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The 17th Century, Classical Period

Celimene, Pierre Corneille, Rouvroy, Iphigenie, Alceste

Cultural life in France had become centralized under King Louis XIII, the father of Louis XIV, and his prime minister, Cardinal Richelieu. Among the aspects of cultural life that Richelieu wished to control were the French language and French literature. In 1634 he asked a group of writers who had been meeting informally to form the French Academy. A charter for the new organization was issued the following year.

The Academy worked on compiling a French dictionary and planned a grammar, a rhetoric, and a poetic that would lay down the rules for literary composition. But it gained more attention for the rules it formulated regarding theater, the most important literary genre of the century, which precipitated a major literary debate. The rules centered on the notion of catharsis (emotional purging) as the function of tragedy, an idea put forth by Greek philosopher Aristotle. Catharsis meant that spectators were purged of their passions through the pity and fear inspired by the tragedy. For this to happen, the audience had to believe absolutely in what they saw, an achievement made possible, according to the Academy, by invoking Aristotle’s three dramatic unities. What was represented must be simple (the unity of action), must take place in one location (the unity of place), and must take place in a brief period of time (the unity of time). These rules were rational, the Academy believed, and led to a rationally desirable end: the purgation of passion. The ideal human being, by analogy, was someone capable of controlling passion through the use of reason.

In 1638 the Academy published Sentiments de l'Academie sur le Cid (Judgments of the Academy on the Cid), a critique of a play by Pierre Corneille. Members of the Academy criticized points of grammar and style, as well as breaches of the rules for drama derived from Aristotle. The Parisian public loved the play as it was and quarreled with the critics. The ensuing controversy was termed the Querelle du Cid (The Quarrel of the Cid). Corneille was so offended by the Academy’s criticism that he ceased to write for theater for four years. In 1640, however, he produced two plays (Horace and Cinna) that faithfully observed the rules invoked by the Academy. Just as Richelieu had prevailed in his vision of political order imposed by absolute monarchy, the Academy’s new classicism triumphed when Corneille adjusted his writing style to conform to the Academy’s rules.

The philosopher Rene Descartes was developing his ideas at this time, and they followed much the same form as classicism. Descartes proposed a philosophy based on reason and advocated the use of scientific principles to discover truth. In his Traite des passions (1649; Treatise on Passion) Descartes describes the struggle involved in using reason to control the passions, an experience dramatized by Corneille in Le Cid and most of his subsequent plays. Descartes and Corneille were optimistic about the outcome of the struggle and believed that human beings could influence their own destinies. Two other writers were not so optimistic about the ability to control human fate. Blaise Pascal reflected the pessimism of the Jansenists, his teachers at the religious monastery of Port Royal, in his Lettres provinciales (1656-1657; The Provincial Letters) and Les pensees (1670; The Thoughts of Pascal). The Jansenists believed that humans need grace from God to save them from the sinful nature of their passions. The playwright Jean Baptiste Racine was also a student of the Jansenists. The influence of the Port Royal school shows clearly in his masterpieces Andromaque (1667; Andromache), Iphigenie (1674; Iphigenia), and Phedre (1677; Phaedra), which are weighted with the concept that humans cannot escape their fate through their own actions.

The third great playwright of this period (along with Corneille and Racine) was the master of comedy, Moliere. He too was interested in the workings of the human heart, the ideal member of society, and the relationship between reason and the passions. Moliere’s characters are motivated by hypocrisy, immoderation, vanity, tyranny, and greed, although in his plays, the qualities that win out in the end are authenticity, moderation, and respect for what follows nature’s plan or advances human freedom. In Moliere’s masterpiece Le misanthrope (1666; The Misanthrope), the central character, Alceste, who believes in absolute truth and total sincerity, loves Celimene, a liar and cheat. Other characters in the play represent points along a continuum between these two extremes, and the work explores the degree of moderation people should strive to achieve.

The drift toward pessimism evident in the works of Pascal and Racine was echoed in two other works from the 1670s. In his Maximes (1665-1678), Francois de La Rochefoucauld asserts in brief, often single-sentence observations that self-love motivates most human behavior, even in those instances when virtue seems to be present. "The love of justice," suggests La Rochefoucauld, "in most men is merely the fear of suffering injustice." Another pessimist, Marie de La Fayette, wrote what most scholars consider the first modern psychological novel, La princesse de Cleves (1678; The Princess of Cleves). The book’s realism in its character portrayal sets it apart from other novels of its time. It describes the long struggle of Madame de Cleves against her inclination for Monsieur de Nemours, a struggle conducted in the apparently justifiable belief that love does not last, and so is not worth having in the first place.

This growing pessimism about human nature and human destiny is related to a current of skepticism that arose in the 17th century among libertins (free-thinkers, or libertines). A representative of this skepticism was Theophile de Viau, who was banished from Paris twice for atheism and dissipated living. Poems attributed to him in Le Parnasse satyrique (1622; The Satirical Parnassus) disregard moral and sexual codes, and many of his poems, like those of his fellow libertine Marc-Antoine de Gerard Saint-Amant, went against religious doctrine and society’s moral conventions. The libertines prepared the way for the critical and questioning spirit of Voltaire and the encyclopedistes of the next century by transmitting the critical spirit and reliance on logical reasoning of the Renaissance.

It was perhaps the elegant skepticism of Louis de Rouvroy, Duc de Saint-Simon, who spent his life at the court of Versailles, that best bore witness to the pessimism of the late 1600s. His Memoires (published 1829; Memoirs) presents a vivid image of the hypocrisy, cruelty, and corruption that were the sordid reality beneath the lovely illusions of the last years of le grand siecle.

Toward the end of the 17th century, the Querelle des anciens et des modernes (The Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns) divided writers into two camps according to whom they thought superior: Greek and Roman authors or contemporary writers. The “moderns,” such as Charles Perrault and Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, held that writers of their own time represented the maturity of human intellect. They believed that human thought and culture had progressed and that contemporary intellectuals had surpassed the Greeks and Romans. The ancients held that Greek and Roman culture remained superior and provided a goal toward which contemporary writers and artists ought to strive.

Article key phrases:

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