Men Of Letters




In our barbarous times, when the Franks, the Germans, the Bretons, the Lombards, the Spanish Muzarabs, knew not how either to read or write, there were instituted schools, universities, composed almost entirely of ecclesiastics who, knowing nothing but their own jargon, taught this jargon to those who wished to learn it; the academies came only a long time afterwards; they despised the foolishness of the schools, but did not always dare to rise against them, because there are foolishnesses that are respected provided that they concern respectable things.

The men of letters who have rendered the greatest services to the small number of thinking beings spread over the world, are the isolated writers, the true scholars shut in their studies, who have neither argued on the benches of the universities, nor told half-truths in the academies; and almost all of them have been persecuted. Our wretched species is so made that those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road.

Montesquieu says that the Scythians rent their slaves' eyes, so that they might be less distracted while they were churning their butter; that is just how the inquisition functions, and in the land where this monster reigns almost everybody is blind. In England people have had two eyes for more than two hundred years; the French are starting to open one eye; but sometimes there are men in power who do not want the people to have even this one eye open.

These poor persons in power are like Doctor Balouard of the Italian Comedy, who does not want to be served by anyone but the dolt Harlequin, and who is afraid of having too shrewd a valet.

Compose some odes in praise of My Lord Superbus Fadus, some madrigals for his mistress; dedicate a book on geography to his door-keeper, you will be well-received; enlighten mankind, you will be exterminated.

Descartes was forced to leave his country, Gassendi was calumniated, Arnauld dragged out his days in exile; every philosopher is treated as the prophets were among the Jews.

Who would believe that in the eighteenth century a philosopher was dragged before the secular tribunals, and treated as impious by the tribunals of arguments, for having said that men could not practise the arts if they had no hands? I do not despair that soon the first person who is so insolent as to say that men could not think if they had no heads will be immediately condemned to the galleys; "for," some young graduate will say to him, "the soul is a pure spirit, the head is only matter; God can put the soul in the heel, as well as in the brain; therefore I denounce you as impious."

The greatest misfortune of a man of letters is not perhaps being the object of his confrères' jealousy, the victim of the cabal, the despised of the men of power; but of being judged by fools. Fools go far sometimes, particularly when bigotry is added to ineptitude, and to ineptitude the spirit of vengeance. The further great misfortune of a man of letters is that ordinarily he is unattached. A bourgeois buys himself a small position, and there he is backed by his colleagues. If he suffers an injustice, he finds defenders at once. The man of letters is unsuccoured; he resembles a flying-fish; if he rises a little, the birds devour him; if he dives, the fish eat him.

Every public man pays tribute to malignity, but he is paid in honours and gold.




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