DURING the eighteenth century, the life died out of the conventional forms in government and literature, and embryonic forms of new life peered into daylight. Yet the satisfaction of men with themselves and with the human race grew steadily. Poetry almost ceased to be a vehicle of music or deep feeling, but the musicians, Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Haydn were in instrumental composition what Shakespeare, Racine, and Milton had been in verse. Germany had almost a monopoly of musical genius, perhaps because the career of one great artist sometimes paves the way for others to follow. England had had such a great musician as Purcell and provided an enthusiastic public for Handel, but her aesthetic energy chiefly took the channel of portrait and landscape painting. In Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney, and Constable she had the first great English artists, and some of the best European artists of the period. The architects carried on Wren's tradition, and both in the building of small houses and the designing of furniture the century achieved a delightful style, quite distinctive between the clumsy picturesqueness of the seventeenth century and the forms of ugliness which the nineteenth century manufactured. It came as near beauty as proportion, symmetry, and moderation can come. Even in poetry there were signs in Gray, Collins, and Isaac Watts of a return to better taste.
Prose was the instrument which the ablest writers wielded best. It was prose which has not yet lost currency, as that of Clarendon or Isaac Walton has. The prose of Addison, Steele, and Goldsmith was very lucid and simple but there was amongst some writers too great a tendency to employ or invent long Latinised words. Their sentences were elaborate and the sentiments extremely dignified. But as it was used by Gibbon, Johnson, and Burke in England this prose had force and life: Smollett and Fielding used it to write better novels even than Defoe's.
Among the French writers of their time there was one at least who commanded an emotional power such as no succeeding political analyst has had. This was Rousseau, a Genevan adventurer who wrote on several subjects, usually well, and his Control Social (The Social Contract) was the Bible of the men who made the French Revolution. It probably influenced events more profoundly even than Marx's DAS Kapital (Capital) did a hundred years afterwards. There has very seldom, however, been a book which would sway men unless it expressed ideas which they already held but had not yet put into words. Rousseau's doctrine of men's Natural Rights was already known; the other political writers of his time, too, summed up in lucid and amusing fashion views already in circulation. Adam Smith, for instance, in his Wealth of Nations, talked a great deal of sound sense in favour of Free Trade, which can be traced back to the merchants who began to carry weight in politics under William III. When Voltaire poured the vials of his malice on priests, soldiers, and posturing courtiers, he was preaching to those willing to be converted. In a hundred volumes of verse, stories, history, essays, and letters this intelligent, energetic, spiteful man fought against priestcraft and tyranny and all forms of stupidity, though democracy, as the twentieth century sees it, would have been repulsive to him. It is absurd, to think of such writers having any influence on peasants, shopkeepers, or merchants. But they made a deep impression on many clever lawyers and priests, and they undermined the self-confidence of many people who had an interest in supporting the unreformed state of things.