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FrRevol_251-300.indd 2 3/16/12 1:06 PM CHAPTER XVII Ofthe State ofSociety in Paris During the Time ofthe Constituent Assemhly. Foreigners can have no idea of the boasted charms and splendor of Parisian society if they have seen France only in the last twenty years; but it may be said with truth that never was that society at once so brilliant and serious as during the first three or four years ofthe Revolution, reckoning from 1788 to the end of 179r. As political affairs were still in the hands of the higher classes, all the vigor of liberty and all the grace of former politeness were united in the same persons. Men of the Third Estate , distinguished by their knowledge and their talents, joined those gentlemen who were prouder of their personal merits than of the privileges of their body; and the highest questions to which social order ever gave rise were treated by minds the most capable of understanding and discussing them. The main causes that take away from the pleasures of English society are the occupations and interests ofa country that has long possessed representative government. French society, on the other hand, was rendered somewhat superficial by the leisure of the monarchy. But the vigor ofliberty became all at once joined to the elegance ofaristocracy: in no country, and at no time, has the art of speaking in every way been so remarkable as in the early years of the Revolution.1 In England, women are accustomed to be silent before men when politics form the matter of conversation:2 in France, women are accustomed I. On this issue, see Craveri, The Age ofConversation. 2. For a more nuanced view of eighteenth-century England, see Brewer, The Pleasures ofthe Imagination. FrRevol_251-300.indd 3 3/16/12 1:06 PM CHAPTER XVII. Society in Pan's During Assembly to lead almost all the conversation that takes place at their houses, and their minds are early formed to the facility which this talent requires. Discussions on public affairs were thus softened by their means, and often intermingled with kind and lively pleasantry. Party spirit, it is true, caused divisions in society; but everyone lived with those of his own side. At court, the two battalions of good company, one faithful to the old state of things, the other the advocates of liberty, drew up on opposite sides and rarely approached each other. I sometimes ventured, in the spirit of enterprise, to try a mixture of the two parties, by bringing together at dinner the most intelligent men of each side; for people of a certain superiority almost always understand each other; but affairs became too serious to admit of the easy renewal of even this momentary harmony. The Constituent Assembly, as I have already mentioned, did not suspend the liberty of the press for a single day. Thus those who suffered from finding themselves always in a minority in the Assembly had at least the satisfaction of ridiculing all their opponents. Their newspapers abounded in lively witticisms on the most important matters: it was the history of the world converted into daily gossip. Such is everywhere the character of the aristocracy of courts; yet as the acts of violence that had marked the outset of the Revolution had been soon appeased, and as no confiscation , no revolutionary sentences had taken place, everyone preserved enough ofcomfort to give himselfup to the free exercise ofhis mind. The crimes with which the cause ofpatriots has since been sullied did not then oppress their souls; and the aristocrats had not yet suffered enough for the people to dare to get the better of them. Everything was then in opposition-interests, sentiments, and manner of thinking; but so long as scaffolds were not erected, the use of speech proved an acceptable mediator between the two parties. It was, alas! the last time that the French spirit showed itself in all its splendor; it was the last, and, in some respects, likewise the first time that the society ofParis could convey an idea of that communication ofsuperior minds with each other, the noblest enjoyment of which human nature is capable. Those who lived at that time cannot but acknowledge that they never witnessed in any country so much animation or so much intelligence; we may judge by the number of men of talent drawn forth by the circumstances of the FrRevol_251-300.indd 4 3/16/12 1:06 PM PART II...


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