II. LIFE ON THE EDGE

The philosophers had recognized that, having rejected the theological foundations of morality, they were obligated to find another basis, another system of belief that would incline men to decent behavior as citizens, husbands, wives, parents, and children.27 But they were not at all confident that the human animal could be controlled without a supernaturally sanctioned moral code. Voltaire and Rousseau finally admitted the moral necessity of popular religious belief. Mably, addressing to John Adams in 1783 someObservations sur le gouvernement … des États unis d’Amérique, warned him that indifference in matters religious, however harmless it might be in enlightened and rational individuals, is fatal to the morals of the masses. A government, he suggested, must control and direct the thought of these “children” just as parents do with the young.28 Diderot, in the second half of his life, pondered how to devise a natural ethic, and admitted his failure: “I have not even dared to write the first line; … I do not feel myself equal to this sublime work.”29

What sort of morality prevailed in France after forty years of attacks upon supernatural beliefs? In answering this question we must not idealize the first half of the eighteenth century. Fontenelle, shortly before his death in 1757, said he wished he could live sixty years more “to see what universal infidelity, depravity, and dissolution of all ties would turn to.”30 If that statement (which was probably unfair to the middle and lower classes) gave a true picture of upper-class morals in France before the Enecyclopédie (1751), we should hardly be justified in ascribing to the philosophes the defects of morality in the second half of the century. Other factors than the decline of religious belief were weakening the old moral code. The growth of wealth enabled men to finance sins that had been too costly before. Restif de La Bretonne showed a good bourgeois lamenting the deterioration of French character by the passage of population from villages and farms to cities;31 young men escaped from the discipline of the family, the farm, and the neighborhood to the corrosive contacts and opportunities of city life, and the protective anonymity of city crowds. In Les Nuits de Paris Restif described the Paris of the 1780s as a maelstrom of juvenile delinquents, petty thieves, professional criminals, and prostitutes female and male. Taine supposed that the France of 1756-88 was diseased with “vagrants, mendicants, every species of refractory spirit, … foul, filthy, haggard, and savage, engendered by the system; and upon each social ulcer they gathered like vermin.”32 This human waste of the social organism was the product of human nature and Bourbon rule, and can hardly be ascribed to philosophy or the decay of religious belief.

Possibly some of the gambling that flourished in Paris (as in London) was connected with unbelief; but everybody joined in it, pious and impious alike. In 1776 all private lotteries were suppressed to be merged in the Loterie Royale. Nevertheless, some part of the sexual chaos in the upper classes could reasonably be attributed to atheism. In Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782) we find fictional aristocrats exchanging notes on the art of seduction, laying plans to have a fifteen-year-old girl deflowered as soon as she left the convent, and professing a philosophy of moral nihilism. The protagonist, the Vicomte de Valmont, argues that all men are equally evil in their desires, but that most men fail to effect them because they allow moral traditions to intimidate them. The wise man, Valmont holds, will pursue whichever sensations promise him most pleasure, and will disdain all moral inhibitions.33 Some Greek Sophists, we recall, reached similar conclusions after discarding the gods.34

This philosophy of amoralism, as all the world now knows, was carried ad nauseam by the Comte—usually miscalled Marquis—de Sade. Born in Paris in 1740, he served twelve years in the army, was arrested and condemned to death for homosexual offenses (1772), escaped, was captured, escaped again, was captured again, and was committed to the Bastille. There he wrote several novels and plays, as obscene as his imagination could make them: chiefly Justine (1791) and Histoire de Juliette, ou Les Prospérités du vice (1792). Since there is no God, he argued, the wise man will seek to realize every desire so far as he can without incurring earthly punishment. All desires are equally good; all moral distinctions are delusions; abnormal sexual relations are legitimate, and are not really abnormal; crime is delightful if you avoid detection; and there are few things more delicious than beating a pretty girl. Readers were shocked less by de Sade’s amoralism than by his suggestion that the total destruction of the human race would afflict the cosmos so little that “it would no more interrupt its course than if the entire species of rabbits or hares were extinguished.”35 In 1789 de Sade was removed to a lunatic asylum at Charenton; he was released in 1790, was recommitted as incurable in 1803, and died in 1814.

The philosophers might plead that this amoralism was a sickly non sequitur from their criticism of the Christian theology, and that a sane mind would recognize moral obligations with or without religious belief. Many people did. And among the normal population of France—even of Paris—there were in these years many elements of moral regeneration: the rise of sentiment and tenderness; the triumphs of romantic love over marriages of convenience; the young mother proudly nursing her child; the husband courting his own wife; the family restored to unity as the soundest source of social order. These developments were often allied with some remnants of the Christian creed, or with the semi-Christian philosophy of Rousseau; but the atheist Diderot gave them enthusiastic support.

The death of Louis XV was followed by a reaction against his sensuality. Louis XVI gave good example by his simple dress and life, his fidelity to his wife, and his condemnation of gambling. The Queen herself joined in the fashion of simplicity, and led the revival of sensibility and sentiment. The French Academy annually awarded a prize for outstanding virtue.36 Most literature was decent; the novels of Crébillon fils were put aside, and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie set the tone of moral purity in love. Art reflected the new morality; Greuze and Mme. Vigée-Lebrun celebrated children and motherhood.

Christianity and philosophy together nourished a humanitarianism that spread a thousand works of philanthropy and charity. During the hard winter of 1784 Louis XVI devoted three million livres to relief of the poor; Marie Antoinette contributed 200,000 from her own purse; many others followed suit. King and Queen helped to finance the Deaf and Dumb School established by the Abbé de L’Épée in 1778 to teach his new deaf-and-dumb alphabet, and the School for Blind Children organized by Valentin Haiiy in 1784. Mme. Necker founded (1778) an asylum and hospital for the poor, which she personally superintended for ten years. The churches, monasteries, and convents distributed food and medicines. It was in this reign that a campaign took form to abolish slavery.

Manners, like morals, reflected the age of Rousseau; never, under the Bourbons, had they been so democratic. Class distinctions remained, but they were tempered with greater kindliness and wider courtesy. Untitled men of talent, if they had learned to wash and bow, were welcomed in the most pedigreed homes. The Queen leaped from her carriage to help a wounded postilion; the King and his brother the Comte d’Artois put their shoulders to the wheel to help a workman disengage his cart from the mud. Dress became simpler: wigs disappeared, and gentlemen discarded, except at court, their embroideries, laces, and swords; by 1789 it was difficult to tell a man’s class from his garb. When Franklin captured France even the tailors surrendered to him; people appeared in the streets “dressed à la Franklin, in coarse cloth … and thick shoes.”37

The ladies of the bourgeoisie dressed quite as handsomely as those of the court. After 1780 the women abandoned the clumsy hoopskirt, but fortified themselves with stiff petticoats worn one over the next like a Chinese puzzle. Bodices were cut low in front, but the bosom was usually covered with a triangular kerchief called a fichu (fastening); these could be thickened to conceal underdevelopment; so the French called them trompeurs or menteurs —deceivers or liars.38 Coiffures continued high, but when Marie Antoinette lost much of her hair during one of her confinements she replaced the tower style with curls, and the new fashion spread through the court to Paris. There were two hundred styles of women’s hats; some were precarious edifices of wire, feathers, ribbons, flowers, and artificial vegetables; but in their easier hours women followed the style affected by the Queen at the Petit Trianon, covering the head with a simple scarf. In the greatest revolution of all, some women wore low heels or comfortable mules.39

A healthier way of life accompanied the change to easier dress. A growing minority went in for “natural living”: no corsets, no servants, more outdoor living, and, whenever possible, a retreat from the city to the country. Arthur Young reported: “Everybody that have country seats is at them, and those who have not visit those who have. This revolution in French manners is certainly one of the best features they have taken from England. Its introduction was the easier because of the magic of Rousseau’s writings.”40 But much of this “return to nature” was talk or sentiment rather than action or reality; life in Paris still ran a dizzy race with concerts, operas, plays, horse races, water sports, card games, dances, balls, conversation, and salons.

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