Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXX.: THE POLITE ARTS IN EUROPE AT THE TIME OF LOUIS XIV. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XII (Age of Louis XIV)
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CHAPTER XXX.: THE POLITE ARTS IN EUROPE AT THE TIME OF LOUIS XIV. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XII (Age of Louis XIV) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XII.
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THE POLITE ARTS IN EUROPE AT THE TIME OF LOUIS XIV.
I have sufficiently hinted, in the course of this history, that the public disasters it contains, which succeed one another almost without intermission, are at length erased from the registers of time. The springs and minute circumstances of politics, sink into oblivion; while wise laws and institutions, the monuments produced by the arts and sciences, continue forever.
Of the immense crowd of strangers that now travel to Rome, not as pilgrims, but as persons of taste, hardly one takes pains to inquire anything concerning Gregory VII. or Boniface VIII. They admire the beautiful churches built by a Bramantes and a Michelangelo, the paintings of a Raphael, and the sculptures of a Bernini; if they have genius, they read the works of Ariosto and Tasso, and reverence the ashes of Galileo. In England the exploits of Cromwell are scarcely mentioned, and the disputes of the white and red roses are almost forgotten; but Newton is studied for whole years together: no one is surprised to see in his epitaph that “he was the glory of mankind;” but it would be a matter of great wonder in that country to see the remains of any statesman honored with such a title.
I should be glad, in this place, to do justice to all the great men, who, like him, were the ornaments of their country in the last century. I have called this the Age of Louis XIV. not only because this monarch patronized the arts much more than all the other kings, his contemporaries, put together, but also because he saw all the generations of the princes of Europe thrice renewed. I have fixed this epoch some years before the time of Louis XIV. and have carried it down some years after his decease, as this was, in fact, the space of time in which the human mind made the greatest progress.
The English have made greater advances toward perfection, in almost every species of learning, from 1660 till the present time, than in all the preceding ages. I shall not here repeat what I have elsewhere said, of Milton. It is true, he is accused by several critics of a whimsical extravagance in his description, such as that of the fools’ paradise; the walls of alabaster with which the garden of Eden was surrounded; the devils, who transformed themselves from giants to pygmies, to take up less room in the council chamber of hell, built all of pure gold; the firing of cannon in heaven; the hills that the combatants flung at one another’s heads; angels on horseback, and angels whose bodies, after being cut asunder, unite again. He is complained of for his prolixity and incessant repetitions. They say he equals neither Ovid nor Hesiod in that long description of the formation of the earth, animals, and man. His dissertations on astronomy are censured, as being too dry and uninteresting; his invention is thought rather extravagant than wonderful, and more disgusting than striking; for instance, the long causeway over chaos; sin and death enamored of each other, and having children by their incestuous commerce; “Death, who lifts up his nose, to snuff, through the immensity of chaos, the change which has befallen the earth, as a raven smells dead carcasses.” The same Death who smells out sin, who strikes with his petrifying club on the elements of Earth and Water, which, together with Heat and Humidity, become four valiant generals of an army, leading in battle-array the light-armed embryos of atoms.1 In short, writers have exhausted themselves in criticisms on this celebrated work; but there can be no end to the praises it merits. Milton will ever continue the boast and admiration of the English nation, will always be compared to Homer, whose faults are equally great, and always preferred to Dante, whose imagination is even more extravagant.
Among the great number of pleasing poets that adorned the reign of Charles II., such as Waller, the earls of Dorset and Roscommon, the duke of Buckingham, etc., the celebrated Dryden holds a distinguished place; he is equally famous in all the different kinds of poetry. His writings abound with a number of minute particulars, at once natural and lively, animated, bold, nervous, and pathetic; a merit in which he has been equalled by no other poet of his nation, nor exceeded by anyone among the ancients. If Pope, who came after him, had not, in the latter part of his life written his “Essay on Man,” he would have fallen far short of Dryden.
No nation has ever treated morality, in verse, with so much energy and depth, as the English. In this, I think, seems to lie the greatest merit of their poets.
There is another kind of varied literature, which requires a still more cultivated and universal genius; this Addison possessed in an eminent degree. He has not only immortalized his name by his “Cato,” which is the only English tragedy written with elegance and well-supported dignity, but his other writings, both moral and critical, breathe the very soul of good taste; here sense is everywhere embellished with the flowers of imagination; and his manner of writing may serve as a model to all nations. There are several little pieces of Dean Swift, unmatched by anything of the kind in antiquity. He is Rabelais improved.
The English are not acquainted with funeral orations, it not being the custom with them to praise their kings and queens in their churches, but pulpit eloquence, which, before the reign of Charles II., was very rude, became formed on a sudden. Bishop Burnet acknowledges that this was owing to their imitation of the French; perhaps they have even surpassed their masters; they are not so stiff, affected, and declamatory in their sermons as the French are.
It is also remarkable that these islanders, who are separated from the rest of the world, and who remained so long untaught, should have acquired at least as much knowledge of antiquity as is to be met with in Rome, though the centre of all nations. Masham has unveiled the dark accounts of ancient Egypt; no Persian had ever a more perfect knowledge of the religion of Zoroaster than the celebrated Hyde. The history of Mahomet, and the times preceding him, which was unknown to the Turks, has been fully illustrated by Hales, who made so many useful voyages to Arabia.
There is no country in the world where the Christian religion has been so strongly attacked and so learnedly defended as in England. From the time of Henry VIII. to that of Cromwell, they carried on their disputes like the ancient gladiators, who were wont to come into the arena to fight with scimitars in their hands and bandages about their eyes. Some slight differences in doctrine and worship were productive of the most bloody wars; whereas, from the Restoration to the present time, though scarcely a year has passed without some attack on Christianity, the controversy has not excited the least disturbance, learning being the only weapon now employed on either side, instead of fire and sword, as formerly.
But, it is in philosophy that the English have particularly had the mastery over all other nations. Ingenious and speculative notions were out of the question. The fables of the Greeks had been long laid aside, and those of the moderns were to appear no more. Chancellor Bacon first led the way, by asserting that we should search into nature in a new manner, and have recourse to experiments. Boyle employed his whole life in making them. This is no place for discussions on natural philosophy; let it suffice to say that, after three thousand years of vain inquiries, Newton was the first who discovered and demonstrated the great law of nature, by which every part of matter tends toward the centre, and all the planets are retained in their proper course. He was the first who truly beheld light; before him we knew not what it was.
His principles of the mathematics, which contain a system of natural philosophy, entirely new and true, are founded on the discovery of what is called the Calculation of Infinites, the last effect of geometry, and which was executed by him at the age of twenty-four. This occasioned that great philosopher, the learned Halley, to say: “It will never be permitted any mortal to approach nearer to the Deity.”
Numberless good geometricians and natural philosophers were at once improved by his discoveries, and encouraged to pursue the course he had pointed out to them. Bradley at length went so far as to discover the parallax of the fixed stars, at twelve millions of millions of miles distant from our little globe.
Halley, though no more than a private astronomer, had the command of one of the king’s ships in 1698. In this ship he determined the position of the stars of the Antarctic, or South Pole, and marked the different variations of the compass in all the parts of the known world. The famous voyage of the Argonauts was, in comparison with his, no more than the passing from one side of a river to another in a boat; and yet this voyage of Halley’s has scarcely been spoken of in Europe.
This indifference of ours for great things, when become too familiar, and the admiration paid by the ancient Greeks to the most trivial ones, is another proof of the prodigious superiority of our age over the ancient times. Boileau, in France, and Sir William Temple, in England, obstinately deny any such superiority; they seem resolved to depreciate their own age, in order to exalt themselves above it. This dispute between the ancients and moderns is at length decided, at least as to philosophy. There is not one of the ancient philosophers whose works are now made use of for the instruction of youth in any of the enlightened nations.
Locke alone might serve as a great instance of the advantage that the present time has over the finest ages of Greece. From Plato down to him there is one great chasm, no one during all that interval having explained the operations of the soul; and a person who should be acquainted with all that Plato has written, and acquainted with that only, would have very little knowledge, and even that erroneous.
The Greek was indeed an eloquent writer; his apology for Socrates is a great piece of service done to the learned of all nations. It is but just to hold in veneration him who made oppressed virtue so venerable, and its persecutors so detestable. It was for a long time thought that he, who was so fine a moralist, could not be a bad natural philosopher; he was held almost for a father of the Church, on account of his “Ternarion,” which no one understood; but what would be thought of a philosopher in our days who would tell us that matter is the author; and that the world is a figure of twelve pentagons; that fire is a pyramid, and is linked to the earth by numbers? How would a person be received, who should go about to prove the immortality and metempsychosis of the soul, by saying that sleep comes from watching, watching from sleep, life from death, and death from life? Yet such are the arguments that have been the admiration of so many ages, and ideas still more extravagant have since continued to be made use of, in the education of mankind.
Locke is the only one who has explained human understanding, in a book where there is nothing but truths; and what renders the work perfect is that these truths are all clear.
If we would, once for all, see in what this last age has the superiority over the former ones, we have only to cast our eyes upon Germany and the North. Dantzic has produced a Hevelius, who is the first astronomer that was ever well acquainted with the planet of the moon, no man before him having ever so carefully examined the heavens; among the many great men whom this age has produced, no one is a more striking example how justly it may be called the age of Louis XIV. Hevelius lost an immense library by fire. The French monarch recompensed the astronomer with a present that far overpaid his loss.
In Holstein, Mercator was the forerunner of Newton in geometry. The Bernouillis of Switzerland were disciples worthy this great man, and Leibnitz was for some time considered his rival.
The famous Leibnitz was born at Leipsic; he ended his days in Hanover, like a true philosopher, believing in a God, like Newton, without consulting the various opinions of mankind. He was perhaps a man of the most universal learning in Europe; he was a historian indefatigable in his inquiries; a profound civilian, who enlightened the study of law by philosophy, foreign as it may appear to that kind of study; so thorough a metaphysician, as to attempt reconciling divinity and the metaphysics; a tolerable Latin poet; and lastly, so good a mathematician, as to dispute with the great Newton the invention of the Calculation of Infinities, and to make it for some time doubted which of them had the justest claim to the honor of that discovery.
This was then the golden age of geometry. Mathematicians sent frequent challenges to one another, that is to say, problems to solve, much in the same manner as it is said the ancient kings of Egypt and Asia sent enigmas to be answered by one another. The problems proposed by these geometricians were of a much more difficult nature than the Egyptian enigmas, and yet none of them remained unanswered, either in Germany, England, Italy, or France. There never was a more universal correspondence kept between philosophers than at this period, and Leibnitz contributed not a little to encourage it. A republic of letters was insensibly established in Europe, in the midst of the most obstinate war, and the number of different religions; the arts and sciences, all of them thus received mutual assistance from each other, and the academies helped to form this republic. Italy and Russia were united by the bonds of science, and the natives of England, Germany, and France went to study at Leyden. The famous physician, Boerhaave, was consulted at the same time by the pope and the czar of Muscovy. His principal pupils have in like manner drawn strangers after them, and have in some measure become the physicians of nations. The truly learned of every denomination have strengthened the bonds of this grand society of geniuses, which is universally diffused, and everywhere independent. This correspondence is still carried on, and proves one of the greatest comforts against the evils which ambition and politics scatter through the world.
Italy has preserved her ancient glory in this age, though she has produced no new Tassos, nor Raphaels. It is sufficient that she has once produced them. A Cabrera, a Zappi, and a Filicaia have shown that delicacy is always the portion of this nation. The “Merope” of Maffei, and the dramatic works of Metastasio, are the beautiful monuments of the age.
The study of true natural philosophy, as established by Galileo, still keeps its ground in spite of the ancient philosophy, which has but too many bigoted admirers. The Cassinis, the Vivianis, the Mandis, the Bianchinis, the Zanottis, and many others have spread over Italy the same light that beamed in other countries, and, though its principal rays came from England, yet the Italian schools have been able to gaze on it in all its splendor.
Every kind of literature has been cultivated in this ancient seat of the arts as much as elsewhere, except in those subjects where a liberty of thinking allows a greater scope to the genius in other nations. This age in particular has attained a better knowledge of antiquity than the preceding. Italy furnishes more monuments than all Europe together, and in proportion as these have been brought to light, science has become more extensive.
We are indebted for this progress to some wise men and geniuses, scattered in small numbers over some parts of Europe, almost all of them for a long time subjected to persecutions, and lost in oblivion; they have enlightened and comforted the world during the wars that spread desolation through it. There are lists to be met with elsewhere, of all those who have been the ornaments of Germany, England, and Italy. It would be very improper, in a stranger, to pretend to rate the merits of so many illustrious men; let it suffice then to have shown, that in the last age mankind acquired throughout Europe greater light than in all the ages that preceded it.