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 17th century


Antoine Furetière
Claude Favre, sieur de Vaugelas
Abbé d’Aubignac
Honoré d’Urfé
Francois de Malherbe
Théophile de Viau
Alexandre Hardy
Pierre Corneille  "The Cid"
Jean Chapelain
Jean de Rotrou
Madeleine de Scudéry
Cyrano de Bergerac
Paul Scarron
François de La Rochefoucauld 
"Reflections; or Sentences and Moral Maxims"
Charles de Saint-Denis, sieur de Saint-Évremond
"Tartuffe Or, the Hypocrite", "The Misanthrope", "The Impostures of Scapin", "The Imaginary Invalid"
Jean Racine  "Phèdre"
Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux
Jean de La Fontaine  "Fables" Illustrations by J. J. Grandville
Marie-Madeleine, comtesse de La Fayette
Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné
Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet
Francois de La Mothe-Fénelon
Jean de La Bruyère
Jean-Francois Regnard
Florent Carton Dancourt
Alain-René Lesage  "Gil Blas" 
Charles Perrault  "The Tales of Mother Goose" 
PART I, PART II Illustrated by Gustave Dore
Bernard Le Bovier, sieur de Fontenelle
Pierre de Fermat
Pierre Gassendi
Nicholas de Malebranche


The 17th century

Literature and society

Refinement of the French language

At the beginning of the 17th century the full flowering of the Classical manner was still remote, but various signs of a tendency toward order, stability, and refinement can be seen. A widespread desire for cultural self-improvement, which is also a sign of the pressures to conformity in a society constructing itself around the king and his court, is reflected in the numerous manuals of politesse, or formal politeness, that appeared through the first half of the century; while at the celebrated salon of Mme de Rambouillet men of letters, mostly of bourgeois origin, and the nobility and leaders of fashionable society mixed in an easy relationship to enjoy the pleasures of the mind. Such gatherings did much to refine the literary language and also helped to prepare a cultured public that could engage in the serious analysis of moral and psychological problems.

The formation of the Académie Française, an early move to place cultural activity under the patronage of the state, dates from 1634. Its usual functions concerned the standardization of the French language. This effort bore fruit in the Académie’s own Dictionnaire of 1694, though by then rival works had appeared in the dictionaries of César-Pierre Richelet (1680) and Antoine Furetière (1690). A similar desire for systematic analysis inspired Claude Favre, sieur de Vaugelas, also an Academician, whose Remarques sur la langue françoise (1647) records polite usage of the time. In the field of literary theory the same rational approach produced the Poétique (1639; “Treatise on Poetry”) of Hippolyte-Jules Pilet de La Mesnardière and the Abbé d’Aubignac’s Pratique du théâtre (1657; “The Practice of Theatre”), both treatises instigated by Cardinal de Richelieu’s personal patronage, which strongly influenced the development of Classical doctrine.

The earliest imaginative literature to reflect the new taste for moral analysis and refinement was written in imitation of the pastoral literature of Italy and Spain; the masterpiece of the genre was L’Astrée (1607–27; Astrea) by Honoré d’Urfé. Manners are stylized, settings are conventional, and the plot is highly contrived; but the sentiments of the characters are highly refined, and the psychology of their relationships is sharply analyzed.

Refinement of the language of poetry was the self-imposed task of François de Malherbe. Resolutely opposed to the Pléiade’s exalted conception of the poet as inspired favourite of the Muses, he owes his place in literary history not to his undistinguished creative writing but to the critical doctrine he imposed on fellow poets. Malherbe called for a simple, harmonious metre and a sober, almost prosaic vocabulary, pruned of poetic fancy. His influence helped to make French lyric verse, for nearly two centuries, elegant and refined but lacking imaginative inspiration. Malherbe’s alexandrine, however—clear, measured, and energetic—was a metre marvelously suited to be a vehicle for Pierre Corneille’s dramatic verse.

Not all poets of the 1620s accepted Malherbe’s lead. The most distinguished of the independents was Théophile de Viau, who not only was the antithesis of Malherbe in style and technique but also expressed the free thought inherited from Renaissance Italy. Théophile’s verse, with its engaging flavour of spontaneity and sincerity, shows a sensual delight in the natural world. He was the leader of a freethinking bohemia of young noblemen and men of letters, practising and preaching social and intellectual unorthodoxy. His persecution, imprisonment, and early death ended all this: libertinage went underground, and repressive orthodoxy was entrenched for a century or more. The poetry of Théophile and other independents is a last example of that exuberant and extravagant manner developed in the late 16th century to which modern criticism has given the name Baroque.

Antoine Furetière

born Dec. 28, 1619, Paris
died March 14, 1688, Paris

French novelist, satirist, and lexicographer, remarkable for the variety of his writing.

The son of a lawyer’s clerk, Furetière entered the legal profession but soon resigned his office and took holy orders to qualify himself for benefices, which provided an income that enabled him to pursue his literary vocation. After publishing three books of comic and satirical verse, he wrote Nouvelle Allégorique ou Histoire des derniers troubles arrivés au royaume d’Eloquence (1658), a facetious survey of the contemporary Parisian world of letters, in which he wrote so favourably of the members of the Académie Française that he was, in 1662, himself elected.

He soon forfeited the good will of his colleagues, however. His Le Roman bourgeois (1666) was a pioneer work in the history of the French novel because it dealt realistically with the Parisian middle classes instead of “heroic” personages or picaresque vagrants. But it gave offense to the academy, not so much by the formlessness of its construction as by its fidelity to a subject matter deemed unworthy of an academician.

Furetière incurred worse displeasure when, late in 1684, he revealed his intention of publishing his own universal dictionary of the French language, on which he had been working for some 40 years. This enterprise infuriated some of his fellow academicians, whose own long-projected dictionary was still incomplete. They expelled him from the academy, and, though King Louis XIV did his best to protect him, the rest of Furetière’s life was spent in controversy with his former colleagues. His great Dictionnaire, soon to be recognized as more comprehensive and much more useful than the academy’s, was first printed in Holland in three volumes in 1690.



Claude Favre, sieur de Vaugelas

born January 6, 1585, Meximieux, France
died February 1650, Paris

French grammarian and an original member of the Académie Française who played a major role in standardizing the French language of literature and of polite society. A courtier, he was a habitué of the salon of the Marquise de Rambouillet, where his taste and judgment in questions of speech and writing earned the respect of men of letters.

In his Remarques sur la langue françoise, utiles à ceux qui veulent bien parler et bien escrire (1647; “Remarks on the French Language, Useful for Those Who Wish to Speak Well and Write Well”), Vaugelas recorded what he considered good usage: the speech of the “soundest” elements of the court and the written language of the most intelligent authors. His contemporaries soon accepted his decisions as authoritative in cases of doubtful or conflicting usage; parler Vaugelas meant to speak not merely correctly but elegantly, and the Remarques became la bible de l’usage.

Vaugelas was sensible enough to realize that good usage changed with changes of interest in society. But when Richelieu took over his literary discussion group of nine to form the Académie Française, he instructed them to create firm rules for the language and to render it pure and eloquent. Vaugelas’ dicta were then taken too literally. The rigidity imposed by the Académie was resisted by authors in the second half of the 17th century, and, even some of Vaugelas’ contemporaries, not content with the formal language of the court, spiced their writing with language of the common people. Ultimately, however, the Académie eliminated the excesses of Renaissance diction and set a standard of literary taste.



Abbé d’Aubignac

born Aug. 4, 1604, Paris, France
died July 25, 1676, Nemours

associate of the statesman Cardinal de Richelieu, playwright, and critic who influenced French 17th-century writing and encouraged dramatic standards based on the classics. He wrote plays, fiction, translations of Homer and Ovid, and, most important, studies of dramatic technique and presentation.

Although trained as a lawyer, Aubignac soon turned to the Church (1628) and was named tutor to Richelieu’s nephew. Encouraged by the Cardinal, he wrote several prose tragedies, three of which survive: Cyminde (published 1642), La Pucelle d’Orléans (1642; “The Maid of Orleans”), and Zénobie (1647). His polemical writings include four critical essays on the plays of Pierre Corneille and several other critical commentaries, some of which offended members of the Académie Française. When, in consequence, he was not admitted to membership, he founded his own academy in 1654. Despite his political connections, however, he was unable to enlist the king’s support for it, and the group disbanded not long after Aubignac’s death.

His major work, La Pratique du théâtre (1657; The Whole Art of the Stage, 1684), was commissioned by Richelieu and is based on the idea that the action on stage must have credibility (vraisemblance) in the eyes of the audience. Aubignac proposed, among other things, that the whole play should take place as close as possible in time to the crisis, that audiences should not be asked to imagine changes of scene or character, and that the number of actors be restricted so there is no confusion. Despite the Pratique’s small sale, it was probably a force in the formation of French Classical taste as put into practice by Corneille and Racine. Another work, Projet pour le rétablissement du théâtre français (“Plan for Reorganizing the French Theatre”), published after the Pratique, called for the establishment of a general directorship over all public theatres in order to raise comedies, in particular, from disrepute. He adamantly opposed the idea that advances in theatre were harmful to religion. Aubignac was also one of the first men of letters to question the existence of Homer. He theorized that the Iliad was in fact a series of ballads by several different authors.



Honoré d’Urfé

born Feb. 10/11, 1567, Marseille, France
died June 1, 1625, Villefranche-sur-Mer

French author whose pastoral romance L’Astrée (1607–27; Astrea) was extremely popular in the 17th century and inspired many later writers.

D’Urfé was born into a family of ancient nobility. He grew up in the Forez region of southeastern France and was educated at the Collège de Tournon. He became a partisan of the Holy League during the Wars of Religion and was banished to Savoy before being allowed to return home in 1599. In 1625 d’Urfé raised a regiment and campaigned against the Spaniards in the Valtellina, but he soon died of pneumonia.

D’Urfé’s first work, Epistres Morales (1598; “Moral Letters”), reveals the influence of stoicism and Renaissance Platonism. His magnum opus, L’Astrée, appeared in five parts from 1607 to 1627 and altogether consists of some 5,000 pages. Part 4 of the book was edited by the author’s secretary, Balthazar Baro, who also added Part 5 based on notes left by d’Urfé. With its scene set on the banks of the Lignon River in 5th-century Gaul and its atmosphere one of paradisiacal innocence, L’Astrée describes the life and adventures of shepherds and shepherdesses whose main preoccupation is love. The book derives its title from the pair Astrée and Céladon, who are unable to marry because of their families’ mutual enmity.

D’Urfé’s models for his novel were various Spanish and Italian pastoral romances read in the French court, notably Diana (1559) by Jorge de Montemayor. D’Urfé himself was a remarkable observer of human nature, however, and his characters are far from mere conventions. Céladon, Sylvandre, and Hylas were for generations of French readers what the characters of Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens were for the Victorian Age.



François de Malherbe

born 1555, in or near Caen, Fr.
died Oct. 16, 1628, Paris

French poet who described himself as un excellent arrangeur de syllabes and theoretician whose insistence upon strict form, restraint, and purity of diction prepared the way for French Classicism.

Malherbe received a Protestant education at Caen and Paris and later at the universities of Basel (1571) and Heidelberg (1573) but was shortly converted to a lukewarm Catholicism.

In 1577 he went to Provence as secretary to the governor, Henri d’Angoulême. His first published poem was Les Larmes de Saint Pierre (1587; “The Tears of St. Peter”), a florid imitation of Luigi Tansillo’s Lagrime di San Pietro. His friendship with two lawyers of Aix, the Stoic philosopher Guillaume du Vair and the extraordinarily learned Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, developed his character and allowed his genius to mature. In 1600 an ode to the new queen, Marie de Médicis, made his name more widely known.

In 1605 Malherbe went to Paris, supported by his friends Peiresc and du Vair and by Cardinal Duperron. Henry IV was neither greatly interested in poetry nor notably generous, but Malherbe attained the position of court poet and a modest living from court patronage. He gathered a group of disciples, of whom Honorat de Bueil Racan and François Maynard are the best known, and much of his critical influence was exercised in the form of sharp verbal thrusts, some of them preserved in Racan’s life of him and in the pages devoted to him in Gédéon Tallemant des Réaux’s Historiettes (c. 1659; published 1834).

Malherbe’s prose writings consist of translations of Livy and Seneca; about 200 letters to Peiresc, of interest for their picture of court life; and his commentary on the works of the poet Philippe Desportes. These notes are detailed and entirely negative, fastening critically on minute points of workmanship. Nevertheless, certain positive principles emerge by implication: verbal harmony, propriety, intelligibility, and, above all, the conception of the poet as craftsman rather than prophet.

Malherbe’s own poetic work shows poverty of imagination; he wrote little and slowly, repeating his ideas, images, and rhymes. But there is a dignity and even grandeur in the harmony and strength of his best poems. In essentials, French verse retained the characteristics stamped on it by Malherbe up to the Romantic period and beyond.



Théophile de Viau

born 1590, Clairac, near Agen, France
died Sept. 25, 1626, Paris

French poet and dramatist of the pre-Neoclassical period.

Born into a Huguenot family of the minor nobility, Viau went to Paris, where he soon won a reputation as the leader of the freethinkers (libertins). He was briefly house dramatist to the Hôtel de Bourgogne in Paris, writing one important tragedy, Pyrame et Thisbé (1623). This period of prosperity ended when he was charged with irreligious activities. He fled, was sentenced in absentia to death, was rearrested, and was finally released in 1625 under sentence of banishment. His health broken, he died soon afterward.

Viau wrote odes and other poems on a wide range of topics. His verse is marked by a strong feeling for nature, great musicality, a use of original and ingenious imagery, and an epicurean outlook that is tempered by apocalyptic visions and the thought of death. He defended spontaneity and inspiration against the set of literary rules laid down by the influential poet François de Malherbe. Viau’s poetry was rediscovered by the Romantics in the 19th century.

The development of drama

Unlike the humanist playwrights of previous generations, Alexandre Hardy was first and foremost a man of the theatre. Poète à gages (in-house writer) to the Comédiens du Roi, the company established at the Hôtel de Bourgogne in Paris, he wrote hundreds of plays, of which 34 were published (1623–28). In addition to writing tragedies, he developed the tragicomedy and the pastoral play, which became the most popular genres between 1600 and 1630. In the theatre as elsewhere, the pastoral was a refining influence, providing a vehicle for the subtle analysis of feeling. Although the finest play of the 1620s is a tragedy, Théophile de Viau’s Pyrame et Thisbé (1623; “Pyramus and Thisbe”), which shares the fresh, lyrical charm of the pastorals, tragicomedy is without a doubt the Baroque form at its best. Here the favourite theme of false appearances, the episodic structure, and devices such as the play within the play reflect the essentials of Baroque art. During the 1630s a crucial struggle took place between this irregular type of drama and a simpler and more disciplined alternative. Theoretical discussion focused on the conventional rules (the unities of time, place, and action, mistakenly ascribed to the authority of Aristotle), but the bienséances (conventions regarding subject matter and style) were no less important in determining the form and idiom the mature Classical theatre was to adopt.

Comedy gained a fresh impetus about 1630. The new style, defined by Corneille as “une peinture de la conversation des honnêtes gens” (“a painting of the conversation of the gentry”), simply transposes the pastoral into an urban setting. At the same time, ambitious young playwrights competing for public favour and the support of the two Paris theatre companies, the Hôtel de Bourgogne and the Marais, did not neglect other types of drama; and Corneille, together with Jean Mairet, Tristan (François L’Hermite), and Jean de Rotrou, inaugurated “regular” tragedy. But it was some time before Corneille, any more than his rivals, turned exclusively to tragedy. The eclecticism of these years is illustrated by his L’Illusion comique (performed 1636; The Comedy of Illusion), a brilliant exploitation of the interplay between reality and illusion that characterizes Baroque art. The two trends come together in Corneille’s theatre in Le Cid (performed 1637; The Cid), which, though often called the first Classical tragedy, was created as a tragicomedy. The emotional range Corneille achieves with his verse in The Cid is something previously unmatched. Contemporary audiences at once recognized the play as a masterpiece, but its form was subjected to an unprecedented critical attack. The querelle du Cid (“quarrel of The Cid”) caused such a stir that it led to the intervention of Cardinal de Richelieu, who referred the play to the judgment of the newly founded Académie Française.

The effect of the querelle du Cid on Corneille’s evolution is unmistakable: all his experimentation was henceforth to be carried out within the stricter Classical formula. A remarkable spell of creative activity produced in quick succession Horace (1640), Cinna (1641), and Polyeucte (1643), which, with The Cid, represent the playwright’s highest achievement. In terms of form, the essence of Classical French tragedy is a single action, seized at crisis point.

Another of Richelieu’s protégés, Jean Chapelain, began in the 1630s to exert an influence similar to that of Malherbe a generation earlier. Chapelain was a major architect of Classicism in France. More liberal than Malherbe, he made allowance for that intangible element (“le je ne sais quoi”) that rules cannot produce. The Sentiments de l’Académie (1638; “The Opinions of the Academy”), compiled by Chapelain as a judgment on The Cid, reflects prudent compromise, but one can sense beneath the pedantry of certain comments a genuine feeling for the harmony and regularity that Classical tragedy was to achieve.

Tragicomedy lingered on as a popular alternative. Jean de Rotrou’s Le Véritable Saint-Genest (1647; “The Real Saint Genest”), for example, provides an interesting contrast with Polyeucte, treating in the Baroque manner similar themes of divine grace and conversion. By the 1640s the mixture of modes was falling out of favour. Writers and their public had become more responsive to various standardizing influences. René Descartes’s Discours de la méthode (1637; Discourse on Method), with its opening sentence, “Le bon sens est la chose du monde la mieux partagée…” (“Good sense is of all things in the world the most equally distributed…”), clearly assumes that the mental processes of all men, if properly conducted, will lead to identical conclusions. A similar assumption is implicit, as regards the psychology of the passions, in Descartes’s Traité des passions de l’âme (1649; Treatise on Passions).

The long struggle to produce a literature that could claim to represent the moral and cultural values of a homogeneous society occupied the whole of the first half of the century. The spirit of insurrection that inspired the Fronde (a period of civil unrest between 1648 and 1653, in which the high aristocracy allied themselves with the judicial bodies known as parlements in an attempt to reassert their independence of the centralizing monarchy) is clearly marked in the writing of the time, not least in Corneille’s tragedies. His self-reliant heroes, meeting every challenge and overcoming every obstacle, are motivated by the self-conscious moral code that animated Cardinal de Retz, Mme de Longueville, and other leaders of the heroic but futile resistance to Cardinal Mazarin. Neither Corneille’s heroes nor Mazarin’s opponents show a devotion to cause that is free from self-glorification; in both cases, the approbation of others is as necessary as the desire to leave an example for posterity. Such optimistic, heroic attitudes may seem incompatible with a tragic view of the world; indeed, Corneille provides the key to his originality in substituting for the traditional Aristotelian emotions of pity and fear a new goal of admiration. Corneille asks that his audience admire something larger than life, and the best of his plays are still capable of arousing this response.

Alexandre Hardy


born 1572?, Paris, France
died 1632?

playwright, the first Frenchman known to have made his living as a dramatist, who claimed authorship of some 600 plays.

Hardy was a hired poet for troupes of actors both in the provinces and in Paris. His works were widely admired in court circles, where he wrote for royal companies. The actors who bought his plays rarely allowed him to publish them, and fewer than 50 survived. Shortly after Hardy’s death his plays ceased to be produced. Nearly all the succeeding dramatists, among them Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine, the two masters of the classical French tragedy, affected contempt for his work, but they profited from his dramatic technique.

Hardy’s work violated many of the later strictures of the French Academy governing the writing of plays, especially in neglecting the unities of time and place. He cut down or eliminated the role of the chorus and depicted violence on stage. His plots were faster paced than those of the tragedies modeled on ancient Greek and Roman works. Action was linked with the psychology of the characters: the protagonists acted rather than declaimed, developed as human beings, and sometimes experienced inner conflict. His pastorals improved on earlier ones through their fast-moving plots and naturalness. Many plays were demanded of him, and his style was unpolished.

Unlike other 17th-century playwrights, Hardy took few stories from the Greek and Latin dramatists or the Bible. He drew instead upon such writers as Ovid, Cervantes, and Boccaccio. Despite his lack of major achievements, his influence on the development of the French theatre was considerable.




Pierre Corneille

"The Cid"


French poet and dramatist

born June 6, 1606, Rouen, France
died Oct. 1, 1684, Paris

French poet and dramatist, considered the creator of French classical tragedy. His chief works include Le Cid (1637), Horace (1640), Cinna (1641), and Polyeucte (1643).

Early life and career.
Pierre Corneille was born into a well-to-do, middle-class Norman family. His grandfather, father, and an uncle were all lawyers; another uncle and a brother entered the church; his younger brother, Thomas, became a well-known poet and popular playwright. Pierre was educated at the Jesuit school in his hometown, won two prizes for Latin verse composition, and became a licentiate in law. From 1628 to 1650 he held the position of king’s counselor in the local office of the department of waterways and forests.
Corneille’s first play, written before he was 20 and apparently drawing upon a personal love experience, was an elegant and witty comedy, Mélite, first performed in Rouen in 1629. When it was repeated in Paris the following year, it built into a steady (and, according to Corneille, surprising) success. His next plays were the tragicomedy Clitandre (performed 1631) and a series of comedies including La Veuve (performed 1632; The Widow), La Galerie du palais (performed 1633; The Palace Corridor), La Suivante (performed 1634; The Maidservant), La Place royale (performed 1634), and L’Illusion comique (performed 1636). His talent, meanwhile, had come to the attention of the Cardinal de Richelieu, France’s great statesman, who included the playwright among a group known as les cinq auteurs (“society of the five authors”), which the Cardinal had formed to have plays written, the inspiration and outline of which were provided by himself. Corneille was temperamentally unsuited to this collective endeavour and irritated Richelieu by departing from his part (Act III) of the outline for La Comédie des Tuileries (1635). In the event, Corneille’s contribution was artistically outstanding.
During these years, support had been growing for a new approach to tragedy that aimed at “regularity” through observance of what were called the “classical” unities. Deriving from Italy, this doctrine of the unities demanded that there be unity of time (strictly, the play’s events were to be limited to “the period between sunrise and sunset”), of place (the entire action was to take place in the one locus), and of action (subplots and the dramatic treatment of more than one situation were to be avoided). All this was based on a misunderstanding of Aristotle’s Poetics, in which the philosopher attempted to give a critical definition of the nature of tragedy. The new theory was first put into dramatic practice in Jean Mairet’s Sophonisbe (1634), a tragedy that enjoyed considerable success. Corneille, not directly involved in the call for regular tragedy of this kind, nevertheless responded to Sophonisbe by experimenting in the tragic form with Médée (1635). He then wrote Le Cid (performed early 1637), first issued as a tragicomedy, later as a tragedy.
Le Cid, now commonly regarded as the most significant play in the history of French drama, proved an immense popular success. It sparked off a literary controversy, however, which was chiefly conducted by Corneille’s rival dramatists, Mairet and Georges de Scudéry, and which resulted in a bitter pamphlet war. Richelieu, whose motives are not entirely clear, instructed the then recently instituted Académie Française to make a judgment on the play: the resulting document (Les Sentiments de l’Académie française sur la tragi-comédie du Cid, 1637), drafted in the main by Jean Chapelain, a critic who advocated “regular” tragedy, was worded tactfully and admitted the play’s beauties but criticized Le Cid as dramatically implausible and morally defective. Richelieu used the judgment of the Académie as an excuse for suppressing public performances of the play.
Corneille, indeed, had not observed the dramatic unities in Le Cid. The play has nevertheless been generally regarded as the first flowering of French “classical” tragedy. For the best French drama of the “classical” period in the 17th century is properly characterized, not so much by rules—which are no more than a structural convention—as by emotional concentration on a moral dilemma and on a supreme moment of truth, when leading characters recognize the depth of their involvement in this dilemma. In Le Cid, Corneille rejected the discursive treatment of the subject given in his Spanish source (a long, florid, and violent play by Guillén de Castro y Bellvis, a 17th-century dramatist), concentrating instead on a conflict between passionate love and family loyalty, or honour. Thus Le Cid anticipated the “pure” tragedy of Racine, in whose work the “classical” concept of tragic intensity at the moment of self-realization found its most mature and perfect expression.

Major tragedies.
Corneille seems to have taken to heart the criticisms levelled at Le Cid, and he wrote nothing for three years (though this time was also taken up with a lawsuit to prevent the creation of a legal office in Rouen on a par with his own). In 1640, however, appeared the Roman tragedy Horace; another, Cinna, appeared in 1641. In 1641 also Corneille married Marie de Lampérière, the daughter of a local magistrate, who was to bear him seven children to whom he was a devoted father. Corneille’s brother Thomas married Marie’s sister, and the two couples lived in extraordinary harmony, their households hardly separated; the brothers enjoyed literary amity and mutual assistance.
Le Cid, Horace, Cinna, and Polyeucte, which appeared in 1643, are together known as Corneille’s “classical tetralogy” and together represent perhaps his finest body of work for the theatre. Horace was based on an account by the Roman historian Livy of a legendary combat between members of the Horatii and Curiatii families, representing Rome and Alba; Corneille, however, concentrated on the murder by one of the patriots of his pacifist sister, the whole case afterward being argued before the king (a “duplicity” of action admitted by Corneille himself, who otherwise seems by now to have decided to follow the classical rules). Cinna was about a conspiracy against the first Roman emperor, Augustus, who checkmates his adversaries by granting them a political pardon instead of dealing them the expected violent fate, boasting that he has strength enough to be merciful. The hero of Polyeucte (which many critics have considered to be Corneille’s finest work), on adopting Christianity seeks a martyr’s death with almost militaristic fervour, choosing this as the path to la gloire (“glory”) in another world, whereas his wife insists that the claims of marriage are as important as those of religion.
These four plays are charged with an energy peculiar to Corneille. Their arguments, presented elegantly, rhetorically, in the grand style, remain firm and sonorous. The alexandrine verse that he employed (though not exclusively) was used with astonishing flexibility as an instrument to convey all shades of meaning and expression: irony, anger, soliloquy, repartee, epigram. Corneille used language not so much to illumine character as to heighten the clash between concepts, hence the “sentences” in his poetry which are memorable even outside their dramatic context. Action here is reaction. These plays concern not so much what is done as what is resolved, felt, suffered. Their formal principle is symmetry: presentation, by a poet who was also a lawyer, of one side of the case, then of the other, of one position followed by its opposite.

Contribution to comedy.
The fame of his “classical tetralogy” has tended to obscure the enormous variety of Corneille’s other drama, and his contribution to the development of French comedy has not always received its proper due. The Roman plays were followed by more tragedies: La Mort de Pompée (performed 1644; The Death of Pompey), Rodogune (performed 1645), which was one of his greatest successes, Théodore (performed 1646), which was his first taste of failure, and Héraclius (performed 1647). But in 1643 Corneille had successfully turned to comedy with Le Menteur (The Liar), following it with the less successful La Suite du Menteur (performed 1645; Sequel to the Liar). Both were lively comedies of intrigue, adapted from Spanish models; and Le Menteur is the one outstanding French comedy before the plays of Molière, Corneille’s young contemporary, who acknowledged its influence on his own work. Le Menteur, indeed, stands in relation to French classical comedy much as Le Cid does to tragedy.
In 1647 Corneille moved with his family to Paris and was at last admitted to the Académie Française, having twice previously been rejected on the grounds of nonresidence in the capital. Don Sanche d’Aragon (performed 1650), Andromède (performed 1650), a spectacular play in which stage machinery was very important, and Nicomède (performed 1651) were all written during the political upheaval and civil war of the period known as the Fronde (1648–53), with Don Sanche in particular carrying contemporary political overtones. In 1651 or 1652 his play Pertharite seems to have been brutally received, and for the next eight years Corneille wrote nothing for the theatre, concentrating instead on a verse translation of St. Thomas à Kempis’ Imitatio Christi (Imitation of Christ), which he completed in 1656, and also working at critical discourses on his plays that were to be included in a 1660 edition of his collected works.

Years of declining power.
Corneille did not turn again to the theatre until 1659, when, with the encouragement of the statesman and patron of the arts Nicolas Fouquet, he presented Oedipe. For the next 14 years he wrote almost one play a year, including Sertorius (performed 1662) and Attila (performed 1667), both of which contain an amount of violent and surprising incident.
Corneille’s last plays, indeed, were closer in spirit to his works of the 1640s than to his classical tragedies. Their plots were endlessly complicated, their emotional climate close to that of tragicomedy. Other late plays include La Toison d’or (performed 1660; The Golden Fleece), his own Sophonisbe (performed 1663), Othon (performed 1664), Agésilas (performed 1666), and Pulchérie (performed 1672). In collaboration with Molière and Philippe Quinault he wrote Psyché (1671), a play employing music, incorporating ballet sequences, and striking a note of lyrical tenderness. A year earlier, however, he had presented Tite et Bérénice, in deliberate contest with a play on the same subject by Racine. Its failure indicated the public’s growing preference for the younger playwright.
Corneille’s final play was Suréna (performed 1674), which showed an uncharacteristic delicacy and sentimental appeal. After this he was silent except for some beautiful verses, which appeared in 1676, thanking King Louis XIV for ordering the revival of his plays. Although not in desperate poverty, Corneille was by no means wealthy; and his situation was further embarrassed by the intermittent stoppage of a state pension that had been granted by Richelieu soon after the appearance of Horace in 1640. Corneille died in his house on the rue d’Argenteuil, Paris, and was buried in the church of Saint-Roch. No monument marked his tomb until 1821.

Corneille did not have to wait for “the next age” to do him justice. The cabal that had led the attack on Le Cid had no effect on the judgment of the public, and the great men of his time were his fervent admirers. Balzac praised him; Molière acknowledged him as his master and as the foremost of dramatists; Racine is said to have assured his son that Corneille made verses “a hundred times more beautiful” than his own. It was left to the 18th century, largely because of the criticisms of Voltaire, to exalt Racine at Corneille’s expense; but the Romantic critics of the late 18th century began to restore Corneille to his true rank.
It cannot be denied, however, that Corneille signed much verse that is dull to mediocre. Molière acknowledged this fact by saying: “My friend Corneille has a familiar who inspires him with the finest verses in the world. But sometimes the familiar leaves him to shift for himself, and then he fares very badly.” But the importance of his pioneer work in the development of French classical theatre cannot be denied; and, if a poet is to be judged by his best things, Corneille’s place among the great dramatic poets is beyond question.
Not only did Pierre Corneille produce, for nearly 40 years in all, an astonishing variety of plays to entertain the French court and the Parisian middle class: he also prepared the way for a dramatic theatre that was the envy of Europe throughout the 17th century. His own contribution to this theatre, moreover, was that of master as much as of pioneer. Corneille’s excellence as a playwright has long been held to lie in his ability to depict personal and moral forces in conflict. In play after play, dramatic situations lead to a finely balanced discussion of controversial issues. Willpower and self-mastery are glorified in many of his heroes, who display a heroic energy in meeting or mastering the dilemma that they face; but Corneille was less interested in exciting his audiences to pity and fear through visions of the limits of man’s agony and endurance than he was in stirring them to admiration of his heroes. Thus, only a few of his plays deal in tragic emotion. Nevertheless, because his most famous work, Le Cid, anticipated the tragic intensity of plays by Jean Racine, his younger contemporary, Corneille has often been referred to as the “father” of French classical tragedy; and his contribution to the rise of comedy has, in comparison, often been overlooked. From a 20th-century vantage point, however, it is as a master of drama that he appears, rather than of tragedy in particular.

Robert J. Nelson



Jean Chapelain

born Dec. 4, 1595, Paris, Fr.
died Feb. 22, 1674, Paris

French literary critic and poet who attempted to apply empirical standards to literary criticism.

Chapelain’s approach was a challenge to others of his day who appealed in doctrinaire fashion to classical Greek authorities. His critical views were advanced primarily in short articles and monographs and in his voluminous correspondence. Chapelain’s own poetic works are considered mediocre. His epic La Pucelle (“The Maid”), which he began in 1630, was a failure when the first 12 cantos were published 26 years later. Chapelain first attracted attention in 1619–20 with a translation of Mateo Alemán’s picaresque novel, Guzmán de Alfarache. He subsequently became a pupil of the aged poet and critic François de Malherbe and was later instrumental in founding the French Academy. His prestige in literary circles became such that in 1663, when Jean-Baptiste Colbert, minister of finance to King Louis XIV, decided to grant pensions to deserving writers, Chapelain was entrusted with the naming of candidates. A number of other writers opposed him, however, and readily expressed their views in pamphlets and epigrams and in a skit entitled Chapelain décoiffé (1663; “Chapelain Dewigged”).



Jean de Rotrou


Jean Rotrou (19 August or 20 August 1609 - June 1650) was a French poet and tragedian.

"La sœur", Paris, T. Quinet (1647)Rotrou was born at Dreux in Normandy. He studied at Dreux and at Paris, and, though three years younger than Pierre Corneille, began writing before him. In 1632 he became playwright to the actors of the Hôtel de Bourgogne. (This hall is the setting for the first act of Rostand's play Cyrano de Bergerac, and Rotrou's name is mentioned - as is Corneille's) With few exceptions, the only events recorded of Rotrou's life are the successive appearances of his plays and his enrolment in 1635 in the band of five poets who had the duty of turning Richelieu's dramatic ideas into shape.

Rotrou's own first piece, L'Hypocondriaque (first produced in 1631), dedicated to the Comte de Soissons, seigneur of Dreux, appeared when he was only eighteen. In the same year he published a collection of Œuvres poetiques, including elegies, epistles and religious verse. His second piece, La Bague de l'oubli (1635), an adaptation in part from the Sortija del Olvido of Félix Lope de Vega, was much more characteristic. It is the first of several plays in which Rotrou endeavoured to naturalize in France the romantic comedy which had flourished in Spain and England instead of the classical tragedy of Seneca and the classical comedy of Terence.

Corneille had leanings in the same direction. Rotrou's brilliant but hasty and unequal work showed the marks of a stronger adhesion to the Spanish model. In 1634, when he printed Cleagénor et Doristée (acted 1630), he said he was already the author of thirty plays; but this probably includes adaptations. Diane (acted 1630; pr. 1633), Les Occasions perdues (acted 1631; printed 1635), which won for him the favour of Richelieu, and L'Heureuse Constance (acted 1631; pr. 1635), which was praised by Anne of Austria, succeeded each other rapidly, and were all in the Spanish manner.

In 1631 Rotrou imitated Plautus in Les Mentyhmes, and in 1634 Seneca in his Hercube mourant. Comedies and tragi-comedies followed. Documents exist showing the sale of four pieces to Antoine de Sommarille for 750 binres tournois in 1636, and in the next year he sold ten to the same bookseller. He spent much time at Le Mans with his patron, de Belin, who was one of the opponents of Corneille in the quarrel over Le Cid. It has been generally assumed, partly because of a forged letter long accepted as Corneille's, that Rotrou was his generous defender in this matter. He appears to have been no more than neutral, but is credited with an attempt at reconciliation between the parties in a pamphlet printed in 1637, L'Inconnu et veritable amy de messieurs de Scudéry et Corneille.

De Belin died in 1637, and in 1639 Rotrou bought the post of lieutenant particulier au baüliage at Dreux. In the next year he married Marguerite Camus, and settled down as a model magistrate and père de famille. Among his pieces written before his marriage were a translation of the Amphitryon of Plautus, under the title of Les Deux Sosies (1636), Antigone (1638), and Laure Persecutie (acted 1637; pr. 1639), in the opposite style to these classical pieces.

In 1646 Rotrou produced the first of his four masterpieces, Le Veritable Saint Genest (acted 1646; pr. 1648), a story of Christian martyrdom containing some amusing byplay, one noble speech and a good deal of dignified action. Rotrou uses with considerable success the device of a play within a play to assert a Christian perspective on the theatrum mundi theme. The Roman actor Genest becomes a real convert while playing the part of a Christian martyr. Incidentally (Act i. Sc. v.) Rotrou pays a noble tribute to the genius of Corneille. Don Bertrand de Cabrère (1647) is a tragi-comedy of merit; Venceslas (1647; pr. 1648) is considered in France his masterpiece, and has had several modern revivals; Cosroès (1649) has an Oriental setting, and is claimed as the only absolutely original piece of Rotrou.

These masterpieces follow foreign models, and Rotrou's genius is shown in the skill with which he simplifies the plot and strengthens the situations. Saint Genest followed Lope de Vega's Lo fingido verdadero; Venceslas followed the No ay ser padre siendo rey of Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla. In this play Ladislas and his brother both love the princess Cassandra; Ladislas makes his way into her house and in the darkness kills a man whom he thinks to be the duke of Courland, but who is really his brother Alexandre, the favoured lover. In the early morning he meets the king and is confronted by the duke of Courland. The outline of this incident is in the Spanish play, but there the spectators are aware of the ghastly mistake at the time of the murder. Rotrou shows his dramatic skill by concealing the real facts from the audience until they are revealed to the horror-struck Ladislas himself.

In 1650 the plague broke out at Dreux. Rotrou remained at his post, although urgently desired to save himself by going to Paris; caught the disease, and died in a few hours. He was buried at Dreux on 28 June 1650. Rotrou's great fertility (he left thirty-five collected plays besides others lost, strayed or uncollected), and perhaps the uncertainty of dramatic plan shown by his hesitation almost to the last between the classical and the romantic style have injured his work. He has no thoroughly good play, hardly one thoroughly good act. But his situations are often pathetic and noble, and as a tragic poet properly so called he is at his best almost the equal of Corneille and of Jean Racine. His single lines and single phrases have a brilliancy and force not to be found in French drama between Corneille and Victor Hugo.

The heroic ideal

The same appetite for heroic subject matter is reflected in the midcentury novels. These resemble L’Astrée in that they are long-winded, multivolume adventure stories with highly complicated plots, but they have moved from the world of the pastoral to that of ancient history. The two best-known examples, Artamène; ou, le grand Cyrus (1649–53; Artamenes; or, The Grand Cyrus) and Clélie (1654–60; Eng. trans. Clelia), both by Madeleine de Scudéry, are set in Persia and Rome, respectively. Such novels reflect the society of the time. They also show again what influenced the readers and playgoers of the Classical age: the minute analysis of the passions, when divorced from the superficial concerns of these novels, looks forward to the psychological subtlety of Jean Racine.

Other writers of the period make a more individual use of the novel form. Cyrano de Bergerac returned to the Renaissance tradition of fictional travel as a vehicle for social and political satire and may be seen as an early exponent of science fiction. So provocative were the ideas expressed in his Histoire comique des états et empires de la lune (1656; “Comical Tale of the States and Empires of the Moon”) and Histoire comique des états et empires du soleil (1661; “Comical Tale of the States and Empires of the Sun”), collectively published in English translation by Richard Aldington as Cyrano de Bergerac: Voyages to the Moon and the Sun (1923), that neither work was published until after 1655, the year of his death. Paul Scarron, an early practitioner of more realistic writing, was more down-to-earth in purpose and manner: in Le Roman comique (1651–57) he set out to parody the heroic novels.


Madeleine de Scudéry

born , 1607, Le Havre, Fr.
died June 2, 1701, Paris

French novelist and social figure whose romans à clef were immensely popular in the 17th century.

De Scudéry was the younger sister of the dramatist Georges de Scudéry. Madeleine de Scudéry moved to Paris to join her brother after the death of her uncle, who had cared for her after she and her brother had been orphaned. Clever and bright, she soon made her mark on the literary circle of the Hôtel de Rambouillet; by the late 1640s, she had replaced Madame de Rambouillet as the leading literary hostess in Paris and had established her own salon, known as the Société du Samedi (the Saturday Club).

Her first novel, Ibrahim ou l’illustre bassa (1642; Ibrahim or the Illustrious Bassa), was published in four volumes. Her later works were even longer; both Artamène ou le grand Cyrus (1649–53; Artamenes or the Grand Cyrus) and Clélie, histoire romaine (1654–60; Clelia) were published in 10 volumes. Contemporary readers, accustomed to such long novels, appreciated De Scudéry’s works both for their bulk and for the glimpses they provided into the lives of important society figures of the day. These individuals were thinly disguised as Persian, Greek, and Roman warriors and maidens; De Scudéry herself appears in Artamène as Sappho, a name by which she was known to her friends.

Other of her works include Almahide, ou l’es- clave reine (1660–63; “Almahide, or the Slave Queen”), Mathilde d’Aguilar, histoire espagnole (1667; “Mathilda of Aguilar, a Spanish Tale”), and La Promenade de Versailles, ou l’histoire de Célanire (1669; “The Versailles Promenade, or the Tale of Celanire”). Most of the novels were published anonymously or under the name of her brother Georges. They included long passages devoted to conversations on such topics as the education of women; these were excerpted and published separately.

Although her novels were exceptionally popular and were lauded by such notables as Madame de Sévigné, they also met with some criticism. The poet and critic Nicolas Boileau, for instance, satirized them harshly.



Cyrano de Bergerac

born March 6, 1619, Paris
died July 28, 1655, Paris

French satirist and dramatist whose works combining political satire and science-fantasy inspired a number of later writers. He has been the basis of many romantic but unhistorical legends, of which the best known is Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), in which he is portrayed as a gallant and brilliant but shy and ugly lover, possessed (as in fact he was) of a remarkably large nose.

As a young man, Cyrano joined the company of guards and was wounded at the Siege of Arras in 1640. But he gave up his military career in the following year to study under the philosopher and mathematician Pierre Gassendi. Under the influence of Gassendi’s scientific theories and libertine philosophy, Cyrano wrote his two best known works, Histoire comique des états et empires de la lune and Histoire comique des états et empires du soleil (Eng. trans. A Voyage to the moon: with some account of the Solar World, 1754). These stories of imaginary journeys to the Moon and Sun, published posthumously in 1656 and 1662, satirize 17th-century religious and astronomical beliefs, which saw man and the world as the centre of creation.

Cyrano’s use of science helped to popularize new theories; but his principal aim was to ridicule authority, particularly in religion, and to encourage freethinking materialism. He “predicted” a number of later discoveries such as the phonograph and the atomic structure of matter; but they were merely offshoots from an inquiring and poetic mind, not attempts to demonstrate theories in practical terms.

Cyrano’s plays include a tragedy, La Mort d’Agrippine (published 1654, “The Death of Agrippine”), which was suspected of blasphemy, and a comedy, Le Pédant joué (published 1654; “The Pedant Imitated”). As long as classicism was the established taste, Le Pédant joué, a colossal piece of fooling, was despised; but its liveliness appeals to modern readers as it did to Molière, who based two scenes of Les Fourberies de Scapin on it. La Mort d’Agrippine is intellectually impressive because of its daring ideas, and the direct and impassioned character of the tragic dialogue makes it interesting theatrically.

As a political writer, Cyrano was the author of a violent pamphlet against the men of the Fronde, in which he defended Mazarin in the name of political realism as exemplified in the tradition of Machiavelli. Cyrano’s Lettres show him as a master of baroque prose, marked by bold and original metaphors. His contemporaries regarded them as absurdly farfetched, but they came to be esteemed in the 20th century as examples of the baroque style.



Paul Scarron

baptized July 4, 1610, Paris, Fr.
died Oct. 7, 1660, Paris

French writer who contributed significantly to the development of three literary genres: the drama, the burlesque epic, and the novel. He is best known today for Le Roman comique (“The Comic Novel”) and as the first husband of Françoise d’Aubigné, marquise de Maintenon, the influential second wife of King Louis XIV.

Scarron’s origins were bourgeois, and it was originally intended that he should enter the church. After a period in Brittany and a visit to Rome, however, Scarron settled in Paris and devoted himself to writing. His first works were burlesques. The poet Marc-Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant had already started the vogue for parodies of the classics, but Scarron is mainly responsible for making the burlesque one of the characteristic literary forms of the mid-17th century. His seven-volume Virgile travesty (1648–53) had a tremendous success. Modern readers, perhaps because they are less impressed than Scarron’s contemporaries by the daring of parodying the Aeneid, often find the humour facile and too drawn out.

Scarron, who married d’Aubigné in 1652, was also a considerable figure in the theatrical life of Paris in the years immediately preceding Molière’s arrival in the capital. He often wrote with particular actors in mind; for example, Le Jodelet (produced 1645) was written to include a starring role for the popular comedian of the same name. Scarron’s plots are usually based upon Spanish originals, and even his most successful comedy, Dom Japhet d’Arménie (produced 1647), owes a good deal to a play by Castillo Solórzano. Though no longer performed, Scarron’s plays are of real historical importance, and Molière took many hints from them.

Scarron’s profound practical experience of the theatre is reflected in Le Roman comique, 3 vol. (1651–59). This novel, composed in the style of a Spanish picaresque romance, recounts with gusto the comical adventures of a company of strolling players. The humour of Le Roman comique has lasted better than that of the parodies, probably because it is more human and less literary. The realism of the novel makes it an invaluable source of information about conditions in the French provinces in the 17th century.


The honnete homme

Partly because of the influence of the salons and partly as a result of disillusionment at the failure of the Fronde, the heroic ideal was gradually replaced in the 1650s by the concept of honnêteté. The word does not connote “honesty” in its modern sense but refers rather to an ideal aristocratic moral and social mode of behaviour, a sincere refinement of tastes and manners. Unlike the aspirant after gloire (“glory”), the honnête homme (“gentleman”) cultivated the social graces and valued the pleasures of social intercourse. A cultured amateur, modest and self-effacing, he took as his model the Renaissance uomo universale (“universal man”). François de La Rochefoucauld, an aristocrat who had played a leading part in the Fronde, provides an interesting illustration of the transition between the two ages. The Maximes (1665; Maxims and Moral Reflections), his principal achievement, is a collection of 500 epigrammatic reflections on human behaviour, expressed in the most universal terms: the general tone is bitingly cynical, self-interest being seen as the source of all actions. If a more positive message is to be seen, it is the recognition of honnêteté as a code of behaviour that holds society together. However, even this is touched with cynicism. La Rochefoucauld’s view of honnêteté is a pragmatic one, falling as far short of the ideal defined by Antoine Gombaud, chevalier de Méré, in his Discours de la vraie honnêteté (1701; “Discourse on True Honnêteté”), as it does of the example set by Charles de Saint-Denis, sieur de Saint-Évremond, who, in the opinion of contemporaries, most nearly lived up to such an ideal. Few honnêtes gens had the culture, the taste, and the temperament to practice the art of living in such an exemplary way, but the ideal of tolerant, cultured Epicureanism for a while set the tone of fashionable society in Paris.


This period also saw the fullest development of the cult of préciosité, a style of thought and expression exhibiting delicacy of taste and sentiment. Inasmuch as honnêteté stands for moderation and achieved simplicity and préciosité for the cult of artifice and allusion, the two phenomena may seem to be opposites. The sentiments and manners satirized by Molière in Les Précieuses ridicules (performed 1659; The Pretentious Young Ladies) do not represent the whole picture, however, and, although the performance of some followers of the mode led to ludicrous extremes or, worse, degeneration into meaningless cliché, précieuses such as Madeleine de Scudéry were responsible for introducing a new subtlety into the language, establishing new standards of delicacy in matters of taste, and propagating advanced ideas about the equality of the sexes in marriage. Their aims thus ran parallel to those of the honnêtes gens, and the ideal of the educated, emancipated woman was the female counterpart of the masculine ideal defined above.

The fullest representation of the honnête homme in imaginative literature is to be found in the theatre of Molière. A bourgeois by birth, a courtier, and an honnête homme, Molière was also an actor-manager and an entertainer. He toured the provinces with his theatre troupe from about 1645 until 1658, when they returned to Paris. Molière soon succeeded in winning audiences to a completely new type of comedy. While his early plays may be divided conventionally into literary comedy and popular farces, from L’École des femmes (performed 1662; The School for Wives) onward he fused these two strains, creating a formula that combined the Classical structure, the linguistic refinement, and the portrayal of manners expected of comedy with the caricatural characterization proper to traditional French farce and the Italian commedia dell’arte. Even in stylized verse plays such as The School for Wives, Le Misanthrope (performed 1666), Le Tartuffe (first version 1664; Tartuffe: The Hypocrite), or Les Femmes savantes (1672; The Learned Ladies), the comedy of manners merely provides a framework for the comic portrait of a central character, in which exaggeration and fantasy play a considerable part. However topical the subject and however prominent the contemporary satiric element in Molière’s plays, his characters always possess a common denominator of universal humanity. Most of his plays contain, alongside the comic character, one or more examples of the honnête homme; and the social norm against which his comic characters offend is that of a tolerant, humane honnêteté. In Le Tartuffe, and in Dom Juan (1665), topical references and satiric implications were so provocative in dealing with the delicate subject of religious belief that there were strong reactions from churchmen. However, from the start of his Paris career Molière could count on the active support of the king, Louis XIV. A number of his plays were written for performance at Versailles or other courts; and Molière also wrote several comédies-ballets and collaborated with Jean-Baptiste Lully and others in other divertissements that brought together the arts of poetry, music, and dance.

The biggest box-office success of the century, judged by length of first run, was the Timocrate (1656) of Pierre Corneille’s younger brother Thomas, a prolific playwright adept at gauging the public taste. Timocrate was exactly contemporary with the précieux novels of Madeleine de Scudéry, and, like Philippe Quinault in his tragédies galantes, the author reproduced the disguises and amorous intrigues so much admired by habitués of the salons. However, the 1660s were to see the rivalry between two acknowledged masters of serious drama. Pierre Corneille, returning to the theatre in 1659 after a hiatus, wrote several more plays; but, though Sertorius (performed 1662) and his last play, Suréna (performed 1674), bear comparison with earlier masterpieces, heroic idealism had lost conviction. While Corneille retained his partisans among older playgoers, it was Jean Racine who appealed to a new generation.

François de La Rochefoucauld

"Reflections; or Sentences and Moral Maxims"

born September 15, 1613, Paris, France
died March 16/17, 1680, Paris

French classical author who had been one of the most active rebels of the Fronde before he became the leading exponent of the maxime, a French literary form of epigram that expresses a harsh or paradoxical truth with brevity.

Heritage and political activities.
La Rochefoucauld was the son of François, Count (comte) de La Rochefoucauld, and his wife, Gabrielle du Plessis-Liancourt. In 1628 he was married to Andrée de Vivonne, with whom he had four sons and three daughters. He served in the army against the Spaniards in Italy in 1629, in the Netherlands and Picardy in 1635–36, and again in Flanders in 1639. The public lives of both father and son were conditioned by the policies of Louis XIV’s government, which by turns threatened and flattered the nobility. Though his father was created duke and made governor of Poitou, he was later deprived of that post when the loyalty of the family was called into question. The younger La Rochefoucauld was allowed by Cardinal Mazarin, the infant king’s chief minister, to resume the governorship in 1646. The fact that his château at Verteuil was demolished by the crown, apparently without notice, in 1650 throws light on a main cause of the series of revolts between 1648 and 1653 known as the Fronde: the distrust and fear felt by the monarchy for the local independence of the nobility.

La Rochefoucauld was more vulnerable than most of his contemporaries, because throughout his life he seems to have been susceptible to feminine charm. In 1635 the Duchess (duchesse) de Chevreuse had lured him into intrigues against Cardinal de Richelieu, the chief minister of Louis XIII, an adventure that only procured for La Rochefoucauld a humiliating interview with Richelieu, eight days of imprisonment in the Bastille, and two years of exile at Verteuil. Later, his hatred for Mazarin and his devotion to Anne de Bourbon, Duchess de Longueville, sister of the Great Condé, who was the leader of the Fronde, led to an even more disastrous outcome. His own account of the weary alternation of plots and campaigns of the mutinous nobles throughout the revolts (1648–53) may be read in his Mémoires. His loyalty to the House of Condé did not increase his popularity with the crown and prevented him from pursuing any single policy for reform of royal or ministerial government. How far toward treason he allowed himself to be led, when the intentions of the reforming princes and nobility were superseded by personal ambitions, is shown by the draft of the so-called Treaty of Madrid of 1651, which laid down conditions of Spanish help to the French nobility. La Rochefoucauld not only signed the treaty but is thought by one scholar to have drafted it.

Two other features of his public career deserve mention, since they explain much of his writing—courage and litigation. The man who was to pen the aphorisms on courage and cowardice had certainly been in the forefront of battle. Within six years he was wounded in no fewer than three engagements. The injuries to his face and throat were such that he retired from the struggle, his health ruined and his peace of mind lost.

His financial difficulties were no doubt intensified by war, his lands were heavily mortgaged, and but for the astute help of his agent he might not have been able to keep his establishment in central Paris, as he did from 1660 onward. He was forced to pay not only for fine living but for endless litigation. There is evidence of no fewer than five lawsuits in the space of three years, chiefly against other noble families, over questions of precedence and court ceremonial.

Yet in 1655 his literary endeavours were still before him. Thanks to the lasting and intellectually stimulating friendships with Mme de Sablé, one of the most remarkable women of her age, and Mme de Lafayette, he seems to have avoided politics for a while and gradually won his way back into royal favour, a feat sealed by his promotion to the knightly order of the Saint-Esprit at the end of 1661. Reading and intellectual conversation occupied his time as well as that of other men and women of a circle who listened to private readings of Pierre Corneille’s classical tragedies and Nicolas Boileau’s didactic poem on the principles of poetic composition, L’Art poétique. The circle was enlivened by a new game that consisted of discussing epigrams on manners and behaviour, expressed in the briefest, most pungent manner possible. The care with which La Rochefoucauld kept notes and versions of his thoughts on the moral and intellectual subjects of the game is clear from the surviving manuscripts. When the clandestine publication of one of them in Holland forced him to publish under his own name, it was clear that he had satisfied public taste: five editions of the Maximes, each of them revised and enlarged, were to appear within his lifetime.

The Maximes.
The first edition of the Maximes, published in 1665, was called Réflexions ou sentences et maximes morales and did not contain epigrams exclusively; the most eloquent single item, which appeared only in the first edition and was thereafter removed by the author, is a three-page poetic description of self-interest, a quality he found in all forms of life and in all actions. The manuscripts also contain epigrams embedded in longer reflections; in some cases the various versions show the steps by which a series of connected sentences was filed down to the point of ultimate brevity. Beneath the general single statement, however, can be found a personal reaction to the Fronde, or to politics, often violent in its expression. For example:

Les crimes deviennent innocents, même glorieux, par leur nombre et par leurs qualités; de là vient que les voleries publiques sont des habiletés, et que prendre des provinces injustement s’appelle faire des conquêtes. Le crime a ses héros, ainsi que la vertu. (Crimes are made innocent, even virtuous, by their number and nature; hence public robbery becomes a skillful achievement and wrongful seizure of a province is called conquest. Crime has its heroes no less than virtue has.)

It may have been hostile reception or the fear of revealing a political attitude that made him abandon this kind of epigram except for the almost unrecognizable No. 185: “Il y a des héros en mal comme en bien” (“Evil as well as good has its heroes”). Modern readers forget that La Rochefoucauld’s contemporaries would read recent history into statements that appear cryptic and opaque to posterity.

The Fronde was to La Rochefoucauld one of those moments of history that seemed to reveal men’s motives at their worst. His exposure of the self-seeking that lay beneath conventional homage to morality has earned for him the reputation of a cynic, but his keener contemporaries are no less severe. The pungency and absence of explanation make his epigrams seem more scornful than similar statements embedded in memoirs. But La Rochefoucauld was concerned with conveying something more than scorn, and beneath his professions of idealism he pinpointed a restless and unquenchable thirst for self-preservation. Virtue in the pure state was something he did not find:

Les vertus se perdent dans l’intérêt comme les fleuves se perdent dans la mer. (Virtues are lost in self-interest as rivers are lost in the sea.)

This image of the sea recurred:

Voilà la peinture de l’amour-propre, dont toute la vie n’est qu’une grande et longue agitation; la mer en est une image sensible; et l’amour-propre trouve dans le flux et reflux de ses vagues continuelles une fidèle expression de la succession turbulente de ses pensées et de ses éternels mouvements. (Such is the picture of self-love, of which all life is one continuous and immense ferment. The sea is its visible counterpart and self-love finds in the ebb and flow of the sea’s endless waves a true likeness of the chaotic sequence of its thoughts and of its everlasting motion.)

La Rochefoucauld has been called an Epicurean but his imaginative insights attached him to no doctrine. Like Michel de Montaigne and Blaise Pascal, he was aware of the mystery around man that dwarfs his efforts and mocks his knowledge, of the many things about man of which he knows nothing, of the gap between thinking and being, between what man is and what man does: “La nature fait le mérite et la fortune le met en oeuvre” (“Nature gives us our good qualities and chance sets them to work”). Some epigrams show a respect for the power of indolence, and others reveal an almost Nietzschean respect for strength. All these insights seem common to the French classical school of which he is so brilliant a member—though as an aristocrat he disdained being called a writer. These insights also accounted for his fame and influence on his disciples: in England Lord Chesterfield, the orator and man of letters, and the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy; in Germany the philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg Christoph Lichtenberg; in France the writers and critics Stendhal, Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, and André Gide.

Yet his chief glory perhaps is not as thinker but as artist. In the variety and subtlety of his arrangement of words he made the maxime into a jewel. It is not always the truth of the maxim that is so striking, but its exaggeration which can surprise one into a new aspect of the truth. He describes and defines—he has no time for more—but of the single metallic image he makes amazing use. He handles paradox to such effect that a final word can reverse the rest:

On ne donne rien si libéralement que ses conseils (We give nothing so generously as . . . advice). C’est une grande folie de vouloir être sage tout seul (It is great folly to seek to be wise . . . on one’s own).

La Rochefoucauld authorized five editions of the Maximes from 1665 to 1678. Two years after the last publication, he died in Paris.

Though he did a considerable amount of writing over the years La Rochefoucauld actually published only two works, the Mémoires and the Maximes. In addition, about 150 letters have been collected and 19 shorter pieces now known as Réflexions diverses. These, with the treaties and conventions that he may have drawn up personally, constitute his entire work and of these only the Maximes stand out as a work of genius. Like his younger contemporary, Jean de La Bruyère, La Rochefoucauld was a man of one book.

Will G. Moore



Charles de Saint-Denis, sieur de Saint-Évremond

born 1614?, Saint-Denis-le-Gast, France
died Sept. 20, 1703, London, Eng.

French gentleman of letters and amateur moralist who stands as a transitional figure between Michel de Montaigne (d. 1592) and the 18th-century philosophes of the Enlightenment.

Pursuing a military career in his early life, he won promotion for loyalty to King Louis XIV’s minister Cardinal Mazarin during the civil wars of the Fronde (1648–53). In 1661, however, a facetious letter of Saint-Évremond’s deriding the late Mazarin’s Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659) was accidentally brought to light, and he fled from France to escape arrest. Welcomed to London by King Charles II, he spent the rest of his life there except for an interval in Holland (1665–70).

Saint-Évremond wrote for his friends, not for publication; but a few of his pieces were leaked to the press in his lifetime. The 1705 edition of his works is largely superseded by a modern collection of his prose works and letters, published in 1962. His poems, mainly occasional pieces, are negligible; but Les Académiciens (1643), a comedy in verse, is still amusing, as is his prose comedy “in the English style,” Sir Politick Would-Be (c. 1664).

Saint-Évremond’s prose consists of letters and discourses ranging from hilarious satire (Retraite de M. le duc de Longueville, 1649; Conversation du Maréchal d’Hoquincourt avec le Père Canaye, c. 1663) to literary criticism, distinguished by antidogmatic common sense, on the various genres. It also includes a series of ethical writings, which plead for a prudently moderated hedonism and for religious toleration.





"Tartuffe Or, the Hypocrite"

"The Misanthrope"

"The Impostures of Scapin"

"The Imaginary Invalid"


French dramatist
original name Jean-Baptiste Poquelin

baptized Jan. 15, 1622, Paris, France
died Feb. 17, 1673, Paris

French actor and playwright, the greatest of all writers of French comedy.

Although the sacred and secular authorities of 17th-century France often combined against him, the genius of Molière finally emerged to win him acclaim. Comedy had a long history before Molière, who employed most of its traditional forms, but he succeeded in inventing a new style that was based on a double vision of normal and abnormal seen in relation to each other—the comedy of the true opposed to the specious, the intelligent seen alongside the pedantic. An actor himself, Molière seems to have been incapable of visualizing any situation without animating and dramatizing it, often beyond the limits of probability; though living in an age of reason, his own good sense led him not to proselytize but rather to animate the absurd, as in such masterpieces as Tartuffe, L’École des femmes, Le Misanthrope, and many others. It is testimony to the freshness of his vision that the greatest comic artists working centuries later in other media, such as Charlie Chaplin, are still compared to Molière.

Beginnings in theatre
Molière was born (and died) in the heart of Paris. His mother died when he was 10 years old; his father, one of the appointed furnishers of the royal household, gave him a good education at the Collège de Clermont (the school that, as the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, was to train so many brilliant Frenchmen, including Voltaire). Although his father clearly intended him to take over his royal appointment, the young man renounced it in 1643, apparently determined to break with tradition and seek a living on the stage. That year he joined with nine others to produce and play comedy as a company under the name of the Illustre-Théâtre. His stage name, Molière, is first found in a document dated June 28, 1644. He was to give himself entirely to the theatre for 30 years and to die exhausted at the age of 51.

A talented actress, Madeleine Béjart, persuaded Molière to establish a theatre, but she could not keep the young company alive and solvent. In 1645 Molière was twice sent to prison for debts on the building and properties. The number of theatregoers in 17th-century Paris was small, and the city already had two established theatres, so that a continued existence must have seemed impossible to a young company. From the end of 1645, for no fewer than 13 years, the troupe sought a living touring the provinces. No history of these years is possible, though municipal registers and church records show the company emerging here and there: in Nantes in 1648, in Toulouse in 1649, and so on. They were in Lyon intermittently from the end of 1652 to the summer of 1655 and again in 1657, at Montpellier in 1654 and 1655, and at Béziers in 1656. Clearly they had their ups as well as downs. These unchronicled years must have been of crucial importance to Molière’s career, forming as they did a rigorous apprenticeship to his later work as actor-manager and teaching him how to deal with authors, colleagues, audiences, and authorities. His rapid success and persistence against opposition when he finally got back to Paris is inexplicable without these years of training. His first two known plays date from this time: L’Étourdi ou les contretemps (The Blunderer, 1762), performed at Lyon in 1655, and Le Dépit amoureux (The Amorous Quarrel, 1762), performed at Béziers in 1656.

The path to fame opened for him on the afternoon of October 24, 1658, when, in the guardroom of the Louvre and on an improvised stage, the company presented Corneille’s Nicomède before the king, Louis XIV, and followed it with what Molière described as one of those little entertainments which had won him some reputation with provincial audiences. This was Le Docteur amoureux (“The Amorous Doctor”); whether it was in the form still extant is doubtful. It apparently was a success and secured the favour of the King’s brother Philippe, duc d’Orléans. It is difficult to know the extent of the Duc’s patronage, which lasted seven years, until the King himself took over the company known as “Troupe du roi.” No doubt the company gained a certain celebrity and prestige, invitations to great houses, and subsidies (usually unpaid) to actors, but not much more.

From the time of his return to Paris in 1658, all the reliable facts about Molière’s life have to do with his activity as author, actor, and manager. Some French biographers have done their best to read his personal life into his works, but at the cost of misconstruing what might have happened as what did happen. The truth is that there is little information except legend and satire. The fact that authors like Montaigne, Plutarch, Julius Caesar, and Seneca may have been in his library (according to a legal inventory of 1708), for example, does not mean that his plays should be read with the doctrines of such authors in mind.

Although unquestionably a great writer, Molière was not an author in the usual sense: he wrote little that could be called literature or even that was meant to be published—some poems and a translation of the ancient Latin writings of Lucretius, incomplete. His plays were made for the stage, and his early prefaces complain that he had to publish to avoid exploitation. (Two of them were in fact pirated.) He left seven of his plays unpublished, never issued any collected edition, and never (so far as is known) read proofs or took care with his text. Comedies, in his view, were made to be acted. This fact was forgotten in the 19th century. It took such 20th-century actors as Louis Jouvet, Charles Dullin, Jean-Louis Barrault, and Jean Vilar to present a new and exact sense of his dramatic genius.

Nor was he at all a classical author, with leisure to plan and write as he would. Competition, the fight for existence, was the keynote of Molière’s whole career. To keep his actors and his audiences was an unremitting struggle against other theatres. He won this contest almost single-handed. He held his company together by his technical competence and force of personality.

Molière’s first Paris play, Les Précieuses ridicules (The Affected Young Ladies), prefigured what was to come. It centres on two provincial girls who are exposed by valets masquerading as masters in scenes that contrast, on the one hand, the girls’ desire for elegance coupled with a lack of common sense and, on the other, the valets’ plain speech seasoned with cultural clichés. The girls’ fatuities, which they consider the height of wit, suggest their warped view of culture in which material things are of no account. The fun at the expense of these affected people is still refreshing and must have been even more so for the first spectators.

Les Précieuses, as well as Sganarelle (first performed in October, 1660), probably had its premiere at the Théâtre du Petit-Bourbon, a great house adjacent to the Louvre. The Petit-Bourbon was demolished (apparently without notice), and the company moved early in 1661 to a hall in the Palais-Royal, built as a theatre by Richelieu. Here it was that all Molière’s “Paris” plays were staged, starting with Dom Garcie de Navarre, ou le prince jaloux in February 1661, a heroic comedy of which much was hoped; it failed on the stage and succeeded only in inspiring Molière to work on Le Misanthrope. Such failures were rare and eclipsed by successes greater than the Paris theatre had known.

Scandals and successes
The first night of L’École des femmes (The School for Wives), December 26, 1662, caused a scandal as if people suspected that here was an emergence of a comic genius that regarded nothing as sacrosanct. Some good judges have thought this to be Molière’s masterpiece, as pure comedy as he ever attained. Based on Paul Scarron’s version (La Précaution inutile, 1655) of a Spanish story, it presents a pedant, Arnolphe, who is so frightened of femininity that he decides to marry a girl entirely unacquainted with the ways of the world. The delicate portrayal in this girl of an awakening temperament, all the stronger for its absence of convention, is a marvel of comedy. Molière crowns his fantasy by showing his pedant falling in love with her, and his elephantine gropings toward lovers’ talk are both his punishment and the audience’s delight.

From 1662 onward the Palais-Royal theatre was shared by Italian actors, each company taking three playing days in each week. Molière also wrote plays that were privately commissioned and thus first performed elsewhere: Les Fâcheux (The Impertinents, 1732) at Vaux in August 1661; the first version of Tartuffe at Versailles in 1664; Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme at Chambord in 1670; and Psyché in the Tuileries Palace in 1671.

On February 20, 1662, Molière married Armande Béjart. It is not certain whether she was Madeleine’s sister, as the documents state, or her daughter, as some contemporaries suggest. There were three children of the marriage; only a daughter survived to maturity. It was not a happy marriage; flirtations of Armande are indicated in hostile pamphlets, but there is almost no reliable information.

Molière cleverly turned the outcry produced by L’École des femmes to the credit of the company by replying to his critics on the stage. La Critique de L’École des femmes in June 1663 and L’Impromptu de Versailles in October were both single-act discussion plays. In La Critique Molière allowed himself to express some principles of his new style of comedy, and in the other play he made theatre history by reproducing with astonishing realism the actual greenroom, or actors’ lounge, of the company and the backchat involved in rehearsal.

The quarrel of L’École des femmes was itself outrun in violence and scandal by the presentation of the first version of Tartuffe in May 1664. The history of this great play sheds much light on the conditions in which Molière had to work and bears a quite remarkable testimony to his persistence and capacity to show fight. He had to wait five years and risk the livelihood of his actors before his reward, which proved to be the greatest success of his career. Most men would surely have given up the struggle: from the time of the first performance of what was probably the first three acts of the play as it is now known, many must have feared that the Roman Catholic Church would never allow its public performance.

Undeterred, Molière made matters worse by staging a version of Dom Juan, ou le festin de Pierre with a spectacular ending in which an atheist is committed to hell—but only after he had amused and scandalized the audience. Dom Juan was meant to be a quick money raiser, but it was a costly failure, mysteriously removed after 15 performances and never performed again or published by Molière. It is a priceless example of his art. The central character, Dom Juan, carries the aristocratic principle to its extreme by disclaiming all types of obligation, either to parents or doctors or tradesmen or God. Yet he assumes that others will fulfill their obligations to him. His servant, Sganarelle, is imagined as his opposite in every point, earthy, timorous, superstitious. These two form the perfect French counterpart to Don Quixote and Sancho.

Harassment by the authorities
While engaged in his battles against the authorities, Molière continued to hold his company together single-handedly. He made up for lack of authors by writing more plays himself. He could never be sure either of actors or authors. In 1664 he put on the first play of Jean Racine, La Thébaïde, but the next year Racine transferred his second play, Alexandre le Grand, to a longer established theatre while Molière’s actors were actually performing it. He was constantly harassed by the authorities. These setbacks may have been offset in part by the royal favour conferred upon Molière, but royal favour was capricious. Pensions were often promised and not paid. The court wanted more light plays than great works. The receipts of his theatre were uncertain and fluctuating. In his 14 years in Paris, Molière wrote 31 of the 95 plays that were presented on his stage. To meet the cumulative misfortunes of his own illness, the closing of the theatre for seven weeks upon the death of the Queen Mother, and the proscription of Tartuffe and Dom Juan, he wrote five plays in one season (1666–67). Of the five, only one, Le Médecin malgré lui (The Doctor in Spite of Himself, 1914), was a success.

In the preceding season, however, Le Misanthrope, almost from the start, was treated as a masterpiece by discerning playgoers, if not by the entire public. It is a drawing-room comedy, without known sources, constructed from the elements of Molière’s own company. Molière himself played the role of Alceste, a fool of a new kind, with high principles and rigid standards, yet by nature a blind critic of everybody else. Alceste is in love with Célimène (played by Molière’s wife, Armande), a superb comic creation, equal to any and every occasion, the incarnate spirit of society. The structure of the play is as simple as it is poetic. Alceste storms moodily through the play, finding no “honest” men to agree with him, always ready to see the mote in another’s eye, blind to the beam in his own, as ignorant of his real nature as a Tartuffe.

The church nearly won its battle against Molière: it prevented public performance, both of Tartuffe for five years and of Dom Juan for the whole of Molière’s life. A five-act version of Tartuffe was played in 1667, but once only: it was banned by the President of Police and by the Archbishop on pain of excommunication. Molière’s reply was to lobby the King repeatedly, even in a military camp, and to publish a defense of his play called Lettre sur la comédie de l’Imposteur. He kept his company together through 1668 with Amphitryon (January 13), George Dandin (Versailles, July 18), and L’Avare (September 9). Sooner or later so original an author of comedy as Molière was bound to attempt a modern sketch of the ancient comic figure of the miser. The last of his three 1668 plays, L’Avare, is composed in prose that reads like verse; the stock situations are all recast, but the spirit is different from Molière’s other works and not to everyone’s taste. His miser is a living paradox, inhuman in his worship of money, all too human in his need of respect and affection. In breathtaking scenes his mania is made to suggest cruelty, pathological loneliness, even insanity. The play is too stark for those who expect laughter from comedy; Goethe started the dubious fashion of calling it tragic. Yet, as before, forces of mind and will are made to serve inhuman ends and are opposed by instinct and a very “human” nature. The basic comic suggestion is one of absurdity and incongruity rather than of gaiety.

His second play of 1668, George Dandin, often dismissed as a farce, may be one of Molière’s greatest creations. It centres on a fool, who admits his folly while suggesting that wisdom would not help him because, if things in fact go against us, it is pointless to be wise. As it happens he is in the right, but he can never prove it. The subject of the play is trivial, the suggestion is limitless; it sketches a new range of comedy altogether. In 1669, permission was somehow obtained, and the long run of Tartuffe at last began. More than 60 performances were given that year alone. The theme for this play, which brought Molière more trouble than any other, may have come to him when a local hypocrite seduced his landlady. Of the three versions of the play, only the last has survived; the first (presented in three acts played before the King in 1664) probably portrayed a pious crook so firmly established in a bourgeois household that the master promises him his daughter and disinherits his son. At the time it was common for lay directors of conscience to be placed in families to reprove and reform conduct. When this “holy” man is caught making love to his employer’s wife, he recovers by masterly self-reproach and persuades the master not only to pardon him but also to urge him to see as much of his wife as possible. Molière must have seen even greater comic possibilities in this theme, for he made five acts out of it. The final version contains two seduction scenes and a shift of interest to the comic paradox in Tartuffe himself, posing as an inhuman ascetic while by nature he is an all-too-human lecher. It is difficult to think of a theme more likely to offend pious minds. Like Arnolphe in L’École des femmes, Tartuffe seems to have come to grief because he trusted in wit and forgot instinct.

Last plays
The struggle over Tartuffe probably exhausted Molière to the point that he was unable to stave off repeated illness and supply new plays; he had, in fact, just four years more to live. Yet he produced in 1669 Monsieur de Pourceaugnac for the King at Chambord and in 1670 Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme treated a contemporary theme—social climbing among the bourgeois, or upper middle class—but it is perhaps the least dated of all his comedies. The protagonist Jourdain, rather than being an unpleasant sycophant, is as delightful as he is fatuous, as genuine as he is naïve; his folly is embedded in a bountiful disposition, which he of course despises. This is comedy in Molière’s happiest vein: the fatuity of the masculine master is offset by the common sense of wife and servant.

Continuing to write despite his illness, he produced Psyché and Les Fourberies de Scapin (The Cheats of Scapin, 1677) in 1671. Les Femmes savantes (The Blue-Stockings, 1927) followed in 1672; in rougher hands this subject would have been (as some have thought it) a satire on bluestockings, but Molière has imagined a sensible bourgeois who goes in fear of his masterful and learned wife. Le Malade imaginaire (Eng. trans., The Imaginary Invalid), about a hypochondriac who fears death and doctors, was performed in 1673 and was Molière’s last work. It is a powerful play in its delineation of medical jargon and professionalism, in the fatuity of a would-be doctor with learning and no sense, in the normality of the young and sensible lovers, as opposed to the superstition, greed, and charlatanry of other characters. During the fourth performance of the play, on February 17, Molière collapsed on stage and was carried back to his house in the rue de Richelieu to die. As he had not been given the sacraments or the opportunity of formally renouncing the actor’s profession, he was buried without ceremony and after sunset on February 21.

Molière as actor and as playwright
Molière’s acting had been both his disappointment and his glory. He aspired to be a tragic actor, but contemporary taste was against him. His public seemed to favour a tragic style that was pompous, with ranting and roaring, strutting and chanting. Molière had the build, the elasticity, the india-rubber face, as it has been called, of the born comedian. Offstage he was neither a great talker nor particularly merry, but he would mime and copy speech to the life. He had the tireless energy of the actor. He was always ready to make a scene out of an incident, to put himself on a stage. He gave one of his characters his own cough and another his own moods, and he made a play out of actual rehearsals. The characters of his greatest plays are like the members of his company. It was quite appropriate that he should die while playing the part of the sick man that he really was.

The actor in him influenced his writing, since he wrote (at speed) what he could most naturally act. He gave himself choleric parts, servants’ parts, a henpecked husband, a foolish bourgeois, and a superstitious old man who cursed “that fellow Molière.” (The comparison with Charlie Chaplin recurs constantly.) Something more than animal energy and a talent for mime was at work in him, a quality that can only be called intensity of dramatic vision. Here again actors have helped to recover an aspect of his genius that the scholars had missed, his stage violence. To take his plays as arguments in favour of reason is to miss their vitality. His sense of reason leads him to animate the absurd. His characters are imagined as excitable and excited to the point of incoherence. He sacrifices plot to drama, vivacity, a sense of life. He is a classical writer, yet he is ready to defy all rules of writing.

To think of Molière as a cool apostle of reason, sharing the views of the more rational men of his plays, is a heresy that dies hard; but careful scrutiny of the milieu in which Molière had to work makes it impossible to believe. The comedies are not sermons; such doctrine as may be extracted from them is incidental and at the opposite pole from didacticism. Ideas are expressed to please a public, not to propagate the author’s view. If asked what he thought of hypocrisy or atheism, he would have marvelled at the question and evaded it with the observation that the theatre is not the place for “views.” There is no documentary evidence that Molière ever tried to convey his own opinions on marriage, on the church, on hell, or on class distinctions. Strictly speaking, his views of these things are unknown. All that is known is that he worked for and in the theatre and used his amazing power of dramatic suggestion to vivify any imagined scene. If he has left a sympathetic picture of an atheist, it was not to recommend free thought: his picture of the earthy serving man is no less vivid, no less sympathetic. Scholars who have tried to make his plays prove things or to convey lessons have made little sense of his work and have been blind to its inherent fantasy and imaginative power.

Since the power of Molière’s writing seems to lie in its creative vigour of language, the traditional divisions of his works into comedies of manners, comedies of character, and farce are not helpful: he does not appear to have set out in any instance to write a certain kind of play. He starts from an occasion in Le Mariage forcé (1664; The Forced Marriage, 1762) from doubts about marriage expressed by Rabelais’s character Panurge, and in Le Médecin malgré lui he starts from a medieval fable, or fabliau, of a woodcutter who, to avoid a beating, pretends he is a doctor. On such skeleton themes Molière animates figures or arranges discussion in which one character exposes another or the roles are first expressed and then reversed. It is intellectual rhythm rather than what happens, the discussion more than the story, that conveys the charm, so that to recount the plot may be to omit the essential.

His unique sense of the comic
The attacks on Molière gave him the chance in his responses to state some aesthetic home truths. Thus, in La Critique de L’École des femmes, he states that tragedy might be heroic, but comedy must hold the mirror up to nature: “You haven’t achieved anything in comedy unless your portraits can be seen to be living types . . . making decent people laugh is a strange business.” And as for the rules that some were anxious to impose on writers: “I wonder if the golden rule is not to give pleasure and if a successful play is not on the right track.”

The attacks on L’École des femmes were child’s play in comparison with the storm raised by Tartuffe and Dom Juan. The attacks on them also drew from the poet a valuable statement of artistic principle. On Dom Juan he made no public reply since it was never officially condemned. The documents in defense of Tartuffe are two placets, or petitions, to the King, the preface to the first edition of 1669 (all these published over Molière’s own name), and the Lettre sur la comédie de l’Imposteur of 1667. The placets and preface are aesthetically disappointing, since Molière was forced to fight on ground chosen by his opponents and to admit that comedy must be didactic. (There is no other evidence that Molière thought this, so it is not unfair to assume that he used the argument only when forced.) The Lettre is much more important. It expresses in a few pregnant lines the aesthetic basis not only of Tartuffe but of Molière’s new concept of comedy:

The comic is the outward and visible form that nature’s bounty has attached to everything unreasonable, so that we should see, and avoid, it. To know the comic we must know the rational, of which it denotes the absence and we must see wherein the rational consists . . . incongruity is the heart of the comic . . . it follows that all lying, disguise, cheating, dissimulation, all outward show different from the reality, all contradiction in fact between actions that proceed from a single source, all this is in essence comic.

Molière seems here to put his finger on what was new in his notion of what is comic: a comedy, only incidentally funny, that is based on a constant double vision of wise and foolish, right and wrong seen together, side by side. This is his invention and his glory.

A main feature of Molière’s technique is a mixing of registers, or of contexts. Characters are made to play a part, then forget it, speak out of turn, overplay their role, so that those who watch this byplay constantly have the suggestion of mixed registers. The starting point of Le Médecin malgré lui, the idea of beating a man to make him pretend he is a doctor, is certainly not subtle, but Molière plays with the idea, makes his woodcutter enjoy his new experience, master the jargon, and then not know what to do with it. He utters inanities about Hippocrates, is overjoyed to find a patient ignorant of Latin, so that he need not bother about meaning. He looks for the heart on the wrong side and, undeterred by having his error recognized, sweeps aside the protest with the immortal: “We have changed all that.” The miser robbed of his money is pathetic, but he does not arouse emotions because his language leads him to the absurd “ . . . it’s all over . . . I’m dying, I’m dead, I’m buried.” He demands justice with such intemperance that his language exceeds all reason and he threatens to put the courts in the court. Molière’s Misanthrope is even more suggestive in his confusion of justice as an ideal and as a social institution: “I have justice on my side and I lose my case!” What to him is a scandal of world order is to others just proof that he is wrongheaded. Such concision does Molière’s dramatic speech achieve.

A French genius
When Voltaire described Molière as “the painter of France,” he suggested the range of French attitudes found in the plays, and this may explain why the French have developed a proprietary interest in a writer whom they seem to regard in a special sense as their own. They stress aspects of his work that others tend to overlook. Three of these are noteworthy.

First, formality permeates all his works. He never gives realism—life as it is—alone, but always within a pattern and a form that fuse light and movement, music and dance and speech. Modern productions that omit the interludes in his plays stray far from the original effect. Characters are grouped, scenes and even speeches are arranged, comic repartee is rounded off in defiance of realism.

Second, the French stress the poetry where foreigners see psychology. They take the plays not as studies of social mania but as patterns of fantasy that take up ideas, only to drop them when a point has been made. Le Misanthrope is not considered as a case study or a French Hamlet but as a subtly arranged chorus of voices and attitudes that convey a critique of individualism. The play charms by its successive evocations of its central theme. The tendency to speak one’s mind is seen to be many things: idealistic or backbiting or rude or spiteful or just fatuous. It is in this fantasy playing on the mystery of self-centredness in society that Molière is in the eyes of his own people unsurpassed.

A third quality admired in France is his intellectual penetration in distinguishing the parts of a man from the whole man. Montaigne, the 16th-century essayist who deeply influenced Molière, divided qualities that are acquired, such as learning or politeness or skills, from those that are natural, such as humanity or animality, what might be called “human nature” without other attributes. Molière delighted in opposing his characters in this way; often in his plays a social veneer peels off, revealing a real man. Many of his dialogues start with politeness and end in open insults.

Molière opposed wit to nature in many forms. His comedy embraces things within the mind and beyond it; reason and fact seldom meet. As the beaten servant in Amphitryon observes: “That conflicts with common sense. But it is so, for all that.”

Will G. Moore

Racine’s fatalism

Whether Jean Racine’s Jansenist upbringing determined his view of a human nature controlled by perverse and willful passions—or whether his knowledge of Greek tragedy explains the fatalism of his own plays—is a question that cannot be answered. Certainly, both are engaged in the service of a creative imagination that reflects powerfully the frustrating limits placed on individual desire by society’s conventions and constraints. The world and the sensibility of his heroes could not be more different from those of Corneille’s. Tragedy for Racine is an inexorable series of events leading to a foreseeable and inevitable catastrophe. Plot is of the simplest; the play opens with the action at crisis point, and, once the first step is taken, tension mounts between a small number of characters, locked together by conflicting ambitions and desires, in increasingly straitened and stifling circumstances. Racinian poetic language represents preciosity at its best: the intense and monstrous nature of frustrated passion is thrown into relief by the cool, elegant, and understated formulations that carry it. His work set a standard and a model for the study of the entanglement of the public and the personal that continued into the 20th century. The language of such diverse playwrights as Jean-Paul Sartre and Bernard-Marie Koltès interacts (albeit in different ways) with the luminous clarity of Racinian style. In the 1960s and ’70s the director Roger Planchon found in Bérénice and Athalie fresh relevance for contemporary society.


Racine’s career began in 1664 with the first performance of La Thébaïde (The Fatal Legacy, a Tragedy), a grim account of the mutual hatred of Oedipus’s sons; this was followed by Alexandre le Grand (performed 1665), his only attempt at the manner of Quinault. The masterpieces date from the highly successful Andromaque (1667), another subject from Greek legend, after which, for Britannicus (1669) and Bérénice (1670), Racine turned to topics from Roman history. Bajazet (1672) is based on modern Turkish history; Mithridate (1673) has as its hero the famous enemy of Rome; and finally there followed two plays with Greek mythological subjects: Iphigénie en Aulide (1674; “Iphigenia in Aulis”) and Phèdre (1677). His last two plays, Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691), written not for the professional theatre but for the girls’ school at Saint-Cyr, at the request of Mme de Maintenon, turn to Old Testament subjects; but, in Athalie in particular, the challenge of the individual will to power against the decrees of an authoritarian father-god presents as powerful a conflict as that found in any of his secular plays.


Jean Racine



French dramatist
in full Jean-baptiste Racine

baptized December 22, 1639, La Ferté-Milon, France
died April 21, 1699, Paris

French dramatic poet and historiographer renowned for his mastery of French classical tragedy. His reputation rests on the plays he wrote between 1664 and 1677, notably Andromaque (1667), Britannicus (1669), Bérénice (1670), Bajazet (1672), and Phèdre (1677).

Racine was born into a provincial family of minor administrators. His mother died 13 months after he was born, and his father died two years later. His paternal grandparents took him in, and when his grandmother, Marie des Moulins, became a widow, she brought Racine, then age nine, with her to the convent of Port-Royal des Champs near Paris. Since a group of devout scholars and teachers had founded a school there, Racine had the opportunity—rare for an orphan of modest social origins—to study the classics of Latin and Greek literature with distinguished masters. The school was steeped in the austere Roman Catholic reform movement known as Jansenism, which had recently been condemned by the church as heretical. Since the French monarchy suspected the Jansenists of being theologically and politically subversive, Racine’s lifelong relationship with his former friends and teachers remained ambivalent, inasmuch as the ambitious artist sought admittance into the secular realm of court society.

Racine spent the years from 1649 to 1653 at Port-Royal, transferred to the College of Beauvais for almost two years, and then returned to Port-Royal in October 1655 to perfect his studies in rhetoric. The school at Port-Royal was closed by the authorities in 1656, but Racine was allowed to stay on there. When he was 18 the Jansenists sent him to study law at the College of Harcourt in Paris. Racine had both the disposition and the talent to thrive in the cultural climate of Paris, where to conform and to please—in Racine’s case, to please by his pen—were indispensable assets. One of the first manifestations of Racine’s intentions was his composition of a sonnet in praise of Cardinal Mazarin, the prime minister of France, for successfully concluding a peace treaty with Spain (1659). This tribute reveals Racine’s strategy of social conquest through literature.

There were three ways for a writer to survive in Racine’s day: to attract a royal audience, to obtain an ecclesiastical benefice, or to compose for the theatre. The first was out of the question for the neophyte Racine, though he would eventually receive many gratuities in the course of his career. In 1661 Racine tried, through his mother’s family, to acquire an ecclesiastical benefice from the diocese of Uzès in Languedoc, though without success after residing there for almost two years. He then returned to Paris to try his hand as a dramatist, even if it meant estrangement from his Jansenist mentors, who disapproved of his involvement with the theatre. A reaction from them was not long in coming. In the same month that Racine’s play Alexandre le grand (1665) received its premiere, his former teacher Pierre Nicole published a public letter accusing novelists or playwrights of having no more redeeming virtues than a “public poisoner.” Though Nicole avoided any direct reference to him, Racine believed that he was the object of Nicole’s wrath and responded with a stinging open letter entitled Lettre à l’auteur des ‘Hérésies imaginaires’.

Racine’s first play, Amasie, was never produced and has not survived. His career as a dramatist began with the production by Molière’s troupe of his play La Thébaïde ou les frères ennemis (“The Thebaide or the Enemy Brothers”) at the Palais-Royal Theatre on June 20, 1664. Molière’s troupe also produced Racine’s next play, Alexandre le grand (Alexander the Great), which premiered at the Palais Royal on Dec. 4, 1665. This play was so well received that Racine secretly negotiated with the Hôtel de Bourgogne—a rival troupe that was more skilled in performing tragedy—to present a “second premiere” of Alexandre on December 15. The break with Molière was irrevocable—Racine even seduced Molière’s leading actress, Thérèse du Parc, into joining him personally and professionally—and from this point onward all of Racine’s secular tragedies would be presented by the actors of the Hôtel de Bourgogne.

Of the three audiences that a dramatist had to win over to succeed in the theatre—the court, the general public, and the scholar critics—Racine doggedly pursued all three, though he had sharp clashes with the third group, who were mostly friends of his great rival, the older dramatist Pierre Corneille. Racine followed up his first masterpiece, Andromaque (1667), with the comedy Les Plaideurs (1668; The Litigants) before returning to tragedy with two plays set in imperial Rome, Britannicus (1669) and Bérénice (1670). He situated Bajazet (1672) in nearly contemporary Turkish history and depicted a famous enemy of Rome in Mithridate (1673) before returning to Greek mythology in Iphigénie en Aulide (1674; Iphigenia in Aulis) and the play that was his crowning achievement, Phèdre (1677). By this time Racine had achieved remarkable success both in the theatre and through it; his plays were ideally suited for dramatic expression and were also a useful vehicle for the social aspirations of their insecure and quietly driven author. Racine was the first French author to live principally on the income provided by his writings.

Within several months of the appearance of Phèdre, Racine married the pious and unintellectual Catherine de Romanet, with whom he would have two sons and five daughters. At about the same time, he retired from the commercial theatre and accepted the coveted post of royal historiographer with his friend Nicolas Boileau. Racine’s withdrawal from the stage at the height of his prestige as a professional playwright probably sprang from a combination of factors. The preface he wrote for Phèdre leads one to believe that he was seeking a reconciliation with the Jansenists. He was, at the same time, leaving the socially disadvantageous situation of a playwright for the rarefied atmosphere of the court of King Louis XIV. Having to quit the theatre to assume his new duties near the king, Racine could now afford to effect a rapprochement with the Jansenists. He may also have found it difficult to continue to respect the cardinal principle of classical art—unity. In Phèdre there is fragmentation at significant levels: cosmic, social, psychological, and physical. Since fragmentation is a subversive notion in classical art, perhaps Racine abandoned a genre to whose classical tenets he no longer subscribed.

As one of the royal historiographers, Racine chronicled Louis XIV’s military campaigns in suitable prose. In 1679 he was accused by Catherine Monvoisin (called La Voisin) of having poisoned his mistress and star actress, the Marquise du Parc, but no formal charges were pressed and no consequences ensued. Racine’s official duties culminated in the Eloge historique du Roi sur ses conquêtes (1682; “The Historical Panegyric for the King on His Conquests”). He also wrote the Cantiques spirituels (1694) and worked hard to establish his status and his fortune. In 1672 he was elected to the French Academy, and he came to exert almost dictatorial powers over it. In 1674 he acquired the noble title of treasurer of France, and he eventually obtained the higher distinctions of ordinary gentleman of the king (1690) and secretary of the king (1696).

In response to requests from Louis XIV’s consort Madame de Maintenon, Racine returned to the theatre to write two religious plays for the convent girls at Saint-Cyr: Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691). His other undertakings during his last years were to reedit, in 1687 and finally in 1697, the edition of his complete works that he had first published in 1676, and to compose, probably as his last work, the Abrégé de l’histoire de Port-Royal (“Short History of Port-Royal”). Racine died in 1699 from cancer of the liver. In a codicil to his will, he expressed his wish to be buried at Port-Royal. When Louis XIV had Port-Royal razed in 1710, Racine’s remains were transferred to a tomb in the Parisian church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont.

French classical tragedy pivots around two basic subjects: passion and politics. Since Racine’s audience was naturally intrigued by plots that dealt with the succession to a throne, he doubled their pleasure in his first successful play, La Thébaïde, by creating two legitimate pretenders who are also identical twins. The play centres on the twin sons of Oedipus who slay one another in mortal combat, one defending, the other attacking, their native city of Thebes. The deep hatred between the two brothers sounds the notes of separation, disunion, and alienation that would characterize all Racinian tragedy. Though its structure is flawed and its characters lack inflection, La Thébaïde was already typically Racinian in several fundamental aspects. It focuses on a tight knot of characters caught in an episode near the end of a mythical or historical story. Much of the physical action is relegated to narrative reports so that the events on stage are condensed and all the more explosive by the time they reach their climax. The audience’s attention is fixed on the interior conflicts of the characters, rather than on exterior events, and language is used for the subtly nuanced and dramatically memorable expression of emotions, not the recital of a plot.

Racine evidently conceived his next play, Alexandre, as his ticket to royal favour, since the audience was sure to see in the portrait of the Macedonian conqueror a reflection of the young King Louis XIV of France who, as the play suggests, could surpass Alexander by restraining his aggressive tendencies and becoming a morally superior hero who champions Roman Catholic virtues. Posterity has decreed the play a misguided attempt by Racine to pour his tragic vision into Corneille’s heroic mold.

In Andromaque (1667) Racine replaced heroism with realism in a tragedy about the folly and blindness of unrequited love among a chain of four characters. The play is set in Epirus after the Trojan War. Pyrrhus vainly loves his captive, the Trojan widow Andromache, and is in turn loved by the Greek princess Hermione, who in her turn is loved by Orestes. Power, intimidation, and emotional blackmail become the recourses by which these characters try to transmit the depths of their feelings to their beloved. But this form of communication is ultimately frustrated because the characters’ deep-seated insecurity renders them self-absorbed and immune to empathy. Murder, suicide, and madness have destroyed all of them except Andromache by the play’s end. Andromaque’s audience was fully aware that they were witnessing a new and powerful conception of the human condition in which passionate relationships are seen as basically political in their means and expression. Andromaque is more skillfully crafted than Racine’s previous efforts: its exposition is a model of clarity and concision; the interplay of love, hate, and indifference are subtly yet compellingly arranged; and the rhetoric is forceful but close to normal speech. The play was the first of Racine’s major tragedies and enjoyed a public success comparable to Corneille’s Le Cid 30 years before.

The three-act comedy Les Plaideurs (The Litigants) of 1668 offered Racine the challenge of a new genre and the opportunity to demonstrate his skill in Molière’s privileged domain, as well as the occasion to display his expertise in Greek, of which he had better command than almost any nonprofessional classicist in France. The result, a brilliant satire of the French legal system, was an adaptation of Aristophanes’ The Wasps that found much more favour at court than on the Parisian stage.

With Britannicus (1669) Racine posed a direct challenge to Corneille’s specialty: tragedy with a Roman setting. Racine portrays the events leading up to the moment when the teenage emperor Nero cunningly and ruthlessly frees himself from the tutelage of his domineering mother, Agrippina, and has Britannicus, a legitimate pretender to the throne, poisoned in the course of a fatal banquet of fraternal reconciliation. Despite its failure when it premiered in 1669, Britannicus has remained one of Racine’s most frequently produced dramas, especially in the 20th century.

Bérénice (1670) marks the decisive point in Racine’s theatrical career, for with this play he found a felicitous combination of elements that he would use, without radical alteration, for the rest of his secular tragedies: a love interest, a relatively uncomplicated plot, striking rhetorical passages, and a highly poetic use of time. Bérénice is built around the unusual premise of three characters who are ultimately forced to live apart because of their virtuous sense of duty. In the play, Titus, who is to become the new Roman emperor, and his friend Antiochus are both in love with Berenice, the queen of Palestine. The play’s “majestic sadness,” as Racine put it in his preface to the play, flows from the tragic necessity of separation for individuals who yearn for union with their beloved and who express their sorrow in some of the most haunting passages of Racine’s entire oeuvre.

Racine followed the simplicity of Bérénice and its three main characters with a violent, relatively crowded production, Bajazet (1672). The play’s themes of unrequited love and the struggle for power under the unrelenting pressure of time are recognizably Racinian, but its locale, the court of the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople, is the only contemporary setting used by Racine in any of his plays, and was sufficiently far removed in distance and in mores from 17th-century France to create an alluring exoticism for contemporary audiences. In the play, the main characters—the young prince Bajazet, his beloved Atalide, and the jealous sultana Roxane—are the mortal victims of the despotic cruelty of the absent sultan Amurat, whose reign is maintained by violence and secrecy.

In 1673 Racine presented Mithridate, which featured a return to tragedy with a Roman background. Mithradates VI, the king of Pontus, is the aging, jealous rival of his sons for the Greek princess Monime. The rivalry between the two brothers themselves for the love of their father’s fiancée is another manifestation of the primordial tragic situation for Racine, that of warring brothers. Against the backdrop of this conflict, the play presents the demise of King Mithradates, who becomes conscious of his own eclipse as a heroic figure feared by Rome.

Despite a competing play mounted by his enemies on the same general subject, Racine’s Iphigénie en Aulide (1674) was a resounding success that confirmed him as the unrivaled master of French theatre. It is an adaptation of a play by Euripides about the prospective sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father Agamemnon, but contains a happy ending in which Iphigenia is spared. Racine’s deft insertion in Iphigénie of the future as an intrusive force determining the present creates a rehearsal of the Trojan War that culminates in a profound moral illumination revolving around the title character. The play’s denouement, typical of Racine’s practice, projects the imagination of the spectator beyond the present action to the future consequences of the acts portrayed on stage.

Phèdre (1677) is Racine’s supreme accomplishment because of the rigour and simplicity of its organization, the emotional power of its language, and the profusion of its images and meanings. Racine presents Phaedra as consumed by an incestuous passion for her stepson, Hippolytus. Receiving false information that her husband, King Theseus, is dead, Phaedra declares her love to Hippolytus, who is horrified. Theseus returns and is falsely informed that Hippolytus has been the aggressor toward Phaedra. Theseus invokes the aid of the god Neptune to destroy his son, after which Phaedra kills herself out of guilt and sorrow. A structural pattern of cycles and circles in Phèdre reflects a conception of human existence as essentially changeless, recurrent, and therefore asphyxiatingly tragic. Phaedra’s own desire to flee the snares of passion repeatedly prompts her to contemplate a voluntary exile. References to ancient Greek mythological figures and to a wide range of geographical places lend a vast, cosmic dimension to the moral itinerary of Phaedra as she suffers bitterly from her incestuous propensities and a sense of her own degradation. Phèdre constitutes a daring representation of the contagion of sin and its catastrophic results.

Esther (1689) is a biblical tragedy complete with musical choral interludes composed by Jean-Baptiste Moreau, who would serve in this same role for Racine’s last play, Athalie. The play shows how Esther, the wife of the Persian king Ahasuerus (Xerxes I), saves the Jews from a massacre plotted by the king’s chief minister, Haman. With its three acts, its chorus, and its transcendent message that God and truth can be made manifest on stage, Esther breaks sharply with Racine’s previous practice in tragedy. It is not one of his major works, despite the beauty of its choruses.

In Athalie (1691) Racine reverted to his customary approach. Within the one day that is always the temporal duration of his plays, a situation of human origin must be resolved by divine intervention so that the child Joas, the rightful king of Judah, will be saved from his murderous grandmother Athalie. Athalie is a typical Racinian drama except for the fact that fate is replaced in this instance by divine providence. The title character, Athalie, though evil, still remains admirable in her titanic struggle against this superior adversary. Of all the characters never seen on stage but who enrich Racine’s texts, from Hector and Astyanax in Andromaque through Venus, Minos, Neptune, and Ariane in Phèdre, the God of the Old Testament in Athalie exerts the greatest impact on the course of dramatic events.

Racine has been hailed by posterity as the foremost practitioner of tragedy in French history and the uncontested master of French classicism. He became the virtuoso of the poetic metre used in 17th-century French tragedy, the alexandrine line, and paid unwavering attention to the properly theatrical aspects of his plays, from actors’ diction and gestures to space and decor. Ultimately, Racine’s reputation derives from his unforgettable characters who, much like their creator, betray an inferiority complex in their noble yet frustrated attempts to transcend their limitations. The Racinian view, then, is of a humanity consumed by feelings of incompleteness and by a compensatory drive for acceptance in a world of passionate self-interest. Racine’s art has influenced French and foreign authors alike, among them Émile Zola, Marcel Proust, François Mauriac, Henrik Ibsen, Henry James, and Samuel Beckett.

Ronald W. Tobin

Nondramatic verse

Nondramatic verse still enjoyed a special prestige, as shown in Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux’s L’Art poétique (1674; The Art of Poetry), in which the genres most highly esteemed are the epic (of which no distinguished example was written during the century), the ode (a medium for official commemorative verse), and the satire. Boileau himself, in his satires (from c. 1658) and epistles (from 1674), as well as in The Art of Poetry, established himself as the foremost critic of his day; but, despite a flair for judging contemporaries, his criteria were limited by current aesthetic doctrines. In Le Lutrin (1674–83; “The Lectern”; Eng. trans. Boileau’s Lutrin: A Mock-Heroic Poem), a model for Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, he produced a masterpiece of comic writing in the Classical manner. Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables (1668; 1678–79; 1694; The Complete Fables of Jean de la Fontaine) succeed in transcending the limitations of the genre; and, although readers formerly concentrated heavily on the moral teaching they offer, it is possible to appreciate beneath their apparent naïveté the mature skills of a highly imaginative writer who displays great originality in adapting to his needs the linguistic and metrical resources of the Classical age.



Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux

born Nov. 1, 1636, Paris
died March 13, 1711, Paris

poet and leading literary critic in his day, known for his influence in upholding classical standards in both French and English literature.

He was the son of a government official who had started life as a clerk. Boileau made good progress at the Collège d’Harcourt and was encouraged to take up literary work by his brother Gilles Boileau, who was already established as a man of letters.

He began by writing satires (c. 1658), attacking well-known public figures, which he read privately to his friends. After a printer who had managed to obtain the texts published them in 1666, Boileau brought out an authenticated version (March 1666) that he toned down considerably from the original. The following year he wrote one of the most successful of mock-heroic epics, Le Lutrin, dealing with a quarrel of two ecclesiastical dignitaries over where to place a lectern in a chapel.

In 1674 he published L’Art poétique, a didactic treatise in verse, setting out rules for the composition of poetry in the classical tradition. At the time, the work was considered of great importance, the definitive handbook of classical principles. It strongly influenced the English Augustan poets Dr. Johnson, John Dryden, and Alexander Pope. It is now valued more for the insight it provides into the literary controversies of the period.

In 1677 Boileau was appointed historiographer royal and for 15 years avoided literary controversy; he was elected to the Académie Française in 1684. Boileau resumed his disputatious role in 1692, when the literary world found itself divided between the so-called ancients and moderns (see ancients and moderns). Seeing women as supporters of the moderns, Boileau wrote his antifeminist satire Contre les femmes (“Against Women,” published as Satire x, 1694), followed notably by Sur l’amour de Dieu (“On the Love of God,” published as Epitre xii, 1698).

Boileau did not create the rules of classical drama and poetry, although it was long assumed that he had—a misunderstanding he did little to dispel. They had already been formulated by previous French writers, but Boileau expressed them in striking and vigorous terms. He also translated the classical treatise On the Sublime, attributed to Longinus. Ironically, it became one of the key sources of the aesthetics of Romanticism.




Jean de La Fontaine


Illustrations by J. J. Grandville

born July 8?, 1621, Château-Thierry, France
died April 13, 1695, Paris

poet whose Fables rank among the greatest masterpieces of French literature.

La Fontaine was born in the Champagne region into a bourgeois family. There, in 1647, he married an heiress, Marie Héricart, but they separated in 1658. From 1652 to 1671 he held office as an inspector of forests and waterways, an office inherited from his father. It was in Paris, however, that he made his most important contacts and spent his most productive years as a writer. An outstanding feature of his existence was his ability to attract the goodwill of patrons prepared to relieve him of the responsibility of providing for his livelihood. In 1657 he became one of the protégés of Nicolas Fouquet, the wealthy superintendent of finance. From 1664 to 1672 he served as gentleman-in-waiting to the dowager duchess of Orléans in Luxembourg. For 20 years, from 1673, he was a member of the household of Mme de La Sablière, whose salon was a celebrated meeting place of scholars, philosophers, and writers. In 1683 he was elected to the French Academy after some opposition by the king to his unconventional and irreligious character.

The Fables
The Fables unquestionably represent the peak of La Fontaine’s achievement. The first six books, known as the premier recueil (“first collection”), were published in 1668 and were followed by five more books (the second recueil) in 1678–79 and a twelfth book in 1694. The Fables in the second collection show even greater technical skill than those in the first and are longer, more reflective, and more personal. Some decline of talent is commonly detected in the twelfth book.

La Fontaine did not invent the basic material of his Fables; he took it chiefly from the Aesopic tradition and, in the case of the second collection, from the East Asian. He enriched immeasurably the simple stories that earlier fabulists had in general been content to tell perfunctorily, subordinating them to their narrowly didactic intention. He contrived delightful miniature comedies and dramas, excelling in the rapid characterization of his actors, sometimes by deft sketches of their appearance or indications of their gestures and always by the expressive discourse he invented for them. In settings usually rustic, he evoked the perennial charm of the countryside. Within the compass of about 240 poems, the range and the diversity of subject and of treatment are astonishing. Often he held up a mirror to the social hierarchy of his day. Intermittently he seems inspired to satire, but, sharp though his thrusts are, he had not enough of the true satirist’s indignation to press them home. The Fables occasionally reflect contemporary political issues and intellectual preoccupations. Some of them, fables only in name, are really elegies, idylls, epistles, or poetic meditations. But his chief and most comprehensive theme remains that of the traditional fable: the fundamental, everyday moral experience of mankind throughout the ages, exhibited in a profusion of typical characters, emotions, attitudes, and situations.

Countless critics have listed and classified the morals of La Fontaine’s Fables and have correctly concluded that they amount simply to an epitome of more or less proverbial wisdom, generally prudential but tinged in the second collection with a more genial epicureanism. Simple countryfolk and heroes of Greek mythology and legend, as well as familiar animals of the fable, all play their parts in this comedy, and the poetic resonance of the Fables owes much to these actors who, belonging to no century and to every century, speak with timeless voices.

What disconcerts many non-French readers and critics is that in the Fables profundity is expressed lightly. La Fontaine’s animal characters illustrate the point. They are serious representations of human types, so presented as to hint that human nature and animal nature have much in common. But they are also creatures of fantasy, bearing only a distant resemblance to the animals the naturalist observes, and they are amusing because the poet skillfully exploits the incongruities between the animal and the human elements they embody. Moreover—as in his Contes, but with far more delicate and lyrical modulations—the voice of La Fontaine himself can constantly be heard, always controlled and discreet, even when most charged with emotion. Its tones change swiftly, almost imperceptibly: they are in turn ironical, impertinent, brusque, laconic, eloquent, compassionate, melancholy, or reflective. But the predominant note is that of la gaieté, which, as he says in the preface to the first collection, he deliberately sought to introduce into his Fables. “Gaiety,” he explains, is not that which provokes laughter but is “a certain charm . . . that can be given to any kind of subject, even the most serious.” No one reads the Fables rightly who does not read them with a smile—not only of amusement but also of complicity with the poet in the understanding of the human comedy and in the enjoyment of his art.

To the grace, ease, and delicate perfection of the best of the Fables, even close textual commentary cannot hope to do full justice. They represent the quintessence of a century of experiments in prosody and poetic diction in France. The great majority of the Fables are composed of lines of varying metre and, from the unpredictable interplay of their rhymes and of their changing rhythms, La Fontaine derived the most exquisite and diverse effects of tone and movement. His vocabulary harmonizes widely different elements: the archaic, the precious and the burlesque, the refined, the familiar and the rustic, the language of professions and trades and the language of philosophy and mythology. But for all this richness, economy and understatement are the chief characteristics of his style, and its full appreciation calls for keener sensitivity to the overtones of 17th-century French than most foreign readers can hope to possess.

Miscellaneous writings and the Contes
La Fontaine’s many miscellaneous writings include much occasional verse in a great variety of poetic forms and dramatic or pseudodramatic pieces such as his first published work, L’Eunuque (1654), and Climène (1671), as well as poems on subjects as different as Adonis (1658, revised 1669), La Captivité de saint Malc (1673), and Le Quinquina (1682). All these are, at best, works of uneven quality. In relation to the perfection of the Fables, they are no more than poetic exercises or experiments. The exception is the leisurely narrative of Les Amours de Psiché et de Cupidon (1669; The Loves of Cupid and Psyche), notable for the lucid elegance of its prose, its skillful blend of delicate feeling and witty banter, and some sly studies of feminine psychology.

Like his miscellaneous works, La Fontaine’s Contes et nouvelles en vers (Tales and Novels in Verse) considerably exceed the Fables in bulk. The first of them was published in 1664, the last posthumously. He borrowed them mostly from Italian sources, in particular Giovanni Boccaccio, but he preserved none of the 14th-century poet’s rich sense of reality. The essence of nearly all his Contes lies in their licentiousness, which is not presented with frank Rabelaisian verve but is transparently and flippantly disguised. Characters and situations are not meant to be taken seriously; they are meant to amuse and are too monotonous to amuse for long. The Contes are the work far less of a poet than of an ingenious stylist and versifier. The accent of La Fontaine the narrator enlivens the story with playfully capricious comments, explanations, and digressions.

Personality and reputation
Though he never secured the favour of Louis XIV, La Fontaine had many well-wishers close to the throne and among the nobility. He moved among churchmen, doctors, artists, musicians, and actors. But it was literary circles that he especially frequented. Legend has exaggerated the closeness of his ties with Molière, Nicholas Boileau, and Jean Racine, but he certainly numbered them among his friends and acquaintances, as well as La Rochefoucauld, Mme de Sévigné, Mme de La Fayette, and many less-well-remembered writers.

The true nature of the man remains enigmatic. He was intensely and naively selfish, unconventional in behaviour, and impatient of all constraint; yet he charmed countless friends—perhaps by a naturalness of manner and a sincerity in social relationships that were rare in his age—and made apparently only one enemy (a fellow academician, Antoine Furetière). He was a parasite without servility, a sycophant without baseness, a shrewd schemer who was also a blunderer, and a sinner whose errors were, as one close to him observed, “full of wisdom.” He was accommodating, sometimes to the detriment of proper self-respect, but he was certainly not the lazy, absent-minded simpleton that superficial observers took him for. The quantity and the quality of his work show that this legendary description of him cannot be accurate: for at least 40 years La Fontaine, in spite of his apparent aimlessness, was an ambitious and diligent literary craftsman of subtle intelligence and meticulous conscientiousness.

He was an assiduous and discriminating reader whose works abound in judicious imitations of both the matter and the manner of his favourite authors. He was influenced by so many 16th- and 17th-century French writers that it is almost invidious to mention only François Rabelais, Clément Marot, François de Malherbe, Honoré d’Urfé, and Vincent Voiture. The authors of classical antiquity that he knew best were Homer, Plato, Plutarch—these he almost certainly read in translation—Terence, Virgil, Horace, and Ovid. Boccaccio, Niccolò Machiavelli, Ludovico Ariosto, and Torquato Tasso were his favourites among the Italians. La Fontaine was no romantic; his work derives its substance and its savour less from his experience of life than from this rich and complex literary heritage, affectionately received and patiently exploited.

Too wise to suppose that moral truths can ever be simple, he wrote stories that offer no rudimentary illustration of a certain moral but a subtle commentary on it, sometimes amending it and hinting that only the naive would take it at face value. Thus, what the Fables teach is trivial in comparison with what they suggest: a view of life that, although incomplete (for it takes little account of man’s metaphysical anguish or his highest aspirations), is mature, profound, and wise. Enjoyed at many different levels, the Fables continue to form part of the culture of every Frenchman, from schoolchildren to such men of letters as André Gide, Paul Valéry, and Jean Giraudoux, who have given fresh lustre to La Fontaine’s reputation in the 20th century.

Leslie Clifford Sykes

The Classical manner

Though the novel was still considered to be a secondary genre, it produced one masterpiece that embodied the Classical manner to perfection. In La Princesse de Clèves (1678) by Marie-Madeleine, comtesse de La Fayette, the narrative forsakes the fanciful settings of its pastoral and heroic predecessors and explores the relationship between the individual and contemporary court society in a sober, realistic context. The language achieves its effects by understatement and subtle nuance rather than by rhetorical flourish. The expressive medium forged in the salons is here used to generate original insights into the inchoate feelings of confusion and disarray that overwhelm the naive, unformed young woman confronted with the experienced seducer. The other great woman writer of her age, Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné, produced an intimate, informal style of letter writing that was nevertheless composed with a careful eye to literary effect. Mme de Sévigné not only was an admirable example of the cultured reader for whom the grands classiques wrote but was herself one of the most skillful prose writers of her day.

The most distinguished prose writer of the age, however, was a man who, if he does reflect the society he lived in, does so in a highly critical light. The Pensées (1669–70; “Thoughts”; Eng. trans. Pensées) of Blaise Pascal present an uncompromising reminder of the spiritual values of the Christian faith. The work remains incomplete, so that, in spite of the aphoristic brilliance, or the lyrical power, of many fragments, some of the thinking is enigmatic, incoherent, or even contradictory. Nevertheless, the central theme is clearly and strongly posed. Pascal’s view of human nature has much in common with that of La Rochefoucauld or Mme de La Fayette, but Pascal contrasts the misery of godless man with the potential greatness attainable through divine grace. Pascal is the first master of a really modern prose style. Whereas Descartes’s prose is full of awkward Latinisms, Pascal uses a short sentence and is sparing with subordinate clauses. The clarity and precision he achieves are equally appropriate to the penetrating analysis of human nature in the Pensées and to the irony and comic force of the Provinciales (1656–57; The Provincial Letters), his masterly satire of Jesuit casuistry.


Marie-Madeleine, comtesse de La Fayette

baptized March 18, 1634, Paris
died May 25, 1693, Paris

French writer whose La Princesse de Clèves is a landmark of French fiction.

In Paris during the civil wars of the Fronde, young Mlle de la Vergne was brought into contact with Madame de Sévigné, now famous for her letters. She also met a leading political agitator, the future Cardinal de Retz. Married in 1655 to François Motier, comte de La Fayette (1616–83), she lived for some time with him on his estates in the province of Auvergne. In 1659, however, they separated, and she returned to Paris.

Throughout the 1660s Madame de La Fayette was a favourite of Henrietta Anne of England, duchesse d’Orléans. During this time she also began what was to be a lasting and intimate friendship with La Rochefoucauld, author of the famous Maximes. With him she formed a distinguished literary circle. After producing two conventional romances, she wrote her masterpiece, La Princesse de Clèves, published anonymously in 1678. Set in the middle of the 16th century, though its manners are those of the author’s own time, it is notable as France’s first serious “historical” novel, as distinct from “heroic” romances. It is the story of a virtuous young wife who suppresses her passion for a young nobleman. Its outstanding literary merits are the dignified pathos of the dialogue and the author’s psychological insight into the theme of tragically but deliberately unconsummated love.



Marie de Rabutin-Chantal
, marquise de Sévigné

born Feb. 5, 1626, Paris, France
died April 17, 1696, Grignan

French writer whose correspondence is of both historical and literary significance.

Of old Burgundian nobility, she was orphaned at the age of six and was brought up by her uncle Philippe II de Coulanges. She had a happy childhood and was well educated by such famous tutors as Jean Chapelain and Gilles Ménage. She was introduced into court society and the précieux world of the Hôtel de Rambouillet in Paris after her marriage in 1644 to Henri de Sévigné, a Breton gentleman of old nobility who squandered most of her money before being killed in a duel in 1651. He left his widow with two children, Françoise Marguerite (b. 1646) and Charles (b. 1648). For some years Mme de Sévigné continued in the fashionable social circles of Paris while also devoting herself to her children.

In 1669 her beautiful daughter, Françoise Marguerite, married the Count de Grignan and then moved with him to Provence, where he had been appointed lieutenant general of that province. The separation from her daughter provoked acute loneliness in Mme de Sévigné, and out of this grew her most important literary achievement, her letters to Mme de Grignan, which were written without literary intention or ambition. Most of the 1,700 letters that she wrote to her daughter were composed in the first seven years after their separation in 1671. The letters recount current news and events in fashionable society, describe prominent persons, comment on contemporary topics, and provide details of her life from day to day—her household, her acquaintances, her visits, and her taste in reading. The letters provide little that historians cannot find information about elsewhere, but Sévigné’s manner of telling her stories makes her version of current events and gossip unforgettable. Once her imagination had been caught by an incident, her sensibility and her powers as a literary artist were released in witty and absorbing narratives.

Sévigné took no literary model for her artistry. Before her, critics had held that epistolary literature should conform to certain rules of composition and should observe a unity of tone (e.g., “serious” or “playful”). By contrast, Sévigné’s letters demonstrate a spontaneity and a natural disorder that have a highly interesting conversational tone.

Religious authors

A new intellectual climate can be recognized from 1680 onward, as the centralizing authority of absolute monarchy tightened its hold on nation and culture. An increased spiritual awareness resulting from Jansenist teaching, the preaching of Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet and others, and the influence of Mme de Maintenon at court marked French cultural life with a new moral earnestness and devotion. The position of Bossuet is an ambivalent one. In spite of his outspoken criticism of king and court, his view of kingship and of the relationship between church and state made him one of the principal pillars of the regime of the Sun King (Louis XIV), carrying Richelieu’s policies to their logical conclusion. His ultraorthodox views are expressed in writings such as the Discours sur l’histoire universelle (1681; Discourse on Universal History); but he also exerted a considerable moral influence in his sermons and funeral orations, which took the art of pulpit oratory to a new high level. François de La Mothe-Fénelon was a much less orthodox churchman, and the influence he wielded was of a more liberal nature. Like Bossuet, he was a tutor in the royal household, and he was also author of a novel, Les Aventures de Télémaque (1699; Telemachus, Son of Ulysses), that combines moral lessons with Classical romance.


Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

born Sept. 25, 1627, Dijon, Fr.
died April 12, 1704, Paris

bishop who was the most eloquent and influential spokesman for the rights of the French church against papal authority. He is now chiefly remembered for his literary works, including funeral panegyrics for great personages.

Early life and priesthood.
Bossuet was born of a family of magistrates. He spent his first 15 years in Dijon and was educated at the Jesuit college there. Intended early for an ecclesiastical career, he was tonsured at the age of 10. In 1642 he went to study in Paris, where he remained for 10 years, receiving a sound theological education at the Collège de Navarre. In 1652 he was ordained priest and received his doctorate of divinity. Refusing a high appointment offered him at the Collège de Navarre, he chose instead to settle in Metz, where his father had obtained a canonry for him.

Though Bossuet belonged to the Metz clergy until 1669, he divided his time between Metz and Paris from 1656 to 1659, and after 1660 he left Paris hardly at all. When in Metz, he zealously performed his duties as canon. His main concerns, however, were preaching and controversy with the Protestants, and it was at Metz that he began to master these skills. His first book, the Réfutation du catéchisme du sieur Paul Ferry (“Refutation of the Catechism of Paul Ferry”), was the result of his discussions with Paul Ferry, the minister of the Protestant Reformed church at Metz. Bossuet’s reputation as a preacher spread to Paris, where his “Panégyrique de l’apôtre saint Paul” (1657; “Panegyric of the Apostle Saint Paul”) and his “Sermon sur l’eminente dignité des pauvres dans l’église” (1659; “Sermon on the Sublime Dignity of the Poor in the Church”) were particularly admired.

Lenten sermons and funeral orations.
Bossuet’s career as a great popular preacher unfolded during the next 10 years in Paris. He preached the Lenten sermons of 1660 and 1661 in two famous convents there—the Minims’ and the Carmelites’—and in 1662 was called to preach them before King Louis XIV. The Lenten sermons, abundant with biblical citations and paraphrases, epitomize Baroque eloquence; yet, while they exhibit the majesty and the pathos of the Baroque ideal, the exaggeration and mannerism are conspicuously absent. He was summoned in 1669 to deliver the funeral orations that were customary after the death of an important national figure. These first “Oraisons funèbres” (“Funeral Orations”) include panegyrics on Henrietta Maria of France, queen of England (1669), and on her daughter Henrietta Anne of England, Louis XIV’s sister-in-law (1670). Masterpieces of French classical prose, these orations display dignity, balance, and slow thematic development; they contain emotionally charged passages but are organized according to logical argumentation. From the life of the departed subject, Bossuet selected qualities and episodes from which he could draw a moral. He convinced his listeners by the passion of his religious feelings, which he expressed in clear, simple rhetoric.

Apart from his work as a preacher, Bossuet, as a doctor of divinity, felt compelled to intervene in the controversy over Jansenism, a movement in the Roman Catholic church emphasizing a heightened sense of original sin and the role of God’s grace in salvation. Bossuet tried to steer a middle course in the quarrel caused by the movement, devoting himself to his controversy with the Protestants.

In 1669 Bossuet was designated bishop of Condom, a diocese in southwest France, but had to resign the see in 1670 after his appointment as tutor to the dauphin, the king’s eldest son. This post brought about his election to the Académie Française. Thoroughly absorbed in the duties of his new office, Bossuet found time to publish a work against Protestantism, Exposition de la doctrine de l’église catholique sur les matières de controverse (1671; “Exposition on the Doctrine of the Catholic Church on the Matters of Controversy”). He preached only occasionally thereafter. Though primarily concerned with the dauphin’s religious and moral instruction, he also taught Latin, history, philosophy, and politics. His major political work, the Politique tirée des propres paroles de l’Écriture sainte (“Statecraft Drawn from the Very Words of the Holy Scriptures”)—which uses the Bible as evidence of divine authority for the power of kings—earned Bossuet his reputation as a great theoretician of royal absolutism. In the Politique he developed the doctrine of divine right, the theory that any government legally formed expresses the will of God, that its authority is sacred, and that any rebellion against it is criminal. But he also emphasized the dreadful responsibility of the sovereign, who was to behave as God’s image, govern his subjects as a good father, and yet remain unaffected by his power.

In 1681 Bossuet became bishop of Meaux, a post he held until his death. In this period he delivered his second series of great funeral orations, including those of Princess Anne de Gonzague (1685), the chancellor Michel Le Tellier (1686), and the Great Condé (1687). Though he kept in close touch with the dauphin and the king, he was not primarily a court prelate; he was, rather, a devoted bishop, living mostly among his diocesans, preaching, busying himself with charitable organizations, and directing his clergy. His excursions outside the diocese were in relation to the theological controversies of his time: Gallicanism, Protestantism, and Quietism.

The Gallican controversy.
In the Gallican controversy, Louis XIV maintained that the French monarch could limit papal authority in collecting the revenues of vacant sees and in certain other matters, while the Ultramontanists held that the pope was supreme. An extraordinary general assembly of the French clergy was held to consider this question in 1681–82. Bossuet delivered the inaugural sermon to this body and also drew up its final statement, the Déclaration des quatre articles (“Declaration of Four Articles”), which was delivered, along with his famous inaugural sermon on the unity of the church, to the assembly of the French clergy in 1682. The articles asserted the king’s independence from Rome in secular matters and proclaimed that, in matters of faith, the pope’s judgment is not to be regarded as infallible without the assent of the total church. They were accepted by all parties of the assembly, and his role in this controversy remained perhaps the most significant of Bossuet’s life.

Concurrently he was engaged in the controversy with the Protestants. Though he opposed persecution and endeavoured to convert the Protestants by intellectual argument, Bossuet supported the king’s revocation in 1685 of the Edict of Nantes, an action that in effect prohibited French Protestantism. In 1688 he published a history of variations in the Protestant churches, Histoire des variations des églises protestantes, which was followed by information and advice to Protestants, Avertissement aux protestans (1689–91).

Although Bossuet had displayed moderation in the Gallican quarrel and in the controversy with the Protestants, he showed himself less tolerant in other cases, condemning the theatre as immoral, for example. Above all, he led an attack on the form of religious mysticism known as Quietism, which was being practiced by the archbishop of Cambrai, François Fénelon. Bossuet was by nature very intellectual and had been nourished on theology, and thus he was unable to understand a form of mysticism that consisted of passive devotional contemplation and total abandonment to the divine presence of God. He wrote such harsh works against the “new mystics” as his statement on Quietism, Instruction sur les états d’ oraison (1697; “Instructions on the Calling of Oration”) and the Relation sur le quiétisme (1698; “Report on Quietism”). After a duel of pamphlets and some unpleasant intrigue, he obtained Fénelon’s condemnation in Rome in 1699.

In the centuries since his death, Bossuet’s reputation has been the subject of much controversy. The only point of agreement is the excellence of his style and eloquence. From a political point of view, he was praised by nationalists and monarchists, but spurned by the liberal tradition. From a religious point of view, he was often quoted as a master of French Roman Catholic thought, but he has been opposed by the Ultramontanists, Catholic progressives and modernists, and many of Fénelon’s numerous admirers. His emphasis on immutability of doctrine and the perfection of the church made him seem old-fashioned in the atmosphere of Catholicism after the second Vatican Council (1962–65).

Jacques Truchet



François de La Mothe-Fénelon


born Aug. 6, 1651, Château de Fénelon, Périgord, Fr.
died Jan. 7, 1715, Cambrai

French archbishop, theologian, and man of letters whose liberal views on politics and education and whose involvement in a controversy over the nature of mystical prayer caused concerted opposition from church and state. His pedagogical concepts and literary works, nevertheless, exerted a lasting influence on French culture.

Descended from a long line of nobility, Fénelon began his higher studies in Paris about 1672 at Saint-Sulpice seminary. Ordained a priest in 1676, he was appointed director of Nouvelles Catholiques (“New Catholics”), a college for women who instructed converts from French Protestantism. When King Louis XIV heightened the persecution of the Huguenots (French Calvinists) in 1685 by revoking the Edict of Nantes, Fénelon strove to mitigate the harshness of Roman Catholic intolerance by open meetings with the Protestants (1686–87) to present Catholic doctrine in a reasonable light. While unsympathetic to Protestant belief, he equally repudiated forced conversions.

From his pedagogical experiences at Nouvelles Catholiques, he wrote his first important work, Traité de l’éducation des filles (1687; “Treatise on the Education of Girls”). Although generally conservative, the treatise submitted innovative concepts on the education of females and criticized the coercive methods of his day.

In 1689, with the support of the renowned bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Fénelon was named tutor to Louis, Duke (duc) de Bourgogne, grandson and heir to Louis XIV. For the prince’s education, Fénelon composed his best-known work, Les Aventures de Télémaque (1699), in which the adventures of Telemachus in search of his father, Ulysses, symbolically expressed Fénelon’s fundamental political ideas. During the period of his popularity in official circles, Fénelon enjoyed various honours, including his election to the French Academy in 1693 and his selection as archbishop of Cambrai in 1695.

Anxious about his spiritual life, Fénelon sought an answer from the Quietist school of prayer. Introduced in October 1688 to Quietism’s leading exponent, Mme Guyon, Fénelon sought from her some means of personally experiencing the God whose existence he had intellectually proved. But his search for spiritual peace was short-lived. Bossuet and other influential people at court attacked Mme Guyon’s teaching, and a document investigating Quietism’s doubtful orthodoxy even obtained Fénelon’s signature. When Bossuet, however, next launched a personal attack on Mme Guyon, Fénelon responded with Explication des maximes des saints sur la vie intérieure (1697; “Explanation of the Sayings of the Saints on the Interior Life”). Defending Mme Guyon’s integrity, Fénelon not only lost Bossuet’s friendship but also exposed himself to Bossuet’s public denunciation. As a result, Fénelon’s Maximes des saints was condemned by the pope, and he was exiled to his diocese.


Just as Fénelon chose an ancient model—his novel purports to be the continuation of Book Four of the Odyssey—so Jean de La Bruyère chose to write his Caractères de Théophraste traduits du grec, avec les caractères ou les moeurs de ce siècle (1688; “The Characters of Theophrastus Translated from the Greek, with the Characters or Manners of This Century”; Eng. trans. The Characters, or the Manners of the Age) in the style of the Greek moralist Theophrastus. However, his work, appended to his translation of Theophrastus, was from the beginning more specific in its reference to his own times; and successive editions, up to 1694, made of it a powerful indictment of the vanity and pretensions of the high-ranking members of a status-conscious society. La Bruyère attacks the extravagance and warmongering of the king himself. He writes as an ironic commentator on the social comedy around him, in a highly personal, visual, fast-moving prose that brings his targets to vivid life.

An equally satiric picture of the age is left by a number of Molière’s successors writing for the comic theatre (which, from the founding of the Théâtre Français in 1680, was organized on a monopoly basis). Comedy, at the hands of such writers as Jean-François Regnard, Florent Carton Dancourt, and Alain-René Lesage, continued to be lively and inventive; but the writing of tragedy, by contrast, with the exception of the work of Racine, already had become a much more derivative exercise.

Jean de La Bruyère

born August 1645, Paris, France
died May 10/11, 1696, Versailles

French satiric moralist who is best known for one work, Les Caractères de Théophraste traduits du grec avec Les Caractères ou les moeurs de ce siècle (1688; The Characters, or the Manners of the Age, with The Characters of Theophrastus), which is considered to be one of the masterpieces of French literature.

La Bruyère studied law at Orléans. Through the intervention of Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, the eminent humanist and theologian, he became one of the tutors to the Duke de Bourbon, grandson of the Prince de Condé, and remained in the Condé household as librarian at Chantilly. His years there were probably unhappy because, although he was proud of his middle-class origin, he was a constant butt of ridicule because of his ungainly figure, morose manner, and biting tongue; the bitterness of his book reflects the inferiority of his social position. His situation, however, afforded him the opportunity to make penetrating observations on the power of money in a demoralized society, the tyranny of social custom, and the perils of aristocratic idleness, fads, and fashions.

La Bruyère’s masterpiece appeared as an appendage to his translation of the 4th-century bc character writer Theophrastus in 1688. His method was that of Theophrastus: to define qualities such as dissimulation, flattery, or rusticity and then to give instances of them in actual people, making reflections on the “characters,” or “characteristics,” of the time, for the purpose of reforming manners. La Bruyère had an immense and richly varied vocabulary and a sure grasp of technique. His satire is constantly sharpened by variety of presentation, and he achieves vivid stylistic effects, which were admired by such eminent writers as the 19th-century novelists Gustave Flaubert and the Goncourt brothers.

Eight editions of the Caractères appeared during La Bruyère’s lifetime. The portrait sketches were expanded because of their great popularity. Readers began putting real names to the personages and compiling keys to them, but La Bruyère denied that any was a portrait of a single person.

Topical allusions in his book made his election to the French Academy difficult, but he was eventually elected in 1693. The Duke de Saint-Simon, the diplomat and memoirist, described him as honourable, lovable, and unpretentious.



Jean-François Regnard


born Feb. 8, 1655, Paris, France
died Sept. 4, 1709, Château de Grillon

French dramatist, one of the most successful of the successors of Molière, whose wit and style he openly imitated.

Born into a wealthy family, Regnard travelled extensively as a young man. On one of his trips he was captured by Algerian pirates and imprisoned for seven months until ransomed by his family in 1679. His experiences and impressions provided material for a series of books.

In 1683 Regnard obtained the position of treasurer of France, a profitable post that he held for 20 years. From 1688 on, however, he devoted most of his time to writing, first for the Italian comedians in Paris and then for the Comédie-Française. He depicted a brilliant but decadent society in a light and facile style, free of moralizing. His prime concern was to make an audience laugh as often as possible. His best known plays are Le Joueur (1696; “The Gamester”), Le Légataire universel (1708; “The Heir”), and La Sérénade (1694).



Florent Carton Dancourt

born Nov. 1, 1661, Fontainebleau, Fr.
died Dec. 7, 1725, Courcelles-le-Roi, near Orléans

actor and playwright who created the French comedy of manners and was one of the most popular of French dramatists before the Revolution.

Born into an established bourgeois family, Dancourt was educated in Paris by Jesuits and studied law. In 1680 he married an actress, Thérèse de La Thorillière. They debuted with the Comédie-Française in 1685, beginning an association that flourished for 33 years. Dancourt’s skill as a comic actor and playwright brought him the favour of Louis XIV and established him as the successor to Molière.

Like Molière, Dancourt was expert at portraying current social types, and his comedies often seized on recent scandals to ridicule the decadence and social pretenses of the period. Written in prose and never assuming artistic greatness, they were peopled by characters whose vices were made hilarious by Dancourt’s witty, effortless dialogue and his ability to make the most of a comic situation. His best-known work, Le Chevalier à la mode (1687; “The Knight à la Mode”), deals with a fortune hunter’s simultaneous courtship of three women. Other plays are Les Bourgeoises à la mode (1692) and Les Bourgeoises de qualité (1700), in which middle-class women ape the nobility, La Désolation des joueuses (1687), on the current gambling rage, and La Maison de campagne (1688; “The Country House”), making fun of crude provincial manners.

Of over 50 plays printed under Dancourt’s name, an undetermined number were collaborations with other writers. In 1718 Dancourt abruptly retired to his estate, devoting himself until his death to translating the Psalms.




Alain-René Lesage

"Gil Blas"  BOOK I-


born May 6, 1668, Sarzeau, France
died Nov. 17, 1747, Boulogne

prolific French satirical dramatist and author of the classic picaresque novel Gil Blas, which was influential in making the picaresque form a European literary fashion.

Although he was orphaned at age 14 and was always quite poor, Lesage was well educated at a Jesuit college in Brittany and studied law in Paris. He was well liked in the literary salons but chose a family life over a worldly one, marrying Marie-Elisabeth Huyard in 1694. He abandoned his legal clerkship to dedicate himself to literature and received a pension from the Abbot of Lyonne, who also taught him Spanish and interested him in the Spanish theatre.

Lesage’s early plays were adaptations of Spanish models and included the highly successful adapted comedy Crispin, rival de son maître (Crispin, Rival of His Master), performed in 1707 by the Théâtre Français. His prose work Le Diable boiteux (1707; The Devil upon Two Sticks) is of Spanish inspiration, but its satire is aimed at Parisian society. The more popular Théâtre de la Foire gave Lesage greater freedom as an author, and he composed for that company more than 100 comédies-vaudevilles, for which he is considered successor to Molière.

Lesage’s Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane (1715–1735; The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane) is one of the earliest realistic novels. It concerns the education and adventures of an adaptable young valet as he progresses from one master to the next. In the service of the quack Dr. Sangrado, Gil Blas practices on the poorer patients and soon achieves a record equal to his master’s, i.e., 100 percent fatalities. In service to Don Mathias, a notorious seducer, he also learns to equal and surpass his master. The sunnier spirit of Gil Blas had a civilizing effect on the picaresque tradition. Unlike most novels of the genre, it ends happily, as Gil Blas retires to marriage and a quiet country life.

The Ancients and the Moderns

The end of Louis XIV’s reign witnessed the critical debate known as the querelle des anciens et des modernes (“Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns”), a long-standing controversy that came to a head in the Académie and in various published works (see Ancients and Moderns). Whereas Boileau and others saw imitation of the literature of antiquity as the only possible guarantee of excellence, “moderns” such as Charles Perrault in his Parallèle des anciens et des modernes (1688–97; “Comparison of the Ancients and Moderns”) and Bernard Le Bovier, sieur de Fontenelle, in his Digression sur les anciens et les modernes (1688; “Digression on the Ancients and Moderns”), claimed that the best contemporary works were inevitably superior, because of the greater maturity of the human mind. It was a sterile and inconclusive debate, but the underlying issue was most important, for the moderns both indirectly and explicitly anticipated those 18th-century thinkers whose rejection of a single universal aesthetic in favour of a relativist approach was to hasten the end of the Classical age.

William Driver Howarth
Jennifer Birkett


Charles Perrault

"The Tales of Mother Goose" 

Illustrated by Gustave Dore

Charles Perrault (12 January 1628 – 16 May 1703) was a French author who laid foundations for a new literary genre, the fairy tale, and whose best known tales, often derived from pre-existing folk tales, include Le Petit Chaperon rouge (Little Red Riding Hood), La Belle au bois dormant (Sleeping Beauty), Le Maître chat ou le Chat botté (Puss in Boots), Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre (Cinderella), La Barbe bleue (Bluebeard), Le Petit Poucet (Hop o' My Thumb), Les Fées (Diamonds and Toads), La Marquise de Salusses ou la Patience de Griselidis (Patient Griselda), Les Souhaits ridicules (The Ridiculous Wishes), Peau d'Âne (Donkeyskin) and Riquet à la houppe (Ricky of the Tuft). Perrault's most famous stories are still in print today and have been made into operas, ballets (e.g., Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty), plays, musicals, and films, both live-action and animation.


Perrault was born in Paris to a wealthy bourgeois family, son of Pierre Perrault and Paquette Le Clerc. His brother, Claude Perrault, is remembered as the architect of the severe east range of the Louvre, built between 1665 and 1680. Charles attended the best schools and studied law before embarking on a career in government service. He took part in the creation of the Academy of Sciences as well as the restoration of the Academy of Painting. When the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres was founded in 1663, Perrault was appointed its secretary and served under Jean Baptiste Colbert, finance minister to King Louis XIV.[2] He married Marie Guichon, age 19, in 1672, who died in 1678 after giving birth to a daughter. The couple also had three sons. When Colbert died in 1683, he stopped receiving the pension given to him as a writer.

He was a major participant in the French Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns (Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes), which pitted supporters of the literature of Antiquity (the "Ancients") against supporters of the literature from the century of Louis XIV (the "Moderns"). He was on the side of the Moderns and wrote Le Siècle de Louis le Grand (The Century of Louis the Great, 1687) and Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes (Parallel between Ancients and Moderns, 1688–1692) where he attempted to prove the superiority of the literature of his century.

In 1695, when he was 67, he lost his post as secretary. He decided to dedicate himself to his children and published Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals (Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé) (1697), with the subtitle: Tales of Mother Goose (Les Contes de ma Mère l'Oie). Its publication made him suddenly widely-known beyond his own circles and marked the beginnings of a new literary genre, the fairy tale. He had actually published it under the name of his last son (born in 1678), Pierre (Perrault) Darmancourt, (Armancourt was the name of a property he bought for him), probably fearful of criticism from the "Ancients".[3] In the tales, he used images from around him, such as the Chateau Ussé for Sleeping Beauty and in Puss-in-Boots, the Marquis of the Château d'Oiron, and contrasted his folktale subject matter, with details and asides and subtext drawn from the world of fashion. He died in Paris in 1703 at age 75.



Bernard Le Bovier, sieur de Fontenelle


born Feb. 11, 1657, Rouen, Fr.
died Jan. 9, 1757, Paris

French scientist and man of letters, described by Voltaire as the most universal mind produced by the era of Louis XIV. Many of the characteristic ideas of the Enlightenment are found in embryonic form in his works.

Fontenelle was educated at the Jesuit college in Rouen. He did not settle in Paris until he had passed the age of 30 and had become famous as the writer of operatic librettos. His literary activity during the years 1683–88 won him a great reputation. The Lettres galantes (1683, “Gallant Letters”; expanded edition, 1685) contributed to this, but the Nouveaux Dialogues des morts (1683, “New Dialogues of the Dead”; 2nd part, 1684) enjoyed a greater success and is more interesting to a modern reader. The Dialogues, conversations modelled on the dialogues of Lucian, between such figures as Socrates and Montaigne, Seneca and Scarron, served to disseminate new philosophical ideas. The popularization of philosophy was carried further by the Histoire des oracles (1687; “History of the Oracles”), based on a Latin treatise by the Dutch writer Anton van Dale (1683). Here Fontenelle subjected pagan religions to criticisms that the reader would inevitably see as applicable to Christianity as well. The same antireligious bias is seen in his amusing satire Relation de l’île de Bornéo (1686; “Account of the Island of Borneo”), in which a civil war in Borneo is used to symbolize the dissensions between Catholics (Rome) and Calvinists (Geneva).

Fontenelle’s most famous work was the Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686; A Plurality of Worlds, 1688). These charming and sophisticated dialogues were more influential than any other work in securing acceptance of the Copernican system, still far from commanding universal support in 1686. Fontenelle’s basis of scientific documentation was meagre, and some of his figures were wildly erroneous even for his own day. He was unfortunate in the moment of his publication: the Cartesian theory of vortices, on which his work was based, was refuted the next year in Isaac Newton’s Principia. But the Entretiens were nevertheless exceedingly successful. Fontenelle was elected to the Académie Française in 1691 and was elected to the Académie des Inscriptions in 1701.

As permanent secretary of the Académie des Sciences from 1697, Fontenelle held a highly influential office. He published the memoirs presented to the academy and wrote its history. He kept abreast of new developments in science, corresponding with scientists in most European countries, and developed his talent for lucid popular exposition, notably in some of his obituary notices read to the academy (e.g., those of Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz).

Fontenelle was a close friend of Montesquieu and well known to Voltaire, who mocked him in his Micromégas (1752), a dissertation on the smallness of man in relation to the cosmos. Fontenelle’s most original contribution was in his approach to historiography, shown in his De l’origine des fables (1724; “Of the Origin of Fables”), in which he supports the theory that similar fables arise independently in several cultures and also tentatively addresses himself to comparative religion.





Pierre de Fermat

born August 17, 1601, Beaumont-de-Lomagne, France
died January 12, 1665, Castres

French mathematician who is often called the founder of the modern theory of numbers. Together with René Descartes, Fermat was one of the two leading mathematicians of the first half of the 17th century. Independently of Descartes, Fermat discovered the fundamental principle of analytic geometry. His methods for finding tangents to curves and their maximum and minimum points led him to be regarded as the inventor of the differential calculus. Through his correspondence with Blaise Pascal he was a co-founder of the theory of probability.

Life and early work
Little is known of Fermat’s early life and education. He was of Basque origin and received his primary education in a local Franciscan school. He studied law, probably at Toulouse and perhaps also at Bordeaux. Having developed tastes for foreign languages, classical literature, and ancient science and mathematics, Fermat followed the custom of his day in composing conjectural “restorations” of lost works of antiquity. By 1629 he had begun a reconstruction of the long-lost Plane Loci of Apollonius, the Greek geometer of the 3rd century bc. He soon found that the study of loci, or sets of points with certain characteristics, could be facilitated by the application of algebra to geometry through a coordinate system. Meanwhile, Descartes had observed the same basic principle of analytic geometry, that equations in two variable quantities define plane curves. Because Fermat’s Introduction to Loci was published posthumously in 1679, the exploitation of their discovery, initiated in Descartes’s Géométrie of 1637, has since been known as Cartesian geometry.

In 1631 Fermat received the baccalaureate in law from the University of Orléans. He served in the local parliament at Toulouse, becoming councillor in 1634. Sometime before 1638 he became known as Pierre de Fermat, though the authority for this designation is uncertain. In 1638 he was named to the Criminal Court.

Analyses of curves.
Fermat’s study of curves and equations prompted him to generalize the equation for the ordinary parabola ay = x2, and that for the rectangular hyperbola xy = a2, to the form an - 1y = xn. The curves determined by this equation are known as the parabolas or hyperbolas of Fermat according as n is positive or negative. He similarly generalized the Archimedean spiral r = aθ. These curves in turn directed him in the middle 1630s to an algorithm, or rule of mathematical procedure, that was equivalent to differentiation. This procedure enabled him to find equations of tangents to curves and to locate maximum, minimum, and inflection points of polynomial curves, which are graphs of linear combinations of powers of the independent variable. During the same years, he found formulas for areas bounded by these curves through a summation process that is equivalent to the formula now used for the same purpose in the integral calculus. Such a formula is:

It is not known whether or not Fermat noticed that differentiation of xn, leading to nan - 1, is the inverse of integrating xn. Through ingenious transformations he handled problems involving more general algebraic curves, and he applied his analysis of infinitesimal quantities to a variety of other problems, including the calculation of centres of gravity and finding the lengths of curves. Descartes in the Géométrie had reiterated the widely held view, stemming from Aristotle, that the precise rectification or determination of the length of algebraic curves was impossible; but Fermat was one of several mathematicians who, in the years 1657–59, disproved the dogma. In a paper entitled “De Linearum Curvarum cum Lineis Rectis Comparatione” (“Concerning the Comparison of Curved Lines with Straight Lines”), he showed that the semicubical parabola and certain other algebraic curves were strictly rectifiable. He also solved the related problem of finding the surface area of a segment of a paraboloid of revolution. This paper appeared in a supplement to the Veterum Geometria Promota, issued by the mathematician Antoine de La Loubère in 1660. It was Fermat’s only mathematical work published in his lifetime.

Disagreement with other Cartesian views
Fermat differed also with Cartesian views concerning the law of refraction (the sines of the angles of incidence and refraction of light passing through media of different densities are in a constant ratio), published by Descartes in 1637 in La Dioptrique; like La Géométrie, it was an appendix to his celebrated Discours de la méthode. Descartes had sought to justify the sine law through a premise that light travels more rapidly in the denser of the two media involved in the refraction. Twenty years later Fermat noted that this appeared to be in conflict with the view espoused by Aristotelians that nature always chooses the shortest path. Applying his method of maxima and minima and making the assumption that light travels less rapidly in the denser medium, Fermat showed that the law of refraction is consonant with his “principle of least time.” His argument concerning the speed of light was found later to be in agreement with the wave theory of the 17th-century Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, and in 1849 it was verified experimentally by A.-H.-L. Fizeau.

Through the mathematician and theologian Marin Mersenne, who, as a friend of Descartes, often acted as an intermediary with other scholars, Fermat in 1638 maintained a controversy with Descartes on the validity of their respective methods for tangents to curves. Fermat’s views were fully justified some 30 years later in the calculus of Sir Isaac Newton. Recognition of the significance of Fermat’s work in analysis was tardy, in part because he adhered to the system of mathematical symbols devised by François Viète, notations that Descartes’s Géométrie had rendered largely obsolete. The handicap imposed by the awkward notations operated less severely in Fermat’s favourite field of study, the theory of numbers; but here, unfortunately, he found no correspondent to share his enthusiasm. In 1654 he had enjoyed an exchange of letters with his fellow mathematician Blaise Pascal on problems in probability concerning games of chance, the results of which were extended and published by Huygens in his De Ratiociniis in Ludo Aleae (1657).

Work on theory of numbers
Fermat vainly sought to persuade Pascal to join him in research in number theory. Inspired by an edition in 1621 of the Arithmetic of Diophantus, the Greek mathematician of the 3rd century ad, Fermat had discovered new results in the so-called higher arithmetic, many of which concerned properties of prime numbers (those positive integers that have no factors other than 1 and themselves). One of the most elegant of these had been the theorem that every prime of the form 4n + 1 is uniquely expressible as the sum of two squares. A more important result, now known as Fermat’s lesser theorem, asserts that if p is a prime number and if a is any positive integer, then ap - a is divisible by p. Fermat seldom gave demonstrations of his results, and in this case proofs were provided by Gottfried Leibniz, the 17th-century German mathematician and philosopher, and Leonhard Euler, the 18th-century Swiss mathematician. For occasional demonstrations of his theorems Fermat used a device that he called his method of “infinite descent,” an inverted form of reasoning by recurrence or mathematical induction. One unproved conjecture by Fermat turned out to be false. In 1640, in letters to mathematicians and to other knowledgeable thinkers of the day, including Blaise Pascal, he announced his belief that numbers of the form 22n + 1, known since as “numbers of Fermat,” are necessarily prime; but a century later Euler showed that 225 + 1 has 641 as a factor. It is not known if there are any primes among the Fermat numbers for n > 5. Carl Friedrich Gauss in 1796 in Germany found an unexpected application for Fermat numbers when he showed that a regular polygon of N sides is constructible in a Euclidean sense if N is a prime Fermat number or a product of distinct Fermat primes. By far the best known of Fermat’s many theorems is a problem known as his “great,” or “last,” theorem. This appeared in the margin of his copy of Diophantus’ Arithmetica and states that the equation xn + yn = zn, where x, y, z, and n are positive integers, has no solution if n is greater than 2. This theorem remained unsolved until the late 20th century.

Fermat was the most productive mathematician of his day. But his influence was circumscribed by his reluctance to publish.

Carl B. Boyer



Pierre Gassendi

French mathematician, philosopher, and scientist
Gassendi also spelled Gassend
born Jan. 22, 1592, Champtercier, Provence, France
died Oct. 24, 1655, Paris

French philosopher, scientist, and mathematician, who revived Epicureanism as a substitute for Aristotelianism, attempting in the process to reconcile mechanistic atomism with the Christian belief in an infinite God.

Early life and career
Born into a family of commoners, Gassendi received his early education at Digne and Reiz. He studied at universities in Digne and Aix-en-Provence and received a doctorate in theology at the university in Avignon in 1614. After being ordained a priest in 1616 he was appointed professor of philosophy at Aix-en-Provence. There he delivered critical lectures on the thought of Aristotle from 1617 to 1622, when the new Jesuit authorities of the university, who disapproved of Gassendi’s anti-Aristotelianism, compelled him to leave. Gassendi’s work Exercitationes paradoxicae adversus Aristoteleos (“Paradoxical Exercises Against the Aristotelians”), the first part of which was published in 1624, contains an attack on Aristotelianism and an early version of his mitigated skepticism. Gassendi thereafter engaged in many scientific studies with his patron, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, until the latter’s death in 1637. A considerable portion of his researches during this period involved astronomical observations, including his discovery in 1631 of the perihelion of Mercury (the point of the planet’s closest approach to the Sun).

Skepticism and atomism
In 1641 the theologian and mathematician Marin Mersenne invited Gassendi and several other eminent thinkers to contribute comments on the manuscript of René Descartes’s Meditations (1641); Gassendi’s comments, in which he argued that Descartes had failed to establish the reality and certainty of innate ideas, were published in the second edition of the Meditations (1642) as the fifth set of objections and replies. Gassendi enlarged upon these criticisms in his Disquisitio metaphysica, seu duitationes et instantiae adversus Renati Cartesii metaphysicam et responsa (1644; “Metaphysical Disquisition; or, Doubts and Instances Against the Metaphysics of René Descartes and Responses”).

In 1645 Gassendi was appointed professor of mathematics at the Collège Royal in Paris. During the remainder of the decade he published a work on the new astronomy, Institutio astronomica juxta hypotheseis tam veteram quam Copernici et Tychonis Brahei (1647; “Astronomical Instruction According to the Ancient Hypotheses as Well as Those of Copernicus and Tycho Brahe”), as well as two of his three major works on Epicurean philosophy, De vita et moribus Epicuri (1647; “On the Life and Death of Epicurus”) and Animadversiones in decimum librum Diogenis Laertii, qui est de vita, moribus, placitisque Epicuri (1649; “Observations on Book X of Diogenes Laërtius, Which Is About the Life, Morals, and Opinions of Epicurus”).

In his final Epicurean work, Syntagma philosophicum (“Philosophical Treatise”), published posthumously in 1658, Gassendi attempted to find what he called a middle way between skepticism and dogmatism. He argued that, while metaphysical knowledge of the “essences” (inner natures) of things is impossible, by relying on induction and the information provided by “appearances” one can acquire probable knowledge of the natural world that is sufficient to explain and predict experience. Adopting a view characteristic of ancient Skepticism, Gassendi held that experienced events can be taken as signs of what is beyond experience. Smoke suggests fire, sweat suggests that there are pores in the skin, and the multitude of events suggests that there is an atomic world underlying them. The best theory of such a world, in Gassendi’s opinion, is the ancient atomism expounded by Epicurus (341–270 bce), according to which atoms are eternal, differently shaped, and moving at different speeds. Gassendi argued that such atoms must have some of the physical features of the visible objects they constitute, such as extension, size, shape, weight, and solidity. The atoms collide and agglomerate, resulting in events in the perceptible world. A mechanical model of atomic movement and agglomeration, ultimately based on experience, would allow one to discover probabilistic empirical laws, to make predictions, and to explain relationships between different kinds of phenomena. Because the phenomenal world is thus related to the atomic world, there is no need to explain events in terms of purposes, goals, or final causes, as in Scholastic and Aristotelian teleology.

Gassendi believed that there was no conflict between his mechanistic atomism and the doctrines of Roman Catholicism; indeed, he took pains to emphasize their compatibility. Although he was a heliocentrist, he presented his astronomical views in a way that made them at least superficially consistent with the teachings of the church, which had condemned Galileo for his heliocentrism in 1633.

Although Gassendi’s atomism was as complete an account of nature as any other scientific theory of its time, it was eventually replaced by the physics of Sir Isaac Newton. No important discoveries are attributed to Gassendi’s scientific program.

Religious and moral views
Gassendi rejected the Epicurean account of the human soul, according to which it is material but composed of lighter and more subtle atoms than those of other things. Souls are genuinely immaterial, and their existence is known through faith. Likewise, his theology, unlike Epicurus’s, did not conceive of God as a material body. God’s existence is proved by the harmony evident in nature. Following Epicurus, Gassendi held that the proper goal of human life is happiness, which consists in the peace of the soul and the absence of bodily pain.

It has long been debated whether Gassendi was really a secret libertine—a freethinker in matters of religion and morals. Although he was a close associate of some notorious religious skeptics and even took part in their retreats, he was also good friends with some leading church figures, such as the theologian and mathematician Marin Mersenne. Indeed, Gassendi and Mersenne had quite similar views about science and its foundations. Gassendi’s associations with a wide range of other intellectual figures, including Thomas Hobbes and Blaise Pascal, lend themselves to varied interpretations.

Influence and assessment
In 1648 Gassendi resigned his post at the Collège Royal because of poor health. After nearly five years in Provence he returned to Paris in 1653, taking up residence in the house of his new patron, Henri-Louis Habert, lord of Montmor. He died there two years later.

Gassendi’s ideas were extremely influential in the 17th century. Although his works were originally published as huge Latin tomes, a French abridgement of them appeared in the second half of the century, as did English translations of various excerpts. His ideas were taught in Jesuit schools in France, in English universities, and even in newly founded schools in North America. Because Gassendi’s epistemological views seem to be echoed in major sections of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), one of the founding works of British empiricism, some scholars have concluded that Locke was directly influenced by Gassendi. It is interesting to note in this connection that the Syntagma was published in English in Thomas Stanley’s History of Philosophy (1655–62), a work that Locke knew. Locke also met some of Gassendi’s disciples during his exile in France.

At the turn of the 21st century there was growing interest in Gassendi’s critique of Cartesianism, and his scientific researches were shedding new light on the early development of botany, geology, and other fields. He is now regarded as an original thinker of the first rank.




Nicholas de Malebranche

born Aug. 6, 1638, Paris, France
died Oct. 13, 1715, Paris

French Roman Catholic priest, theologian, and major philosopher of Cartesianism, the school of philosophy arising from the work of René Descartes. His philosophy sought to synthesize Cartesianism with the thought of St. Augustine and with Neoplatonism.

Malebranche, the youngest child of the secretary to King Louis XIII, suffered all his life from malformation of the spine. After studying philosophy and theology at the Collège de la Marche and the Sorbonne, he joined the Congregation of the Oratory and in 1664 was ordained a priest. Chancing to read Descartes’s Traité de l’homme (“Treatise on Man”), he felt compelled to begin a systematic study of mathematics, physics, and the writings of Descartes.

Malebranche’s principal work is De la recherche de la vérité, 3 vol. (1674–75; Search After Truth). Criticism of its theology by others led him to amplify his views in Traité de la nature et de la grâce (1680; Treatise of Nature and Grace). His Entretiens sur la métaphysique et sur la religion (1688; “Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion”), a series of 14 dialogues, has been called the best introduction to his system. His other writings include research into the nature of light and colour and studies in infinitesimal calculus and in the psychology of vision. His scientific works won him election to the Académie des Sciences in 1699. Also influential are his Méditations chrétiennes (1683; “Christian Meditations”) and Traité de morale (1683; A Treatise of Morality).

Central to Malebranche’s metaphysics is his doctrine that “we see all things in God.” Human knowledge of both the internal and the external world is not possible except as the result of a relation between man and God. Changes, whether of the position of physical objects or of the thoughts of an individual, are directly caused not, as popularly supposed, by the objects or individuals themselves but by God. What are commonly called “causes” are merely “occasions” on which God acts to produce effects. This view, known as Occasionalism, hesitantly and inconsistently applied by Descartes, was more completely developed by Malebranche. Cartesian dualism between body and mind was also rendered compatible with orthodox Roman Catholicism by Malebranche. The inability of minds and bodies to interact is, according to Malebranche, simply a special case of the impossibility of interaction between created things in general.

With reference to sensation, Malebranche believed that sensory experiences have only a pragmatic value, appraising men of harm or benefit to their bodies. As aids in reaching knowledge, they are deceptive because they do not bear genuine witness to the actual nature of things perceived. Ideas alone are the objects of human thought processes. All such ideas are eternally contained in a single archetypal or model idea of the essence of matter called “intelligible extension.” God’s mind or reason contains ideas of all of the truths that men can discover. God’s creation occurred after his contemplation of the same ideas, which are known only partially by men but are completely known to God. In contrast to Descartes’s notion that men can directly perceive themselves, Malebranche declared that a person can know that he is but not what he is. He also reversed the Cartesian dictum that human existence can be known without demonstration, whereas God’s requires demonstration; Malebranche held that man’s own nature is completely unknowable, whereas God’s is an immediate certainty needing no proof.



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