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- The Eve of the French Revolution - 20/64 -


in the reign of Louis XV., and although there had probably never been a time in France so free from them as that of his successor, their memory was still fresh. It is in their decrepitude that political abuses are most ferociously attacked. When young and lusty they are formidable.

Again, there is equality of opportunity. This is desired as a means of subverting equality of condition to our own advantage, as a chance to be more than equal to our fellow-men. This kind is longed for by the able and ambitious. Where it is denied, the strongest good men will be less useful to the state, unless they happen to be favorably placed at birth; the strongest bad men perhaps more dangerous, because more discontented. It is this sort of equality, more than any other, which the French Philosophers and their followers actually secured for Frenchmen, and in a less degree for other Europeans of to-day. By their efforts, the chance of the poor but talented child to rise to power and wealth has been somewhat increased. This chance, when they began their labors, was not so hopeless as it is often represented. It is not now so great as it is sometimes assumed to be. Still, there has been one decided advance. We have seen that under the old monarchy many important places were reserved for members of the noble class, and practically for a few families among them. Since that monarchy passed away, the opportunity to serve the state, with the great prizes which public life offers to the strong and the aspiring, has been thrown open, theoretically at least, to all Frenchmen.

If the idea of equality be comparatively simple, that of liberty is very much the reverse. The word, in its general sense, signifies little more than the absence of external control. In politics it is used, in the first place, for the absence of foreign conquest, and in this sense a country may be called free although it is governed by a despot. The next signification of liberty is political right, and this is the sense in which it has been most used until recent years. When a tyrant overthrew the liberties of a Greek city, he substituted his own personal rule for the rights of an oligarchy. The mass of the inhabitants may have been neither better nor worse off than before. When Hampden resisted the encroachments of King Charles I, he was fighting the battle of the upper and middle classes against despotism, and we hold him one of the principal champions of liberty. Indeed, liberty in this sense is so far from being identical with equality, that many of those who have been foremost in its defense have been members of aristocracies and holders of slaves. To accuse them of inconsistency is to be misled by the ambiguous meaning of a word. They fought for rights which they believed to be their own; they denied that the rights of all men were identical. During the eighteenth century in France, certain bodies, such as the clergy and the Parliament of Paris, were struggling for political liberties in this older sense, and before the outbreak of the French Revolution many of the most enlightened of the nobility hoped to acquire such liberties. Much blood and confusion might have been spared, and many useful reforms accomplished, had Frenchmen clutched less wildly at the phantom of equality, and sought the safer goal of political liberty.

Another sort of liberty, although it has undoubtedly been desired by individuals in all ages, is almost entirely modern as an ideal for civilized communities. This is the absence of interference, not only of a foreign power or of a lawless oppressor, but of the very law itself. The desire for such freedom as this, would in almost all ages of the world have been held inconsistent with proper respect for order and security. It would have been considered no more than the wicked longing of an unchastened spirit, the temptation of the Evil One himself. In the eighteenth century, however, we see the rise of new opinions. It may be that order had become so firmly established in the European world that a reaction could safely set in. At any rate we find a new way of looking at things. "Independence," a word which had been often used by the clerical party, and always as a term of reproach, is treated by the Philosophers with favor. Toleration of all kinds of opinions, and of most kinds of spoken words, is making way.[Footnote: In spite of the impatience shown by Voltaire of any criticism of himself, he and his followers did more than any other men that ever lived to make criticism free to all writers.] A new school of thinkers is adapting the new form of thought to economical matters. _Laissez faire; laissez passer_. Restrict the functions of government. Order will arise from the average of contending interests; right direction is produced by the sum of conflicting forces. The doctrine has exerted enormous influence since the French Revolution in resisting the claims of socialism,--that new form of tyranny in which all are to be the despot and each the slave. But few of the Philosophers accepted it entirely. Most of them desired the constant interference of the government for one purpose or another, and many believed in the power, almost the omnipotence, of a mythical personage, borrowed in part from Plutarch and commonly called the Legislator.

The history and action of this personage may be roughly stated as follows. Every nation now civilized was in early days in a barbarous condition. Once upon a time, a great man came from somewhere, and brought a complete set of laws, morals, and manners with him. To these laws and customs he generally ascribed a divine origin. The nation to which they were proclaimed adopted them, and the people's subsequent happiness and prosperity were in proportion to their excellence. The reasons which are supposed to have induced the barbarous tribe to change all its habits at the bidding of one man are seldom given, or if given, are ludicrously inadequate. The theory of the legislator is now out of date. It is generally held that the institutions of every race have grown up with it, that they are appropriate to its nature and history, gradually modified sometimes by act of the national will, and more or less changed under foreign influences, but that their general character cannot suddenly be subverted. Its institutions thus as truly belong to a civilized race, as the skin without fur or the erect position belong to mankind. There is some evidence in support of either theory, and the truth will probably be found to lie between them, although nearer to the latter. Yet the effect of a higher civilization implanted on a lower one seems at times singularly rapid. The story of the legislator is a part of most early histories and mythologies. The classical model has generally been held to be either Minos or Lycurgus. There were few clever men in France between the years 1740 and 1790 who did not dream of trying on the sandals of those worthies.

While the ideas attached to equality and to liberty were vague and indefinite, it was generally assumed that they would coincide. Liberty and equality, however, have tendencies naturally opposed to each other. Remove the exterior forces which control the wills of men, overturn foreign domination, give every citizen political rights, reduce the interference of laws to a minimum, and the natural differences and inequalities of physical, mental, and moral strength, or power of will, inherent in mankind, will have the fuller opportunity to act. The strong improve their natural advantage, they acquire dominion over their weaker neighbors, they monopolize opportunities for themselves, their friends and their children. Only by keeping all men in strict subjection to something outside of themselves can all be kept in comparative equality. This fact was instinctively apprehended by one school of French thinkers. We shall see that the followers of Rousseau, while posing as champions of Liberty, were in fact the founders of a system which is the very antithesis of individual freedom.[Footnote: It is perhaps needless to remark that I have touched here only on the political meanings of the word Liberty. In the eighteenth century the word was much used in its philosophical sense, and the eternal problem of necessity and free-will was warmly discussed.]

CHAPTER X.

MONTESQUIEU.

One man stands out among the French nobility of the gown in the eighteenth century, influencing human thought beyond the walls of the court-room; one Philosopher who looks on existing society as something to be saved and directed. The work of Voltaire and his followers was principally negative. Their favorite task was demolition. The ugly and uninhabitable edifices of Rousseau's genius required for their erection a field from which all possible traces of civilized building had been removed. But Montesquieu, while he satirized the vices of the society which he saw about him, yet appreciated at their full value the benefits of civilization. He recognized that change is always accompanied by evil, even if its preponderating result be good, and that it should be attempted only with care and caution. His ideas influenced the leading men of the second half of the century somewhat in proportion to their judgment and in inverse proportion to their enthusiasm.

Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron of Montesquieu, born in 1689, was by inheritance one of the presidents of the Parliament of Bordeaux. [Footnote: In his youth he was known as Charles Louis de la Brède, the name being taken from a fief of his mother. The name of Montesquieu he inherited from an uncle, together with his place of _président à mortier_. Vian, _Histoire de Montesquieu_, 16, 30.] He was recognized in early life as a rising man, a respectable magistrate, sensible and brilliant rather than learned; a man of the world, rich and thrifty, not very happily married, and fond of the society of ladies. In appearance he was ugly, with a large head, weak eyes, a big nose, a retreating forehead and chin. In temperament he was calm and cheerful. "I have had very few sorrows," he says, "and still less ennui."--"Study has been to me a sovereign remedy against the troubles of life, and I have never had a grief that an hour's reading would not dissipate." He was shy, he tells us, but less among bright people than among stupid ones. Good-natured he appears to have been, and somewhat selfish; easily amused, less by what people said than by their way of saying it. He was a good landlord and a kind master. It is told of him that one day, while scolding one of his servants, he turned round with a laugh to a friend standing by. "They are like clocks," said he, "and need winding up now and then".[Footnote: See the medallion given in Vian, and said by the _Biographie universelle_ to be the only authentic portrait. Also Montesq. vii. 150, (_Pensées diverses. Portrait de M. par lui-même_, apparently written when he was about forty). Also Vian, 141.]

Montesquieu set himself a high standard of duty. In a paper intended only for his son, he writes: "If I knew something which was useful to myself and injurious to my family, I should reject it from my mind. If I knew of anything which was useful to my family and which was not so to my country, I should try to forget it. If I knew something useful to my country, which was injurious to Europe and the human race, I should consider it a crime."[Footnote: Montesq., vii. 157.]

Montesquieu's first book appeared in 1721, a book very different from those which followed it. It is witty and licentious after a rather stately fashion, full of keen observation and cutting satire. In contrast to the books of other famous writers of the century, the "Persian Letters" are eminently the work of a gentleman;--of a French gentleman, when the Duke of Orléans was Regent.

The "Lettres Persanes" are, as their name suggests, the supposed correspondence of two rich Persians, Usbek and Rica, traveling in France and exchanging letters with their friends and their eunuchs in Persia. The letters which the travelers receive, containing the gossip of their harems, form but the smaller portion of the book, and are evidently intended to give it variety and lightness. In the letters which they write to their Persian correspondents we have the satirical picture of French society. How far had the ruling, infallible church sunk in the minds of Frenchmen, when a well-placed and rather selfish man could write what follows.


The Eve of the French Revolution - 20/64

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