_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 confreres' 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