For many years this work has been known under the title of Letters to Eugenia. The secretive character of those, however, into whose hands the manuscript at first fell; the singular and yet actual pleasure that is caused generally enough in the minds of all men by the exclusive possession of any object whatever; that kind of torpor, servitude, and terror in which the tyrannical power of the priests then held all minds—even those who by the superiority of their talents ought naturally to be the least disposed to bend under the odious yoke of the clergy,—all these circumstances united contributed so much to stifle in its birth, if I may so express myself, this important manuscript, that for a long time it was supposed to be lost; so much did those who possessed it keep it carefully concealed, and so constantly did they refuse to allow a copy to be taken. The manuscripts, indeed, were so scarce, even in the libraries of the curious, that the late M. De Boze, whose pleasure it was to collect the rarest works belonging to every species of literature, could never succeed in acquiring a copy of the Letters to Eugenia, and in his time there were only three in Paris; it may have been from design, propter metum Judæorum; it may have been there were actually no more known.
It is not till within five or six years that MSS. of these letters have become more common; and there is reason to believe that they are now considerably multiplied, since the copy from which this edition is printed has been revised and corrected by collation with six others, that have been collected without any great difficulty. Unhappily, all these copies swarm with faults, which corrupt the sense, and comprehend many variations, but which also, to use the language of the Biblical critics, have served sometimes to discover and to fix the true reading! More often, however, they have rendered it more uncertain than it was before what one ought to be followed—a new proof of the multiplicity of copies, because the more numerous are the manuscripts of a work, the more they differ from each other, as any one may be fully convinced by consulting those of the Letter of Thrasybulus to Leucippus, and the various readings of the New Testament collected by the learned Mill, and which amount to more than thirty thousand.
However this may be, we have spared no pains to reëstablish the text in all its purity; and we venture to say, that, with the exception of four or five passages, which we found corrupted in all the manuscripts that we had an opportunity to collate, and which we have amended to the best of our ability, the edition of these letters that we now offer to the reader will probably conform almost exactly with the original manuscript of the author.
With regard to the author's name and quality we can offer nothing but conjectures. The only particulars of his life upon which there is a general agreement are, that he lived upon terms of great intimacy with the Marquis de la Fare, the Abbé de Chaulieu, the Abbé Terrasson, Fontenelle, M. de Lasseré, &c. The late MM. Du Marsais and Falconnet have often been heard to declare that these letters were composed by some one belonging to the school of Seaux. All that we can pronounce with certainty is the fact, that it is only necessary to read the work to be entirely convinced the author was a man of extensive knowledge, and one who had meditated profoundly concerning the matters upon which he has treated. His style is clear, simple, easy, and in which we may remark a certain urbanity, that leads us to be sure that he was not an obscure individual, nor one to whom good company and polished society were unfamiliar. But what especially distinguishes this work, and which should endear it to all good and virtuous people, is the signal honesty which pervades and characterizes it from the very beginning to the end. It is impossible to read it without conceiving the highest idea of the author's probity, whoever he may have been—without desiring to have had him for a friend, to have lived with him, and, in a word, without rendering justice to the rectitude of his intentions, even when we do not approve of his sentiments. The love of virtue, universal benevolence, respect to the laws, an inviolable attachment to the duties of morality, and, in fine, all that can contribute to render men better, is strongly recommended in these Letters. If, on the one hand, he completely overthrows the ruinous edifice of Christianity, it is to erect, on the other hand, the immovable foundations of a system of morality legitimately established upon the nature of man, upon his physical wants, and upon his social relations—a base infinitely better and more solid than that of religion, because sooner or later the lie is discovered, rejected, and necessarily drags with it what served to sustain it. On the contrary, the truth subsists eternally, and consolidates itself as it grows old: Opinionum commenta delet dies, naturae judicia confirmat.
The motto affixed to many of the manuscript copies of these letters proves that the worthy man to whom we owe them did not desire to be known as their author, and that it was neither the love of reputation, nor the thirst of glory, nor the ambition of being distinguished by bold opinions, which the priests, and the satellites subjected to them by ignorance, denominate impieties, which guided his pen. It was only the desire of doing good to his fellow-beings by enlightening them, which actuated him, and the wish to uproot, so to speak, religion itself, as being the source of all the woes which have afflicted mankind for so many ages. This is the motto of which we spoke:—
"Si j'ai raison,
qu'importe à qui je suis?"
(If reason's mine, no matter who I am.)
It is a verse of Corneille, whose application is exceedingly appropriate, and which should be upon the frontispiece of all books of this nature.
We are unable to say any thing more certain concerning the person to whom our author has addressed his work. It appears, however, from many circumstances in these Letters, that she was not a supposititious marchioness, like her of the Worlds of M. de Fontenelle, and that they have really been written to a woman as distinguished by her rank as by her manners. Perhaps she was a lady of the school of the Temple, or of Seaux. But these details, in reality, as well as those which concern the name and the life of our author, the date of his birth, that of his death, &c., are of little importance, and could only serve to satisfy the vain curiosity of some idle readers, who avidiously collect these kind of anecdotes, who receive from them a kind of existence in the world, and who feel more satisfaction from being instructed in them than from the discovery of a truth. I know that they endeavor to justify their curiosity by saying that when a person reads a book which creates a public sensation, and with which he is himself much pleased, it is natural he should desire to know to whom a grateful homage should be addressed. In this case the desire is so much the more unreasonable because it cannot be satisfied; first, because when death and proscription is the penalty, there has never been and there never will be a man of letters so imprudent, and, to speak plainly, so strangely daring, as to publish, or during his life to allow a book to be printed, in which he tramples under foot temples, altars, and the statues of the gods, and where he attacks without any disguise the most consecrated religious opinions; secondly, because it is a matter of public notoriety that all the works of this character which have appeared for many years are the secret testaments of numbers of great men, obliged during their lives to conceal their light under a bushel, whose heads death has withdrawn from the fury of persecutors, and whose cold ashes, consequently, do not hear in the tomb either the importunate and denunciatory cries of the superstitious, or the just eulogiums of the friends of truth; thirdly and lastly, because this curiosity, so unfortunately entertained, may compromise in the most cruel manner the repose, the fortune, and the liberty of the relatives and friends of the authors of these bold books! This single consideration ought, then, to determine those hazarders of conjectures, if they have really good intentions, to wrap in the inmost folds of their hearts whatever suspicions they may entertain concerning the author, however true or false they may be, and to turn their inquiring spirits to a use more beneficial for both themselves and others.