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 18th century to the Revolution of 1789

Pierre Bayle
Montesquieu "Persian Letters"
"Candide"  Illustrations Jean-Michel Moreau le Jeune  "Age of Louis XIV"
Denis Diderot
"Rameau's Nephew"
Abbé Dubos
Pierre Marivaux
Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais
"The Marriage of Figaro"
Pierre-Claude Nivelle de La Chaussée
Michel-Jean Sedaine
Abbé Prévost "Manon Lescaut"
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Claude-Adrien Helvétius
Paul-Henri d’Holbach
Julien de La Mettrie
Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre
"Paul and Virginia"
Nicolas-Edme Restif de la Bretonne
Louis-Sébastien Mercier
Donatien-Alphonse-François, comte de Sade

1."Justine"   Illustrations by Mahlon Blaine
2.Illustration of a Dutch printing of the books by the Marquis de Sade
"The 120 Days of Sodom"
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom

Etienne Bonnot de Condillac
Jean Le Rond d’Alembert
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck

Georges-Louis Leclerc, count de Buffon



The 18th century to the Revolution of 1789

The Enlightenment

The death of Louis XIV on September 1, 1715, closed an epoch, and thus the date of 1715 is a useful starting point for the Enlightenment. The beginnings of critical thought, however, go back much further, to about 1680, where one can begin to discern a new intellectual climate of independent inquiry and the questioning of received ideas and traditions.

The earlier date permits the inclusion of two important precursors. Pierre Bayle, a Protestant forced into exile by the repressive policies of Louis XIV against the Huguenots, paved the way for later attacks upon the established church by his own onslaught upon Roman Catholic dogma and, beyond that, upon authoritarian ideologies of all kinds. His skepticism was constructive, underlying a fervent advocacy of toleration based on respect for freedom of conscience. In particular, his Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697; 2nd ed., 1702; An Historical and Critical Dictionary) became an arsenal of knowledge and critical ideas for the 18th century.

Bayle’s contemporary Fontenelle continued in Descartes’s wake to make knowledge, especially of science, more accessible to the educated layperson. His Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686; Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds) explains the Copernican universe in simple terms. The Histoire des oracles (1687; The History of Oracles) complements this popular erudition by a rationalist critique of erroneous legends. Fontenelle helped to lay the basis for empirical observation as the proper approach to scientific truth.

Both Bayle and Fontenelle promoted the Enlightenment principle that the pursuit of verifiable knowledge was a central human activity. Bayle was concerned with the problem of evil, which seemed to him a mystery understandable by faith alone. But such unknowable matters did not at all invalidate the search for hard fact, as the Dictionnaire abundantly shows. Fontenelle, for his part, saw that the furtherance of truth depended upon the elimination of error, arising as it did from human laziness in unquestioningly accepting received ideas or from human love of mystery.

The baron de Montesquieu, the first of the great Enlightenment authors, demonstrated a liberal approach to the world fitting in with an innovative pluralist and relativist view of society. His Lettres persanes (1721; Persian Letters) established his reputation. A fictional set of correspondences centred on two Persians making their first visit to Europe, they depict satirically a Paris in transition between the old dogmatic absolutes of monarchy and religion and the freedoms of a new age. At their centre is the condition of women—trapped in the private space of the harem, emancipated in the salons of Paris. The personal experience of the Persians generates debate on a wide range of crucial moral, political, economic, and philosophical issues, all centring on the link between the public good and the regulation of individual desire.

Montesquieu’s interest in social mechanisms and causation is pursued further in the Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (1734; Reflections on the Causes of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire). To explain Rome’s greatness and decline, he invokes the notion of an esprit général (“general spirit”), a set of secondary causes underlying each society and determining its developments. Herein are the seeds of De l’esprit des lois (1748; The Spirit of the Laws), the preparation of which took 14 years. This great work brought political discussion into the public arena in France by its insistence upon the wide variation of sociopolitical forms throughout the world, its attempt to assess their relative effectiveness, and its assertion of the need, in whatever form of society, to maintain liberty and tolerance as prime objects of concern.

Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet), on any count, bestrides the Enlightenment. Whether as dramatist, historian, reformer, poet, storyteller, philosopher, or correspondent, for 60 years he remained an intellectual leader in France. A stay in England (1726–28) led to the Lettres philosophiques (1734; Letters on England), which—taking England as a polemical model of philosophical freedom, experimental use of reason, enlightened patronage of arts and science, and respect for the new merchant classes and their contribution to the nation’s economic well-being—offered a program for a whole civilization, as well as sharp satire of a despotic, authoritarian, and outdated France. In later years Voltaire’s onslaught upon the power of the Roman Catholic church became more direct, as he denounced its doctrines and practices in countless pamphlets and the Dictionnaire philosophique (1764; Philosophical Dictionary), the vade mecum of Voltairean attitudes. He laboured on historical works all his life, producing most notably Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1751; The Age of Louis XIV) and the Essai sur les moeurs (1756; An Essay on Universal History, the Manners and Spirit of Nations from the Reign of Charlemaign to the Age of Lewis XIV), the latter a world history of a half-million words. Above all, it was the growth of civilizations and cultures that particularly commanded his attention and formidable energy. He is best remembered for the tale Candide (1759), a savage denunciation of metaphysical optimism that reveals a world of horrors and folly. Candide at last renounces the search for absolute truths as futile and settles for the simple life of labours within his reach, “cultivating his garden.” The conte (“tale”) called L’Ingénu (1767; “The Naïf”; Eng. trans. in Zadig, and L’Ingenu [1964]) continued this lesson, with a turn from metaphysics to social satire on the corrupt French government (which he prudently set retrospectively in Louis XIV’s reign). Reformist appeals to justice were the main focus of Voltaire’s writings in his last 20 years, as he protested against such outrages as the executions, motivated by religious prejudice, of Jean Calas and the chevalier de La Barre.

Another universal genius, Denis Diderot, occupied a somewhat less exalted place in his own times, since most of his greatest works were published only posthumously. But his encylopaedic range is undeniable. He was a theorist of the bourgeois drama, the first great French art critic (the several Salons), a sharp observer of the psychology of repression and its political function in authoritarian society, and author of the greatest French antinovel of the century, which, influenced by Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, anticipates in its form and techniques and in its language both 20th-century realism and the mode of the nouveau roman (Jacques le fataliste et son maître [1796; Jacques the Fatalist and His Master]). Diderot seized on the Spinozist vision of a world materialistic and godless yet pulsating with energy and the unexpected. Jacques the Fatalist captures the fluidity of a disconcerting universe where nothing is ever clear-cut or under control, where history, in the form of choices already made by others, determines any individual’s fate, and yet free will and responsibility are among the highest human values. The admirable servant Jacques, who sees through yet loyally serves and protects his bonehead of a master and who establishes and maintains his own humane values, following his heart as well as his head in a world given over to cruelty and chance, is the model new man of the Enlightenment.

Diderot’s interest in the plasticity of matter (he reasoned that categories such as animal, vegetable, and mineral are not as distinct as conventional thought suggested), combined with an interest in biology and medicine, is nowhere better exemplified than in Le Rêve de d’Alembert (written 1769, published 1830; D’Alembert’s Dream). This work is written in the characteristic form of a dialogue, allowing Diderot to range free with speculative questions rather than attempt firm answers. Other dialogues focus on key contemporary events and explore the philosophical questions they posed. The Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (1773; Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage in The Libertine Reader: Eroticism and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century France), for example, takes the great explorer’s landfall in Tahiti to consider the relativity of sexual mores in different societies and to satirize again politics founded on sexual repression.

In his own day, Diderot was best known as editor of the Encyclopédie, a vast work in 17 folio volumes of text and 11 of illustrations. He and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert inaugurated the undertaking, and d’Alembert introduced the first volume in 1751. Diderot edited alone from 1758 until the final volume of plates appeared in 1772. A summation of new scientific and technological knowledge and, by that very fact, a radically polemical enterprise, the Encyclopédie is the epitome of the Enlightenment, disseminating practical information to improve the human lot, reduce theological superstition, and, in Diderot’s words from his key article “Encyclopédie,” “change the common way of thinking.”


Pierre Bayle


born Nov. 18, 1647, Carla-le-Comte, Fr.
died Dec. 28, 1706, Rotterdam, Neth.

philosopher whose Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697; “Historical and Critical Dictionary”) was roundly condemned by the French Reformed Church of Rotterdam and by the French Roman Catholic church because of its numerous annotations deliberately designed to destroy orthodox Christian beliefs.

Bayle was the son of a Calvinist minister and briefly embraced Roman Catholicism in 1669. He acted as tutor, then taught philosophy (1675–81) at the Protestant Academy of Sedan. After moving to Rotterdam in 1681 to teach philosophy and history, he published (1682) his anonymous reflections on the comet of 1680, deriding the superstition that comets presage catastrophe. He also questioned many Christian traditions, thus arousing the ire of a Calvinist colleague, Pierre Jurieu. Bayle’s plea for religious toleration (even for atheists) eventually convinced Jurieu that Bayle was an atheist in disguise. The rift between the two was complete when Bayle advocated a conciliatory attitude toward the anti-Calvinist government of Louis XIV; in 1693 Bayle was deprived of his Rotterdam professorship.

Thereafter, Bayle devoted himself to his famous Dictionnaire, ostensibly a supplement to Louis Moreri’s dictionary but in fact a work of considerable originality. In this encyclopaedic work the articles themselves—on religion, philosophy, and history—are little more than summary expositions. The bulk of the Dictionnaire consists of quotations, anecdotes, commentaries, and erudite annotations that cleverly undo whatever orthodoxy the articles contain. Vehement objections were voiced, particularly to the article “David,” to the bias in favour of Pyrrhonistic (radical) skepticism, atheism, and epicureanism, and to the use of Scripture to introduce indecencies. This oblique method of subversive criticism was adopted by 18th-century encyclopaedists.

Bayle was convinced that philosophical reasoning led to universal skepticism, but that nature compelled man to accept blind faith, an extremely popular view in the early 18th century. Bayle’s last years were troubled by allegations that he was conspiring with France to detach the Dutch from their Anglo-Austrian alliance. On his death, however, foe and friend alike lamented the passing of a great intellectual.





"Persian Letters"


French political philosopher

born January 18, 1689, Château La Brède, near Bordeaux, France
died February 10, 1755, Paris

French political philosopher whose major work, The Spirit of Laws, was a major contribution to political theory.

Early life and career.
His father, Jacques de Secondat, belonged to an old military family of modest wealth that had been ennobled in the 16th century for services to the crown, while his mother, Marie-Françoise de Pesnel, was a pious lady of partial English extraction. She brought to her husband a great increase in wealth in the valuable wine-producing property of La Brède. When she died in 1696, the barony of La Brède passed to Charles-Louis, who was her eldest child, then aged seven. Educated first at home and then in the village, he was sent away to school in 1700. The school was the Collège de Juilly, close to Paris and in the diocese of Meaux. It was much patronized by the prominent families of Bordeaux, and the priests of the Oratory, to whom it belonged, provided a sound education on enlightened and modern lines.

Charles-Louis left Juilly in 1705, continued his studies at the faculty of law at the University of Bordeaux, was graduated, and became an advocate in 1708; soon after he appears to have moved to Paris in order to obtain practical experience in law. He was called back to Bordeaux by the death of his father in 1713. Two years later he married Jeanne de Lartigue, a wealthy Protestant, who brought him a respectable dowry of 100,000 livres and in due course presented him with two daughters and a son, Jean-Baptiste. Charles-Louis admired and exploited his wife’s business skill and readily left her in charge of the property on his visits to Paris. But he does not appear to have been either faithful or greatly devoted to her. In 1716 his uncle, Jean-Baptiste, baron de Montesquieu, died and left to his nephew his estates, with the barony of Montesquieu, near Agen, and the office of deputy president in the Parlement of Bordeaux. His position was one of some dignity. It carried a stipend but was no sinecure.

The young Montesquieu, at 27, was now socially and financially secure. He settled down to exercise his judicial function (engaging to this end in the minute study of Roman law), to administer his property, and to advance his knowledge of the sciences—especially of geology, biology, and physics—which he studied in the newly formed academy of Bordeaux.

In 1721 he surprised all but a few close friends by publishing his Lettres persanes (Persian Letters, 1722), in which he gave a brilliant satirical portrait of French and particularly Parisian civilization, supposedly seen through the eyes of two Persian travellers. This exceedingly successful work mocks the reign of Louis XIV, which had only recently ended; pokes fun at all social classes; discusses, in its allegorical story of the Troglodytes, the theories of Thomas Hobbes relating to the state of nature. It also makes an original, if naive, contribution to the new science of demography; continually compares Islām and Christianity; reflects the controversy about the papal bull Unigenitus, which was directed against the dissident Catholic group known as the Jansenists; satirizes Roman Catholic doctrine; and is infused throughout with a new spirit of vigorous, disrespectful, and iconoclastic criticism. The work’s anonymity was soon penetrated, and Montesquieu became famous. The new ideas fermenting in Paris had received their most scintillating expression.

Montesquieu now sought to reinforce his literary achievement with social success. Going to Paris in 1722, he was assisted in entering court circles by the Duke of Berwick, the exiled Stuart prince whom he had known when Berwick was military governor at Bordeaux. The tone of life at court was set by the rakish regent, the Duc d’Orléans, and Montesquieu did not disdain its dissipations. It was during this period that he made the acquaintance of the English politician Viscount Bolingbroke, whose political views were later to be reflected in Montesquieu’s analysis of the English constitution.

In Paris his interest in the routine activities of the Parlement in Bordeaux, however, had dwindled. He resented seeing that his intellectual inferiors were more successful than he in court. His office was marketable, and in 1726 he sold it, a move that served both to reestablish his fortunes, depleted by life in the capital, and to assist him, by lending colour to his claim to be resident in Paris, in his attempt to enter the Académie Française. A vacancy there arose in October 1727. Montesquieu had powerful supporters, with Madame de Lambert’s salon firmly pressing his claims, and he was elected, taking his seat on Jan. 24, 1728.

This official recognition of his talent might have caused him to remain in Paris to enjoy it. On the contrary, though older than most noblemen starting on the grand tour, he resolved to complete his education by foreign travel. Leaving his wife at La Brède with full powers over the estate, he set off for Vienna in April 1728, with Lord Waldegrave, nephew of Berwick and lately British ambassador in Paris, as travelling companion. He wrote an account of his travels as interesting as any other of the 18th century. In Vienna he met the soldier and statesman Prince Eugene of Savoy and discussed French politics with him. He made a surprising detour into Hungary to examine the mines. He entered Italy, and, after tasting the pleasures of Venice, proceeded to visit most of the other cities. Conscientiously examining the galleries of Florence, notebook in hand, he developed his aesthetic sense. In Rome he heard the French minister Cardinal Polignac and read his unpublished Latin poem Anti-Lucretius. In Naples he skeptically witnessed the liquefaction of the blood of the city’s patron saint. From Italy he moved through Germany to Holland and thence (at the end of October 1729), in the company of the statesman and wit Lord Chesterfield, to England, where he remained until the spring of 1731.

Montesquieu had a wide circle of acquaintances in England. He was presented at court, and he was received by the Prince of Wales, at whose request he later made an anthology of French songs. He became a close friend of the dukes of Richmond and Montagu. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He attended parliamentary debates and read the political journals of the day. He became a Freemason. He bought extensively for his library. His stay in England was one of the most formative periods of his life.

Major works.
During his travels Montesquieu did not avoid the social pleasures that he had sought in Paris, but his serious ambitions were strengthened. He thought for a time of a diplomatic career but on his return to France decided to devote himself to literature. He hastened to La Brède and remained there, working for two years. Apart from a tiny but controversial treatise on La Monarchie universelle, printed in 1734 but at once withdrawn (so that only his own copy is extant), he was occupied with an essay on the English constitution (not published until 1748, when it became part of his major work) and with his Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (1734; Reflections on the Causes of the Grandeur and Declension of the Romans, 1734). He had thought of publishing the two together, thus following an English tradition, for, as Voltaire said, the English delighted in comparing themselves with the Romans.

Montesquieu’s literary ambitions were far from exhausted. He had for some time been meditating the project of a major work on law and politics. After the publication of the Considérations, he rested for a short time and then, undismayed by failing eyesight, applied himself to this new and immense task. He undertook an extensive program of reading in law, history, economics, geography, and political theory, filling with his notes a large number of volumes, of which only one survives, Geographica, tome II. He employed a succession of secretaries, sometimes as many as six simultaneously, using them as readers and as amanuenses, but not as précis writers. An effort of this magnitude was entirely foreign to what was publicly known of his character, for he was generally looked on as brilliant, rapid, and superficial. He did not seek to disabuse the world at large. Only a small number of friends knew what he was engaged in. He worked much at La Brède, devoting himself also to the administration of his estates and to the maintenance of his privileges as a landed proprietor. But he continued to visit Paris and to enjoy its social life. He kept there a second library and also made use of the Bibliothèque du Roi. He attended the Académie, visited the salons, and enjoyed meeting Italian and English visitors. At the same time he persistently, unostentatiously pressed on with the preparation of the book that he knew would be a masterpiece. By 1740 its main lines were established and a great part of it was written. By 1743 the text was virtually complete, and he began the first of two thorough and detailed revisions, which occupied him until December 1746. The actual preparation for the press was at hand. A Geneva publisher, J. Barrillot, was selected, further corrections were made, several new chapters were written and in November 1748 the work appeared under the title De l’esprit des loix, ou du rapport que les loix doivent avoir avec la constitution de chaque gouvernement, les moeurs, le climat, la religion, le commerce, etc. (The Spirit of Laws, 1750). It consisted of two quarto volumes, comprising 31 books in 1,086 pages.

L’Esprit des lois is one of the great works in the history of political theory and in the history of jurisprudence. Its author had acquainted himself with all previous schools of thought but identified himself with none. Of the multiplicity of subjects treated by Montesquieu, none remained unadorned. His treatment of three was particularly memorable.

The first of these is his classification of governments, a subject that was de rigueur for a political theorist. Abandoning the classical divisions of his predecessors into monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, Montesquieu produced his own analysis and assigned to each form of government an animating principle: the republic, based on virtue; the monarchy, based on honour; and despotism, based on fear. His definitions show that this classification rests not on the location of political power but on the government’s manner of conducting policy; it involves a historical and not a narrow descriptive approach.

The second of his most noted arguments, the theory of the separation of powers, is treated differently. Dividing political authority into the legislative, executive, and judicial powers, he asserted that, in the state that most effectively promotes liberty, these three powers must be confided to different individuals or bodies, acting independently. His model of such a state was England, which he saw from the point of view of the Tory opposition to the Whig leader, Robert Walpole, as expressed in Bolingbroke’s polemical writings. The chapter in which he expressed this doctrine—book xi, chapter 6, the most famous of the entire book—had lain in his drawers, save for revision or correction, since it was penned in 1734. It at once became perhaps the most important piece of political writing of the 18th century. Though its accuracy has in more recent times been disputed, in its own century it was admired and held authoritative, even in England; it inspired the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Constitution of the United States.

The third of Montesquieu’s most celebrated doctrines is that of the political influence of climate. Basing himself on doctrines met in his reading, on the experience of his travels, and on experiments—admittedly somewhat naive—conducted at Bordeaux, he stressed the effect of climate, primarily thinking of heat and cold, on the physical frame of the individual, and, as a consequence, on the intellectual outlook of society. This influence, he claims, is not, save in primitive societies, insuperable. It is the legislator’s duty to counteract it. Montesquieu took care (as his critics have not always realized) to insist that climate is but one of many factors in an assembly of secondary causes that he called the “general spirit.” The other factors (laws, religion, and maxims of government being the most important) are of a nonphysical nature, and their influence, compared with that of climate, grows as civilization advances.

Society for Montesquieu must be considered as a whole. Religion itself is a social phenomenon, whether considered as a cause or as an effect, and the utility or harmfulness of any faith can be discussed in complete independence of the truth of its doctrines. Here and elsewhere, undogmatic observation was Montesquieu’s preferred method. Sometimes the reader is beguiled by this into the belief that Montesquieu maintains that whatever exists, though it may indeed stand in need of improvement, cannot be wholly bad. Although with a bold parenthesis or a rapid summing-up the reader is reminded that for Montesquieu certain things are intrinsically evil: despotism, slavery, intolerance. Though he never attempted an enumeration of the rights of man and would probably have disapproved of such an attempt, he maintained a firm belief in human dignity.

In the final books of L’Esprit des lois, added at the last moment and imperfectly assimilated to the rest, he addressed himself to the history of law, seeking to explain the division of France into the two zones of written and customary law, and made his contribution to the much discussed controversy about the origins of the French aristocracy. Here he displays not only prudence and common sense, but also a real scholarly capacity, which he had not shown before, for the philological handling of textual evidence.

After the book was published, praise came to Montesquieu from the most varied headquarters. The Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote from London that the work would win the admiration of all the ages; an Italian friend spoke of reading it in an ecstasy of admiration; the Swiss scientist Charles Bonnet said that Montesquieu had discovered the laws of the intellectual world as Newton had those of the physical world. The philosophers of the Enlightenment accepted him as one of their own, as indeed he was. The work was controversial, however, and a variety of denunciatory articles amd pamphlets appeared. Attacks made in the Sorbonne and in the general assembly of the French clergy were deflected, but in Rome, in spite of the intervention of the French ambassador and of several liberal-minded high ecclesiastics and notwithstanding the favourable disposition of the Pope himself, Montesquieu’s enemies were successful, and the work was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1751. This, though it dismayed Montesquieu, was but a momentary setback. He had already published his Défense de L’Esprit des lois (1750). Subtle and good-humoured, but forceful and incisive, this was the most brilliantly written of all his works. His fame was now worldwide.

Last years.
Renown lay lightly on his shoulders. His affability and modesty are commented on by all who met him. He was a faithful friend, kind and helpful to young and unestablished men of letters, witty, though absent-minded, in society. It was to be expected that the editors of the Encyclopédie should wish to have his collaboration, and d’Alembert asked him to write on democracy and despotism. Montesquieu declined, saying that he had already had his say on those themes but would like to write on taste. The resultant Essai sur le goût (Essay on Taste), first drafted about 25 years earlier, was his last work.

Robert Shackleton






"Candide"  Illustrations Jean-Michel Moreau le Jeune

"Age of Louis XIV"


French philosopher and author
pseudonym of François-Marie Arouet

born Nov. 21, 1694, Paris, France
died May 30, 1778, Paris

one of the greatest of all French writers. Although only a few of his works are still read, he continues to be held in worldwide repute as a courageous crusader against tyranny, bigotry, and cruelty. Through its critical capacity, wit, and satire, Voltaire’s work vigorously propagates an ideal of progress to which people of all nations have remained responsive. His long life spanned the last years of classicism and the eve of the revolutionary era, and during this age of transition his works and activities influenced the direction taken by European civilization.

Heritage and youth
Voltaire’s background was middle class. According to his birth certificate he was born on November 21, 1694, but the hypothesis that his birth was kept secret cannot be dismissed, for he stated on several occasions that in fact it took place on February 20. He believed that he was the son of an officer named Rochebrune, who was also a songwriter. He had no love for either his putative father, François Arouet, a onetime notary who later became receiver in the Cour des Comptes (audit office), or his elder brother Armand. Almost nothing is known about his mother of whom he hardly said anything. Having lost her when he was seven, he seems to have become an early rebel against family authority. He attached himself to his godfather, the Abbé de Châteauneuf, a freethinker and epicurean who presented the boy to the famous courtesan Ninon de Lenclos when she was in her 84th year. It is doubtless that he owed his positive outlook and his sense of reality to his bourgeois origins.

He attended the Jesuit college of Louis-le-Grand in Paris, where he learned to love literature, the theatre, and social life. While he appreciated the classical taste the college instilled in him, the religious instruction of the fathers served only to arouse his skepticism and mockery. He witnessed the last sad years of Louis XIV and was never to forget the distress and the military disasters of 1709 nor the horrors of religious persecution. He retained, however, a degree of admiration for the sovereign, and he remained convinced that the enlightened kings are the indispensable agents of progress.

He decided against the study of law after he left college. Employed as secretary at the French embassy in The Hague, he became infatuated with the daughter of an adventurer. Fearing scandal, the French ambassador sent him back to Paris. Despite his father’s wishes, he wanted to devote himself wholly to literature, and he frequented the Temple, then the centre of free-thinking society. After the death of Louis XIV, under the morally relaxed Regency, Voltaire became the wit of Parisian society, and his epigrams were widely quoted. But when he dared to mock the dissolute regent, the Duc d’Orléans, he was banished from Paris and then imprisoned in the Bastille for nearly a year (1717). Behind his cheerful facade, he was fundamentally serious and set himself to learn the accepted literary forms. In 1718, after the success of Oedipe, the first of his tragedies, he was acclaimed as the successor of the great classical dramatist Jean Racine and thenceforward adopted the name of Voltaire. The origin of this pen name remains doubtful. It is not certain that it is the anagram of Arouet le jeune (i.e., the younger). Above all he desired to be the Virgil that France had never known. He worked at an epic poem whose hero was Henry IV, the king beloved by the French people for having put an end to the wars of religion. This Henriade is spoiled by its pedantic imitation of Virgil’s Aeneid, but his contemporaries saw only the generous ideal of tolerance that inspired the poem. These literary triumphs earned him a pension from the regent and the warm approval of the young queen, Marie. He thus began his career of court poet.

United with other thinkers of his day—literary men and scientists—in the belief in the efficacy of reason, Voltaire was a Philosophe, as the 18th century termed it. In the salons he professed an aggressive Deism, which scandalized the devout. He became interested in England, the country that tolerated freedom of thought; he visited the Tory leader Viscount Bolingbroke, exiled in France—a politician, an orator, and a philosopher whom Voltaire admired to the point of comparing him to Cicero. On Bolingbroke’s advice he learned English in order to read the philosophical works of John Locke. His intellectual development was furthered by an accident: as the result of a quarrel with a member of one of the leading French families, the Chevalier de Rohan, who had made fun of his adopted name, he was beaten up, taken to the Bastille, and then conducted to Calais on May 5, 1726, from where he set out for London. His destiny was now exile and opposition.

Exile to England
During a stay that lasted more than two years he succeeded in learning the English language; he wrote his notebooks in English and to the end of his life he was able to speak and write it fluently. He met such English men of letters as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and William Congreve, the philosopher George Berkeley, and Samuel Clarke, the theologian. He was presented at court, and he dedicated his Henriade to Queen Caroline. Though at first he was patronized by Bolingbroke, who had returned from exile, it appears that he quarrelled with the Tory leader and turned to Sir Robert Walpole and the liberal Whigs. He admired the liberalism of English institutions, though he was shocked by the partisan violence. He envied English intrepidity in the discussion of religious and philosophic questions and was particularly interested in the Quakers. He was convinced that it was because of their personal liberty that the English, notably Sir Isaac Newton and John Locke, were in the forefront of scientific thought. He believed that this nation of merchants and sailors owed its victories over Louis XIV to its economic advantages. He concluded that even in literature France had something to learn from England; his experience of Shakespearean theatre was overwhelming, and, however much he was shocked by the “barbarism” of the productions, he was struck by the energy of the characters and the dramatic force of the plots.

Return to France
He returned to France at the end of 1728 or the beginning of 1729 and decided to present England as a model to his compatriots. His social position was consolidated. By judicious speculation he began to build up the vast fortune that guaranteed his independence. He attempted to revive tragedy by discreetly imitating Shakespeare. Brutus, begun in London and accompanied by a Discours à milord Bolingbroke, was scarcely a success in 1730; La Mort de César was played only in a college (1735); in Eriphyle (1732) the apparition of a ghost, as in Hamlet, was booed by the audience. Zaïre, however, was a resounding success. The play, in which the sultan Orosmane, deceived by an ambiguous letter, stabs his prisoner, the devoted Christian-born Zaïre, in a fit of jealousy, captivated the public with its exotic subject.

At the same time, Voltaire had turned to a new literary genre: history. In London he had made the acquaintance of Fabrice, a former companion of the Swedish king Charles XII. The interest he felt for the extraordinary character of this great soldier impelled him to write his life, Histoire de Charles XII (1731), a carefully documented historical narrative that reads like a novel. Philosophic ideas began to impose themselves as he wrote: the King of Sweden’s exploits brought desolation, whereas his rival Peter the Great brought Russia into being, bequeathing a vast, civilized empire. Great men are not warmongers; they further civilization—a conclusion that tallied with the example of England. It was this line of thought that Voltaire brought to fruition, after prolonged meditation, in a work of incisive brevity: the Lettres philosophiques (1734). These fictitious letters are primarily a demonstration of the benign effects of religious toleration. They contrast the wise Empiricist psychology of Locke with the conjectural lucubrations of René Descartes. A philosopher worthy of the name, such as Newton, disdains empty, a priori speculations; he observes the facts and reasons from them. After elucidating the English political system, its commerce, its literature, and the Shakespeare almost unknown to France, Voltaire concludes with an attack on the French mathematician and religious philosopher Pascal: the purpose of life is not to reach heaven through penitence but to assure happiness to all men by progress in the sciences and the arts, a fulfillment for which their nature is destined. This small, brilliant book is a landmark in the history of thought: not only does it embody the philosophy of the 18th century, but it also defines the essential direction of the modern mind.

Life with Mme du Châtelet
Scandal followed publication of this work that spoke out so frankly against the religious and political establishment. When a warrant of arrest was issued in May of 1734, Voltaire took refuge in the château of Mme du Châtelet at Cirey in Champagne and thus began his liaison with this young, remarkably intelligent woman. He lived with her in the château he had renovated at his own expense. This period of retreat was interrupted only by a journey to the Low Countries in December 1736—an exile of a few weeks became advisable after the circulation of a short, daringly epicurean poem called “Le Mondain.”

The life these two lived together was both luxurious and studious. After Adélaïde du Guesclin (1734), a play about a national tragedy, he brought Alzire to the stage in 1736 with great success. The action of Alzire-in Lima, Peru, at the time of the Spanish conquest—brings out the moral superiority of a humanitarian civilization over methods of brute force. Despite the conventional portrayal of “noble savages,” the tragedy kept its place in the repertory of the Comédie-Française for almost a century. Mme du Châtelet was passionately drawn to the sciences and metaphysics and influenced Voltaire’s work in that direction. A “gallery” or laboratory of the physical sciences was installed at the château, and they composed a memorandum on the nature of fire for a meeting of the Académie des Sciences. While Mme du Châtelet was learning English in order to translate Newton and The Fable of the Bees of Bernard de Mandeville, Voltaire popularized, in his Éléments de la philosophie de Newton (1738), those discoveries of English science that were familiar only to a few advanced minds in France, such as the astronomer and mathematician Pierre-Louis de Maupertuis. At the same time, he continued to pursue his historical studies. He began Le Siècle de Louis XIV, sketched out a universal history of kings, wars, civilization and manners that became the Essai sur les moeurs, and plunged into biblical exegesis. Mme du Châtelet herself wrote an Examen, highly critical of the two Testaments. It was at Cirey that Voltaire, rounding out his scientific knowledge, acquired the encyclopaedic culture that was one of the outstanding facets of his genius.

Because of a lawsuit, he followed Mme du Châtelet to Brussels in May 1739, and thereafter they were constantly on the move between Belgium, Cirey, and Paris. Voltaire corresponded with the crown prince of Prussia, who, rebelling against his father’s rigid system of military training and education, had taken refuge in French culture. When the prince acceded to the throne as Frederick II (the Great), Voltaire visited his disciple first at Cleves (Kleve, Germany), then at Berlin. When the War of the Austrian Succession broke out, Voltaire was sent to Berlin (1742–43) on a secret mission to rally the King of Prussia—who was proving himself a faithless ally—to the assistance of the French Army. Such services—as well as his introduction of his friends the brothers d’Argenson, who became ministers of war and foreign affairs, respectively, to the protection of Mme de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV—brought him into favour again at Versailles. After his poem celebrating the victory of Fontenoy (1745), he was appointed historiographer, gentleman of the king’s chamber, and academician. His tragedy Mérope, about the mythical Greek queen, won public acclaim on the first night (1743). The performance of Mahomet, in which Voltaire presented the founder of Islām as an imposter, was forbidden, however, after its successful production in 1742. He amassed a vast fortune through the manipulations of Joseph Pâris Duverney, the financier in charge of military supplies, who was favoured by Mme de Pompadour. In this ambience of well-being, he began a liaison with his niece Mme Denis, a charming widow, without breaking off his relationship with Mme du Châtelet.

Yet he was not spared disappointments. Louis XV disliked him, and the pious Catholic faction at court remained acutely hostile. He was guilty of indiscretions. When Mme du Châtelet lost large sums at the Queen’s gaming table, he said to her in English: “You are playing with card-sharpers”; the phrase was understood, and he was forced to go into hiding at the country mansion as the guest of the Duchesse du Maine in 1747. Ill and exhausted by his restless existence, he at last discovered the literary form that ideally fitted his lively and disillusioned temper: he wrote his first contes (stories). Micromégas (1752) measures the littleness of man in the cosmic scale; Vision de Babouc (1748) and Memnon (1749) dispute the philosophic optimism of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Alexander Pope. Zadig (1747) is a kind of allegorical autobiography: like Voltaire, the Babylonian sage Zadig suffers persecution, is pursued by ill fortune, and ends by doubting the tender care of Providence for human beings.

The great crisis of his life was drawing near. In 1748 at Commercy, where he had joined the court of Stanisław (the former king of Poland), he detected the love affair of Mme du Châtelet and the poet Saint-Lambert, a slightly ludicrous passion that ended tragically. On September 10, 1749, he witnessed the death in childbirth of this uncommonly intelligent woman who for 15 years had been his guide and counsellor. He returned in despair to the house in Paris where they had lived together; he rose in the night and wandered in the darkness, calling her name.

Later travels
The failure of some of his plays aggravated his sense of defeat. He had attempted the comédie larmoyante, or “sentimental comedy,” that was then fashionable: after L’Enfant prodigue (1736), a variation of the prodigal son theme, he adapted William Wycherley’s satiric Restoration drama The Plain-Dealer to his purpose, entitling it La Prude; he based Nanine (1749) on a situation taken from Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela, but all without success. The court spectacles he directed gave him a taste for scenic effects, and he contrived a sumptuous decor, as well as the apparition of a ghost, for Sémiramis (1748), but his public was not captivated. His enemies compared him with Prosper Jolyot, sieur de Crébillon, who was pre-eminent among French writers of tragedy at this time. Though Voltaire used the same subjects as his rival (Oreste, Sémiramis), the Parisian audience preferred the plays of Crébillon. Exasperated and disappointed, he yielded to the pressing invitation of Frederick II and set out for Berlin on June 28, 1750.

At the moment of his departure a new literary generation, reacting against the ideas and tastes to which he remained faithful, was coming to the fore in France. Disseminators of the philosophical ideas of the time, such as Denis Diderot, Baron d’Holbach, and their friends, were protagonists of a thoroughgoing Materialism and regarded Voltaire’s Deism as too timid. Others had rediscovered with Jean-Jacques Rousseau the poetry of Christianity. All in fact preferred the charm of sentiment and passion to the enlightenment of reason. As the years passed, Voltaire became increasingly more isolated in his glory.

At first he was enchanted by his sojourn in Berlin and Potsdam, but soon difficulties arose. After a lawsuit with a moneylender, and quarrels with prominent noblemen, he started a controversy with Maupertuis (the president of Frederick’s academy of science, the Berlin Academy) on scientific matters. In a pamphlet entitled “Diatribe du docteur Akakia” (1752), he covered him with ridicule. The King, enraged, consigned “Akakia” to the flames and gave its author a thorough dressing down. Voltaire left Prussia on March 26, 1753, leaving Frederick exasperated and determined to punish him. On the journey he was held under house arrest at an inn at Frankfurt, by order of the Prussian resident. Louis XV forbade him to approach Paris. Not knowing where to turn, he stayed at Colmar for more than a year. At length he found asylum at Geneva, where he purchased a house called Les Délices, at the same time securing winter quarters at Lausanne.

He now completed his two major historical studies. Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1751), a book on the century of Louis XIV, had been prepared after an exhaustive 20-year interrogation of the survivors of le grand siècle. Voltaire was particularly concerned to establish the truth by collecting evidence from as many witnesses as possible, evidence that he submitted to exacting criticism. His desire was to write the nation’s history by means of an examination of its arts and sciences and of its social life, but military events and politics still occupy a large place in his survey. The Essai sur les moeurs, the study on customs and morals that he had begun in 1740 (first complete edition, 1756), traced the course of world history since the end of the Roman Empire and gave an important place to the Eastern and Far Eastern countries. Voltaire’s object was to show humanity slowly developing beyond barbarism. He supplemented these two works with one on Russian history during the reign of Peter the Great, Histoire de l’empire de Russie sous Pierre le Grand (1759–63), the Philosophie de l’histoire (1765), and the Précis du siècle de Louis XV (1768).

At Geneva, he had at first been welcomed and honoured as the champion of tolerance. But soon he made those around him feel uneasy. At Les Délices his presentation of plays was stopped, in accordance with the law of the republic of Geneva, which forbade both public and private theatre performances. Then there was his mock-heroic poem “La Pucelle” (1755), a most improper presentation of Joan of Arc (La Pucelle d’Orléans), which the booksellers printed in spite of his protests.

Attracted by his volatile intelligence, Calvinist pastors as well as women and young people thronged to his salon. Yet he soon provoked the hostility of important Swiss intellectuals. The storm broke in November 1757, when volume seven of Diderot’s Encyclopédie was published. Voltaire had inspired the article on Geneva that his fellow philosopher Jean d’Alembert had written after a visit to Les Délices; not only was the city of Calvin asked to build a theatre within its walls but also certain of its pastors were praised for their doubts of Christ’s divinity. The scandal sparked a quick response: the Encyclopédie was forced to interrupt publication, and Rousseau attacked the rational philosophy of the Philosophes in general in a polemical treatise on the question of the morality of theatrical performances, Lettre à d’Alembert sur les spectacles (1758). Rousseau’s view that drama might well be abolished marked a final break between the two writers.

Voltaire no longer felt safe in Geneva, and he longed to retire from these quarrels. In 1758 he wrote what was to be his most famous work, Candide. In this philosophical fantasy, the youth Candide, disciple of Doctor Pangloss (himself a disciple of the philosophical optimism of Leibniz), saw and suffered such misfortune that he was unable to believe that this was “the best of all possible worlds.” Having retired with his companions to the shores of the Propontis, he discovered that the secret of happiness was “to cultivate one’s garden,” a practical philosophy excluding excessive idealism and nebulous metaphysics. Voltaire’s own garden became Ferney, a property he bought at the end of 1758, together with Tourney in France, on the Swiss border. By crossing the frontier he could thus safeguard himself against police incursion from either country.

Achievements at Ferney
At Ferney, Voltaire entered on one of the most active periods of his life. Both patriarch and lord of the manor, he developed a modern estate, sharing in the movement of agricultural reform in which the aristocracy was interested at the time. He could not be true to himself, however, without stirring up village feuds and went before the magistrates on a question of tithes, as well as about the beating of one of his workmen. He renovated the church and had Deo erexit Voltaire (“Voltaire erected this to God”) carved on the facade. At Easter Communion, 1762, he delivered a sermon on stealing and drunkenness and repeated this sacrilegious offense in the following year, flouting the prohibition by the bishop of Annecy, in whose jurisdiction Ferney lay. He meddled in Genevan politics, taking the side of the workers (or natifs, those without civil rights), and installed a stocking factory and watchworks on his estate in order to help them. He called for the liberation of serfs in the Jura, but without success, though he did succeed in suppressing the customs barrier on the road between Gex in the Jura and Geneva, the natural outlet for the produce of Gex. Such generous interventions in local politics earned him enormous popularity. In 1777 he received a popular acclamation from the people of Ferney. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna halted the annexation of Ferney to Switzerland in his honour.

His fame was now worldwide. “Innkeeper of Europe”—as he was called—he welcomed such literary figures as James Boswell, Giovanni Casanova, Edward Gibbon, the Prince de Ligne, and the fashionable philosophers of Paris. He kept up an enormous correspondence—with the Philosophes, with his actresses and actors, and with those high in court circles, such as the Duc de Richelieu (grandnephew of the Cardinal de Richelieu), the Duc de Choiseul, and Mme du Barry, Louis XV’s favourite. He renewed his correspondence with Frederick II and exchanged letters with Catherine II of Russia.

There was scarcely a subject of importance on which he did not speak. In his political ideas, he was basically a liberal, though he also admired the authority of those kings who imposed progressive measures on their people. On the question of fossils, he entered into foolhardy controversy with the famous French naturalist Comte de Buffon. On the other hand, he declared himself a partisan of the Italian scientist Abbé Lazzaro Spallanzani against the hypothesis of spontaneous generation, according to which microscopic organisms are generated spontaneously in organic substances. He busied himself with political economy and revived his interest in metaphysics by absorbing the ideas of 17th-century philosophers Benedict de Spinoza and Nicolas Malebranche.

His main interest at this time, however, was his opposition to l’infâme, a word he used to designate the church, especially when it was identified with intolerance. For mankind’s future he envisaged a simple theism, reinforcing the civil power of the state. He believed this end was being achieved when, about 1770, the courts of Paris, Vienna, and Madrid came into conflict with the pope; but this was to misjudge the solidarity of ecclesiastical institutions and the people’s loyalty to the traditional faith. Voltaire’s beliefs prompted a prodigious number of polemical writings. He multiplied his personal attacks, often stooping to low cunning; in his sentimental comedy L’Écossaise (1760), he mimicked the eminent critic Élie Fréron, who had attacked him in reviews, by portraying his adversary as a rascally journalist who intervenes in a quarrel between two Scottish families. He directed Le Sentiment des Citoyens (1764) against Rousseau. In this anonymous pamphlet, which supposedly expressed the opinion of the Genevese, Voltaire, who was well informed, revealed to the public that Rousseau had abandoned his children. As author he used all kinds of pseudonyms: Rabbi Akib, Pastor Bourn, Lord Bolingbroke, M. Mamaki “interpreter of Oriental languages to the king of England,” Clocpitre, Cubstorf, Jean Plokof—a nonstop performance of puppets. As a part-time scholar he constructed a personal Encyclopédie, the Dictionnaire philosophique (1764), enlarged after 1770 by Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. Among the mass of writings of this period are Le Blanc et le noir (“The White and the Black”), a philosophical tale in which Oriental fantasy contrasts with the realism of Jeannot et Colin; Princesse de Babylone, a panorama of European philosophies in the fairyland of The Thousand and One Nights; and Le Taureau blanc, a biblical tale.

Again and again Voltaire returned to his chosen themes: the establishment of religious tolerance, the growth of material prosperity, respect for the rights of man by the abolition of torture and useless punishments. These principles were brought into play when he intervened in some of the notorious public scandals of these years. For instance, when the Protestant Jean Calas, a merchant of Toulouse accused of having murdered his son in order to prevent his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, was broken on the wheel while protesting his innocence (March 10, 1762), Voltaire, livid with anger, took up the case and by his vigorous intervention obtained the vindication of the unfortunate Calas and the indemnification of the family. But he was less successful in a dramatic affair concerning the 19-year-old Chevalier de La Barre, who was beheaded for having insulted a religious procession and damaging a crucifix (July 1, 1766). Public opinion was distressed by such barbarity, but it was Voltaire who protested actively, suggesting that the Philosophes should leave French territory and settle in the town of Cleves offered them by Frederick II. Although he failed to obtain even a review of this scandalous trial, he was able to reverse other judicial errors.

By such means he retained leadership of the philosophic movement. On the other hand, as a writer, he wanted to halt a development he deplored—that which led to Romanticism. He tried to save theatrical tragedy by making concessions to a public that adored scenes of violence and exoticism. For instance, in L’Orphelin de la Chine (1755), Lekain (Henri-Louis Cain), who played the part of Genghis Khan, was clad in a sensational Mongol costume. Lekain, whom Voltaire considered the greatest tragedian of his time, also played the title role of Tancrède, which was produced with a sumptuous decor (1760) and which proved to be Voltaire’s last triumph. Subsequent tragedies, arid and ill-constructed and overweighted with philosophic propaganda, were either booed off the stage or not produced at all. He became alarmed at the increasing influence of Shakespeare; when he gave a home to a grandniece of the great 17th-century classical dramatist Pierre Corneille and on her behalf published an annotated edition of the famous tragic author, he inserted, after Cinna, a translation of Julius Caesar, convinced that such a confrontation would demonstrate the superiority of the French dramatist. He was infuriated by the Shakespearean translations of Pierre Le Tourneur in 1776, which stimulated French appreciation of this more robust, nonclassical dramatist, and dispatched an abusive Lettre à l’Académie. He never ceased to acknowledge a degree of genius in Shakespeare, yet spoke of him as “a drunken savage.” He returned to a strict classicism in his last plays, but in vain, for the audacities of his own previous tragedies, timid as they were, had paved the way for Romantic drama.

It was the theatre that brought him back to Paris in 1778. Wishing to direct the rehearsals of Irène, he made his triumphal return to the city he had not seen for 28 years on February 10. More than 300 persons called on him the day after his arrival. On March 30 he went to the Académie amid acclamations, and, when Irène was played before a delirious audience, he was crowned in his box. His health was profoundly impaired by all this excitement. On May 18 he was stricken with uremia. He suffered much pain on his deathbed, about which absurd legends were quickly fabricated; on May 30 he died, peacefully it seems. His nephew, the Abbé Mignot, had his body, clothed just as it was, swiftly transported to the Abbey of Scellières, where he was given Christian burial by the local clergy; the prohibition of such burial arrived after the ceremony. His remains were transferred to the Panthéon during the Revolution in July 1791.

Voltaire’s name has always evoked vivid reactions. Toward the end of his life he was attacked by the followers of Rousseau, and after 1800 he was held responsible for the Revolution. But the excesses of clerical reactionaries under the Restoration and the Second Empire rallied the middle and working classes to his memory. At the end of the 19th century, though conservative critics remained hostile, scientific research into his life and works was given impetus by Gustave Lanson. Voltaire himself did not hope that all his vast quantity of writings would be remembered by posterity. His epic poems and lyrical verse are virtually dead, as are his plays. But his contes are continually republished, and his letters are regarded as one of the great monuments of French literature. He bequeathed a lesson to humanity, which has lost nothing of its value. He taught his readers to think clearly; his was a mind at once precise and generous. “He is the necessary philosopher,” wrote Lanson, “in a world of bureaucrats, engineers, and producers.”

René Henry Pomeau




Denis Diderot

"Rameau's Nephew"


French philosopher

born October 5, 1713, Langres, France
died July 31, 1784, Paris

French man of letters and philosopher who, from 1745 to 1772, served as chief editor of the Encyclopédie, one of the principal works of the Age of Enlightenment.

Youth and marriage
Diderot was the son of a widely respected master cutler. He was tonsured in 1726, though he did not in fact enter the church, and was first educated by the Jesuits at Langres. From 1729 to 1732 he studied in Paris at the Collège d’Harcourt or at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand or possibly at both these institutions, and he was awarded the degree of master of arts in the University of Paris on Sept. 2, 1732. He then studied law as an articled clerk in the office of Clément de Ris but was more interested in languages, literature, philosophy, and higher mathematics. Of his life in the period 1734 to 1744 comparatively little is known. He dropped an early ambition to enter the theatre and, instead, taught for a living, led a penurious existence as a publisher’s hack, and wrote sermons for missionaries at 50 écus each. At one time he seems to have entertained the idea of taking up an ecclesiastical career, but it is most unlikely that he entered a seminary. Yet his work testifies to his having gone through a religious crisis, and he progressed relatively slowly from Roman Catholicism to deism and then to atheism and philosophical materialism. That he led a disordered and bohemian existence at this time is made clear in his posthumously published novel, Le Neveu de Rameau (Rameau’s Nephew). He frequented the coffeehouses, particularly the Régence and the Procope, where he met the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1741 and established a friendship with him that was to last for 15 years, until it was broken by a quarrel.

In 1741 he also met Antoinette Champion, daughter of a linendraper, and in 1743 he married her—secretly, because of his father’s disapproval. The relationship was based on romantic love, but the marriage was not a happy one owing to incompatible interests. The bond held, however, partly through a common affection for their daughter, Angélique, sole survivor of three children, who was born in 1753 and whom Diderot eventually married to Albert de Vandeul, a man of some standing at Langres. Diderot lavished care over her education, and she eventually wrote a short account of his life and classified his manuscripts.

Mature career
In order to earn a living, Diderot undertook translation work and in 1745 published a free translation of the Inquiry Concerning Virtue by the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, whose fame and influence he spread in France. Diderot’s own Pensées philosophiques (1746; Philosophic Thoughts), an original work with new and explosive anti-Christian ideas couched in a vivid prose, contains many passages directly translated from or inspired by Shaftesbury. The proceeds of this publication, as of his allegedly indecent novel Les Bijoux indiscrets (1748), were used to meet the demands of his mistress, Madeleine de Puisieux, with whom he broke a few years later. In 1755 he met Sophie Volland, with whom he formed an attachment that was to last more than 20 years. The liaison was founded on common interests, natural sympathy, and a deepening friendship. His correspondence with Sophie, together with his other letters, forms one of the most fascinating documents on Diderot’s personality, enthusiasms, and ideas and on the intellectual society of Louise d’Épinay, F.M. Grimm, the Baron d’Holbach, Ferdinando Galiani, and other deistic writers and thinkers (Philosophes) with whom he felt most at home. Through Rousseau, Diderot met Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, the philosopher, and for a time the three friends dined together at the Panier Fleuri.

The Encyclopédie
In 1745 the publisher André Le Breton approached Diderot with a view to bringing out a French translation of Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia, after two other translators had withdrawn from the project. Diderot undertook the task with the distinguished mathematician Jean Le Rond d’Alembert as coeditor but soon profoundly changed the nature of the publication, broadening its scope and turning it into an important organ of radical and revolutionary opinion. He gathered around him a team of dedicated litterateurs, scientists, and even priests, many of whom, as yet unknown, were to make their mark in later life. All were fired with a common purpose: to further knowledge and, by so doing, strike a resounding blow against reactionary forces in church and state. As a dictionnaire raisonné (“rational dictionary”), the Encyclopédie was to bring out the essential principles and applications of every art and science. The underlying philosophy was rationalism and a qualified faith in the progress of the human mind.

In 1749 Diderot published the Lettre sur les aveugles (An Essay on Blindness), remarkable for its proposal to teach the blind to read through the sense of touch, along lines that Louis Braille was to follow in the 19th century, and for the presentation of the first step in his evolutionary theory of survival by superior adaptation. This daring exposition of the doctrine of materialist atheism, with its emphasis on human dependence on sense impression, led to Diderot’s arrest and incarceration in the prison of Vincennes for three months. Diderot’s work on the Encyclopédie, however, was not interrupted for long, and in 1750 he outlined his program for it in a Prospectus, which d’Alembert expanded into the momentous Discours préliminaire (1751). The history of the Encyclopédie, from the publication of the first volume in 1751 to the distribution of the final volumes of plates in 1772, was checkered, but ultimate success was never in doubt. Diderot was undaunted by the government’s censorship of the work and by the criticism of conservatives and reactionaries. A critical moment occurred in 1758, on the publication of the seventh volume, when d’Alembert resigned on receiving warning of trouble and after reading Rousseau’s attack on his article “Genève.” Another serious blow came when the philosopher Helvétius’ book De l’esprit (“On the Mind”), said to be a summary of the Encyclopédie, was condemned to be burned by the Parlement of Paris, and the Encyclopédie itself was formally suppressed. Untempted by Voltaire’s offer to have the publication continued outside France, Diderot held on in Paris with great tenacity and published the Encyclopédie’s later volumes surreptitiously. He was deeply wounded, however, by the discovery in 1764 that Le Breton had secretly removed compromising material from the corrected proof sheets of about 10 folio volumes. The censored passages, though of considerable interest, would not have made an appreciable difference on the impact of the work. To the 17 volumes of text and 11 volumes of plates (1751–72), Diderot contributed innumerable articles partly original, partly derived from varied sources, especially on the history of philosophy (“Eclectisme” [“Eclecticism”]), social theory (“Droit naturel” [“Natural Law”]), aesthetics (“Beau” [“The Beautiful”]), and the crafts and industries of France. He was moreover an energetic general director and supervised the illustrations for 3,000 to 4,000 plates of exceptional quality, which are still prized by historians today. Philosophical and scientific works. While editing the Encyclopédie, Diderot managed to compose most of his own important works as well. In 1751 he published his Lettre sur les sourds et muets (“Letter on the Deaf and Dumb”), which studies the function of language and deals with points of aesthetics, and in 1754 he published the Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature (“Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature”), an influential short treatise on the new experimental methods in science. Diderot published few other works in his lifetime, however. His writings, in manuscript form, were known only to his friends and the privileged correspondents of the Correspondance littéraire, a sort of private newspaper edited by Baron Grimm that was circulated in manuscript form. The posthumous publication of these manuscripts, among which are several bold and original works in the sciences, philosophy, and literature, have made Diderot more highly appreciated in the 20th century than he was in France during his lifetime.

Among his philosophical works, special mention may be made of L’Entretien entre d’Alembert et Diderot (written 1769, published 1830; “Conversation Between d’Alembert and Diderot”), Le Rêve de d’Alembert (written 1769, published 1830; “D’Alembert’s Dream”), and the Eléments de physiologie (1774–80). In these works Diderot developed his materialist philosophy and arrived at startling intuitive insights into biology and chemistry; in speculating on the origins of life without divine intervention, for instance, he foreshadowed the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and put forth a strikingly prophetic picture of the cellular structure of matter. Though Diderot’s speculations in the field of science are of great interest, it is the dialectical brilliance of their presentation that is exceptional. His ideas, often propounded in the form of paradox, and invariably in dialogue, stem from a sense of life’s ambiguities and a profound understanding of the complexities and contradictions inherent in human nature.

Novels, dialogues, and plays
Four works of prose fiction by Diderot were published posthumously: the novel La Religieuse (written 1760, published 1796; The Nun); the novel Jacques le fataliste et son maître (written 1773, published 1796; Jacques the Fatalist); Le Neveu de Rameau (written between 1761 and 1774, published in German 1805; Rameau’s Nephew), a character sketch in dialogue form; and Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (written 1772, published 1796; “Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage”).

La Religieuse describes the distressing and ultimately tragic experiences of a girl who is forced to become a nun against her will. In Jacques le fataliste, Jacques, who believes in fate, is involved in an endless argument with his master, who does not, as they journey along retelling the story of their lives and loves. Diderot’s philosophical standpoint in this work is ambivalent, as is his ethical standpoint in Le Neveu de Rameau. The latter work is a dialogue between Diderot and a bohemian musician who is based partly on the nephew of the French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. This work may properly be called a satire, since it challenges the cant of contemporary society and the hypocrisy of its morality. Rameau’s nephew is depicted as a shamelessly selfish parasite, an eccentric, and a musician who is gifted yet unable to make his mark through insufficient talent. His dialogue with Diderot is spontaneous and witty, and there are digressions, a lengthy disquisition on contemporary musical controversies, and diatribes against Diderot’s own enemies. This brilliantly conceived, highly original and entertaining divertissement reveals the complexity of Diderot’s personality and of his philosophical ideas. In the Supplément au voyage de Bougainville Diderot, in discussing the mores of the South Pacific islanders, emphasizes his conception of a free society based on tolerance and develops his views on sexual freedom.

Diderot’s major plays, Le Fils naturel (1757; “The Illegitimate Son”) and Le Père de famille (1758; “The Father of the Family”), make tedious reading today. His theories on drama, however, expounded in Entretiens sur le fils naturel (1757; “Discussion on the Illegitimate Son”) and Discours sur la poésie dramatique (“Discourse on Dramatic Poetry”), were to exercise a determining influence on the German dramatist Gotthold Lessing. Taking as his starting point the comédie larmoyante, Diderot stressed the need for greater realism on the stage and favoured the serious bourgeois drama of real life. Characters should be presented against their milieu and belong to specific professions, so that the moral and social implications of the play, which he considered to be of primary importance, should have greater impact. In his Paradoxe sur le comédien (written 1773, published 1830), Diderot argued that great actors must possess judgment and penetration without “sensibility”—i.e., without actually experiencing the emotions they are portraying as characters on the stage. Although Diderot wrote literary criticism, it is as the first great art critic, covering the Paris Salons, or annual art exhibitions, for the Correspondance littéraire, that he is best remembered. His analysis of art, artists, and the technique of painting, together with the excellence of his taste and his style, have won him posthumous fame; his Essai sur la peinture (written 1765, published 1796; “Essay on Painting”), especially, was admired by Goethe and later by the 19th-century poet and critic Charles Baudelaire.

Late life and works
The completion of the Encyclopédie in 1772 left Diderot without a source of income. To relieve him of financial worry, Catherine the Great of Russia first bought his library through an agent in Paris, requesting him to retain the books until she required them, and then appointed him librarian on an annual salary for the duration of his life. Diderot went to St. Petersburg in 1773 to thank her for her financial support and was received with great honour and warmth. He wrote for her the Plan d’une université pour le gouvernement de Russie (“Plan of a University for the Government of Russia”). He stayed five months, long enough to become disillusioned with enlightened despotism as a solution to social ills.

In 1774 Diderot, now old and ill, worked on a refutation of Helvétius’ work De l’homme (1772; “On Man”), which was an amplification of the destroyed De l’esprit. He wrote Entretien d’un philosophe avec la Maréchale (“Conversation with the Maréchale”) and published in 1778 Essai sur les règnes de Claude et de Néron (“Essay on the Reigns of Claudius and Nero”). Usually known as Essai sur la vie de Sénèque (“Essay on the Life of Seneca”), the work may be regarded as an apologia for that Roman satirist and philosopher. Diderot’s intimate circle was dwindling. Mme d’Épinay and d’Alembert died, leaving only Grimm and Baron d’Holbach. Slowly Diderot retired into the shell of his own personal and family life. The death of Sophie Volland in February 1784 was a great grief to him; he survived her by a few months, dying of coronary thrombosis in the house in the rue de Richelieu that Catherine the Great had put at his disposal. Apocryphally, his last words were: “Le premier pas vers la philosophie, c’est l’incré” (“The first step toward philosophy is incredulity”). Through the intervention of his son-in-law, he was buried in consecrated ground at Saint-Roch.

Robert Niklaus


Tragedy and the survival of Classical form

Classical tragedy survived into the 18th century, most notably in the theatre of Voltaire, which dominated the Comédie-Française from the premiere of Oedipe (1718) to that of Agathocle (1779). But even in Voltaire a profound change in sensibility is apparent as pathos reigns supreme, to the exclusion of terror. Tragedy, in the view of Fontenelle or the Abbé Dubos, should teach men virtue and humanity. Voltaire’s Zaïre (1732; The Tragedy of Zara) aims to do just that, through the spectacle of Christian intolerance overwhelming the eponymous heroine, torn as she is between the religion of her French Roman Catholic forefathers and the Muslim faith of her future husband, a Turk. No fatality of character destroys her, but simply the failings of Christians unworthy of their creed, allied to gratuitous and avoidable chance. The great tragic emotions are replaced by simple bourgeois sentimentality.

Abbé Dubos


born Feb. 20, 1901, Saint-Brice, France
died Feb. 20, 1982, New York, N.Y., U.S.

French-born American microbiologist, environmentalist, and author whose pioneering research in isolating antibacterial substances from certain soil microorganisms led to the discovery of major antibiotics. Dubos is also known for his research and writings on a number of subjects, including antibiotics, acquired immunity, tuberculosis, and bacteria indigenous to the gastrointestinal tract. In his later years his interest shifted to man’s relationship to the natural environment.

In 1921 Dubos graduated from the Institut National Agronomique in Paris. Three years later he emigrated to the United States and continued his studies at Rutgers University (Ph.D., 1927). He then joined the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City, where he spent most of his career, becoming a professor in 1957 and professor emeritus in 1971.

In 1930 Dubos isolated from a soil microorganism an enzyme that could decompose part of the bacillum that causes lobar pneumonia in humans. The enzyme subsequently proved to have a therapeutic effect on laboratory animals with that disease. In 1939 Dubos isolated another antibacterial substance and named it tyrothricin. This substance, which he was able to chemically analyze, became the first antibiotic to be commercially manufactured, though it soon proved too toxic for large-scale use. Dubos’s researches and techniques stimulated interest in penicillin and led Selman Waksman, Albert Schatz, and Elizabeth Bugie to isolate streptomycin.

Dubos’s works include Bacterial and Mycotic Infections in Man (1948), Pasteur and Modern Medicine (1960), Man, Medicine, and Environment (1968), and So Human an Animal (1968; Pulitzer Prize, 1969). He was for many years an editor of the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

Marivaux and Beaumarchais

The best of 18th-century drama takes a different course. Pierre Marivaux wrote more than 30 comedies, mostly between 1720 and 1740, for the most part bearing on the psychology of love. Typically, the Marivaudian protagonist is a refined young lady who finds herself, to her bewilderment or even despair, falling in love despite herself, thereby losing her autonomy of judgment and action. La Surprise de l’amour, a title Marivaux used twice (1722, 1727), becomes a regular motif, the interest of each play resting in the precise and delicate changes of attitude and circumstance rung by the dramatist and the sharp, witty discourse in which his characters’ exchanges are couched. His sympathy for the generally likable heroes and heroines stops short, however, of indulgence. The action is dramatic essentially because the characters’ stubborn pride, central to their being, has to succumb to the demands of their instincts. Vanity, in Marivaux’s view, is endemic to human nature. In Le Jeu de l’amour et du hasard (1730; The Game of Love and Chance), the plot of which is based on disguise, with masters and servants exchanging parts, Silvia experiences profound consternation at the quite unacceptable prospect of falling for a valet. When she learns the happy truth, her relief immediately gives way to a determination to force her lover Dorante into surrender while he still thinks her a servant. Many plays deal explicitly with social barriers created by rank or money, such as La Double Inconstance (1723; Changes of Heart) and Les Fausses Confidences (1737; “False Confidences”). As the subtlety of Marivaux’s perceptions and the genius of his language have become better understood, he has come to be regarded as the fourth great classic (after Corneille, Racine, and Molière) of the French theatre.

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais is best remembered for two comic masterpieces, Le Barbier de Séville (1775; The Barber of Seville) and Le Mariage de Figaro (1784; The Marriage of Figaro). Both are dominated by the servant Figaro, a scheming dynamo of wit and generosity. Some commentators during the Revolution detected prerevolutionary sentiments in The Marriage of Figaro, but the evidence is too insubstantial to argue for any intention on the author’s part. As much as the sharpness of wit and character, the brilliance of structure wins admiration. All is movement and vicissitude, particularly in The Marriage of Figaro, with its 92 scenes (about three times the average number in a Classical play) and profusion of theatrical “business” rising to the magisterial imbroglio of the final act.


Pierre Marivaux


born Feb. 4, 1688, Paris, Fr.
died Feb. 12, 1763, Paris

French dramatist, novelist, and journalist whose comedies are, after those of Molière, the most frequently performed in today’s French theatre.

His wealthy, aristocratic family moved to Limoges, where his father practiced law, the same profession for which the young Marivaux trained. Most interested in the drama of the courts, at 20 he wrote his first play, Le Père prudent et équitable, ou Crispin l’heureux fourbe (“The Prudent and Equitable Father”). Such early writings showed promise, and by 1710 he had joined Parisian salon society, whose atmosphere and conversational manners he absorbed for his occasional journalistic writings. He contributed Réflexions . . . on the various social classes to the Nouveau Mercure (1717–19) and modeled his own periodical, Le Spectateur Français (1720–24), after Joseph Addison’s The Spectator.

The loss of his fortune in 1720, followed a few years later by the death of his young wife, caused Marivaux to take his literary career more seriously. He was drawn into several fashionable artistic salons and received a pension from Mme de Pompadour. He became a close associate of the philosophes Bernard de Fontenelle and Montesquieu and of the critic and playwright La Motte.

Marivaux’s first plays were written for the Comédie-Française, among them the five-act verse tragedy Annibal (1727). But the Italian Theatre of Lelio, sponsored in Paris by the regent Philippe d’Orleans, attracted him far more. The major players Thomassin and Silvia of this commedia dell’arte troupe became Marivaux’s stock lovers: Harlequin, or the valet, and the ingenue. Arlequin poli par l’amour (1723; “Harlequin Brightened by Love”) and Le Jeu de l’amour et du hasard (1730; The Game of Love and Chance) display typical characteristics of his love comedies: romantic settings, an acute sense of nuance and the finer shades of feeling, and deft and witty wordplay. This verbal preciousness is still known as marivaudage and reflects the sensitivity and sophistication of the era. Marivaux also made notable advances in realism; his servants are given real feelings, and the social milieu is depicted precisely. Among his 30-odd plays are the satires L’Île des esclaves (1725; “Isle of Slaves”) and L’Île de la raison (1727; “Isle of Reason”), which mock European society after the manner of Gulliver’s Travels. La Nouvelle colonie (1729; “The New Colony”) treats equality between the sexes, while L’École des mères (1724; “School for Mothers”) studies mother-daughter rapport.

Marivaux’s human psychology is best revealed in his romance novels, both unfinished. La Vie de Marianne (1731–41), which preceded Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), anticipates the novel of sensibility in its glorification of a woman’s feelings and intuition. Le Paysan parvenu (1734–35; “The Fortunate Peasant”) is the story of a handsome, opportunistic young peasant who uses his attractiveness to older women to advance in the world. Both works concern struggles to arrive in society and reflect the author’s rejection of authority and religious orthodoxy in favour of simple morality and naturalness. His attitude won him the whole-hearted admiration of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Though Marivaux was elected to the French Academy in 1743 and became its director in 1759, he was not fully appreciated during his lifetime. He died quite impoverished and remained without real fame until his work was reappraised by the critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve in the 19th century. Marivaux has since been regarded as an important link between the Age of Reason and the Age of Romanticism.




Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais

"The Marriage of Figaro"


born Jan. 24, 1732, Paris, France
died May 18, 1799, Paris

French author of two outstanding comedies of intrigue that still retain their freshness, Le Barbier de Séville (1775; The Barber of Seville, 1776) and Le Mariage de Figaro (1784; The Marriage of Figaro, 1785).

Although Beaumarchais did not invent the type character of the scheming valet (who has appeared in comedy as far back as Roman times), his Figaro, hero of both plays, became the highest expression of the type. The valet’s resourcefulness and cunning were portrayed by Beaumarchais with a definite class-conscious sympathy. Le Barbier de Séville became the basis of a popular opera by the Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini. The second play, which inspired W.A. Mozart’s opera Le nozze di Figaro (1786), is openly critical of aristocratic privilege and somewhat anticipates the social upheavals of the Revolution of 1789.

Beaumarchais’s life rivals his work as a drama of controversy, adventure, and intrigue. The son of a watchmaker, he invented an escapement mechanism, and the question of its patent led to the first of many legal actions. For his defense in these suits he wrote a series of brilliant polemics (Mémoires), which made his reputation, though he was only partly successful at law.

After 1773, because of his legal involvements, Beaumarchais left France on secret royal missions to England and Germany for both Louis XV and Louis XVI. Despite growing popularity as a dramatist, Beaumarchais was addicted to financial speculation. He bought arms for the American revolutionaries and brought out the first complete edition of the works of Voltaire. Of his dramatic works, only his two classic comedies were to have lasting success. Because of his wealth, he was imprisoned during the French Revolution (in 1792), but, through the intervention of a former mistress, he was released.

Bourgeois drama

himself espoused the drame bourgeois (“bourgeois drama” or “middle-class tragedy”) in his Essai sur le genre dramatique sérieux (1767; “Essay on the Genre of Serious Drama”). He wrote several drames, among them the sequel to The Marriage of Figaro in L’Autre Tartuffe; ou, La Mère coupable (1792; “The Other Tartuffe; or, The Guilty Mother”). The growing importance of sentiment on the stage had proved as inimical to Classical comedy as to Classical tragedy. More popular was a type of comedy both serious and moralistic, such as Le Glorieux (1732; The Conceited Count) by Philippe Néricault Destouches or the comédies larmoyantes (“tearful comedies”) of Pierre-Claude Nivelle de La Chaussée, which enjoyed great popularity in the 1730s and ’40s. Diderot’s Entretiens sur “Le Fils naturel” (1757; “Conversations on ‘The Natural Son’”) gave a theoretical underpinning to the new mood. The author called for middle-class tragedies of private life, realistic and affecting, able to inspire strong emotions and incline audiences to more elevated states of mind. The new genre, reacting against the articulate tirades of Classical tragedy, would draw on pantomime and tableaux or inarticulate speech rather than on eloquent discursiveness. Though Diderot’s plays did not live up to his theories, the emphasis upon middle-class virtuousness was to be made dramatically effective in Michel-Jean Sedaine’s Le Philosophe sans le savoir (1765; “The Unwitting Philosopher”; Eng. trans. The Duel). But the success of the drame bourgeois was short-lived, perhaps because it attempted the incompatible aims of being both realistic and didactic.


Pierre-Claude Nivelle de La Chaussée

born 1692, Paris, France
died March 14, 1754, Paris

French playwright who created the comédie larmoyante (“tearful comedy”), a verse-drama form merging tearful, sentimental scenes with an invariably happy ending. These sentimental comedies, which were precursors of Denis Diderot’s drames bourgeois, were psychologically superficial and rhetorically exaggerated and were intended to contribute to the public’s moral education. La Chaussée was the author of nine such plays—among them L’École des Mères (1744; “Mothers’ School”), Mélanide (1741), and Le Préjugé à la mode (1735; “Stylish Prejudice”).

La Chaussée was the scion of a prosperous bourgeois family and did not embark on a literary career until his middle age; his first play, La Fausse Antipathie (“False Antipathy”), was written when he was 41 years old. From that time, however, he wrote steadily. In addition to the comédies larmoyantes, he produced other comedies and several tragedies. He was elected to the French Academy in 1736.



Michel-Jean Sedaine

born June 2, 1719, Paris, Fr.
died May 17, 1797, Paris

French dramatist who is best known as the author of a fine domestic comedy, Le Philosophe sans le savoir (1765; “The Philosopher Without Knowledge”).

The son of a master builder, Sedaine began his career as a stonemason. In 1752 he published a volume of poetry, and his theatrical career began in 1756, when he wrote librettos for some light operas. He was made destitute by the French Revolution and in 1795 was deprived of his membership in the French Academy, to which he had been elected in 1786.

Although he had a number of successes during his career, Le Philosophe sans le savoir is the only one of his plays to have endured. It was censored when it first appeared, because of its treatment of dueling, and was not played in the original version until 1875. It is less a play of ideas, however, than a textbook example of the new “bourgeois” drama called for by the philosopher Denis Diderot; mixing tragic and comic situations, it presents a charming, sentimental, and idealized picture of life in the family of a wealthy merchant. Sedaine defends middle-class values not only in his criticism of aristocratic prejudice but also in the illustration of the virtues of commerce and of a rational concept of honour. The play enjoyed some popularity during the 19th century, but it is now considered to retain chiefly only historical interest.



The emphasis upon reason, science, and philosophy may explain the absence of great poetry in the 18th century. The best verse is that of Voltaire, whose chief claim to renown during most of his lifetime was as a poet. In epic, mock-epic, philosophical poems, or witty society pieces he was preeminent, but to the modern critic the linguistic intensity that might indicate genius is missing.


The novel

Despite official opposition and occasional censorship, the genre of the novel developed apace. The first great 18th-century exemplar is now seen to be Robert Challes, whose Illustres françaises (1713; The Illustrious French Lovers), a collection of seven tales intertwined, commands attention for its serious realism and a disabused candour anticipating Stendhal. As the bourgeoisie acquired a more prominent place in society and the focus switched to exploring the textures of everyday life, the roman de moeurs (“novel of manners”) became important, most notably with the novels of Alain-René Lesage: Le Diable boiteux (1707; The Devil upon Two Sticks) and especially L’Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane (1715–35; The History and Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane). The latter, a loose-knit picaresque novel, recounts its hero’s rise in society and concomitant moral education, set against a comprehensive picture of the surrounding world. Characterization and the representation of the new ethos of sensibility receive greater attention in the novels of the prolific Abbé Prévost, author of multivolume romances but best known for the Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731; “Tale of the Chevalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut”; Eng. trans. Manon Lescaut). In this ambivalent mixture of idealistic passion and shabby criminality, des Grieux, a young scapegrace but also, Prévost urges, a man of the most exquisite sentiments, sacrifices a glittering career to his fantasy of the amoral, delicate, and forever enigmatic Manon. In this tragic tale, love conquers all, but it constantly needs vulgar money to sustain it. Tears and swoonings abound, as do precise notations of financial costs, in a blend of traditional romance and sordid realism.

By contrast, Marivaux as novelist devoted his main energies to psychological analysis and the moral life of his characters. His two great narratives, La Vie de Marianne (1731–41; The Life of Marianne) and Le Paysan parvenu (1734–35; Up from the Country), follow one single character recounting, as in Manon Lescaut, her or his past experience. But it is the comic note that prevails as Marianne and Jacob make their way upward in society. Reflection upon conduct becomes more important than conduct itself; the narrators, now of mature years, comment and endlessly interpret their actions when young and still in transit socially. The result provides a rich density of feelings, meticulously analyzed or finely suggested, in a precise and witty prose. Both protagonists are morally equivocal, born survivors with an eye for the main chance, representative of a social class making its way from margins to mainstream; yet they are also attractive, both to their peers in the novel and to their readership, in their disarming self-revelations.

Increasingly, from the middle of the century, studies of women’s position in society, salon, or family emerged from the pen of women writers. Françoise de Graffigny (Lettres d’une Péruvienne [1747; Letters of a Peruvian Princess]), Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni, and Isabelle de Charrière use the popular epistolary form of the novel to allow their heroines to voice the pain and distress of a situation of unremitting dependency. The processes of modernization were beginning to bring their own solutions to women’s subordination. The educationalist Madame de Genlis (Stéphanie-Félicité du Crest), much influenced by Rousseau, found a Europe-wide readership for her treatises, plays, and, especially, the novel Adèle et Théodore; ou, lettres sur l’éducation (1782; Adelaide and Theodore; or, Letters on Education), which offered enlightened and advanced educational programs for children and young women of all classes, based on the recognition that men engaged increasingly with duties, responsibilities, and work in the public sphere needed well-educated and skilled wives at home to manage their households and estates. The subordination of women to men was still a given in Genlis’s philosophy, and it was a theme emphasized in the highly popular historical and political romances she would later write in exile, during the Revolution, and on her eventual return to Paris to become an ardent spokesperson for all old hierarchies in Napoleon’s restored court.

Abbe Prevost Reading "Manon Lescaut," 1856
by Joseph Caraud


Abbé Prévost

"Manon Lescaut"

French author

born , April 1, 1697, Hesdin, Fr.
died Nov. 25, 1763, Chantilly

prolific French novelist whose fame rests entirely on one work—Manon Lescaut (1731; in full Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut; “Story of the Chevalier of Grieux and of Manon Lescaut”).

Originally published as the final installment of a seven-volume novel, Mémoires et aventures d’un homme de qualité qui s’est retiré du monde (1728–31; “Memories and Adventures of a Man of Quality Who Has Retired from the World”), Prévost’s Manon Lescaut is the basis of the operas Manon, by Jules Massenet, and Manon Lescaut, by Giacomo Puccini. A classic example of the 18th-century novel of feeling, Manon Lescaut tells the story of a young man of good family who ruins his life for a courtesan.

From an early age, Prévost displayed many of the weaknesses characteristic of the hero of his most famous work. Two enlistments in the army alternated with two entries into the novitiate of the Society of Jesus, from which he was dismissed in 1721. In that year he took vows as a Benedictine monk and in 1726 was ordained a priest. In 1728 he fled to England. One of his numerous love affairs caused him to lose his job there as a tutor and to go to Holland in 1730. In 1735 Prévost returned to England to escape his Dutch creditors and was briefly imprisoned in London for forgery. After secretly returning to France, he was reconciled with the Roman Catholic church (although he may have been a Protestant during his exile).


The preeminent name associated with the sensibility of the age is that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His work gave rise to the cult of nature, lakes, mountains, and gardens, in contrast to what he presented as the false glitter of society. He called for a new way of life attentive above all to the innate sense of pity and benevolence he attributed to men, rather than dependent upon what he saw as the meretricious reason prized by his fellow philosophes; he espoused untutored simplicity and declared the true equality of all, based in the capacity for feeling that all men share; and he argued the importance of total sincerity and claimed to practice it in his confessional writings, which are seminal instances of modern autobiography. With these radical new claims for a different mode of feeling, one that would foster a revolutionary new politics, he stands as one of the greatest thinkers of his time, alongside, and generally in opposition to, Voltaire. He established the modern novel of sensibility with the resounding success of his Julie; ou, la nouvelle Héloïse (1761; Julie; or, The New Heloise), a novel about an impossible, doomed love between a young aristocrat and her tutor. He composed a classic work of educational theory with Émile; ou, de l’éducation (1762; Emile; or, On Education), whose hero is brought up away from corrupting society, in keeping with the principles of natural man. Emile learns to prefer feeling and spontaneity to theory and reason, and religious sensibility is an essential element of his makeup. This alone would separate Rousseau from Voltaire and Diderot, not to mention the materialist philosophers Claude-Adrien Helvétius, Paul-Henri d’Holbach, and Julien de La Mettrie, for whom the progress of the Enlightenment was judged by the emancipation of the age from superstition, fanaticism, and the authority of prejudice passing as faith.

The sharp hostility toward contemporary society already evident in his Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1750; Discourse on the Sciences and Arts) is more profoundly elaborated in the Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes (1755; “Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men”; Eng. trans. Discourse on the Origin of Inequality). In the latter work he argues that social inequality has come about because men have allowed their God-given right of freedom to be usurped by the growth of competition, specialization and division of labour, and, most of all, by laws that consolidated the inequitable distribution of property. Further, he states that elegant, civilized society is a sham whose reality is endless posturing, hostility, injustice, enslavement, and alienation. The revolutionary implications of these beliefs are spelled out in the Contrat social (1762; The Social Contract), with its examination of the principle of sovereignty, its critique of the divine right of kings, and its formulation of a right of resistance. True liberty and equality can be established, according to Rousseau, only on the hypothesis of a people who have never yet been divided or corrupted by any form of government, through a social pact of all with all, willingly accepted, in which each individual agrees to submit to and defend the volonté générale (“general will”), which alone has sovereignty. This is the ground on which active citizens, and full humans, can be developed. But such self-denial would already require a moral transmutation requiring the prior existence of the higher reasoning and selflessness that it is meant to help create and foster. To break the vicious circle, Rousseau proposes to introduce into his nascent community a Lawgiver, who may use his authority, or the seductions of religion, to persuade people to accept the laws. At the origin of his newly contracted society of truth, sincerity, and respect for others’ rights and freedoms, he must posit an authoritarian and manipulative principle. Commentators have differed widely in their readings of The Social Contract as either a liberal or a totalitarian document. Rousseau saw himself as unambiguously defending freedom from despotism; from 1789 to 1917, revolutionaries throughout the world took him as an icon.

Rousseau’s struggle toward a morality based on transparent honesty and on values authenticated not by any external authority but by his own conscience and feelings, is continued in the Confessions (written 1764–70; Eng. trans. Confessions). Here he suggests that self-knowledge is to be achieved by a growing familiarity with the unconscious, a recognition of the importance of childhood in shaping the adult, and an acceptance of the role of sexuality—an anticipation of modern psychoanalysis. This original exploration of the self, in its dreams, desires, fantasies, obsessions, and, ultimately, delusions, is developed further in the Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (written 1776–78; The Reveries of the Solitary Walker), which has been seen as foreshadowing even more strongly the Romantic Movement and the literature of introspection of the next century.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau

"Confessions"   BOOK I-VI, BOOK VII-XII


Swiss-born French philosopher

born June 28, 1712, Geneva, Switz.
died July 2, 1778, Ermenonville, France

Swiss-born philosopher, writer, and political theorist whose treatises and novels inspired the leaders of the French Revolution and the Romantic generation.

Rousseau was the least academic of modern philosophers and in many ways was the most influential. His thought marked the end of the Age of Reason. He propelled political and ethical thinking into new channels. His reforms revolutionized taste, first in music, then in the other arts. He had a profound impact on people’s way of life; he taught parents to take a new interest in their children and to educate them differently; he furthered the expression of emotion rather than polite restraint in friendship and love. He introduced the cult of religious sentiment among people who had discarded religious dogma. He opened men’s eyes to the beauties of nature, and he made liberty an object of almost universal aspiration.

Formative years
Rousseau’s mother died in childbirth and he was brought up by his father, who taught him to believe that the city of his birth was a republic as splendid as Sparta or ancient Rome. Rousseau senior had an equally glorious image of his own importance; after marrying above his modest station as a watchmaker, he got into trouble with the civil authorities by brandishing the sword that his upper-class pretentions prompted him to wear, and he had to leave Geneva to avoid imprisonment. Rousseau, the son, then lived for six years as a poor relation in his mother’s family, patronized and humiliated, until he, too, at the age of 16, fled from Geneva to live the life of an adventurer and a Roman Catholic convert in the kingdoms of Sardinia and France.

Rousseau was fortunate in finding in the province of Savoy a benefactress named the Baronne de Warens, who provided him with a refuge in her home and employed him as her steward. She also furthered his education to such a degree that the boy who had arrived on her doorstep as a stammering apprentice who had never been to school developed into a philosopher, a man of letters, and a musician.

Mme de Warens, who thus transformed the adventurer into a philosopher, was herself an adventuress—a Swiss convert to Catholicism who had stripped her husband of his money before fleeing to Savoy with the gardener’s son to set herself up as a Catholic missionary specializing in the conversion of young male Protestants. Her morals distressed Rousseau, even when he became her lover. But she was a woman of taste, intelligence, and energy, who brought out in Rousseau just the talents that were needed to conquer Paris at a time when Voltaire had made radical ideas fashionable.

Rousseau reached Paris when he was 30 and was lucky enough to meet another young man from the provinces seeking literary fame in the capital, Denis Diderot. The two soon became immensely successful as the centre of a group of intellectuals—or “Philosophes”—who gathered round the great French Encyclopédie, of which Diderot was appointed editor. The Encyclopédie was an important organ of radical and anticlerical opinion, and its contributors were as much reforming and even iconoclastic pamphleteers as they were philosophers. Rousseau, the most original of them all in his thinking and the most forceful and eloquent in his style of writing, was soon the most conspicuous. He wrote music as well as prose, and one of his operas, Le Devin du village (1752; The Cunning-Man), attracted so much admiration from the king and the court that he might have enjoyed an easy life as a fashionable composer, but something in his Calvinist blood rejected this type of worldly glory. Indeed, at the age of 37 Rousseau had what he called an “illumination” while walking to Vincennes to visit Diderot, who had been imprisoned there because of his irreligious writings. In the Confessions, which he wrote late in life, Rousseau says that it came to him then in a “terrible flash” that modern progress had corrupted instead of improved men. He went on to write his first important work, a prize essay for the Academy of Dijon entitled Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1750; A Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts), in which he argues that the history of man’s life on earth has been a history of decay.

This Discourse is by no means Rousseau’s best piece of writing, but its central theme was to inform almost everything else he wrote. Throughout his life he kept returning to the thought that man is good by nature but has been corrupted by society and civilization. He did not mean to suggest that society and civilization were inherently bad but rather that both had taken a wrong direction and become more harmful as they had become more sophisticated. This idea in itself was not unfamiliar when Rousseau published his Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts. Many Roman Catholic writers deplored the direction that European culture had taken since the Middle Ages. They shared the hostility toward progress that Rousseau had expressed. What they did not share was his belief that man was naturally good. It was, however, just this belief in man’s natural goodness that Rousseau made the cornerstone of his argument.

Rousseau may well have received the inspiration for this belief from Mme de Warens; for although that unusual woman had become a communicant of the Roman Catholic Church, she retained—and transmitted to Rousseau—much of the sentimental optimism about human purity that she had herself absorbed as a child from the mystical Protestant Pietists who were her teachers in the canton of Bern. At all events, the idea of man’s natural goodness, as Rousseau developed it, set him apart from both conservatives and radicals. Even so, for several years after the publication of his first Discourse, he remained a close collaborator in Diderot’s essentially progressive enterprise, the Encyclopédie, and an active contributor to its pages. His speciality there was music, and it was in this sphere that he first established his influence as reformer.

Controversy with Rameau
The arrival of an Italian opera company in Paris in 1752 to perform works of opera buffa by Pergolesi, Scarlatti, Vinci, Leo, and other such composers suddenly divided the French music-loving public into two excited camps, supporters of the new Italian opera and supporters of the traditional French opera. The Philosophes of the Encyclopédie—d’Alembert, Diderot, and d’Holbach among them—entered the fray as champions of Italian music, but Rousseau, who had arranged for the publication of Pergolesi’s music in Paris and who knew more about the subject than most Frenchmen after the months he had spent visiting the opera houses of Venice during his time as secretary to the French ambassador to the doge in 1743–44, emerged as the most forceful and effective combatant. He was the only one to direct his fire squarely at the leading living exponent of French operatic music, Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Rousseau and Rameau must at that time have seemed unevenly matched in a controversy about music. Rameau, already in his 70th year, was not only a prolific and successful composer but was also, as the author of the celebrated Traité de l’harmonie (1722; Treatise on Harmony) and other technical works, Europe’s leading musicologist. Rousseau, by contrast, was 30 years younger, a newcomer to music, with no professional training and only one successful opera to his credit. His scheme for a new notation for music had been rejected by the Academy of Sciences, and most of his musical entries for Diderot’s Encyclopédie were as yet unpublished. Yet the dispute was not only musical but also philosophical, and Rameau was confronted with a more formidable adversary than he had realized. Rousseau built his case for the superiority of Italian music over French on the principle that melody must have priority over harmony, whereas Rameau based his on the assertion that harmony must have priority over melody. By pleading for melody, Rousseau introduced what later came to be recognized as a characteristic idea of Romanticism, namely, that in art the free expression of the creative spirit is more important than strict adhesion to formal rules and traditional procedures. By pleading for harmony, Rameau reaffirmed the first principle of French Classicism, namely, that conformity to rationally intelligible rules is a necessary condition of art, the aim of which is to impose order on the chaos of human experience.

In music, Rousseau was a liberator. He argued for freedom in music, and he pointed to the Italian composers as models to be followed. In doing so he had more success than Rameau; he changed people’s attitudes. Gluck, who succeeded Rameau as the most important operatic composer in France, acknowledged his debt to Rousseau’s teaching, and Mozart based the text for his one-act operetta Bastien und Bastienne on Rousseau’s Devin du village. European music had taken a new direction. But Rousseau himself composed no more operas. Despite the success of Le Devin du village, or rather because of its success, Rousseau felt that, as a moralist who had decided to make a break with worldly values, he could not allow himself to go on working for the theatre. He decided to devote his energies henceforth to literature and philosophy.

Major works of political philosophy
As part of what Rousseau called his “reform,” or improvement of his own character, he began to look back at some of the austere principles that he had learned as a child in the Calvinist republic of Geneva. Indeed he decided to return to that city, repudiate his Catholicism, and seek readmission to the Protestant church. He had in the meantime acquired a mistress, an illiterate laundry maid named Thérèse Levasseur. To the surprise of his friends, he took her with him to Geneva, presenting her as a nurse. Although her presence caused some murmurings, Rousseau was readmitted easily to the Calvinist communion, his literary fame having made him very welcome to a city that prided itself as much on its culture as on its morals.

Rousseau had by this time completed a second Discourse in response to a question set by the Academy of Dijon: “What is the origin of the inequality among men and is it justified by natural law?” In response to this challenge he produced a masterpiece of speculative anthropology. The argument follows on that of his first Discourse by developing the proposition that natural man is good and then tracing the successive stages by which man has descended from primitive innocence to corrupt sophistication.

Rousseau begins his Discours sur l’origine de l’inegalité (1755; Discourse on the Origin of Inequality) by distinguishing two kinds of inequality, natural and artificial, the first arising from differences in strength, intelligence, and so forth, the second from the conventions that govern societies. It is the inequalities of the latter sort that he sets out to explain. Adopting what he thought the properly “scientific” method of investigating origins, he attempts to reconstruct the earliest phases of man’s experience of life on earth. He suggests that original man was not a social being but entirely solitary, and to this extent he agrees with Hobbes’s account of the state of nature. But in contrast to the English pessimist’s view that the life of man in such a condition must have been “poor, nasty, brutish and short,” Rousseau claims that original man, while admittedly solitary, was healthy, happy, good, and free. The vices of men, he argues, date from the time when men formed societies.

Rousseau thus exonerates nature and blames society for the emergence of vices. He says that passions that generate vices hardly exist in the state of nature but begin to develop as soon as men form societies. Rousseau goes on to suggest that societies started when men built their first huts, a development that facilitated cohabitation of males and females; this in turn produced the habit of living as a family and associating with neighbours. This “nascent society,” as Rousseau calls it, was good while it lasted; it was indeed the “golden age” of human history. Only it did not endure. With the tender passion of love there was also born the destructive passion of jealousy. Neighbours started to compare their abilities and achievements with one another, and this “marked the first step towards inequality and at the same time towards vice.” Men started to demand consideration and respect; their innocent self-love turned into culpable pride, as each man wanted to be better than everyone else.

The introduction of property marked a further step toward inequality since it made it necessary for men to institute law and government in order to protect property. Rousseau laments the “fatal” concept of property in one of his more eloquent passages, describing the “horrors” that have resulted from men’s departure from a condition in which the earth belonged to no one. These passages in his second Discourse excited later revolutionaries such as Marx and Lenin, but Rousseau himself did not think that the past could be undone in any way; there was no point in men dreaming of a return to the golden age.

Civil society, as Rousseau describes it, comes into being to serve two purposes: to provide peace for everyone and to ensure the right to property for anyone lucky enough to have possessions. It is thus of some advantage to everyone, but mostly to the advantage of the rich, since it transforms their de facto ownership into rightful ownership and keeps the poor dispossessed. It is a somewhat fraudulent social contract that introduces government since the poor get so much less out of it than do the rich. Even so, the rich are no happier in civil society than are the poor because social man is never satisfied. Society leads men to hate one another to the extent that their interests conflict, and the best they are able to do is to hide their hostility behind a mask of courtesy. Thus Rousseau regards the inequality between men not as a separate problem but as one of the features of the long process by which men become alienated from nature and from innocence.

In the dedication Rousseau wrote for the Discourse, in order to present it to the republic of Geneva, he nevertheless praises that city-state for having achieved the ideal balance between “the equality which nature established among men and the inequality which they have instituted among themselves.” The arrangement he discerned in Geneva was one in which the best men were chosen by the citizens and put in the highest positions of authority. Like Plato, Rousseau always believed that a just society was one in which everyone was in his right place. And having written the Discourse to explain how men had lost their liberty in the past, he went on to write another book, Du Contrat social (1762; The Social Contract), to suggest how they might recover their liberty in the future. Again Geneva was the model; not Geneva as it had become in 1754 when Rousseau returned there to recover his rights as a citizen, but Geneva as it had once been; i.e., Geneva as Calvin had designed it.

The Social Contract begins with the sensational opening sentence: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” and proceeds to argue that men need not be in chains. If a civil society, or state, could be based on a genuine social contract, as opposed to the fraudulent social contract depicted in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, men would receive in exchange for their independence a better kind of freedom, namely true political, or republican, liberty. Such liberty is to be found in obedience to a self-imposed law.

Rousseau’s definition of political liberty raises an obvious problem. For while it can be readily agreed that an individual is free if he obeys only rules he prescribes for himself, this is so because an individual is a person with a single will. A society, by contrast, is a set of persons with a set of individual wills, and conflict between separate wills is a fact of universal experience. Rousseau’s response to the problem is to define his civil society as an artificial person united by a general will, or volonté générale. The social contract that brings society into being is a pledge, and the society remains in being as a pledged group. Rousseau’s republic is a creation of the general will—of a will that never falters in each and every member to further the public, common, or national interest—even though it may conflict at times with personal interest.

Rousseau sounds very much like Hobbes when he says that under the pact by which men enter civil society everyone totally alienates himself and all his rights to the whole community. Rousseau, however, represents this act as a form of exchange of rights whereby men give up natural rights in return for civil rights. The bargain is a good one because what men surrender are rights of dubious value, whose realization depends solely on an individual man’s own might, and what they obtain in return are rights that are both legitimate and enforced by the collective force of the community.

There is no more haunting paragraph in The Social Contract than that in which Rousseau speaks of “forcing a man to be free.” But it would be wrong to interpret these words in the manner of those critics who see Rousseau as a prophet of modern totalitarianism. He does not claim that a whole society can be forced to be free but only that an occasional individual, who is enslaved by his passions to the extent of disobeying the law, can be restored by force to obedience to the voice of the general will that exists inside of him. The man who is coerced by society for a breach of the law is, in Rousseau’s view, being brought back to an awareness of his own true interests.

For Rousseau there is a radical dichotomy between true law and actual law. Actual law, which he describes in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, simply protects the status quo. True law, as described in The Social Contract, is just law, and what ensures its being just is that it is made by the people in its collective capacity as sovereign and obeyed by the same people in their individual capacities as subjects. Rousseau is confident that such laws could not be unjust because it is inconceivable that any people would make unjust laws for itself.

Rousseau is, however, troubled by the fact that the majority of a people does not necessarily represent its most intelligent citizens. Indeed, he agrees with Plato that most people are stupid. Thus the general will, while always morally sound, is sometimes mistaken. Hence Rousseau suggests the people need a lawgiver—a great mind like Solon or Lycurgus or Calvin—to draw up a constitution and system of laws. He even suggests that such lawgivers need to claim divine inspiration in order to persuade the dim-witted multitude to accept and endorse the laws it is offered.

This suggestion echoes a similar proposal by Machiavelli, a political theorist Rousseau greatly admired and whose love of republican government he shared. An even more conspicuously Machiavellian influence can be discerned in Rousseau’s chapter on civil religion, where he argues that Christianity, despite its truth, is useless as a republican religion on the grounds that it is directed to the unseen world and does nothing to teach citizens the virtues that are needed in the service of the state, namely, courage, virility, and patriotism. Rousseau does not go so far as Machiavelli in proposing a revival of pagan cults, but he does propose a civil religion with minimal theological content designed to fortify and not impede (as Christianity impedes) the cultivation of martial virtues. It is understandable that the authorities of Geneva, profoundly convinced that the national church of their little republic was at the same time a truly Christian church and a nursery of patriotism, reacted angrily against this chapter in Rousseau’s Social Contract.

By the year 1762, however, when The Social Contract was published, Rousseau had given up any thought of settling in Geneva. After recovering his citizen’s rights in 1754, he had returned to Paris and the company of his friends around the Encyclopédie. But he became increasingly ill at ease in such worldly society and began to quarrel with his fellow Philosophes. An article for the Encyclopédie on the subject of Geneva, written by d’Alembert at Voltaire’s instigation, upset Rousseau partly by suggesting that the pastors of the city had lapsed from Calvinist severity into unitarian laxity and partly by proposing that a theatre should be erected there. Rousseau hastened into print with a defense of the Calvinist orthodoxy of the pastors and with an elaborate attack on the theatre as an institution that could only do harm to an innocent community such as Geneva.

Years of seclusion and exile
By the time his Lettre à d’Alembert sur les spectacles (1758; Letter to Monsieur d’Alembert on the Theatre) appeared in print, Rousseau had already left Paris to pursue a life closer to nature on the country estate of his friend Mme d’Épinay near Montmorency. When the hospitality of Mme d’Épinay proved to entail much the same social round as that of Paris, Rousseau retreated to a nearby cottage, called Montlouis, under the protection of the Maréchal de Luxembourg. But even this highly placed friend could not save him in 1762 when his treatise on education, Émile, was published and scandalized the pious Jansenists of the French Parlements even as The Social Contract scandalized the Calvinists of Geneva. In Paris, as in Geneva, they ordered the book to be burned and the author arrested; all the Maréchal de Luxembourg could do was to provide a carriage for Rousseau to escape from France. After formally renouncing his Genevan citizenship in 1763, Rousseau became a fugitive, spending the rest of his life moving from one refuge to another.

The years at Montmorency had been the most productive of his literary career; besides The Social Contract and Émile, Julie: ou, la nouvelle Héloïse (1761; Julie: or, The New Eloise) came out within 12 months, all three works of seminal importance. The New Eloise, being a novel, escaped the censorship to which the other two works were subject; indeed of all his books it proved to be the most widely read and the most universally praised in his lifetime. It develops the Romanticism that had already informed his writings on music and perhaps did more than any other single work of literature to influence the spirit of its age. It made the author at least as many friends among the reading public—and especially among educated women—as The Social Contract and Émile made enemies among magistrates and priests. If it did not exempt him from persecution, at least it ensured that his persecution was observed, and admiring femmes du monde intervened from time to time to help him so that Rousseau was never, unlike Voltaire and Diderot, actually imprisoned.

The theme of The New Eloise provides a striking contrast to that of The Social Contract. It is about people finding happiness in domestic as distinct from public life, in the family as opposed to the state. The central character, Saint-Preux, is a middle-class preceptor who falls in love with his upper-class pupil, Julie. She returns his love and yields to his advances, but the difference between their classes makes marriage between them impossible. Baron d’Étange, Julie’s father, has indeed promised her to a fellow nobleman named Wolmar. As a dutiful daughter, Julie marries Wolmar and Saint-Preux goes off on a voyage around the world with an English aristocrat, Bomston, from whom he acquires a certain stoicism. Julie succeeds in forgetting her feelings for Saint-Preux and finds happiness as wife, mother, and chatelaine. Some six years later Saint-Preux returns from his travels and is engaged as tutor to the Wolmar children. All live together in harmony, and there are only faint echoes of the old affair between Saint-Preux and Julie. The little community, dominated by Julie, illustrates one of Rousseau’s political principles: that while men should rule the world in public life, women should rule men in private life. At the end of The New Eloise, when Julie has made herself ill in an attempt to rescue one of her children from drowning, she comes face-to-face with a truth about herself: that her love for Saint-Preux has never died.

The novel was clearly inspired by Rousseau’s own curious relationship—at once passionate and platonic—with Sophie d’Houdetot, a noblewoman who lived near him at Montmorency. He himself asserted in the Confessions (1781–88) that he was led to write the book by “a desire for loving, which I had never been able to satisfy and by which I felt myself devoured.” Saint-Preux’s experience of love forbidden by the laws of class reflects Rousseau’s own experience; and yet it cannot be said that The New Eloise is an attack on those laws, which seem, on the contrary, to be given the status almost of laws of nature. The members of the Wolmar household are depicted as finding happiness in living according to an aristocratic ideal. They appreciate the routines of country life and enjoy the beauties of the Swiss and Savoyard Alps. But despite such an endorsement of the social order, the novel was revolutionary; its very free expression of emotions and its extreme sensibility deeply moved its large readership and profoundly influenced literary developments.

Émile is a book that seems to appeal alternately to the republican ethic of The Social Contract and the aristocratic ethic of The New Eloise. It is also halfway between a novel and a didactic essay. Described by the author as a treatise on education, it is not about schooling but about the upbringing of a rich man’s son by a tutor who is given unlimited authority over him. At the same time the book sets out to explore the possibilities of an education for republican citizenship. The basic argument of the book, as Rousseau himself expressed it, is that vice and error, which are alien to a child’s original nature, are introduced by external agencies, so that the work of a tutor must always be directed to counteracting those forces by manipulating pressures that will work with nature and not against it. Rousseau devotes many pages to explaining the methods the tutor must use. These methods involve a noticeable measure of deceit, and although corporal punishment is forbidden, mental cruelty is not.

Whereas The Social Contract is concerned with the problems of achieving freedom, Émile is concerned with achieving happiness and wisdom. In this different context religion plays a different role. Instead of a civil religion, Rousseau here outlines a personal religion, which proves to be a kind of simplified Christianity, involving neither revelation nor the familiar dogmas of the church. In the guise of La Profession de foi du vicaire savoyard (1765; The Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar) Rousseau sets out what may fairly be regarded as his own religious views, since that book confirms what he says on the subject in his private correspondence. Rousseau could never entertain doubts about God’s existence or about the immortality of the soul. He felt, moreover, a strong emotional drive toward the worship of God, whose presence he felt most forcefully in nature, especially in mountains and forests untouched by the hand of man. He also attached great importance to conscience, the “divine voice of the soul in man,” opposing this both to the bloodless categories of rationalistic ethics and to the cold tablets of biblical authority.

This minimal creed put Rousseau at odds with the orthodox adherents of the churches and with the openly atheistic Philosophes of Paris, so that despite the enthusiasm that some of his writings, and especially The New Eloise, excited in the reading public, he felt himself increasingly isolated, tormented, and pursued. After he had been expelled from France, he was chased from canton to canton in Switzerland. He reacted to the suppression of The Social Contract in Geneva by indicting the regime of that city-state in a pamphlet entitled Lettres écrites de la montagne (1764; Letters Written from the Mountain). No longer, as in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, was Geneva depicted as a model republic but as one that had been taken over by “twenty-five despots”; the subjects of the king of England were said to be free men by comparison with the victims of Genevan tryranny.

It was in England that Rousseau found refuge after he had been banished from the canton of Bern. The Scottish philosopher David Hume took him there and secured the offer of a pension from King George III; but once in England, Rousseau became aware that certain British intellectuals were making fun of him, and he suspected Hume of participating in the mockery. Various symptoms of paranoia began to manifest themselves in Rousseau, and he returned to France incognito. Believing that Thérèse was the only person he could rely on, he finally married her in 1768, when he was 56 years old.

The last decade
In the remaining 10 years of his life Rousseau produced primarily autobiographical writings, mostly intended to justify himself against the accusations of his adversaries. The most important was his Confessions, modeled on the work of the same title by St. Augustine and achieving something of the same classic status. He also wrote Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques (1780; “Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques”) to reply to specific charges by his enemies and Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (1782; Reveries of the Solitary Walker), one of the most moving of his books, in which the intense passion of his earlier writings gives way to a gentle lyricism and serenity. And indeed, Rousseau does seem to have recovered his peace of mind in his last years, when he was once again afforded refuge on the estates of great French noblemen, first the Prince de Conti and then the Marquis de Girardin, in whose park at Ermenonville he died.

Maurice Cranston



Claude-Adrien Helvétius

born Jan. 26, 1715, Paris, Fr.
died Dec. 26, 1771, Voré, Collines des Perches

philosopher, controversialist, and wealthy host to the Enlightenment group of French thinkers known as Philosophes. He is remembered for his hedonistic emphasis on physical sensation, his attack on the religious foundations of ethics, and his extravagant educational theory.

Helvétius, the son of the Queen’s chief physician, was made farmer general (a revenue office) at the Queen’s request in 1738. In 1751 he married, resigned his post, and retired to his lands at Voré. There he wrote the poem Le Bonheur (“Happiness”), published posthumously with an account of his life and works by the Marquis de Saint-Lambert (1772), and his celebrated philosophical work De l’esprit (1758; “On the Mind”), which immediately became notorious. For its attack on all forms of morality based on religion it aroused formidable opposition, particularly from the son of Louis XV, the dauphin Louis, though it was published openly with the benefit of royal privilege. The Sorbonne condemned it, and it was ordered burned in public. This, the gravest crisis the Philosophes had known, led Voltaire to claim that the book was commonplace, obscure, and in error. Also, Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared that the very benevolence of the author gave the lie to his principles. Helvétius was called to recant, and he thrice made retractions of the book. Publication of the famous Philosophes’ Encyclopédie was suspended, and works by others, including Voltaire, also were burned.

Conveniently, Helvétius visited England in 1764 and, on invitation of Frederick II the Great, went to Berlin in 1765. On his return to France the same year the Philosophes were once again in favour, and Helvétius spent the rest of his life at Voré.

Helvétius held that all men are equally capable of learning, a belief that led him to argue against Rousseau’s work on education, Émile, and to claim in De L’homme (1772) that education’s possibilities for solving human problems were unlimited.



Paul-Henri d’Holbach

born December 1723, Edesheim, near Landau, Rhenish Palatinate
died June 21, 1789, Paris

French encyclopaedist and philosopher, a celebrated exponent of atheism and Materialism, whose inherited wealth allowed him to entertain many of the noted philosophers of the day, some of whom (Comte de Buffon, J.-J. Rousseau, d’Alembert) reportedly withdrew from his gatherings, frightened by the audacity of their speculations.

In deference to his uncle (F.A. d’Holbach, a naturalized French citizen to whom he owed his wealth), he added the surname d’Holbach to that of Dietrich (sometimes rendered in French as Thiry). He himself became a naturalized French citizen in 1749.

D’Holbach contributed to Diderot’s Encyclopédie 376 articles (translations from German texts), mostly on chemistry and allied scientific topics. His most popular book, Système de la nature (1770; “The System of Nature”), published under the name of J.B. Mirabaud, caustically derided religion and espoused an atheistic, deterministic Materialism: causality became simply relationships of motion, man became a machine devoid of free will, and religion was excoriated as harmful and untrue. In Le Christianisme dévoilé (1761; “Christianity Unveiled”), published under the name of a deceased friend, N.A. Boulanger, he attacked Christianity as contrary to reason and nature. Système social (1773; “Social System”) placed morality and politics in a utilitarian framework wherein duty became prudent self-interest. His writings, considered mere echoes of opinions expressed by those who shared his table, were illogical and inconsistent. Voltaire felt the need to reply, but J.W. von Goethe and Percy Bysshe Shelley fell under their sway. Benevolent by nature, d’Holbach set aside his personal dislikes by offering his home to exiled Jesuits in 1762.



Julien de La Mettrie


born Dec. 25, 1709, Saint-Malo, Fr.
died Nov. 11, 1751, Berlin

French physician and philosopher whose Materialistic interpretation of psychic phenomena laid the groundwork for future developments of behaviourism and played an important part in the history of modern Materialism.

La Mettrie obtained a medical degree at Reims, studied medicine in Leiden under Hermann Boerhaave (some of whose works he translated into French), and served as surgeon to the French military. A personal illness convinced him that psychic phenomena were directly related to organic changes in the brain and nervous system. The outcry following publication of these views in Histoire naturelle de l’âme (1745; “Natural History of the Soul”) forced his departure from Paris. The book was burned by the public hangman. In Holland La Mettrie published L’Homme-machine (1747; L’Homme Machine: A Study in the Origins of an Idea, 1960), developing more boldly and completely, and with great originality, his Materialistic and atheistic views. The ethics of these principles were worked out in Discours sur le bonheur ou l’anti-Sénèque (“Discourse on Happiness, or the Anti-Seneca”). He was then forced to leave Holland but was welcomed in Berlin (1748) by Frederick the Great, made court reader, and appointed to the academy of science. In accord with his belief that atheism was the sole road to happiness and the pleasure of the senses the purpose of life (Le Petit Homme à longue queue, 1751; “The Small Man in a Long Queue”), he was a carefree hedonist to the end, finally dying of ptomaine poisoning. His collected works, Oeuvres philosophiques, were published in 1751, and selections were edited by Marcelle Tisserand in 1954.

Laclos and others

The later 18th-century novel, preoccupied with the understanding of the tensions and dangers of a society about to wake up to the Revolution of 1789—the Great Revolution to which the modern French state traces its origins—is dominated by the masterpiece of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782; Dangerous Acquaintances), and its stylish account of erotic psychology and its manipulations. The libertine Valmont and his accomplice and rival, Mme de Merteuil, plot the downfall of their victims in a Parisian society that illustrates Rousseau’s strictures: natural human values have no place in a world of conformist expediency, cynicism, and vicious exploitation. Laclos’s novel is, he claims, didactic, a moral satire of a dangerous, heartless world; yet he also admires the cold, vengeful intelligence that invents and directs that world’s viciousness, which the highly crafted epistolary construction of the work, as well as its elegant, sharp-witted, and subtle language, brilliantly exemplify.

By contrast, Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s utopian Paul et Virginie (1788; Paul and Virginia), a rich evocation of exotic nature in the tropical setting of Mauritius, often seems overly sentimental to modern tastes. Another, very different, follower of Rousseauist ideals, the verbose and prolific Nicolas-Edme Restif de la Bretonne, became the self-proclaimed chronicler and analyst of Parisian society, a representative young man of the generation that had gone from country to city in search of fresh fortune. In his philosophical treatises, novels, and short-story collections, he evoked vividly the manners and morals of men and especially women, in all their social ranks, from the bourgeois mistress of the house to the prostitutes in the street. Along with the work of Louis-Sébastien Mercier, author of Le Tableau de Paris (1781–89; Panorama of Paris [selections]), his evocations of the life and movement of the burgeoning metropolis prepare the ground for Honoré de Balzac’s analyses of its human, social, and political dramas.

A very different response to this time of radical change came from Donatien-Alphonse-François, comte de Sade, generally known as the Marquis de Sade, whose fascination with the connections of power, pain, and pleasure, between individuals and in society’s larger structures, gave rise to the word sadism. In Sade’s philosophy, where the essential operation of Nature is not procreation but destruction, murder is natural and morally acceptable. The true libertine must replace soft sentiment by an energy aspiring to the total freedom of individual desire. The language and thematics of Sade’s fantasies owe much to the Enlightenment, of which his antisocial egoism is, however, only a perverted expression. But in works such as Justine; ou, les malheurs de la vertu (1791; Justine; or, The Misfortunes of Virtue) or the tale of Justine’s sister, Juliette (1797; Eng. trans. Juliette), he made the reader aware as never before that the search for fulfillment in the enjoyment of cruelty forms part of the human psyche. The text he wrote in the Bastille, never published in his lifetime, Les 120 Journées de Sodome (written 1784–85, published 1904; The 120 Days of Sodom, and Other Writings), has, since the studies of the Surrealists and Georges Bataille, become a classic sourcebook for the study of the imaginative forms of the modern unconscious.

Haydn T. Mason
Jennifer Birkett


Pierre Choderlos de Laclos


Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos (18 October 1741 – 5 September 1803) was a French novelist, official and army general, best known for writing the epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons).

A unique case in French literature, he was for a long time considered to be as scandalous a writer as the Marquis de Sade or Nicolas-Edme Rétif. He was a military officer with no illusions about human relations, and an amateur writer; however, his initial plan was to "write a work which departed from the ordinary, which made a noise, and which would remain on earth after his death"; from this point of view he mostly attained his goals, with the fame of his masterwork Les Liaisons dangereuses . It is one of the masterpieces of novelistic literature of the 18th century, which explores the amorous intrigues of the aristocracy. It has inspired a large number of critical and analytic commentaries, plays, and films.


Laclos was born in Amiens into a bourgeois family, and in 1760 was sent to the École royale d'artillerie de La Fère, ancestor of the École polytechnique. As a young lieutenant, he briefly served in a garrison at La Rochelle until the end of the Seven Years War (1763). Later he was assigned to Strasbourg (1765–1769), Grenoble (1769–1775) and Besançon (1775–1776).

Despite being promoted to captain (1771), Laclos grew increasingly bored with his artillery garrison duties and the company of the soldiers, and began to devote his free time to writing. His first works, several light poems, were published on the Almanach des Muses. Later he wrote an Opéra-comique, Ernestine, inspired by a novel by Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni. Its premiere on 19 July 1777, in presence of Queen Marie-Antoinette, was a failure. In the same year he created a new artillery school in Valence, which was to include Napoleon among its students. At his return at Besançon in 1778, Laclos was promoted second captain of the Engineers. In this period he wrote several works, which showed his great admiration of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

In 1779 he was sent to Île-d'Aix to assist Marc-René de Montalembert in the construction of fortifications there against the British. He however spent most of his time writing his new epistolary novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, as well as a Letter to Madame de Montalembert. When he asked for and was granted six months of vacation, he spent the time in Paris writing.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses was published by Durand Neveu in four volumes on 23 March 1782, turning into a widespread success (1,000 copies sold in a month, an exceptional result for the times). Laclos was immediately ordered to return to his garrison in Brittany; in 1783 he was sent to La Rochelle to collaborate in the construction of the new arsenal. Here he met Marie-Soulange Duperré, 18 years his junior, whom he would marry in 1786. The following year he began a project of numbering Paris' streets.

In 1788 Laclos left the army, entering the service of Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans, for whom, after the outbreak of the French Revolution, he carried forward with intense diplomatic activity. Captured by the Republic ideals, he left the Duke to obtain a place as commissar in the Ministry of War. His reorganization has been credited as having a role in the Revolutionary Army victory in the Battle of Valmy. Later, after the desertion of general Charles François Dumouriez, he was however arrested as "Orleaniste", being freed after the Thermidorian Reaction.

He thenceforth spent some time in ballistic studies, which led him to the invention of the modern artillery shell. In 1795 he requested of the Committee of Public Safety reintegration in the army, which was ignored. His attempts to obtain a diplomatic position and to found a bank were also unsuccessful. Eventually, Laclos met the young general and recent First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, and joined his party. On 16 January 1800 he was reinstated in the Army as Brigadier General in the Armée du Rhin, taking part in the Battle of Biberach.

Made commander-in-chief of Reserve Artillery in Italy (1803), Laclos died shortly afterward in the former convent of St. Francis of Assisi at Taranto, probably of dysentery and malaria. He was buried in the fort still bearing his name (Forte de Laclos) in the Isola di San Paolo near the city, built under his direction. Following the restoration of the House of Bourbon in southern Italy, his burial tomb was destroyed; it is believed that his bones were tossed into the sea.

Dangerous Liaisons

Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) is a French epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, first published in four volumes by Durand Neveu from March 23, 1782.

It is the story of the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, two rivals (and ex-lovers) who use sex as a weapon to humiliate and degrade others, all the while enjoying their cruel games. It has been claimed to depict the decadence of the French aristocracy shortly before the French Revolution, thereby exposing the perversions of the so-called Ancien Régime. However, it has also been described as a vague, amoral story.

The book is an epistolary novel, composed entirely of letters written by the various characters to each other. In particular, the letters between Valmont and the Marquise drive the plot, with those of other characters serving as illustrations to give the story its depth.

It is often claimed to be the source of the saying "Revenge is a dish best served cold", a paraphrased translation of "La vengeance est un plat qui se mange froid" (more literally, "Revenge is a dish that is eaten cold"). However the expression does not actually occur in the original novel.


Plot summary
The Vicomte de Valmont is determined to seduce the virtuous (and married) Madame de Tourvel, who is living with Valmont's aunt while Monsieur de Tourvel is away for a court case. At the same time, the Marquise de Merteuil is determined to corrupt the young Cécile de Volanges, whose mother has only recently brought her out of a convent to be married to a former lover of Merteuil. Cécile falls in love with the Chevalier Danceny (her music tutor) and Merteuil and Valmont pretend to want to help the secret lovers in order to gain their trust, so that they can use them later in their own schemes.

Merteuil suggests that the Vicomte seduce Cécile in order to exact her revenge on Cécile's future husband. Valmont refuses, finding the task too easy, and preferring to devote himself to seducing Madame de Tourvel. Merteuil promises Valmont that if he seduces Madame de Tourvel and provides her with written proof, she will spend the night with him. He expects rapid success, but does not find it as easy as his many other conquests. During the course of his pursuit, he discovers that Cécile's mother has written to Madame de Tourvel about his bad reputation. He avenges himself in seducing Cécile as Merteuil had suggested. In the meantime, Merteuil takes Danceny as a lover.

By the time Valmont has succeeded in seducing Madame de Tourvel, it is suggested that he might have fallen in love with her. Jealous, Merteuil tricks him into deserting Madame de Tourvel — and reneges on her promise of spending the night with him. In response Valmont reveals that he prompted Danceny to reunite with Cécile, thus abandoning Merteuil. Merteuil declares war on Valmont, as such she reveals to Danceny that Valmont seduced Cécile. Danceny and Valmont duel. Valmont is fatally wounded, but before he dies he is reconciled with Danceny, giving him the letters proving Merteuil's own involvement. Two of these letters are sufficient to ruin her health and her reputation, and she flees the country. Furthermore, her face is left permanently scarred by illness, and so she loses her greatest asset: her beauty. But the innocent still suffer: hearing of Valmont's death, Madame de Tourvel succumbs to a fever, while Cécile returns to the convent.



Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre

"Paul and Virginia"

born Jan. 19, 1737, Le Havre, France
died Jan. 21, 1814, Éragny

French writer who is best remembered for Paul et Virginie, a short novel about innocent love.

Bernardin’s army service as an engineer on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean provided him with material for Voyage à l’Île de France (1773), with which he opened his literary career. The work brought him to the attention of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose friendship did much to mold the views expressed in Bernardin’s Études de la nature (1784; “Studies of Nature”). To the third edition of Études (1788) he appended Paul et Virginie, the story of two island children whose love for each other, begun in their infancy, thrives in an unspoiled natural setting but ends tragically when civilization interferes. In a later work, La Chaumière indienne (1790; “The Indian Cottage”), a traveler finds wisdom in the cottage of an Indian outcast. Cultural primitivism, which Bernardin was one of the first to celebrate, became one of the central ideas of the Romantic movement.



Nicolas-Edme Restif de la Bretonne

born Oct. 23, 1734, Sacy, near Auxerre, France
died Feb. 3, 1806, Paris

French novelist whose works provide lively, detailed accounts of the sordid aspects of French life and society in the 18th century.

After serving his apprenticeship as a printer in Auxerre, Restif went to Paris, where he eventually set the type for some of his own works—books long prized by collectors for their rarity, quaint typography, and beautiful and curious illustrations.

His novels are rambling and carelessly written. While he parades his moralistic intentions and frequently airs his views on the reform of society, his preoccupation with eroticism, tinged with mysticism, has led to his being called “the Rousseau of the gutter.” The author’s life formed the basis of much of his writing, as in La Vie de mon père (1779; My Father’s Life), a vivid picture of peasant life. But in this work, as in his autobiography, Monsieur Nicolas (1794–97), much of which is set in the Parisian underworld, Restif’s vivid imagination has rendered it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Restif left another record of his observation of Parisian life in his own day in Les Contemporaines (1780–85; “The Modern Women”), while Le Paysan perverti (1776; “The Corrupted [Male] Peasant”) and La Paysanne pervertie (1784; “The Corrupted [Female] Peasant”) develop the theme of the demoralization of virtuous country folk in the metropolis.



Louis-Sébastien Mercier


born June 6, 1740, Paris, France
died April 25, 1814, Paris

one of the first French writers of drame bourgeois (middle-class drama). In Du théâtre (1773; “About the Theatre”), he emphasized the didactic function of the theatre, and in his plays he presented a thesis, subordinating dramatic considerations to the didactic end. He criticized traditional French tragedy as artificial and sterile, though he was not himself a technical innovator.

Mercier wrote about 60 plays, including a social comedy, La Brouette du vinaigrier (1775; “The Barrel-load of the Vinegar Merchant”); Jenneval (published 1767; performed 1781), adapted from George Lillo’s London Merchant (1731); such dramas as Le Faux Ami (1772; “The False Friend”) and the antimilitarist Le Déserteur (published 1770, performed 1782; “The Deserter”); and two historical dramas about the French religious wars, Jean Hennuyer évêque de Lisieux (1772; “Jean Hennuyer, Bishop of Lisieux”) and La Destruction de la ligue (1782; “The Destruction of the League”), which were so anticlerical and antimonarchical that they were not performed until after the French Revolution. Mercier also wrote a work of prophetic imagination, L’An 2440 (1770; “The Year 2440”), and Le Tableau de Paris (2 vol., 1781; 12 vol., 1782–89; “The Tableau of Paris”), a work that classifies social types in a way that foreshadows the novels of Honoré de Balzac.

Mercier, nicknamed “Le Singe de Jean-Jacques” (“Jean-Jacques’ Ape”), was strongly influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s views of society, rejecting the prevalent belief in progress. As a moderate member of the Convention, he opposed the death penalty for Louis XVI. He was imprisoned during the Terror but was released after Robespierre’s death.




Donatien-Alphonse-François, comte de Sade

1."Justine"   Illustrations by Mahlon Blaine

2.Illustration of a Dutch printing of the books by the Marquis de Sade

3."The 120 Days of Sodom"


French author
byname of Donatien-Alphonse-François, Comte de Sade
born June 2, 1740, Paris, France
died Dec. 2, 1814, Charenton, near Paris

French nobleman whose perverse sexual preferences and erotic writings gave rise to the term sadism. His best-known work is the novel Justine (1791).

Heritage and youth
Related to the royal house of Condé, the de Sade family numbered among its ancestors Laure de Noves, whom the 14th-century Italian poet Petrarch immortalized in verse. When the marquis was born at the Condé mansion, his father was away from home on a diplomatic mission. De Sade’s mother, Marie Elénore Maillé de Carman, was a lady-in-waiting to the princesse de Condé.

After early schooling with his uncle, Abbé de Sade of Ebreuil, the marquis continued his studies at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. His aristocratic background entitled him to various ranks in the king’s regiments, and in 1754 he began a military career, which he abandoned in 1763 at the end of the Seven Years’ War. In that year he married the daughter of a high-ranking bourgeois family de robe (“of the magistracy”), the Montreuils. By her he had two sons, Louis-Marie and Donatien-Claude-Armand, and one daughter, Madeleine-Laure.

In the very first months of his marriage he began an affair with an actress, La Beauvoisin, who had had numerous previous protectors. He invited prostitutes to his “little house” at Arcueil and subjected them to various sexual abuses. For this he was imprisoned, on orders of the king, in the fortress of Vincennes. Freed several weeks later, he resumed his life of debauchery and went deeply into debt. In 1768 the first public scandal erupted: the Rose Keller affair.

Rose Keller was a young prostitute he had met on Easter Sunday in Paris. He took her to his house in Arcueil, where he locked her up and abused her sexually. She escaped and related the unnatural acts and brutality to persons in the neighbourhood and showed them her wounds. De Sade was sentenced to the fortress of Pierre-Encise, near Lyon, for his offenses.

After his release he retired to his château of La Coste. In June 1772 he went to Marseille to get some much-needed money. There he engaged his male servant Latour to find him some prostitutes, upon whom the marquis committed his usual sexual excesses. (Meanwhile, at his bidding, Latour engaged in sodomy with him.) The young women helped themselves liberally to the marquis’s pillbox filled with candies that contained the aphrodisiac Spanish fly. When soon thereafter they suffered upset stomachs, they feared they had been poisoned. De Sade and Latour fled to the estates of the king of Sardinia, who had them arrested. The Parlement at Aix sentenced them to death by default and, on Sept. 12, 1772, executed them in effigy. After escaping from the fortress of Miolans, de Sade took refuge in his château at La Coste, rejoining his wife. She became his accomplice and shared his pleasures, until the parents of the neighbourhood boys and girls he had abducted complained to the crown prosecutor. De Sade fled to Italy accompanied by his sister-in-law, the canoness de Launay, who had become his mistress. He returned to La Coste on Nov. 4, 1776. One incident followed another in an atmosphere of continual scandal, and, on his return to Paris, the marquis was arrested and sent to the dungeon of Vincennes on Feb. 13, 1777.

Conditions in this prison were harsh. During his detention de Sade quarreled with his jailer, with the prison director, and with a fellow prisoner, Victor Riqueti, the marquis de Mirabeau, whom he had insulted. He tried to incite the other prisoners to revolt. Visits from his wife, who was eventually allowed to see him, were banned after an episode in which he fell into a fit of jealous rage precipitated by his suspicion that she was about to leave him and was plotting against him. The marquise retired to a convent.

De Sade overcame his boredom and anger in prison by writing sexually graphic novels and plays. In July 1782 he finished his Dialogue entre un prêtre et un moribond (Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man), in which he declared himself an atheist. His letters to his lawyer as well as to his wife combine incisive wit with an implacable spirit of revolt. On Feb. 27, 1784, he was transferred to the Bastille in Paris. On a roll of paper some 12 m (39 feet) long, he wrote Les 120 Journées de Sodome (One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom), in which he graphically describes numerous varieties of sexual perversion. In 1787 he wrote his most famous work, Les Infortunes de la vertu (an early version of Justine), and, in 1788, the novellas, tales, and short stories later published in the volume entitled Les Crimes de l’amour (Crimes of Passion).

A few days before the French Revolutionaries stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789, de Sade had shouted through a window, “They are massacring the prisoners; you must come and free them.” He was transferred to the insane asylum at Charenton, where he remained until April 2, 1790.

On his release, de Sade offered several plays to the Comédie-Française as well as to other theatres. Though five of them were accepted, not all of them were performed. Separated from his wife, he lived now with a young actress, the widow Quesnet, and wrote his novels Justine, ou les malheurs de la vertu (Justine; or, The Misfortunes of Virtue) and Juliette. In 1792 he became secretary of the Revolutionary Section of Les Piques in Paris, was one of the delegates appointed to visit hospitals in Paris, and wrote several patriotic addresses. During the Reign of Terror he saved the life of his father-in-law, Montreuil, and that of the latter’s wife, even though they had been responsible for his various imprisonments. He gave speeches on behalf of the Revolution but was nevertheless accused of modérantisme (“moderatism”) and mistakenly inscribed on the list of émigrés. He escaped the guillotine by chance the day before the Revolutionary leader Robespierre was overthrown. At the time he was living with the widow Quesnet in conditions of abject poverty.

On March 6, 1801, he was arrested at his publisher’s, where copies of Justine and Juliette were found with notes in his hand and several handwritten manuscripts. Again he was sent to Charenton, where he caused new scandals. His repeated protests had no effect on Napoleon, who saw to it personally that de Sade was deprived of all freedom of movement. Nevertheless, he succeeded in having his plays put on at Charenton, with the inmates themselves as the actors. He began work on an ambitious 10-volume novel, at least two volumes of which were written: Les Journées de Florbelle ou la nature dévoilée (“The Days of Florbelle or Nature Unveiled”). After his death his elder son burned these writings, together with other manuscripts.

His remains were scattered. In his will, drawn up in 1806, he asked that “the traces of my grave disappear from the face of the earth, as I flatter myself that my memory will be effaced from the mind of men.”

In the course of a life that scandalized his contemporaries, de Sade lived out many examples of the sexual compulsion on which his works centred. His writings are still officially banned by the French courts. As an author, de Sade is to some an incarnation of absolute evil who advocates the unleashing of instincts even to the point of crime. Others have looked upon him as a champion of total liberation through the satisfaction of his desires in all forms. De Sade’s works were widely read (mostly “underground”) in the 19th century, especially by writers and artists. At the outset of the 20th century the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire helped to establish de Sade’s status in the domain of culture. Today de Sade’s writings can be more comfortably categorized; they belong to the history of ideas and mark an important moment in the history of literature—with de Sade figuring as the first of the modern écrivains maudits (“damned writers”).

Maurice Nadeau


Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom), commonly referred to as Salò, is a controversial 1975 Italian drama film written and directed by Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini with uncredited writing contributions by Pupi Avati. It is based on the book The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade. Because of its scenes depicting intensely graphic violence, sadism, and sexual depravity, the movie was extremely controversial upon its release, and remains banned in several countries to this day. It was Pasolini's last film; he was murdered shortly before Salò was released.

The film focuses on four wealthy, corrupted fascist libertines in Benito Mussolini's Italy in 1944 who kidnap a total of eighteen teenage boys and girls and subject them to four months of extreme violence, sadism, sexual and mental torture before finally executing them one by one. The film is noted for exploring the themes of political corruption, abuse of power, sadism, perversion, sexuality, and fascism.

Although it remains a controversial film to this day, it has been praised by various film historians and critics, and while not typically considered a horror film, Salò was named the 65th scariest film ever made by the Chicago Film Critics Association in 2006 and is the subject of an article in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (1986).


The film is set in the Republic of Salò, the Fascist-occupied portion of Italy in 1944. The story is in four segments loosely parallel to Dante's Inferno: the Anteinferno, the Circle of Manias, the Circle of Shit, and the Circle of Blood.

Four men of power, the Duke (Duc de Blangis), the Bishop, the Magistrate (Curval), and the President (apparently Durcet) agree to marry each other's daughters as the first step in a debauched ritual. With the aid of several collaborator young men, they kidnap eighteen young men and women (nine of each sex), and take them to a palace near Marzabotto. Accompanying them are four middle-aged prostitutes, also collaborators, whose function in the debauchery will be to recount erotically arousing stories for the men of power, and who, in turn, will sadistically exploit their victims.

The story depicts some of the many days at the palace, during which the four men of power devise increasingly abhorrent tortures and humiliations for their own pleasure. In the Anteinferno segment, the captures of some victims by the collaborators are shown, and, later, the four lords examining them. The Circle of Manias presents some of the stories in the first part of Sade's book, told by Mrs. Vaccari (Hélène Surgère). In the Circle of Shit, the passions escalate in intensity from mainly non-penetrative sex to coprophagia. A most infamous scene shows a young woman forced to eat the feces of the Duke; later, the other victims are presented a giant meal of human feces. The Circle of Blood starts with a black mass-like wedding between the guards and the men of power, after which the Bishop has sex with a male victim. The Bishop then leaves to examine the captives in their rooms, where they start systematically betraying each other: one girl is revealed to be hiding a photograph, two girls are shown to be having a secret sexual affair, and finally, a collaborator (Ezio Manni) and the black servant (Ines Pellegrini) are shot down after being found having sex. Toward the end, the remaining victims who chose to not collaborate with their fascist tormentors are murdered through methods like scalping, branding, tongue and eyes cut out as each libertine takes his turn to watch, as voyeur.

The film's final shot portrays the complacency, myopia, and desensitization of the masses: two young soldiers, who had witnessed and collaborated in all of the prior atrocities, dance a simple waltz together.

Salò transposes the setting of the Marquis de Sade's book from 18th century France to the last days of Benito Mussolini's regime in the Republic of Salò. However, despite the horrors that it shows (rape, torture, and mutilation), it barely touches the perversions listed in the book, which include extensive sexual and physical abuse of children.

While the book provides the most important foundations of Salò, the events in the film draw as much on Pasolini's own life as on Sade's novel. Pasolini spent part of his early twenties in the Republic of Salò. During this time he witnessed a great many cruelties on the part of the Fascist collaborationist forces of the Salò Republic. Pasolini’s life followed a strange course of early experimentation and constant struggle. Growing up in Bologna and Friuli, Pasolini was introduced to many leftist examples in mass culture from an early age. He began writing at age seven, heavily under the influence of French poet Arthur Rimbaud. His writing quickly began to incorporate certain aspects of his personal life, mainly dealing with constant familial struggles and moving from city to city.

After studying major literary giants in high school, Pasolini enrolled in the University of Bologna for further education. Many of his memories of the experience led to the conceptualization of "Salò." He also claimed that the film was highly symbolic and metaphorical; for instance, that the coprophagia scenes were an indictment of mass-produced foods, which he labeled "useless refuse."

Although his career, in both film and literature, was highly prolific and far-reaching, Pasolini dealt with some major constants within his work. His first published novel in 1955 dealt with the concept of pimps and scandals within a world of prostitution. This first novel, titled Ragazzi di vita, created much scandal and brought about subsequent charges of obscenity.

One of his first major films, Accattone (1961), dealt with similar issues and was also received by an unwelcoming audience, who demanded harsher codes of censorship. It is hard to quickly sum up the vast amount of work which Pasolini created throughout his lifetime, but it becomes clear that so much of it focused around a very personal attachment to subject matter, as well as overt sexual themes.

Film's treatment of sexuality
A persistent theme in Salò is the degradation and modification of the human body. Throughout the story, the human body is reduced to something of lesser value than a person - for example, never does a sexual encounter occur in private (save the consensual sex between the Bishop and a young captive). Salò has been referred to as a film presenting the "death of sex", a "funeral dirge" of eroticism amidst sex's mass commercialization. Although men and women are naked throughout the story, sexual intercourse mostly is presented as an act of degradation. Thus, one of the libertines makes love to a guard, then goes to inspect the captive teenagers. When he finds two women making love (in violation of the libertines' laws), they reveal that another guard has been sleeping with a maid. The libertines then seek and kill the guard and the maid. Salò's depiction of sexual intercourse contrasts with that in erotic cinema: Salò presents sexual intercourse as pain, and deliberately avoids cinematic foreplay, leaving the sex acts as devoid of romantic allure and intrigue.




Etienne Bonnot de Condillac

French philosopher

born Sept. 30, 1715, Grenoble, Fr.
died Aug. 2/3, 1780, Flux

philosopher, psychologist, logician, economist, and the leading advocate in France of the ideas of John Locke (1632–1704).

Ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1740, Condillac began a lifelong friendship in the same year with the philosopher J.-J. Rousseau, employed by Condillac’s elder brother, Jean, as a tutor. Moving to Paris, Condillac became acquainted with the Encyclopaedists, a group of writers led by Denis Diderot. There his position was established in the literary salons by his first book, Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines (1746; “Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge”), and by his second, Traité des systèmes (1749; “Treatise on Systems”). In 1752 he was elected to the Berlin Academy. His Traité des sensations (1754; “Treatise on Sensations”) and Traité des animaux (1755; “Treatise on Animals”) followed, and in 1758 he was appointed tutor to the young prince Ferdinand of Parma. He was elected to the Académie Française in 1768 and later published Le Commerce et le gouvernement considérés relativement l’un à l’autre (1776; “Commerce and Government Considered in Relation to One Another”). Finding the irreligious climate of Parisian intellectual society offensive, he retired to spend his last years at Flux, near Beaugency.

In his works La Logique (1780) and La Langue des calculs (1798; “The Language of Calculation”), Condillac emphasized the importance of language in logical reasoning, stressing the need for a scientifically designed language and for mathematical calculation as its basis. His economic views, which were presented in Le Commerce et le gouvernement, were based on the notion that value depends not on labour but rather on utility. The need for something useful, he argued, gives rise to value, while prices result from the exchange of valued items.

As a philosopher, Condillac gave systematic expression to the views of Locke, previously made fashionable in France by Voltaire. Like Locke, Condillac maintained an empirical sensationalism based on the principle that observations made by sense perception are the foundation for human knowledge. The ideas of the Essai are close to those of Locke, though on certain points Condillac modified Locke’s position. In his most significant work, the Traité des sensations, Condillac questioned Locke’s doctrine that the senses provide intuitive knowledge. He doubted, for example, that the human eye makes naturally correct judgments about the shapes, sizes, positions, and distances of objects. Examining the knowledge gained by each sense separately, he concluded that all human knowledge is transformed sensation, to the exclusion of any other principle, such as Locke’s additional principle of reflection.

Despite Condillac’s naturalistic psychology, his statements concerning the nature of religion are consistent with his priestly vocation. He maintained a belief in the reality of the soul, which did not conflict, in his view, with the opening words of the Essai: “Whether we rise to heaven, or descend to the abyss, we never get outside ourselves—it is always our own thoughts that we perceive.” This doctrine became the foundation of the French philosophical movement known as Idéologie and was taught for more than 50 years in French schools.




Jean Le Rond d’Alembert

French mathematician and philosopher

born , Nov. 17, 1717, Paris, France
died Oct. 29, 1783, Paris

French mathematician, philosopher, and writer, who achieved fame as a mathematician and scientist before acquiring a considerable reputation as a contributor to and editor of the famous Encyclopédie.

Early life
The illegitimate son of a famous hostess, Mme de Tencin, and one of her lovers, the chevalier Destouches-Canon, d’Alembert was abandoned on the steps of the Parisian church of Saint-Jean-le-Rond, from which he derived his Christian name. Although Mme de Tencin never recognized her son, Destouches eventually sought out the child and entrusted him to a glazier’s wife, whom d’Alembert always treated as his mother. Through his father’s influence, he was admitted to a prestigious Jansenist school, enrolling first as Jean-Baptiste Daremberg and subsequently changing his name, perhaps for reasons of euphony, to d’Alembert. Although Destouches never disclosed his identity as father of the child, he left his son an annuity of 1,200 livres. D’Alembert’s teachers at first hoped to train him for theology, being perhaps encouraged by a commentary he wrote on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, but they inspired in him only a lifelong aversion to the subject. He spent two years studying law and became an advocate in 1738, although he never practiced. After taking up medicine for a year, he finally devoted himself to mathematics—“the only occupation,” he said later, “which really interested me.” Apart from some private lessons, d’Alembert was almost entirely self-taught.

In 1739 he read his first paper to the Academy of Sciences, of which he became a member in 1741. In 1743, at the age of 26, he published his important Traité de dynamique, a fundamental treatise on dynamics containing the famous “d’Alembert’s principle,” which states that Newton’s third law of motion (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction) is true for bodies that are free to move as well as for bodies rigidly fixed. Other mathematical works followed very rapidly; in 1744 he applied his principle to the theory of equilibrium and motion of fluids, in his Traité de l’équilibre et du mouvement des fluides. This discovery was followed by the development of partial differential equations, a branch of the theory of calculus, the first papers on which were published in his Réflexions sur la cause générale des vents (1747). It won him a prize at the Berlin Academy, to which he was elected the same year. In 1747 he applied his new calculus to the problem of vibrating strings, in his Recherches sur les cordes vibrantes; in 1749 he furnished a method of applying his principles to the motion of any body of a given shape; and in 1749 he found an explanation of the precession of the equinoxes (a gradual change in the position of the Earth’s orbit), determined its characteristics, and explained the phenomenon of the nutation (nodding) of the Earth’s axis, in Recherches sur la précession des équinoxes et sur la nutation de l’axe de la terre. In 1752 he published Essai d’une nouvelle théorie de la résistance des fluides, an essay containing various original ideas and new observations. In it he considered air as an incompressible elastic fluid composed of small particles and, carrying over from the principles of solid body mechanics the view that resistance is related to loss of momentum on impact of moving bodies, he produced the surprising result that the resistance of the particles was zero. D’Alembert was himself dissatisfied with the result; the conclusion is known as “d’Alembert’s paradox” and is not accepted by modern physicists. In the Memoirs of the Berlin Academy he published findings of his research on integral calculus—which devises relationships of variables by means of rates of change of their numerical value—a branch of mathematical science that is greatly indebted to him. In his Recherches sur différents points importants du système du monde (1754–56) he perfected the solution of the problem of the perturbations (variations of orbit) of the planets that he had presented to the academy some years before. From 1761 to 1780 he published eight volumes of his Opuscules mathématiques.

The Encyclopédie
Meanwhile, d’Alembert began an active social life and frequented well-known salons, where he acquired a considerable reputation as a witty conversationalist and mimic. Like his fellow Philosophes—those thinkers, writers, and scientists who believed in the sovereignty of reason and nature (as opposed to authority and revelation) and rebelled against old dogmas and institutions—he turned to the improvement of society. A rationalist thinker in the free-thinking tradition, he opposed religion and stood for tolerance and free discussion; in politics the Philosophes sought a liberal monarchy with an “enlightened” king who would supplant the old aristocracy with a new, intellectual aristocracy. Believing in man’s need to rely on his own powers, they promulgated a new social morality to replace Christian ethics. Science, the only real source of knowledge, had to be popularized for the benefit of the people, and it was in this tradition that he became associated with the Encyclopédie about 1746. When the original idea of a translation into French of Ephraim Chambers’ English Cyclopædia was replaced by that of a new work under the general editorship of the Philosophe Denis Diderot, d’Alembert was made editor of the mathematical and scientific articles. In fact, he not only helped with the general editorship and contributed articles on other subjects but also tried to secure support for the enterprise in influential circles. He wrote the Discours préliminaire that introduced the first volume of the work in 1751. This was a remarkable attempt to present a unified view of contemporary knowledge, tracing the development and interrelationship of its various branches and showing how they formed coherent parts of a single structure; the second section of the Discours was devoted to the intellectual history of Europe from the time of the Renaissance. In 1752 d’Alembert wrote a preface to Volume III, which was a vigorous rejoinder to the Encyclopédie’s critics, while an Éloge de Montesquieu, which served as the preface to Volume V (1755), skillfully but somewhat disingenuously presented Montesquieu as one of the Encyclopédie’s supporters. Montesquieu had, in fact, refused an invitation to write the articles “Democracy” and “Despotism,” and the promised article on “Taste” remained unfinished at his death in 1755.

In 1756 d’Alembert went to stay with Voltaire at Geneva, where he also collected information for an Encyclopédie article, “Genève,” which praised the doctrines and practices of the Genevan pastors. When it appeared in 1757, it aroused angry protests in Geneva because it affirmed that many of the ministers no longer believed in Christ’s divinity and also advocated (probably at Voltaire’s instigation) the establishment of a theatre. This article prompted Rousseau, who had contributed the articles on music to the Encyclopédie, to argue in his Lettre à d’Alembert sur les spectacles (1758) that the theatre is invariably a corrupting influence. D’Alembert himself replied with an incisive but not unfriendly Lettre à J.-J. Rousseau, citoyen de Genève. Gradually discouraged by the growing difficulties of the enterprise, d’Alembert gave up his share of the editorship at the beginning of 1758, thereafter limiting his commitment to the production of mathematical and scientific articles.

Later literary, scientific, and philosophical work
His earlier literary and philosophical activity, however, led to the publication of his Mélanges de littérature, d’histoire et de philosophie (1753). This work contained the impressive Essai sur les gens de lettres, which exhorted writers to pursue “liberty, truth and poverty” and also urged aristocratic patrons to respect the talents and independence of such writers.

Largely as a result of the persistent campaigning of Mme du Deffand, a prominent hostess to writers and scientists, d’Alembert was elected to the French Academy in 1754; he proved himself to be a zealous member, working hard to enhance the dignity of the institution in the eyes of the public and striving steadfastly for the election of members sympathetic to the cause of the Philosophes. His personal position became even more influential in 1772 when he was made permanent secretary. One of his functions was the continuation of the Histoire des membres de l’Académie; this involved writing the biographies of all the members who had died between 1700 and 1772. He paid tribute to his predecessors by means of Éloges that were delivered at public sessions of the academy. Though of limited literary value, they throw interesting light on his attitude toward many contemporary problems and also reveal his desire to establish a link between the Academy and the public.

From 1752 onward, Frederick II of Prussia repeatedly tried to persuade d’Alembert to become president of the Berlin Academy, but the philosopher contented himself with a brief visit to the King at the Rhine village of Wesel in 1755 and a longer stay at Potsdam in 1763. For many years he gave the King advice on the running of the academy and the appointment of new members. In 1762 another monarch, the empress Catherine II of Russia, invited d’Alembert to become tutor to her son, the grand duke Paul; this offer also was refused. Apart from fearing the harmful effects of foreign residence upon his health and personal position, d’Alembert did not wish to be separated from the intellectual life of Paris.

Although as a skeptic, d’Alembert willingly supported the Philosophes’ hostility to Christianity, he was too cautious to become openly aggressive. The expulsion of the Jesuits from France, however, prompted him to publish “by a disinterested author,” at first anonymously, and then in his own name, Sur la destruction des Jésuites en France (1765; An Account of the Destruction of the Jesuits in France, 1766). He there tried to show that the Jesuits, in spite of their qualities as scholars and educators, had destroyed themselves through their inordinate love of power.

During these years d’Alembert’s interests included musical theory. His Éléments de musique of 1752 was an attempt to expound the principles of the composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764), who had consolidated contemporary musical development into a harmonic system that dominated Western music until about 1900. In 1754 d’Alembert published an essay expressing his thoughts on music in general—and French music in particular—entitled Réflexions sur la musique en général et sur la musique française en particulier. He also published in his mathematical opuscules treatises on acoustics, the physics of sound, and he contributed several articles on music to the Encyclopédie. In 1765 a serious illness compelled him to leave his foster-mother’s house, and he eventually went to live in the house of Julie de Lespinasse, with whom he fell in love. He was the leading intellectual figure in her salon, which became an important recruiting centre for the French Academy. Although they may have been intimate for a short time, d’Alembert soon had to be satisfied with the role of steadfast friend. He discovered the extent of her passionate involvement with other men only after Julie’s death in 1776. He transferred his home to an apartment at the Louvre—to which he was entitled as secretary to the Academy—where he died.

Posterity has not confirmed the judgment of those contemporaries who placed d’Alembert’s reputation next to Voltaire’s. In spite of his original contributions to the mathematical sciences, intellectual timidity prevented his literary and philosophical work from attaining true greatness. Nevertheless, his scientific background enabled him to elaborate a philosophy of science that, inspired by the rationalist ideal of the ultimate unity of all knowledge, established “principles” making possible the interconnection of the various branches of science. Moreover, d’Alembert was a typical 18th-century Philosophe, for in both his life and his work he tried to invest the name with dignity and serious meaning. In his personal life he was simple and frugal, never seeking wealth and dispensing charity whenever possible, always watchful of his integrity and independence, and constantly using his influence, both at home and abroad, to encourage the advance of “enlightenment.”

Ronald Grimsley




Jean-Baptiste Lamarck

French biologist
in full Jean-Baptiste-Pierre-Antoine de Monet, chevalier de Lamarck

born Aug. 1, 1744, Bazentin-le-Petit, Picardy, France
died Dec. 18, 1829, Paris

pioneer French biologist who is best known for his idea that acquired characters are inheritable, an idea known as Lamarckism, which is controverted by modern genetics and evolutionary theory.

Early life and career
Lamarck was the youngest of 11 children in a family of the lesser nobility. His family intended him for the priesthood, but, after the death of his father and the expulsion of the Jesuits from France, Lamarck embarked on a military career in 1761. As a soldier garrisoned in the south of France, he became interested in collecting plants. An injury forced him to resign in 1768, but his fascination for botany endured, and it was as a botanist that he first built his scientific reputation.

Lamarck gained attention among the naturalists in Paris at the Jardin et Cabinet du Roi (the king’s garden and natural history collection, known informally as the Jardin du Roi) by claiming he could create a system for identifying the plants of France that would be more efficient than any system currently in existence, including that of the great Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus. This project appealed to Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, who was the director of the Jardin du Roi and Linnaeus’s greatest rival. Buffon arranged to have Lamarck’s work published at government expense, and Lamarck received the proceeds from the sales. The work appeared in three volumes under the title Flore française (1778; “French Flora”). Lamarck designed the Flore française specifically for the task of plant identification and used dichotomous keys, which are classification tools that allow the user to choose between opposing pairs of morphological characters (see taxonomy: the objectives of biological classification) to achieve this end.

With Buffon’s support, Lamarck was elected to the Academy of Sciences in 1779. Two years later, Buffon named Lamarck “correspondent” of the Jardin du Roi, evidently to give Lamarck additional status while he escorted Buffon’s son on a scientific tour of Europe. This provided Lamarck with his first official connection, albeit an unsalaried one, with the Jardin du Roi. Shortly after Buffon’s death in 1788, his successor, Flahault de la Billarderie, created a salaried position for Lamarck with the title of “botanist of the King and keeper of the King’s herbaria.”

Between 1783 and 1792 Lamarck published three large botanical volumes for the Encyclopédie méthodique (“Methodical Encyclopaedia”), a massive publishing enterprise begun by French publisher Charles-Joseph Panckoucke in the late 18th century. Lamarck also published botanical papers in the Mémoires of the Academy of Sciences. In 1792 he cofounded and coedited a short-lived journal of natural history, the Journal d’histoire naturelle.

Professorship at the National Museum of Natural History
Lamarck’s career changed dramatically in 1793 when the former Jardin du Roi was transformed into the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (“National Museum of Natural History”). In the changeover, all 12 of the scientists who had been officers of the previous establishment were named as professors and coadministrators of the new institution; however, only two professorships of botany were created. The botanists Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu and René Desfontaines held greater claims to these positions, and Lamarck, in a striking shift of responsibilities, was made professor of the “insects, worms, and microscopic animals.” Although this change of focus was remarkable, it was not wholly unjustified, as Lamarck was an ardent shell collector. Lamarck then set out to classify this large and poorly analyzed expanse of the animal kingdom. Later he would name this group “animals without vertebrae” and invent the term invertebrate. By 1802 Lamarck had also introduced the term biology.

This challenge would have been enough to occupy the energies of most naturalists; however, Lamarck’s intellectual aspirations ran well beyond that of reforming invertebrate classification. In the 1790s he began promoting the broad theories of physics, chemistry, and meteorology that he had been nurturing for almost two decades. He also began thinking about Earth’s geologic history and developed notions that he would eventually publish under the title of Hydrogéologie (1802). In his physico-chemical writings, he advanced an old-fashioned, four-element theory that was self-consciously at odds with the revolutionary advances of the emerging pneumatic chemistry of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier. His colleagues at the Institute of France (the successor to the Academy of Sciences) saw Lamarck’s broad theorizing as unscientific “system building.” Lamarck in turn became increasingly scornful of scientists who preferred “small facts” to “larger,” more important ones. He began to characterize himself as a “naturalist-philosopher,” a person more concerned with the broader processes of nature than the details of the chemist’s laboratory or naturalist’s closet.

The inheritance of acquired characters
In 1800 Lamarck first set forth the revolutionary notion of species mutability during a lecture to students in his invertebrate zoology class at the National Museum of Natural History. By 1802 the general outlines of his broad theory of organic transformation had taken shape. He presented the theory successively in his Recherches sur l’organisation des corps vivans (1802; “Research on the Organization of Living Bodies”), his Philosophie zoologique (1809; “Zoological Philosophy”), and the introduction to his great multivolume work on invertebrate classification, Histoire naturelle des animaux sans vertèbres (1815–22; “Natural History of Invertebrate Animals”). Lamarck’s theory of organic development included the idea that the very simplest forms of plant and animal life were the result of spontaneous generation. Life became successively diversified, he claimed, as the result of two very different sorts of causes. He called the first “the power of life,” or the “cause that tends to make organization increasingly complex,” whereas he classified the second as the modifying influence of particular circumstances (that is, the effects of the environment). He explained this in his Philosophie zoologique: “The state in which we now see all the animals is on the one hand the product of the increasing composition of organization, which tends to form a regular gradation, and on the other hand that of the influences of a multitude of very different circumstances that continually tend to destroy the regularity in the gradation of the increasing composition of organization.”

With this theory, Lamarck offered much more than an account of how species change. He also explained what he understood to be the shape of a truly “natural” system of classification of the animal kingdom. The primary feature of this system was a single scale of increasing complexity composed of all the different classes of animals, starting with the simplest microscopic organisms, or “infusorians,” and rising up to the mammals. The species, however, could not be arranged in a simple series. Lamarck described them as forming “lateral ramifications” with respect to the general “masses” of organization represented by the classes. Lateral ramifications in species resulted when they underwent transformations that reflected the diverse, particular environments to which they had been exposed.

By Lamarck’s account, animals, in responding to different environments, adopted new habits. Their new habits caused them to use some organs more and some organs less, which resulted in the strengthening of the former and the weakening of the latter. New characters thus acquired by organisms over the course of their lives were passed on to the next generation (provided, in the case of sexual reproduction, that both of the parents of the offspring had undergone the same changes). Small changes that accumulated over great periods of time produced major differences. Lamarck thus explained how the shapes of giraffes, snakes, storks, swans, and numerous other creatures were a consequence of long-maintained habits. The basic idea of “the inheritance of acquired characters” had originated with Anaxagoras, Hippocrates, and others, but Lamarck was essentially the first naturalist to argue at length that the long-term operation of this process could result in species change.

Later in the century, after English naturalist Charles Darwin advanced his theory of evolution by natural selection, the idea of the inheritance of acquired characters came to be identified as a distinctively “Lamarckian” view of organic change (though Darwin himself also believed that acquired characters could be inherited). The idea was not seriously challenged in biology until the German biologist August Weismann did so in the 1880s. In the 20th century, since Lamarck’s idea failed to be confirmed experimentally and the evidence commonly cited in its favour was given different interpretations, it became thoroughly discredited.

Lamarck made his most important contributions to science as a botanical and zoological systematist, as a founder of invertebrate paleontology, and as an evolutionary theorist. In his own day, his theory of evolution was generally rejected as implausible, unsubstantiated, or heretical. Today he is primarily remembered for his notion of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Nonetheless, Lamarck stands out in the history of biology as the first writer to set forth—both systematically and in detail—a comprehensive theory of organic evolution that accounted for the successive production of all the different forms of life on Earth.

Richard W. Burkhardt, Jr.




Georges-Louis Leclerc, count de Buffon

French naturalist
original name (until c. 1725) Georges-Louis Leclerc, or (c. 1725–73) Georges-Louis Leclerc De Buffon

born September 7, 1707, Montbard, France
died April 16, 1788, Paris

French naturalist, remembered for his comprehensive work on natural history, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (begun in 1749). He was created a count in 1773.

Buffon’s father, Benjamin Leclerc, was a state official in Burgundy; his mother was a woman of spirit and learning, and he was fond of saying that he got his intelligence from her. The name Buffon came from an estate that he inherited from his mother at about the age of 25.

Beginning his studies at the College of Godrans in Dijon, which was run by the Jesuits, he seems now to have been only an average student, but one with a marked taste for mathematics. His father wanted him to have a legal career, and in 1723 he began the study of law. In 1728, however, he went to Angers, where he seems to have studied medicine and botany as well as mathematics.

He was forced to leave Angers after a duel and took refuge at Nantes, where he lived with a young Englishman, the duke of Kingston. The two young men traveled to Italy, arriving in Rome at the beginning of 1732. They also visited England, and while there Buffon was elected a member of the Royal Society.

The death of his mother called him back to France. He settled down on the family estate at Montbard, where he undertook his first research in the calculus of probability and in the physical sciences. Buffon at that time was particularly interested in questions of plant physiology. In 1735 he published a translation of Stephen Hales’s Vegetable Staticks, in the preface of which he developed his conception of scientific method. Maintaining an interest in mathematics, he published a translation of Sir Isaac Newton’s Fluxions in 1740. In his preface to this work he discussed the history of the differences between Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz over the discovery of the infinitesimal calculus. He also made researches on the properties of timbers and their improvement in his forests in Burgundy.

In 1739, at the age of 32, he was appointed keeper of the Jardin du Roi (the royal botanical garden, now the Jardin des Plantes) and of the museum that formed part of it through the patronage of the minister of marine, J.-F.-P. de Maurepas, who realized the importance of science and was anxious to use Buffon’s knowledge of timber for the shipbuilding projects of the French government. Maurepas also charged Buffon to undertake a catalog of the royal collections in natural history, which the ambitious Buffon transformed into an undertaking to produce an account of the whole of nature. This became his great work, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (1749–1804), which was the first modern attempt to systematically present all existing knowledge in the fields of natural history, geology, and anthropology in a single publication.

Buffon’s Histoire naturelle was translated into various languages and widely read throughout Europe. The first edition is still highly prized by collectors for the beauty of its illustrations. Although Buffon laboured arduously on it—he spent eight months of the year on his estate at Montbard, working up to 12 hours a day—he was able to publish only 36 of the proposed 50 volumes before his death. In the preparation of the first 15 volumes, which appeared in 1749–67, he was assisted by Louis J.M. Daubenton and several other associates. The next seven volumes formed a supplement to the preceding and appeared in 1774–89, the most famous section, Époques de la nature (1778), being contained in the fifth of them. They were succeeded by nine volumes on birds (1770–83), and these again by five volumes on minerals (1783–88). The remaining eight volumes, which complete the first edition, were done by the count de Lacépède after Buffon’s death; they covered reptiles, fishes, and cetaceans. To keep the descriptions of the animals from becoming monotonous, Buffon interspersed them with philosophic discussions on nature, the degeneration of animals, the nature of birds, and other topics.

He was elected to the French Academy, where, on August 25, 1753, he delivered his celebrated Discours sur le style (“Discourse on Style”), containing the line, “Le style c’est l’homme même” (“The style is the man himself”). He was also treasurer to the Academy of Sciences. During the brief trips he made each year to Paris, he frequented the literary and philosophical salons. Although he was a friend of Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, he did not collaborate on their Encyclopédie. He enjoyed his life at Montbard, living in contact with nature and the peasants and managing his properties himself. He built a menagerie and a large aviary there and transformed one of his outbuildings into a laboratory.

Buffon’s wife died in 1769, leaving him with a five-year-old son. The boy showed signs of brilliance, and when he was 17 Buffon asked the naturalist J.-B. Lamarck to take him along on his botanical travels across Europe. However, the younger Buffon was not interested in study. He developed into a spendthrift, and his imprudences eventually led him to the guillotine during the French Revolution (1794).

In 1785 Buffon’s health began to decline. At the beginning of 1788, feeling his end near, he returned to Paris. Unable to leave his room, he was visited each day by his friend Mme Necker, the wife of the finance minister Jacques Necker. Mme Necker, who was with him to the very end, is said to have understood him to murmur, “I declare that I die in the religion in which I was born. . . . I declare publicly that I believe in it.”

Buffon’s position among his contemporaries was by no means assured. Though the public was nearly unanimous in its admiration of him, he met with numerous detractors among the learned. The theologians were aroused by his conceptions of geological history; others criticized his views on biological classification; the philosopher Étienne de Condillac disputed his views on the mental faculties of animals; and many took from his work only some general philosophical ideas about nature that were not faithful to what he had written. Voltaire did not appreciate his style, and d’Alembert called him “the great phrasemonger.” According to the writer J.-F. Marmontel, Buffon had to put up with snubs from the mathematicians, chemists, and astronomers, while the naturalists themselves gave him little support and some even reproached him for writing ostentatiously in a subject that required a simple and natural style. He was even accused of plagiarism but made no reply to his detractors, writing to a friend that “I shall keep absolute silence . . . and let their attacks fall upon themselves.”

In some areas of natural science Buffon had a lasting influence. He was the first to reconstruct geological history in a series of stages, in Époques de la nature (1778). With his notion of lost species he opened the way to the development of paleontology. He was the first to propose the theory that the planets had been created in a collision between the Sun and a comet. While his great project opened up vast areas of knowledge that were beyond his powers to encompass, his Histoire naturelle was the first work to present the previously isolated and apparently disconnected facts of natural history in a generally intelligible form. Buffon’s writings are collected in Oeuvres complètes de Buffon, 12 vol. (1853–55), revised and annotated by Pierre Flourens.

Jean Piveteau



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