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Famous Prefaces.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Hippolyte Adolphe Taine (1863)


THERE remains to be ascertained in what way these causes, applied to a nation or to a century, distribute their effects. Like a spring issuing from an elevated spot and diffusing its waters, according to the height, from ledge to ledge, until it finally reaches the low ground, so does the tendency of mind or soul in a people, due to race, epoch, or environment, diffuse itself in different proportions, and by regular descent, over the different series of facts which compose its civilization. In preparing the geographical map of a country, starting at its watershed, we see the slopes, just below this common point, dividing themselves into five or six principal basins, and then each of the latter into several others, and so on until the whole country, with its thousands of inequalities of surface, is included in the ramifications of this network. In like manner, in preparing the psychological map of the events and sentiments belonging to a certain human civilization, we find at the start five or six well determined provinces—religion, art, philosophy, the state, the family, and industries; next, in each of these provinces, natural departments, and then finally, in each of these departments, still smaller territories until we arrive at those countless details of life which we observe daily in ourselves and around us. If, again, we examine and compare together these various groups of facts we at once find that they are composed of parts and that all have parts in common. Let us take first the three principal products of human intelligence—religion, art, and philosophy. What is a philosophy but a conception of nature and of its primordial causes under the form of abstractions and formulas? What underlies a religion and an art if not a conception of this same nature, and of these same primordial causes, under the form of more or less determinate symbols, and of more or less distinct personages, with this difference, that in the first case we believe that they exist, and in the second case that they do not exist. Let the reader consider some of the great creations of the intellect in India, in Scandinavia, in Persia, in Rome, in Greece, and he will find that art everywhere is a sort of philosophy become sensible, religion a sort of poem regarded as true, and philosophy a sort of art and religion, desiccated and reduced to pure abstractions. There is, then, in the center of each of these groups a common element, the conception of the world and its origin, and if they differ amongst each other it is because each combines with the common element a distinct element; here the power of abstraction, there the faculty of personifying with belief, and, finally, the talent for personifying without belief. Let us now take the two leading products of human association, the Family and the State. What constitutes the State other than the sentiment of obedience by which a multitude of men collect together under the authority of a chief? and what constitutes the Family other than the sentiment of obedience by which a wife and children act together under the direction of a father and husband? The Family is a natural, primitive, limited state, as the State is an artificial, ulterior, and expanded Family, while beneath the differences which arise from the number, origin, and condition of its members, we distinguish, in the small as in the large community, a like fundamental disposition of mind which brings them together and unites them. Suppose, now, that this common element receives from the environment, the epoch, and the race peculiar characteristics, and it is clear that all the groups into which it enters will be proportionately modified. If the sentiment of obedience is merely one of fear, you encounter, as in most of the Oriental states, the brutality of despotism, a prodigality of vigorous punishments, the exploitation of the subject, servile habits, insecurity of property, impoverished production, female slavery, and the customs of the harem. If the sentiment of obedience is rooted in the instinct of discipline, sociability, and honor, you find, as in France, a complete military organization, a superb administrative hierarchy, a weak public spirit with outbursts of patriotism, the unhesitating docility of the subject along with the hot-headedness of the revolutionist, the obsequiousness of the courtier along with the reserve of the gentleman, the charm of refined conversation along with home and family bickerings, conjugal equality together with matrimonial incompatibilities under the necessary constraints of the law. If, finally, the sentiment of obedience is rooted in the instinct of subordination and in the idea of duty, you perceive, as in Germanic nations, the security and contentment of the household, the firm foundations of domestic life, the slow and imperfect development of wordly matters, innate respect for established rank, superstitious reverence for the past, maintenance of social inequalities, natural and habitual deference to the law. Similarly in a race, just as there is a difference of aptitude for general ideas, so will its religion, art, and philosophy be different. If man is naturally fitted for broader universal conceptions and inclined at the same time to their derangement, through the nervous irritability of an over-excited organization, we find, as in India, a surprising richness of gigantic religious creations, a splendid bloom of extravagant transparent epics, a strange concatenation of subtle, imaginative philosophic systems, all so intimately associated and so interpenetrated with a common sap, that we at once recognize them, by their amplitude, by their color, and by their disorder, as productions of the same climate and of the same spirit. If, on the contrary, the naturally sound and well-balanced man is content to restrict his conceptions to narrow bounds in order to cast them in more precise forms, we see, as in Greece, a theology of artists and narrators, special gods that are soon separated from objects and almost transformed at once into substantial personages, the sentiment of universal unity nearly effaced and scarcely maintained in the vague notion of destiny, a philosophy, rather than subtle and compact, grandiose and systematic, narrow metaphysically but incomparable in its logic, sophistry, and morality, a poesy and arts superior to anything we have seen in lucidity, naturalness, proportion, truth, and beauty. If, finally, man is reduced to narrow conceptions deprived of any speculative subtlety, and at the same time finds that he is absorbed and completely hardened by practical interests, we see, as in Rome, rudimentary deities, mere empty names, good for denoting the petty details of agriculture, generation, and the household, veritable marriage and farming labels, and, therefore, a null or borrowed mythology, philosophy, and poesy. Here, as elsewhere, comes in the law of mutual dependencies. A civilization is a living unit, the parts of which hold together the same as the parts of an organic body. Just as in an animal, the instincts, teeth, limbs, bones, and muscular apparatus are bound together in such a way that a variation of one determines a corresponding variation in the others, and out of which a skillful naturalist, with a few bits, imagines and reconstructs an almost complete body, so, in a civilization, do religion, philosophy, the family scheme, literature and the arts form a system in which each local change involves a general change, so that an experienced historian, who studies one portion apart from the others, sees beforehand and partially predicts the characteristics of the rest. There is nothing vague in this dependence. The regulation of all this in the living body consists, first, of the tendency to manifest a certain primordial type, and, next, the necessity of its possessing organs which can supply its wants and put itself in harmony with itself in order to live. The regulation in a civilization consists in the presence in each great human creation of an elementary productor equally present in other surrounding creations, that is, some faculty and aptitude, some efficient and marked disposition, which, with its own peculiar character, introduces this with that into all operations in which it takes part, and which, according to its variations, causes variation in all the works in which it coöperates.