A Journal for Western Man




  Reflections on the Present State of the

Republic of Letters


Jean Le Rond d'Alembert

Issue LXI- June 3, 2006



Translated from French by Prof. Stephen J. Gendzier of Brandeis University.

© Stephen J. Gendzier. All Rights Reserved.

This essay is reprinted with permission from the copyright holder. This version of the essay can be found in The Portable Enlightenment Reader, edited by Isaac Kramnick.

            Moral philosophers are fond of asking how men lived in what is called a state of pure nature, before there were organized societies and laws, and whether such a state was one of peace or war. They have written on this question endlessly, as on all questions where the pros or the cons can be maintained at will, without danger of being contradicted by actual experience. From all these dissertations one can learn what one can usually learn from metaphysical discussions—that is, nothing.

            Yet there is, it seems to me, a shorter way to decide the question; that is, to examine the way in which men of letters have behaved throughout the centuries. For the man of letters is in relation to other men of letters almost in that state of pure nature about which we talk so much without really knowing what we are talking about. They struggle for renown much as, it is maintained, men without laws and government struggled, or would have struggled, for their food acorns. But in society no one has the right to live to the complete detriment of his fellows; therefore the laws regulate, at least roughly, the distribution of acorns—that is, the bare necessities of life—among men. On the contrary, in the best regulated society it is possible to live without renown, and often, indeed, to live more happily without it. Those who made the laws, therefore, have left this phantom to be disputed over by those who prize it.

            Literary renown is then the reward of the first to take it: the scepter belongs to him who seizes it, or who has the skill to have it offered him. Passed endlessly from hand to hand, it is the prize of the strongest or the cleverest. Usually the cleverest enjoys it but briefly, for it comes back to the strongest and stays in his possession.

            To gain this scepter, or at least to snatch off a few ornaments from it, men of letters write and intrigue, praise or tear to pieces. Some of them indeed protest that they scorn renown, all the while desiring it very much. But no one is the dupe of their protests, which do not prevent their getting renown if they deserve it, and which make them ridiculous only if they disdain it without deserving it.

            Among men of letters there is one group against which the arbiters of taste, the important people, the rich people, are united: this is the pernicious, the damnable group of philosophes, who hold that it is possible to be a good Frenchman without courting those in power, a good citizen without flattering national prejudices, a good Christian without persecuting anybody. These philosophes believe it is right to make more of an honest if little-known writer than of a well-known writer without enlightenment and without principles, to hold that foreigners are not inferior to us in every respect, and to prefer, for example, a government under which people are not slaves to one under which they are.

            This way of thinking is for many people an unpardonable crime. What shocks them most of all, they say, is the tone the philosophes use, the tone of dogmatism, the tone of the master who knows. I admit that those of the philosophes who do indeed deserve this reproach would have done well to avoid deserving it. When it is necessary to hurt with what is said, it is wrong to hurt still more by the tone in which it is said. The writer is always master of his tone, his way of saying things. Truth can hardly be too modest. Truth indeed, just by being truth, runs always a sufficiently great risk of being rejected. But after all, this truth, so feared, so hated, so insulted, is so rare and precious, it seems to me, that those who tell it may be pardoned a little excess of fervor. The writer who wants to write more than ephemerally has got to be right. Form is in itself of little importance—it is something for the moment, for the passing generation, but nothing for the next one, still less for distant posterity. If a dogmatic tone, one that tells the truth crudely, shocks our delicate judges, they will do well never to open geometry books; they won’t find more insolent ones.

            The philosophes, they say, are enemies of authority. This is a more serious reproach and deserves a serious reply. The philosophes respect authority in the monarch, to whom it belongs, and whose love of truth and justice they recognize. They would respect power in the hands of those to whom he confided it, even though it were abused. What would they gain by attacking such power? Who would guarantee them against oppression? Who would take their part? A thousand voices would be raised to overwhelm them, and not one to defend them. What resolution can they take, save to obey and keep silent? What prerogative have they to claim to be dispensed from obedience? If they were persecuted, they would at most defend themselves. To protest is not to revolt. No, no, if legitimate authority has in these days been weakened under attack, it has not been from attacks by men of letters or philosophes, but rather by those who most openly declare themselves the enemies of the philosophes.

            Let us speak without disguise or constraint. If those men we call philosophes haunted more often the antechambers of ministers, courted ladies of well-known piety, put themselves forward as advocates of persecution and intolerance, they would not be the targets for all the insults that are hurled at them. But they honor the great and flee them; they revere true piety and detest persecuting zeal; they believe the first of Christian duties is charity; and finally, as has been said elsewhere (for there are truths good to repeat for certain ears), they respect that which they ought to, and prize that which they can. This is their real crime.

Jean le Rond d'Alembert (November 16, 1717 October 29, 1783) was a French mathematician, mechanician, physicist and philosopher. He was also co-editor with Diderot of the Encyclopédie, the original French encyclopedia. D'Alembert's method for the wave equation is named after him. (From Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia)

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