"The woman who comes into the house of a widower, the minister who steps into the place of a statesman in disgrace, the molinist bishop who gets hold of the diocese of a jansenist bishop—none of these people cause more trouble than the intruding scarlet has caused to me.
"I can bear without disgust the sight of a peasant-woman. The bit of coarse canvas that covers her head, the hair falling about her cheeks, the rags that only half cover her, the poor short skirt that goes no more than half-way down her legs, the naked feet covered with mud—all these things do not wound me; 'tis the image of a condition that I respect, 'tis the sign and summary of a state that is inevitable, that is woful, and that I pity with all my heart. But my gorge rises, and in spite of the scented air that follows her, I turn my eyes from the courtesan, whose fine lace head-gear and torn cuffs, white stockings and worn-out shoes, show me the misery of the day in company with the opulence of last night. Such would my house have been, if the imperious scarlet had not forced all into harmony with itself. I had two engravings that were not without merit, Poussin's Manna in the Wilderness, and the same painter's Esther before Ahasuerus; the one is driven out in shame by some old man of Rubens's, the Fall of the Manna is scattered to the winds by a Storm of Vernet's. The old straw chair is banished to the ante-room by a luxurious thing of morocco. Homer, Virgil, Horace, Cicero, have been taken from their shelf and shut up in a case of grand marqueterie work, an asylum worthier of them than of me. The wooden table still held its ground, protected by a vast pile of pamphlets and papers heaped pell-mell upon it; they seemed as if they would long protect it from its doom. Yet one day that too was mastered by fate, and in spite of my idleness pamphlets and papers went to arrange themselves in the shelves of a costly bureau.... It was thus that the edifying retreat of the philosopher became transformed into the scandalous cabinet of the farmer-general. Thus I too am insulting the national misery.
"Of my early mediocrity there remained only a list carpet. The shabby carpet hardly matches with my luxury. I feel it. But I have sworn and I swear that I will keep this carpet, as the peasant, who was raised from the hut to the palace of his sovereign, still kept his wooden shoes. When in a morning, clad in the sumptuous scarlet, I enter my room, if I lower my eyes I perceive my old list carpet; it recalls to me my early state, and rising pride stands checked. No, my friend, I am not corrupted. My door is open as ever to want; it finds me affable as ever; I listen to its tale, I counsel, I pity, I succour it." ...
Yet the interior of Socrates-Diderot was as little blessed by domestic sympathy as the interior of the older and greater Socrates. Of course Diderot was far enough from being faultless. His wife is described by Rousseau as a shrew and a scold. It is too plain that she was so; sullen to her husband, impatient with her children, and exacting and unreasonable with her servants. We cannot pretend accurately to divide the blame. The companionship was very dreary, and the picture grievous and most afflicting to our thoughts. Diderot returns in the evening from Holbach's, throws his carpet-bag in at the door, flies off to seek a letter from Mademoiselle Voland, writes one to her, gets back to his house at midnight, finds his daughter ill, puts cheerful and cordial questions to his wife, she replies with a tartness that drives him back into silence. Another time the scene is violent. A torrent of injustice and unreasonableness flows over him for two long hours, and he wonders what the woman will profit, after she has made him burst a blood-vessel; he groans in anguish, "Ah, how hard life seems to me to bear! How many a time would I accept the end of it with joy!" So sharp are the goads in a divided house; so sorely, with ache and smart and deep-welling tears, do men and women rend into shreds the fine web of one another's lives. But the pity of it, O the pity of it!
There are many brighter intervals which make one willing to suppose that if the wife had been a little more patient, more tolerant, more cheerful, less severely addicted to her sterile superstition, there might have been somewhat more happiness in the house. One misery of the present social ideal of women is that, while it keeps them so systematically ignorant, superstitious, and narrow, it leaves them without humility. "Be content," said the great John Wesley to his froward wife, "be content to be a private insignificant person, known and loved by God and me. Of what importance is your character to mankind? If you was buried just now, or if you had never lived, what loss would it be to the cause of God?" This energetic remonstrance can hardly be said to exhaust the matter. Still it puts a wholesome side of the case which Madame Diderot missed, and which better persons are likely to miss, so long as the exclusion of women, by common opinion or by law, from an active participation in the settlement of great issues, makes them indifferent to all interests outside domestic egoism, and egoistic and personal religion. Brighter intervals shone in the household. "I announced my departure," writes Diderot, "for next Tuesday. At the first word I saw the faces both of mother and daughter fall. The child had a compliment for my fete-day all ready, and it would not do to let her waste the trouble of having learnt it. The mother had projected a grand dinner for Sunday. Well, we arranged everything perfectly. I made my journey, and came back to be harangued and feasted. The poor child made her little speech in the most bewitching way. In the middle there came some hard words, so she stopped and said to me, 'My papa, 'tis because my two front teeth have come out'—as was true. Then she went on. At the end, as she had a posy to give me, and it could not be found, she stopped a second time to say to me—'Here's the worst of the tale; my pinks have got lost.' Then she started off in search of her flowers. We dined in great style. My wife had got all her friends together. I was very gay, eating, drinking, and doing the honours of my table to perfection. On rising from table I stayed among them and played cards instead of going out. I saw them all off between eleven and twelve: I was charming, and if you only knew with whom; what physiognomies, what folk, what talk!"
Another time the child, whispering in his ear, asks why her mother bade her not remind him that the morrow was the mother's fete-day. The presence of the blithe all-hoping young, looking on with innocent unconscious eyes at the veiled tragedy of love turned to bitter discord, gives to such scenes their last touch of piteousness. Diderot, however, observed the day, and presented a bouquet which was neither well or ill received. At the birthday dinner the master of the house presided. "If you had been behind the curtains, you would have said to yourself, how can all this gossip and twaddle find a place in the same head with certain ideas! And in truth I was charming, and played the fool to a marvel."
In the midst of distractions great and small, was an indomitable industry. "I tell you," he wrote, "and I tell all men, when you are ill at ease with yourself, instantly set about some good work. In busying myself to soothe the trouble of another, I forget my own." He was assiduous in teaching his daughter, though he complained that her mother crushed out in a day what it had taken him a month to implant. The booksellers found him the most cheerful and strenuous bondsman that ever booksellers had. He would pass a whole month without a day's break, working ten hours every day at the revision of proof-sheets. Sometimes he remains a whole week without leaving his workroom. He wears out his eyes over plates and diagrams, bristling with figures and letters, and with no more refreshing thought in the midst of this sore toil than that insult, persecution, torment, trickery, will be the fruit of it. He not only spent whole days bent over his desk, until he had a feeling as of burning flame within him; he also worked through the hours of the night. On one of these occasions, worn out with fatigue and weariness, he fell asleep with his head on his desk; the light fell down among his papers, and he awoke to find half the books and papers on the desk burnt to ashes. "I kept my own counsel about it," he writes, "because a single hint of such an accident would have robbed my wife of sleep for the rest of her life."
His favourite form of holiday was a visit to Holbach's country house at Grandval. Here he spent some six weeks or more nearly every autumn after 1759. The manner of life there was delightful to him. There was perfect freedom, the mistress of the house neither rendering strict duties of ceremony nor exacting them. Diderot used to rise at six or at eight, and remain in his own room until one, reading, writing, meditating. Nobody was more exquisitely sensible than Diderot to the charm of loitering over books, "over those authors," as he said, "who ravish us from ourselves, in whose hands nature has placed a fairy wand, with which they no sooner touch us, than straightway we forget the evils of life, the darkness lifts from our souls, and we are reconciled to existence." The musing suggestiveness of reading when we read only for reading's sake, and not for reproduction nor direct use, was as delightful to our laborious drudge as to others, but he could indulge himself with little of this sweet idleness. It was in harder labour that he passed most of his mornings. These hours of work achieved, he dressed and went down among his friends. Then came the mid-day dinner, which was sumptuous; host and guests both ate and drank more than was good for their health. After a short siesta, towards four o'clock they took their sticks and went forth to walk, among woods, over ploughed fields, up hills, through quagmires, delighting in nature. As they went, they talked of history, or politics, or chemistry, of literature, or physics, or morality. At sundown they returned, to find lights and cards on the tables, and they made parties of piquet, interrupted by supper. At half-past ten the game ends, they chat until eleven, and in half an hour more they are all fast asleep. Each day was like the next; industry, gaiety, bodily comfort, mental activity, diversifying the hours. Grimm was often there, "the most French of all the Germans," and Galiani, the most nimble-witted of men, inexhaustible in story, inimitable in pantomimic narration, and yet with the keenest intellectual penetration shining through all his Neapolitan prank and buffoonery. Holbach cared most for the physical sciences. Marmontel brought a vein of sentimentalism, and Helvetius a vein of cynical formalism. Diderot played Socrates, Panurge, Pantophile; questioning, instructing, combining; pouring out knowledge and suggestion, full of interest in every subject, sympathetic with every vein, relishing alike the newest philosophic hardihood, the last too merry mood of Holbach's mother-in-law, the freshest piece of news brought by a traveller. It was not at Grandval that he found life hard to bear, or would have accepted its close with joy. And indeed if one could by miracle be transported back into the sixth decade of that dead century for a single day, perhaps one might choose that such a day should be passed among the energetic and vivid men who walked of an afternoon among the fields and woods of Grandval.
The unblushing grossness of speech which even the ladies of the party permitted themselves cannot be reproduced in the decorous print of our age. It is nothing less than inconceivable to us how Diderot can have brought himself to write down, in letters addressed to a woman of good education and decent manners, some of the talk that went on at Grandval. The coarsest schoolboy of these days would wince at such shameless freedoms. But it would be wrong to forget the allowance that must be made for differences in point of fashion. Diderot, for instance, in these very letters is wonderfully frank in his exposure of the details of his health. He describes his indigestions, and other more indescribable obstructions to happiness, as freely as Cicero wrote about the dysentery which punished him, when, after he had resisted oysters and lampreys at supper, he yielded to a dish of beet and mallow so dressed with pot-herbs, ut nil posset esse suavius. Whatever men could say to one another or to their surgeons they saw no harm in saying to women. We have to remember how Sir Walter Scott's great-aunt, about the very time when Diderot was writing to Mademoiselle Voland, had heard Mrs. Aphra Behn's books read aloud for the amusement of large circles, consisting of the first and most creditable society in London. We think of Swift, in an earlier period of the century, enclosing to Stella some recklessly gross verses of his own upon Bolingbroke, and habitually writing to fine ladies in a way that Falstaff might have thought too bad for Doll Tearsheet. In saying that these coarse impurities are only points of manners, we are as far as possible from meaning that they are on that account unimportant. But it is childish to waste our time in censorious judgment on the individual who does no worse than represent a ruling type. We can only note the difference and pass on.
A characteristic trait in this rural life is Diderot's passion for high winds. They gave him a transport, and to hear the storm at night, tossing the trees, drenching the ground with rain, and filling the air with the bass of its hoarse ground-tones, was one of his keenest delights. Yet Diderot was not of those in whom the feeling for the great effects of nature has something of savagery. He was above all things human, and the human lot was the central source of his innermost meditations. In the midst of gossip is constantly interpolated some passage of fine reflection on life—reflection as sincere, as real, coming as spontaneously from the writer's inmost mood and genuine sentiment, as little tainted either by affectation or by commonness, as ever passed through the mind of a man. Some of these are too characteristic to be omitted, and there is so little of what is exquisite in the flavour of Diderot's style, that he perhaps suffers less from the clumsiness of translation than writers of finer colour or more stirring melody. One of these passages is as follows:—
"The last news from Paris has made the Baron anxious, as he has considerable sums in royal securities. He said to his wife: 'Listen, my friend; if this is going on, I put down the carriage, I buy you a good cloak and a good parasol, and for the rest of our days we will bless the minister for ridding us of horses, lackeys, coachmen, ladies'-maids, cooks, great dinner-parties, false friends, tiresome bores, and all the other privileges of opulence.' And for my part I began to think, that for a man without a wife or child, or any of those connections that make us long for money, and never leave any superfluity, it would be almost indifferent whether he were poor or rich. This paradox comes of the equality that I discover among various conditions of life, and in the little difference that I allow, in point of happiness, between the master of the house and the hall-porter. If I am sound in mind and body, if I have worth and a pure conscience, if I know the true from the false, if I avoid evil and do good, if I feel the dignity of my being, if nothing lowers me in my own eyes, then people may call me what they will, My Lord, or Sirrah. To do what is good, to know what is true—that is what distinguishes one man from another; the rest is nothing. The duration of life is so short, its true needs are so narrow, and when we go away, it all matters so little whether we have been somebody or nobody. When the end comes, all that you want is a sorry piece of canvas and four deal boards. In the morning I hear the labourers under my window. Scarce has the day dawned before they are at work with spade and barrow, delving and wheeling. They munch a crust of black bread; they quench their thirst at the flowing stream; at noon they snatch an hour of sleep on the hard ground. They are cheerful; they sing as they work; they exchange their good broad pleasantries with one another; they shout with laughter. At sundown they go home to find their children naked round a smoke-blackened hearth, a woman hideous and dirty, and their lot is neither worse nor better than mine. I came down from my room in bad spirits; I heard talk about the public misery; I sat down to a table full of good cheer without an appetite; I had a stomach overloaded with the dainties of the day before; I grasped a stick and set out for a walk to find relief; I returned to play cards, and cheat the heavy-weighing hours. I had a friend of whom I could not hear; I was far from a woman whom I sighed for. Troubles in the country, troubles in the town, troubles everywhere. He who knows not trouble is not to be counted among the children of men. All gets paid off in time; the good by the evil, evil by good, and life is naught. Perhaps to-morrow night or Monday morning we may go to pass a day in town; so I shall see the woman for whom I sighed, and recover the man of whom I could not hear. But I shall lose them the next day; and the more I feel the happiness of being with them, the worse I shall suffer at parting. That is the way that all things go. Turn and turn and turn again; there is ever a crumpled rose-leaf to vex you."
It is not often that we find such active benevolence as Diderot's, in conjunction with such a vein of philosophy as follows:—
"Ah, what a fine comedy this world would be, if only one had not to play a part in it; if one existed, for instance, in some point of space, in that interval of the celestial orbs where the gods of Epicurus slumber, far, far away, whence one could see this globe, on which we strut so big, about the size of a pumpkin, and whence one could watch all the airs and tricks of that two-footed mite who calls itself man. I would fain only look at the scenes of life in reduced size, so that those which are stamped with atrocity may be brought down to an inch in space, and to actors half a line high. But how bizarre, that our sense of revolt against injustice is in the ratio of the space and the mass. I am furious if a large animal unjustly attacks another. I feel nothing at all if it is two atoms that tear and rend. How our senses affect our morality. There is a fine text for philosophising!"
"What I see every day of physic and physicians does not much heighten my opinion of them. To come into the world in imbecility, in the midst of anguish and cries; to be the toy of ignorance, of error, of necessity, of sickness, of malice, of all passions; to return step by step to that imbecility whence one sprang; from the moment when we lisp our first words, down to the moment when we mumble the words of our dotage, to live among rascals and charlatans of every kind; to lie expiring between a man who feels your pulse, and another man who frets and wearies your head; not to know whence one comes, nor why one has come, nor whither one is going—that is what we call the greatest gift of our parents and of nature—human life."
These sombre meditations hardly represent Diderot's habitual vein; they are rather a reaction and a relief from the busy intensity with which he watches the scene, and is constantly putting interrogatories to human life, as day by day its motley circumstance passes before his eyes. We should scarcely suspect from his frequent repetitions of the mournful eternal chorus of the nullity of man and the vanity of all the things that are under the sun, how alert a watch he kept on incident and character, with what keen and open ear he listened for any curious note of pain, or voice of fine emotion, or odd perversity of fate. All this he does, not in the hard temper of a Balzac, not with the calm or pride of a Goethe, but with an overflowing fulness of spontaneous and uncontrollable sympathy. He is a sentimentalist in the rationalistic century, not with the sentimentalism of misanthropy, such as fired or soured Rousseau, but social, large-hearted, many-sided, careless of the wise rigours of morality. He is never callous nor neutral; on the contrary, he is always approving or disapproving, but not from the standards of the ethical text-books. The casuistry of feeling is of everlasting interest to him, and he is never tired of inventing imaginary cases, or pondering real ones, in which pliant feeling is invoked against the narrowness of duty. These are mostly in a kind of matter which modern taste hardly allows us to reproduce; nor, after all, is there much to be gained by turning the sanctities of human relationship, with all their immeasurable bliss, their immeasurable woe, into the playthings of an idle dialectic. It is pleasanter, and for us English not less instructive than pleasant, to see this dreaming, restless, thrice ingenious spirit, half Titan of the skies, half gnome of the lower earth, entering joyously or pitifully into the simple charm and natural tenderness of life as it comes and passes. Nothing delights him more than to hear or to tell such a story as this of Madame D'Epinay. She had given a small lad eighteen sous for a day's work. At night he went home without a farthing. When his mother asked him whether they had given him nothing for his work, he said No. The mother found out that this was untrue, and insisted on knowing what had become of the eighteen sous. The poor little creature had given them to an alehouse-keeper, where his father had been drinking all day; and so he had spared the worthy man a rough scene with his wife when he got home.
From the pathos of kindly youth to the grace of lovable age the step is not far. "To-day I have dined with a charming woman, who is only eighty years old. She is full of health and cheerfulness; her soul is still all gentleness and tenderness. She talks of love and friendship with the fire and sensibility of a girl of twenty. There were three men of us at table with her; she said to us, 'My friends, a delicate conversation, a true and passionate look, a tear, a touched expression, those are the good things of the world; as for all besides, it is hardly worth talking of. There are certain things that were said to me when I was young, and that I remember to this day, and any one of those words is to be preferred before ten glorious deeds: by my faith, I believe if I heard them even now, my old heart would beat the quicker.' 'Madame, the reason is that your heart has grown no older.' 'No, my son, you are right; it is as young as ever. It is not for having kept me alive so long that I thank God, but for having kept me kind-hearted, gentle, and full of feeling.'" All this was after Diderot's own heart, and he declares such a conversation to be worth more than all the hours of talk on politics and philosophy that he had been having a few days before with some English friends. We may understand how, as we shall presently see, a member of a society that could relish the beauty of such a scene, would be likely to think Englishmen hard, surly, and cheerless.
His letters constantly offer us sensible and imaginative reflection. He amused himself in some country village by talking to an old man of eighty. "I love children and old men; the latter seem to me like some singular creatures that have been spared by caprice of fate." He meets some old schoolfellows at Langres, nearly all the rest having gone: "Well, there are two things that warn us of our end, and set us musing—old ruins, and the short duration of those who began life with us." He is taken by a host over-devoted to such joys, to walk among dung-heaps. "After all," he says, "it ought not to offend one's sense. To an honest nose that has preserved its natural innocence, 'tis not a goat, but a bemusked and ambre-scented woman, who smelleth ill."
"When I compare our friendships to our antipathies, I find that the first are thin, small, pinched; we know how to hate, but we do not know how to love."
"A poet who becomes idle, does excellently well to be idle; he ought to be sure that it is not industry that fails, but that his gift is departing from him."
"Comfort the miserable; that is the true way to console yourself for my absence. I recollect saying to the Baron, when he lost his first wife, and was sure that there was not another day's happiness left for him in this world, 'Hasten out of doors, seek out the wretched, console them, and then you will pity yourself, if you dare.'"
"An infinitude of tyrannical things interpose between us and the duties of love and friendship; and we do nothing aright. A man is neither free for his ambition, nor free for his taste, nor free for his passion. And so we all live discontented with ourselves. One of the great inconveniences of the state of society is the multitude of our occupations and, above all, the levity with which we make engagements to dispose of all our future happiness. We marry, we go into business, we have children, all before we have common sense."
After some equivocal speculations as to the conduct of a woman who, by the surrender of herself for a quarter of an hour to the desires of a powerful minister, wins an appointment for her husband and bread for her six children, he exclaims: "In truth, I think Nature heeds neither good nor evil; she is wholly wrapped up in two objects, the preservation of the individual and the propagation of the species." True; but the moral distinction between right and wrong is so much wrung from the forces that Diderot here calls Nature.
The intellectual excitement in which he lived and the energy with which he promoted it, sought relief either in calm or else in the play of sensibility. "A delicious repose," he writes in one of his most harassed moments, "a sweet book to read, a walk in some open and solitary spot, a conversation in which one discloses all one's heart, a strong emotion that brings the tears to one's eyes and makes the heart beat faster, whether it comes of some tale of generous action, or of a sentiment of tenderness, of health, of gaiety, of liberty, of indolence—there is the true happiness, nor shall I ever know any other."
A Point in Rhetoric.—"Towards six in the evening the party broke up. I remained alone with D., and as we were talking about the Eloges on Descartes that had been sent in to the Academy, I made two remarks that pleased him upon eloquence. One, that it is a mistake to try to stir the passions before convincing the reason, and that the pathetic remains without effect, when it is not prepared by the syllogism. Second, that after the orator had touched me keenly, I could not endure that he should break in upon this melting of the soul with some violent stroke: that the pathetic insists on being followed by something moderate, weak, vague, that should leave room for no contention on my part."
Holbach's Impressions of England.—"The Baron has returned from England. He started with the pleasantest anticipations, he had a most agreeable reception, he had excellent health, and yet he has returned out of humour and discontented; discontented with the country, which he found neither as populous nor as well cultivated as people say; discontented with the buildings, that are nearly all bizarre and Gothic; with the gardens, where the affectation of imitating nature is worse than the monotonous symmetry of art; with the taste that heaps up in the palaces what is first-rate, what is good, what is bad, what is detestable, all pell-mell. He is disgusted at the amusements, which have the air of religious ceremonies; with the men, on whose countenances you never see confidence, friendship, gaiety, sociability, but on every face the inscription, 'What is there in common between me and you?'; disgusted with the great people, who are gloomy, cold, proud, haughty, and vain; and with the small people, who are hard, insolent, and barbarous. The only thing that I have heard him praise is the facility of travel: he says there is not a village, even on a cross-road, where you do not find four or five post-chaises and a score of horses ready to start.... There is no public education. The colleges—sumptuous buildings—palaces to be compared to the Tuileries, are occupied by rich idlers, who sleep and get drunk one part of the day, and the rest they spend in training, clumsily enough, a parcel of uncouth lads to be clergymen.... In the fine places that have been built for public amusements, you could hear a mouse run. A hundred stiff and silent women walk round and round an orchestra that is set up in the middle. The Baron compares these circuits to the seven processions of the Egyptians round the tomb of Osiris. A charming mot of my good friend Garrick, is that London is good for the English, but Paris is good for all the world.... There is a great mania for conversions and missionaries. Mr. Hume told me a story which will let you know what to think of these pretended conversions of cannibals and Hurons. A minister thought he had done a great stroke in this line; he had the vanity to wish to show his proselyte, and brought him to London. They question his little Huron, and he answers to perfection. They take him to church, and administer the sacrament, where, as you know, the communion is in both kinds. Afterwards, the minister says to him, 'Well, my son, do you not feel yourself more animated with the love of God? Does not the grace of the sacrament work within you? Is not all your soul warmed?' 'Yes,' says the Huron: 'the wine does one good, but I think it would have done still better if it had been brandy.'"
Two Cases of Conscience.—"The cure said that unhappy lovers always talked about dying, but that it was very rare to find one who kept his word; still he had seen one case. It was that of a young man of family, called Soulpse. He fell in love with a young lady of beauty and of good character, but without money, and belonging to a dishonoured family. Her father was in the galleys for forgery. The young man, who foresaw all the opposition, and all the good grounds for opposition, that he would have to encounter among his family, did all that he could to cure himself of his passion; but when he was assured of the uselessness of his efforts, he plucked up courage to open the matter to his parents, who wearied themselves with remonstrances. Our lover suddenly stopped them short, saying, 'I know all that you have to say against me; I cannot disapprove of your reasons, which I should be the first to urge against my own son, if I had one. But consider whether you would rather have me dead or badly married; for it is certain that if I do not marry the woman that I love, I shall die of it.' They treated this speech as it deserved; the result does not affect that. The young man fell sick, faded from day to day, and died. 'But, Cure,' said I, 'in the place of the father, what would you have done?' 'I would have called my son; I would have said: Soulpse has been your name hitherto; never forget that it is yours no more; and call yourself by what other name you please. Here is your lawful share of our property; marry the woman you love, so far from here that I may never hear speak of you again, and God bless you. 'For my part,' said old Madame D'Esclavelles, 'if I had been the mother of the young madman, I would have done exactly as his father did, and let him die.' And upon this there was a tremendous division of opinion, and an uproar that made the room ring again.
"The dispute lasted a long time, and would be going on now if the cure had not broken it off by putting to us another case. A young priest, discontented with his profession, flees to England, apostatises, marries according to the law, and has children. After a certain time he longs for his native country; he comes back to France with his children and his wife. After that, again, he is stricken by remorse; he returns to his religion, has scruples about his marriage, and thinks of separating from his wife. He opens his heart to our cure, who finds the case very embarrassing, and not venturing to decide it, refers him to casuists and lawyers. They all decide that he cannot, with a sure conscience, remain with his wife. When the separation, which the wife opposed with all her might, was about to be legally effected—rather against the wishes of our cure—the husband fell dangerously ill. When he knew that he could not recover, he said to the cure: 'My friend, I wish to make public amends for my backsliding, to receive the sacraments, and to die in the hospital; be kind enough to have me taken there.' 'I will take care to do no such thing,' the cure replied to him. 'This woman is innocent; she married you according to law; she knew nothing of the obstacles that existed. And these children, what share have they in your sin? You are the only wrongdoer, and it is they who are to be punished! Your wife will be disgraced, your children will be declared illegitimate, and what is the gain of it all?' And the good cure stuck to his text. He confessed his man, the illness grew worse, he administered the last sacraments. The man died, and his wife and children remained in possession of the titles they had. We all approved the cure's wisdom, and Grimm insisted on having his portrait taken."
Chinese Superiority.—-"Apropos of the Chinese, do you know that with them nobility ascends, and descends never? It is the children who ennoble their ancestors, and not the ancestors the children. And upon my word that is most sensible. We are greater poets, greater philosophers, greater orators, greater architects, greater astronomers, greater geometers, than these good people; but they understand better than we the science of good sense and virtue; and if peradventure that science should happen to be the first of all sciences, they would be right in saying that they have two eyes and we have only one, and all the rest of the world is blind."
Why Women write good Letters.—"She writes admirably, really admirably. That is because good style is in the heart; and that is why so many women talk and write like angels without ever having learnt either to talk or to write, and why so many pedants will both talk and write ill all the days of their life, though they were never weary of studying,—only without learning."
"A little adventure has just happened here that proves that all our fine sermons on intolerance have as yet produced but poor fruit. A young man of respectable birth, some say apprentice to an apothecary, others to a grocer, took it into his head to go through a course of chemistry; his master consented, on condition that he should pay for board; the lad agreed. At the end of the quarter the master demanded the money, and it was paid. Soon after, another demand from the master; the apprentice replied that he barely owed a single quarter. The master denied that the first quarter had been paid. The affair was taken into court. The master is put on his oath, and swears. He had no sooner perjured himself than the apprentice produced his receipt, and the master was straightway fined and disgraced. He was a scoundrel who deserved it, but the apprentice was a rash fellow, whose victory was bought at a price dearer than life. He had received, in payment or otherwise, from some colporteur, two copies of Christianity Unveiled, and one of them he had sold to his master. The master informs against him. The colporteur, his wife, and his apprentice, are all three arrested, and they have just been pilloried, whipped, and branded, and the apprentice condemned to nine years of the galleys, the colporteur to five years, and the woman to the hospital for life.... Do you see the meaning of this judgment? A colporteur brings me a prohibited book. If I buy more than one copy, I am declared to be encouraging unlawful trading, and exposed to a frightful prosecution. You have read the Man with Forty Crowns, and will hardly be able to guess why it is placed under the ban in the judgment I am telling you of. It is in consequence of the profound resentment that our lords and masters feel about a certain article, Tyrant, in the Philosophical Dictionary. They will never forgive Voltaire for saying that it was better to have to do with a single wild beast, which one could avoid, than with a band of little subaltern tigers who are incessantly getting between your legs.... To return to those two unfortunate wretches whom they have condemned to the galleys. When they come out, what will become of them? There will be nothing left for them to do, save to turn highway robbers. The ignominious penalties, which take away all resource from a man, are worse than the capital punishment that takes away his life."
Method and Genius: an Apologue.—"There was a question between Grimm and M. Le Roy of creative genius and co-ordinating method. Grimm detests method; according to him, it is the pedantry of letters. Those who can only arrange, would do as well to remain idle; those who can only get instruction from what has been arranged, would do as well to remain ignorant. What necessity is there for so many people knowing anything else besides their trade? They said a great many things that I don't report to you, and they would be saying things still, if the Abbe Galiani had not interrupted them:
'My friends, I remember a fable: pray listen to it. One day, in the depths of a forest, a dispute arose between a Nightingale and a Cuckoo. Each prizes its own gift. What bird, said the Cuckoo, has a song so easy, so simple, so natural, so measured, as mine?
What bird, said the Nightingale, has a song sweeter, more varied, more brilliant, more touching, than mine?
The Cuckoo: I say few things, but they are things of weight, of order, and people retain them.
The Nightingale: I love to use my voice, but I am always fresh, and I never weary. I enchant the woods; the Cuckoo makes them dismal. He is so attached to the lessons of his mother, that he would not dare to venture a single note that he had not taken from her. Now for me, I recognise no master. I laugh at rules. What comparison between his pedantic method and my glorious bursts?
The Cuckoo tried several times to interrupt the Nightingale. But nightingales always go on singing, and never listen; that is rather their weakness. Ours, carried away by his ideas, followed them with rapidity, without paying the least attention to the answers of his rival.
So after some talk and counter-talk, they agreed to refer their quarrel to the judgment of a third animal. But where were they to find this third, equally competent and impartial? It is not so easy to find a good judge. They sought on every side. As they crossed a meadow, they spied an Ass, one of the gravest and most solemn that ever was seen. Since the creation of the world, no ass had ever had such long ears. 'Ah,' said the Cuckoo, 'our luck is excellent; our quarrel is a matter of ears: here is our judge. God Almighty made him for the very purpose!'
The Ass went on browsing. He little thought that one day he would have to decide a question of music. But Providence amuses itself with this and many another thing. Our two birds bow very low, compliment him upon his gravity and his judgment, explain the subject of their dispute, and beseech him, with all deference, to listen to their case and decide.
But the Ass, hardly turning his heavy head and without losing a single toothsome blade, makes them a sign with his ears that he is hungry, and that he does not hold his court to-day. The birds persist; the Ass goes on browsing. At last his hunger was appeased. There were some trees planted by the edge of the meadow. 'Now, if you like,' said he, 'you go there, I will follow; you shall sing, I will digest; I will listen, and I'll give you my opinion.'
The birds instantly fly away, and perch on branches. The Ass follows them with the air and the step of a chief justice crossing Westminster Hall: he stretches himself flat on the ground, and says, 'Begin, the court listens.'
Says the Cuckoo: 'My lord, there is not a word to lose. I beg of you to seize carefully the character of my singing; above all things, deign, my lord, to mark its artifice and its method.' Then filling its throat, and flapping its wings at each note, it sang out, 'Coucou, coucou, coucou, coucou, coucou, coucou.' And after having combined this in every possible way, it fell silent.
The Nightingale, without any prelude, pours forth his voice at once, launches into the most daring modulations, pursues the freshest and most delicate melodies, cadences, pauses, and trills; now you heard the notes murmuring at the bottom of its throat, like the ripple of the brook as it loses itself among the pebbles; now you heard them rising and gradually swelling and filling the air, and lingering long-drawn in the skies. It was tender, glad, brilliant, pathetic; but his music was not made for everybody.
Carried away by enthusiasm, he would be singing still; but the Ass, who had already yawned more than once, stopped him, and said, 'I suspect that all you have been singing there is uncommonly fine, but I don't understand a word of it: it strikes me as bizarre, incoherent, and confused. It may be you are more scientific than your rival; but he is more methodic than you, and for my part, I'm for method.'
"And then the abbe, addressing M. Le Roy, and pointing to Grimm with his finger: 'There,' he said, 'is the nightingale, and you the cuckoo; and I am the ass, who decide in your favour. Good-night.'
"The abbes stories are capital, but he acts in a way that makes them better still. You would have died with laughing to see him stretch his neck into the air, and imitate the fine note of the nightingale, then fill his throat, and take up the hoarse tone for the cuckoo; and all that naturally, and without effort. He is pantomime from head to foot."
Conversation.—"'Tis a singular thing, conversation, especially when the company is tolerably large. Look at the roundabout circuits we took; the dreams of a patient in delirium are not more incongruous. Still, just as there is nothing absolutely unconnected in the head either of a man who dreams, or of a lunatic, so all hangs together in conversation; but it would often be extremely hard to find the imperceptible links that have brought so many disparate ideas together. A man lets fall a word which he detaches from what has gone before, and what has followed in his head; another does the same, and then let him catch the thread who can. A single physical quality may lead the mind that is engaged upon it to an infinity of different things. Take a colour—yellow, for instance; gold is yellow, silk is yellow, care is yellow, bile is yellow, straw is yellow; to how many other threads does not this thread answer? Madness, dreaming, the rambling of conversation, all consist in passing from one object to another, through the medium of some common quality."
Annihilation.—"The conversation took a serious turn. They spoke of the horror that we all feel for annihilation.
"'Ah,' cried Father Hoop, 'be good enough to leave me out, if you please. I have been too uncomfortable the first time to have any wish to come back. If they would give me an immortality of bliss for a single day of purgatory, I would not take it. The best that can befall us is to cease to be.'
"This set me musing, and it seemed to me that so long as I was in good health I should agree with Father Hoop; but that, at the last instant, I should perhaps purchase the happiness of living again by a thousand, nay, ten thousand, years of hell. Ah, my dear, if I thought that I should see you again, I should soon persuade myself of what a daughter once succeeded in persuading her father on his deathbed. He was an old usurer; a priest had sworn to him that he would be damned unless he made restitution. He resolved to comply, and calling his daughter to his bedside, said to her: 'My child, you thought I should leave you very rich, and so I should; but the man there insists that I shall burn in hell-fire for ever, if I die without making restitution.' 'You are talking nonsense, father, with your restitution and your damnation,' the daughter answered; 'with your character I you will not have been damned ten years, before you will be perfectly used to it.'
"This struck him as true, and he died without making restitution.
"And so behold us launched into a discussion on life and death, on the world and its alleged Creator.
"Some one remarked that whether there be a God or no, it is impossible to introduce that device either into nature or into a discussion without darkening it.
"Another said that if a single supposition explained all the phenomena, it would not follow from this that it is true; for who knows whether the general order only allows of one reason? What, then, must we think of a supposition which, so far from resolving the one difficulty for the sake of which people imagined it, only makes an infinity of others spring up from it?
"I believe, my dear, that our chat by the fireside still amuses you; so I go on.
"Among these difficulties is one that has been proposed ever since the world has been a world; 'tis that men suffer without having deserved suffering. There has been no answer to it yet. 'Tis the incompatibility of physical and moral evil with the nature of the Eternal Being. This is how the dilemma is put: it is either impotence or bad will; impotence, if he wished to hinder evil and could not; bad will, if he could have hindered it and did not will it. A child would understand that. It is this that has led people to imagine the fault of the first father of us all, original sin, future rewards and punishments, the incarnation, immortality, the two principles of the Manicheans, the Ormuzd and Ahriman of the Persians, the doctrine of emanations, the empire of light and darkness, metempsychosis, optimism, and other absurdities that have found credit among the different nations of the earth, where there is always to be found some hollow vision of a dream, by way of answer to a clear, precise, and definite fact.
"On such occasions what is the part of good sense? Why, the part that we took: whatever the optimists may say, we will reply to them that if the universe could not exist without sensible creatures, nor sensible creatures without pain, there was nothing to do but to leave chaos at peace. They had got on very well for a whole eternity without any such piece of folly.
"The world a piece of folly! Ah, my dear, a glorious folly for all that! 'Tis, according to some of the inhabitants of Malabar, one of the seventy-four comedies with which the Eternal amuses himself.
"Leibnitz, the founder of optimism, tells somewhere how there was in the Temple of Memphis a high pyramid of globes placed one above the others; how a priest, being asked by a traveller about this pyramid and its globes, made answer that these were all the possible worlds, and that the most perfect of them all was at the summit; how the traveller, curious to see this most perfect of all possible worlds, mounted to the top of the pyramid, and the first thing that caught his eyes, as they turned towards the globe at the summit, was Tarquin outraging Lucretia."
Almost every letter reminds us that we are in the very height of the disputing, arguing, rationalistic century. Diderot delighted in this kind of argument, as Socrates or Dr. Johnson delighted in it. He was above all others the archetype and representative of the passion for moralising, analysing, and philosophising which made the epoch what it was; but the rest of the world was all in the same vein. If he came to Paris in a coach from the country, he found a young lady in it, eager to demonstrate that serious passions are nowadays merely ridiculous; that people only promise themselves pleasure, which they find or not, as the case may be; that thus they spare themselves all the broken oaths of old days. "I took the liberty of saying that I was still a man of those old days. 'So much the worse for you,' she said, 'you either deceive or are deceived, and one is as bad as the other.'" If Grimm and Madame d'Epinay and he were together, they discussed ethics from morning to night; Diderot always on the side of the view that made most for the dignity and worth of human nature. Grimm is described on one of these occasions as having rather displeased Madame d'Epinay: "He was not sufficiently ready to disapprove the remark of a man of our acquaintance, who said that it was right to observe the most scrupulous probity with one's friends, but that it was mere dupery to treat other people better than they would treat us. We maintained, she and I, that it was right and necessary to be honest and good with all the world without distinction."
Here is another picture of discussion, with an introduction that is thoroughly characteristic of Diderot's temper:
"This man looks at the human race only on its dark side. He does not believe in virtuous actions; he disparages them, and denies them. If he tells a story, it is always about something scandalous and abominable. I have just told you of the two women of my acquaintance, of whom he took occasion to speak as ill as he could to Madame Le Gendre. They have their defects, no doubt; but they have also their good qualities. Why be silent about the good qualities, and only pick out the defects? There is in all that a kind of envy that wounds me—me who read men as I read authors, and who never burden my memory except with things that are good to know and good to imitate. The conversation between Suard and Madame Le Gendre had been very vivacious. They sought the reasons why persons of sensibility were so readily, so strongly, so deliciously moved at the story of a good action. Suard maintained that it was due to a sixth sense that nature had endowed us with, to judge the good and the beautiful. They pressed to know what I thought of it. I answered that this sixth sense was a chimaera; that all was the result of experience in us; that we learnt from our earliest infancy what it was in our instinct to hide or to show. When the motives of our actions, our judgments, our demonstrations, are present to us, we have what is called science; when they are not present to our memory, we have only what is called taste, instinct, and tact. The reasons for showing ourselves sensible to the recital of good actions are numberless: we reveal a quality that is worthy of infinite esteem; we promise to others our esteem, if ever they deserve it by any uncommon or worthy piece of conduct.... Independently of all these views of interest, we have a notion of order, and a taste for order, which we cannot resist, and which drags us along in spite of ourselves. Every fine action implies sacrifice; and it is impossible for us not to pay our homage to self-sacrifice"—and so forth.
Alas, all these endless debates and dialogues lacked the inspiration and the charm with which the genius of a Plato could adorn the narrowest quibble between Socrates and a Sophist. "Diderot," said Mademoiselle de Lespinasse, "is an extraordinary man; he is out of his place in society; he was meant for the chief of a sect, a Greek philosopher, instructing youth. He pleases me greatly, but his manner does not touch my soul." And we understand this. People disputed what virtue is, but the dispute failed in that undefined spirit which makes men love and adore virtue. Goodness is surrounded with no spacious beauty, it is clothed with none of the high associations of spontaneous piety. The discussion seems close, stifling, and airless. Yet ages of loftier speech and greater spirituality have not always been so favourable to the affections or to the attachments of life. In amiability that society has never been surpassed; in sincerity of mutual sympathy and kindliness of mutual regard. The common irregularity of morals was seen to be perfectly compatible not merely with a desire to please, but with an honest anxiety to serve.
Of the thorough excellence of Diderot's heart, of his friendliness and unwearied helpfulness, time would fail us to tell. Men's conceptions of friendship differ as widely as their conceptions of other things. Some look to friendship for absolute exemption from all criticism, and for a mutual admiration without limit or conditions. Others mistake it for the right of excessive criticism, in season and out of season.
Diderot was content to take friendship as the right, the duty, or the privilege of rendering services, without thought of requiring either them, or gratitude for them, back in return. This we must confess to be rare. No man that ever lived showed more sterling interest in furthering the affairs of others around him. He seemed to admit every claim on his time, his purse, and his talents. A stranger called upon him one day, and begged Diderot to write for him a puffing advertisement of a new pomatum. Diderot with a laugh sat down and wrote what was wanted. The graver occasions of life found him no less ready. Damilaville lost one of his children, and his wife was inconsolable. It was Diderot who was summoned, and who cheerfully went for days together to soothe and divert her mind. For his correspondent and for us he makes the tedium of his story beautiful by recalling the fine saying of a grief-stricken woman in Metastasio, when they tried to console her by the example of Abraham, who was ready even to slay his son at the command of God: Ah, God would never have given such an order to his mother!
The abbe Le Monnier wrote the worst verses that ever were read, a play that was instantly damned, and a translation of Terence that came into the world dead. But bad writers are always the most shameless intruders on the time of good critics, and we find Diderot willingly spending hours over the abbe's handwriting, which was as wretched as what he wrote, and then spending hours more in offering critical observations on verses that were only fit to be thrown into the fire. The abbe, being absent from Paris and falling short of money, requested Diderot to sell for him his copy of the Encyclopaedia. "I have sold your Encyclopaedia," said Diderot, "but did not get so much as I expected, for the rumour spread abroad by those scoundrels of Swiss booksellers, that they were going to issue a revised edition, has done us some harm. Send for the nine hundred and fifty livres (about L40) that belong to you, and if that is not enough for your expenses, besides the drawer that holds your money is another that holds mine. I don't know how much there is, but I will count it all at your disposal."
One Jodin, again, was a literary hack who had been employed on the Encyclopaedia. He died, leaving a foolish and extravagant widow, and a perverse and violent daughter. The latter went on to the stage, and Diderot took as much trouble in advising her, in seeking appointments for her, in executing her commissions, in investing her earnings, in dealing with her relatives, as if he had been her own father. If his counsels on her art are admirable, there is something that moves us with more than admiration in the good sense, the right feeling, the worthiness of his counsels on conduct. And Diderot did not merely moralise at large. All that he says is real, pointed, and apt for circumstance and person. The petulant damsel to whom they were addressed would not be likely to yawn over the sharp remonstrances, the vigorous plain speaking, the downright honesty and visible sincerity of his friendliness. It appears that she had sense enough not to be offended with the frankness of her father's old employer, for after he has plainly told her that she is violent, rude, vain, and not always too truthful, she still writes to him from Warsaw, from Dresden, from Bordeaux, praying him to procure a certain bracelet for her, to arrange her mother's affairs, to find a good investment for twelve thousand francs. When the mother was in the depths of indigence, Diderot insisted that she should take her meals at his own table. And all this for no other reason than that the troublesome pair had been thrown in his way by the chance of human circumstance, and needed help which he was able, not without sacrifice, to give. Mademoiselle Jodin was hardly worthy of so good a friend. Her parents were Protestants, and as she was a convert, she enjoyed a pension of some eight pounds a year. That did not prevent her from one day indulging in some too sprightly sallies, as the host was carried along the street. For this she was put into prison, and that is our last glimpse of the light creature.
Men knew how to be as wrong-headed and as graceless as women. We have already mentioned the name of Landois in connection with Diderot's article on Liberty. Landois seems to have been a marvel of unreasonableness, but he was a needy man of letters, and that was enough to make Diderot ready to bear with him and to succour him. He wound up an epistle abounding, after the manner of the worthless failures of the world, in reproaches and grievances against his benefactor, with a cool request about a manuscript that was full of dangerous matter. "Why, that," replied Diderot, "is a work that might well be the ruin of me! And it is after you have on two separate occasions charged me with the most atrocious and deliberate offences towards you, that you now propose that I should revise and print your work! You know that I have a wife and child, that I am a marked man, that you are putting me into the class of hardened offenders; never mind, you don't think of one of these things. You take me for an imbecile, or else you are one. But you are no imbecile.... I see through men's designs, and often enough I lend myself to them, without deigning to disabuse them as to the stupidity which they impute to me. It is enough if I perceive in their design some great service for them, and not an excess of inconvenience for myself. It is not I who am the fool, so often as people take me for one." Diderot then seems half to forget to whom he is writing and pours out what reads like a long soliloquy on morals, conduct, and the philosophy of life. He insists that man, with all his high-flying freedom of will, is but a little link in a great chain of events. He is a creature to be modified from without; hence the good effects of example, discourse, education, pleasures, pains, greatness, misery. Hence a sort of philosophy of commiseration, which attaches us strongly to the good, and irritates us no more against the bad than against a wind-storm that fills our eyes with dust. If you adopt such principles as these, they will reconcile you with others and yourself; you will neither praise nor blame yourself for what you are. To reproach others with nothing, to repent yourself of nothing—these are the two first steps towards wisdom; this is the philosophy that reconciles us with the human race and with life.
When he was in the very midst of all the toil and strife that the Encyclopaedia brought upon him, he could not refuse to spend three whole days in working like a galley-slave at an account of an important discovery that had been made by some worthy people with whom he was acquainted slightly. "But while I was busy about their affairs, my own are at a standstill. I write to you from Le Breton's, with a mass of uncorrected proofs before me, and the printers crying out for them. Still Grimm must be right, when he says that time is not a thing of which we are free to dispose at our own fancy; that we owe it first and foremost to our friends, our relations, our daily duties; and that in the lavish profusion of our time on people who are indifferent, there is nothing less than vice." Yet in spite of Grimm's most just remonstrance, the lavish profusion always went on as before.
There was one man, and only one man, for whose perverse and intractable spirit Diderot's most friendly patience, helpfulness, and devotion, were no match. I have already, in dealing with Rousseau, said as much of the quarrel which he picked with Diderot as the matter requires, and it would be superfluous to go over the ground again from another side. Whether we listen to Rousseau's story or to Diderot's story, our judgment on what happened remains unchanged. We have already seen how warm and close an intimacy subsisted between them in the days when Diderot was a prisoner at Vincennes (1749). When Rousseau made up his mind to leave Paris and turn hermit (1756), there was a loud outcry from the social group at Holbach's. They said to him, in the least theological dialect of their day, what Sir Walter Scott had said to Ballantyne when Ballantyne thought of leaving Edinburgh, that, "when our Saviour himself was to be led into temptation, the first thing the Devil thought of was to get him into the wilderness." Diderot remonstrated rather more loudly than Rousseau's other friends, but there was no breach, and even no coolness. What sort of humours were bred by solitude in Rousseau's wayward mind we know, and the Confessions tell us how for a year and a half he was silently brooding over fancied slights and perhaps real pieces of heedlessness. Grimm, who was Diderot's closest friend next to Mademoiselle Voland, despised Rousseau, and Rousseau detested Grimm. "Grimm," he one day said to a disciple, "is the only man whom I have ever been able to hate." Madame d'Epinay was compelled to go to Geneva for her health, and Grimm easily persuaded Diderot that Rousseau was bound by all the ties of gratitude to accompany his benefactress on the expedition. Diderot wrote to the hermit a very strong letter to this effect: it made Rousseau furious. He declined the urgent counsel, he quarrelled outright and violently with Grimm, and after an angry and confusing interview with Diderot, all intercourse ceased with him also. "That man," wrote Diderot, on the evening of this, their last interview, "intrudes into my work; he fills me with trouble, and I feel as if I were haunted by a damned soul at my side. May I never see him more; he would make me believe in devils and hell." And writing afterwards to some friend at Geneva, he recalls the days when he used to pour out the talk of intimacy "with the man who has buried himself at the bottom of a wood, where his soul has been soured and his moral nature has been corrupted. Yet how I pity him! Imagine that I used to love him, that I remember those old days of friendship, and that I see him now with crime on one side and remorse on the other, with deep waters in front of him. He will many a time be the torment of my thought; our common friends have judged between him and me; I have kept them all, and to him there remains not one." It was not in Diderot's nature to bear malice, and when eight years later Rousseau passed through Paris on his ill-starred way to England and the Derbyshire hills, Diderot described the great pleasure that a visit from Rousseau would give to him. "Ah, I do well," he says, "not to let the access to my heart be too easy; when anybody has once found a place in it, he does not leave it without making a grievous rent; 'tis a wound that can never be thoroughly cauterised."
It is needless to remind the neutral reader that Rousseau uses exactly the same kind of language about his heart. For this is the worst of sentimentalism, that it is so readily bent into a substitution of indulgence to oneself for upright and manly judgment about others. Still we may willingly grant that in the present rupture of a long friendship, it was not Diderot who was the real offender. Too many honest people would be in the wrong, he most truly said, if Jean Jacques were in the right.
Of Grimm, I have already said elsewhere as much as is needful to be said. His judgment in matters of conduct and character was cool and rather hard, but it was generally sound. He had a keen eye for what was hollow in the pretensions of the society in which he lived. Above all, he had the keen eye of his countrymen for his own interest, and for the use which he could make of other people. The best thing that we know in his favour, is that he should have won the friendship of Diderot. Diderot's attachment to Grimm seems like an exaggeration of the excesses of the epoch of sentimentalism in Germany.
He pines for a letter from him, as he pined for letters from Mademoiselle Voland. If Grimm had been absent for a few months, their meeting was like a scene in a melodrama. "With what ardour we enclasped one another. My heart was swimming. I could not speak a word, nor could he. We embraced without speaking, and I shed tears. We were not expecting him. We were all at dessert when he was announced, 'Here is M. Grimm.' 'M. Grimm,' I exclaimed, with a loud cry; and starting up, I ran to him and fell on his neck. He sat down, and ate a poor meal, you may be sure. As for me, I could not open my lips either to eat or to speak. He was next to me, and I kept pressing his hand and gazing at him." Mademoiselle Voland appears on some occasion to have compared Diderot with his friend. "No more comparison, I beseech you, my good friend, between Grimm and me. I console myself for his superiority by frankly recognising it. I am vain of the victory that I thus gain over my self-love, and you must not deprive me of that little advantage." Grimm, however, knew better than Diderot how to unite German sentimentalism with a steady selfishness. "I have just received from Grimm," writes good-natured Diderot, "a note that wounds my too sensitive spirit. I had promised to write him a few lines on the exhibition of pictures in the Salon; he writes to me that if it is not ready to-morrow, it will be of no use. I will be revenged for this kind of hardness, and in a way that becomes me. I worked all day yesterday, and all day to-day. I shall pass the night at work, and all to-morrow, and at nine o'clock he shall receive a volume of manuscript." We may doubt whether his German friend would feel the force of a rebuke so extremely convenient to himself.
While Grimm was amusing himself at Madame d'Epinay's country house, Diderot was working at the literary correspondence which Grimm was accustomed to send to St. Petersburg and the courts of Germany. While Grimm was hunting pensions and honorary titles at Saxe-Gotha, or currying favour with Frederick and waiting for gold boxes at Potsdam, Diderot was labouring like any journeyman in writing on his behalf accounts and reviews of the books, good, bad, and indifferent, with which the Paris market teemed. When there were no new books to talk about, the ingenious man, with the resource of the born journalist, gave extracts from books that did not exist. When we hear of Paris being the centre of European intelligence and literary activity, we may understand that these circular letters of Grimm and Diderot were the machinery by which the light of Paris was diffused among darker lands. It is not too much to say that no contemporary record so intelligent, so independent, so vigorous, so complete, exists of any other remarkable literary epoch.
The abbe Raynal, of whom we shall have more to say in a later chapter, had founded this counterpart of a modern review in 1747, and he sent a copy of it in manuscript once a month to anybody who cared to pay three hundred francs a year. In 1753 Raynal had handed the business over to Grimm, and by him it was continued until 1790, twelve years beyond the life of Voltaire and of Rousseau, and six years after the death of the ablest, most original, and most ungrudging of all those who gave him their help.
An interesting episode in Diderot's life brought him into direct relations with one of the two crowned patrons of the revolutionary literature, who were philosophers in profession and the most arbitrary of despots in their practice. Frederick the Great, whose literary taste was wholly in the vein of the conventional French classic, was never much interested by Diderot's writing, and felt little curiosity about him. Catherine of Russia was sufficiently an admirer of the Encyclopaedia to be willing to serve its much-enduring builder. In 1765, when the enterprise was in full course, Diderot was moved by a provident anxiety about the future of his daughter. He had no dower for her in case a suitor should present himself, and he had but a scanty substance to leave her in case of his own death. The income of the property which he inherited from his father was regularly handed to his wife for the maintenance of the household. His own earnings, as we have seen, were of no considerable amount. There are men of letters, he wrote in 1767, to whom their industry has brought as much as twenty, thirty, eighty, or even a hundred thousand francs. As for himself, he thought that perhaps the fruit of his literary occupations would come to about forty thousand crowns, or some five thousand pounds sterling. "One could not amass wealth," he said pensively, and his words are of grievous generality for the literary tribe, "but one could acquire ease and comfort, if only these sums were not spread over so many years, did not vanish away as they were gathered in, and had not all been scattered and spent by the time that years had multiplied, wants, grown more numerous, eyes grown dim, and mind become blunted and worn." This was his own case. His earnings were never thriftily husbanded. Diderot could not deny himself a book or an engraving that struck his fancy, though he was quite willing to make a present of it to any appreciative admirer the day after he had bought it. He was extravagant in hiring a hackney-coach where another person would have gone on foot, and not seldom the coachman stood for half a day at the door, while the heedless passenger was expatiating within upon truth, virtue, and the fine arts, unconscious of the passing hours and the swollen reckoning. Hence, when the time came, there were no savings. We have to take a man with the defects of his qualities, and as Diderot would not have been Diderot if he had taken time to save money, there is no more to be said.
When it became his duty to provide for his daughter, between 1763 and 1765, he resolved to sell his library. Through Grimm, Diderot's position reached the ears of the Empress of Russia. Her agent was instructed to buy the library at the price fixed by its possessor, and Diderot received sixteen thousand livres, a sum equal to something more than seven hundred pounds sterling of that day. The Empress added a handsome bounty to the bargain. She requested Diderot to consider himself the custodian of the new purchase on her behalf, and to receive a thousand livres a year for his pains. The salary was paid for fifty years in advance, and so Diderot drew at once what must have seemed to him the royal sum of between two and three thousand pounds sterling—a figure that would have to be trebled, or perhaps quadrupled, to convey its value in the money of our own day. We may wish for the honour of letters that Diderot had been able to preserve his independence. But pensions were the custom of the time. Voltaire, though a man of solid wealth, did not disdain an allowance from Frederick the Great, and complained shrilly because it was irregularly paid at the very time when he knew that Frederick was so short of money that he was driven to melt his plate. D'Alembert also had his pension from Berlin, and Grimm, as we have seen, picked up unconsidered trifles in half of the northern courts. Frederick offered an allowance to Rousseau, but that strange man, in whom so much that was simple, touching, and lofty, mingled with all that was wayward and perverse, declined to tax the king's strained finances.
It would shed an instructive light upon authorship and the characters of famous men, if we could always know the relations between a writer and his booksellers. Diderot's point of view in considering the great modern enginery and processes of producing and selling books, was invariably, like his practice, that of a man of sound common sense and sterling integrity. We have seen in the previous chapter something of the difficulties of the trade in those days. The booksellers were a close guild of three hundred and sixty members, and the printers were limited to thirty-six. Their privileges brought them little fortune. They were of the lowest credit and repute, and most of them were hardly better than beggars. It was said that not a dozen out of the three hundred and sixty could afford to have more than one coat for his back. They were bound hand and foot by vexatious rules, and their market was gradually spoiled by a band of men whom they hated as interlopers, but whom the public had some reason to bless. No bookseller nor printer could open an establishment outside of the quarter of the University, or on the north side of the bridges. The restriction, which was as old as the introduction of printing into France, had its origin in the days when the visits of the royal inspectors to the presses and bookshops were constant and rigorous, and it saved the time of the officials to have all their business close to their hand. Inasmuch, however, as people insisted on having books, and as they did not always choose to be at the pains of making a long journey to the region of the booksellers' shops, hawkers sprang into existence. Men bought books or got them on credit from the booksellers, and carried them in a bag over their shoulders to the houses of likely customers, just as a peddler now carries laces and calico, cheap silks and trumpory jewellery, round the country villages. Even poor women filled their aprons with a few books, took them across the bridges, and knocked at people's doors. This would have been well enough in the eyes of the guild, if the hawkers had been content to buy from the legally patented booksellers. But they began secretly to turn publishers in a small way on their own account. Contraband was here, as always, the natural substitute for free trade. They both issued pirated editions of their own, and they became the great purchasers and distributors of the pirated editions that came in vast bales from Switzerland, from Holland, from the Pope's country of Avignon. To their craft or courage the public owed its copies of works whose circulation was forbidden by the government. The Persian Letters of Montesquieu was a prohibited book, but, for all that, there were a hundred editions of it before it had been published twenty years, and every schoolboy could find a copy on the quays for a dozen halfpence. Bayle's Thoughts on the Comet, Rousseau's Emilius and Heloisa, Helvetius's L'Esprit, and a thousand other forbidden pieces were in every library, both public and private. The Social Contract, printed over and over again in endless editions, was sold for a shilling under the vestibule of the king's own palace. When the police were in earnest, the hawker ran horrible risks, as we saw a few pages further back; for these risks he recompensed himself by his prices. A prohibition by the authorities would send a book up within four-and-twenty hours from half a crown to a couple of louis. This only increased the public curiosity, quickened the demand, led to clandestine reprints, and extended the circulation of the book that was nominally suppressed. When the condemnation of a book was cried through the streets, the compositors said, "Good, another edition!" There was no favour that an unknown author could have asked from the magistrates so valuable to him as a little decree condemning his work to be torn up and burnt at the foot of the great staircase of the Palace of Justice.
It was this practical impossibility of suppression that interested both the guild of publishers and the government in the conditions of the book trade. The former were always harassed, often kept poor, and sometimes ruined, by systematic piracy and the invasion of their rights. The government, on the other hand, could not help seeing that, as the books could not possibly be kept out of the realm, it was to be regretted that their production conferred no benefit on the manufacturing industry of the realm, the composition, the printing, the casting of type, the fabrication of paper, the preparation of leather and vellum, the making of machines and tools. When Bayle's Dictionary appeared, it was the rage of Europe. Hundreds of the ever-renowned folios found their way into France, and were paid for by French money. The booksellers addressed the minister, and easily persuaded him of the difference, according to the economic light of those days, between an exchange of money against paper, compared with an exchange of paper against paper. The minister replied that this was true, but still that the gates of the kingdom would never be opened to a single copy of Bayle. "The best thing to do," he said, "is to print it here." And the third edition of Bayle was printed in France, much to the contentment of the French printers, binders, and booksellers.
In 1761 the booksellers were afflicted by a new alarm. Foreign pirates and domestic hawkers were doing them mischief enough. But in that year the government struck a blow at the very principle of literary property. The King's Council conferred upon the descendants of La Fontaine the exclusive privilege of publishing their ancestor's works. That is to say, the Council took away without compensation from La Fontaine's publishers a copyright for which they had paid in hard cash. The whole corporation naturally rose in arms, and in due time the lieutenant of police was obliged to take the whole matter into serious consideration—whether the maintenance of the guild of publishers was expedient; whether the royal privilege of publishing a book should be regarded as conferring a definite and unassailable right of property in the publication; whether the tacit permission to publish what it would have been thought unbecoming to authorise expressly by royal sanction, should not be granted liberally or even universally; and whether the old restriction of the booksellers to one quarter of the town ought to remain in force any longer. M. de Sartine invited Diderot to write him a memorandum on the subject, and was disappointed to find Diderot staunchly on the side of the booksellers (1767). He makes no secret, indeed, that for his own part he would like to see the whole apparatus of restraint abolished, but meanwhile he is strong for doing all that a system of regulation, as opposed to a system of freedom, can do to make the publication of books a source of prosperity to the bookseller, and of cheap acquisition to the book-buyer. Above all things, Diderot is vehemently in favour of the recognition of literary property, and against such infringement of it as had been ventured upon in the case of La Fontaine. He had no reason to be especially friendly to booksellers, but for one thing, he saw that to nullify or to tamper with copyright was in effect to prevent an author from having any commodity to sell, and so to do him the most serious injury possible. And for another thing, Diderot had equity and common sense enough to see that no high-flown nonsense about the dignity of letters and the spiritual power could touch the fact that a book is a piece of marketable ware, and that the men who deal in such wares have as much claim to be protected in their contracts as those who deal in any other wares.
There is a vivid illustration of this unexpected business-like quality in Diderot, in a conversation that he once had with D'Alembert. The dialogue is interesting to those who happen to be curious as to the characters of two famous men. It was in 1759, when D'Alembert was tired of the Encyclopaedia, and was for making hard terms as the condition of his return to it. "If," said Diderot to him, "six months ago, when we met to deliberate on the continuation of the work, you had then proposed these terms, the booksellers would have closed with them on the spot, but now, when they have the strongest reasons to be out of humour with you, that is another thing."
"And pray, what reasons?"
"Can you ask me?"
"Then I will tell you. You have a bargain with the booksellers; the terms are stipulated; you have nothing to ask beyond them. If you worked harder than you were bound to do, that was out of your interest in the book, out of friendship to me, out of respect for yourself; people do not pay in money for such motives as these. Still they sent you twenty louis a volume: that makes a hundred and forty louis that you had beyond what was due to you. You plan a journey to Wesel [in 1752, to meet Frederick of Prussia] at a time when you were wanted by them here; they do not detain you; on the contrary, you are short of money, and they supply you. You accept a couple of hundred louis; this debt you forget for two or three years. At the end of that rather long term you bethink you of paying. What do they do? They hand you back your note of hand torn up, with all the air of being very glad to have served you. Then, after all, you turn your back on an undertaking in which they have embarked their whole fortunes: an affair of a couple of millions is a trifle unworthy of the attention of a philosopher like you.... But that is not all. You have a fancy for collecting together different pieces scattered through the Encyclopaedia; nothing can be more opposed to their interests; they put this to you, you insist, the edition is produced, they advance the cost, you share the profits. It seemed that, after having thus twice paid you for their work, they had a right to look upon it as theirs. Yet you go in search of a bookseller in some quite different direction, and sell him in a mass what does not belong to you."
"They gave me a thousand grounds for dissatisfaction."
"Quelle defaite! There are no small things between friends. Everything weighs, because friendship is a commerce of purity and delicacy; but are the booksellers your friends? Then your behaviour to them is horrible. If not, then you have nothing to say against them. If the public were called upon to judge between you and them, my friend, you would be covered with shame."
"What, can it be you, Diderot, who thus take the side of the booksellers?"
"My grievances against them do not prevent me from seeing their grievances against you. After all this show of pride, confess now that you are cutting a very sorry figure?"
All this was the language of good sense, and there is no evidence that Diderot ever swerved from that fair and honourable attitude in his own dealings with the booksellers. Yet he was able to treat them with a sturdy spirit when they forgot themselves. Panckoucke, one of the great publishers of the time, came to him one day. "He was swollen with the arrogance of a parvenu, and thinking apparently that he could use me like one of those poor devils who depend upon him for a crust of bread, he permitted himself to fly into a passion; but it did not succeed at all. I let him go on as he pleased; then I got up abruptly, I took him by the arm, and I said to him: 'M. Panckoucke, in whatever place it may be, in the street, in church, in a bad house, and to whomsoever it may be, it is always right to keep a civil tongue in one's head. But that is all the more necessary still, when you speak to a man who has as little patience as I have, and that, too, in his own house. Go to the devil, you and your work. If you would give me twenty thousand louis, and I could do your business for you in the twinkling of an eye, I would not stir a finger. Be kind enough to be off."
Before returning from the author to his books, it is interesting to know how he and his circle appeared at this period to some who did not belong to them. Gibbon, for instance, visited Paris in the spring of 1763. "The moment," he says, "was happily chosen. At the close of a successful war the British name was respected on the continent; clarum et venerabile nomen gentibus. Our opinions, our fashions, even our games were adopted in France, a ray of national glory illuminated each individual, and every Englishman was supposed to be born a patriot and philosopher." He mentions D'Alembert and Diderot as those among the men of letters whom he saw, who "held the foremost rank in merit, or at least in fame."
Horace Walpole was often in Paris, and often saw the philosophic circle, but it did not please his supercilious humour.
"There was no soul in Paris but philosophers, whom I wished in heaven, though they do not wish themselves so. They are so overbearing and underbred.... I sometimes go to Baron d'Holbach's, but I have left off his dinners, as there was no bearing the authors and philosophers and savants of which he has a pigeon-house full. They soon turned my head with a system of antediluvian deluges which they have invented to prove the eternity of matter.... In short, nonsense for nonsense, I liked the Jesuits better than the philosophers."
Hume, as everybody knows, found "the men of letters really very agreeable; all of them men of the world, living in entire, or almost entire harmony, among themselves, and quite irreproachable in their morals." He places Diderot among those whose person and conversation he liked best.
We have always heard much of the power of the Salon in the eighteenth century, and it was no doubt a remarkable proof of the incorporation of intellectual interests in manners, that so many groups of men and women should have met habitually every week for the purpose of conversing about the new books and new plays, the fresh principles and fresh ideas, that were produced by the incessant vivacity of the time. The Salon of the eighteenth century passed through various phases; its character shifted with the intellectual mood of the day, but in all its phases it was an institution in which women occupied a place that they have never acquired in any society out of France. We are not here called upon to speculate as to the reasons for this; it is only worth remarking that Diderot was not commonly at his ease in the society of ladies, and that though he was a visitor at Madame Geoffrin's and at Mademoiselle Lespinasse's, yet he was not a constant attendant at any of the famous circles of which women had made themselves the centre. The reader of Madame d'Epinay's memoir is informed how hard she found it to tame Diderot into sociability. "What a pity," she exclaims, "that men of genius and of such eminent merit as M. Diderot should thus wrap themselves up in their philosophy, and disdain the homage that people would eagerly pay them in any society that they would honour with their presence." One of the soundest social observers of the time was undoubtedly Duclos. His Considerations on the Manners of the Century, which was published in 1751, abounds in admirable criticism. He makes two remarks with which we may close our chapter. "The relaxation of morals does not prevent people from being very loud in praise of honour and virtue; those who have least of them know very well how much they are concerned in other people having them." Again, "The French," he said, "are the only people among whom it is possible for morals to be depraved, without either the heart being corrupted, or their courage being weakened."
There is at first something incredible in the account given by some thinkers of Diderot, as the greatest genius of the eighteenth century; and perhaps an adjustment of such nice degrees of comparison among the high men of the world is at no time very profitable. What is intended by these thoroughgoing panegyrists is that Diderot placed himself at the point of view whence, more comprehensively than was possible from any other, he discerned the long course and the many bearings, the complex faces and the large ramifications, of the huge movement of his day. He seized the great transition at every point, and grasped all the threads that were to be inwoven into the pattern of the new time.
Diderot is in a thousand respects one of the most unsatisfactory of men and of writers. Yet it is hard to deny that to whatever quarter he turned, he caught the rising illumination and was shone upon by the spirit of the coming day. It was no copious and overflowing radiance, but they were the beams of the dawn. Hence, what he has to say, and we shall soon see how much he said, about the two great arts of painting and the drama, though it is fragmentary, though it is insufficient, yet points, as all the rest of his thoughts pointed, along the lines that the best minds of the western world have since traversed. He would, in the old metaphysical language, have called the direction of it a turning to Nature, but if we translate this into more positive terms, just as we have said that the Encyclopaedia was a glorification of pacific industry and of civil justice, so we may say that his whole theory of the drama was a glorification of private virtues and domestic life. And the definite rise of civil justice and industry over feudal privilege and a life of war, and again the elevation of domestic virtue into the place formerly held by patriotic devotion, are the two great sides of a single movement. It is quite true that Diderot and the French of that day had only a glimpse of the promised land in art and poetry. The whole moral energy of the generation after Diderot was drawn inevitably into the strong current of social action. The freshly kindled torch of dramatic art passed for nearly half a century to the country of Lessing and Goethe.
There is in the use of a certain kind of abstract language this inconvenience, that the reader may suppose us to be imputing to Diderot a deliberate and systematic survey of the whole movement of his time, and a calculated resolution to further it, now in this way and now in that. It is not necessary to suppose that the movement as a whole was always present to him. Diderot's mind was constantly feeling for explanations; it was never a passive recipient. The drama excited this alert interest just as everything else excited it. He thought about that, as about everything else, originally, that is to say, sincerely and in the spirit of reality. Whoever turns with a clear eye and proper intellectual capacity in search of the real bearings of what he is about, is sure to find out the strong currents of the time, even though he may never consciously throw them into their most general and abstract expression.