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The Republic of Letters

IN the present article I am little more than the translator of the lively and ingenious Vigneul Marville.

The Republic of Letters is of an ancient date. It appears by the pillars Josephus has noticed, on which were engraven the principles of the sciences, that this republic existed before the Deluge; at least, it cannot be denied that, soon after this great catastrophe, the sciences flourished.

Never was a republic greater, better peopled, more free, or more glorious: it is spread on the face of the earth, and is composed of persons of every nation, of every rank, of every age, and of both sexes. They are intimately acquainted with every language, the dead as well as the living. To the cultivation of letters they join that of the arts; and mechanics are also permitted to occupy a place. But their religion cannot boast of uniformity; and their manners, like those of every other republic, form a mixture of good and of evil: they are sometimes enthusiastically pious, and sometimes insanely impious.

The politics of this state consist rather in words, in vague maxims and ingenious reflections, than in actions, or their effects. This people owe all their strength to the brilliancy of their eloquence, and the solidity of their arguments. Their trade is perfectly intellectual, and their riches very moderate; they live in one continued strife for glory, and for immortality. Their dress is by no means splendid; yet they affect to despise those who labour through the impulse of avarice or necessity.

They are divided into many sects, and they seem to multiply every day. The state is shared between the Philosophers, the Physicians, the Divines, the Lawyers, the Historians, the Mathematicians, the Orators, the Grammarians, and the Poets, who have each their respective laws.

Justice is administered by the Critics, frequently, with more severity than justice. The people groan under the tyranny of these governors, particularly when they are capricious and visionary. They rescind, they erase, or add, at their will and pleasure, much in the manner of the Grand Monarque—Car tel est notre plaisir; and no author can answer for his fate, when once he is fairly in their hands. Some of these are so unfortunate, that, through the cruelty of the treatment they receive, they lose not only their temper, but their sense and wits.

Shame is the great castigation of the guilty; and to lose one’s reputation, among this people, is to lose one’s life. There exist, however, but too many impudent swindlers, who prey upon the property of others; and many a vile spunger, who snatches the bread from the hands of men of merit.

The Public are the distributors of glory; but, too often, the distribution is made with blindness, or undiscerning precipitation. It is this which causes loud complaints, and excites such murmurs throughout the republic.

The predominating vices of this state are presumption, vanity, pride, jealousy, and calumny. There is also a distemper peculiar to the inhabitants, which is denominated hunger, and which occasions frequent desolations throughout the country.

This republic, too, has the misfortune to be infected with numerous Plagiarists; a species of banditti who rifle the passengers; The corruptors of books, and the forgers, are not less formidable; nor do there want impostors, who form rhapsodies and bestow pompous titles on unimportant trifles, who levy heavy contributions on the public.

There are also found an infinite number of illustrious Idlers and Voluptuaries; who, only seeking for those volumes that afford amusement, draw all their subsistence from the state, without contributing any thing; either to its advantage or its glory. There are also Misanthropes, born with an hatred of men; Pedants, who are the terror of school-boys, and the enemies of urbanity, and amiable manners.

I will not notice the licentious Geniuses of the republic, who are in an eternal hostility of sentiments, and a warfare of disputes; nor those fastidious minds, who are too delicate not to be offended every moment; nor those Visionaries, who load their imagination with crude and false systems.

All these may be supposed to exist in a republic so vast as that of Letters; where it is permitted to every one to reside, and to live according to his own inclinations.


Editor’s Notes

This article, and the thirty-five pieces that follow, all formed part of the Literature and Criticism section of the third edition of the first volume of the Curiosities.