Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 10.djvu/744

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which our citations do not undertake to illustrate, is filled, for instance, with ingenious conceits which, though falling coldly on modern ears, were considered in the happiest taste by the audience to whom the book was addressed. But they are of an artificial cleverness, and precisely what we might expect from the man who was said to have "as good a heart as could be made of brains."

Sainte-Beuve has well indicated our author's strength and weakness by comparing his clever opera-box view of Nature with that of Pascal in the majestic movement of the awe-inspired passage at the begining of the "Pensées."[1] While agreeing to the judgment of the great critic, it may be observed, however, that, if Fontenelle be devoid of poetry, he has at least one image of a grace nearly allied to it. He has been speaking of the chances of the sun's light failing us wholly, as it is said to have partially done in the year following the death of Cæsar, and pointing out, with what seems justice, the imperfect grounds for the confidence of mankind in the constancy of Nature's action here in the future as in the past, founded as that confidence is on an experience of the human race—so long, judged by its life, so short in comparison with Nature's own. With a sort of pathetic sense of the fallacy, he compares this little accumulated experience of the generations of man to the traditions of some roses of a day, leaving each to its successor an account of the gardener in whom successive ages of these ephemeral flowers have seen no change. "We have always seen the same gardener; in the memory of roses none has been seen but him; what he has ever been, that he is now: surely he does not die as we, or change."

Fontenelle, throughout the "Conversations," adopts the Cartesian hypothesis of "vortices" in accounting for the planetary movements, and this, indeed, he continued to cling to long after. The true theory of gravitation had been given by Newton, and obtained complete acceptance in England. His more serious work is to be found chiefly in the well-known "Éloges," which, as perpetual secretary of the French Academy of Sciences, he pronounced on its deceased associates; but it is probable that he will, nevertheless, be remembered as much by these "Conversations," which, had they no other merit, would always possess an historical interest, as opening the way to our present popular scientific literature.

We should not close this imperfect notice of them without again reminding the reader that the form of a dialogue gives the original an attraction which is necessarily missed in brief extracts, and that the plan on which they thus rest for uniting instruction and amusement (a plan which obliges the imaginary speaker to be paying his court and talking science at the same time) would have been a failure in almost any hands but those which could manage so difficult a blending, and keep as far from pedantry as from ridicule. Fontenelle's

  1. "Que l'homme contemple done la nature entière dans sa haute et pleine majesté," etc.