Joubert: An Essay by Matthew Arnold

VIII. JOUBERT (from Essays in Criticism, First Series)

Why should we ever treat of any dead authors but the famous ones? Mainly for this reason: because, from these famous personages, home or foreign, whom we all know so well, and of whom so much has been said, the amount of stimulus which they contain for us has been in a great measure disengaged; people have formed their opinion about them, and do not readily change it. One may write of them afresh, combat received opinions about them, even interest one’s readers in so doing; but the interest one’s readers receive has to do, in general, rather with the treatment than with the subject; they are susceptible of a lively impression rather of the course of the discussion itself, — its turns, vivacity, and novelty, — than of the genius of the author who is the occasion of it. And yet what is really precious and inspiring, in all that we get form literature, except this sense of an immediate contact with genius itself, and the stimulus towards what is true and excellent which he derive from it? Now in literature, besides the eminent men of genius who have had their deserts in the way of fame, besides the eminent men of ability who have often had far more than their deserts in the way of fame, there are a certain number of personages who have been real men of genius, — by which I mean, that they have had a genuine gift for what is true and excellent, and are therefore capable of emitting a life-giving stimulus, — but who, for some reason or other, in most cases very valid reasons, have remained obscure, nay beyond a narrow circle in their own country, unknown. It is salutary from time to time to come across a genius of this kind, and to extract his honey. Often he has more of it for us, as I have already said, than greater men; for, though it is by no means true that form what is new to us there is most to be learnt, it is yet indisputably true that from what is new to us we in general learn most.

Of a genius of this kind, Joseph Joubert, I am now going to speak. His name is, I believe, almost unknown in England; and even in France, his native country, it is not famous. M. Sainte-Beuve has given of him one of his incomparable portraits; but, — besides that even M. Sainte-Beuve’s writings are far less known among us than they deserve to be, — every country has its own point of view from which a remarkable author may most profitably be seen and studied. Joseph Joubert was born (and his date should be remarked) in 1754, at Montignac, a little town in Périgord. His father was a doctor with small means and a large family; and Joseph, the eldest, had his own way to make in the world. He was for eight years, as pupil first, and afterwards as an assistant-master, in the public school of Toulouse, then managed by the Jesuits, who seem to have left in him a most favourable opinion, not only of their tact and address, but of their really good qualities as teachers and directors. Compelled by the weakness of his health to give up, at twenty-two, the profession of teaching, he passed two important years of his life in hard study, at home at Montignac; and came in 1778 to try his fortune in the literary world of Paris, then perhaps the most tempting field which has ever yet presented itself to a young man of letters. He knew Diderot, D’Alembert, Marmontel, Laharpe; he became intimate with one of the celebrities of the next literary generation, then, like himself, a young man, — Chateaubriand’s friend, the future Grand Master of the University, Fontanes. But, even then, it began to be remarked of him, that M. Joubert “s’inquiétait de perfection bien plus que de gloire – cared far more about perfecting himself than about making himself a reputation.” His severity of morals may perhaps have been rendered easier to him by the delicacy of his health; but the delicacy of his health will not by itself account for this changeless preference of being to seeming, knowing to showing, studying to publishing; for what terrible public performers have some invalids been! This preference he retained all through his life, and it is by this that he is characterised. “He has chosen,” Chateaubriand (adopting Epicurus’ famous words) said of him, “to hide his life.” Of a life which its owner was bent on hiding there can be but little to tell. Yet the only two public incidents of Joubert’s life, slight as they are, do all concerned in them so much credit that they deserve mention. In 1790 the Constituent Assembly made the office of justice of the peace elective throughout France. The people of Montignac retained such and impression of the character of their young townsman, — one of Plutarch’s men of virtue, as he had lived amongst them, simple, studious, severe, — that, though he had left them for years, they elected him in his absence without his knowing anything about it. The appointment little suited Joubert’s wishes of tastes; but as such a moment he thought it wrong to decline it. He held it for two years, the legal term, discharging its duties with a firmness and integrity which were long remembered; and then, when he went out of office, his fellow-townsmen re-elected him. But Joubert thought that he had now accomplished his duty towards them, and he went back to the retirement which he loved. That seems to me a little episode of the great French Revolution worth remembering. The sage who was asked by the king, why sages were seen at the doors of kings, but not kings at the doors of sages, replied, that it was because sages knew what was good for them, and kings did not. But at Montignac the king – for in 1790 the people in France was king with a vengeance – knew what was good for him, and came to the door of the sage.

The other incident was this. When Napoleon, in 1809, reorganised the public instruction of France, founded the University, and made M. de Fontanes its Grand Master, Fontanes had to submit to the Emperor a list of persons to form the council or governing body of the new University. Third on his list, after two distinguished names, Fontanes placed the unknown name of Joubert. “This name,” he said in his accompanying memorandum to the Emperor, “is not known as the two first are; and yet this is the nomination to which I attach most importance. I have known M. Joubert all my life. His character and intelligence are of the very brightest order. I shall rejoice if your Majesty will accept my guarantee for him.” Napoleon trusted his Grand Master, and Joubert became a councillor of the University. It is something that a man, elevated to the highest posts of State, should not forget his obscure friends; or that, if he remembers and places them, he should regard in placing them their merit rather than their obscurity. It is more, in the eyes of those whom the necessities, real or supposed, of a political system have long familiarised with such cynical disregard of fitness in the distribution office, to see a minister and his master alike zealous, in giving away places, to give them to the best men to be found.

Between 1792 and 1809 Joubert had married. His life was passed between Villeneuve-sur Yonne, where his wife’s family lived, — a pretty little burgandian town, by which the Lyons railroad now passes, — and Paris. Here, in a house in the Rue St.-Honoré, in a room very high up, and admitting plenty of the light which he so loved, — a room from he saw, in his own words, “a great deal of sky and very little earth,” – among the treasures of a library collected with infinite pains, taste, and skill, from which every book he though ill of was rigidly excluded, — he never would possess either a complete Voltaire or a complete Rousseau, — the happiest hours of his life were passed. In the circle of one of those women who leave a sort of perfume in literary history, and who have the gift of inspiring successive generations of readers with an indescribable regret not to have known them, — Pauline de Montmorin, Madame de Beaumont, — he had become intimate with nearly all which at that time, in the Paris world of letters and society, as most attractive and promising. Amongst his acquaintances one only misses the names of Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant. Neither of them was to histe taste, and with Madame de Staël he always refused to become acquainted; he thought she had more vehemence than truth, and more heat than light.

Years went on, and his friends became conspicuous authors or statesmen; but Joubert remained in the shade. His constitution was of such fragility that how he lived so long, or accomplish so much as he did, is a wonder: his soul had, for its basis of operations, hardly any body at all: both from his stomach and his chest he seems to have had constant suffering, though he lived by rule, and was abstemious as a Hindoo. Often, after overwork in thinking, reading, or talking, he remained for days together in a state of utter prostration, — condemned to absolute silence and inaction; too happy if the agitation of his mind would become quiet also, and let him have the repose of which he stood in so much need. With this weakness of health, these repeated suspension of energy, he was incapable of the prolonged contention of spirit necessary for the creation of great works. But he read and thought immensely; he was an unwearied note-taker, a charming letter-writing; above all, an excellent and delightful talker. The gaiety and amenity of his natural disposition were inexhaustible; and his spirit, too was of astonishing elasticity; he seemed to hold on to life by a single thread only, but that single thread was very tenacious. More and more, as his soul and knowledge ripened more and more, his friends pressed to his room in the Rue St.-Honoré; often he received them in bed, for he seldom rose before three o’clock in the afternoon; and at his bedroom-door, on his bad days, Madame Joubert stood sentry, trying not always with success, to keep back the thirsty comers form the fountain which he was forbidden to flow. Fontanes did nothing in the University without consulting him, and Joubert’s ideas and pen were always at his friend’s service.

When he was in the country, at Villeneuve, the young priests of his neighbourhood used to resort to him, in order to profit by his library and by his conversation. He, like our Coleridge, was particularly qualitied to attract men of this kind and to benefit them: retaining a perfect independence of mind, he was a religious philosopher. As age came on, his infirmities became more and more overwhelming; some of his friends, too, died; others became so immersed in politics, that Joubert, who hated politics, saw them seldomer than of old; but the moroseness of age and infirmity never touched him, and he never quarrelled with a friend or lost one. From these miseries he was preserved by that quality in him of which I have already spoken; a quality which is best expressed by a word, not of common use in English, — alas, we have too little in our national character of the quality which this word expresses, — his inborn, his constant amenity. He lived till the year 1824. On the 4th of May in that year he died, at the age of seventy. A day or two after his death M. de Chateaubriand inserted in the Journal des Débats a short notice of him, perfect for its feeling, grace, and propriety. On ne vit dans la mémoire du monde, he says and says truly, que par des travaux pour le monde, — “a man can live in the world’s memory only by what he has done for the world.” But Chateaubriand used the privilege which his great name gave him to assert, delicately but firmly, Joubert’s real and rare merits, and to tell the world what manner of man had just left it.

Joubert’s papers were accumulated in boxes and drawers. He had not meant them for publication; it was very difficult to sort them and to prepare them for it. Madame Joubert, his widow, had a scruple about giving them a publicity which her husband, she felt, would never have permitted. But as her own end approached, the natural desire to leave of so remarkable a spirit some enduring memorial, some memorial to outlast the admiring recollection of the living who were so fast passing away, made her yield to the entreaties of his friends, and allow the printing, but for private circulation only, of a volume of his fragments. Chateaubriand edited it; it appeared in 1838, fourteen years after Joubert’s death. The volume attracted the attention of those who were best fitted to appreciate it, and profoundly impressed them. M. Sainte-Beuve gave of it, in the Revue des Deux Mondes, the admirable notice of which I have already spoken; and so much curiosity was excited about Joubert, that the collection of his fragments, enlarged by many additions, was at last published for the benefit of the world in general. It has since been twice reprinted. The first or preliminary chapter has some fancifulness and affectation in it; the reader should begin with the second.

I have likened Joubert to Coleridge; and indeed the points of resemblance between the two men are numerous. Both of them great and celebrated talkers, Joubert attracting pilgrims to his upper chamber in the Rue St.-Honoré, as Coleridge attracted pilgrims to Mr. Gilman’s at Highgate; both of them desultory and incomplete writers, — her they had an outward likeness with one another. Both of them passionately devoted to reading in a class of books, and to thinking on a class of subjects, out of the beaten line of the reading and thought of their day; both of them ardent students and critics of old literature, poetry, and the metaphysics of religion; both of them curious explorers of words, and of the latent significance hidden under the popular use of them; both of them, in a certain sense, conservative in religion and politics, by antipathy to the narrow and shallow foolishness of vulgar modern liberalism; — here they had their inward and real likeness. But that in which the essence of their likeness consisted is this, — that they both had from nature and ardent impulse for seeking the genuine truth on all matters they thought about, and a gift for finding it and recognising it when it was found. To have the impulse for seeking the this truth is much rarer than most people think; to have the gift for finding it is, I need not say, very rare indeed. By this they have a spiritual relationship of the closest kind with one another, and they become, each of them, a source of stimulus and progress for all of us.

Coleridge had less delicacy and penetration than Joubert, but more richness and power; his production, though far inferior to what his nature at first seemed to promise, was abundant and varied. Yet in all his production how much is there to dissatisfy us! How many reserves must be made in praising either his poetry, or of his criticism, or of his philosophy, can we expect permanently to stand! But that which will stand of Coleridge is this: the stimulus of his continual effort, — not a moral effort, for he had no morals, — but of his continual instinctive effort, crowned often with rich success, to get at and to lay bare the real truth of his matter in hand, whether that matter were literary, or philosophical, or political, or religious; and this in a country where at that moment such an effort was almost unknown; where the most powerful minds threw themselves upon poetry, which conveys truth, indeed, but conveys it indirectly; and where ordinary minds were so habituated to do without thinking altogether, to regard considerations of established routine and practical convenience as paramount, that attempt to introduce within the domain of these disturbing element of thought, they were prompt to resent as an outrage. Coleridge’s great usefulness lay in his supplying England, for many years and under critical circumstances, by the spectacle of this effort of his, a stimulus to all minds capable of profiting by it; in the generation which grew up around him. His action will still be felt as long as the need for it continues. When, with the cessation of the need, the action too has ceased, Coleridge’s memory, in spite of the disesteem – nay, repugnance – which ever his character may and must inspire, will yet for ever remain invested with that interest and gratitude which invests the memory of founders.

M. de Rémusat, indeed, reproaches Coleridge with his jugements saugrenus; the criticism of a gifted truth-finder ought not to be saugrenu, so on this reproach we must pause for a moment. Saugrenu is a rather vulgar French word, but, like many other vulgar worlds, very expressive; used as an epithet for a judgment, it means something like impudently absurd. The literary judgments of one nation about another are very apt to be sagrenus. It is certainly true, as M. Sainte-Beuve remarks in answer to Goethe’s complaint against the French that they have undervalued Du Bartas, that as the estimate of its own authors every nation is the best judge; the positive estimate of them, be it understood, not, of course, the estimate of them in comparison with the authors of other nations. Therefore a foreigner’s judgments about the intrinsic merit of a nation’s authors will generally, when at complete variance with that nation’s own, be wrong; but there is a permissible wrongness in these matters, and to that we permissible wrongness there is a limit. When that limit is exceeded, the wrong judgment becomes more than wrong, it becomes saugrenu, or impudently absurd. For instance, the high estimate which the French have of Racine is probably in great measure deserved; or, to take a yet stronger case, even the high estimate which Joubert had of the Abbé Delille is probably in great measure deserved; but the common disparaging judgment passed on Racine by English readers is not saugrenu, still less is that passed by them on the Abbé Delille saugrenu, because the beauty of Racine, and of Delille too, so far as Delille’s beauty goes, is eminently in their language, and this is a beauty which a foreigner cannot perfectly seize; — this beauty of a diction, apicibus verborum ligata, as M. Sainte-Beuve, quoting Quintilian, says of Chateaubriand’s. As to Chateaubriand himself, again, the common English judgment, which stamps him as a mere shallow rhetorician, all froth and vanity, is certainly wrong, one may even wonder that we English should judge Chateaubriand so wrongly, for his power goes far beyond beauty of diction; it is a power, as well, of passion and sentiment, and this sort of power the English can perfectly well appreciate. One production of Chateaubriand’s, René, is akin to the most popular productions of Byron, — to the Childe Harold of Manfred, — in spirit, equal to them in power, superior to them in form. But this work, I hardly know why, is almost unread in England. And only consider this criticism Chateaubriand’s on the true pathetic! “It is a dangerous mistake, sanctioned, like so many other dangerous mistakes, by Voltaire, to suppose that the best works of imagination are those which draw most tears. One could name this or that melodrama, which no one would like to own having written, and which yet harrows the feelings far more than the Aeneid. The true tears those which are called forth by the beauty of poetry; there must be as much admiration in them as sorrow. They are the tears which to our eyes when Priam says to Achilles, ‘And I have endured, — the like whereof no soul upon the earth hath yet endured, — to carry to my lips the hand of him who slew my child;’ or when Joseph cries out: ‘I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold in Egypt.’” Who does not feel that the man who wrote that was no shallow rhetorician, but a born man of genius, with the true instinct of genius for what is really admirable? Nay, take these words of Chateaubriand, an old man of eighty, dying, amidst the noise and bustle of the ignoble revolution of February 1848: “Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, quand donc, quand donc serai-je délivré de tout ce monde, ce bruit; quand donc, quand donc cela finira-t-il?” Who with any ear, does not feel that those are not the accents of a trumpery rhetorician, but of a rich and puissant nature, — the cry of the dying lion? I repeat it, Chateaubriand is most ignorantly underrated in England; and we English are capable of rating him far more correctly if we knew him better. Still Chateaubriand has such real and great faults, he falls so decidedly beneath the rank of the truly greatest authors, that the depreciatory judgment passed on him in England, though ignorant and wrong, can hardly be said to transgress the limits of permissible ignorance; it is not a jugement saugrenu. But when a critic denies genius to a literature which has produced Bossuet and Molière, he passes the bounds; and Coleridge’s judgments on French literature and the French genius are undoubtedly, as M. de Rémusat calls them, saugrenus.

And yet, such is the impetuosity of our poor human nature, such its proneness to rush to a decision with imperfect knowledge, that his having delivered a saugrenu judgment or two in his life by no means proves a man not to have had, in comparison with his fellow-men in general, a remarkable gift for truth, or disqualifies him for being, by virtue of that gift, a source of vital stimulus for us. Joubert had far less smoke and turbid vehemence in him than Coleridge; he had also a far keener sense of what was absurd. But Joubert can write to M. Molé (the M. Molé who was afterwards Louis Philippe’s well-known minister): “As to your Milton, whom the merit of the Abbé Delille” (the Abbé Delille translated Paradise Lost) “makes me admire, and with whom I have nevertheless still plenty of fault to find, why, I should like to know, are you scandalised that I have not enabled myself to read him? I don’t understand the language in which he writes, and I don’t much care to. If he is a poet one cannot put up with, even in the prose of the younger Racine, am I to blame for that? If by force you mean beauty manifesting itself with power, I maintain that the Abbé Delille has more force than Milton.” That, to be sure, is a petulant outburst in a private letter; it is not, like Coleridge’s, a deliberate proposition in a printed philosophical essay. But is it possible to imagine a more perfect specimen of a saugrenu judgment? It is even worse than Coleridge’s, because it is saugrenu with reasons. That, however, does not prevent Joubert from having been really a man of extraordinary ardour in the search for truth, and of extraordinary fineness in the perception of it; and so was Coleridge’s.

Joubert had around him in France an atmosphere of literary, philosophical, and religious opinion as alien to him as that in England was to Coleridge. This is what makes Joubert, too, so remarkable, and it is on this account that I begged the reader to remark his date. He was born in 1754; he died in 1824. He was thus in the fullness of his powers at the beginning of the present century, at the epoch of Napoleon’s consulate. The French criticism of that day – the criticism of Laharpe’s successors, of Geoffrey and his colleagues in the Journal des Débats – had a dryness very unlike the telling vivacity of the early Edinburgh reviewers, their contemporaries, but a fundamental narrowness, a want of genuine insight, much on a par with theirs. Joubert, like Coleridge, has no respect for the dominant oracle; he treats his Geoffroy with about as little deference as Coleridge treats his Jeffrey. “Geoffrey,” he says in an article in the Journal des Débats criticising Chateaubriand’s Génie du Christianisme – “Geoffrey in this article begins by holding out his paw prettily enough; but he ends by a volley of kicks, which lets the whole world see but too clearly the four iron shoes of the four-footed animal.” There is, however, in France a sympathy with intellectual activity for its own sake, and for the sake of its inherent pleasurableness and beauty, keener than any which exists in England; and Joubert had more effect in Paris, — though his conversation was his only weapon, and Coleridge wielded besides his conversations his pen, — than Coleridge had or could have in London. I mean, a more immediate, appreciable effect; an effect not only upon the young and enthusiastic, to whom the future belongs, but upon formed and important personages to whom the present belongs, and who are actually moving society. He owed this partly to his real advantages over Coleridge. If he had, as I have already said, less power and richness than his English parallel, he had more tact and penetration. He was more possible than Coleridge; his doctrine was more intelligible than Coleridge’s, more receivable. And yet with Joubert, the striving after a consummate and attractive clearness of expression came from no mere frivolous dislike of labour and inability for going deep, but was a part of his native love of truth and perfection. The delight of his life he found in truth, and in the satisfaction which the enjoying of truth gives to the spirit; and he thought the truth was never really and worthily said, so long as the least cloud, clumsiness, and repulsiveness hung about the expression of it.

Some of his best passages are those in which he upholds this doctrine. Even metaphysics he would not allow to remain difficult and abstract: so long as they spoke a professional jargon, the language of the schools, he maintained, — and who shall gainsay him? – that metaphysics were imperfect; or, at any rate, had not yet reached their ideal perfection.

“The true science of metaphysics,” he says, “consists not in rendering abstract that which is sensible, but in rendering sensible that which is abstract; apparent that which is hidden; imaginable, if so it may be, that which is only intelligible; and intelligible, finally, that which an ordinary attention fails to seize.”

And therefore: —

“Distrust, in books on metaphysics, words which have not been able to get currency in the world, and are only calculated to from a special language.”

Nor would he suffer common words to be employed in a special sense by the schools: —

“Which is the best, if one wants to be useful and to be really understood, to get one’s words in the world, or to get them in the schools. I maintain that the good plan is to employ words in their popular sense; and the better plan still, to employ them in their natural sense, I mean the popular and universal acceptation of them brought to that which in this is essential and invariable. To prove a thing by definition, when the definition expresses the necessary, inevitable, and clear idea which the world at large attaches to the object, is, on the contrary, all in all; and because then what one does is simply to show people what they do really think, in spite of themselves and without knowing it. The rule that one is free to give to words what sense one will, and that the only thing needful is to be agreed upon the sense one gives them, is very well for the mere purposes of argumentation, and may be allowed in the schools where this sort of fencing is to be practised; but in the sphere of the true-born and noble science of metaphysics, and in the genuine world of literature, it is good for nothing. One must employ one’s expressions simply as media, — as glasses, through which one’s thoughts can be best made evident. I know, by my own experience, how hard this rule is to follow; but I judge of its importance by the failure of every system of metaphysics. Not one of them has succeeded; for the simple reason, that in every one ciphers have been constantly used instead of values, artificial ideas instead of native ideas, jargon instead of idiom.”

I do not know whether the metaphysician will ever adopt Joubert’s rules; but I am sure that the man of letters, whenever he has to speak of metaphysics, will do well to adopt them. He, at any rate, must remember: —

“It is by means of familiar words that style takes hold of the reader and gets possession of him. It is by means of these that great thoughts get currency and pass for true metal, like gold and silver which have had a recognised stamps put upon them. They beget confidence in the man who, in order to make his thoughts more clearly perceived, uses them; for people feel that such an employment of the language of common human life betokens a man who knows that life and its concerns, and who keeps himself in contact with them. Besides, these words make a style frank and easy. They show that an author has long made the thought or the feeling expressed his mental food; that he has so assimilated them and familiarised them, that the most common expressions suffice him in order to express ideas which have become every-day ideas to him by the length of time they have been in his mind. And lastly, what one says in such words looks more true; for, of all the words in use, none are so clear as those which we call common words; and clearness is so eminently one of the characteristics of truth, that often it even passes for truth itself.”

These are not, in Joubert, mere counsels of rhetoric; they come from his accurate sense of perfection, from his having clearly seized the fine and just idea that beauty and light are properties of truth, and that truth is incompletely exhibited if it is exhibited without beauty and light: —

“Be profound with clear terms and not with obscure terms. What is difficult will at last become easy; but as one goes deep into things, one must still keep a charm, and one must carry into these dark depths of thought, into which speculation has only recently penetrated, the pure and antique clearness of centuries less learned than ours, but with more light in them.”

And elsewhere he speaks of those “spirits, lovers of light, who, when they have an idea to put forth, brood long over it first, and wait patiently till it shines, as Buffon enjoined, when he defined genius to be the aptitude of patience; spirits who know by experience that the direst matter and the dullest words hide within them the germ and spark of some brightness, like those fairy nuts in which were found diamonds if one broke the shell and was the right person; spirit who maintain that, to see and exhibit things in beauty, is to see and show things as in their essence they really are, and not as they exist for the eye of the careless, who do not look beyond the outside; spirits hard to satisfy, because of a keen-sightedness in them, which makes them discern but too clearly both the models to be followed and those to be shunned; spirits active though meditative, who cannot rest except in solid truths, and whom only beauty can make happy; spirits far less concerned for glory than for perfection, who, because their art is long and life is short, often die without leaving a monument, having had their own inward sense of life and fruitfulness for their best reward.”

No doubt there is something a little too ethereal in all this, something which reminds one of Joubert’s physical want of body and substance; no doubt, if a man wishes to be a great author, it is to consider too curiously, to consider as Joubert; it is a mistake to spend so much of one’s time in setting up one’s ideal standard of perfection, and in contemplating it. Joubert himself knew this very well: “I cannot build a house for my ideas,” said he; “I have tried to do without words, and words take their revenge on me by their difficulty.” “If there is a man upon earth tormented by the cursed desire to get a whole book into a page, a whole page into a phrase, and this phrase into one word, – that man is myself.” “I can sow, but I cannot build.” Joubert, however, makes no claim to be a great author; by renouncing all ambition to be this, by not trying to fit his ideas into a house, by making no compromise with words in spite of their difficulty, by being quite single-minded in his pursuit of perfection, perhaps he is enabled to get closer to the truth of the objects of his study, and to be of more service to us by setting before us ideals, than if he had composed a celebrated work. I doubt whether, in an elaborate work on the philosophy of religion, he would have got his ideas about religion to shine, to use his own expression, as they shine when he utters them in a perfect freedom. Penetration in these matters is valueless without soul, and soul is valueless without penetration; both of these are delicate qualities, and, even in those who have them, easily lost; the charm of Joubert is, that he has and keeps both. Let us try and show that he does.

“One should be fearful of being wrong in poetry when one thinks differently from the poets, and in religion when one thinks differently from the saints.”

“There is a great difference between taking for idols Mahomet and Luther, and bowing down before Rousseau and Voltaire. People at any rate imagined they were obeying God when they followed Mahomet, and the scriptures when they hearkened to Luther. And perhaps one ought not too much to disparage that inclination which leads mankind to put into the hands of those whom it thinks the friends of God the direction and government of its heart and mind. It is the subjection to irreligious spirits which alone is fatal, and, in the fullest sense of the word, depraving.

“May I say it? It is not hard to know God, provided one will not force oneself to define him.

“Do not bring into the domain of reasoning that which belongs to our innermost feeling. State truths of sentiment, and do not try to prove them. There is danger in such proofs; for in arguing it is necessary to treat that which is in question as something problematic: now that which we accustom ourselves to treat as problematic ends by appearing to us as really doubtful. In things that are visible and palpable, never prove what is believed already; in things that are certain and mysterious, — mysterious by their greatness and by their nature, — make people believe them, and do not prove them; in things that are matters of practice and duty, command, and do not explain. ‘Fear God,’ has made many men pious; the proofs of the existence of God have made many men atheists. From the defence springs the attack; the advocate begets in his hearer a wish to pick holes; and men are almost always led on, from the desire to contradict the doctor, to the desire to contradict the doctrine. Make truth lovely, and do not try to arm her; mankind will then be far less inclined to contend with her.

“Why is even a bad preacher almost always heard by the pious with pleasure? Because he talks to them about what they love. But you who have to expound religion to the children of this world, you who have to speak to them of that which they once loved perhaps, or which they would be glad to love, — remember that they do not love it yet, and to make them it take heed to speak with power.

“You may do what you like, mankind will believe no one but God; and he only can persuade mankind who believes that God has spoken to him. No one can give faith unless he has faith; the persuaded persuade, as the indulgent disarm.

“The only happy people in the world are the good man, the sage, and the saint; but the saint is happier than either of the others, so much is man by his nature formed to sanctify.”

The same delicacy and penetration which he here shows in speaking of the inward essence of religion, Joubert shows also in speaking of its outward form, and of its manifestation in the world: —

“Religion is neither a theology nor a theosophy; it is more than all this; it is a discipline, a law, a yoke, an indissoluble engagement.”

Who, again, has ever shown more truth and beauty the good and imposing side of the wealth and splendour of the Catholic Church, than Joubert in the following passage?—

“The pomps and magnificence with which the Church is reproached are in truth the result and the proof of her incomparable excellence. From whence, let me ask, have come this power of hers and these excessive riches, except from the enchantment into which she threw all the world? Ravished with her beauty, millions of men from age to age kept loading her with gifts, bequests, cessions. She had the talent of making herself loved, and the talent of making men happy. It is that which wrought prodigies for her; it is from thence that she drew her power.”

“She had the talent of making herself feared,”—one should add that too, in order to be perfectly just; but Joubert, because he is a true child of light, can see that the wonderful success of the Catholic Church must have been due really to her good rather than to her bad qualities; to her making herself loved rather than to her making herself feared.

How striking and suggestive, again, is this remark of the Old and the New Testaments: —

“The Old Testament teaches the knowledge of good and evil; the Gospel, on the other hand, seems written for he predestinated; it is the book of innocence. The one is made for earth, the other seems made for heaven. According as the one or the other of these books takes hold of a nation, what may be called the religious humours of nations differ.”

So the British and North American Puritans are the children of the Old Testament, as Joachim of Flora and St. Francis are the children of the New. And does not the following maxim exactly fit the Church of England, of which Joubert certainly never thought when he was writing it? – “The austere sects excite the most enthusiasm at first; but the temperate sects have always been the most durable.”

And these remarks on the Jansenists and Jesuits, interesting in themselves, are still more interesting because they touch matters we cannot well know at first-hand, and which Joubert, an impartial observer, had had the means of studying closely. We are apt to think of the Jansenists as having failed by reason of their merits; Joubert shows us how far their failure was due to their defects: —

“We ought to lay stress upon what is clear in Scripture, and to pass quickly over what is obscure; to light up what in Scripture is troubled, by what is serene in it; what puzzles and checks the reason, by what satisfies the reason. The Jansenists have done just the reverse. They lay stress upon what is uncertain, obscure, afflicting, and they pass lightly over the rest; they eclipse the luminous and consoling truths of Scripture, by putting between us and them its opaque and dismal truths. For example: ‘Many are called;’ there is a clear truth: ‘Few are chosen;’ there is an obscure truth. ‘We are children of wrath;’ there is a sombre, cloudy, terrifying truth: ‘We are the children of God;’ ‘I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance;’ there are truths which are full of clearness, mildness, serenity, light. The Jansenists trouble our cheerfulness, and shed no cheering ray on our trouble. They are not, however, to be condemned for what they say, because what they say is true; but they are to be condemned for what they fail to say, for that is true too,– truer, even, than the other; that is, its truth is easier for us to seize, fuller, rounder, and more complete. Theology, as the Jansenists exhibit her, has but the half of her disk.”

Again: —

“The Jansenists erect ‘grace’ into a kind of fourth person of the Trinity. The are, without thinking or intending it, Quaternitarians. St. Paul and St. Agustine, too exclusively studied, have done all the mischief. Instead of ‘grace,’ say help, succour a divine influence, a dew of heaven; then one can come to a right understanding. The word ‘grace’ is a sort of talisman, all the baneful spell of which can be broken by translating it. The trick of personifying words is a fatal source of mischief in theology.”

Once more:–

“The Jansenists tell men to love God; the Jesuits make men love him. The doctrine of these last is full of looseness, or, if you will, of errors; still,– singular as it may seem, it is undeniable, — they are the better directors of souls.

“The Jansenists have carried into religion more thought than the Jesuits, and they go deeper; they are faster bound with its sacred bonds. They have in their way of thinking an austerity which incessantly constrains the will to keep the path of duty; all the habits of their understanding, in short, are more Christian. But they seem to love God without affection, and solely from reason, from duty, from justice. The Jesuits, on the other hand, seem to love him from pure inclination; out of admiration, gratitude, tenderness; for the pleasure of loving him, in short. In their books of devotion you find joy, because with the Jesuits nature and religion go hand in hand. In the books of the Jansenists there is a sadness and a moral constraint, because the Jansenists religion is for ever trying to put nature in bonds.”

The Jesuits have suffered, and deservedly suffered, plenty of discredit from what Joubert gently calls their “looseness;” let them have the merit of their amiability.

The most characteristic thoughts on can quote from any writer are always his thoughts on matters like these; but the maxims of Joubert on purely literary subjects also, have the same sedulousness in them to preserve perfectly true the balance of his soul. Let me begin with this, which contains a truth too many people fail to perceive: —

“Ignorance, which in matters of morals extenuates the crime, is itself, in matters of literature, a crime of the first order.”

And here is another sentence, worthy of Goethe, to clear the air at one’s entrance into the region of literature: —

“With the fever of the senses, the delirium of the passions, the weakness of the spirit; with the storms of the passing time and with the great scourges of human life, — hunger, thirst, dishonour, diseases, and death, — authors may as long as they like go on making novels which shall harrow our hearts; but the soul says the while, ‘You hurt me.’”

And again: —

“Fiction has no business to exist unless it is more beautiful than reality. Certainly the monstrosities of fiction may be found in the booksellers’ shops; you buy them there for a certain number of francs, and you talk of them for a certain number of days; but they have no place in literature, because in literature the one aim of art is the beautiful. Once lose sight of that, and you have the mere frightful reality.”

That is just the right criticism to pass on these “monstrosities:” they have no place in literature, and those who produce them are not really men of letters. One would think that this was enough to deter from such production any man of genuine ambition. But most of us, alas! Are what we must be, not what we ought to be, — not even what we know we ought to be, — not even what we know we ought to be.

The following, of which the first reminds one of Wordsworth’s sonnet, “If thou indeed derive thy light from heaven,” excellently defines the true salutary function of literature, and the limits of this function: —

“Whether on is an eagle or an ant, in the intellectual world, seems to me not to matter much; the essential thing is to have one’s place marked there, one’s station assigned, and to belong decidedly to a regular and wholesome order. A small talent, if it keeps within its limits and rightly fulfills its task, may reach the goal just as well as a greater one. To accustom mankind to pleasures which depend neither upon the bodily appetites nor upon money, by giving them a taste for the things of the mind, seems to me, in fact, the one proper fruit which nature has meant our literary productions to have. When they have other fruits, it is by accident, and, in general, not for good. Books which absorb our attention to such a degree that they rob us of all fancy for other books, are absolutely pernicious. In this way they only bring fresh crotchets and sects into the world; they multiply the great variety of weights, rules, and measures already existing; they are morally and politically a nuisance.”

Who can read these word and not think of the limiting effect exercised by certain works in certain spheres and for certain periods; exercised even by the works of men of genius or virtue, — by the works of Rousseau, the works of Wesley, the works of Swedenborg? And what is it which makes the Bible so admirable a book, to be the one book of those who can have only one, but the miscellaneous character of the contents of the Bible?

Joubert was all his life a passionate lover of Plato; I hope other lovers of Plato will forgive me for saying that their adored object has never been more truly described than he is here: —

“Plato shows us nothing, but he brings brightness with him; he puts light into our eyes, and fills us with a clearness by which all objects afterwards become illuminated. He teaches us nothing; but he prepares us, fashions us, and makes us ready to know all. Somehow or other, the habit of reading him augments in us the capacity for discerning and entertaining whatever fine truths may afterwards present themselves. Like mountain-air, it sharpens our organs, and gives us an appetite for wholesome food.”

“Plato loses himself in the void” (he says again); “but one sees the play of his wings, on hears their rustle.” And the conclusion is: “It is good to breathe his air, but not to live upon him.”

As a pendant to the criticism on Plato, this on the French moralist Nicole is excellent:–

“Nicole is a Pascal without style. It is not what he says which is sublime, but what he thinks; he rises, not but the natural elevation of his own spirit, but by that of his doctrines. One must not look to the form in him, but to the matter, which is exquisite. He ought to be read with a direct view of practice.”

English people have hardly ears to hear the praises of Bossuet, and the Bossuet of Joubert is Bossuet at his very best; but this is a far truer Bossuet than the “declaimer” Bossuet of Lord Macaulay, himself a born rhetorician, if ever there was one: —

“Bossuet employs all our idioms, as Homer employed all the dialects. The language of kings, of statesmen, and of warriors; the language of the people and of the student, of the country and of the schools, of the sanctuary and of the courts of law; the old and the new, the trivial and the stately, the quiet and the resounding, — he turns all to his use; and out of all this he makes a style, simple, grave, majestic. His ideas are, like his words, varied, — common and sublime together. Times and doctrines in all their multitude were ever before his spirits, as things and words in all their multitude were ever before it. He is not such much a man as a human nature, with the temperance of a saint, the justice of a bishop, the prudence of a doctor, and the might of a great spirit.”

After this on Bossuet, I must quote a criticism on Racine, to show that Joubert did not indiscriminately worship all the French gods of the grand century:–

“Those who find Racine enough for them are poor souls and poor wit; they are souls and wits which have never got beyond the callow and boarding-school stage. Admirable, as not doubt he is, for his skill having made poetical the most humdrum sentiments and the most middling sort of passions, he can yet stand us in stead of nobody but himself. He is a superior writer; and, in literature, that at once puts a man on a pinnacle. But he is not an inimitable writer.”

And again: “The talent of Racine is in his works, but Racine himself is not there. That is why he himself became disgusted with them.””Of Racine, as of his ancients, the genius lay in taste. His elegance is perfect, but it is not supreme, like that of Virgil.” And, indeed, there is something supreme in an elegance which exercises such as fascination as Virgil’s does; which makes one return to his poems again and again, longer after one thinks one has done with them; which makes them one of those books that, to use Joubert’s words, “lure the reader back to them, as the proverp says good wine lures back the wine-bibbler.” And the highest praise Joubert can at least find for Racine is this, that he is the Virgil of the ignorant; — “Racine est le Virgile des ignorants.”

Of Boileau, too, Joubert says: “Boileau is a powerful poet, but only in the world of half poetry.” How true is that of Pople also! And he adds: “Neither Boileau’s poetry nor Racine’s flows from the fountainhead.” No Englishman, controverting the exaggerated French estimate of these poets, could desire to use fitter words.

I will end with some remarks on Voltaire and Rousseau, remarks in which Joubert eminently shows his prime merit as a critic, — the soundness and completeness of his judgments. I mean that he has the faculty of judging with all the powers of his mind and soul at work together in due combination; and how rare is this faculty! How seldom is it exercised towards writers who so powerfully as Voltaire and Rousseau stimulate and call into activity a single side in us!

“Voltaire’s wits came to their maturity twenty years sooner than the wits of other men, and remained in full vigour thirty years longer. The charm which our style in general gets from our ideas, his ideas get from his style. Voltaire is sometimes afflicted, sometimes strongly moved; but serious he never is. His very graces have an effrontery about them. He had correctness of judgment, liveliness of imagination, nimble wits, quick taste, and a moral sense in ruins. He is the most debauched of spirits, and the worst of him is that one gets debauched along with him. If he had been a wise man, and had had the self-discipline of wisdom, beyond a doubt half his wit would have been gone; it needed an atmosphere of licence in order to play freely. Those people who read him every day, create for themselves, by an invincible law, the necessity of liking him. But those people who, having given up reading him, gaze steadily down upon the influences which his spirit has shed abroad, find themselves in simple justice and duty compelled to detest him. It is impossible to be satisfied with him, and impossible not to be fascinated by him.”

The literary sense in us is apt to rebel against so severe a judgment on such a charmer of the literary sense as Voltaire, and perhaps we English are not very liable to catch Voltaire’s vices, while of some of his merits we have signal need; still, as the real definitive judgment on Voltaire, Joubert’s is undoubtedly the true one. It is nearly identical with that of Goethe. Joubert’s sentence on Rousseau is in some respects more favourable: —

“That weight in the speaker (auctoritas) which the ancients talk of, is to be found in Bossuet more than in any other French author; Pascal, too, has it, and La Bruyère; even Rousseau has something of it, but Voltaire not a particle. I can understand how a Rousseau – I mean a Rousseau cured of his faults – might at the present day do much good, and may even come to be greatly wanted; but under no circumstances can a Voltaire be of any use.”

The peculiar power of Rousseau’s style has never been better hit off than in the following passage:–

“Rousseau imparted, if I may so speak, bowels of feeling to the words he used (donna des entrailles à tous les mots), and poured into them such a charm, sweetness so penetrating, energy so puissant, that his writings have an effect upon the soul something like that of those illicit pleasures which steal away our taste and intoxicate our reason.”

The final judgment, however, is severe, and justly severe: —

“Life without actions; life entirely resolved into affections and half-sensual thoughts; do-nothingness setting up for a virtue; cowardliness with voluptuousness; fierce pride with nullity underneath it; the strutting phrase of the most sensual of vagabonds, who has made his system of philosophy and can give it eloquently forth: there is Rousseau! A piety in which there is no religion; a severity which brings corruption with it; a dogmatism which serves to ruin all authority: there is Rousseau’s philosophy! To all tender, ardent, and elevated natures, I say: Only Rousseau can detach you from religion, and only true religion can cure you of Rousseau.”

I must yet find room, before I end, for one at least of Joubert’s sayings on political matters; here, too, the whole man shows himself: and here, too, the affinity with Coleridge is very remarkable. How true, how true in France especially, is this remark on the contrasting direction taken by the aspirations of the community in ancient and in modern states:–

“The ancients were attached to their country by three things, — their temples, their tombs, and their forefathers. The two great bonds which united them to their government were the bonds of habit and antiquity. With the moderns, hope and the love of novelty have produced a total change. The ancients said our forefathers, we say posterity: we do not, like them, love our patria, that is to say, the country and the laws of our fathers, rather we love the laws and the country of our children; the charm we are most sensible to is the charm of the future, and not the charm of the past.”

And how keen and true is this criticism on the changed sense of the word “liberty”: —

“A great many words have changed their meaning. The word liberty, for example, had at bottom among the ancients the same meaning as the word dominion. I would be free meant, in the mouth of the ancients, I would take part in governing or administering the State; in the mouth of a modern it means, I would be independent. The word liberty has with us a moral sense; with them its sense was purely political.”

Joubert had lived through the French Revolution, and to the modern cry for liberty he was prone to answer: —

“Let your cry be for free souls rather even than for free men. Moral liberty is the one vitally important liberty, the one liberty which is indispensable; the other liberty is good and salutary only so far as it favours this. Subordination is in itself a better thing than independence. The one implies order and arrangement; the other implies on self-sufficiency with isolation. The one means harmony, the other a single tone; the one is the whole, the other is but the part.”

“Liberty! Liberty!” he cries again; “in all things let us have justice, and then we shall have enough liberty.”

Let us have justice, and then we shall have enough liberty! The wise man will never refuse to echo those words; but then, such is the imperfection of human governments, that almost always, in order to get justice, one has first to secure liberty.

I do not hold up Joubert as a very astonishing and powerful genius, but rather as a delightful and edifying genius. I have not cared to exhibit him as a sayer of brilliant epigrammatic things, such as “Notre vie est du vent tissue … les dettes abré-gent la vi … celui qui a de l’imigination sans ‘erudition a des ailes et n’a pas de pieds (Our life is woven wind … debts take from life … the man of imagination without learning has wings and no feet),” though for such sayings he is famous. In the first place, the French language is in itself so favourable a vehicle for such sayings, that the making them in it has the less merit; at least half the merit ought to go, not to the maker of the saying, but to the French language. In the second place, the peculiar beauty of Joubert is not there; it is not in what is exclusively intellectual, — it is in the union of the soul with the intellect, and in the delightful, satisfying result which this union produces. “Vivre, c’est penser et sentir son âme … le Bonheur est de sentir son âme bonne … toute vérité nue et crue n’a pas assez passé par l’âme … les homes ne sont justes qu’envers ceux qu’ils aiment (The essence of life lies in thinking and being conscious of one’s soul … happiness is the sense of one’s soul being good … if a truth is nude and crude, that is a proof it has not been steeped long genough in the soul … man cannot even be just to his neighbour, unless he loves him);” it is much rather in sayings like these that Joubert’s best and innermost nature manifests itself. He is the most prepossessing and convincing of witnesses to the good of loving light. Because he sincerely loved light, and did not prefer to it any little private darkness of his own, he found light; his eye was single, and therefore his whole body was full of light. And because he was full of light, he was full of happiness. In spite of his obscurity, he was the happiest man alive; his life was as charming as his thoughts. For certainly it is natural that the love of light, which is already, in some measure, the possession of light, should irradiate and beatify the whole life of him who has it. There is something unnatural and shocking where, as in the case of Coleridge, it does not. Joubert pains us by no such contradiction; “the same penetration of spirit which made him such delightful company to his friends, served also to make him perfect in his own personal life, by enabling him always to perceive and do what was right;” he loved and sought light till he became so habituated to it, so accustomed to the joyful testimony of a good conscience, that, to use his own words, “he could no longer exist without this, and was obliged to live without reproach if he would live without misery.”

Joubert was not famous while he lived, and he will not be famous now that he is dead. But, before we pity him for this, let us be sure what we mean, in literature, by famous. There are the famous men of genius in literature, — the Homers, Dantes, Shakspeares: of them we need not speak; their praise is for ever and ever. Then there are the famous men of ability in literature: their praise is in their own generation. And what makes this difference? The work of the two orders of men is at the bottom the same, – a criticism of life. The end and aim of all literature, if one considers it attentively, is, in truth, nothing but that. But the criticism which the men of genius pass upon human life is permanently acceptable to mankind; the criticism which the men of ability pass upon human life is transitorily acceptable. Between Shakspeare’s criticism of human life and Scribe’s the difference is there; — the one is permanently acceptable, the other transitorily. Whence then, I repeat, this difference? It is that the acceptableness of Shakspeare’s criticism depends upon its inherent truth: the acceptableness of Scribe’s upon it suiting itself, by its subject-matter, ideas, mode of treatment, to the taste of the generation that hears it. But the taste and ideas of one generation are not those of the next. This next generation in its turn arrives; — first its sharpshooters, its quick-witted, audacious light troops; then the elephantine main body. The imposing array of its predecessor it confidently assails, riddles it with bullets, passes over its body. It goes hard then with many once popular reputations, with many authorities once oracular. Only two kinds of authors are safe in the general havoc. The first kind are the great abounding fountains of truth, whose criticism of life is a source of illumination and joy to the whole human race for ever, — the Homers, the Shakspeares. These are the sarced personages, whom all civilised warfare respects. The second are those whom the out-skirmishers of the new generation, its forerunners, — quick-witted soldiers, as I have said, the select of the army, — recognise, though the bulk of their comrades behind might not, as of the same family and character with the sacred personages, exercising like them an immortal function, and like them inspiring a permanent interest. They snatch them up, and set them in a place of shelter, where the on-coming multitude may not overwhelm them. These are the Jouberts. They will never, like the Shakspeares, command the homage of the multitude; but they are safe; the multitude will not trample them down. Except these two kinds, no author is safe. Let us consider, for example, Joubert’s famous contemporary, Lord Jeffrey. All his vivacity and accomplishment avail him nothing; of the true critic he hand in an eminent degree no quality, except one, — curiosity. Curiosity he had, but he had not gift for truth; he cannot illuminate and rejoice us; no intelligent out-skirmisher of the new generation cares about him, cares to put him in safety; at this moment we are all passing over his body. Let us consider a greater than Jeffrey, a critic whose reputation still stands firm, — will stand, many people think, for ever, — the great apostle of the Philistines, Lord Macaulay. Lord Macaulay was, as I have already said, a born rhetorician; a splendid rhetorician doubtless, and, beyond that, an English rhetorician also, an honest rhetorician; still, beyond the apparent rhetorical truth of things he never could penetrate; for their vital truth, for what the French called call the vraie vérité, he had absolutely no organ; therefore his reputation, brilliant as it is, is not secure. Rhetoric so good as his excites and gives pleasure; but by pleasure alone you cannot permanently bind men’s spirits to you. Truth illuminates and gives joy, and it is by the bond of joy, not of pleasure, that men’s spirits are indissolubly held. As Lord Macaulay’s own generation dies out, as a new generation arrives, without those ideas and tendencies of its predecessor which Lord Macaulay so deeply shared and so happily satisfied, will he give the same pleasure? and, if he ceases to give this, has he enough of light in him to make him last? Pleasure the new generation will get from its own novel ideas and tendencies; but light is another and a rarer thing, and must be treasured where it can be found. Will Macaulay be saved, in the sweep and pressure of time, for his light’s sake, as Johnson has already been saved by two generations, Joubert by one? I think it very doubtful. But for a spirit of any delicacy and dignity, what a fate, if he could foresee it! to be an oracle for one generation, and then of little or no account for ever. How far better, to pass with scant notice through one’s own generation, but to be singled out and preserved by the very iconoclasts of the next, then in their turn by those of the next, and so, like the lamp of life itself, to be handed on from one generation to another in safety! This is Joubert’s lot, and it is a very enviable one. The new men of the new generations, while they let the dust deepen on a thousand Laharpes, will say of him: “He lived in the Philistine’s day, in a place and time when almost every idea current in literature had the mark of Dagon upon it, and not the mark of the children of light. Nay, the children of light were as yet hardly so much as heard of: the Canaanite was then in the land. Still, there were even then a few, who, nourished on some secret tradition, or illumined, perhaps, by a divine inspiration, kept aloof from the reigning superstitions, never bowed the knee to the gods of Canaan; and one of these few was called Joubert.”


Een gedachte over “Joubert: An Essay by Matthew Arnold

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