French Conservatism

ONE day in the summer of 1907, a feeble and impecunious octogenarian, who was straining every nerve to complete a work of higher mathematics before death should overtake him, was rudely disturbed in his labors by the sudden irruption into his tiny dwelling of the agents of the fisc, who had come to dispossess him because he had failed to pay his taxes. The poor old man stood by indifferent, scarcely realizing what was going on, during the removal of his scanty household furniture and personal belongings; but when the invaders laid their hands upon his books, he burst into tears, and pleaded so eloquently for his “ old friends,” that the agents considerately withdrew.

This delinquent tax-payer was M. Mouchot, a laureate of the Institute. He had sent many esteemed communications to the Academy. He had published works of pure science which won the approbation of scholars and became almost classics in their kind. “ M. Mouchot,” said the mathematician Joseph Bertrand, at the time he was Perpetual Secretary of the Academy of Sciences, “ is one of those we are obliged to read pen in hand.” Furthermore, M. Mouchot had devoted years to researches into the utilization of the heat of the sun, the results of which would have made him a millionaire had he been willing to accept personal profit from them. He refused persistently to bear any part in their exploitation. He would have fallen irretrievably in his own esteem had he permitted himself to reap pecuniary benefit from discoveries susceptible of application to industry. He practiced science solely for science’s sake, with no ulterior motive.

In this respect, “ Papa Mouchot,” as he is called, is an admirable type of the French scientist of the epoch.

Chevreul might have secured a princely income by merely consenting to participate in the exploitation of a patent for the utilization of stearine. He had only to say the word to become the master of millions. He kept his lips resolutely closed. He lived modestly and died relatively poor.

Curie, simple, austere, single-minded, so penurious that he used a bicycle in all weathers — to save car-fare — for his almost daily journeys between Bourgla-Reine and his Paris laboratory, Rue Lhomond, rejected a rich man’s offer of half a million francs for a few decigrammes of radium, because he wanted the precious stuff to experiment upon.

Berthelot, whose services to science carried him to the Pantheon, is remembered by the dwellers on the left bank of the Seine as a stoop-shouldered old man, with a drooping mustache, who trudged up and down the streets of the Latin Quarter in a long, rusty black coat which gave him the air of a seedy, superannuated clerk. His three salaried positions (Senator, Professor of the Collège de France, and Perpetual Secretary of the Academy of Sciences) brought him in altogether about $6000 a year. He had practically no other income. While allowing himself to play an active part in the political affairs of his country, he never took out patents on discoveries which were capable of bringing him a colossal fortune, although he had six children to bring up. He resisted all solicitations to become entangled in business, even refusing to permit his name to be placed upon the lists of directors of great industrial enterprises. To a deputation of sugar refiners who implored him to seek a new method of extracting glucose, offering him, by way of commission, a life annuity of at least a quarter of a million francs should he succeed, Berthelot replied, “ Messieurs, I feel sure that it is possible to find what you desire and thus assure to your industry the economy for which you hope. I am going to study the subject. I even promise you to study it immediately. Glucose ? It is possible, it must be possible. I trust, then, to find a new process, and when I shall have found it, I will turn it over to you. But I will give it to you for nothing. We work for honor in our French laboratories.”

In a word — not to multiply illustrations unduly — the gratuitousness of science is a cardinal article of the French scientist’s creed. The tradition of his order decrees that discoveries calculated to affect the welfare of the race are a part of the common patrimony of the race, and must be dropped without money and without price into the hands of all. Honor imposes upon him a complete detachment from the scramble for riches. For a scientist to endeavor to reap pecuniary profit from his labors is in the highest degree “ unprofessional ” —most damning word! The commercial spirit of the age has thus far been powerless against the conservative attachment of the French scientists to this old-fashioned conception of professional dignity, which is terribly unpractical, surely, as modern standards go, but which is nevertheless not without its beauty and nobility. The reputable scientists of France have all duplicated at one time or another, in one way or another, the beau geste of Berthelot.

There may be other countries where these time-worn scruples are not unknown, but it is doubtful if there is any other country where they prevail to an equal extent. Even in Germany (currently considered the paradise of science) numbers of reputable savants hold it legitimate to acquire a fortune along with glory. While Robert Koch, who directs a factory of pharmaceutical products, sold his remedies at Berlin, Louis Pasteur sowed broadcast his tubes of safety and life.

Renan declared that the intellectual liberty of England and America is the cause of “ a veritable inferiority in criticism,” and “ offers too many facilities to stupidity and charlatanism.” He insisted upon the necessity of a recognized central authority in scientific matters. The opinion of Renan may or may not have been well founded, — there is not a little to be said in favor of a régime of unqualified freedom for science, — but he certainly expressed the prevailing sentiment of French scholars; and granted the need of authority, it is evident that nothing could well be more hostile to its proper operation than the introduction of mercantile considerations into scientific researches.

There is another quality which French scientists possess in an eminent, if not a surpassing, degree: a capacity for restraint under the excitement of a probable discovery. They have to reproach themselves with fewer errors attributable to unseemly haste than the scientists of almost any other people. They do not, as we say familiarly in America, go off at half-cock. In spite of the reputed mercurialism of the French nation, and the reputed phlegmatism of the German nation, no French scientist of equal standing with Koch has been guilty of giving to the world a half-verified discovery, as Koch did in announcing his ineffective and dangerous anti-tuberculous serum; and the system of control in the French laboratories is so rigid that it is practically impossible for such a thing to occur — a superior scrupulousness which is loyally recognized by fair-minded German scientists.

Whether the relation between the French unwillingness to benefit financially by scientific discoveries, and the French absence of precipitation in the promulgation of them, is that of cause and effect, it is not easy to determine. It is perfectly safe to say, however, that they are both manifestations of a conservatism which could not possibly hold out against the rush and rapacity of modern life, if it were not inherent in the spirit of the race.

Another province in which the conservatism of the French is pronounced, if not preëminent, is that of finance. But the bases of French finance have been made so clear by divers authoritative articles in the American daily and periodical press during the last twelvemonth, that it would be superfluous at this late date to call public attention to them. Suffice it to say that it is primarily to the conservatism of her system of banking (as typified by La Banque de France), and of her individual investors, that France owes her present proud position as the banker of the world.

French finance is based upon the proverbial French woolen stocking, that is, upon French thrift — a trait which has been much written about first and last, but regarding which foreigners continue to be skeptical, because it is accompanied by a light-heartedness, a blitheness, and a whole-souled appreciation of the good things of this world, particularly of that “ good sister of common life, the vine,” which seem to belie it, instead of being ascetic and morose as economy is popularly supposed to be. The French people continue to follow the sound advice Nicolas Pasquier gave centuries ago to his son Etienne: “ Begin to economize early. Every saving in household management produces an incredible revenue far above all other revenues.” The real “ simple life ” — not that travesty of it made fashionable by American faddists, which is a luxury within the reach only of the very well-to-do — is lived by nearly all classes of the French people, because it is ingrained in their nature, and accords with their ideas, ideals, beliefs, and traditions; because, in other words, it is “ the resultant of all the aptitudes and inclinations of the race.” So far as his own country was concerned, the VieSimple of Charles Wagner carried coals to Newcastle. Its message was scarcely needed by his compatriots, and that is the main reason, perhaps, that they took no interest in it until after it had been given an artificial prominence by the encomium of the chief of a foreign state.

The Frenchman and, in an even higher degree, his model helpmeet, the French woman, possess an extraordinary faculty for making the most of a meagre exchequer. On four to five francs a day, in the laboring class, they procure for themselves, and for a modicum of children, lodgings, food, clothes, and amusements, help their less fortunate relatives, and contrive to put something by for a stormy day besides. It is more particularly in the matter of providing for the table that this economizing faculty works wonders that are very close to miracles; but it is operative in every department of household management.

As French finance is based upon the national thrift, so the national thrift is based upon the national conception of the family. This conception is the direct lineal descendant of the Roman conception, to which it bears a striking resemblance. The authority of the father as head of the household is not absolute, to be sure, as it was in ancient Rome. Nevertheless, the French father is master, theoretically, of all the acts and choices of the children (who look to him to assign them their respective rôles in life and to direct their energies in the interests of the family as a whole), and of most of the important acts and choices of the wife; and he generally is so actually, except in so far as the French woman’s surpassing cleverness enables her to “manage” the lord and master, while seeming to accept his domination. The father, in return for the obedience of the children, holds himself responsible for their welfare, not only during their minority, but throughout their entire existence.

As to the daughters, his chief ambition is to see them well married. With this end in view, he devotes himself sedulously to amassing sturdy dowries and to striving (naturally with the advice and coöperation of the mother, who is the immediate supervisor of their education) to find them husbands whose fortune and social position equal or exceed his own. True to the prudent instincts of his race, he deems a bank account a surer sheetanchor than perfervid protestations of limitless and undying affection; mutual esteem and community of interests a much more solid foundation for domestic happiness than passionate love. He would subscribe heartily, in fact, to the sage observation of Robert Louis Stevenson, in one of his disquisitions on the tender passion [I quote from memory]: “ The lion may be the king of beasts, but he is a very troublesome domestic animal.” “ Love passes,” he is very fond of saying, “ but the appetite for the daily bread endures.”

The marriage of their daughters lifts an immense burden of anxiety from the minds of the parents. but it must not be supposed that such marriage terminates parental responsibility. On the contrary, the old folks continue to act as the young folks’ watchful Providence. The tender solicitude, the sleepless vigilance, the fluttering interest (meddling, we should call it in America), of the mother in particular, follow, pursue almost, the bride into her new home, where they are so conspicuous that a French writer has been led to remark, “ The French mother has the heart of a hen who is resolved to brood her chicks her whole life long.”

As to the sons, the father rarely expects them to become magnates of finance or captains of industry. His fondest hope is to see them settled in stable, if modest, positions, which will guarantee them against all possible buffets of fortune when he shall no longer be by to render aid. He desires, rather than dreads, to make them mere cogs in the wheels of a great machine, so that said machine be a solid one. Rarely does a French father cut a boy adrift to shift for himself when his studies are finished. Far from holding that he has done all that can reasonably be expected of him when he has fitted him for a trade or a profession, he recognizes that the real tug-of-war comes in the first years of practical contact with the world, and does everything that lies within his power to serve as a buffer for him against the hard knocks of these critical years. Thus, the French man literally remains papa’s boy (le fils à papa), and the French woman mamma’s girl (la fille à maman), so long as the father and mother live.

It is because the French people are jealous of everything tending to impair the integrity and the dignity of the family that they are very reluctant to modify the body of venerable law which controls marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

It is not such a long time ago, as time is counted in the annals of nations, since it was impossible for a man or a woman, whatever his or her age might be, to marry without the formal consent of his or her parents; or, if the parents were dead, without furnishing properly certified documentary evidence of their decease. It is only twelve years since it was impossible for a man under thirty, or a woman under twenty-five, to marry without the consent of the parents unless he or she had warned the parents of the intention by so-called “ sommations respectueuses,” — a proceeding which was both complicated and costly. It is only a little over a year ago since it was impossible for a man under twenty-five, or a woman under twenty-one, to marry without the formal consent of the parents; or for a man over twenty-five or a woman over twenty-one to marry in the absence of that consent without resorting to the “sommation respectueuse.” At present, a man or a woman may marry freely after thirty years of age; but before twentyone, he or she is absolutely under parental control, and between twenty-one and thirty must still resort to the disagreeable formality of notifying the parents of an intended marriage. Furthermore, in the last-named case, the future conjoints are obliged to produce a number of documents, the collection of which costs both time and money. If the parents of both are dead, the persons about to marry must produce at least nineteen certificates of various sorts. If one of the parties chances to be a foreigner, as happens frequently in these days of cosmopolitanism, the preliminaries are still more complicated and costly. “ In no country,” says Dr. Jacques Bertillon, Chief of the Bureau of Statistics of the City of Paris, “ are marriage formalities so complicated as in France.”

Divorce, which was promulgated by the Revolution, was afterwards withdrawn. Divorce of a highly restricted nature was reëstablished in 1884, but was made so difficult and costly that it has not often been solicited with lightness of heart. There is no denying that the number of divorces is slowly increasing, and there is an unmistakable tendency toward a modification of the extreme rigidity of the present laws. It is still a far call, however, from the French to the American attitude divorceward; and it will probably be a long time before what we understand in America by “ easy divorce ” will obtain in France, where many of those who make light of the Church view of the indissolubility of marriage deplore any change which would subordinate the interests of the family to the interests of the individual, the former, not the latter, being esteemed by them the social unit.

Liberty in the bequeathing of possession can scarcely be said to exist in France, well-nigh prohibitory obstacles having been placed in the way of willing property to other than natural heirs. Not only are the rights of children inalienable, to all intents and purposes, but the inheritance laws create rights for cousins, nephews, etc., either directly or by imposing an enormous and progressive inheritance tax upon legacies to mere friends or to philanthropies and charities.

Opposition to innovations that militate against the unity and continuity of the family, which is strong even in Paris, where the solider and soberer qualities of the people are disguised by a veneer of flippancy, is tenfold stronger in the provinces.

Among the pastoral peoples of the Pyrenees, the homestead and all the lands attached thereto, which have been kept undivided from generation to generation, are turned over to a single heir, who becomes by this token the accredited representative and head of the family. This heir keeps with him his brothers and sisters, if they are unmarried, aids them if they emigrate to a distance, and receives them back, if they fail in their ventures. He also keeps with him his married brothers with their wives and children (if they choose to remain), his sons, his uncles, and nephews (with their families if they are married), and his unmarried aunts and daughters. He directs the activities of all the members of this family-community, and exercises an authority over it akin to that of the patriarch of old; but he cannot dispose of the property, which he holds merely as a trust. The young men and young women frequently take resolutions (amounting to vows of celibacy) 1 in order to continue to work for the good of the familycommunity; and they are held in the highest esteem by reason of this sacrifice of their individual happiness to the general good. Thus the conservative sentiment of respect for law is here overborne and superseded by a much stronger and even more conservative sentiment. namely, reverence for tradition. In order to maintain the patrimony intact in spite of the law, which commands equal division between children, all the other heirs agree together to waive their legal rights in favor of the chosen heir. Furthermore, they are aided and abetted in evading the law by the lawyers and civil authorities of their districts, who are thoroughly imbued with the local spirit. At any cost and at all hazards, the chimney of the homestead must be kept smoking (il faut que la maison fume).

Efforts to protect the family patrimony continue to be made, to the knowledge of the writer, in Armagnac, in the BassesAlpes, in those sections of Languedoc known as Lozère and Aveyron, in Auvergne, in Guyenne, in the Bourbonnais, in the basin of the Loire between Orléans and the sea, and in the Vendée; and it is highly probable that a similar phenomenon exists in a large portion of France. Last winter, when the masterbuilders of Paris resorted to a lock-out, in order to starve their masons into accepting their terms, the majority of the excluded workmen, who were Limousins, returned to their province, where they could count on the financial aid of all their relatives; and there they calmly awaited developments. The result was that the lock-out was of short duration, the employers speedily realizing that they were powerless to cope with such splendid family solidarity.

Paul Deschanel gave fresh and striking expression, on the occasion of the reception of M. Ribot into the French Academy, to a profound, if venerable, truth. “ The French,” he said, “ are a people of revolutionary imaginations and conservative temperaments.” Mazarin, in the seventeenth century, expressed the same idea in the phrase, “ the French make a great outcry, but they pay;” and Sainte-Beuve, in the nineteenth century, when he said, “ France, whatever its taste and its prayers for liberty may be, is a country in which authority, when it has in its favor priority and form, does not displease.”

Of a truth, without charging the French with insincerity (conscious or unconscious), which would be an inexcusable blunder, it may be affirmed that their incendiarism is mostly on the surface, and that nine-tenths of their radicalism is to be ascribed to the passion for generalization (particularly along humanitarian lines) of a highly mentalized people; is, in other words, largely an affair of the imagination — an intellectual exercise or diversion bearing as little relation to real life as did the theological theses of the scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages. The French adore sonorous promises of a general overturn on the campaign rostrum or on the election poster, but they are not deceived thereby, and are little surprised and less disgruntled when the maker of them, on being raised to power, reveals himself a thoroughgoing conservative.

It may wear the air of a paradox, but it is a fact of history, that French conservatism is so firmly intrenched that it has been necessary a number of times for a discouraged minority to resort to revolution to make the slightest breach in it. Even this heroic method has not always succeeded. France, next to China, probably, is the country which has had the most revolutions and has been the least affected by them. Her revolutions, speaking broadly, have changed only the names of things; they have not touched the things themselves. The French nation, to employ a homely illustration, is like the diner in a restaurant who obliges the waiter to change his cup of tea because he prefers a different brand, and finds the very same brew excellent when the waiter, after an ostensible journey to the kitchen, replaces it before him. After the manner of the Romans, who would have gone to death rather than set up a monarchy, but who adapted themselves very readily to an Empire, the French are horrified at the mere mention of reactionism, but rub along very well under a species of imperialistic demagogism. The Third Republic has put an imperial administration at the service of a majority. It is a régime of Bonapartism with a republican label. The code, the laws, and the usages are unrepublican; but so long as the motto “ Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité ” is inscribed on the walls, the majority are satisfied.

It is a dear and inveterate habit of the Frenchman to follow routine, to be directed, to be administered, to respect an official uniform; and this is true of him even in times of disturbance, when he is sublimely contemptuous, presumably, of every species of authority. Thus, during the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the ploughman remained beside his plough and the mechanic at his bench; and in 1871, when twenty-seven of the eighty-odd Departments were occupied by the conquerors, the other Departments continued to pay their taxes and to respect the laws and the regulations of the defunct Napoleonic government. While France has gloried in projecting into the world great, generous, humanitarian ideas and formulas, atavism and tradition have continued, in her despite, to be the controlling forces within her own borders. “ We are a singular people,” says André Lefèvre; “we talk incessantly of changes, and at bottom we do not desire changes. Whatever our political complexions may be, we are all ultra-conservatives. Our programmes are crowded with reforms, but if you should venture to realize one of them, you would immediately set everybody against you.”

In the domain of the amenities, as well as in that of politics, the conservative temperament of the French serves as a check upon their revolutionary imagination. That Latin strain to which they owe “ their love of measure, their sense of average humanity, and also their respect, their prejudice even in favor of administrative orderliness ” (to cite Bourget), is here very much in evidence. “ Rien de trop ” is the formula of their intellectual and artistic endeavor, as it is of their economic and financial activity.

The French Academy is an admirable symbol of the national conservatism. From its foundation by Richelieu in 1634 to the present, the Academy has been splendidly faithful to its special mission of conserving the national traditions. Formally loyal as an institution to the Third Republic, as it has been successively loyal, by the very necessities of the case, to every preceding government, the personal sympathies of a goodly portion of its members are probably reactionary in a most Platonic and inoffensive fashion. It prides itself upon always having among its members at least one lofty dignitary of the Church and several scions of the nobility; and though it accords seats readily enough to eminent statesmen, it is rare indeed that it admits one, however brilliant his parts, of a sufficiently radical sort to wound the tender susceptibilities of the great ladies of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. Even from among the authors (the class which it is more particularly designed to distinguish) it seldom elects to membership an innovator until long after his innovations have ceased to be remarked. Writers who, like Cherbuliez, Theuriet, Coppée, Bazin, and Rostand, present, with due respect for form, the more wholesome sides of life, are more academisable, other things being equal, than those who ridicule or defy the accepted moral code. The Academy did not admit the mocking Halévy until he had produced his idyllic L’Abbé Constantin; nor the turbulent Richepin until he had been completely tamed by age; nor the affected Barrès until he had renounced his most offensive affectations; and if it has let down the bars to dramatists who, like Donnay and Lavedan, have been guilty of flippancy, it is because they have amply redeemed their flippancy by restrained and serious dramas which have received the seal of approval of the official Théâtre Français.

To its conservative Academy, then, French literature is indebted, in a measure at least, for its poise and precision of form. It would be a pity, doubtless, if it should succeed in dominating the national literature absolutely with its cold conventionalism, but it would be no less a pity if it should cease to act as a restraining force.

Thanks also to the Academy, or rather, to be more precise, thanks to the literary conservatism of which the Academy is a salient manifestation, foreign literatures never succeed in influencing French literature intensely enough or long enough to modify it permanently in any essential respect. The French creative faculty is as uneasy and ineffective in an alien atmosphere as is the typical French man on foreign soil. Detached from the wonted “ milieu,” the one like the other is bound to peak and pine. While each and every one of the exotic literary movements of the last two generations has burned out like a punch, the tendency (known as “ regionalism ”) to exalt local traditionalism into a cult, to which Mistral and his Félibriges first gave noteworthy expression over half a century ago in Provence, has invaded steadily province after province until it has literally made the conquest of France. An aggressive conservatism, characterized by a fervent zeal for propaganda, akin to the conservatism of a portion of the ancestor-worshiping Japanese, is, all things considered, the most significant fact in the French literary world to-day.

The history of painting and sculpture in modern France is replete with conflicts between individual impulse and academical authority, between initiative and inertia, between the classicism and the romanticism coexistent in this bizarre people of conservative temperament and revolutionary imagination. The French artistic innovator has almost invariably been obliged to overcome a tremendous amount of official opposition, because he has seemed, at the moment of his appearance on the scene, to ignore fundamental principles and to flout revered standards. It was not until a few years ago that the works of the masters of impressionism were admitted to the Luxembourg, and then they were hung in a room where it was impossible to see them properly. Rodin’s L’Homme au Nez Cassé was greeted with jeers, and his Bourgeois de Calais with violent abuse. His L’Age d’Airain was at first refused exhibition on the ground that the sculptor must have made a mould of the marvelously modeled face. The Commission of Art Works declined to accept his monument of Victor Hugo, designed for the Pantheon, and the Société des Gens de Lettres, his Balzac. Recognized the world over as the greatest sculptor now living, Rodin is still eyed askance by the representatives of official art in his own country, and has not yet been honored with an election to the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

The Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts and its adjunct, the Villa Medicis at Rome, hold rigidly to academic traditions, as is evidenced by the time-worn classical and religious subjects of their prize competitions. The official Salon of the Champs-Elysées is scarcely more hospitable to novelties to-day than it was in 1863, when the Salon des Refusés contained exhibits by Cals, Cazin, Chintreuil, Fantin-Latour, Harpignies, Jongkind, Jean-Paul Laurens, Legros, Manet, Pissarro, Vollon, and Whistler. It is still considered the Salon by typical Parisians, who prefer its cold, correct, classical art to the more modern and vital art of the seceding Salon du Champ de Mars, of the very existence of which, for that matter, most of them are ignorant, although the two exhibitions are held at the same time in the same building.

In the large, retrospective view, it is evident that there is an element of almost classic restraint in all the best French art, even in that which at the time of its production was deemed the most extravagant; and that this element is due to the resistant force of the national conservatism. Without this balance-wheel French art would have flown off at a tangent time and again. Thanks to it, French painting and sculpture have remained, in spite of apparent venturesomeness, stable and continuous for three centuries. It is only necessary to witness once the freakiness and the formlessness of the majority of the exhibits of the Salon des Indépendants, whose motto is “ Neither Juries nor Awards,” to appreciate the services French conservatism has rendered and is still rendering in art matters. Contemporary France is unquestionably suffering from excessive art-production. What the result might be, how many miles of crazy canvases, and cubic yards of eccentric statues, would be inflicted upon the public, if there were no such counterbalancing influence, one shudders to contemplate.

“ When a Frenchman speaks ill of himself,” said a shrewd observer of national traits, “ he is boasting.” He might have added that, when a Frenchman speaks ill of the institutions and achievements of his country, he is admiring them. With the Frenchman, admiration does not preclude criticism; on the contrary, it seems to involve it. The more outcry he makes about a thing, the more he thinks of that thing, you may be reasonably certain; such vociferousness being merely the natural vent of his revolutionary imagination. Thus, he has heaped enough satire and anathema upon the cautious policy of the national theatre, the Comédie Françhise, to fill a small library. It was so before the fire which threatened to consume the famous playhouse; it has been so since. And yet, for an hour or more on that night in March, 1901, when it looked as though the House of Molière would go up in flames, your critical Frenchman blenched with dismay and sobbed like a child. And when he repaired the damage, ignoring or defying his own criticisms, he characteristically made the strictest possible restoration — even to the hot red velvet chairs, which might very well have been spared. The gist of the matter is that France, notwithstanding her assumed superciliousness and her impatience with the oldmaidish ways of her national theatre, really worships it and is deeply touched by any and every circumstance that brings its long and noble career to her mind.

The Comédie is primarily the depository of the best French dramatic traditions, as the Academy is of the best French literary traditions. It is incumbent upon it to perpetuate the old rather than to promulgate the new, to conserve rather than to initiate, to signalize success rather than to force it, to register reputations rather than to make them, to accept the results of revolutions rather than to lead them. Its rôle is defensive and not offensive; it must serve ten times as a rampart to once as a battering-ram, and give ten thoughts to the ancestors where it gives one to posterity. It proscribes — very properly, considering its peculiar mission — liberty of theme, liberty of thought, liberty of method, and liberty of language. Daring ventures must come from the free stages, where the revolutionary imagination is allowed full swing. By reason of its very limitations, the Comédie Française has rendered an incalculable service to the French stage in conserving the elements of control, steadiness, and finish, without which it might have fallen a victim to the disintegration from which the once magnificent stage of England has suffered. If France has never ceased to have a fine and abundant dramatic literature, it is in part her Comédie she has to thank. And if the poetical drama (the most venerable of theatrical forms) continues to be in such high favor with authors, actors, and audiences that it may almost be said to be a distinctive glory of France, this again is largely due to the protection this species of dramatic art has received, during nearly two centuries, from the Comçdie Françhise and, during a shorter period, from the second national theatre the Odéon.

At the time when the excitement over the Moroccan affair was at its height, an article appeared in the London Chronicle under the striking caption, “ The French a Phlegmatic People,” which presented in a more or less bantering tone a number of thought-provoking facts. The adjective “ phlegmatic ” cannot be truthfully applied, of course, to a people who are endowed to as large an extent as are the French with a revolutionary imagination, and whose great cities are unquestionably subject to periods of ebullition. Nevertheless, if, putting aside all prejudices and preconceptions, one views the career of France for the last thirtyseven years, one is constrained to admit that she has displayed, under most trying and even humiliating circumstances, not phlegm, surely, but a patience, a forbearance, a coolness, a correctness, a clearheadedness, a continuity of purpose, and an inflexible determination to play a pacific rôle — a conservatism, in short, which, during the same periods, the reputed phlegmatic peoples have barely equaled, and have certainly not excelled. In genuine political crises, even the normally turbulent Chamber of Deputies has surprised its detractors by assuming an attitude of exemplary dignity; while in moments of financial uncertainty, authorities and people alike have not only kept their heads admirably, but have materially aided, by their superb selfconfidence and self-control, the authorities and the peoples of all the countries of the world to keep their heads likewise.

Conservatism, evidently, is not the most brilliant of the attributes of the French, nor is it the most charming; but it is the most reassuring. So long as it continues to be what it has been in the past, the strongest continuous force in French public life, the question of the durability of the present Republican régime sinks into insignificance, since it guarantees the durability of the traditional France — a consideration of vastly greater importance. In the domain of private life, also, French conservatism, while it approaches at certain points dangerously close to what we call oldfogyism, is not without redeeming features. Nowhere is home-life richer, fuller, more wholesome, more replete with beautiful, unabashed expressions of mutual support and affection; nowhere does the individual enjoy a more genuine material well-being, and nowhere is he guided by a saner and sunnier philosophy.

It is far from axiomatic that the doctrine of the strenuous life as it is at present understood and practiced in America is the acme of wisdom. As between the American system of spending vital force prodigally just as long as there is any vital force to spend, and of continuing to amass wealth after one has enough and more than enough to insure the security and comfort of his old age, and the French system of husbanding vital force, and of retiring early upon a modest but sure income with leisure for the pursuit of cherished avocations and for the extraction from life of its savory juices, — the last word has not yet been spoken. Signs are not lacking that in the country of feverish activity par excellence a reaction in favor of the conservation as against the expenditure of energy, of acquisition as a means to an end instead of acquisition as an end in itself, is already setting in. It would not be surprising if in ultimate America men and women should conform their lives to the law of the least effort, as the French do now.

  1. An easily explained exception to the contempt for the vieille fille current in France.