This book does not demand continuous reading; but at whatever place one opens it, one will find matter for reflection. The most useful books are those of which readers themselves compose half; they extend the thoughts of which the germ is presented to them; they correct what seems defective to them, and they fortify by their reflections what seems to them weak.
It is only really by enlightened people that this book can be read; the ordinary man is not made for such knowledge; philosophy will never be his lot. Those who say that there are truths which must be hidden from the people, need not be alarmed; the people do not read; they work six days of the week, and on the seventh go to the inn. In a word, philosophical works are made only for philosophers, and every honest man must try to be a philosopher, without pluming himself on being one.
This alphabet is extracted from the most estimable works which are not commonly within the reach of the many; and if the author does not always mention the sources of his information, as being well enough known to the learned, he must not be suspected of wishing to take the credit for other people's work, because he himself preserves anonymity, according to this word of the Gospel: "Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth."
A senior magistrate of a French town had the misfortune to have a wife who was debauched by a priest before her marriage, and who since covered herself with disgrace by public scandals: he was so moderate as to leave her without noise. This man, about forty years old, vigorous and of agreeable appearance, needs a woman; he is too scrupulous to seek to seduce another man's wife, he fears intercourse with a public woman or with a widow who would serve him as concubine. In this disquieting and sad state, he addresses to his Church a plea of which the following is a precis:
My wife is criminal, and it is I who am punished. Another woman is necessary as a comfort to my life, to my virtue even; and the sect of which I am a member refuses her to me; it forbids me to marry an honest girl. The civil laws of to-day, unfortunately founded on canon law, deprive me of the rights of humanity. The Church reduces me to seeking either the pleasures it reproves, or the shameful compensations it condemns; it tries to force me to be criminal.
I cast my eyes over all the peoples of the earth; there is not a single one except the Roman Catholic people among whom divorce and a new marriage are not natural rights.
What upheaval of the rule has therefore made among the Catholics a virtue of undergoing adultery, and a duty of lacking a wife when one has been infamously outraged by one's own?
Why is a bond that has rotted indissoluble in spite of the great law adopted by the code, quidquid ligatur dissolubile est? I am allowed a separation a mensa et thoro, and I am not allowed divorce. The law can deprive me of my wife, and it leaves me a name called "sacrament"! What a contradiction! what slavery! and under what laws did we receive birth!
What is still more strange is that this law of my Church is directly contrary to the words which this Church itself believes to have been uttered by Jesus Christ: "Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery" (Matt. xix. 9).
I do not examine whether the pontiffs of Rome are in the right to violate at their pleasure the law of him they regard as their master; whether when a state has need of an heir, it is permissible to repudiate her who can give it one. I do not inquire if a turbulent woman, demented, homicidal, a poisoner, should not be repudiated equally with an adulteress: I limit myself to the sad state which concerns me: God permits me to remarry, and the Bishop of Rome does not permit me.
Divorce was a practice among Catholics under all the emperors; it was also in all the dismembered states of the Roman Empire. The kings of France, those called "of the first line," almost all repudiated their wives in order to take new ones. At last came Gregory IX., enemy of the emperors and kings, who by a decree made marriage an unshakeable yoke; his decretal became the law of Europe. When the kings wanted to repudiate a wife who was an adulteress according to Jesus Christ's law, they could not succeed; it was necessary to find ridiculous pretexts. Louis the younger was obliged, to accomplish his unfortunate divorce from Eleanor of Guienne, to allege a relationship which did not exist. Henry IV., to repudiate Marguerite de Valois, pretexted a still more false cause, a refusal of consent. One had to lie to obtain a divorce legitimately.
What! a king can abdicate his crown, and without the Pope's permission he cannot abdicate his wife! Is it possible that otherwise enlightened men have wallowed so long in this absurd servitude!
That our priests, that our monks renounce wives, to that I consent; it is an outrage against population, it is a misfortune for them, but they merit this misfortune which they have made for themselves. They have been the victims of the popes who wanted to have in them slaves, soldiers without families and without fatherland, living solely for the Church: but I, magistrate, who serve the state all day, I need a wife in the evening; and the Church has not the right to deprive me of a benefit which God accords me. The apostles were married, Joseph was married, and I want to be. If I, Alsacian, am dependent on a priest who dwells at Rome, if this priest has the barbarous power to rob me of a wife, let him make a eunuch of me for the singing of Misereres in his chapel.
Equity demands that, having recorded this note in favour of husbands, we should also put before the public the case in favour of wives, presented to the junta of Portugal by a Countess of Arcira. This is the substance of it:
The Gospel has forbidden adultery for my husband just as for me; he will be damned as I shall, nothing is better established. When he committed twenty infidelities, when he gave my necklace to one of my rivals, and my ear-rings to another, I did not ask the judges to have him shaved, to shut him up among monks and to give me his property. And I, for having imitated him once, for having done with the most handsome young man in Lisbon what he did every day with impunity with the most idiotic strumpets of the court and the town, have to answer at the bar before licentiates each of whom would be at my feet if we were alone together in my closet; have to endure at the court the usher cutting off my hair which is the most beautiful in the world; and being shut up among nuns who have no common sense, deprived of my dowry and my marriage covenants, with all my property given to my coxcomb of a husband to help him seduce other women and to commit fresh adulteries.
I ask if it is just, and if it is not evident that the laws were made by cuckolds?
In answer to my plea I am told that I should be happy not to be stoned at the city gate by the canons, the priests of the parish and the whole populace. This was the practice among the first nation of the earth, the chosen nation, the cherished nation, the only one which was right when all the others were wrong.
To these barbarities I reply that when the poor adulteress was presented by her accusers to the Master of the old and new law, He did not have her stoned; that on the contrary He reproached them with their injustice, that he laughed at them by writing on the ground with his finger, that he quoted the old Hebraic proverb--"He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her"; that then they all retired, the oldest fleeing first, because the older they were the more adulteries had they committed.
The doctors of canon law answer me that this history of the adulteress is related only in the Gospel of St. John, that it was not inserted there until later. Leontius, Maldonat, affirm that it is not to be found in a single ancient Greek copy; that none of the twenty-three early commentators mentions it. Origen, St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom, Theophilact, Nonnus, do not recognize it at all. It is not to be found in the Syriac Bible, it is not in Ulphilas' version.
That is what my husband's advocates say, they who would have me not only shaved, but also stoned.
But the advocates who pleaded for me say that Ammonius, author of the third century, recognized this story as true, and that if St. Jerome rejects it in some places, he adopts it in others; that, in a word, it is authentic to-day. I leave there, and I say to my husband: "If you are without sin, shave me, imprison me, take my property; but if you have committed more sins than I have, it is for me to shave you, to have you imprisoned, and to seize your fortune. In justice these things should be equal."
My husband answers that he is my superior and my chief, that he is more than an inch taller, that he is shaggy as a bear; that consequently I owe him everything, and that he owes me nothing.
But I ask if Queen Anne of England is not her husband's chief? if her husband the Prince of Denmark, who is her High Admiral, does not owe her entire obedience? and if she would not have him condemned by the court of peers if the little man's infidelity were in question? It is therefore clear that if the women do not have the men punished, it is when they are not the stronger.
An advocate is a man who, not having a sufficient fortune to buy one of those resplendent offices on which the universe has its eyes, studies the laws of Theodosius and Justinian for three years, so that he may learn the usages of Paris, and who finally, being registered, has the right to plead causes for money, if he have a strong voice.
The great dispute between the ancients and the moderns is not yet settled; it has been on the table since the silver age succeeded the golden age. Mankind has always maintained that the good old times were much better than the present day. Nestor, in the "Iliad," wishing to insinuate himself as a wise conciliator into the minds of Achilles and Agamemnon, starts by saying to them--"I lived formerly with better men than you; no, I have never seen and I shall never see such great personages as Dryas, Cenaeus, Exadius, Polyphemus equal to the gods, etc."
Posterity has well avenged Achilles for Nestor's poor compliment. Nobody knows Dryas any longer; one has hardly heard speak of Exadius, or of Cenaeus; and as for Polyphemus equal to the gods, he has not too good a reputation, unless the possession of a big eye in one's forehead, and the eating of men raw, are to have something of the divine.
Lucretius does not hesitate to say that nature has degenerated (lib. II. v. 1159). Antiquity is full of eulogies of another more remote antiquity. Horace combats this prejudice with as much finesse as force in his beautiful Epistle to Augustus (Epist. I. liv. ii.). "Must our poems, then," he says, "be like our wines, of which the oldest are always preferred?"
The learned and ingenious Fontenelle expresses himself on this subject as follows:
"The whole question of the pre-eminence between the ancients and the moderns, once it is well understood, is reduced to knowing whether the trees which formerly were in our countryside were bigger than those of to-day. In the event that they were, Homer, Plato, Demosthenes cannot be equalled in these latter centuries.
"Let us throw light on this paradox. If the ancients had more intellect than us, it is that the brains of those times were better ordered, formed of firmer or more delicate fibres, filled with more animal spirits; but in virtue of what were the brains of those times better ordered? The trees also would have been bigger and more beautiful; for if nature was then younger and more vigorous, the trees, as well as men's brains, would have been conscious of this vigour and this youth." ("Digression on the Ancients and the Moderns," vol. 4, 1742 edition.)
With the illustrious academician's permission, that is not at all the state of the question. It is not a matter of knowing whether nature has been able to produce in our day as great geniuses and as good works as those of Greek and Latin antiquity; but to know whether we have them in fact. Without a doubt it is not impossible for there to be as big oaks in the forest of Chantilli as in the forest of Dodona; but supposing that the oaks of Dodona had spoken, it would be quite clear that they had a great advantage over ours, which in all probability will never speak.
Nature is not bizarre; but it is possible that she gave the Athenians a country and a sky more suitable than Westphalia and the Limousin for forming certain geniuses. Further, it is possible that the government of Athens, by seconding the climate, put into Demosthenes' head something that the air of Climart and La Grenouillere and the government of Cardinal de Richelieu did not put into the heads of Omer Talon and Jerome Bignon.
This dispute is therefore a question of fact. Was antiquity more fecund in great monuments of all kinds, up to the time of Plutarch, than modern centuries have been from the century of the Medicis up to Louis XIV. inclusive?
The Chinese, more than two hundred years before our era, constructed that great wall which was not able to save them from the invasion of the Tartars. The Egyptians, three thousand years before, had overloaded the earth with their astonishing pyramids, which had a base of about ninety thousand square feet. Nobody doubts that, if one wished to undertake to-day these useless works, one could easily succeed by a lavish expenditure of money. The great wall of China is a monument to fear; the pyramids are monuments to vanity and superstition. Both bear witness to a great patience in the peoples, but to no superior genius. Neither the Chinese nor the Egyptians would have been able to make even a statue such as those which our sculptors form to-day.
The chevalier Temple, who has made it his business to disparage all the moderns, claims that in architecture they have nothing comparable to the temples of Greece and Rome: but, for all that he is English, he must agree that the Church of St. Peter is incomparably more beautiful than the Capitol was.
It is curious with what assurance he maintains that there is nothing new in our astronomy, nothing in the knowledge of the human body, unless perhaps, he says, the circulation of the blood. Love of his own opinion, founded on his vast self-esteem, makes him forget the discovery of the satellites of Jupiter, of the five moons and the ring of Saturn, of the rotation of the sun on its axis, of the calculated position of three thousand stars, of the laws given by Kepler and Newton for the heavenly orbs, of the causes of the precession of the equinoxes, and of a hundred other pieces of knowledge of which the ancients did not suspect even the possibility.
The discoveries in anatomy are as great in number. A new universe in little, discovered by the microscope, was counted for nothing by the chevalier Temple; he closed his eyes to the marvels of his contemporaries, and opened them only to admire ancient ignorance.
He goes so far as to pity us for having nothing left of the magic of the Indians, the Chaldeans, the Egyptians; and by this magic he understands a profound knowledge of nature, whereby they produced miracles: but he does not cite one miracle, because in fact there never were any. "What has become," he asks, "of the charms of that music which so often enchanted man and beast, the fishes, the birds, the snakes, and changed their nature?"
This enemy of his century really believes the fable of Orpheus, and has not apparently heard either the beautiful music of Italy, or even that of France, which in truth does not charm snakes, but does charm the ears of connoisseurs.
What is still more strange is that, having all his life cultivated belles-lettres, he does not reason better about our good authors than about our philosophers. He looks on Rabelais as a great man. He cites the "Amours des Gaules" as one of our best works. He was, however, a scholar, a courtier, a man of much wit, an ambassador, a man who had reflected profoundly on all he had seen. He possessed great knowledge: a prejudice sufficed to spoil all this merit.
There are beauties in Euripides, and in Sophocles still more; but they have many more defects. One dares say that the beautiful scenes of Corneille and the touching tragedies of Racine surpass the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides as much as these two Greeks surpass Thespis. Racine was quite conscious of his great superiority over Euripides; but he praised the Greek poet in order to humiliate Perrault.
Moliere, in his good pieces, is as superior to the pure but cold Terence, and to the droll Aristophanes, as to Dancourt the buffoon.
There are therefore spheres in which the moderns are far superior to the ancients, and others, very few in number, in which we are their inferiors. It is to this that the whole dispute is reduced.