« ZurückWeiter »
jealousies and wars; their swords are not yet beaten into ploughshares, for some sort of controversy with pens or swords seems inseparable from human nature. Even the religious penitent, as soon as he has professed himself a follower of the Prince of Peace, will fasten tooth and nail upon his neighbour for believing a little more or less than he.
D'Alembert made his first appearance in the world as a foundling, exposed by his mother in a winter night, but rescued, when almost dead, by the humanity of strangers. His father was M. Destouches, a poet and commissary of artillery, who soon came forward and made provision for his support. His mother was Madame de Tencin, so well known to the readers of Marmontel, who represents her as the witty and accomplished centre of a brilliant circle. When he afterwards became distinguished, she was desirous to have him come and live with her, and be acknowledged as her son, which would not have injured her reputation in the Paris of that day. But he declined the honor, having already had enough of her maternal affection; and for forty years he lived in the cottage of the poor woman who had rescued him from the fate which his mother's love assigned him. When his health compelled him to leave those humble lodgings, he continued to supply her wants from his own narrow income till she died. His whole conduct in that relation was humane, affectionate, and honorable in the highest degree.
At the age of twelve, he was sent to a Jansenist college, where his early promise was discovered, and attempts were made to enlist his feelings in the feud between his instructers and the Jesuits; they hoped, doubtless, that another Pascal would rise up to throw the great weight of his character and talents on their side. But D'Alembert, though he went so far as to write a commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, was too much engaged by what the pious fathers called, in Fénélon's case, the devilish attractions of geometry." When he left them, he devoted himself entirely to those studies. In order to increase his small income, he made some attempts to study a profession; but in whatever direction he forced his mind, it was always springing back, like the bended bow, to his favorite pursuits. In this he was not encouraged certainly by his good old nurse, who used to say to him in sorrow, "O, you will never be any thing more
than a philosopher! and what is a philosopher? a foolish body, who wearies his life out to be talked of after he is dead! But he found his studies a great source of satisfaction, apart from any such vision of posthumous renown. He awoke, he says, every morning, with a feeling of gladness in his heart, as he thought of the investigation in which he was employed the day before, and which he was again to pursue. In the evening he sometimes went to the theatre; but when there, what he enjoyed most was thinking of the next day's labors. Though he was a philosopher, without question, according to the original sense of the word, there was nothing which gave him less concern than the manner in which he should be talked of, either living or dead.
Talked of, however, he was destined to be. A paper which he offered to the Academy of Sciences attracted their favorable attention, and in 1741 he was admitted a member, at the age of twenty-four, younger than any other who had received that honor, except the celebrated Clairaut. Two years after, D'Alembert justified this high compliment by his Traité de Dynamique, which at once established his reputation. For some years he was engaged in following out his principles in their various and extensive applications, till, in 1752, he published an essay on a new theory of the resistance of fluids, which was the subject that principally engaged his attention for many years. Meantime, by way of interlude, he had submitted a memoir on the general theory of the winds, which was crowned by the Royal Academy of Berlin. As his fame extended, his enjoyment of life was less secure, this being one of the severe penalties which men pay for renown. He became somewhat jealous of every invasion of his rights and honors, to which he had been rather indifferent before. Lord Brougham accounts for these feelings, which were not according to his habits or his nature, by ascribing them to the influence of the literary factions and social parties with which he had become connected, as an Encyclopedist, with Diderot, Holbach, and Voltaire, to whom repose of spirit was as much unknown as peace to the wicked; but a more general explanation of it may be found in the general tendencies of human nature. Men become avaricious of praise as readily as of money; and as one who comes across our promising speculations in business is re
garded with feelings not entirely benignant, our charities wax cold toward those who interfere with the ingathering of our harvest of applause.
It would have been well for D'Alembert, if nothing had ever drawn him out from the circle in which he moved in his earlier days; for up to the age of thirty-five his wants were few, his enjoyments simple, his spirit unruffled, and his renown as a man of science fast extending. But when the famous Encyclopædia was established, he became joint editor with Diderot, and supplied many of the most striking portions. His preliminary discourse, on the distribution and progress of the sciences, was greatly admired in its time; but Lord Brougham regards it with little favor. Still, the severity of his censure is rather disarmed by the admission, that Bacon had fallen into the same errors before. When the work, to which this discourse was an introduction, appeared, the church and the government were filled with mutual alarm. The great body of literary men grew jealous of those who thus threatened to eclipse them; the fashionable circles, which exert so much influence in Paris, took sides in the matter, and it seemed as if Æolus had let loose the winds to fan the flame which threatened to consume the wights whose freedom of speech, or rather whose known opinions, had kindled it. There are some who melt away under the influence of this kind of heat; others, on the contrary, are hardened into petrifactions; but as D'Alembert was not of this hardy sort, and was disgusted in the extreme with the new state of things, he took occasion, when the government prohibited the work in France, to withdraw from the editorial charge, leaving it in the hands of Diderot, who better loved the sweet music of angry speech, and was perfectly willing to finish his rough journey alone. Having his attention thus directed to literature, D'Alembert wrote several works on various subjects; one of which, On the Intercourse of Literary Men with the Great, had the effect to change the style in which works were dedicated, which, both in France and England, till a late period, instead of being offered with manly independence, were submitted with the tone in which the veteran beggar acknowledges the donation of sixpence, - praying immortal blessings upon the Samaritan's head.
In 1752, the king of Prussia invited him to reside in Berlin, with liberal appointments and a salary of five hundred
pounds a year; which offer D'Alembert declined, though his income was but about seventy pounds. His determination was to keep his independence and freedom; and his moderation was worthy of praise, though it should be stated that Frederic's promises to pay were at a considerable discount, particularly with those victims who had once tasted his bounty, and could not be hired to expose themselves to the same blessing again. He received, some years after, a more tempting proposal from Catharine of Russia, to undertake the education of her son, with a salary of four thousand pounds. The profligate old woman was willing to pay liberally for the instruction of her boy. But whether he foresaw the impediments in the way of educating a young emperor without brains, where the teacher might be expected to do what nature had found beyond her, or whether he was too much attached to the social atmosphere of Paris to be willing, on any terms, to leave it, he wisely determined to be his own master; that service, unlike the other, being one which he could renounce at will.
His attachment to Mademoiselle de l'Espinasse is a curious passage in his history. She was a young person of romantic character and brilliant talents, who lived with Madame du Deffand, as a companion, with a salary of next to nothing a year, in consideration of which, she was to bear the intolerable temper of her patroness, and to read her to sleep in the morning; for she rose when the sun set, and went to sleep when he rose, so that the two luminaries were seldom seen above the horizon together. The attendant found but one comfort in her life, which was to receive D'Alembert, and one or two other friends, before the old lady appeared in the eastern sky. Unhappily the patroness discovered the proceeding, and falling into a passion with her morning star, dismissed it from her heaven. The young lady's friends procured her a residence and a small pension; and D'Alembert having been taken dangerously sick, she nursed him with the greatest kindness and care. As they were thus thrown together, he continued to reside with her through the twelve remaining years of her life. She, being susceptible in her disposition, was meantime sending her affections abroad; she forced them, so it would seem, at the same time on Guibert, a French officer, and Mora, a young Spanish grandee. But though she had thus two, if not three, strings to her bow, she
was put out of tune by the failure of one; for on the death of Mora, she took his loss so much to heart, that she began to decline, and two years after she died. Now D'Alembert had gone regularly every morning to the post-office, to get her letters from the young Spaniard; at her instigation, he had obtained from a celebrated French physician a medical opinion that the air of Paris was good for him, in order that his relations might consent to his return to France, from which they had recalled him; but after her decease, we find him bitterly complaining of his discovering that her affections were not his own, and asking, with some simplicity, what security he could have for believing that she had ever loved him. His uncertainty was a distress, no doubt; but it resembled that of another unfortunate hypochondriac, who, waking one morning with a grievous colic, said that "it was just as like as not that he had had it all night," a reflection which added tenfold to the bitterness of his woe.
Lord Brougham so much laments the desertion of D'Alembert from science, that he is not inclined to allow him much merit in his literary career. He says that he came to it without the right preparation, not rich in classical attainments, nor indeed in any kind of learning, unacquainted with the principles of criticism, and deficient also in correctness and simplicity of taste. But his style was eminently simple; and as the style is an expression of the character of the mind, it can hardly be that he was viciously defective in those respects, though he may have been misled by partiality or prejudice in some of his literary opinions. But the great difficulty with him was his excessive admiration of Voltaire, a man so distinguished by his variety of talent that it was impossible he should excel in all. It was bad enough in him to place Corneille and Racine far below the footstool of Voltaire; but so far did he carry his reverence, that he appears to have been more delighted with Voltaire's approbation of his mathematical works than that of seven men who were able to understand them. Such deference to such a genius was very apt to betray.
In private life, D'Alembert appears to have been always amiable and everywhere welcome. He came into society with the unconscious freedom of a child, never oppressed by the weight of his reputation, not concerned what impression he made, but always speaking from the overflow of his mind