"Aux Rochers, 30 Octobre, 1675.
"Mon Dieu, ma fille, que votre lettre d'Aix est plaisante! Au moins relisez vos lettres avant que de les envoyer; laissez-vous surpendre a leur agrement, et consolez-vous par ce plaisir de la peine que vous avez d'en tant ecrire. Vous avez donc baise toute la Provence? il n'y aurait pas satisfaction a baiser toute la Bretagne, a moins qu'on n'aimat a sentir le vin. . . . Voulez-vous savoir des nouvelles de Rennes? On a fait une taxe de cent mille ecus sur le bourgeois; et si on ne trouve point cette somme dans vingt-quatre heures, elle sera doublee et exigible par les soldats. On a chasse et banni toute une grand rue, et defendu de les recueillir sous peine de la vie; de sorte qu'on voyait tous ces miserables, veillards, femmes accouchees, enfans, errer en pleurs au sortir de cette ville sans savoir ou aller. On roua avant-hier un violon, qui avait commence la danse et la pillerie du papier timbre; il a ete ecartele apres sa mort, et ses quatre quartiers exposes aux quatre coins de la ville. On a pris soixante bourgeois, et on commence demain les punitions. Cette province est un bel exemple pour les autres, et surtout de respecter les gouverneurs et les gouvernantes, et de ne point jeter de pierres dans leur jardin. *a
[Footnote a: To feel the point of this joke the reader should recollect that Madame de Grignan was Gouvernante de Provence.] "Madame de Tarente etait hier dans ces bois par un temps enchante: il n'est question ni de chambre ni de collation; elle entre par la barriere et s'en retourne de meme. . . ."
"Vous me parlez bien plaisamment de nos miseres; nous ne sommes plus si roues; un en huit jours, pour entretenir la justice. Il est vrai que la penderie me parait maintenant un refraichissement. J'ai une tout autre idee de la justice, depuis que je suis en ce pays. Vos galeriens me paraissent une societe d'honnetes gens qui se sont retires du monde pour mener une vie douce."
It would be a mistake to suppose that Madame de Sevigne, who wrote these lines, was a selfish or cruel person; she was passionately attached to her children, and very ready to sympathize in the sorrows of her friends; nay, her letters show that she treated her vassals and servants with kindness and indulgence. But Madame de Sevigne had no clear notion of suffering in anyone who was not a person of quality.
In our time the harshest man writing to the most insensible person of his acquaintance would not venture wantonly to indulge in the cruel jocularity which I have quoted; and even if his own manners allowed him to do so, the manners of society at large would forbid it. Whence does this arise? Have we more sensibility than our forefathers? I know not that we have; but I am sure that our insensibility is extended to a far greater range of objects. When all the ranks of a community are nearly equal, as all men think and feel in nearly the same manner, each of them may judge in a moment of the sensations of all the others; he casts a rapid glance upon himself, and that is enough. There is no wretchedness into which he cannot readily enter, and a secret instinct reveals to him its extent. It signifies not that strangers or foes be the sufferers; imagination puts him in their place; something like a personal feeling is mingled with his pity, and makes himself suffer whilst the body of his fellow-creature is in torture. In democratic ages men rarely sacrifice themselves for one another; but they display general compassion for the members of the human race. They inflict no useless ills; and they are happy to relieve the griefs of others, when they can do so without much hurting themselves; they are not disinterested, but they are humane.
Although the Americans have, in a manner, reduced egotism to a social and philosophical theory, they are nevertheless extremely open to compassion. In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States. Whilst the English seem disposed carefully to retain the bloody traces of the dark ages in their penal legislation, the Americans have almost expunged capital punishment from their codes. North America is, I think, the only one country upon earth in which the life of no one citizen has been taken for a political offence in the course of the last fifty years. The circumstance which conclusively shows that this singular mildness of the Americans arises chiefly from their social condition, is the manner in which they treat their slaves. Perhaps there is not, upon the whole, a single European colony in the New World in which the physical condition of the blacks is less severe than in the United States; yet the slaves still endure horrid sufferings there, and are constantly exposed to barbarous punishments. It is easy to perceive that the lot of these unhappy beings inspires their masters with but little compassion, and that they look upon slavery, not only as an institution which is profitable to them, but as an evil which does not affect them. Thus the same man who is full of humanity towards his fellow-creatures when they are at the same time his equals, becomes insensible to their afflictions as soon as that equality ceases. His mildness should therefore be attributed to the equality of conditions, rather than to civilization and education.
What I have here remarked of individuals is, to a certain extent, applicable to nations. When each nation has its distinct opinions, belief, laws, and customs, it looks upon itself as the whole of mankind, and is moved by no sorrows but its own. Should war break out between two nations animated by this feeling, it is sure to be waged with great cruelty. At the time of their highest culture, the Romans slaughtered the generals of their enemies, after having dragged them in triumph behind a car; and they flung their prisoners to the beasts of the Circus for the amusement of the people. Cicero, who declaimed so vehemently at the notion of crucifying a Roman citizen, had not a word to say against these horrible abuses of victory. It is evident that in his eyes a barbarian did not belong to the same human race as a Roman. On the contrary, in proportion as nations become more like each other, they become reciprocally more compassionate, and the law of nations is mitigated.