*Balzac, Jean-Louis Guez de
Balzac, Jean-Louis Guez de
Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac’s production as an essayist spans his literary lifetime.
Reflections on politics, literature, religion, and manners are found in all of his writings: letters, treatises (e.g. Le Prince [1631; The Prince]), discourses (e.g. La Harangue célèbre faite à la Reyne sur sa Régence [1641; The famous harangue made to the Queen on her Regency]). ‘It was especially in his letters that his readers found his judgments most compelling, and it is because of the correspondence that literary historians have acknowledged Balzac as a definitive master of French prose. In the first half of the 17th century, he demonstrated to members of the literary and privileged social milieux how to write eloquent, forceful, and pleasing French.
Balzac’s letters launched his literary career. From the beginning, his letters circulated in aristocratic homes and salons, where they were avidly read. They provoked admiration (Richelieu early encouraged Balzac to continue in this vein) and quarrels, for Balzac ridiculed the authority of the entrenched humanists at the Sorbonne. His criticism of pedantry constituted one of the first outbreaks of the Battle of the Ancients and the Moderns, destined to rage in the 1680s. The success and notoriety of his letters prompted Balzac to publish collections of them, the most famous being the Premiéres lettres (First letters) of 1624 and 1627. Letters appeared in diverse publications throughout his lifetime, and before the end of his life, Balzac had been preparing a new collection, published posthumously as Les Entretiens (1657; The conversations).
Balzac spent most of his adult life in solitary retirement in the countryside of the Charente, nursing a frail body, removed from the exhausting Parisian circles, and writing letters to influential men of politics, to literary friends and foes, and to intimates. He hoped that the success of these letters would earn him a brilliant position, where he could make a life for himself. In hindsight, it seems clear that because The Prince (Balzac’s apology for Richelieu and Louis XIII’s political program for the French state) failed to clinch the Cardinals patronage, Balzac’s aspirations were not to be realized; he had been passed over. However, after the treatise’s disappointing reception in 1631, Balzac continued to write, suggesting that he never really gave up hope for a brilliant appointment on the basis of his literary accomplishments.
That Balzac could attach the practical consequence of receiving a position of power to his literary endeavors is apparent from the contents and style of his letters and from the very choice of the letter as a literary medium in which to shine. As Jean Jehasse (1977) notes, the humanist Jesuits, who schooled Balzac, accorded great importance to the epistle, conceived of as a literary exercise and occasion for their pupils to prepare persuasive essays on manners, politics, or literature. The hermite of Charente, withdrawn from influential circles, selected this medium as the appropriate means to address topical concerns that would establish and advertise his stand on issues pertinent to his readers— both the specific addressees and their milieux—as well as reveal his commitments and loyalties. In his letters to Richelieu and to other figures of political power he promotes the value of public service and supports the authority of the State grounded in the centralized monarchy, which requires good ministers and subordinate nobles. His correspondence with other men of letters (who were more often to become his addressees as Balzac’s hopes for a worthy appointment receded) situates him in the camp of the Moderns. He rejects the humanists’ blind acknowledgment of the superiority of the Ancients and pedantic criticism of writing that does not strictly conform to classical models. Insisting on the superiority of judgment and of reason over unquestioning imitation, Balzac defends the educated person’s power to assess reality and to act appropriately based on practiced judgment.
However, as an advocate of trained discernment, Balzac appreciates only too well the literary power of the Ancients, who indeed were capable of great writing because they exercised their judgment and aesthetic sense. Despite siding with the Moderns, he owes a debt to the Ancients, and his works testify to it throughout. Balzac sought to emulate them, especially the Roman writers—Cicero, Seneca, Pliny—who took upon themselves the hortatory roles of counselors to the powerful or judges of the state of human affairs.
Balzac as a correspondent readily saw himself as an adviser. He set himself the task of persuading his readers about political and literary matters as effectively as possible in order to bring about appropriate thinking and behavior. In concert with the Ancients, he held this role to be a noble vocation, requiring untiring industry and continual polishing.
This calling was also to serve as Balzac’s ticket to immortality, as it had for the Ancients.
His letters, especially the Premières lettres, strike the modern reader as florid. His reasoning, though cogent, resides in an abundant display of classical rhetoric—images, antitheses, enumerations, crafted transitions—which calls attention to the artistry of the writing and implicitly, to the writer’s talent. However, since these flourishes—learned from Roman oratory—are couched in letters, which naturally include direct address, compliments, and personal observations, the form relieves the weight of the pervasive Ciceronian style. The topical issues are necessarily brief, because of the conventions of the epistolary genre, but they were considered well-written because of their style. This balance of brevity and style, which satisfied the mind and aesthetic sensibility of his readers while not taxing them, made for a rewarding experience, to which the enthusiasm of Balzac’s audience testifies. This correspondence became an ideal of intelligent discourse directed toward a cultivated though not necessarily learned readership (which included women). Thus, Balzac’s letters contributed to the creation of l’honnêteté, an urbane, sophisticated, and elevated comportment, developed in aristocratic salons during Balzac’s lifetime and designed to govern the intellectual, moral, and social life of the elite, giving it meaning and beauty. Balzac demonstrated, then, how to write a cultured and persuasive French.
Born probably May 1597 (baptized 1 June 1597) in Angoulême. Studied at Jesuit colleges in Angoulême and Poitiers; Collège de la Marche, Paris, 1610; enrolled at the University of Leiden, 1615; returned to Paris, c. 1616. Secretary to the Duke of Epernon and one of his sons; aided in the rescue of Marie de Medicis from prison at Blois, 1619; agent to Cardinal de la Valette, Rome, 1620–22; appointed historiographer of France, from 1624; visited Paris, 1624–25, 1626–28. Lived mostly in Angoulême, from 1628.
Elected to the French Academy, 1634. Died (after a long illness) in Angoulême, 18 February 1654.
Essays and Related Prose
Lettres, 1624; revised edition, 1627; as Les Premières Lettres (1618–1627), edited by H.Bibas and K.T.Butler, 2 vols., 1933–34
The Letters of Monsieur de Balzac, translated by W.Tirwhyt, vol. 1, 1634; vols. 2 and 3, as New Epistles by Monsieur d’Balzac, translated by Richard Baker, 1638; vol. 4, as A Collection of Some Modern Epistles of Monsieur De Balzac, translated anonymously, 1639; in 1 vol., 1654
Lettres, seconde partie, 2 vols., 1636
Recueil de nouvelles lettres, 1637
OEuvres diverses, 1644
Lettres choisies, 2 vols., 1647
Lettres familières à M.Chapelain, 1656; as Lettres inédites à J. Chapelain, edited by Tamizey de Larroque, 1873
Lettres diverses, 1657
Les Entretiens, 1657; edited by Bernard Beugnot, 2 vols., 1972
Lettres à M.Conrart, 1659
Other writings: books on political and moral philosophy (including Le Prince [The Prince], 1631; Le Socrate chrétien, 1652; Aristippe [Aristippus], 1658).
Collected works edition: Les OEuvres de Monsieur de Balzac, 2 vols., 1665.
Beugnot, Bernard, Guez de Balzac: Bibliographie générale, Montreal: Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1967; supplement, 1969
Carr, Thomas M., Jr., Descartes and the Resilience of Rhetoric: Varieties of Cartesian Rhetorical Theory, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990
Guillaumie, Gaston, Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac et la prose française, Paris: Picard, 1927
Jehasse, Jean, Guez de Balzac et le génie romain, 1597–1645, SaintÉtienne: Université de Saint-Étienne, 1977
Sabrie, Jean Baptiste, Les Idées religieuses de J.-L. Guez de Balzac, Paris: Alcan, 1913
Sutcliffe, Frank E., Guez de Balzac et son temps: Littérature et politique, Paris: Nizet, 1959
Winter, John Francis, A Seventeenth-Century Concept of the Individual and Society: Guez de Balzac (dissertation), Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University, 1950
Youssef, Zobeidah, Polémique et littérature chez Guez de Balzac, Paris: Nizet, 1972
Zuber, Roger, Les “Belles Infidèles” et la formation du goût classique: Perrot d’Ablancourt et Guez de Balzac, Paris: Colin, 1968
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