Saturday, September 12, 2015

"Chivalry is the most delicate form of contempt"

Albert Léon Guérard, Bottle in the Sea (1954):
Descartes wrote in heavy but lucid nontechnical French, for the layman if not for the man in the street. He was the first of the great popularizers (vulgarisateurs in the strictly French sense): a distinguished line and particularly Gallic, in which Pascal himself, and Renan, were to be his successors. He went so far as to include among his potential audience "even women": a revolutionary step, for the elaborate gallantry of the time had not yet broken down the prejudice against feminine brains: chivalry is the most delicate form of contempt. It is odd to think of the austere logician, mathematician, and physicist as a professor for society ladies: yet he had among his disciples Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia and Queen Christina of Sweden. We might consider him as a forerunner of Trissotin in Moliere's Learned Ladies; most decidedly of Fontenelle, whose Chats on the Plurality of Inhabited Worlds are masterpieces of drawingroom wit and courtesy; of Voltaire, who wrote his Universal History for Madame du Chatelet; of Bellac in Pailleron's Le Monde ou Von s'ennuie, the professor as society pet, a composite picture of many successful academic lecturers; even of Bergson, whose courses at the College de France were thronged with the aristocracy of birth and wealth.

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