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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Hippolyte Adolphe Taine (1828–1893)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Ferdinand Brunetière (1849–1906)
 
FEW writers of our time have exercised, not only in France but outside of France, a greater influence than Taine; and at first this seems strange, when one considers superficially the nature of his works. Even though he has written an excellent ‘History of English Literature,’ and has shown rare powers of mind in his ‘Origins of Contemporary France,’ there are many histories of the French Revolution, some of which are based on better information or are no less eloquent than his; there are some less tedious to read: and what can we say of Shakespeare, of Milton, of Dryden, or of Shelley, that would be new enough, after so much that others have said, to modify ever so little the thought of a whole generation? But let us look a little closer and more attentively: we ought to join to the ‘History of English Literature’ and ‘Origins of Contemporary France’ a book like ‘The Philosophy of Art,’ or like the book ‘On the Intelligence’; in these books it is necessary to grasp, in the midst of the diversity of subjects, the points in common. And one then sees how true it is that more than a treatise on the matter in hand, and over and above being a history of the French Revolution or an analysis of the power of comprehension, all these works are applications, examples, or “illustrations,” of a method conceived as universal or universally applicable, having for its object to separate the principles of critical judgment from the variations of individual opinion. It is this that makes the greatness of Taine’s work, and it is this that explains his far-reaching influence. It is this, no less, that is meant by those who profess to see in him not a “critic,” nor a “historian,” but a “philosopher.” And finally, it is from this point of view, at once very general and very particular, that he must be seen to be appreciated at his true worth.  1
  Taine’s life was uneventful. Born at Vouziers, in the Ardennes mountains, in 1828; entered at the École Normale of Paris in 1848; a provincial professor, obliged to send in his resignation on account of his independent spirit and freedom of thought; professor of æsthetics and the history of art at the École des Beaux-Arts; indifferent to outside affairs and superior to most of the vanities that beset mankind,—Taine is of that small number of writers who live solely in order to think, and who, according to Flaubert’s phrase, have seen in their surroundings, in history, or even in the universe itself, only “what could contribute to the perfecting personally of their intelligence.” It is moreover entirely unnecessary, in tracing a portrait of him that shall resemble him, to linger over useless details, or to republish trivial anecdotes concerning him which contain nothing characteristic, and would not help us to know him better. We should go directly to the point, and keep in view solely that which, together with his literary gift, was of unique interest in him,—I mean the evolution of his thought.  2
  Apparently there was something disconcerting in it, and it is even a sufficiently curious fact, that in his last years he counted among his adversaries some of his most ardent admirers of former times, and on the other hand among his supporters those very ones against whom his first works were employed somewhat like a machine of war. Nay more, in his ‘Origins of Contemporary France,’ when, after showing at the outset—and according to his expression—that the abuses of the old order of things had made the France of 1789 uninhabitable, he had next assailed with still more violence the religion of the Revolution and of the Napoleonic idolatry, it may be said that he would have turned against him the entire thinking world of France, if two things had not protected him: the brilliance of his talent and his evident sincerity. It was not he, however, who had changed! No more was it his adversaries nor his admirers, nor even the trend of ideas or the spirit of the times. But in going to the bottom of his first principles he had himself seen unexpected results developing from them; and in contact with the better-known reality, these principles in their turn bending and modifying themselves, but not undergoing a fundamental change. What resemblance is there between the acorn and the oak, between a grain and a stalk of wheat, between the worm and the chrysalis? And yet one proceeds from the other. And can we say that they are not the same?  3
  His first ambition, summed up in a celebrated phrase become almost proverbial,—“Vice and virtue are products like vitriol and sugar,”—had been to communicate to the sciences called moral and political that absolute certainty which, like all the scholars and philosophers of his generation, he was accustomed to attribute to the physical or natural sciences; and in fact, this is what he tried to do in his essay on ‘La Fontaine and his Fables’ (1855), in his essay on Titus Livius (1856), in his ‘Historical and Critical Essays’ (1856–58), and above all in his ‘History of English Literature’ (1863). Starting with the principle that “Moral things, like physical things, have appendages and conditions,” he proposed to determine them and to show (the examples are his own) that between a yoke-elm hedge of Versailles, a decree of Colbert, and a tragedy of Racine, there are relations that enable us to recognize in them so many manifestations, not involuntary but yet unconscious, of the same general state of mind. To-day nothing seems simpler, or rather more commonplace. Scarcely less so appears the analysis that he has given of the elements or factors of that state of mind: the Race, the Environment, the Moment. We all admit that between the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ and ‘Tartuffe’ there is an initial and fundamental difference; which means that Shakespeare was an Englishman who wrote for English people, and Molière a Frenchman who wrote for French people. We are equally able to conceive without the least difficulty that the court of Louis XIV. did not in all points resemble that of Elizabeth, and that consequently the pleasures of an Essex and a Leicester were differently ordered from those of a Guiche and a Lauzun. And finally, we have no difficulty in understanding that to all these differences must be added still another; namely, that of the moment, or of the change that takes place from one century or from one generation to another in the general civilization of the world. It is not possible to reason before and after Descartes in the same way; and the discoveries or inventions of Newton have fundamentally modified the very substance of the human intellect. If it happened that some dilettanti doubted this, still it is precisely what Taine has demonstrated with an abundance of illustrations, a wealth of knowledge,—literary, historical, philosophical, scientific,—with an incomparable vigor and brilliancy of style. If he has “invented” nothing, in the somewhat rough sense in which this word is used elsewhere, and if the theory of environments for example goes back at least to Hippocrates, he has set the seal of talent on inventions that had not yet received it; he has popularized them, made them familiar even to those who do not understand them; and so mingled them with the current of ideas that they have become anonymous, and to-day we must make an effort of history and of justice if we would restore to him what may be called their literary paternity.  4
  How is it then that in their time they stirred up so much opposition and from so many sides? For while recognizing the worth of the writer, there was about 1860 an almost universal protest against the philosopher. One reproached him for his pantheism, another for his materialism, a third for his fatalism. The French Academy, intimidated by the public outcry, dared not crown the ‘History of English Literature.’ The saying was now applied to Taine which is employed in France against all innovators; namely, that “whatever was true in his doctrine was not new, and whatever was found to be new in it was false.” A turbulent and blundering prelate, Monseigneur Dupanloup, Bishop of Orléans, made himself conspicuous by the violence of his attacks,—one might call them invectives. The last representatives of official ecclesiasticism, whom also Taine had treated with great severity, several years before, in his book on ‘The French Philosophers’ (1857), made up a chorus, so to speak, with the archbishop. And finally, for nothing more than having wished to give literary criticism a basis less fragile and above all less fluctuating than individual impression, or because he tried, as we said, to determine the conditions of objective critical judgment, Taine was classed in the camp of “dangerous spirits” and “freethinkers.” A little more and he would have been accused of bringing on the destruction of society. What then had he said other or more than what we have just said, and how had it been understood?  5
  The truth is that in all times, threatened interests are apt to deceive themselves in their choice of defensive weapons,—and fortunately! for after all, what would become of us if all conquerors were as able to keep as to capture?—but they are rarely deceived as to the bearing of the attacks that are directed against them. And in truth I do not think that at this epoch Taine had yet pronounced the enlightening word, nor had he yet perceived all the consequences of his doctrine—and we shall soon see why: but his adversaries had perfectly understood that thenceforth his design was to “solder the moral sciences to the natural sciences,”—or, to use a better word, to identify them; and if his attitude in the presence of the “products of the human intellect” was not that of a materialist, they did not err in taking it for that of a naturalist. Let the naturalist study the tiger or the sheep, he is equally unbiased and feels the same kind of interest in either case; and the first step in his science is to forget that man is the tiger’s lamb. No more does he change his habit of mind, still less his method, when instead of the rose or the violet it is belladonna or digitalis that he studies. In like manner proceeded the author of the ‘History of English Literature.’ He excluded from his research every consideration of an æsthetic or moral order, retaining only what he saw in it that was natural or physical. He delivered, properly speaking, no judgment upon ‘Othello,’ nor upon ‘Hamlet,’ and still less upon Shakespeare; he expressed no personal opinion whatever, nor indeed any opinion at all. In fact, it is not an opinion to believe that two and two make four, and that a ruminant and a carnivorous animal have not the same kind of teeth. He analyzed only; he resolved combinations of forces into their elements. He classified feelings and ideas, as a series of ethers or alcohols is made. Before a canvas of Rembrandt or a sculpture of Donatello he made an abstraction of art emotion or moral sentiment. His intellect alone was occupied with it. And what was the result of this method, if it did not, as in natural history, reduce to the same level all the “products of the human intellect”? This is the meaning of the phrase, “Vice and virtue are products like vitriol and sugar.” Just as sugar and vitriol contain nothing irreducible by chemical analysis, so neither vice nor virtue contains anything inaccessible to ideological analysis. This Taine’s adversaries thoroughly understood; and if we would find the reasons for their exasperation against him, we need only consider what was the scope of the affirmation.  6
  In fact, since for at least six thousand years the destiny of the human species has differed profoundly from that of all the other animal species, what principle would serve as a basis for applying to the study of mankind the same processes that are applied in that of the animal creation? Here is a very simple question to which no one has yet given a satisfactory answer: “The mistake of all moralists,” Spinoza had said in his ‘Ethics,’ “is to consider man in nature as an empire within an empire;” and such precisely is the opinion of Taine, as well as of all those who confound the history of nature and that of humanity. But they have never proved that they had the right to confound them; and when they have shown, what is not difficult to understand, that we form a part of nature, they forget, on the other hand, that we are excepted from nature by all the characteristics that constitute the normal definition of humanity. To be a man is precisely not to be a brute; and better still, that which we call nature in the animal is imperfection, vice, or crime in the man. “Vitium hominis natura pecoris” (The depravity of man is the nature of the herd).  7
  This is the first point: now for the second. Suppose we should succeed in reducing ourselves completely to what is absolutely animal in us; suppose our industries to be only a prolongation of the industry of the bee or of the ant, and our very languages a continuation of the beast’s cry or the bird’s song: our arts and our literatures would always be human things, uniquely, purely human, and consequently things not to be reasoned about independently and outside of the emotion that they offer to our sensibility; since that emotion is not merely their object, but also their excuse for being and their historical origin. There is no “natural” architecture or painting: these are the invention of man,—human in their principle, human in their development, human in their object. Let us put it still more strongly: If some day humanity should disappear altogether, the material of science would exist exactly as before. The worlds would continue to roll through space, and the eternal geometry, impossible to be conceived by us, would continue no less to obey its own laws. But what would become of art? and if there is no doubt that the very notion of it would be blotted out with humanity, what is that method which, the better to study its “dependences and conditions,” begins by abstracting it, isolating it, and as it were severing it from the most evident, the straitest and strictest of those dependences?  8
  This is just what Taine, who was a sincere and loyal spirit, could scarcely fail sooner or later to perceive. He had just been appointed professor of Æsthetics and of the History of Art at the École des Beaux-Arts; and to rise to the height of his task, by completing his art education, this man who formerly had been fed only on Greek and Latin had begun by visiting the museums of Italy. This was a revelation to him: proof of which may be found in the pages, themselves so full of color, of his ‘Journey to Italy’ (1866). But above all, his very method had in this way been utterly transformed. He perceived the impossibility of being ideological in painting, and consequently of treating in the same manner a geological crust and a masterpiece of art. Behold an impossibility. A poor writer—a writer who writes badly, incorrectly, tediously, pretentiously, with no feeling either for art or for the genius of his language—can say things true, things useful, things profound; and we know examples of such writers. But one does not think in colors; and what sort of a painter is it who can neither draw nor paint, and what can we say is left of such a painter? Natural history and physiology have no hold here, but talent is indispensable. A critical judgment, then, can only be delivered by expressing certain preferences; and the history of art is essentially qualitative. Taine knew this, or rather he succumbed to it; and from year to year, in the four works which have since been united under the common title of ‘The Philosophy of Art,’ he was observed to relinquish the naturalist’s impartiality which he had affected till then, and re-establish against himself the reality of that æsthetic criterion that he had so energetically denied.  9
  In this regard, the ‘Philosophy of Art,’ which is not the best-known portion of his work, is not the least interesting, nor the least characteristic. In it he is far from abandoning his theory of the Race, the Milieu, the Moment; on the contrary, his theory of Greek architecture and Dutch painting ought to be reckoned among the number of his most admirable generalizations. No more did he relinquish the aid of natural history; on the contrary, he has nowhere more skillfully drawn support from Cuvier, from Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, from Darwin. It was even yet upon the basis of natural history, upon the principles of the permanence of characteristics and of the convergence of effects, that he tried to found his classifications. But after all that, when he reached his conclusion, truth was too strong for him; and the supreme criterion by which he thought that the value of a work should be judged, was what he himself called the “degree of beneficence of its character.” So much had not been asked of him: and here it may be observed that none of those French philosophers whom he had so ridiculed had said more nor as much; neither Théodore Jouffroy, nor Victor Cousin himself in his famous book—‘Of the True, of the Beautiful, of the Good.’ They had simply arrived at analogous conclusions by wholly different roads. Have I any need to show that the beneficence of the characteristic is a human criterion if ever there was one,—purely human,—I should say almost sociological? But it is perhaps more important to note that there was no contradiction in the evolution of Taine’s thought. He had simply and consistently recognized that art, being made for man and by man, cannot be studied as we study natural objects; which are not at all our work, and concerning which the Christian, the spiritualist, in fact everybody, can very well say or believe that they were made for us—but not the naturalist.  10
  Nevertheless, while the thought of Taine was thus developing itself, certain of his disciples adhered closely to his ‘Critical and Historical Essays,’ and drew from them the theory of literary naturalism. This is not the place to set it forth, still less to discuss it. But the important thing to note is, that the disciples were right in believing that they were applying the principle of the master; and on his side the master was no more in error than they, when he protested that those were not his principles. He had gone beyond them, but he had surely taught them; and just this was the whole of the misunderstanding. His followers had stopped half-way from the summit that their master had toiled to reach. They stayed where they were, while he continued his journey. One last step remained for him to take; and this he accomplished by devoting his last years to the ‘Origins of Contemporary France’ (1875–1894), and particularly in writing his ‘Old Régime’ and the first volume of his ‘Revolution.’  11
  It is commonly said, apropos of this, that the events of 1870, and above all those of 1871, were a kind of crisis for Taine,—depriving him of his former lucidity of impressions, and taking away at the same stroke his liberty of judgment. This may be: but on the one hand, nothing is less certain; and on the other, in spite of all that could be said, there is no more opposition or contradiction between the author of the ‘Origins of Contemporary France’ and that of the ‘Philosophy of Art,’ than between the author of the ‘Philosophy of Art’ and that of the ‘History of English Literature.’ We readily accuse a writer of contradicting himself when we fail to perceive the reason of the progress of his ideas; and to reproach him for defective logic, it suffices us that his own has a wider scope than ours. In fact, the ‘Origins of Contemporary France’ is clearly the work of the same systematic and vigorous mind as the ‘Critical and Historical Essays.’ But just as in passing from the history of ideas to the history of works, Taine had recognized the necessity of an æsthetic criterion, so also he was obliged to recognize, in passing from the history of works to the history of deeds, the necessity of a moral criterion. There lay all the difference: and yet again, to make sure that there is no contradiction, we have only to recall what was the principal object of his inquiry; namely, “On what grounds can a critical judgment be formed?” and to extract this certainty from the variations and caprices of individual opinions.  12
  I am far from sharing, for my part, the opinions of Taine regarding the French Revolution; and I think that on the whole, if he has ruthlessly and profitably set before us naked, as it were, some of its worst excesses as well as its most essential characteristics, he has nevertheless judged it imperfectly. He has taken into consideration neither the generosity of its first transport, nor the tragic circumstances in the midst of which it was forced to develop, nor the fecundity of some of the ideas that have spread from it through the world. He has judged Napoleon no better. This is because he was without what is called in France the “military fibre.” And finally I think that he has imperfectly judged contemporary France. For while he has carefully pointed out some of the faults that are unhappily ours, he has scarcely accounted to the race for other qualities which are nevertheless also its own,—its endurance, its flexibility, its spirit of order and economy; I will even say its wisdom, and that underlying good sense which from age to age, and for so many years now, have repaired the errors of our governments.  13
  But from the point of view that I have chosen, I have no need of dwelling upon the particular opinions of Taine; and not having expressed my own upon his Shakespeare or upon his Rubens, I shall not express them upon his Napoleon. I merely say that in attempting history he has been compelled to see that men cannot be treated like abstractions, and that to speak truth the moral sciences are decidedly not natural sciences. He has been obliged to admit to himself that the verities here were constituted after another order, and could not be reached by the same means. In his endeavor to explain, in some of the most beautiful pages he ever wrote, the genesis, the slow and successive formation, the laborious formation, of the ideas of conscience and of honor, he was unable to find either a “physical basis” or an “animal origin” for them. He became equally aware that there were no beautiful crimes nor beautiful monsters, as he had believed in the days of his youth; and he felt that to affect, in the presence of the massacres of September or of the Reign of Terror, the serene indifference of the chemist in his laboratory, was not to serve the cause of science, but to betray that of humanity. And as he was accused of contradicting himself in this point, I well know that he yielded to the weakness of recording, in some sort, his old and his new principles. “This volume, like those that have preceded it,” he wrote in 1884, in the ‘Preface’ to the third volume of his ‘Revolution,’ “is written only for the lovers of moral zoölogy, for the naturalists of the intellect,… and not for the public, which has taken its stand and made up its mind concerning the Revolution.” Only he forgot to tell us what a “naturalist of the intellect” is, and what above all is “moral zoölogy.” He might as well have spoken of “immaterial physics”! But he deceived himself strangely if he did not believe that he had “written for the public,” and with the purpose of changing our preconceived opinion (parti pris), whatever it was, toward the Revolution, or of trying to substitute his own for it. Why did he not simply say that the more closely he studied human acts, the better he saw their distinguishing and original character; that without abandoning any of his former principles, he had simply bent their first rigidity to the exigencies of the successive problems that he had studied; and that after cruelly ridiculing at the outset the subordination of all questions to the moral question, he had himself gone over to that side? If this was an avowal that cost him little, perhaps, it is nevertheless the philosophical significance of his ‘Origins of Contemporary France,’ and it is the last limit of the evolution of his thought.  14
  It is moreover in this way that the unity of his system and the extent of his influence are explicable. No, I repeat that he did not contradict himself at all, if his object was to determine what might be called the concrete conditions of objective knowledge; and such indeed was his object, or at least, the result of his work. In literature first, then in art, and finally in history, he wished to set a foundation for the certainty; and—let us reiterate it—“separate the reality of things from the fluctuations of individual opinion.” If all the world agree in placing Shakespeare above Addison, ‘Coriolanus’ or ‘Julius Cæsar’ above ‘Cato,’ and all the world prefers the methods of government of Henry IV. to those of Robespierre, there are reasons for it which are not merely sentimental, but positive; and out of the midst of school or party controversy, Taine desired to draw the evidence of them and an incontestable formula for them. And in truth, he himself yielded more than once to the attraction of the subject he chose at first only as material for experiments. So it sometimes happens that a naturalist lingers in admiration over an animal he meant only to dissect. Taine likewise forgot his theories at times in the presence of Raphael and Michaelangelo, of Rembrandt or of Rubens, and he even forgot that he was a theorist. But neither is his ‘History of English Literature’ properly speaking, a history of English literature, nor his ‘Origins of Contemporary France’ a history of the Revolution: they are only a demonstration of the objectivity of the critical judgment by means of the history of the Revolution or of English literature.  15
  To feel convinced of this, it is enough to read those of his works that I have not yet mentioned: his ‘Essay on Titus Livius,’ his ‘Journey to the Pyrenees,’ his ‘Thomas Graindorge,’ his ‘Notes on England,’ or his ‘Note-Books of Travel.’ Not only does he never lose sight in them of his principal object, but in all that he sees or in all that is told him, he notes or retains only what is in accordance with his critical preoccupations. A landscape to him is not a landscape, but a milieu; and a characteristic custom is not a characteristic custom for him, but a commentary on the race. In the museums of Italy as in the streets of London, he sees only “permanences of qualities” or “convergences of effects.” If it happens that he becomes interested in the spectacle of things, he repents of it and recovers himself. Facts are for him only materials; and they have value in his eyes only in so far as they enter into the construction of his edifice. And doubtless this is why not only the English do not admit the truth of his ‘Notes on England,’ but the French still less the truth of those that he set down in his ‘Note-Books of Travel.’  16
  On the other hand, here is the very reason for the range and depth of his influence, if in all that we have just said of him we need change only a few words in order to say it of an Auguste Comte, of a Hegel, or of a Spinoza. These are great names, I am well aware! But when I consider what before Taine were those ideas that he has marked with the seal of his literary genius, so hard at times, but so vigorous; when I recall in what a nebulous state, so to speak, they floated in the mind; and when I see to what degree they now form the substance of contemporary thought,—their merit, that cannot be contested, is to have recreated methods; and though there are other merits in the history of thought, there are none greater. There lay his honor, and there rests his claim to glory. He has renewed the methods of criticism. It is this that the future will not forget. One can discuss the value of his opinions, literary, æsthetic, historical; one can refuse to take him for guide,—combat him, refute him perhaps; and one may prefer to his manner of writing, so powerful and so telling, often charged with too many colors, and generally too emphatic, the manner of such-and-such of his contemporaries,—the treacherous charm of Sainte-Beuve, the fleeting grace of Renan: hut no one more than he is certain of having “made an epoch”; and to grasp the full meaning of this phrase, it suffices to reckon, in the history of the literatures, how many there are to whom it can be applied!  17
 
 
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