THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
The eighteenth century in France began with Louis XIV and ended with the Revolution. It is the period which bridges the gulf between autocracy and self-government, between Roman Catholicism and toleration, between the classical spirit and the spirit of the Romantic Revival. It is thus of immense importance in the history not only of France, but of the civilized world. And from the point of view of literature it is also peculiarly interesting. The vast political and social changes which it inaugurated were the result of a corresponding movement in the current of ideas; and this movement was begun, developed, and brought to a triumphant conclusion by a series of great French writers, who deliberately put their literary abilities to the service of the causes which they had at heart. Thus the literature of the epoch offers a singular contrast to that of the preceding one. While the masterpieces of the Grand Siecle served no ulterior purpose, coming into being and into immortality simply as works of beauty and art, those of the eighteenth century were works of propaganda, appealing with a practical purpose to the age in which they were written—works whose value does not depend solely upon artistic considerations. The former were static, the latter dynamic. As the century progressed, the tendency deepened; and the literature of the age, taken as a whole, presents a spectacle of thrilling dramatic interest, in which the forces of change, at first insignificant, gradually gather in volume, and at last, accumulated into overwhelming power, carry all before them. In pure literature, the writers of the eighteenth century achieved, indeed, many triumphs; but their great, their peculiar, triumphs were in the domain of thought.
The movement had already begun before the death of Louis. The evils at which La Bruyere had shuddered had filled the attention of more practical minds. Among these the most remarkable was FENELON, Archbishop of Cambray, who combined great boldness of political thought with the graces of a charming and pellucid style. In several writings, among which was the famous Telemaque—a book written for the edification of the young Duc de Bourgogne, the heir to the French throne—Fenelon gave expression to the growing reaction against the rigid