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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 34



It is agreed on all sides that the power of nations depends on their morality. Everywhere is found the maxim, which is almost become an axiom of political science, that where morals are corrupted the State is lost. Now it appears to be an established fact that the moral level is higher among Protestant than among Catholic populations. Religious writers confess this themselves, and explain it by the fact that the page 26 former remain more faithful to their religion than the latter, which explanation I believe to be the true one. If we read the literary works of France, if we are present at the pieces most in vogue in the various theatres, we shall find that they are alike founded upon adultery in all its varieties and forms. The novels and plays which have proved successful ought to be strictly banished from the circle of any respectable family. In England and Germany this is not the case. Those literary works which do not bear the stamp of foreign imitation are written in a tone and style not alarming to modest ears.*

As to French literature, the evil dates from afar. The people of Provence inherited Gallo-Roman corruption, and under the name of gallantry their songs produced a relaxation of morals and irregular amours, and made them attractive. Gallantry has thus become in France the keynote of all the works of imagination, and one of the traits of the national character. The king "Vert Galant" is the most popular of French sovereigns. In the countries which have adopted the Reformation, the puritan spirit has curbed this licence of morals, and has brought about in its place a strictness which may have seemed excessive, but which has given an incomparable moral tone.

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In Catholic countries, those who have purposed to combat the omnipotence of the Church have taken their weapons, not from the Gospel, but from the spirit of the Renaissance and from paganism. There are two ways by which the Church may be attacked: either by showing that she has wandered from the doctrine of Christ, and by preaching a purer and more severe Christianity than hers, or by attacking her dogmas with irony, and inciting men's understandings against her moral dictates. Luther, Calvin, Knox, Zwinglius, have taken the first course, Rabelais and Voltaire the second. It is clear that the one, relying on the Gospel, must strengthen the moral sentiment, while the other can only succeed by ruining it. Hence it comes that almost all the French authors who have endeavoured to emancipate the minds of men have borne an immoral mark. Would anyone, without misgiving, put into the hands, I will not say of a young girl, but even of a young man, the complete works of Rabelais, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Courier, Béranger? The authors who respect morals, and who are given to the youth of France to read—Bossuet, Fénelon, Racine—are almost always devoted to the Church, and saturated with absolutist doctrine. Hence comes the profoundly Catholic tone of the greater number of non-revolutionists in France.

In England and America things are different: the most decided partisans of liberty are at the same page 28 time those who profess the most severe morality—namely, the Puritans and the Quakers. While Bossuet was formulating the theory of Absolutism, Milton was writing that of the Republic, and it was the Puritans who founded liberty in England and in the United States. In the one case the writers who are religious and moral preach slavery, whilst those who advocate liberty respect neither religion nor morals: in the other, on the contrary, the same men stand up at once for religion, morals, and liberty.

See the consequences. Compare the private life of the authors of the Revolution of 1648 in England, or of the founders of the American Republic, with that of the men of the French Republic. The former are all of irreproachable lives, of spotless probity, of an almost exaggerated severity of principle; the latter, with the exception of some fanatics such as Saint Just and Robespierre, are for the most part very lax in morals. The most powerful amongst them, the true representative of the French Revolution, that great genius and magnificent orator, Mirabeau, sells himself to the Court, writes obscene books, and carries depravity to its utmost limits. Turn to the austere Calvinists who conquered despotism, and founded liberty in England and in America, and observe the contrast! Edgar Quinet remarks, in his admirable book on the French Revolution, that the men of that period, so full of enthusiasm at the outset, soon wearied of the effort, page 29 and ere long sought, or at all events submitted to, the repose of slavery under the Empire. The "Gueux" of Holland struggled for a much longer time, and passed through far other trials without allowing themselves to be discouraged. Their towns were taken by storm, whole populations were massacred. A mere handful of men, they struggled with an adversary who had the treasures of both worlds at his disposal. They felt neither lassitude nor discouragement, and they conquered in the end; and why?—they had faith.

Pride, overweening selfishness and vanity, brought the partisans of the French Revolution into mortal and fratricidal conflict: they cut each other's throats instead of uniting to found a republic. Those who were engaged in freeing their country from tyranny, succeeded in Holland, in England, in America, under the influence of a certain spirit of charity, humility and mutual support, in coming to an understanding in order to consolidate their work. For the foundation of a State, the Christianity of Penn and of Washington is a better cement than the philosophy of "Vergniaud, of Robespierre, and of Mirabeau. Without judging the two doctrines, it is easy to observe the results which they have produced.

When the religious sentiment is weakened, the point of honour, vanity, love of approbation, act as the motive power for good deeds, and the spring page 30 of moral life. Alfred de Vigny has shown this in eloquent terms in a chapter of his book, 'Grandeur et servitude militaires.' Musset has repeated it in these energetic lines,—

"L'orgueil . . .

C'est ce qui reste encore d'un peu beau dans la vie."

M. Taine says, in his 'Notes sur l'Angleterre':—"In France the moral principle is founded on the sentiment of honour, in England on the idea of duty. Now the former is arbitrary; its bearing varies according to the individual."

In the France Nouvelle, Prévost-Paradol writes as follows:—"In the eyes of every clear-sighted and honest observer, our country now presents the almost unique spectacle of a society in which the point of honour is become the principal guarantee of good order, and ensures the performance of the greater number of those duties and sacrifices which religion and patriotism have lost the power of accomplishing. If the laws are generally respected, if the young soldier obediently rejoins his standard, and remains faithful to it, if the responsible agent respects the public exchequer, if, in short, the Frenchman duly acquits himself of his duty to the State and to his fellow-citizens, it is to the point of honour that it is due. It is not owing to respect for the Divine law, which long since has passed into the region of problem; nor from philosophic devotion to an uncertain duty, still less to that abstract being, page 31 the State, upset and discredited as it has been by so many revolutions;—it is the fear of having to blush publicly for any action held to be disgraceful, which alone maintains among us the effective desire to do right." How faithful and distressing is this picture, which Prévost-Paradol traces in the anguish of his soul, above all when he adds, "That there should be nothing left but the point of honour to lean upon, and that even that should bend in one's grasp like the fragile reed mentioned in Scripture!"

Read in France the proclamations to the people and to the army, when their ardour is to be excited, or their enthusiasm raised; it is to the point of honour, or to vanity, that appeal is made. Listen to Napoleon:—"From the height of the Pyramids, forty centuries observe you." "Soldiers, when returned home, you will be able to say, 'I was at Jena, at Austerlitz!'" Either to speak of oneself or to be in the mouths of others, is the aim and the motive. Nelson, at Trafalgar, says simply, "England expects every man to do his duty."

In the sayings of the men of the Revolution of the Low Countries, or the United States of America, appeal is made to the love of country, to duty, to the Divine law. It is clear that these springs of action are surer than the other ones. In truth, to be talked about is but a hollow advantage. The point of honour loses its efficacy as a rule of conduct as soon as a man has strength of mind enough to grasp page 32 it. Moreover, public opinion may be perverted, and in such a case cannot be invoked in favour of virtue.

Nearly all French writers have exalted the Renaissance at the cost of the Reformation, because, being broader in its views, it brought more complete emancipation to humanity. The facts do not bear this out. The countries which have embraced the Reformation are decidedly in advance of those which have stopped short at the Renaissance. This is because the Reformation had within itself a moral force which was denied to the Renaissance. Now moral force, coupled with science, is the source of the prosperity of nations. The Renaissance was a return to antiquity, the Reformation a return to the Gospel. The Gospel, being superior to the tradition of antiquity, was sure to yield better fruits.

* See the book recently published by M. Potvin: 'De la corruption du gout littéraire en France.'