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The Ancien Regime Charles Kingsley

Lecture II -- Centralisation

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And no wonder. The book has a solid value, and will always have, not merely from its perfect art (according to its own measure and intention), but from its perfect truthfulness. It is the Ancien Regime itself. It set forth to the men thereof, themselves, without veil or cowardly reticence of any kind; and inasmuch as every man loves himself, the Ancien Regime loved "Gil Blas," and said, "The problem of humanity is solved at last." But, ye long-suffering powers of heaven, what a solution! It is beside the matter to call the book ungodly, immoral, base. Le Sage would have answered: "Of course it is; for so is the world of which it is a picture." No; the most notable thing about the book is its intense stupidity; its dreariness, barrenness, shallowness, ignorance of the human heart, want of any human interest. If it be an epos, the actors in it are not men and women, but ferrets--with here and there, of course, a stray rabbit, on whose brains they may feed. It is the inhuman mirror of an inhuman age, in which the healthy human heart can find no more interest than in a pathological museum.

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That last, indeed, "Gil Blas" is; a collection of diseased specimens. No man or woman in the book, lay or clerical, gentle or simple, as far as I can remember, do their duty in any wise, even if they recollect that they have any duty to do. Greed, chicane, hypocrisy, uselessness are the ruling laws of human society. A new book of Ecclesiastes, crying, "Vanity of vanity, all is vanity;" the "conclusion of the whole matter" being left out, and the new Ecclesiastes rendered thereby diabolic, instead of like that old one, divine. For, instead of "Fear God and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of main," Le Sage sends forth the new conclusion, "Take care of thyself, and feed on thy neighbours, for that is the whole duty of man." And very faithfully was his advice (easy enough to obey at all times) obeyed for nearly a century after "Gil Blas" appeared.

About the same time there appeared, by a remarkable coincidence, another work, like it the child of the Ancien Regime, and yet as opposite to it as light to darkness. If Le Sage drew men as they were, Fenelon tried at least to draw them as they might have been and still might be, were they governed by sages and by saints, according to the laws of God. "Telemaque" is an ideal--imperfect, doubtless, as all ideals must be in a world in which God's ways and thoughts are for ever higher than man's; but an ideal nevertheless. If its construction is less complete than that of "Gil Blas," it is because its aim is infinitely higher; because the form has to be subordinated, here and there, to the matter. If its political economy be imperfect, often chimerical, it is because the mind of one man must needs have been too weak to bring into shape and order the chaos, social and economic, which he saw around him. M. de Lamartine, in his brilliant little life of Fenelon, does not hesitate to trace to the influence of "Telemaque," the Utopias which produced the revolutions of 1793 and 1848. "The saintly poet was," he says, "without knowing it, the first Radical and the first communist of his century." But it is something to have preached to princes doctrines till then unknown, or at least forgotten for many a generation--free trade, peace, international arbitration, and the "carriere ouverte aux talents" for all ranks. It is something to have warned his generation of the dangerous overgrowth of the metropolis; to have prophesied, as an old Hebrew might have done, that the despotism which he saw around him would end in a violent revolution. It is something to have combined the highest Christian morality with a hearty appreciation of old Greek life; of its reverence for bodily health and prowess; its joyous and simple country society; its sacrificial feasts, dances, games; its respect for the gods; its belief that they helped, guided, inspired the sons of men. It is something to have himself believed in God; in a living God, who, both in this life and in all lives to come, rewarded the good and punished the evil by inevitable laws. It is something to have warned a young prince, in an age of doctrinal bigotry and practical atheism, that a living God still existed, and that his laws were still in force; to have shown him Tartarus crowded with the souls of wicked monarchs, while a few of kingly race rested in Elysium, and among them old pagans--Inachus, Cecrops, Erichthon, Triptolemus, and Sesostris--rewarded for ever for having done their duty, each according to his light, to the flocks which the gods had committed to their care. It is something to have spoken to a prince, in such an age, without servility, and without etiquette, of the frailties and the dangers which beset arbitrary rulers; to have told him that royalty, "when assumed to content oneself, is a monstrous tyranny; when assumed to fulfil its duties, and to conduct an innumerable people as a father conducts his children, a crushing slavery, which demands an heroic courage and patience."

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The Ancien Regime
Charles Kingsley

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