We shall try to extract from this word _extreme_ a notion which may be
One disputes every day if, in war, luck or leadership produces
If, in disease, nature acts more than medicine for curing or killing.
If, in jurisprudence, it is not very advantageous to come to terms when
one is in the right, and to plead when one is in the wrong.
If literature contributes to the glory of a nation or to its decadence.
If one should or should not make the people superstitious.
If there is anything true in metaphysics, history and moral philosophy.
If taste is arbitrary, and if there is in fact good taste and bad taste,
To decide all these questions right away, take an example of what is the
most extreme in each; compare the two opposed extremes, and you will at
once discover which is true.
You wish to know if leadership can infallibly determine the success of
the war; look at the most extreme case, the most opposed situations, in
which leadership alone will infallibly triumph. The enemy's army is
forced to pass through a deep mountain gorge; your general knows it: he
makes a forced march, he takes possession of the heights, he holds the
enemy shut in a pass; they must either die or surrender. In this extreme
case, luck cannot have any part in the victory. It is therefore
demonstrated that skill can determine the success of a campaign; from
that alone is it proved that war is an art.
Now imagine an advantageous but less decisive position; success is not
so certain, but it is always very probable. You arrive thus, step by
step, to a perfect equality between the two armies. What will decide
then? luck, that is to say an unforeseen event, a general officer killed
when he is on his way to execute an important order, a corps which is
shaken by a false rumour, a panic and a thousand other cases which
cannot be remedied by prudence; but it still remains certain that there
is an art, a generalship.
As much must be said of medicine, of this art of operating on the head
and the hand, to restore life to a man who is about to lose it.
The first man who at the right moment bled and purged a sufferer from an
apoplectic fit; the first man who thought of plunging a knife into the
bladder in order to extract a stone, and of closing the wound again; the
first man who knew how to stop gangrene in a part of the body, were
without a doubt almost divine persons, and did not resemble Moliere's
Descend from this obvious example to experiments that are less striking
and more equivocal; you see fevers, ills of all kinds which are cured,
without it being well proved if it be nature or the doctor who has cured
them; you see diseases of which the result cannot be guessed; twenty
doctors are deceived; the one that has the most intelligence, the surest
eye, guesses the character of the malady. There is therefore an art; and
the superior man knows the finenesses of it. Thus did La Peyronie guess
that a man of the court had swallowed a pointed bone which had caused an
ulcer, and put him in danger of death; thus did Boerhaave guess the
cause of the malady as unknown as cruel of a count of Vassenaar. There
is therefore really an art of medicine; but in all arts there are men
like Virgil and Maevius.
In jurisprudence, take a clear case, in which the law speaks clearly; a
bill of exchange properly prepared and accepted; the acceptor must be
condemned to pay it in every country. There is therefore a useful
jurisprudence, although in a thousand cases judgments are arbitrary, to
the misfortune of the human race, because the laws are badly made.
Do you desire to know if literature does good to a nation; compare the
two extremes, Cicero and an uncouth ignoramus. See if it is Pliny or
Attila who caused the fall of Rome.
One asks if one should encourage superstition in the people; see above
all what is most extreme in this disastrous matter, St. Bartholomew, the
massacres in Ireland, the crusades; the question is soon answered.
Is there any truth in metaphysics? Seize first of all the points that
are most astonishing and the most true; something exists for all
eternity. An eternal Being exists by Himself; this Being cannot be
either wicked or inconsequent. One must surrender to these truths;
almost all the rest is given over to dispute, and the justest mind
unravels the truth while the others are seeking in the shadows.
It is with all things as with colours; the weakest eyes distinguish
black from white; the better, more practised eyes, discern shades that
resemble each other.