Portrait of Madeleine de Scudéry
Portrait of Madeleine de Scudéry, artist unknown.

As Conversation is the bond of all humane Society, the greatest pleasure of well-bred People, and the most ordinary means of introducing into the World, not only Politeness, but also the purest Morals, and the love of Glory and Virtue, I think the Company cannot entertain themselves more profitably, nor more agreeably, said Cilenia, than in examining what it is People call Conversation. For when Men only speak strictly according to the exigency of their Affairs, it cannot be so termed.

The truth is, said Amilcar, a Lawyer pleading a Cause at the Bar, a Merchant negotiating with another, a General of an Army giving Orders, a King speaking of Affairs of State in His Council—all this is not what ought to be styled Conversation. All those People may discourse well of their Interests and Affairs and yet not have that agreeable talent of Conversation, which is the sweetest charm of Life, and perhaps more rare than is believed.

For my part, said Amithone, I confess, I could wish there were rules for Conversation, as there are for many other things.

The principal rule, replied Valeria, is never to say anything that contradicts the Judgment.

But still, added Nicanor, I would willingly know more precisely how you conceive Conversation ought to be.

I conceive, replied she, that to speak in general, it ought oftener to be of common and gallant things than of great Transactions; but however, I conceive that nothing is forbidden; that it ought to be free and diversified, according to the times, places, and persons with whom we are, and that the secret is of speaking always nobly of mean things, very plainly of high things, and very gallantly of gallant things, without transport and affectation. Thus though the Conversation ought ever to be equally natural and rational, yet I must say that on some occasions the Sciences themselves may be brought in with a good grace, and that agreeable follies may likewise have their place, provided they be ingenious, modest, and gallant. Insomuch as to speak with reason, we may for certain affirm that there is nothing but may be said in Conversation, in case it be managed with Wit and Judgment, and the Party considers well where he is, to whom he speaks, and who he is himself. Notwithstanding though Judgment be absolutely necessary for the never saying anything but what is to the purpose; yet, the Conversation must appear so free, as to make it seem we don’t reject any of our thoughts, and all is said that comes into the fancy, without any affected design of speaking rather of one thing than of another. For there is nothing more ridiculous than those People who have subjects on which they talk Wonders; and except in such cases, can say nothing but impertinencies. So I would never have it known what it is we are to say, and yet that we always know well what it is we say. For if this course be taken, Women will not impertinently pretend to be knowing, nor be ignorant to excess, and everyone will say what he ought to say for the rendering the Conversation agreeable. But what is most necessary to make it soft and diverting is, that it must be influenced with a certain spirit of Politeness, which absolutely banishes all bitter Raileries, as well as all those which may in any wise offend Modesty; and in short, ‘tis likewise requisite to know the art of turning things so handsomely that a Gallantry may be told to the severest Woman in the world, that a little Foppery may be related to grave and serious People, that you may speak properly of the Sciences to the ignorant, if you be forced to it, and in sum, that you may change your wit according to the things that are spoken of and according to the People you discourse with. But besides all I have now said, I would have it likewise governed with a certain spirit of joy, which without having the least taint of those eternal laughers who make so great a noise for so small a matter, do however inspire a disposition into the hearts of all the company, to make everything contribute to their diversion, and to weary themselves with nothing; I, and I would have both mean and lofty things said, in case they be spoke well and to the purpose, and yet without being under any constraint of never having any thing spoken but what is necessary to be said.

In short, added Amilear, without giving you the trouble of speaking any more upon Conversation, or to make Laws for it, there needs no more than to admire yours, and to do as you do, to merit the admiration of all the earth. For I assure you that nobody will reprehend me though I should affirm that I never heard you say anything but what was agreeable, gentile, and judicious, and never anybody had to such perfection as you have the Art of pleasing, charming, and diverting.

I could wish, reply’d she, blushing, all you say was true, and I might believe you sooner than myself. But to show you I cannot give you credit, and that I know I am often in the wrong, I declare ingenuously, that I am very sensible I have now said too much, and instead of speaking of all that I conceive of Conversation, I ought to have contented myself with telling all the Company what you have newly said of me.

After this all there present opposing each in his turn the modesty of Valeria, we gave her so many Praises that we had like to have put her out of Humour; and afterwards we made so gallant and so cheerful a Conversation that it almost lasted until Evening, when this charming Company withdrew to their several Apartments.

Source: Scudéry, Madeleine de. “Of Conversation.” Conversations Upon Several Subjects. Translated by Ferrand Spence. H. Rhodes, 1683.


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