Saint-Évremond displayed in both his life and his essays the studied negligence of an unpedantic scholar. He was an Epicurean and a skeptic, and serves as a transitional figure between the libertine circles of free thought in the 17th century, and the philosophical writers of the Enlightenment, who saw in him one of their precursors.
In his privileged youth as a Norman noble, he entered into contact with Gassendi, the famous libertine thinker, who was one of his preceptors and who influenced his thought profoundly. Throughout his life Saint-Évremond cultivated the company of the great minds of his age, including Heinsius, Spinoza, and Vossius, especially during his long exile in London. During this time he maintained a lively correspondence with major thinkers and writers throughout Europe, which provided him an international forum and cosmopolitan outlook on the issues of his time.
Saint-Évremond’s consciously cultivated, negligent style is apparent in both the form his writings took, that of letters and essays, and the fact that he did not publish any of his nontheatrical works, although friends and associates oversaw the printing of several editions of various pieces during his lifetime. He was not systematic in his thought or his approach to various subjects, but was guided by the occasion of the writing of a letter or observation, and by the course of his own reflections. In many ways he represents a i7-th century
Montaigne, who served as a primary source of influence and whose essays SaintÉvremond enjoyed and often read. He can be considered a moralist, in that he often meditated in his texts on aspects of human conduct and analyzed emotional states. He created prose portraits, sometimes of real figures, sometimes imaginary, which often illustrate a point of morality, although he remained a detached observer rather than an ardent preacher.
His highly developed wit and refinement characterize him as a fine example of polite French society in the second half of the 17th century. His “Conversation du maréchal d’Hocquincourt avec le Père Canaye” (wr. 1654, pub. 1687; Conversation between the Maréchal d’Hocquincourt and Father Canaye) continues many of the themes and critical attacks found in Pascal’s Lettres provinciales (1657; The Provincial Letters). SaintÉvremond revealed his mistrust of religious dogma and intolerant rigidity in theological issues. He saw in the dispute between Jesuits and Jansenists a power struggle more than a religious conflict, and found fault with both sides. Although highly skeptical in matters of religion, especially in terms of doctrine and institution, Saint-Évremond did display a genuine admiration for Christianity and discreet morality in certain aspects of his life and works.
Rather than lamenting the uncertainty and misery of humankind’s condition, SaintÉvremond chose a life of diversion, according to the dictates of an aristocratic honnêteté and the principles of good taste. He cultivated the social virtues of good deeds, charity, and friendship, placing importance on individual acts of this world, rather than an ascetic rejection of society. Although acknowledging that it is nearly impossible to know oneself, Saint-Evremond held consistently throughout his writings that humankind is neither entirely good nor entirely evil, and that in order to account for human behavior and morality the coexistence of the noble and the base must be seen as a fundamental aspect of humanity. This view, which stresses the confusion of qualities and constant change in human behavior, is more characteristic of a baroque perspective on reality, and of the historians from classical antiquity, rather than the French classical view of a more static unity having distinct components which was promoted during the second half of the 17th century.
If Saint-Évremond’s preference for the earthly pleasures of fine food, good art, and sensual pleasure appears egotistical, it is nonetheless a sincere and overt choice. It has none of the deception and hypocrisy of the contemporaries he observed, who, like Moliere’s Tartuffe, feigned public indifference to worldly pleasures only to hide privately indulged passions. He saw realistically, perhaps even somewhat cynically, that reputation and virtue are often quite separate, and that few people are truly devout or honorable, despite their claims. Instead, he accepts people for what they are: imperfect, powerless, fickle. A tacit optimism informs much of Saint-Évremond’s writing, which insists that life is worth living, and that people basically have merit.
Many of his works contain insights into contemporary matters of literary criticism. In the early 1660s he wrote an essay critical of Alexandre le Grand (1665; Alexander the Great), one of Racine’s first tragedies. Saint-Évremond believed that Racine incorporated too many modern elements into his depiction of characters and situations taken from antiquity, whereas Corneille, whom he preferred, retained more of a sense of the nations and historical periods represented in his tragedies.
Moral and literary criteria for excellence were closely connected, as is evident in his judgments of contemporary authors. While literature is a major diversion and source of pleasure, it requires a great degree of accuracy in its depiction of human traits and actions. The ideal subject is the civilized person, whose tastes and rationality are explored in a psychological, especially theatrical, approach. He did not care much for poetry. He rejected the novelistic, fantastic aspects of certain texts. Referred to as the Petronius, the Arbiter of Taste, of his time, Saint-Évremond also rejected many of the constraints imposed upon contemporary authors, although he did agree that Christian subjects should not appear on the stage. Whereas in general he admired Corneille’s work, he found that Polyeucte (1642) would have made a beautiful sermon, but was instead a miserable tragedy. His opinions on good taste were shaped by his immense reading from antiquity, as well as by the French précieux and writers of the first half of the century and also by
English critics, especially Hobbes.
Saint-Évremond was widely read in ancient history, especially Roman, and held firm views on the proper writing and use of history both on the stage and in cultured society.
In his “Réflexions sur les divers génies du peuple romain dans les différents temps de la République” (1662.; Reflections on diverse characteristics of the Romans during various phases of the Republic) he attempted to discover what really transpired in antiquity, reacting against prevailing credulity and simplistic views. Many of his insights are penetrating, and his portraits of various historical figures still stir the imagination. His call for accuracy in historical writing was unusual for its time, and did not gain wide acceptance or practice until at least a century later. His erudition in matters of Roman history also influenced his political philosophy, which was mainly republican.
Despite his ardent passion for Roman history, he took the position of a Modern in the quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns. His great admiration for antiquity did not change the fact that he saw in his own times more discontinuity than similarity with the past. He could not understand why contemporary French authors would strive so hard to imitate authors from antiquity, setting them as the standard, when so much had changed, and generally for the better, in the interval.
His views on women are ambiguous, and depend on the context of their expression.
These gentle creatures were worthy of serving his own personal pleasure, but regarded in his essays as full of faults. Responsible for much court intrigue, they are vain and weak, and easily persuaded to error. But such comments reveal a general criticism of all human conduct. Women are scarcely inferior to men, who suffer from the same defects. In fact, he is astonished that women are excluded from so many human affairs, since many of them are “wiser and more capable than men” (“Observations sur Salluste et sur Tacite” [1668; Observations on Sallust and Tacitus]). In taking the position that those who wish to bar women from public life are blinded by self-interest and error, Saintfivremond was certainly stating a minority opinion for his time.
Saint-Évremond wrote for his own pleasure, and considered pleasure an essential element of human existence. He developed the notion of good taste in many of his essays, which discussed the interplay of several contributing factors: delicacy, good sense, and naturalness. His writing is marked by a witty intelligence and conversational informality, rather than a systematic approach to issues or an exposition of profound ideas. It is uniquely personal in its observations, while conveying a representative picture of SaintÉvremond’s libertine and honnête milieu.
By the urbane tone and unpretentious style of his texts, which contain witty observations and intelligent comments on issues of human conduct, Saint-Évremond, living in exile in London, originated the form of the essay which was to be practiced in 18th-century England. In his essays he was rarely paradoxical in his own views, in spite of the many seemingly contradictory aspects of life he discussed, and never superficial.
His apparent nonchalance was a pose, creating an ironic distance between himself and the material of his essays. He discounted the importance of these little texts, which he alluded to frequently as “bagatelles,” but their influence was widespread at the time, and for a century later.
Charles de Marguetel de Saint-Denis, Seigneur de Saint-Évremond. Born 5 January 1614.
Studied at the Jesuit Collège de Clermont, Paris, from 1623; University of Caen, 1628;
College d’Harcourt, Paris, 1628–29. Career in the army: ensign, 1630, lieutenant, 1637, and in the Duc d’Enghien’s Guards, 1642, wounded in the knee at Nordlingen, 1645, and made marechal de camp, 1652. Imprisoned in the Bastille for offending Mazarin, 1653;
exiled for satirizing government policy, 1661: lived in Nantes, 1661, London, 1662–65; Holland, 1665–70, and London, 1670–1703; governor of Saint James’s Park, 1698. Died in London, 20 September 1703.
Essays and Related Prose
OEuvres meslées, 1668; revised editions, 2 vols., 1689, 5 vols., 1690–94, 5 vols., 1705, 3 vols., 1709, 5 vols., 1726, and 5 vols., 1739; edited by Charles Giraud, 3 vols., 1865
Miscellaneous Essays, translated by John Dryden and others, 2 vols., 1692–94
The Works, translated anonymously, 2 vols., 1700
Critique littéraire, edited by Maurice Wilmotte, 1921
OEuvres en prose, edited by René Ternois, 4 vols., 1962–69
Lettres, edited by Rene Ternois, 2 vols., 1967–68
Textes choisis, edited by Alain Niderst, 1970
Other writings: plays (unperformed), poetry, and correspondence.
Collected works editions: OEuvres, 10 vols., 1740; edited by René de Planhol, 3 vols., 1927.
Baker, S.R., “The Rhetoric of Self Presentation in Saint-Évremond,” French Literature Series 19 (1992):19–27
Barnwell, Henry T., Les Idées morales et critiques de SaintÉvremond, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1957
Bouysse, Patrice, “Essai sur la jeunesse d’un moraliste: SaintÉvremond (1614–1661),”
Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature 14 (1987):1–346
Hope, Quentin M., Saint-Évremond, the “Honnête Homme” as a Critic, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1962
Lanniel, J.M., “Un scepticisme nuance de regret, Saint-Évremond et la dévotion,” Dix- Septième Siècle 93 (1971):13–25
Rosmarin, Leonard A., Saint-Évremond, artiste de l’euphorie, Birmingham, Alabama: Summa, 1987
Schmidt, Albert-Marie, Saint-Évremond, ou L’Humanisme impur, Paris: Cavalier, 1932
Taittinger, Claude, Saint-Évremond, ou Le Bon Usage des plaisirs, Paris: Perrin, 1990
Viala, A., “Saint-Évremond ou les regards de l’exilé,” in Horizons europeens de la litterature française au XVIIe siècle, edited by Wolfgang Leiner, Tübingen: Narr, 1988:345–52.
Wolfe, P., “Sincérité et insincérité dans la ‘Conversation de M.le maréchal
d’Hocquincourt’,” Papers on French Seventeenth– Century Literature 10, no. 18 (1983):213–20
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