Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
LITERATURE. It is very easy to understand that literature must have exercised a powerful influence over the course of historical events, but, on the other hand, it is very difficult to explain in a few pages the nature and extent of this influence. Such a question, if put in a general way, carries with it its own answer. Every one will reply in the affirmative by the force of natural instinct alone, which comprehends at a glance all evident truths, and hesitates only before doubtful truths or the subtleties of the spirit of system. No argument is needed to perceive at a glance that the works of human genius must have exercised an influence over the acts of the human race. But how shall we explain and summarize the history of this influence? Such a subject would require, not an article, but an entire treatise, for the forms of this influence have varied immensely according to nations, civilizations and centuries. Besides, this word literature is a synthetic, generic word, which represents, not one single product of human intelligence, but a host of very different and opposite products. The influence exerted by one kind of literature is entirely different from that exerted by another, and to confine ourselves to the most general divisions of literary works that may be given, it is clear that the action of prose is as diametrically contrary to that of poetry, as preservation is contrary to revolution, and as the past is to the present. There are peoples among whom this action of literature appears from the very beginning of their history and continues ever increasing; there are others, however, among whom it did not appear until very late, and when the greater part of their history was already passed. Finally, as a last difficulty, the illustrious men who impersonate this action of literature are nothing more than the runners of whom Lucretius speaks, who pass the torch of life from hand to hand, consequently when, in order to simplify the question, we wish to consider a given period, we very soon perceive that each one of these illustrious men has ancestors, and that the influence of literature in such or such a century can not be explained without recourse to preceding centuries. Thus we find ourselves confronted by a series of successive relations, which leads us from one effect to another up to a first cause of unknown date and name, which is simply the first man that thought. We are therefore compelled to confine ourselves to certain important generalities.
—This influence of literature has always existed, but it was not until almost our own time that it became all-powerful. Literature did not begin to be a real agent distinct from the other great moral agents of humanity until the discovery of the art of printing; and the sixteenth century, which is so near our own time, is the heroic age of this new agent. Until then, with some striking exceptions, literature had always preserved the imprint of its origin. In the old priestly and warlike civilizations literature had been, we might say, everything; but if it was everything it was also nothing. It was the hymn which the priests taught the multitude, the song of war or triumph which celebrated the glory of battle, the prophetic canticle which revealed to man the secret of his destiny and of the destinies of his race; but the enthusiasm, the fervor and the courage which it inspired were not its own. It was not it that spoke, it was religion, party feeling, warlike ardor; in a word, all the great moral agents that have served as guides for mankind and with which it was confounded. It was the voice and the word of divine power, but this word was intimately united to this power, and was not incarnated in a distinct personality in such a manner that we may say of literature, as we say of the mystery of the Christian Word, that it was from the beginning of the world, but was not revealed to men until an appointed hour.
—In classical antiquity, that is, in Greece and Rome, the mystery was accomplished, the word became flesh and assumed a distinct personality. Literature, liberated from its divine cradle, begins a profane life outside the sanctuary; the sage is distinct from the priest, the poet is distinct from the prophet, the historian is distinct from the man of war and action. As centuries advance, this individuality becomes all the more positive and pronounced. In Greece the literature of the great epoch is limited to the heroic inspiration of the poems of Homer, and still retains in its liberty something of the sacerdotal and the sacred; but in Rome this character disappears entirely, and we find nothing of it except in the memory of lost works belonging to the semi-fabulous epochs. There the poet, the historian and the sage are as completely free from all sacerdotal influence as they are in our modern civilization. They are mere individuals dependent on themselves alone, upon their own consciences, who in virtue of this inspiration and of this conscience, assume the right to judge the actions of their contemporaries, and to insist upon their decisions to the best of their ability. Here we find the modern man of letters; literature has now put on the form which it is to wear henceforth. It was in Rome and not in Greece that literature assumed the final character, in which we recognize it to-day, and in which men will continue to recognize it to the end of time, It was in Rome alone that it donned its profane lay garb, and, of its own authority, constituted itself sovereign and judge.
—Under this two-fold title literature has rendered very great services to humanity, and even to-day we, the latest born, live in part upon its benefits. Its influence, however, was much more intellectual than political. It exercised its power over individuals rather than over the general order of things; characters and minds owed it much, but facts owed it little. On the other hand, this action, although so very limited, exerted over individuals an empire which it has never entirely regained. Literature afterward made its way among the masses, but it never succeeded in exercising the same influence over each individual. The opinion which came to a man through it impressed and imposed itself upon his entire being, while now-a-days our opinions can very easily be distinct from our persons. In ancient times, every stoic was a stoic, every epicurean an epicurean, every peripatetic a peripatetic, mind and morals, heart and soul; his creed was shown in his manner of eating and of saluting a friend, in his manner of understanding and supporting life, in his manner of enjoying its benefits and of contending against its ills.
—A new moral force, the greatest which the world had ever known, Christianity, undertook to exert over the masses the beneficent influence which ancient literature had been powerless to make them feel. Then began the period of the middle ages, during which literature recommenced its entire history, or, to speak more correctly, continued it by recommencing it, for no matter what may be said to the contrary, there was not during this entire period any break in the continuous progress of the human mind. Literature lived over again during this epoch the two existences of its past history, not successively, but simultaneously. It was sacerdotal and warlike, and at the same time lay and profane. It mingled with religion and the distinction of castes, while preserving its individuality. The peculiarity of the middle ages, and what constitutes its originality in our eyes and gives its poetic form, is precisely this juxtaposition, nearly always inconceivable and sometimes contrary to the nature of all past forms, from those of the rudest civilization to those of the most refined society. It is not the elements of which the middle ages were composed that are new, but the union of these elements. Literature possessed simultaneously during this period the two characteristics which it had possessed successively in ancient times.
—In the fifteenth century, literature recovered its true form, and was enabled to renew the glorious history it had already had in Greece and in ancient Italy. But how powerful soever the movement of the renaissance, it is doubtful whether it would have been sufficient to give to literature the decisive influence which it has acquired in modern times, if the chance of an unforeseen discovery had not come to the aid of the human mind. It is more than likely, in fact, that, without printing, the movement of the renaissance would have resulted only in a repetition of the literary history of Greece and Rome. The influence of literature would as formerly have been felt only by individuals; it would have made the same slow progress as during former centuries. Printing gave it wings. By its means the light of the renaissance was communicated from the people who were the natural heirs of Greece and Rome to the people of the rest of Europe who were still semi-barbarians, by its means the reformation was rendered possible, by its means the reign of spoken language and oral tradition was destroyed. By placing before men's eyes the documents of their religious history, it inaugurated the reign of individual religion, and made each man judge and critic of his faith. Until then, man had been taught directly by man, oral instruction had been supreme; printing rendered this direct material communication of man to man useless, and destroyed the power which was necessarily dependent upon spoken thought. Mute signs, which can be multiplied indefinitely, henceforth made the thought of each individual the common property of all men. Then the complexion of everything was changed. Education was no longer at the mercy of chance or favor; any one who desired could obtain it. It is no longer necessary to undertake long journeys to listen to the words of some renowned master; his words, stripped of their material clothing, come in search of us. Hitherto man had but one master, and was in consequence obliged to believe in him blindly; henceforth he is to have a great number, whom he may compare one with another, and be free to choose between them. At the same time that it gives to thought the rapidity of lightning, printing creates equality and emulation in the kingdom of mind. It makes the disciple equal to his master by the faculty which it gives man of choosing and judging between those who offer to teach him; it creates emulation among wise and learned men by obliging them to solicit the favor of the public in order to be heard. Parliamentary rule is thus inaugurated in the dominion of thought, ideas are accepted or rejected by a sort of universal suffrage, and the kingdom of letters which, previous to the discovery of the art of printing, was a veritable monarchy, may now justly bear the name of a republic—It is a republic in every sense, for, since the renaissance, literature has depended only on itself, and has rid itself of all the influences that weighed it down. It has at length obtained the glorious personality which we have seen it so energetically and so gloriously striving for in Greece and Rome. The man of genius is no longer obliged to shelter himself behind any other authority than that of his conscience; he need no longer style himself the envoy of God, or justify his inspiration by claiming for it a heavenly origin; he asserts as a natural law that he possesses a power over his fellow-men, which no one can prevent him from exercising. No man who has anything to say has any further need of investiture in order to speak; he need consult no counselors but his conscience and his heart. Public opinion is become a sort of throne constantly offered to the usurpation of human genius. But three centuries have elapsed since this grand movement began, and it has within this short space of time remodeled everything—manners, government, laws, the sciences, interests. It has put man in possession of himself by revealing to him the true idea of humanity; it has reduced government to merely the first of social functions; it has changed the nature of laws, and from decrees imposed by a mystic authority has made them obligations voluntarily assented to.
—The culminating period of this grand movement was, as is well known, the eighteenth century. It was then that, for the first time in all the states of Europe, simple individuals were seen setting themselves up as censors of established laws and institutions, and presenting themselves to the people as the true representatives of moral authority, justice and reason. The astonishing feature in this, and what at the same time serves to show the progress made since the renaissance, is, that these pretensions did not shock or astonish any one. It seemed perfectly natural that Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau should argue against the official representatives of the church and the state. Princes listened with docility to the teachings of philosophers, and in order to satisfy their wishes, themselves undertook to overturn the ancient institutions of their states. In Spain, Portugal, Tuscany, Naples, France and Austria, statesmen and princes governed in accordance with the principles which had lately come into favor, with the opinions of philosophers, and in such a manner as gained for them the applause and congratulations of these new kings, whose mere ministers and agents they were for more than fifty years. The end of this great literary and philosophic movement is well known; the event which was its final result is known by the memorable and terrible name of the French revolution.
—To sum up, we may say that modern civilization, taken in its entirety, is the offspring of literature, for literature was the principal cause of the three great events which transformed the whole face of European society: the renaissance, the reformation, and the French revolution. Of these three events, two are the legitimate and immediate offspring of literature, the renaissance and the French revolution. The third, the reformation, had another parentage, and was only the adopted child of literature, but we may say that, without this adoption, the child could never have lived. Besides these three great facts, I see but one other, though it is quite an important one, it is true, and runs through the entire political history of the last three centuries: it is the substitution of the monarchical for the feudal form of government. This great fact, whose origin dates much farther back than the sixteenth century, is not, it is true, the offspring of literature, but literature, however, aided it with all its power, and was its most faithful ally. The most zealous partisans of monarchy, the wisest counselors of royalty, are to be found among the men most intimately connected with the renaissance. Thus, even facts, which do not result directly from the influence of literature, still owe their destiny and fortune in part to this influence, and consequently we may say that the political history of modern times is merely their literary history transformed and enlarged.
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