French Thought in the Eighteenth Century: Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot

French Thought in the Eighteenth Century: Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot

French Thought in the Eighteenth Century: Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot

French Thought in the Eighteenth Century: Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot

Excerpt

In the general history of thought and taste, the eighteenth century belongs particularly to France, as other ages have belonged to Athens, Rome, or Italy. For the first time since the Renaissance (and no doubt the last) it was possible to say of one country that she set the tone for the civilized world. Whatever was done in France had repercussions for the rest of Europe, extending in the last quarter of the century to the newly constituted United States of America. The predominant response was admiration, accompanied by that most flattering of compliments--imitation. But even when the response was grudging or hostile, notice had to be taken. French culture was creating a climate which no local barriers could hope to shut out.

This intellectual ascendancy was achieved in a period of some political uncertainty. The national zenith had been reached earlier, when in the 'Great Century' the France of Louis XIV had built herself up into the foremost European power. It was then that ministers from Richelieu to Colbert had consolidated the State internally and externally, that thinkers and theologians such as Descartes, PascaL, Bossuet, and Malebranche had attacked transcendental problems in the belief that solutions could be found within the framework of their own confident civilization, and that writers like Corneille, Molière, and Racine had set a seal of literary excellence on an age inevitably called 'classic.'

In contrast, the eighteenth century appears at first sight to show a decline. It opened sombrely with the failing years of a great reign, with defeat in war and a general impoverishment of the population. It continued under the surface glitter of Louis XV's reign, during which the corruption of the Court revealed the weakness of autocratic government by an incompetent autocrat. The rising power of England and Prussia involved France in new, though not disastrous, set-backs. She lost, almost by default, her possessions in India and America which could have formed . . .

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