Page:The Harvard Classics Vol. 51; Lectures.djvu/47

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been validated.

young woman from the country; she drives a knife into Marat's heart, and with that heroic gesture flashes light to the very depths of a terrific crisis.


A curious fact about the French Revolution, but not so strange as it would seem when one thinks the matter over, is that there should be no good history of it. The three outstanding books are those of Michelet, Carlyle, and Taine; and all three are destined to live long as masterpieces, intellectual and artistic; yet not one of them is wholly satisfactory to the present age, whether for its statement of facts, for its literary method, or for its mentality; while there is no sign at the present day that we are likely soon to get another great history of the Revolution. On the contrary, the tendency is for historians to concentrate their attention on the endless details or varied aspects of the movement, finding in each of these a sufficient object for the exercise of their industry and talents. Following that example, we may here perhaps best touch on the reaction between France and England in terms of the Revolution, and particularly in regard to those two famous books, Voltaire's "Letters on the English,"[1] and Burke's "Reflections on the French Revolution."[2]


The early part of the eighteenth century witnessed a great change in the current of ideas in France. The death of Louis XIV, and the coming to power of Philippe Due d'Orleans as regent, dispelled all the old prestige of glittering Versailles, and gave France a wit and debauchee for ruler who cared nothing for pomp or etiquette. He enjoyed life after his own unedifying fashion; he gambled and encouraged stock exchange speculation; he relaxed the muzzle and let slip the courtier's leash with which Louis had curbed the great men of letters of his epoch. And immediately French writers dashed away into the boundless field of political satire and criticism. Montesquieu led off with his "Lettres Persanes," in 1721, and Voltaire followed hard at his heels with his "Letters on the English," in 1734. The hounds of spring were at winter's traces.

  1. Harvard Classics, xxxiv, 65.
  2. H. C., xxiv, 143.