The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Madame de Staël and the Philosophy of "L'Allemagne"

by Joseph F. Charles,
Author of "Modern Thought and Modern Thinkers."
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 576-579

"Les grandes pensées viennent du coeur." (The grandest thoughts come from the heart.)

[Germaine "Minette" de Staël-Holstein, 1766-1817, was a celebrated French scholar, political theorist, writer, and a voice of moderation in the French Revolution. She lived in exile during the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic War. She was married twice, had affairs, and had children. Her most notable books were Delphine, Corinne, and De l'Allmagne (L'Allemagne is French for Germany).]


The word philosophy has for some time been considerably out of favour. It is thus with all words of very extended signification; they are the object of the blessings or curses of the human race, according to the happy or unhappy circumstances in which they are employed. But, notwithstanding the abuse or praise of individuals, or nations, the value of philosophy, liberty, and of religion does not change. Man may curse the sun, love or life. He has suffered, and has found himself being consumed by these forces of Nature, but, for all that, would he extinguish them?

Among the different branches of philosophy, metaphysics has more especially employed the German mind. The subjects with which it is concerned may be divided into three classes: the first is occupied with the mystery of creation, that is to say, with the infinite in all things; the second with the formation of the ideas of the human mind; and the third with the exercise of our faculties without investigating their origin. The first of these studies, that which concerns itself with the secret of the universe, was cultivated by the Greeks, as it is now by the Germans. It cannot be denied that such an inquiry, however sublime in principle, makes us feel our weakness at each step, and discouragement must follow our fruitless efforts. The utility of the third class of metaphysical observations, that which confines itself to the knowledge of the acts of our understanding, can hardly be contested; but this utility is limited to the circle of our daily experiences. The philosophical meditations of the second class, those which are directed to the nature of the soul and the origin of our ideas, appear to me by far the most interesting. It is not probable that we shall ever know the eternal truths which explain the existence of this world; the longing to do so, which we experience, is but one of those noble thoughts which attract us toward another life. But the faculty of self-examination has not been given to us for no purpose. Doubtless we employ that faculty when we take note of the working of our own mind, such as it is. At the same time, in reaching higher, in endeavouring to learn whether that mind acts spontaneously, or if it needs external objects to provoke its action, we shall have further light on man's free will, and consequently on the nature of vice and virtue.

A number of moral and religious questions depend on the way in which we account for the origin and formation of our ideas. It is the diversity of systems on this point, more than anything else, which separates the German and French philosophers. It is easy to understand that if the difference is at the source, it will show itself in the whole course.

There are two methods of contemplating the metaphysics of the understanding: either in theory, or by results. The examination of the theory requires a capacity to which I do not pretend; but it is easy to observe the influence of a given metaphysical opinion on the development of mind and soul. Scripture tells us we must judge the prophets by their works. This maxim will also guide us amongst the different schools of philosophy; for all that which belongs to immorality can never be a mere sophism. This life can have no value unless it subserves to the religious education of our heart; unless it prepares for a higher destiny by the free choice of virtue on earth. Metaphysics, social institutions, arts, and sciences can only be prized in so far as they assist the moral perfecting of man. That is a touchstone that is given to both the learned and the ignorant; for if the knowledge of the means belongs only to the initiated, the results are plain to all men.

It is necessary to have the habit of the method of reasoning used in geometry fully to comprehend metaphysics. In this science, as in that of arithmetic, the smallest link missed destroys the whole chain of evidence. Metaphysical reasonings are more abstract but not less precise than those of mathematics, and yet their object is indefinite. In metaphysics the two most opposite faculties must be united, imagination and reasoning. It is a cloud that must be measured with the same exactitude as a field, and no study requires a greater intensity of attention. Nevertheless, in all these highest questions there is always a point of view open to every one, and it is that which I propose to seize and to present.

One day I was asking Fichte, one of the greatest thinkers of Germany, if he could not instruct me in his system of ethics rather than in his metaphysics. The one depends on the other, he replied to me. That saying was a deep one. It suggests all the motives for the interest one must needs take in philosophy.

One has been accustomed to consider philosophy as destructive of faith. If that were the case, it would be the true enemy of man. But that is not true of the doctrine of Plato, nor of that of the Germans. They regard feeling as the primitive fact of the soul, and philosophic reasoning as only destined to investigate the meaning of that fact.

The enigma of the universe has been the object of the fruitless meditations of many men worth indeed of admiration, since they felt themselves called to something higher than this world. Noble souls wander ceaselessly around the abyss of infinite thought, but the human mind wearies itself in vain in its efforts to scale the heavens.

The origin of thought has occupied all true philosophers. Are there two natures in man? If there is but one, is it soul or matter? If two, are ideas produced by the senses, or are they born in the soul, or are they a mixture of the action of external objects and of our spiritual faculties? To these three questions, which have in all time divided the philosophical world, is attached the further question which concerns virtue more immediately--whether necessity or free will govern the actions of men?

In the ancient world, necessity arose from the will of the gods; in modern times we attribute necessity to circumstances. Necessity among the ancients was but a foil to free-will, for the will of man struggled against events, and moral resistance was invincible. Modern fatalism, on the contrary, necessarily destroys the belief in free-will. If circumstances make us such as we are, we cannot oppose their ascendancy. If external objects are the cause of all that takes place in our soul, what independent thought can free us from their influence? The fatalism which came from heaven filled the soul with a holy terror, whilst the one that binds us to earth can but degrade us. What is the use of all this questioning? one may say; to which may be replied, Of what use is any other? For what can be more important for man than to know if he is truly responsible for his actions, and what is the connection of the power of the will with the rule of circumstances over it? What would conscience be if our habits alone had given it birth? If it were only the product of the sounds, the colours, the sense--in a word, of the general circumstances that had environed us in our infancy?

Metaphysics, which seek to discover what is the source of our ideas, must necessarily therefore powerfully affect the nature and strength of our will. This philosophy therefore is both the highest and most necessary knowledge, and the advocates of the supreme utility, that is, of moral modern utility, cannot afford to despise it.

Proofread by LNL, Sept. 2023