THE PROGRESS OF KNOWLEDGE: FONTENELLE
Nine months before the first part of Perrault’s work appeared a younger and more brilliant man had formulated, in a short tract, the essential points of the doctrine of the progress of knowledge. It was Fontenelle.
Fontenelle was an anima naturaliter moderna. Trained in the principles of Descartes, he was one of those who, though like Descartes himself, too critical to swear by a master, appreciated unreservedly the value of the Cartesian method. Sometimes, he says, a great man gives the tone to his age; and this is true of Descartes, who can claim the glory of having established a new art of reasoning. He sees the effects in literature. The best books on moral and political subjects are distinguished by an arrangement and precision which he traces to the esprit geometrique characteristic of Descartes. [Footnote: Sur l’utilite des mathematiques el de la physique (Oeuvres, iii. p. 6, ed. 1729).] Fontenelle himself had this “geometrical mind,” which we see at its best in Descartes and Hobbes and Spinoza.
He had indeed a considerable aptitude for letters. He wrote poor verses, and could not distinguish good poetry from bad. That perhaps was the defect of l’esprit geometrique. But he wrote lucid prose. There was an ironical side to his temper, and he had an ingenious paradoxical wit, which he indulged, with no little felicity, in his early work, Dialogues of the Dead. These conversations, though they show no dramatic power and are simply a vehicle for the author’s satirical criticisms on life, are written with a light touch, and are full of surprises and unexpected turns. The very choice of the interlocutors shows a curious fancy, which we do not associate with the geometrical intellect. Descartes is confronted with the Third False Demetrius, and we wonder what the gourmet Apicius will find to say to Galileo.
In the Dialogues of the Dead, which appeared in 1683, the Ancient and Modern controversy is touched on more than once, and it is the subject of the conversation between Socrates and Montaigne. Socrates ironically professes to expect that the age of Montaigne will show a vast improvement on his own; that men will have profited by the experience of many centuries; and that the old age of the world will be wiser and better regulated than its youth. Montaigne assures him that it is not so, and that the vigorous types of antiquity, like Pericles, Aristides, and Socrates himself, are no longer to be found. To this assertion Socrates opposes the doctrine of the permanence of the forces of Nature. Nature has not degenerated in her other works; why should she cease to produce reasonable men?