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OF THE WORK OF M. DE BONALD
Entitled: “PRIMITIVE LEGISLATION considered in the
latter times by the light of reason alone.”
“FEW men are born with that particular and decided disposition towards one only object which we call talent; a blessing of nature, if favorable circumstances assist its developement, and permit the exercise of it; a real misfortune, a torment to its possessor, if it be contradicted."
This passage is taken from the book we are about to examine. Nothing is more affecting than those involun. tary complaints which sometimes escape from true talent. The author of Primitive Legislation, like many other celebrated writers, seems only to have received gifts from nature to feel disgust at them. Like Epictetus he has been obliged to reduce his philosophy to these maxims anechou kai apechou, suffer and abstain. It was in the obscure cottage of a German peasant, in the bosom of a foreign country that he composed his Theory of Political and Religious power, a work suppressed by the Directory in France; it was in the midst of all possible privations, and menaced with the law of the proscription, that he pub lished his Observations upon Divorce, an admirable treatise, the latter pages of which, in particular, are a model of that eloquence of thought which is so superior to the eloquence of words, and which subdues every thing, as Pascal says, by the right of power. In fine, it is at the
moment when he is about to quit Paris, letters and his genius, if I may be allowed the expression, that he gives us his Primitive Legislation ; Plato crowned his works by his Laws, and Lycurgus banished himself from Sparta after having established his. Unfortunately, we have not, like the Spartans, sworn to observe the laws of our new legislator. But let M. de Bonald be 'satisfied; when, as in him, the authority of good morals is combined with the authority of genius, when the soul is free from those weaknesses, which place arms in the hands of calumny, and console mediocrity, obstacles must vanish sooner or later, and we must arrive at that position in which talent is no longer a mortification, but a blessing.
The judgments genera’ly passed upon our modern literature, appear to me somewhat exaggerated. Some mistake our scientific jargon, and inflated phraseology for the progress of genius and illumination; according to them language and reason have advanced much since Bossuet and Racine :--but what advance! Others on the contrary find nothing that is endurable; if they are to be believed we have not a single good writer. Is it not a tolerably well established truth, that there have been epochs in France when the state of literature was very much below what it is at present ? Are we competent judges in such a cause, and can we very justly appreci. ate those writers who live in the same time with ourselves? Such, or such a cotemporary author whose value we scarcely feel, may be one day considered as the glory of our age. How long have the great men of Louis XIV found their true level? Racine and La Bruyère were almost unknown while they lived. We see Rollin, that writer full of learning and taste, balance the merits of Fléchier and Bossuet and give us plainly to understand that the preference was generally given to the former. The mania of all ages has been to complain of the scarcity
of good writers and good books. What things have not been written against Telemachus, against the Characters of La Bruyere, against the most sublime of Racine's works? Who does not know the epigram upon Athalia? On the other hand, let any one read the journals of the last century; let them farther read what La Bruyère and Voltaire themselves said of the literature of their times ; will it be believed that they speak of the period when the country could boast a Fénélon, a Bossuet, a Pascal, a Boileau, á Racine, a Molière, a La Fontaine, a JeanJacques Rousseau, a Buffon, a Montesquieu?
French literature is about to assume an entirely new face; with the revolution, other thoughts, other views of men and of things must have arisen. It is easy to see that writers will be divided into two classes ; some will make it their great endeavour entirely to quit the ancient routes, others will no less assiduously endeavour to fol. low those models, but always presenting them under a new point of view. It is very probable that the latter will, in the end, triumph over their adversaries, because, in upholding their own labours by great authorities, they will have much safer and abler guides, documents much more fertile in themselves, than those who would rest upon their own talents alone.
M. de Bonald will contribute not a little to this victory; already his ideas begin to obtain a currency; fragments of them are to be traced in the greater part of the journals and publications of the day. There are certain sentiments and certain styles, which may be almost called contagious, and which, if I may be pardoned the idea, tint all minds with their colouring. This is, at the same time, a good and an evil. An evil inasmuch as it disgusts the writer whose freshness is thus, as it were faded, and whose originality is rendered vulgar ;--- good, in as far as it tends to circulate useful truths more widely.
M. de Bonald's new work is divided into four parts. The first including the preliminary discourse, treats of the relations of beings to each other, and the fundamental principles of legislation. The second considers the ancient state of the ecclesiastical ministry in France. The third treats of public education, and the fourth examines the state of christian and mahometan Europe.
To remount to the Principles of Legislation, M. de Bonald begins by remounting to the Principles of Beings, in order to find the primitive law, the eternal example of human laws; for human laws are only good or bad, inasmuch as they approach or deviate from that divine law which flows from divine wisdom. Lex rerum omnium principem expressa natura, ad quam leges hominum diriguntur, qua supplicio improbos officiunt, et defendung et tuentur bonos.* Our author traces rapidly the history of philosophy, which, according to him, among the ancients, signified the love of wisdom, and among us signifies a search after truth. Thus the Greeks made wisdom consist in the practice of morality, we make it consist in the theory. “Our philosophy,” says M. de Bonald, “ is empty in its thoughts, lofty in its language; it combines the licentiousness of the Epicurçans with the pride of the Stoics. It has its sceptics, its pyrrhonians, its electics; the only doctrine it has not embraced is that of privations.”
On the cause of our errors, M. de Bonald makes the following profound remark: “In physics we may be allowed to assume particular errors, in morals we ought to assume gencral truths. It is from having done the contrary, from having assumed truths in physics, that mankind believed so long in the absurd system of physics established by the ancients; as it is from having assumed errors in the general morals of nations that so many persons, in our days, have been wrecked."
• Cicero de Leg. lib. 2.
The author is soon led to examine the problem of innate ideas. Without embracing the opinion that rejects them, or ranging himself with the party that adopts them, he believes that God has given to men in general, not to cvery man in particular, a certain portion of principles or innate sentiments, such as the idea of a Supreme Being, of the immortality of the soul, and of the first notions of our moral duties, absolutely necessary to the establishment of social order. Hence it happens, that, strictly speaking, single persons may be found who have no knowledge of these principles, but that no society of men was ever found totally ignorant of them. If this be not the truth, at least we must allow that the mind ca: pable of reasoning thus is not one of an ordinary tex
From thence M. de Bonald passes to the examination of another principle on which he founds all legislation. This is, that speech was taught to man, that it is not an intuitive quality in him. He recognizes three sorts of speech, gesticulation, oral communication, and writing. This opinion he founds upon reasons which appear to have great weight. First, because it is necessary to think of the words before the thought can be uttered. Secondly, because those who are born deaf, and never hear speech, are dumb, a proof that speech is a thing acquired, not in. tuitive. Thirdly, because, if speech be a human invention, there are no longer any necessary truths.
To this idea M. de Bonald recurs very frequently : because, according to him, on this rests all the controversy of theists and atheists with christians and philosopers. In fact, it must be allowed, that if we could prove speech to have been revealed, not invented, we should have a physical proof of the existence of God: God could not have given speech to man without also giving him rules and laws: all would then become positive in society.