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Alphonse de Lamartine: Mercenaries, taking others’ lives for hire

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

French writers on war and peace

Lamartine: The republic of peace

Lowell on Lamartine: Highest duty of man, to summon peace when vulture of war smells blood

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Alphonse de Lamartine
From Life of Great Men
William Tell

His [the Swiss’s] virtues are tarnished by one vice alone – a vice inherent to poverty – covetousness; avarice contracts his hand and his heart. He is willing to sell anything, even his blood, to introduce a little gold into his country, which produces none. Naturally brave and faithful, he traffics with his children, and lets them out for a vile stipend to any prince or nation who engages to pay them. Indifferent as to the cause for which he pledges his life, he becomes the acknowledged mercenary of courts and camps…[He] takes away the life of another, or exposes his own, for hire. Free at home, abroad he lends his arms to sovereigns that they may subjugate their people. No sooner has his period of service expired than he passes to another, with the indifference of the gladiator of the circus, or of elephants trained to combats, who fight with equal valour for the Persians or the Romans…

 

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Life of Great Men (Vie des Grands Hommes)
Madame de  Sévigné
What is this mystery? Its explanation lies in a few words. It is that the interest created by human occurrences is not found in the greatness of situations or events, but in the emotions of the mind by which they are re-echoed, and which is to them, be they great or small, what air is to sound, the medium of resonance. You may strike powerful blows upon the most sonorous metal, but if air is wanting, or even too rarefied, silence alone will be your answer, the echo is mute: without air there cannot be sound, without sensibility there can be no impression; thus there is also no interest and no glory: it is the secret of the human heart, that it can only be moved by coincidence with something that has been moved before.
There are many minds concealed from the world far in advance of their period, and possessing deeper tones than the age in which Providence has placed them, as it casts echoes into the profound recesses of forests and caves; they are never seen, and only heard when the woodcutter fells the trees and time crumbles the rocks into dust. These speaking souls, vehicles which convey to us the impressions of their own hearts and of their period, interpose themselves irresistibly by their fine and vibrating nature between us and the world, and compel us to think and feel in them and through them, while we vainly struggle to escape from their influence. They form the sensible element, the sympathetic centre (if we may be permitted to use a material simile), reflected by which we behold all the past, the present, and often our own selves. Thus it is that by the sport of fortune, reputation and literary glory are attained; they reach beings unappreciated by their contemporaries, men dwelling in retirement, women concealed by obscurity. Many anonymous writers, such as the author of the ‘ Imitation of Jesus Christ,’ are in reality greater and more immortal than their entire age; and while other men who deeply
fathom humanity, who overturn empires, who control sceptres, who lead great assemblies, and who administer public affairs, endeavour to create a grand and enduring halo round the name they leave behind them, they are surpassed in fame by an individual upon whom they would not have deigned to cast a glance amidst the crowd at their feet, by a poor dreamer like St. Augustine, by an insignificant monk such as the anonymous writer of the ‘ Imitation,’ or by an obscure female such as Madame de  Sévigné. Posterity can with difficulty remember the names of the pretended great politicians, poets, orators, and authors, who monopolized the renown of their age; but after the lapse of centuries it listens with avidity to the most secret palpitations of the hearts of these unlearned beings, as though their emotions comprised the sublimest events in the history of human nature; and this in truth they are, for circumstance is nothing: the human heart is everything in man. Fame herself knows this, therefore she selects her dearest and most immortal favourites not from those who seek to shine with commanding brilliancy, but amidst such as have poured forth the most pathetic confessions of the soul.
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