Fontenelle, Bernard Le Bovier De

, the son of Frangois le Bovier de Fonienelle, advocate in the parliament of Rouen, and of Martha Corneiile, sister to the great dramatic poet Corneille, was born at Rouen Feb. 11, 1657, and lived to the age of an hundred, though so weak at his birth, that his life was not expected. Voltaire declares him to have been the most universal genius the age of Louis the Fourteenth produced; and compares him to lands situated in so happy a climate as to produce all sorts of fruits. Before he was twenty, he had written a great part of Bellerophon,“a tragic opera; and some time after his opera ofThetis and Peleusappeared, in which he had closely imitated Quinault, and met with great success. That of” yneas and Lavinia“did not succeed so well. He tried his genius in writing tragedy; and assisted mademoiselle Bernard in some of her dramatic pieces. Two he wrote himself, one of which was acted in 1680, but never printed. He was too long and too unjustly censured on account of this piece; for he had the merit to discover, that though his genius was unconfined, yet he did not possess those talents which so greatly distinguished his uncle, Peter Corneille, in the tragic drama. He wrote several smaller compositions, in which that delicacy of wit and profoundness of thought, which promise greater efforts, might already be discovered. In his poetical performances, and” Dialogues of the Dead,“the spirit of Voiture was displayed, though more extended and more philosophical. His” Plurality of Worlds“is a work singular in its kind; his design in it was to present that part of philosophy to view in a gay and pleasing dress; for which purpose he has introduced a lady, and drawn up the whole in a most agreeable as well as instructing dialogue. In the same manner he made an entertaining book fromVan Dale’s Oracles." The controversial matters treated of in this work (for he went upon Van Dale’s scheme of exploding the Oracles as human impostures) raised him secret enemies, whose malice he had the good fortune to disappoint. He found, says Voltaire, how dangerous it is for a man, though in the right, to differ in opinion from those whose judgment receives a sanction from authority.

He now applied himself to geometry and natural philosophy; nor was he less successful in the study of these sciences, than he had been in that of polite literature. Having been appointed perpetual secretary to the academy | of sciences, he discharged that trust for more than forty years. so as to meet with universal applause. His “History of the Academy of Sciences” often throws great light upon their memoirs, where they are obscure. He was the first that introduced elegance into the sciences. If he should sometimes be thought to have interwoven more beauties than the nature of the subject would properly admit, we must regard his composition as on a plentiful crop, where flowers grow naturally among the corn. His “History of the Academy” would be no less useful, than it is well performed, had it given us an account of truths discovered: but he was obligod to explain opinions raised to overthrow one another, most of which are now thought erroneous.

The “Eloges,” which he spoke on the deceased members of the academy, have this peculiar merit, that they excite a respect for the sciences, as well as for the author. In vain did Des Fontaines, and other censorious writers, endeavour to blemish his reputation. In his more advanced years he published “Comedies,” which, though they shewed the elegance of Fontenelle, were little fit for the stage; and “An Apology for Des Cartes’ s Vortices.” Voltaire says, we must excuse his comedies, in consideration of his great age and his Cartesian opinions, as they were those of his youth, which were at that time almost universally received in Europe. Upon the whole, he was regarded as the great master of a new art; that of treating abstruse sciences in a manner which made the study of them at once easy and agreeable; nor are any of his works of other kinds void of merit. His natural talents were assisted by a knowledge of the languages and history; and he certainly surpasses all men of learning who have not had the gift of invention. This account of Fontenelle, which is critical as well as historical, is taken chiefly from Voltaire’s “Age of Louis XIV.

This great author died in January 1757, without ever having had any violent disorder, or felt any of the maladies of age till he was turned of ninety, after which he was a little deaf, and his eyes in some degree failed. The tranquil ease Of his temper is thought to have contributed to extend his life to this unusual period. A fuller account of hi* works will doubtless be required, which we shall give in chronological order. I. Letters of “the Chav. d’Horny”[??] 1685; a work of wit and fancy. 2. “Discourses | on the Plurality of Worlds,” 1686; the character of this performance has been already sketched, as well as that of his, 3. “History of Oracles,1687. 4. “Pastoral Poems, with a Discourse on the Eclogue, and a digression on the ancients and moderns,1688. It seems to he agreed, that if these are not good eclogues, they are at least elegant poems. It was in the dissertation annexed to these that he made his first attempt to depreciate the ancients, whose merit compared with that of the moderns, was then the subject of a well-known controversy. Among his papers after his death, was found a discourse on the Greek tragedians, which was given to Diderot for insertion in the Encyclopedic, but he said he could not possibly insert in that work, a treatise tending to prove that Æschylus was a madman. 5, Several volumes of “Memoirs of the Academy of Sciences,” to which society he was secretary fortytwo years, from 1699. The general preface to this work is highly excellent; it contains also his “Eloges,” or Eulogies on the academicians, which have been published separately. 6. “History of the French Theatre, to Corneille,” with the life of that great Dramatist. 7. “Reflections on theatrical poetry, particularly Tragedy:” this is reckoned one of the most profound and judicious works of Fontenelle. 8. “Elements of the Geometry of Infinites,1727; not much esteemed by mathematicians. 9. “A Tragedy,” in prose, and “Six Comedies,” none of them calculated for theatrical effect. Warburton, it appears by his letters to bishop Hurd, entertained a high opinion of these comedies, and of Fontenelle’s preface to them. 10. “Theory of the Cartesian Vortices.” He remained unfortunately attached to the system of Descartes to the end of his life, having imbibed it very early. 11.“Endymion,” and some other pastoral lyric dramas. 12. “Moral Discourses,” and fugitive pieces. All these, except those on geometry and natural history, were collected in 11 vols, 12mo, under the title “Œuvres Diverses.” Other editions have since been published in folio and quarto. The style of this author is in general elegant and clear, but not altogether free from defects. It is often too negligent and familiar. He betrays at some times an affectation of giving great matters in a small compass; at others he der scends to puerile details unworthy of a philosopher. Ke displays occasionally too much refinement in his ideas j and, at times, is too elaborate in his ornaments. These | defects are less offensive in the writings of Fontenelle, than they would be in any others; not only because they are overpowered by many striking beauties of various kinds, but because it is easy to perceive that they are truly natural to the author.

Perhaps no other man of letters ever enjoyed so universal an esteem as Fontenelle, which advantage he owed not only to his works, but to the prudence of his conduct, and the sweetness of his manners. His conversation was lively though placid, and his politeness was equal to his wit. Though he was superior to most other men, he did not make them feel it; but bore with their defects, and conversed as an equal. “Men,” he said, “are foolish and wicked; but such as they are, I must live among them; and this I settled with myself very early in life.” He was accused of want of feeling: and certainly he had not all the warmth which some require in a friend; but his friendship had more constancy and equality than that has in general which is more tender or more lively. He rendered services without the smallest ostentation. When the duke of Orleans proposed to him to be made perpetual president of the academy of sciences, his -reply was, “Take not from me, my lord, the delight of living with my equals.” He was ready always to listen as well as to talk; but when be had delivered his opinion, he studiously avoided dispute, pretending that his lungs were not equal to it. Though poor originally, he became rich for a literary man, by the royal bounty, and by an oeconomy free from all tincture of avarice. He was sparing only to himself; to others he was ready at all times to give or leur, and frequently to persons unknown to him. One of his maxims was, “that a man should be sparing in superfluities to himself, that he may supply necessaries to others;” a sublime and truly Christian saying, which with the rest of his excellent character, may discharge us from the necessity of entering into the dispute concerning his religious faith; which, probably, has been by some estimated too low, because he was superior to many of the superstitious opinions thought essential to it in his time. 1

1 Voltaire’s Si&cle <]e Louis XIV. — Moieri— Dirt. Hiit. — Eloc^e par D‘Alembfrt.— Vi’^aiton’s Essay on P. i.’.—Wai burton’s Uttgrs, p. 67, 70, 4to edit.— JHutton’s Dict.