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The French Language: L’Éloquence, Par Excellence! Posted by on Apr 6, 2010 in Culture, History, Vocabulary

If the Italians are notoriously known for their obssession with l’Opéra, the English for their penchant towards the performing arts, the Germans for their grand amour of la musique classique, then what about the French? Eh bien the French are tout simplement fond of their own language!

What they cherish par-dessus tout (above all) is its singular feature of combining éloquence and clarté (clarity.)  Rivarol, a famous homme de lettres, had once declared tout de go (without hesitation) that “Tout ce qui n’est pas clair n’est pas français” (All that is not clear is not French.) As for eloquence, the French view it essentially as a dual art, assimilating oration with persuasion. Oration to stir up le côté esthétique de la langue, but also pour convaincre les esprits (to convince the minds.) Ever since the first years of school in France, les écoliers discover in their manuels scolaires the process of la dialectique: They learn how to argue and present their ideas, starting with la thèse, then l’antithèse, and finally la synthèse. This logical model is definitely de rigueur (both in the French and the English sense) whenever you must write une rédaction (an essay), and students follow it even until the university stage!

The French are also très fiers (very proud) of their esprit cartésien (Cartesian mind), named after the distinguished philosopher René Descartes, who is known for his “Je Pense, Donc Je suis” (I think, therefore I am.) You may also remember him from your early Calculus class days, when your teacher introduced you to the “Cartesian coordinates”, with the X- and Y-axis! Yes, those coordinates (just like the “Cartesian Product”, or “set product”) are named after him, and his last name alone has turned, au fil des siècles, into a household name in France, synonymous with logique, rationalisme, and no-nonsense précision.

In fact, Descartes’ influence has been so enormous on people’s mind that he is regarded as one of the précurseurs or pionniers (pioneers) of the Siècle des Lumières (The Enlightenment), the same century that has known La Révolution française, a milestone historical event which should in many ways be considered as a “Cartesian Product” itself: Soit dit sans jeu de mot (no pun intended)… or, d’accord, maybe juste un petit peu.

When we mention Les Lumières, we also tend to think of the city of Paris, which is known as La Ville des Lumières… But is it really because of all those high-voltage bulbs adorning La Tour Eiffel and L’Arc de Triomphe? Non, pas vraiment ! The French would certainly point out to you that, after all, Paris n’est pas Las Vegas ! The Lumières are en fait mostly to be understood as the intellectual Lights: Philosophers, artists, and hommes de lettres, who have for centuries élu domicile (resided, that is) in the French Capital, enlightening and delighting their seduced readers and mesmerized audiences with their éloquence of haute voltige, often during des lectures publiques delivered under eye-dazzling lights of haut voltage !

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  1. Bill Penn:

    I beg to differ with you regarding your quotation of Descartes “Je Pense,Donc je suis”. I have been led to believe, when I studied at Boston Latin School over 70 years ago, that all highly educated men of that epoch used Latin to expound their views, philosophies, and scientific theories and/or results. I contend that his actual statement was “Cogito ergo Sum”

    Since the meaning is the same, you may rightly accuse me of “much ado about nothing.”

  2. hichem:

    Hi Bill,

    It would be a unique satisfaction to your teacher to see his or her student remembering a lesson over 70 years later. It would certainly be one to us as well, if our readers were to remember what they read in our blog 70 years from now, or even half of that!

    Now, for the Cartesian quotation at hand: Even though you are perfectly right about the scholars in Descartes’ era writing their works in Latin, as in Newton’s and Leibniz’s works, in this case there is an exception: Descartes wrote his “Disours de la méthode” in 1637 *in French*, precisely because he was hoping to target a wider audience in the French Kingdom.

    Here is the original quotation (written in 17th century French, easily recognizable from such terms as “voulois” and “falloit”, instead of the modern “voulais” and “fallait”):
    « Mais aussitôt après je pris garde que, pendant que je voulois ainsi penser que tout était faux, il falloit nécessairement que moi qui le pensois fusse quelque chose; et remarquant que cette vérité, je pense, donc je suis, étoit si ferme et si assurée, que toutes les plus extravagantes suppositions des sceptiques n’étoient pas capables de l’ébranler, je jugeai que je pouvois la recevoir sans scrupule pour le premier principe de la philosophie que je cherchois. » [Available in Google Books, for example: “Discours de la Methode”, Tome I (Large Print Edition 2008) – Page 109.]

    On the other hand, the “Cogito” expression (in Latin) did not appear in Descartes’ works until later in 1644, in his ” Principes de la philosophie”

    Having said that, I’d like to tell you Merci beaucoup de votre observation !

    À très bientôt j’espère.

  3. V. V. Raman:

    J’ai trouvé votre essai sur la langue française extrêmement interessant, écrit d’une façon aussi amusante que délectable.
    V. V. Raman

  4. Tony morga:

    Eloquence is not just using a form of language it has a deeper mind set that created a. type of mental movement to find a curve in construction rather than a dot to dot thinklng it can seen their dress their maners it has nothing to do with mathamatics. More like flight of a non directionlal butterfly