Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Characteristics of the English Mind
By Hippolyte Adolphe Taine (1828–1893)
From ‘Notes on England’: Translation of William Fraser Rae

THE INTERIOR of an English head may not unaptly be likened to one of Murray’s Handbooks, which contains many facts and few ideas; a quantity of useful and precise information, short statistical abridgments, numerous figures, correct and detailed maps, brief and dry historical notices, moral and profitable counsels in the guise of a preface,—no view of the subject as a whole, none of the literary graces,—a simple collection of well-authenticated documents, a convenient memorandum for personal guidance during a journey. A Frenchman requires that everything and every piece of writing should be cast in a pleasing form; an Englishman is satisfied if the substance be useful. A Frenchman loves ideas in and for themselves; an Englishman employs them as instruments of mnemonics or of prevision….  1
  The impression produced is the same if we consider in turn the journals, the reviews, and the oratory of the two nations. The special correspondent of an English journal is a sort of photographer who forwards proofs taken on the spot; these are published untouched. Sometimes indeed there are discrepancies between the arguments in the leading articles and the statements in the letter. The latter are always extremely lengthy and detailed: a Frenchman would abridge and lighten them; they leave on him a feeling of weariness: the whole is a jumble; it is a badly hewn and unwieldy block. The editor of a French journal is bound to help his correspondent, to select from his materials what is essential, to pick out from the heap the three or four notable anecdotes, and to sum up the whole in a clear idea, embodied in a telling phrase. Nor is the difference less perceptible if their great quarterlies and our reviews are contrasted. An article in ours, even an article on science or political economy, must possess an exordium, a peroration, a plan; every one in the Revue des Deux Mondes commences with an exposition of general ideas. With them, facts, figures, and technical details predominate: their articles are exceedingly heavy, excepting in the hands of a Macaulay; they are excellent quarries filled with solid but unshapen stones, requiring additional workmanship in order to fit them for general use. Moreover, in Parliament and public meetings, English eloquence is hampered by documents, while French eloquence evaporates in theories.  2
  English education tends to produce this result…. Recently, however, new discoveries and Continental methods of education have gained entrance: still, even at this day, the system of education is better fitted for strengthening than for expanding the mind; graduates leave the universities as they leave a course of gymnastics, bringing away with them no conception whatever of man or the world. Besides, there is one ready-made, and very acceptable, which a young man has no difficulty in adopting. In France no fixed limit bounds his thoughts: the Constitution, ten times altered, has no authority; the religion is that of the Middle Ages; the old forms are in discredit, the new are merely chalked out. From the age of sixteen he is assailed by doubt; he oscillates: if he has any brains, his most pressing need is to construct for himself a body of convictions, or at least of opinions. In England the mold is prepared; the religion is almost rational, and the Constitution excellent; awakening intelligence there finds the broad lines of future beliefs already traced. The necessity for erecting a complete habitation is not felt; the utmost that appears wanting relates to the enlargement of a Gothic window, the cleansing of a cellar, the repair of a staircase. English intellect, being less unsettled, less excited, is less active, because it has not skepticism for a spur.  3
  Through all channels, open from infancy to the close of life, exact information flows into an English head as into a reservoir. But the proximity of these waters does not yet suffice to explain their abundance: there is a slope which invites them, an innate disposition peculiar to the race,—to wit, the liking for facts, the love of experiment, the instinct of induction, the longing for certitude. Whoever has studied their literature and their philosophy, from Shakespeare and Bacon to the present day, knows that this inclination is hereditary, and appertains to the very character of their minds; that it is bound up with their manner of comprehending truth. According to them the tree must be judged by its fruit, and speculation proved by practice; they do not value a truth unless it evokes useful applications. Beyond practical truths lie only vain chimeras. Such is man’s condition: a restricted sphere, capable of enlargement, but always walled in; a sphere within which knowledge must be acquired, not for its own sake, but in order to act,—science itself being valuable only to the office which verifies it and for the purpose which it serves.  4
  That being granted, it appears to me that the ordinary furnishing of an English head becomes discernible. As well as I can judge, an educated Englishman possesses a stock of facts three or four times in excess of that possessed by a Frenchman of corresponding position,—at least in all that relates to language, geography, political and economical truths, and the personal impressions gained in foreign parts by contact with men and living objects. On the other hand, it frequently happens that the Englishman turns his big trunk to less account than the Frenchman does his little bag. This is perceptible in many books and reviews; the English writer, though very well informed, being limited in his range. Nothing is rarer among them than free and full play of the soaring and expanding intellect. Determined to be prudent, they drag their car along the ground over the beaten track; with two or three exceptions, not one now makes readers think. More than once, when in England, after having conversed with a man, I was surprised at his store of knowledge, alike varied and sound, and also to find him so deficient in ideas. At this moment I can recall five or six who were so largely endowed as to be entitled to take general views. They paused, however, half-way, arriving at no definite conclusion. They did not even experience a desire to co-ordinate their knowledge in a sort of system: they possessed only partial and isolated ideas; they did not feel either the inclination or the power to connect them together under a philosophical conception. Their language bears the best witness to this, it being extremely difficult to translate somewhat lofty abstractions into English. Compared with French, and above all with German, it is what Latin is to Greek…. Their library of words is wanting in an entire row of compartments,—namely, the upper ones; they have no ideas wherewith to fill them.  5

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