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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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H. Taine

by G.L.F.
Volume 14, no. 1, January1903, pgs. 2-


A short while ago the letters of [Hippolyte Adolphe] Taine were published in Paris, and already we have a translation of them in London. [The Life and Letters of H. Taine, 1902, is online .] Surely that goes far to prove that (in the publishers opinion, at any rate) English people are interested in this very remarkable Frenchman. And it would be strange if it were not so, for Taine was a most fervent admirer of England as a nation, and of its government and literature. One of his most important works is a detailed philosophical history of English literature, and many of his essays prove how much he found to admire in "this dear, dear land." But, of course, the fact that it should be so does not prove that it is so. English people may be profoundly indifferent to Taine and to his works, in which case the only excuse we can proffer for writing about him is that the publication of his letters supplies the indispensable halo of actuality, without which it seems fatal to introduce any topic. A French writer, Pierre Leroux, once went to the editor of a Paris magazine with an article on God. "God!" exclaimed the man of business, "that's no topic of the day." Energetic readers may already have looked up the reference just given. If so, let them keep the essays beside them, for it is in them that we intend to try and find some indications of Taine's personality, tastes and thoughts.

He tells us himself that "collections of articles" pleased him. "I confess I like this kind of book. To begin with, I can close it after reading twenty pages, commence at the end or in the middle; I am free to read it as I choose; I can look upon it as a journal—in fact, it is the journal of a man's mind. In the second place, there is plenty of variety; as I turn the pages I pass from the Renaissance to the 19th Century from India to England; this diversity surprises and pleases. And lastly, the author involuntarily betrays himself; he lays his mind open to me, and hides nothing; it is like a private conversation . . . One takes pleasure in observing the origins of a generous and vigorous mind, in discovering what faculties helped to compose his talent, what researches constituted his knowledge, what opinions he has on philosophy, what he is become, what his ambitions are, and what he believes. As I sit in my armchair beside the fire and turn the pages, a thoughtful living face appears in the dim background of my sluggish imagination; gradually it becomes full of expression and relief, its various traits become clearer, and, by harmonizing, explain each other; soon the author lives again for me and beside me; I realize the sequence of his thoughts; I can foresee what he is going to say; his ways of acting and of speaking become as familiar to me as those of the man I meet every day in the streets; his opinions correct or shatter my own; he becomes a factor in my life and thoughts . . . Such is the charm of these books in which any topic is discussed, books which give an author's opinions on many subjects, which lead us into every region of his thoughts, and take us, so to speak, all through his mind."

If we can read Taine's Essays in this spirit, we ought to be able to learn something of his mind and methods by considering what he reads and why he reads, and what he thinks of what he reads. Nearly all his essays (included in the first two volumes) are the rough sketches which prepared the way for his more important works—in fact, many of them are there in embryo. In most of them we shall find his characteristic modes of thought, his tastes, his theories. In some of them he will reveal himself as a poet, in others as a critic, in some as an ethical thinker, in all as a philosopher. For though he often seems tempted to stop and admire or enjoy some fine thought or expression—to expatiate on the beauties he comes across in the books he is discussing, there seems to be the master-thought ever at hand, urging him along his one straight path—the one which in his twenty-sixth year he had already clearly mapped out. Most readers of Taine must feel that, in spite of all the wealth of poetical language and thought, in spite of all his historical, ethical, and critical powers, his one object in writing was to study the natural history of man. As Paul Bourget says, one sentence is the epitome of all his work, "C'est a l'ame que la science va se prendre." [ It is a soul that science will take]

By comparing the dates of the Essays, we can follow fairly accurately the course of his reading—or, rather, of his writing; for when we find that the essays on Thackeray, Dickens and Macaulay were published in January, March and April, of 1856, and that the ones on Guizot, Michelet and Saint Simon followed in June, July and August, we realize that he must have been taking notes and thinking out the subjects for a long while.

"The public," he assures us, "has no idea how much work it costs to write a good book, that is to say, a book in which the author thinks for himself and writes original matter . . . One is by no means master of a book for having dipped into it, nor yet for having read it over. It is essential to have re-read it, to have compared it with other books, to have become familiar with it, to have cogitated about it in and out of doors; 'ideas do not sit for their portraits'; it is impossible to judge an epoch of history in an afternoon, and one cannot at will conjure up a life-like figure of some historical or imaginary character; one is obliged to wait, and let time, circumstances and chance do their work. Often it is some trifling accident of the daily round, some unpremeditated observation, some chance word in a newspaper which precipitates the idea we have for many months, and in spite of all efforts, failed to grasp. Sometimes one reads a volume to write a page. I know a man who reads four volumes to compose three lines . . . The ideas of a thinking man have their origin and roots in all his past and present mental activity. Pray be so rash," he adds, "as to suppose that an author or an artist, even if you see him dreaming in an armchair or strolling on the boulevards, may work as hard as any other mortal, and that the three or four hundred pages which he sends from time to time to press represent at least as much labour as a volume of Parliamentary reports or a row of business ledgers."

Taine was nothing if not systematic. All he wrote he looked upon as an aggregate of facts which might or might not help to prove his theory—his famous theory that all the phenomena of the human mind can be explained by science and reduced to fixed laws like any other branch of knowledge. But can they? To answer that question in the negative would be foolish. It cannot be replied to until the fixed laws are discovered and the mind or soul reduced to class, family, sub-division, like any other substance. The only question which can be answered at present is, "What did Taine do towards explaining the phenomena of the mind and soul?" A spontaneous reply may be, "He did something, but his theory was incomplete." Perhaps. But it must be remembered that a spontaneous answer is not adequate. All Taine's writings must be carefully studied with the object of ascertaining the truth with regard to this—for all his poetry, his criticism, his history and his ethics, marvelous though they are in many ways, are nothing—no, theory could be proved to be not only incomplete, but wrong. As has been remarked above, all through the essays—and they are the key to his writings—there is the predominant idea of the "faculte maitresse." [ faculty mistress] It is in the preface to his Essai sur Tite Live that we find his programme: "Man, says Spinoza, does not subsist in nature as an empire within an empire, but as a part of a whole; and the workings of the spiritual automaton, which is oneself, are as prescribed as those of the material world in which it is comprised." Was Spinoza right? Can criticism be reduced to a science, and are the faculties of man's mind governed by laws—if so, what are the laws? All Taine's writings are as witnesses summoned to give evidence.

The essay entitled, Les Jeunes Gens de Platon, was written when Taine was about 25 years old, and may be looked upon as the rough copy of what afterwards became the Philosophie de l' Art en Grèce. When Taine wrote the essay he was still in his literary pupilage, and he merely gives us a charming account of the enthusiasm and admiration he felt when he read Plato. He tells us how much impressed he was by the beauty, the joy, and the brightness which blend so marvelously with the deep philosophy. Like everyone else, he was struck by the perfection of the human being of that time, a perfection not of the mind only such as we find to-day, but a faultless development of body, mind and soul, such as only the Greek civilization could have produced. In the whole thirty-five pages, there is hardly a trace of any of the scientific philosophy which distinguishes nearly all Taine's other writings. Here we have the bare facts; he says in the beginning, "Let us turn back to the happy years of ancient Greece, years which have indeed passed for ever, but which still seem to live on in our memories." He asks us to spend a half-hour with him chatting about Plato's Jeunes Gens, and all the while he will be taking notes, notes of facts of all sorts, which in after years will reappear in classified order in the Philosophie de l'Art en Grèce. One has only to compare the book with the essay to see this. Facts mentioned merely as such in the essay are discussed and analyzed in the Philosophie. Taine is no longer satisfied with the enjoyment. He does not say Voyes maintenant cet image charmant, nor ce qui est surtout admirable, nor n'est-il pas plaisant et touchant de voir, [Now sent this lovely picture, nor the which is especially admirable, nor is it pleasant and not involving see] but he reminds himself and us that plus que jamais, pour comprendre l'auvre, nons sommes obliges de considerer le people qui l'a faire, les mœurs qui la suggtraient et le milieu eìi elle est nìe [ more than ever to understand the auvre, nons are obligated to consider the people who had done the morals that suggtraient eii milieu and it is denied].

In the essay, we see Taine étonné de trouver la philosophie sínaturelle [surprised to find the philosophy sínaturelle]. In the book, the essayist is become the philosopher who finds a cause for this spontaneity, give the reason for it, or rather the laws which he deducts from his store of observations. He points out how the difference between Greeks and the moderns is proportionate to the difference in race, surroundings and civilization. They lived with doors thrown wide open on nature, they trained the body as much as the mind, they were a race whose mental conceptions were as defined and beautiful as was the landscape of their home. Nothing vague, mystic, huge, such as we find in the sad northern races, nothing one-sided such as is the modern cultivation of brains to the detriment of body, nothing limitless like the feeling caused by the whirl of life, by the wealth of knowledge and the accumulate experience of centuries, by the almost inconceivable complicity of an empire such as ours. Without doubt, Taine's deductions are, to a certain extent, correct. The factors which he takes into consideration are, at any rate, important elements in the composition of the mental productions of a civilized nation.

But are they all the factors? Do they constitute the parts of the whole? An idea of the difficulties which beset the way of such speculation is suggested by the observation, "A nation receives the impress of the country which it inhabits, but this influence varies in intensity, is strongest when the nation settles down whilst still uncivilized and young." Englishmen, of all people, ought to realize how difficult it is to analyze and to discover the relative proportions of the component parts. But all that seems child's play when one comes to discussing what would, might, ought to have happened had such and such an element been slightly modified, had one of the component parts been in a different degree of development, had such and such events not taken place, had the country been found to bear no coal, and so on, till the question involuntarily arise, "Can these things be reduced to a science?" Taine says yes, and his courage is admirable.

His method of going to work makes us think of a scientist going down to a river to analyze the water. He would find that all the little backwaters and bays contained the same water as the stream, but the accident of position, depth, etc., etc., would have modified the form and appearance of each indenture. Furthermore, in the one he might find one sort of animal and vegetable life, in another a different sort. In like manner, Taine finds that each author's work is of the same fundamental composition as the nation's thought; accidents of character, circumstances and position being responsible for what is called individuality. Of course, the first difficulty is to ascertain what the water of the main stream does consist of, or to speak plainly, what it is that distinguishes the thought of one nation from that of another. In order to discover the main stream of English thought, Taine wrote a history of the whole of English literature. If the same thing could be done for all the literatures of the world, we should have a detailed analysis of the world's thought as exhibited under divers conditions by various races. It would then be possible to analyze all their main streams of thought in the same way as Taine has analyzed the individuals of our main stream; and the result would be—if one could reach so far—to ascertain the thoughts essential to man in any conditions, and it would be possible to infer what man would think were he placed in ideal circumstances and unhampered by our hereditary tendencies. Science would tell us how man ought to think, say, in the Garden of Eden; but though that might be as highly interesting as it is to know how a stone would behave in a vacuum, it is unfortunate that stones are as seldom found in a vacuum as man in ideal circumstances. Of course, there is the more practical side. Science will foretell what must inevitably happen to a nation placed in certain conditions and endowed with certain faculties. History will be forecast, but it has been remarked that this kind of science is exposed to verification; hence its advance has been prudently regulated.

Glance through the essays on Thackeray, Dickens, and Macaulay. In the first, after having studied Thackeray from several points of view, he says, "We have under our eyes a specimen of the human mind." In the essay on Dickens, after going at some length into the origins of the English nation, he tries to account for the great popularity as well as for the genius of Dickens. Taine's remarkably varied gifts enable him to make any subject interesting, otherwise this mere analyzing of an author would be liable to seem as tedious as entomology to most people. In both, the object is the acquisition and classification of specimens—but Taine's work is as interesting as might be that of a naturalist capable of enjoying the beauty of his specimens and of puzzling over little mysteries such as the apparent inconsistency of a Divine Providence, which creates so much beauty and at the same time gives man's clumsy fingers the power to mar so perfect a work.

In the next essay, he accounts for Macaulay's being the "historian of liberty," in much the same way as one would account for a horse eating provender instead of meat. Macaulay, he says, was gifted in such and such a way, and lived in such and such a time, therefore he wrote and could only have written in the way he did. Further we find him bringing out other "specimens" of the human mind which occur to him as being similar to his new acquisition—Cicero, Thiers, and Guizot—and we see him compare them carefully and note why the Englishman differs from the men of other nationality. In the essays on Guizot, Michelet, and Saint Simon it is the same. One cannot but have the feeling that literature is being taken into a chemical laboratory or a vivisecting room, when he reads, "Décomposer un esprit, c'est découvertes et ses erreurs." [Decompose a spirit is found and its errors]

We might also be somewhat nonplussed at the indiscriminating admiration of good and bad points in an author—did not Taine explain that everything is equally valuable, equally admirable as being a specimen for his collection? After laying out Michelet's defects one by one with astounding acumen, he turns and asks, "Are we to blame these faults? . . . No one reproaches a heron for having long fragile legs, a thin body, and habitually dreamy languid attitude. No one blames the sea tern for having such long wings . . . In every case there is some design of nature, and a naturalist's duty is to understand and not to ridicule. The critic is the naturalist of the soul. He takes all the divers forms for granted; he condemns none of them, describes them all; he holds that a passionate imagination (such as Michelet's) is a force as legitimate and as admirable as the metaphysical faculty or the gift of eloquence; instead of tearing it with scorn, he dissects it with care; he puts it into the same museum as the others, and considers it as important as any other; he rejoices when he sees it to think of the fecundity of nature."

What naturalist is this? He calls himself the naturalist of the soul (his theories might be termed psychonomics to distinguish them from psychology). But he is more than a naturalist—he is a chemist as well. Turn to the essay on Troplong and de Montalembert. "Every nation is, so to speak, some great experiment of nature's. Each country is a crucible in which certain substances are cast in certain proportions and under certain conditions (prepare the test tubes and the Bunsen burner!). The substances are the nation's temperament and its traits of character. The conditions consist of the climatic influences and the original situation and condition of the people. The mixture ferments in accordance with fixed laws, imperceptibly during centuries, and produces, in one case, stable matter, in another, substance liable to explode. What a joy it is to watch the stupendous forces which make those vast masses simmer gently and incessantly. The mind is filled with the idea of the incalculable power which jumbles or scatters or solders together the whole mass of living particles which is subject to its influence. One realizes the regular process which, by means of a defined number of inevitable transformations, develops everything until it attains its ultimate and predestined condition. One delights in sympathizing with the all-powerfulness of nature and smiles to see how the eternal chemist can, by means of a slight modification of the conditions, bring about revolutions, drive on the nations to their destined greatness or decay, to the fulfillment of their allotted part in the great work, through all the suffering they are bound to bear . . . We who are confined to a little corner of space, and whose span of life is so ephemeral, so liable to be cut short by some chance accident, can nevertheless discover several of these laws and learn to conceive of this life as a whole. That fact alone makes life worth living; fortune and nature have been kind to us."

Whatever we may think of such speculation, there is no denying the splendour of the imagination, and those who care to read it in the original will find that the language is fully as fine as the thoughts. It is perhaps not too much to say that such a conception is too vast to become practically useful within the short space of one man's life, and when Taine died he left his work unfinished, but with the consolation that others would carry it on after him, just as he had continued the work left half accomplished by Montesquieu—had borne the torch as long as he could run.

One of the most remarkable of the essays is the one on Balzac, and it is the one in which Taine's chemical formulas (to speak metaphorically) are most conspicuous. Taine was a very great admirer of Balzac—to the extent of calling him the Shakespeare of France. For some reason or another the mere thought of Balzac gives us the impression of something molten fizzling in a crucible—will the reader's mind already be influenced to this extent? But as we read the graphic description of Balzac shutting himself up in his room for days at a time, of his eccentric personality in and out of doors, of the unflagging struggle to make money, and of the extraordinary existence which none but the strongest could have withstood, we lapse into Taine's way of thinking and can imagine these "ingredients" being mixed with the divers traits of his mind, his tastes and his capabilities, and we can foresee that when the mixture begins to heat—when Balzac finds no other means of making money, the vapours will escape where they can and the high pressure of passionate thought will find a vent in the unlimited number of novels, teeming with the class of men and women he cared to study and had eyes to see. One cannot but feel how deeply Taine sympathizes with this powerful mind struggling in the narrow circumstances of want. But the rich flood of Balzac's thought found an outlet somehow, and throughout the novel there is a superfluity of matter which Taine very justly compares to all the lovely poetry which enriches and at the same time encumbers so many of Shakespeare's plays. Just as the five short acts of a drama seem quite inadequate to contain all that the wealth of Shakespeare's mind poured into them, so in the same way Balzac's novels are over-loaded with thought and are considered by some entirely marred thereby. But Taine pursues his analysis to the end, and in Seraphitla and Louis Lambert discovers the "full flowering" of Balzac's genius. Doubtless, when he wrote the last words of that striking essay, Taine smiled to see the workings of the eternal chemist, and was glad in sympathizing with the all-powerfulness of nature.

A more personal glimpse of Taine is to be obtained in the essay on La Bruyère, and in the touching tribute to his friend, Franz Woepke. In both of these he involuntarily reveals his own personal tastes and inclinations. How sympathetically he tells the beautiful story of the publication of Les Caractères. "La Bruyère came almost daily and sat in the shop of a bookseller whose name was Michallat, and there he looked at the new books or played with the bookseller's child, a little girl he had come to love. One day he drew from his pocket a manuscript and said to Michallat: 'Will you publish this for me? (it was Les Caractères). I do not know whether or not it will profit you, but should it prove successful, I would like the proceeds to be put on one side for this little girlie.' The book was issued, and almost immediately the first edition was bought up; the publisher was obliged to reprint it several times, and all in all he reaped two or three hundred thousand francs, which he was able to lay aside as his little daughter's unexpected dowry."

The respect he had for Woepke was undoubtedly in great measure due to the sympathy he felt for his self-sacrificing life. Both men were very shy and reticent, but after a while they opened their hearts to each other and met on common ground. They both believed in what may be called the Spinoza-Marcus-Aurelius creed, and they were both the kind of stoics which such a creed produces. Whether or not their researches profited them, each felt sure that he was not labouring in vain, for the facts he might not be able to make use of himself might serve another who followed in his steps. Woepke said, "My one satisfaction is that those who come after me will find a conscientious research, one which they can trust and by the help of which they will be able to advance further." It is the old story of the front ranks lying in the trenches or in the moats for others to pass over them and thus conquer. It is the implicit trust that our little lives are valuable only as fractions and factors of the great universe. "Virtue," Taine says, "consists in sacrificing oneself for the benefit of mankind . . . I know a man who, after the ten hours' bread-winning toil, and when his wife and children are gone to sleep, sits up to write the tedious paragraphs of a Biblical Dictionary, and his Greek and Hebrew were learnt to that end in his spare moments." Taine cannot be wrong in saying that devotion to an ideal is the outcome of a firm belief that the individual is worthless unless working for the whole.

He asks what pleasure there can be in such a task as deciphering illegible manuscripts, copying thousands of verse, correcting faulty texts, comparing and annotating the various versions, reading the same thing two or three times again as proofs, etc. . . . And yet in this it is the same as in all cases of fatigue duty, there is never a lack of volunteers. When an officer requires twenty men to volunteer for a hazardous task, there are always forty ready to come forward. The mere thought of a useful work with a noble aim is sufficient to overcome half-heartedness or faint-heartedness. As soon as a man realizes that he is, so to speak a portion of the works of the universe, he no longer thinks of himself but of the work. Whether or not Taine's theory be what he thought it was, all must acknowledge and respect the single-mindedness and noble purpose of his life. He tells us somewhere that he considers two things the ruling influences of modern civilization: the sense of honour, by which a man assumes rights of which nothing can deprive him; and conscience, a faculty which enables him to conceive absolute justice.

It is but natural that such a man should have shunned popularity and lived his regular studious life in seclusion. Quite early in life, his friends are said to have called him Monsieur Taine (with some friends we dare not drop the Mr.), and in later life he only gave a few the chance of calling him even that. He refused to be interviewed by anyone, and kept his doors shut to all but his most intimate friends. It is amusing to read what he says on the subject when discussing Dickens' habits. "One has the right to keep back as much of himself as he likes. Because an author give his writings to the world is no reason for letting it have his life as well." And if Woepke could say "J'ai pris la vie par le côté poétique," [ I took life by the poetic side] Taine could certainly claim to have done the same, he whose powerful mind was as much at home in the most varied fields of thought, who was capable of enjoying the manifold beauties of nature, art, literature, and science, and who was as musical as he was artistic.

To realize the breadth of this mind and the amount of invaluable criticism he might have written, had he chosen to devote his energies to that branch of literature, one must turn to his essay on Racine, in which he meets all the objections Anglo-Saxons are wont to repeat when discussing the works of the great French tragedian. To be sure, he cannot help considering Racine from the scientific point of view—what did he inherit from his country, and in what surroundings was he placed, what faculties had he, and in what mould were they cast?—but the most interesting passages are those in defense of Racine's dramatic methods. In this case, it is not merely the naturalist admiring the long-winded eloquence because it exists (just as he would admire Swift and Byron a titre de curisite), but the artist enjoying what is beautiful. Racine's plays are as distinct from the realistic drama of to-day as the latter is from opera. Racine without eloquence would be like an opera without music; both are beautiful and he can enjoy them both. And yet we know that his favourite poets were Englishmen. It is not given to everyone to really understand and appreciate such extremes as Hamlet, Mithridate, Hegel and Balzac!

Taine spoke (in one of the passages quoted above) of the history of nations seeming like great experiments of nature. This idea throws an interesting light on his essay on Buddhism. It is not surprising that in spite of his self-control he is occasionally tempted by a marvelous subject to forget his scientific aims. But it is amusing to notice how he pulls himself up and over and over again when he becomes conscious of enlarging upon the exquisite beauty of the Indian epics, or the almost supernatural subtleness of the pantheistic or metaphysical dogmas. In spite of all his undisguised enthusiasm, he is all the while taking notes as he progresses, thinking out, for instance, the causes of the similarity and dissimilitude of the destinies of the two great branches of the Indo-Germanic race.

What would not this man have accomplished had all his powers been developed? As an historian he might have combined the passionate imagination of Michelet and the methodical classification of Guizot; as a critic he would have been the natural successor of Sainte Beuve; as an artist he might have produced prose works such as only a Frenchman could write—the work one might reasonably be led to expect by the descriptions of his travels in the Pyrenees, in Italy, and in England. But, unfortunately, life is very short, and it is only as a philosopher that Taine's powers can really be gauged, though even these were restrained by circumstances.

His marriage in 1868, and the events of 1870-71 turned his thoughts to questions connected with the land of which he was a citizen. As a married man, he had a home for which he felt anxious, and as a Frenchman he was shocked at the result of the war. He threw himself heart and soul into the study of contemporary France and its origins. The result of his vast researches was published in a series of volumes entitled, "Les origins de la France contemporaine," [The origins of contemporary France] and met with the disapproval even of some of his most ardent admirers. To a Frenchman, his admiration of Englishmen and of English institutions seems excessive, and it is not difficult to understand that the man whose political views were founded on such thoughts as those we find in his essay on Jefferson should not find many who fully sympathize with him in a country like France of the present day. He was a worker and a reader to the end of his long life.

"Each generation," he said, "must read a few pages of the volume which has no ending. When the times comes for me to close my books, I will do so with a feeling of my own weakness. I see the limits of my own range of thought, not those of the mind of mankind."

G.L.F.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, Feb 2009