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"The trade of authorship is a violent, and indestructible obsession."

George Sand (1804-76), French novelist.


If reason, understood as harmony and balance, stamped the "splendid century," it was above all the spirit of scientific inquiry that gave to the 18th century its special character. With the decline in the authority of the French monarchy, all social and political institutions came under question and, eventually, attack. Ideas assumed sovereign power as, one by one, traditional bastions were subjected to the scrutiny of the PHILOSOPHES. Probably no other country or century has witnessed such a concentration of intellectual talent as that represented by the French ENLIGHTENMENT.

Pierre Bayle, a Protestant philosopher turned freethinker who advocated religious toleration, set the tone of the century with his Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697; rev. 1704-06; Eng. trans., 1709). In this work he foreshadowed the aggressive strategy of religious and social criticism that would later be used by VOLTAIRE in his malicious but amusing Dictionnaire philosophique (1764; Eng. trans., 1765). Voltaire wrote tragedies in the classical mode, works of history, deistic poetry, and light verse. He is chiefly remembered, however, for his philosophical tales, such as Zadig (1747; Eng. trans., 1749) and Candide (1759; Eng. trans., 1759); his Letters concerning the English Nation (1733), comparing English and French institutions (to the latter's disadvantage); and his Essai sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations (1769; partially trans. as The General History and State of Europe, 1754), an anthropologically organized comparative history of national characteristics. These works were the centerpiece of his lifelong battle against intolerance, injustice, and obscurantism.

Montesquieu also adopted the method of comparative analysis, producing in his masterpiece, The Spirit of the Laws (1748; Eng. trans., 1750), a profound study of the different types of government. In this treatise he expounded the doctrine of the separation of powers. This contributed to the 18th-century French admiration for British political institutions and helped mold the U.S. Constitution.

The biggest weapon leveled against prejudice and traditional authorities was the Encyclopedie, published in 35 volumes between 1751 and 1780 and incorporating most of the materialist, skeptical, and antireligious ideas of the day. This was a collective enterprise directed by Denis Diderot to which the best minds of the age contributed: Jean d'Alembert, Baron d'Holbach, Etienne de Condillac, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau.

Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose political and social ideas enjoyed an even wider vogue in the 19th and 20th centuries than in the 18th, asserted the principle of the collective sovereignty of the people in The Social Contract (1762; Eng. trans., 1764); in Emile (1762) he expressed pedagogical theories that formed the basis of later experiments in progressive education. His novel La Nouvelle Heloise (1761), a compendium of the major intellectual questions discussed at the time, was a forerunner of ROMANTICISM through which Rousseau popularized the "return to nature" and the natural morality he believed would flow from such a state. Rousseau's Confessions (1781, 1788) and Reveries (1782; Eng. trans. for both, 1783) were daring autobiographical works that helped to develop the romantic taste for the public display of the inner self.

The development of the novel and the drama contributed to the explosion of the new sensibility. Alain Rene Lesage's (1668-1747) picaresque romance Gil Blas (1715, 1724, 1735; Eng. trans., 1749) opened the way to the novels of "sentimental education," especially as produced in England by Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding. In Manon Lescaut (1731; Eng. trans., 1738), the Abbe Prévost presented a tale of passion triumphing over every obstacle but death, while in Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782), Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1741-1803) analyzed the perverse psychology of a cynical seducer. From the lively plays of Pierre de Marivaux came the term marivaudage, meaning the style in which the subtle psychological components of love and dalliance were portrayed by the playwright. Toward the end of the century Beaumarchais held the stage with his popular comedies The Barber of Seville (1775; Eng. trans., 1776) and The Marriage of Figaro (1784; Eng. trans., 1785), which also conveyed a subtly rebellious political message.

Poetry in the 18th century suffered from the desiccating influence of rational analysis, but one great poet emerged. André Chenier, whose verse was inspired by the harmonies of classical Greek models and by a love of liberty, became after his execution during the Terror an important influence on the early romantic school.

Jean Boorsch.
Source: The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #8, ©1996.

Introduction to French Literature || The Middle Ages

The French Renaissance || The Triumph of Classicism

The French Enlightenment

19th Century || 20th Century


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