It is not an arresting book; to a reader of the present day it is positively tedious; but it suited contemporary taste, and, appearing when France was confident that her Revolution would renovate the earth, it appealed to the hopes and sentiments of the movement. It made no contribution to the doctrine of Progress, but it undoubtedly helped to popularise it.
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION: CONDORCET
The authority which the advanced thinkers of France gained among the middle classes during the third quarter of the eighteenth century was promoted by the influence of fashion. The new ideas of philosophers, rationalists, and men of science had interested the nobles and higher classes of society for two generations, and were a common subject of discussion in the most distinguished salons. Voltaire’s intimacy with Frederick the Great, the relations of d’Alembert and Diderot with the Empress Catherine, conferred on these men of letters, and on the ideas for which they stood, a prestige which carried great weight with the bourgeoisie. Humbler people, too, were as amenable as the great to the seduction of theories which supplied simple keys to the universe [Footnote: Taine said of the Contrat Social that it reduces political science to the strict application of an elementary axiom which renders all study unnecessary (La Revolution, vol. i. c. iv. Sec. iii.).] and assumed that everybody was capable of judging for himself on the most difficult problems. As well as the Encyclopaedia, the works of nearly all the leading thinkers were written for the general public not merely for philosophers. The policy of the Government in suppressing these dangerous publications did not hinder their diffusion, and gave them the attraction of forbidden fruit. In 1770 the avocat general (Seguier) acknowledged the futility of the policy. “The philosophers,” he said, “have with one hand sought to shake the throne, with the other to upset the altars. Their purpose was to change public opinion on civil and religious institutions, and the revolution has, so to speak, been effected. History and poetry, romances and even dictionaries, have been infected with the poison of incredulity. Their writings are hardly published in the capital before they inundate the provinces like a torrent. The contagion has spread into workshops and cottages.” [Footnote: Rocquain, L’Esprit revolutionnaire avant la Revolution, p. 278.]
The contagion spread, but the official who wrote these words did not see that it was successful because it was opportune, and that the minds of men were prepared to receive the seed of revolutionary ideas by the unspeakable corruption of the Government and the Church. As Voltaire remarked about the same time, France was becoming Encyclopaedist, and Europe too.