V. FONTENELLE: 1657–1757

In the first forty of his hundred years Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle waged the philosophic war, independently of Bayle, sometimes before him; and he continued the war, un poco adagio, for half a century after Bayle’s death. He was one of the phenomena of longevity, bridging the gap between Bossuet and Diderot, and carrying into the intellectual turmoil of the eighteenth century the milder and more cautious skepticism of the seventeenth.

He was born at Rouen February 11, 1657, so frail he was baptized at once in fear that he would die before the day was out. He remained frail through all his circuit; his lungs were bad, and he spat blood if he exerted himself even to play billiards; but by measuring out his forces sparingly, avoiding marriage, starving his passions and indulging his sleep, he outlived all his contemporaries, and remembered Molière while he spoke to Voltaire.

He had some impetus to letters as the nephew of Corneille. He too dreamed dramas, but the plays and operas that he composed, his eclogues, love poems, and bergeries lacked passion, and died of the cold. French literature was losing art and gaining ideas, and Fontenelle found himself only when he discovered that science could be a more astonishing revelation than the Apocalypse, and that philosophy was a ruthful battle transcending all wars. Not that he was a warrior; he was too genial for strife, too much a man of the world to lose his temper in debate, and too conscious of the relativity of truth to tie his thought to an absolute. And yet he “sowed dragon’s teeth.” 48 Where he walked in feigned discourse with his imaginary Marquise, the army of the Enlightenment would rise with the dashing light horse of Voltaire, the heavy infantry of d’Holbach, the sappers of the Encyclopédie, and the artillery of Diderot.

His first sally into philosophy was a fifteen-page essay, L’Origine des; fables, in effect a sociological inquiry into the origin of gods. We can hardly believe his biographer that this was composed at the age of twenty-three, though prudently left in manuscript till the censorship was relaxed in 1724. It is almost completely “modern” in spirit, tracing myths not to priestly invention but to primitive imagination—above all, to the readiness of simple minds to personify processes. So a river flowed because a god poured out its water; all natural operations were the actions of deities.

Men beheld many wonders beyond their own power: to hurl thunderbolts, raise the winds and the waves . . . Men imagined beings more powerful than themselves, capable of producing these effects. These superior beings had to have human form, for what other form could be imagined? . . . So the gods were human, but endowed with superior power. . . . Primitive men could conceive no quality more admirable than physical force; they had not yet conceived, had not yet words for, wisdom and justice. 49

Half a century before Rousseau, Fontenelle rejected Rousseau’s idealization of the savage; primitive men were stupid and barbarous. But, he added, “All men are so much alike that there is no race whose follies should not make us tremble.” 50 He took care to add that his naturalistic interpretation of the gods did not apply to the Christian or Jewish deity.

Putting that little essay aside for safer times, Fontenelle took a leaf and a title from Lucian, and published in January, 1683, a little book called Dialogues des morts. These imaginary conversations between dead celebrities proved so popular that a second edition was called for in March, and a third soon afterward. Bayle praised it enthusiastically in his Nouvelles. Before the year ran out it was translated into Italian and English, and Fontenelle, at twenty-six, reached European fame. The dialogue form was handy in a world infested with censors; almost any notion could be expressed by one of the speakers, “refuted” by another, and disclaimed by the author. Fontenelle, however, was in a mood for humor rather than heresy; the ideas he discussed were moderate, and left no miters crushed. So Milo, the vegetarian athlete of Crotona, plumes himself with having carried an ox on his shoulders at the Olympic games; Smindiride, from neighboring Sybaris, taunts him with developing his muscles at the expense of his mind; but the sybarite confesses that the epicurean life is also vain, since it dulls pleasure with frequency, and multiplies the sources and degrees of pain. Homer compliments Aesop on teaching truth with fables, but warns him that truth is the last thing desired by mankind. “The spirit of man is extremely sympathetic to falsehood. . . . Truth must borrow the figure of the false to be agreeably received by the human mind.” 51 “If,” said Fontenelle, “I had all truth in my hands, I would be careful not to open them”; 52 but probably that would be out of sympathy for mankind, as well as from reckless love of the pursuit.

In the most delightful of the Dialogues Montaigne meets Socrates, doubtless in hell, and discusses the idea of progress:

MONTAIGNE. Is this you, divine Socrates? What a joy it is to see you! I’ve just entered this region, and ever since I’ve been looking for you. At last, after filling my book with your name and praise, I can talk with you.

SOCRATES. I am happy to see a dead man who appears to have been a philosopher. But since you have come so recently from up there . . . let me ask you the news. How goes the world? Hasn’t it changed a great deal?

MONTAIGNE. Much indeed. You wouldn’t recognize it.

SOCRATES. I am delighted to hear it. I have never doubted that it must become better or wiser than in my time.

MONTAIGNE. What are you saying? It is crazier and more corrupt than ever. That is the change I wanted to discuss with you; and I have been waiting to hear from you an account of the age in which you lived, and in which so much honesty and justice reigned.

SOCRATES. And I, on the contrary, have been waiting to learn about the marvels of the age in which you have just lived. What? Men have not yet corrected the follies of antiquity? . . . I hoped that things would take a turn toward reason, and that men would profit from the experience of so many years.

MONTAIGNE. Eh? Men profit from experience? They are like birds that repeatedly let themselves be caught in the same nets that have already taken a hundred thousand birds of the same species. Everyone enters new into life, and the mistakes of the parents are lost on the children. . . . Men of all centuries have the same inclinations, over which reason has no power. Hence, wherever there are men there are follies, even the same follies. . . .

SOCRATES. You idealized antiquity because you were angry at your own time. . . . When we were alive we esteemed our ancestors more than they deserved, and now our posterity exalts us beyond our merits: but our ancestors, ourselves, and our posterity are quite equal. . . .

MONTAIGNE. But aren’t some ages more virtuous, and others more wicked?

SOCRATES. Not necessarily. Clothes change, but that is not to say that the figure of the body changes, too. Politeness or grossness, knowledge or ignorance, . . . are but the outside of man, and all that changes; but the heart changes not at all; and all of man is in the heart. . . . Among the vast multitude of foolish men born in a hundred years, nature may have scattered here and there . . . two or three dozen reasonable men. 53

Some years after this pessimistic conclusion, Fontenelle took a slightly more optimistic view in a Digression sur les Anciens et les Modernes (January, 1688). There he drew a helpful distinction: in poetry and art there had been no visible progress, for these depend upon feeling and imagination, which hardly change from generation to generation; but in science and learning, which depend upon the slow accumulation of knowledge, we may expect to surpass antiquity. Each nation, Fontenelle suggested, goes through stages like an individual: in infancy it devotes itself to meeting its physical wants; in youth it adds imagination, poetry, and art; in maturity it may reach science and philosophy. 54 Fontenelle thought that he saw truths growing through the gradual elimination of erroneous views. “We are under an obligation to the ancients for having exhausted almost all the false theories that could be formed”—which is to forget that for every truth there is an indefinite number of possible errors. He supposed that Descartes had found a new and better mode of reasoning—the mathematical; now, he hoped, science would grow by leaps.

When we behold the progress the sciences have made during the last hundred years, in spite of prejudices, obstacles, and the small number of scientific men, we might almost be tempted to let our hopes for the future rise too high. We shall see new sciences springing out of nothingness, while ours are still in the cradle. 55

So Fontenelle formulated a theory of progress, le progrès des choses; and, like Condorcet a century later, he conceived it as having no assignable limit in the future; here already was the “indefinite perfectibility of mankind.” The idea of progress was now fully launched, and sailed on through the eighteenth century to become one of the fairest vehicles of modern thought.

Meanwhile, Fontenelle, whose brilliant fancy was ever straining at the leash of caution, had come close to the Bastille. About 1685 he published a brief Relation de l’île de Bornéo, an imaginary voyage so realistically described (anticipating the verisimilitude of Defoe and Swift) that Bayle printed it as an actual history in his Nouvelles. But the conflict which it described between Eénegu and Mréo was an evident satire on the theological strife between Geneva and Rome. When the French authorities saw through the anagrams, the arrest of Fontenelle seemed inevitable, for the skit appeared on the very heels of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. He hurriedly issued a poem lauding “the Triumph of Religion under Louis the Great.” His apology was accepted, and thereafter Fontenelle saw to it that his philosophy should be unintelligible to governments.

He returned to science, and made himself its missionary to French society. He was too fond of ease to engage directly in experiment or research, but he understood the sciences well, and presented them to his growing audiences in small doses coated with literary art. To popularize the Copernican astronomy he composed Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686)—Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds. Though 143 years had passed since the appearance of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, very few people in France, even among college graduates, accepted the heliocentric theory. Galileo had been condemned by the Church (1633) for assuming that the hypothesis was a fact; and Descartes had not dared to publish his treatise Le Monde, in which the Copernican view had been taken for granted.

Fontenelle approached the subject with disarming gallantry. He imagined himself discussing it with a pretty marquise; her figure—unseen but not unfelt—moved through the discourse alluringly; for when beauty has a title it can dim the stars. The six “conversations” were soirs, “evenings”; the scene was the garden of the marquise’s château near Rouen. The purpose was to get the people of France—or at least the ladies of the salons—to understand the rotation and revolution of the earth, and the Cartesian theory of vortices. As an added lure, Fontenelle raised the question whether the moon and the planets are inhabited. He was inclined to think so; but, remembering that some readers might be disturbed by the notion that there were in the world men and women not descended from Adam and Eve, he prudently explained that these lunar or planetary populations were not really human. However, he suggested that they might have other senses, perhaps finer senses, than ours; if so, they would see objects differently than we do; would truth, then, be relative? This would upset everything, even more than Copernicus had done. Fontenelle saved the situation by pointing out the beauty and order of the cosmos, comparing it to a watch, and deducing from the cosmic mechanisms a divine artificer of supreme intelligence.

As the desire to teach is among our strongest itches, Fontenelle again risked the Bastille by issuing anonymously, in December, 1688, the boldest of his little treatises, L’Histoire des oracles. He confessed to having taken his material from the De Oraculis of a Dutch scholar, van Dael; but he transformed it by the clarity and gaiety of his style. “Il nous enjôle à la vérité” said a reader—“He cajoles us to the truth.” So he compared mathematicians with lovers: “Grant a mathematician the least principle, and he will draw from it a consequence which you must also grant him, and from this consequence another . . .” 56 Theologians had accepted some pagan oracles as authentic, but had ascribed their occasional accuracy to Satanic inspiration; and they had held it a proof of the Church’s divine origin that these oracles had ceased to operate after the coming of Christ. But Fontenelle showed that they had continued as late as the fifth century A.D. He exonerated Satan as their deus ex machina; the oracles were tricks of pagan priests moving in the temples to work apparent miracles, or to appropriate the food offered by worshipers to the gods. He pretended that he spoke only of pagan oracles, and explicitly excepted Christian oracles and priests from his analysis. This essay, and the Origine des fables, were not only subtle blows struck for enlightenment; they were examples of a new historical approach to theological questions—to explain the human sources of transmundane beliefs, and thereby naturalize the supernatural.

L’Histoire des oracles was the last of Fontenelle’s sapping operations. In 1691 he was elected to the French Academy, over the opposition of Racine and Boileau. In 1697 he became, and for forty-two years he remained, “perpetual secretary” of the Académie des Sciences. He wrote its history, and composed gracious and illuminating éloges of members who had died; these constitute a lucid record and exposition of French science through almost half a century. From such séances of the sciences Fontenelle could pass with equal pleasure to the salons—first that of Mme. de Lambert, then Mme. de Tencin’s, then Mme. Geoffirin’s. He was always welcomed, not merely because of his fame as a writer, but because his courtesy never lapsed. He dispensed truth with discretion, he refused to sour conversation with controversy, and his wit had no sting. “No man of his time was more open-minded and free from prejudice.” 57 Mme. de Tencin, who had been a firefly of passion, foolishly accused him of having another brain where his heart should have been. 58 And the young God-killers who were growing up around him could no more understand his moderation than he could relish their dogmatism and violence. “Je suis effrayé de la conviction quirègne autour de moi” (I am frightened by the certainties that reign around me). 59 He did not see an unmixed evil in the decay of his hearing as he grew old.

About the age of fifty he apparently decided to give thereafter none but platonic services to the ladies. But his gallantry never faltered. At ninety, being introduced to a young and pretty woman, he remarked, “Ah, if I were only eighty now!” 60 Nearly ninety-eight, he opened a New Year’s ball by dancing with the one-and-a-half-year-old daughter of Helvétius. 61 When Mme. Grimaud, almost as old as he, said, wonderingly, “Well, here we are, both still alive,” he put a finger to his lips, and whispered, “Hush, madame, death has forgotten us.” 62

It found him at last, January 9, 1757, and took him quietly, after he had been ill but a day. He explained to his friends that he was “suffering from being”(“Je souffre d’être”); he may have felt that he had carried longevity to excess. He fell short by thirty-three days of rounding out a century. He had been born before Louis XIV had begun to govern; he had grown up amid the triumphs of Bossuet, the Revocation, and the dragonnades; he had lived to see the Encyclopédie, and to hear Voltaire summon the philosophers to war upon l’infame.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!