means of the “wager”: if God does not exist, the skeptic loses nothing by believing in him; but if he does exist, the skeptic gains eternal life by believing in him. Pascal insists that men must be brought to God through Jesus Christ alone, because a creature could never know the infinite if Jesus had not descended to assume the proportions of man’s fallen state.

The second part of the work applies the Augustinian theory of allegorical interpretation to the biblical types (figuratifs); reviews the rabbinical texts, the persistence of true religion, the work of Moses, and the proofs concerning Jesus Christ’s God-like role; and, finally, gives a picture of the primitive church and the fulfillment of the prophecies. The Apologie (Pensées) is a treatise on spirituality. Pascal was not interested in making converts if they were not going to be saints.

Pascal’s apologetics, though it has stood the test of time, is primarily addressed to individuals of his own acquaintance. To convert his libertine friends, he looked for arguments in their favourite authors: in Michel de Montaigne, in the Skeptic Pierre Charron, in the Epicurean Pierre Gassendi, and in Thomas Hobbes, an English political philosopher. For Pascal, Skepticism was but a stage. Modernist theologians in particular have tried to make use of his main contention, that “man is infinitely more than man,” in isolation from his other contention, that man’s wretchedness is explicable only as the effect of a Fall, about which a man can learn what he needs to know from history. In so doing, they sacrifice the second part of the Apologie to the first, keeping the philosophy while losing the exegesis. For Pascal as for St. Paul, Jesus Christ is the second Adam, inconceivable without the first.

Finally, too, Pascal expressly admitted that his psychological analyses were not by themselves sufficient to exclude a “philosophy of the absurd”; to do so, it is necessary to have recourse to the convergence of these analyses with the “lines of fact” concerning revelation, this convergence being too extraordinary not to appear as the work of providence to an anguished seeker after truth (qui cherche en gémissant).

He was next again involved in scientific work. First, the “Messieurs de Port-Royal” themselves asked for his help in composing the Élements de géométrie; and second, it was suggested that he should publish what he had discovered about cycloid curves, a subject on which the greatest mathematicians of the time had been working. Once more fame aroused in him feelings of self-esteem; but from February 1659, illness brought him back to his former frame of mind, and he composed the “prayer for conversion” that the English clergymen Charles and John Wesley, who founded the Methodist Church, were later to regard so highly. Scarcely capable of regular work, he henceforth gave himself over to helping the poor and to the ascetic and devotional life. He took part intermittently, however, in the disputes to which the “Formulary”—a document condemning five propositions of Jansenism that, at the demand of the church authorities, had to be signed before a person could receive the sacraments—gave rise. Finally a difference of opinion with the theologians of Port-Royal led him to withdraw from controversy, though he did not sever his relations with them.

Pascal died in 1662 after suffering terrible pain, probably from carcinomatous meningitis following a malignant ulcer of the stomach. He was assisted by a non-Jansenist parish priest.

At once a physicist, a mathematician, an eloquent publicist in the Provinciales, and an inspired artist in the Apologie and in his private notes, Pascal was embarrassed by the very abundance of his talents. It has been suggested that it was his too concrete turn of mind that prevented his discovering the infinitesimal calculus; and in some of the Provinciales the mysterious relations of human beings with God are treated as if they were a geometrical problem. But these considerations are far outweighed by the profit that he drew from the multiplicity of his gifts; his religious writings are rigorous because of his scientific training; and his love of the concrete emerges no less from the stream of quotations in the Provinciales than from his determination to reject the vigorous method of attack that he had used so effectively in his Apologie.

Jean Orcibal
Lucien Jerphagnon



Queen Christina of Sweden (left) and René Descartes


René Descartes




French mathematician and philosopher

born March 31, 1596, La Haye, Touraine, France
died February 11, 1650, Stockholm, Sweden

French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher. Because he was one of the first to abandon scholastic Aristotelianism, because he formulated the first modern version of mind-body dualism, from which stems the mind-body problem, and because he promoted the development of a new science grounded in observation and experiment, he has been called the father of modern philosophy. Applying an original system of methodical doubt, he dismissed apparent knowledge derived from authority, the senses, and reason and erected new epistemic foundations on the basis of the intuition that, when he is thinking, he exists; this he expressed in the dictum “I think, therefore I am” (best known in its Latin formulation, “Cogito, ergo sum,” though originally written in French, “Je pense, donc je suis”). He developed a metaphysical dualism that distinguishes radically between mind, the essence of which is thinking, and matter, the essence of which is extension in three dimensions. Descartes’s metaphysics is rationalist, based on the postulation of innate ideas of mind, matter, and God, but his physics and physiology, based on sensory experience, are mechanistic and empiricist.

Early life and education
Although Descartes’s birthplace, La Haye (now Descartes), France, is in Touraine, his family connections lie south, across the Creuse River in Poitou, where his father, Joachim, owned farms and houses in Châtellerault and Poitiers. Because Joachim was a councillor in the Parlement of Brittany in Rennes, Descartes inherited a modest rank of nobility. Descartes’s mother died when he was one year old. His father remarried in Rennes, leaving him in La Haye to be raised first by his maternal grandmother and then by his great-uncle in Châtellerault. Although the Descartes family was Roman Catholic, the Poitou region was controlled by the Protestant Huguenots, and Châtellerault, a Protestant stronghold, was the site of negotiations over the Edict of Nantes (1598), which gave Protestants freedom of worship in France following the intermittent Wars of Religion between Protestant and Catholic forces in France. Descartes returned to Poitou regularly until 1628.

In 1606 Descartes was sent to the Jesuit college at La Flèche, established in 1604 by Henry IV (reigned 1589–1610). At La Flèche, 1,200 young men were trained for careers in military engineering, the judiciary, and government administration. In addition to classical studies, science, mathematics, and metaphysics—Aristotle was taught from scholastic commentaries—they studied acting, music, poetry, dancing, riding, and fencing. In 1610 Descartes participated in an imposing ceremony in which the heart of Henry IV, whose assassination that year had destroyed the hope of religious tolerance in France and Germany, was placed in the cathedral at La Flèche.

In 1614 Descartes went to Poitiers, where he took a law degree in 1616. At this time, Huguenot Poitiers was in virtual revolt against the young King Louis XIII (reigned 1610–43). Descartes’s father probably expected him to enter Parlement, but the minimum age for doing so was 27, and Descartes was only 20. In 1618 he went to Breda in the Netherlands, where he spent 15 months as an informal student of mathematics and military architecture in the peacetime army of the Protestant stadholder, Prince Maurice (ruled 1585–1625). In Breda, Descartes was encouraged in his studies of science and mathematics by the physicist Isaac Beeckman (1588–1637), for whom he wrote the Compendium of Music (written 1618, published 1650), his first surviving work.

Descartes spent the period 1619 to 1628 traveling in northern and southern Europe, where, as he later explained, he studied “the book of the world.” While in Bohemia in 1619, he invented analytic geometry, a method of solving geometric problems algebraically and algebraic problems geometrically. He also devised a universal method of deductive reasoning, based on mathematics, that is applicable to all the sciences. This method, which he later formulated in Discourse on Method (1637) and Rules for the Direction of the Mind (written by 1628 but not published until 1701), consists of four rules: (1) accept nothing as true that is not self-evident, (2) divide problems into their simplest parts, (3) solve problems by proceeding from simple to complex, and (4) recheck the reasoning. These rules are a direct application of mathematical procedures. In addition, Descartes insisted that all key notions and the limits of each problem must be clearly defined.

Descartes also investigated reports of esoteric knowledge, such as the claims of the practitioners of theosophy to be able to command nature. Although disappointed with the followers of the Catalan mystic Ramon Llull (1232/33–1315/16) and the German alchemist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486–1535), he was impressed by the German mathematician Johann Faulhaber (1580–1635), a member of the mystical society of the Rosicrucians.

Descartes shared a number of Rosicrucian goals and habits. Like the Rosicrucians, he lived alone and in seclusion, changed his residence often (during his 22 years in the Netherlands, he lived in 18 different places), practiced medicine without charge, attempted to increase human longevity, and took an optimistic view of the capacity of science to improve the human condition. At the end of his life, he left a chest of personal papers (none of which has survived) with a Rosicrucian physician—his close friend Corneille van Hogelande, who handled his affairs in the Netherlands. Despite these affinities, Descartes rejected the Rosicrucians’ magical and mystical beliefs. For him, this period was a time of hope for a revolution in science. The English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626), in Advancement of Learning (1605), had earlier proposed a new science of observation and experiment to replace the traditional Aristotelian science, as Descartes himself did later.

In 1622 Descartes moved to Paris. There he gambled, rode, fenced, and went to the court, concerts, and the theatre. Among his friends were the poets Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac (1597–1654), who dedicated his Le Socrate chrétien (1652; “Christian Socrates”) to Descartes, and Théophile de Viau (1590–1626), who was burned in effigy and imprisoned in 1623 for writing verses mocking religious themes. Descartes also befriended the mathematician Claude Mydorge (1585–1647) and Father Marin Mersenne (1588–1648), a man of universal learning who corresponded with hundreds of scholars, writers, mathematicians, and scientists and who became Descartes’s main contact with the larger intellectual world. During this time Descartes regularly hid from his friends to work, writing treatises, now lost, on fencing and metals. He acquired a considerable reputation long before he published anything.

At a talk in 1628, Descartes denied the alchemist Chandoux’s claim that probabilities are as good as certainties in science and demonstrated his own method for attaining certainty. The Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle (1575–1629)—who had founded the Oratorian teaching congregation in 1611 as a rival to the Jesuits—was present at the talk. Many commentators speculate that Bérulle urged Descartes to write a metaphysics based on the philosophy of St. Augustine as a replacement for Jesuit teaching. Be that as it may, within weeks Descartes left for the Netherlands, which was Protestant, and—taking great precautions to conceal his address—did not return to France for 16 years. Some scholars claim that Descartes adopted Bérulle as director of his conscience, but this is unlikely, given Descartes’s background and beliefs (he came from a Huguenot province, he was not a Catholic enthusiast, he had been accused of being a Rosicrucian, and he advocated religious tolerance and championed the use of reason).

Residence in the Netherlands
Descartes said that he went to the Netherlands to enjoy a greater liberty than was available anywhere else and to avoid the distractions of Paris and friends so that he could have the leisure and solitude to think. (He had inherited enough money and property to live independently.) The Netherlands was a haven of tolerance, where Descartes could be an original, independent thinker without fear of being burned at the stake—as was the Italian philosopher Lucilio Vanini (1585–1619) for proposing natural explanations of miracles—or being drafted into the armies then prosecuting the Catholic Counter-Reformation. In France, by contrast, religious intolerance was mounting. The Jews were expelled in 1615, and the last Protestant stronghold, La Rochelle, was crushed—with Bérulle’s participation—only weeks before Descartes’s departure. In 1624 the French Parlement passed a decree forbidding criticism of Aristotle on pain of death. Although Mersenne and the philosopher Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) did publish attacks on Aristotle without suffering persecution (they were, after all, Catholic priests), those judged to be heretics continued to be burned, and laymen lacked church protection. In addition, Descartes may have felt jeopardized by his friendship with intellectual libertines such as Father Claude Picot (d. 1668), a bon vivant known as “the Atheist Priest,” with whom he entrusted his financial affairs in France.

In 1629 Descartes went to the university at Franeker, where he stayed with a Catholic family and wrote the first draft of his Meditations. He matriculated at the University of Leiden in 1630. In 1631 he visited Denmark with the physician and alchemist Étienne de Villebressieu, who invented siege engines, a portable bridge, and a two-wheeled stretcher. The physician Henri Regius (1598–1679), who taught Descartes’s views at the University of Utrecht in 1639, involved Descartes in a fierce controversy with the Calvinist theologian Gisbertus Voetius (1589–1676) that continued for the rest of Descartes’s life. In his Letter to Voetius of 1648, Descartes made a plea for religious tolerance and the rights of man. Claiming to write not only for Christians but also for Turks—meaning Muslims, libertines, infidels, deists, and atheists—he argued that, because Protestants and Catholics worship the same God, both can hope for heaven. When the controversy became intense, however, Descartes sought the protection of the French ambassador and of his friend Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687), secretary to the stadholder Prince Frederick Henry (ruled 1625–47).

In 1635 Descartes’s daughter Francine was born to Helena Jans and was baptized in the Reformed Church in Deventer. Although Francine is typically referred to by commentators as Descartes’s “illegitimate” daughter, her baptism is recorded in a register for legitimate births. Her death of scarlet fever at the age of five was the greatest sorrow of Descartes’s life. Referring to her death, Descartes said that he did not believe that one must refrain from tears to prove oneself a man.

The World and Discourse on Method
In 1633, just as he was about to publish The World (1664), Descartes learned that the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) had been condemned in Rome for publishing the view that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Because this Copernican position is central to his cosmology and physics, Descartes suppressed The World, hoping that eventually the church would retract its condemnation. Although Descartes feared the church, he also hoped that his physics would one day replace that of Aristotle in church doctrine and be taught in Catholic schools.

Descartes’s Discourse on Method (1637) is one of the first important modern philosophical works not written in Latin. Descartes said that he wrote in French so that all who had good sense, including women, could read his work and learn to think for themselves. He believed that everyone could tell true from false by the natural light of reason. In three essays accompanying the Discourse, he illustrated his method for utilizing reason in the search for truth in the sciences: in Dioptrics he derived the law of refraction, in Meteorology he explained the rainbow, and in Geometry he gave an exposition of his analytic geometry. He also perfected the system invented by François Viète for representing known numerical quantities with a, b, c, … , unknowns with x, y, z, … , and squares, cubes, and other powers with numerical superscripts, as in x2, x3, … , which made algebraic calculations much easier than they had been before.

In the Discourse he also provided a provisional moral code (later presented as final) for use while seeking truth: (1) obey local customs and laws, (2) make decisions on the best evidence and then stick to them firmly as though they were certain, (3) change desires rather than the world, and (4) always seek truth. This code exhibits Descartes’s prudential conservatism, decisiveness, stoicism, and dedication. The Discourse and other works illustrate Descartes’s conception of knowledge as being like a tree in its interconnectedness and in the grounding provided to higher forms of knowledge by lower or more fundamental ones. Thus, for Descartes, metaphysics corresponds to the roots of the tree, physics to the trunk, and medicine, mechanics, and morals to the branches.

In 1641 Descartes published the Meditations on First Philosophy, in Which Is Proved the Existence of God and the Immortality of the Soul. Written in Latin and dedicated to the Jesuit professors at the Sorbonne in Paris, the work includes critical responses by several eminent thinkers—collected by Mersenne from the Jansenist philosopher and theologian Antoine Arnauld (1612–94), the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), and the Epicurean atomist Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655)—as well as Descartes’s replies. The second edition (1642) includes a response by the Jesuit priest Pierre Bourdin (1595–1653), who Descartes said was a fool. These objections and replies constitute a landmark of cooperative discussion in philosophy and science at a time when dogmatism was the rule.

The Meditations is characterized by Descartes’s use of methodic doubt, a systematic procedure of rejecting as though false all types of belief in which one has ever been, or could ever be, deceived. His arguments derive from the skepticism of the Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus (fl. 3rd century ad) as reflected in the work of the essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) and the Catholic theologian Pierre Charron (1541–1603). Thus, Descartes’s apparent knowledge based on authority is set aside, because even experts are sometimes wrong. His beliefs from sensory experience are declared untrustworthy, because such experience is sometimes misleading, as when a square tower appears round from a distance. Even his beliefs about the objects in his immediate vicinity may be mistaken, because, as he notes, he often has dreams about objects that do not exist, and he has no way of knowing with certainty whether he is dreaming or awake. Finally, his apparent knowledge of simple and general truths of reasoning that do not depend on sense experience—such as “2 + 3 = 5” or “a square has four sides”—is also unreliable, because God could have made him in such a way that, for example, he goes wrong every time he counts. As a way of summarizing the universal doubt into which he has fallen, Descartes supposes that an “evil genius of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me.”

Although at this stage there is seemingly no belief about which he cannot entertain doubt, Descartes finds certainty in the intuition that, when he is thinking—even if he is being deceived—he must exist. In the Discourse, Descartes expresses this intuition in the dictum “I think, therefore I am”; but because “therefore” suggests that the intuition is an argument—though it is not—in the Meditations he says merely, “I think, I am” (“Cogito, sum”). The cogito is a logically self-evident truth that also gives intuitively certain knowledge of a particular thing’s existence—that is, one’s self. Nevertheless, it justifies accepting as certain only the existence of the person who thinks it. If all one ever knew for certain was that one exists, and if one adhered to Descartes’s method of doubting all that is uncertain, then one would be reduced to solipsism, the view that nothing exists but one’s self and thoughts. To escape solipsism, Descartes argues that all ideas that are as “clear and distinct” as the cogito must be true, for, if they were not, the cogito also, as a member of the class of clear and distinct ideas, could be doubted. Since “I think, I am” cannot be doubted, all clear and distinct ideas must be true.

On the basis of clear and distinct innate ideas, Descartes then establishes that each mind is a mental substance and each body a part of one material substance. The mind or soul is immortal, because it is unextended and cannot be broken into parts, as can extended bodies. Descartes also advances a proof for the existence of God. He begins with the proposition that he has an innate idea of God as a perfect being and then concludes that God necessarily exists, because, if he did not, he would not be perfect. This ontological argument for God’s existence, originally due to the English logician St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033/34–1109), is at the heart of Descartes’s rationalism, for it establishes certain knowledge about an existing thing solely on the basis of reasoning from innate ideas, with no help from sensory experience. Descartes then argues that, because God is perfect, he does not deceive human beings; and therefore, because God leads us to believe that the material world exists, it does exist. In this way Descartes claims to establish metaphysical foundations for the existence of his own mind, of God, and of the material world.

The inherent circularity of Descartes’s reasoning was exposed by Arnauld, whose objection has come to be known as the Cartesian Circle. According to Descartes, God’s existence is established by the fact that Descartes has a clear and distinct idea of God; but the truth of Descartes’s clear and distinct ideas are guaranteed by the fact that God exists and is not a deceiver. Thus, in order to show that God exists, Descartes must assume that God exists.

Physics, physiology, and morals
Descartes’s general goal was to help human beings master and possess nature. He provided understanding of the trunk of the tree of knowledge in The World, Dioptrics, Meteorology, and Geometry, and he established its metaphysical roots in the Meditations. He then spent the rest of his life working on the branches of mechanics, medicine, and morals. Mechanics is the basis of his physiology and medicine, which in turn is the basis of his moral psychology. Descartes believed that all material bodies, including the human body, are machines that operate by mechanical principles. In his physiological studies, he dissected animal bodies to show how their parts move. He argued that, because animals have no souls, they do not think or feel; thus, vivisection, which Descartes practiced, is permitted. He also described the circulation of the blood but came to the erroneous conclusion that heat in the heart expands the blood, causing its expulsion into the veins. Descartes’s L’Homme, et un traité de la formation du foetus (Man, and a Treatise on the Formation of the Foetus) was published in 1664.

In 1644 Descartes published Principles of Philosophy, a compilation of his physics and metaphysics. He dedicated this work to Princess Elizabeth (1618–79), daughter of Elizabeth Stuart, titular queen of Bohemia, in correspondence with whom he developed his moral philosophy. According to Descartes, a human being is a union of mind and body, two radically dissimilar substances that interact in the pineal gland. He reasoned that the pineal gland must be the uniting point because it is the only nondouble organ in the brain, and double reports, as from two eyes, must have one place to merge. He argued that each action on a person’s sense organs causes subtle matter to move through tubular nerves to the pineal gland, causing it to vibrate distinctively. These vibrations give rise to emotions and passions and also cause the body to act. Bodily action is thus the final outcome of a reflex arc that begins with external stimuli—as, for example, when a soldier sees the enemy, feels fear, and flees. The mind cannot change bodily reactions directly—for example, it cannot will the body to fight—but by altering mental attitudes, it can change the pineal vibrations from those that cause fear and fleeing to those that cause courage and fighting.

Descartes argued further that human beings can be conditioned by experience to have specific emotional responses. Descartes himself, for example, had been conditioned to be attracted to cross-eyed women because he had loved a cross-eyed playmate as a child. When he remembered this fact, however, he was able to rid himself of his passion. This insight is the basis of Descartes’s defense of free will and of the mind’s ability to control the body. Despite such arguments, in his Passions of the Soul (1649), which he dedicated to Queen Christina of Sweden (reigned 1644–54), Descartes holds that most bodily actions are determined by external material causes.

Descartes’s morality is anti-Jansenist and anti-Calvinist in that he maintains that the grace that is necessary for salvation can be earned and that human beings are virtuous and able to achieve salvation when they do their best to find and act upon the truth. His optimism about the ability of human reason and will to find truth and reach salvation contrasts starkly with the pessimism of the Jansenist apologist and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623–62), who believed that salvation comes only as a gift of God’s grace. Descartes was correctly accused of holding the view of Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609), an anti-Calvinist Dutch theologian, that salvation depends on free will and good works rather than on grace. Descartes also held that, unless people believe in God and immortality, they will see no reason to be moral.

Free will, according to Descartes, is the sign of God in human nature, and human beings can be praised or blamed according to their use of it. People are good, he believed, only to the extent that they act freely for the good of others; such generosity is the highest virtue. Descartes was Epicurean in his assertion that human passions are good in themselves. He was an extreme moral optimist in his belief that understanding of the good is automatically followed by a desire to do the good. Moreover, because passions are “willings” according to Descartes, to want something is the same as to will it. Descartes was also stoic, however, in his admonition that, rather than change the world, human beings should control their passions.

Although Descartes wrote no political philosophy, he approved of the admonition of Seneca (c. 4 bc–ad 65) to acquiesce in the common order of things. He rejected the recommendation of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) to lie to one’s friends, because friendship is sacred and life’s greatest joy. Human beings cannot exist alone but must be parts of social groups, such as nations and families, and it is better to do good for the group than for oneself.

Descartes had been a puny child with a weak chest and was not expected to live. He therefore watched his health carefully, becoming a virtual vegetarian. In 1639 he bragged that he had not been sick for 19 years and that he expected to live to 100. He told Princess Elizabeth to think of life as a comedy; bad thoughts cause bad dreams and bodily disorders. Because there is always more good than evil in life, he said, one can always be content, no matter how bad things seem. Elizabeth, inextricably involved in messy court and family affairs, was not consoled.

In his later years Descartes said that he had once hoped to learn to prolong life to a century or more, but he then saw that, to achieve that goal, the work of many generations would be required; he himself had not even learned to prevent a fever. Thus, he said, instead of continuing to hope for long life, he had found an easier way, namely to love life and not to fear death. It is easy, he claimed, for a true philosopher to die tranquilly.

Final years and heritage
In 1644, 1647, and 1648, after 16 years in the Netherlands, Descartes returned to France for brief visits on financial business and to oversee the translation into French of the Principles, the Meditations, and the Objections and Replies. (The translators were, respectively, Picot, Charles d’Albert, duke de Luynes, and Claude Clerselier.) In 1647 he also met with Gassendi and Hobbes, and he suggested to Pascal the famous experiment of taking a barometer up Mount Puy-de-Dôme to determine the influence of the weight of the air. Picot returned with Descartes to the Netherlands for the winter of 1647–48. During Descartes’s final stay in Paris in 1648, the French nobility revolted against the crown in a series of wars known as the Fronde. Descartes left precipitously on August 17, 1648, only days before the death of his old friend Mersenne.

Clerselier’s brother-in-law, Hector Pierre Chanut, who was French resident in Sweden and later ambassador, helped to procure a pension for Descartes from Louis XIV, though it was never paid. Later, Chanut engineered an invitation for Descartes to the court of Queen Christina, who by the close of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) had become one of the most important and powerful monarchs in Europe. Descartes went reluctantly, arriving early in October 1649. He may have gone because he needed patronage; the Fronde seemed to have destroyed his chances in Paris, and the Calvinist theologians were harassing him in the Netherlands.

In Sweden—where, Descartes said, in winter men’s thoughts freeze like the water—the 22-year-old Christina perversely made the 53-year-old Descartes rise before 5:00 am to give her philosophy lessons, even though she knew of his habit of lying in bed until 11 o’clock in the morning. She also is said to have ordered him to write the verses of a ballet, The Birth of Peace (1649), to celebrate her role in the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War. The verses in fact were not written by Descartes, though he did write the statutes for a Swedish Academy of Arts and Sciences. While delivering these statutes to the queen at 5:00 am on February 1, 1650, he caught a chill, and he soon developed pneumonia. He died in Stockholm on February 11. Many pious last words have been attributed to him, but the most trustworthy report is that of his German valet, who said that Descartes was in a coma and died without saying anything at all.

Descartes’s papers came into the possession of Claude Clerselier, a pious Catholic, who began the process of turning Descartes into a saint by cutting, adding to, and selectively publishing his letters. This cosmetic work culminated in 1691 in the massive biography by Father Adrien Baillet, who was at work on a 17-volume Lives of the Saints. Even during Descartes’s lifetime there were questions about whether he was a Catholic apologist, primarily concerned with supporting Christian doctrine, or an atheist, concerned only with protecting himself with pious sentiments while establishing a deterministic, mechanistic, and materialistic physics.

These questions remain difficult to answer, not least because all the papers, letters, and manuscripts available to Clerselier and Baillet are now lost. In 1667 the Roman Catholic church made its own decision by putting Descartes’s works on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Latin: “Index of Prohibited Books”) on the very day his bones were ceremoniously placed in Sainte-Geneviève-du-Mont in Paris. During his lifetime, Protestant ministers in the Netherlands called Descartes a Jesuit and a papist—which is to say an atheist. He retorted that they were intolerant, ignorant bigots. Up to about 1930, a majority of scholars, many of whom were religious, believed that Descartes’s major concerns were metaphysical and religious. By the late 20th century, however, numerous commentators had come to believe that Descartes was a Catholic in the same way he was a Frenchman and a royalist—that is, by birth and by convention.

Descartes himself said that good sense is destroyed when one thinks too much of God. He once told a German protégée, Anna Maria van Schurman (1607–78), who was known as a painter and a poet, that she was wasting her intellect studying Hebrew and theology. He also was perfectly aware of—though he tried to conceal—the atheistic potential of his materialist physics and physiology. Descartes seemed indifferent to the emotional depths of religion. Whereas Pascal trembled when he looked into the infinite universe and perceived the puniness and misery of man, Descartes exulted in the power of human reason to understand the cosmos and to promote happiness, and he rejected the view that human beings are essentially miserable and sinful. He held that it is impertinent to pray to God to change things. Instead, when we cannot change the world, we must change ourselves.


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