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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Victor Cousin (1792–1867)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
ALL Philosophy, past and present, has been based on the attempt to make abstract ideas clear. The questions Cousin endeavors to answer are:—“Do ideas exist apart from Being and Knowledge; and if so, on what are they founded?” and his answer involves his whole doctrine.  1
  Victor Cousin, the son of a watchmaker of Voltairean principles and of a laundress of strong religious convictions, was born in Paris on November 28th, 1792. But in spite of his humble origin he obtained a brilliant education, and through the force of his genius lived to have precedence at court over his social superiors. The little gamin owed his start in life to Madame Viguier, who placed him at school.  2
  On leaving college, from which he was graduated first in his class at the age of eighteen, he could have obtained a position in the Council of State at a yearly salary of five thousand francs; but he preferred to enter the Normal School, then but recently established, with the intention of teaching literature. The impression made upon him by Laromiguière’s lectures on philosophy decided him to devote himself to the latter branch of study. Philosophy, to Cousin, was not only a keen delight but a battle as well. Many systems were then arrayed against each other; these in turn fascinated his imagination and excited his enthusiasm,—first the sensual school, then Scottish philosophy as developed by Royer-Collard and Maine de Biran; then Kant, Schelling, Hegel, whose genius he was the first to recognize; and later, Plotinus, Descartes, and Leibnitz. All these doctrines, as he expounded them in his lectures, simmered in his imagination for a while, and unconsciously modifying each other, left a deposit from which arose eclecticism.  3
  There was a dearth of French men of letters when Cousin reached manhood. To become a fashionable lecturer it was only necessary to speak of literature and philosophy in elegant language; and as to these requirements the young orator added a poetic imagination, he became famous at once.  4
  One of Cousin’s distinguishing qualities was the impetus he gave to other minds. His lectures created positive fanaticism. But twenty years of age, his delicate face was lighted up with magnificent dark eyes which emitted fire as his own enthusiasm grew. He had a fine voice, was a finished comedian, a poet rather than a deep or original thinker, a preacher rather than a professor, and looked like “a tribune and apostle in one.”  5
  It is difficult to understand nowadays the enthusiasm aroused by Cousin’s philosophy, or the attacks upon it. He advanced no new truths. No objection could be made to a belief in God, the spirituality and immortality of the soul, and moral liberty. But Cousin went further. He wished to establish philosophy on an independent basis; to found an intermediate school that would not clash with religion, but subsist side by side with, though independent of and in a certain measure controlling it. This aroused the hostility of the Church without satisfying the extremists, who clamored for more radical doctrines. After 1820, when the Normal School was suppressed, Cousin had recourse to private teaching, and devoted his leisure to editing the classics. His edition of Plato occupied him many years. “Every man’s life should contain one monument and several episodes,” he declared; and his Plato, he believed, was destined to be his “monument.”  6
  When Cousin was restored to his chair in 1828, he brought with him a new philosophy which fulfilled the aspirations of the rising generation, whose idol he became. During this course he propounded a few transcendental theories borrowed from Hegel and Schelling, emitted several contestable historical views, and distributed all the doctrines he knew,—and, add his enemies, all those he did not know,—into four divisions. Taken as a whole, Cousin’s system has far more in common with Christianity than with pantheism.  7
  During the next three years he made rapid strides in his career. He had taken no part in the July Revolution, but his friends were placed in office by that event, and through their influence he became successively member of the Royal Council of Public Instruction, member of the Academy, and Peer of France.  8
  Cousin was in virtual control of French philosophy when, in 1830, he resigned his chair to become Director of the Sorbonne. To his new task he brought an intelligence matured by time; and the twenty years of his administration were fruitful of good results. He formed a corps of learned professors, perfected the study of French, and placed philosophy on a sound basis. His indefatigable activity, breadth of view, and devotion to teaching made him an admirable director of a school destined to train the professors of a nation. Each one was encouraged to take up an original line of research. He regulated the position of the Sorbonne towards religion, instructing the teachers that belief in God, free-will, and duty was to be inculcated.  9
  Not being of a naturally tender disposition, Cousin may not have loved the students for themselves, but he passionately loved talent, and exerted himself to foster and develop it. Of a disdainful, sarcastic turn of mind, Cousin’s mordant wit was well known and greatly feared. His habits were frugal, and though he dressed badly, he was prodigal with regard to books. He nowhere appeared to better advantage than in his library at the Sorbonne, where so many of his books were written. He could talk magnificently on any subject—for an hour; after that, his own eloquence carried him beyond all bounds and he was apt to indulge in paradox. Guizot said of him: “C’est l’esprit qui a le plus besoin de garde-fou.” (His is a mind which has the greatest need of restraint.) His voice was wonderfully expressive: witty sayings, comparisons, anecdotes, crowded upon his tongue; as a rule he absorbed the entire conversation and created a sensation, as he loved to do.  10
  Liberal in matters of philosophy rather than in politics, Cousin engaged in a battle with the clergy, to whom however he cheerfully conceded the rights granted by the Charter, and a certain preponderance in the schools. He considered it criminal to attack religion, and required it to be taught in the primary schools, though he excluded it from the University, where it might clash with philosophy. Towards the end of his life he entered into a correspondence with the Pope to prevent ‘The True, the Beautiful, the Good’ from being placed on the Index Expurgatorius, and obtained his point only after lengthy negotiations.  11
  In the earlier years of his life. Cousin’s poetic temperament, aided by youth, carried him towards pure philosophy and German ideas. The word pantheism however grew to be a very abomination to him; but storm and protest as he would, it pursued him all his life; his lyric descriptions of God were rigidly interpreted according to pantheistic formulæ, and hurled at his head until he cried “Enough!” “This is the truth,” was answered back, though he had long since erased that compromising indorsement of Schelling’s system.  12
  Debarred from both politics and teaching at the age of sixty, with intellect and vitality unimpaired, Cousin devoted the fourteen remaining years of his life to literature; and now that the eclectic philosophy is considered merely a brilliant but fleeting system which has lived its day, we still turn with pleasure to his ‘Biographies.’  13
  It was by study of the seventeenth century that Cousin’s purely literary career began. He relates facts and penetrates the nature of his characters. Taine declares that when at last the lovely face of Madame de Longueville does appear, crash goes a pile of folios to the floor! Nevertheless, strength and energy characterize Cousin’s style, and make good his dictum “Style is movement.” To the very end, Cousin retained the spontaneous emotion of youth. The quality of vehemence everywhere so apparent in these ‘Biographies’ presupposes an intense emotion which is communicated from the writer to the reader.  14
  It was a current joke among the professors of the Sorbonne that her biographer was in love with Madame de Longueville. “Every one knows that Cousin is the chevalier servant of Madame de Longueville,” writes Taine. “This noble lady has had the rare privilege of making post-mortem conquests, and the solid walls of the Sorbonne have not protected M. Cousin from the darts of her beautiful eyes. He is so deeply in love with her that he speaks of Condé (her brother) as a brother-in-law, and of La Rochefoucauld (her lover) as a rival.”  15
  Cousin’s critics take this retrospective infatuation too seriously. It was merely an “episode” in his life; and when Sainte-Beuve said, “Cousin’s bust would one day have engraved beneath it: ‘He wished to found a great system of philosophy, and he loved Madame de Longueville,’”—he was more witty than just. It is only fair to add that Sainte-Beuve considered Cousin the most brilliant meteor that had flashed across the sky of the nineteenth century.  16
  In his later years, Cousin recommended ‘The True, the Beautiful, the Good’ and his ‘Philosophy of History’ for perusal, in preference to his other books. He was conscious of the drawback attendant upon scattering his doctrines over so many books, and condensed them in the former volume. Composed of brilliant and incomplete fragments, if it does not constitute a systematic whole, the pages relating to God and necessary and universal principles are however full of grandeur, and will always endear it to humanity.  17
  On the 2d of January, 1867, Cousin passed away during his sleep, having been until the last in full possession of the lucidity and vigor which characterized his mind. He left his fine library to the State, with ample funds for its maintenance. He has had the privilege of living in the books of many distinguished men whose minds he trained, whose careers he advanced, and who have recorded in brilliant pages the debt owed him, not by themselves alone, but by all Frenchmen of succeeding generations.  18
 
 
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