I do not suppose, Spectator of the World, that you propose to fill your pages with facts concerning the physical world. Socrates, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, allowed all the spheres to gravitate one on the top of the other, that they might devote themselves to the regulation of manners. Are your speculations also thus concentrated on morality? But what do you expect from a morality which the teachers of the nations have already preached about with so much success?

I agree with you that it is somewhat of a reflection on human nature that money accomplishes everything and merit almost nothing: that the real workers, behind the scenes, have hardly a modest subsistance, while certain selected personages flaunt on the stage: that fools are exalted to the skies, and genius is in the gutter: that a father disinherits six virtuous children to make his first-born–often a scapegrace–heir to all his possessions: that a luckless wretch who comes to grief, or to any unhappy end in a foreign country, leaves the fortune of his natural inheritors to the treasury of that state.

It is sad to see–I confess it again–those who toil in poverty, and those who produce nothing, in luxury: great proprietors who claim the very birds that fly and the fish that swim: trembling vassals who do not dare to free their houses from the wild boar that devours them: fanatics who want to burn everyone who does not pray to God after their own fashion: violence in high places which engenders violence in the people: might making right not only amongst nations but amongst individuals.

And it is this state of things, common to all lives and to all places, which you expect to change! Behold the folly of you moralists! Mount the pulpit with Bourdaloue, or wield the pen like La Bruyère, and you waste your time–the world will go its way!

A government which could provide for all would do more in a year than the order of preaching friars has done since their institution.

In a very short space of time Lycurgus raised the Spartans above ordinary humanity. The force of Confucius’ wisdom, two thousand years ago, is still felt in China.

But, as neither you nor I are made to govern, if you have such an itching for reform, reform our virtues, which in excess may well become prejudicial to the prosperity of the state. It is easier to reform virtues than vices. The list of exaggerated virtues would be a long one: I will mention a few, and you will easily guess the rest.

I observe, walking about the country, that the children of the soil eat much less than they require: it is difficult to conceive this immoderate passion for abstinence. It even looks as if they had got into their heads that it will be accounted to them for virtue if their beasts also are half-starved.

What is the result? Men and beasts waste away, their stock becomes feeble, work is suspended, and the cultivation of the land suffers.

Patience is another virtue carried to excess, perhaps, in the country. If the tax collectors limited themselves to executing the will of their lord, to be patient would be a duty: but if you question these good folk who supply us with bread, they will tell you that the manner in which the taxes are levied is a hundred times more onerous than the tax itself. Their patience ruins them and their landowners with them.

The evangelical pulpit has reproached kings and the great a hundred times for their harshness to the poor. The fault has been corrected–in excess. The royal antechambers overflow with servants better fed and better clothed than the lords of the parishes whence they come. This excess of charity robs the country of soldiers, and the land of labourers

Spectator of the World, do not let the scheme of reforming our virtues shock you: the founders of religious orders have reformed each other. Another reason for encouragement is that it is perhaps easier to discern an excess of good than to pronounce on the nature of evil. Believe me, dear Spectator, I cannot urge you too strongly to reform our virtues: men cling too tightly to their vices.

 

from the “Philosophical Dictionary

Read the article on “Intolerance” in the great “Encyclopædia.” Read the treatise on “Toleration” composed on occasion of the dreadful assassination of John Calas, a citizen of Toulouse; and if, after that, you allow of persecution in matters of religion, compare yourself at once to Ravaillac. Ravaillac, you know, was highly intolerant. The following is the substance of all the discourses ever delivered by the intolerant:

“You monster; you will be burned to all eternity in the other world, and whom I will myself burn as soon as ever I can in this, you really have the insolence to read de Thou and Bayle, who have been put into the index of prohibited authors at Rome! When I was preaching to you in the name of God, how Samson had killed a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass, your head, still harder than the arsenal from which Samson obtained his arms, showed me by a slight movement from left to right that you believed nothing of what I said. And when I stated that the devil Asmodeus, who out of jealousy twisted the necks of the seven husbands of Sarah among the Medes, was put in chains in upper Egypt, I saw a small contraction of your lips, in Latin called cachinnus (a grin) which plainly indicated to me that in the bottom of your soul you held the history of Asmodeus in derision.

“And as for you, Isaac Newton; Frederick the Great, king of Prussia and elector of Brandenburg; John Locke; Catherine, empress of Russia, victorious over the Ottomans; John Milton; the beneficent sovereign of Denmark; Shakespeare; the wise king of Sweden; Leibnitz; the august house of Brunswick; Tillotson; the emperor of China; the Parliament of England; the Council of the great Mogul; in short, all you who do not believe one word which I have taught in my courses on divinity, I declare to you, that I regard you all as pagans and publicans, as, in order to engrave it on your unimpressible brains, I have often told you before. You are a set of callous miscreants; you will all go to gehenna, where the worm dies not and the fire is not quenched; for I am right, and you are all wrong; and I have grace, and you have none. I confess three devotees in my neighborhood, while you do not confess a single one; I have executed the mandates of bishops, which has never been the case with you; I have abused philosophers in the language of the fish-market, while you have protected, imitated, or equalled them; I have composed pious defamatory libels, stuffed with infamous calumnies, and you have never so much as read them. I say mass every day in Latin for fourteen sous, and you are never even so much as present at it, any more than Cicero, Cato, Pompey, Cæsar, Horace, or Virgil, were ever present at it—consequently you deserve each of you to have your right hand cut off, your tongue cut out, to be put to the torture, and at last burned at a slow fire; for God is merciful.”

Such, without the slightest abatement, are the maxims of the intolerant, and the sum and substance of all their books. How delightful to live with such amiable people!

 

As you have it in your power, sir, to do some service to letters, I implore you not to clip the wings of our writers so closely, nor to turn into barn-door fowls those who, allowed a start, might become eagles; reasonable liberty permits the mind to soar–slavery makes it creep.

Had there been a literary censorship in Rome, we should have had to-day neither Horace, Juvenal, nor the philosophical works of Cicero. If Milton, Dryden, Pope, and Locke had not been free, England would have had neither poets nor philosophers; there is something positively Turkish in proscribing printing; and hampering it is proscription. Be content with severely repressing diffamatory libels, for they are crimes: but so long as those infamous calottes are boldly published, and so many other unworthy and despicable productions, at least allow Bayle to circulate in France, and do not put him, who has been so great an honour to his country, among its contraband.

You say that the magistrates who regulate the literary custom-house complain that there are too many books. That is just the same thing as if the provost of merchants complained there were too many provisions in Paris. People buy what they choose. A great library is like the City of Paris, in which there are about eight hundred thousand persons: you do not live with the whole crowd: you choose a certain society, and change it. So with books: you choose a few friends out of the many. There will be seven or eight thousand controversial books, and fifteen or sixteen thousand novels, which you will not read: a heap of pamphlets, which you will throw into the fire after you have read them. The man of taste will read only what is good; but the statesman will permit both bad and good.

Men’s thoughts have become an important article of commerce. The Dutch publishers make a million [francs] a year, because Frenchmen have brains. A feeble novel is, I know, among books what a fool, always striving after wit, is in the world. We laugh at him and tolerate him. Such a novel brings the means of life to the author who wrote it, the publisher who sells it, to the moulder, the printer, the paper-maker, the binder, the carrier–and finally to the bad wine-shop where they all take their money. Further, the book amuses for an hour or two a few women who like novelty in literature as in everything. Thus, despicable though it may be, it will have produced two important things–profit and pleasure.

The theatre also deserves attention. I do not consider it a counter attraction to dissipation: that is a notion only worthy of an ignorant curé. There is quite time enough, before and after the performance, for the few minutes given to those passing pleasures which are so soon followed by satiety. Besides, people do not go to the theatre every day, and among our vast population there are not more than four thousand who are in the habit of going constantly.

I look on tragedy and comedy as lessons in virtue, good sense, and good behaviour. Corneille–the old Roman of the French–has founded a school of Spartan virtue: Molière, a school of ordinary everyday life. These great national geniuses attract foreigners from all parts of Europe, who come to study among us, and thus contribute to the wealth of Paris. Our poor are fed by the productions of such works, which bring under our rule the very nations who hate us. In face, he who condemns the theatre is an enemy to his country. A magistrate who, because he has succeeded in buying some judicial post, thinks that it is beneath his dignity to see Cinna, shows much pomposity and very little taste.

There are still Goths and Vandals even among our cultivated people: the only Frenchmen I consider worthy of the name are those who love and encourage the arts. It is true that the taste for them is languishing: we are sybarites, weary of our mistresses’ favours. We enjoy the fruits of the labours of the great men who have worked for our pleasure and that of the ages to come, just as we receive the fruits of nature as if they were our due […] nothing will rouse us from this indifference to great things which always goes side by side with our vivid interest in small.

Every year we take more pains over snuffboxes and nicknacks than the English took to make themselves masters of the seas […]. The old Romans raised those marvels of architecure–their amphitheatres–for beasts to fight in: and for a whole century we have not built a single passable place for the representation of the masterpieces of the human mind. A hundredth part of the money spent on cards would be enough to build theatres finer than Pompey’s: but what man in Paris has the public welfare at heart? We play, sup, talk scandal, write bad verses, and sleep, like fools, to recommence on the morrow the same round of careless frivolity.

You, sir, who have at least some small opportunity of giving good advice, try and rouse us from this stupid lethargy, and, if you can, do something for literature, which has done so much for France.