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Hippolyte Taine

Hippolyte TaineAKA Hippolyte Adolphe Taine

Born: 21-Apr-1828
Birthplace: Vouziers, Ardennes, France
Died: 5-Mar-1893
Location of death: Paris, France
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Historian, Critic

Nationality: France
Executive summary: Origines de la France Contemporaine

French critic and historian, the son of Jean Baptiste Taine, an attorney, was born at Vouziers on the 21st of April 1828. He remained with his father until his eleventh year, receiving instruction from him, and attending at the same time a small school which was under the direction of M. Pierson. In 1839, owing to the serious illness of his father, he was sent to an ecclesiastical pension at Rethel, where he remained eighteen months. J. B. Taine died on the 8th of September 1840, leaving a moderate competence to his widow, his two daughters, and his son. In the spring of 1841 Taine was sent to Paris, and entered as a boarder at the Institution Mathé, where the pupils attended the classes of the Collège Bourbon. Madame Taine followed her son to Paris. Taine was not slow to distinguish himself at school. When he was but fourteen years old he had already drawn up a systematic scheme of study, from which he never deviated. He allowed himself twenty minutes' playtime in the afternoon and an hour's music after dinner; the rest of the day was spent in work. In 1847, as vétéran de rhétorique, he carried off six first prizes in the general competition, the prize of honor, and three accessits; he won all the first school prizes, the three science prizes, as well as two prizes for dissertation. It was at the Collège Bourbon that he formed lifelong friendships with several of his school fellows who afterwards were to exercise a lasting influence upon him: among these were Prévost-Paradol, for many years his most intimate friend; Planat, the future "Marcelin" of the Vie Parisienne; and Cornélis de Witt, who introduced him to François Guizot when the latter returned from England in 1846.

Public education was the career which seemed to lie open to Taine after his remarkable school successes. In 1848 he accordingly took both his baccalaureate degrees, in science and letters, and passed first into the École Normale; among his rivals, who passed in at the same time, were About, Sarcey, Libert, and Suckau. Among those of Taine's fellow students who afterwards made a name in teaching, letters, journalism, the theater and politics, etc., were Challemel-Lacour, Chassang, Aubé, Perraud, Ferry, Weiss, Yung, Gaucher, Gréard, Prévost-Paradol and Levasseur. Taine made his influence felt among them at once; he amazed everybody not only by his erudition, but by his indefatigable energy; and not only by his prodigious industry, but by his facility both in French and Latin, in verse as well as in prose. He devoured Plato, Aristotle, the Fathers of the Church, and he analyzed and classified all that he read. He already knew English, and set himself to master German in order to read Hegel in the original. His brief leisure was devoted to music. The teachers of his second and third years, Deschanel, Géruzez, Berger, Havet, Filon, Saisset and Simon, were unanimous in praising the nobility of his character, the vigor and the fertility of his intellect, the distinction of style with which his work was always stamped; they were equally unanimous in finding fault with his unmeasured taste for classification, abstraction and formula. The director of studies, Vacherot, gauged his capacity at the end of his second year with prophetic insight. He prophesied that Taine would be a great savant, adding that he was not of this world, and that Spinoza's motto, "Vivre pour penser", would also be his. In the month of August 1851 he came forward as a candidate for the fellowship in philosophy in company with his friends Suckau and Cambier. Taine was declared to be admissible, together with five other candidates; but in the end only two candidates were admitted, his friend Suckau and Aubé. This decision created almost a scandal. Taine's reputation had already spread beyond the college. Everybody had taken for granted that he would be admitted first. The fact was that his examiners sincerely considered his ideas to be absurd, his style and method of handling a subject dry and tiresome.

The Minister of Public Instruction, however, judged Taine less severely, and appointed him provisionally to the chair of philosophy at the college of Toulon on 6th October 1851; but he never entered upon his duties, as he did not wish to be so far from his mother, and on 13th October he was transferred to Nevers as a substitute. Two months later, on the 27th December, occurred the coup d'état, after which every university professor was regarded with suspicion; many were suspended, others resigned. In Taine's opinion it was the duty of every man, after the plebiscite of the 10th December, to accept the new state of affairs in silence; but the universities were not only asked for their submission, but also for their approbation. At Nevers they were requested to sign a declaration expressing their gratitude towards the President of the Republic for the measures he had taken. Taine was the only one to refuse his endorsement. He was at once marked down as a revolutionary, and in spite of his success as a teacher and of his popularity among his pupils, he was transferred on 29th March 1852 to the lycée of Poitiers as professor of rhetoric, with a sharp warning to be careful for the future. Here, in spite of an abject compliance with the stringent rules imposed upon him, he remained in disfavor, and on 25th September 1852 he was appointed assistant professor of the sixth class at the lycée of Besançon. This time he could bear it no longer, and he applied for leave, which was readily granted him on 9th October 1852, and renewed every year until his decennial appointment came to an end. It was in this painful year, during which Taine worked harder than ever, that the fellowship of philosophy was abolished. As soon as Taine heard of this he at once began to prepare himself for the fellowship in letters, and to work hard at Latin and Greek themes. On 10th April 1852 a decree was published by which three years of preliminary study were necessary before a candidate could compete for the fellowship, but by which a doctor's degree in letters counted as two years. Taine immediately set to work at his dissertations for the doctor's degree; on the 8th June (1852) they were finished, and 150 pages of French prose on the Sensations and a Latin essay were sent to Paris. On the 15th July he was informed that the tendency of his Essay on the Sensations made it impossible for the Sorbonne to accept it, so for the moment he laid this work aside, and on 1st August he began an essay on La Fontaine. He then started for Paris, where an appointment which was equivalent to a suspension awaited him. His university career was over, and he was obliged to devote himself to letters as a profession. In a few months his two dissertations, De personis Platonicis and the essay on La Fontaine's fables were finished, and on 30th May 1853 he took his doctor's degree. This was the last act of his university career; his life as a man of letters was now to begin.

No sooner had he deposited his dissertations at the Sorbonne than he began to write an essay on Livy for one of the competitions set by the Academy. Here again the moral tendency of his work excited lively opposition, and after much discussion the competition was postponed until 1855; Taine toned down some of the censured passages, and the work was crowned by the Academy in 1855. The essay on Livy was published in 1856 with the addition of a preface setting forth determinist doctrines, much to the disgust of the Academy. In the beginning of 1854 Taine, after six years of uninterrupted efforts, broke down and was obliged to rest: but he found a way of utilizing his enforced leisure; he let himself be read to, and for the first time his attention was attracted to the French Revolution; he acquired also a knowledge of physiology in following a course of medicine. In 1854 he was ordered for his health to the Pyrenees, and Hachette, the publisher, asked him to write a guidebook of the Pyrenees. Taine's book was a collection of vivid descriptions of nature, historical anecdotes, graphic sketches, satirical notes on the society which frequents watering places, and underlying the whole book was a vein of stern philosophy; it was published in 1855.

The year 1854 was an important one in the life of Taine. His enforced leisure, the necessity of mixing with his fellow men, and of travelling, tore him from his cloistered existence and brought him into more direct contact with reality. His method of expounding philosophy underwent a change. Instead of employing the method of deduction, of starting with the most abstract idea and following it step by step to its concrete realization, henceforward he starts from the concrete reality and proceeds through a succession of facts until he arrives at the central idea. His style also became vivid and full of color; he shows that he is acutely sensible to the outward manifestations of things and depicts them in all their relief. Simultaneously with this change in his works his life became less self-centered and solitary. He lived with his mother in the Isle Saint-Louis, and now he once more associated with his old friends, Planat, Prévost-Paradol and About. He made the acquaintance of Renan, and through Renan that of Sainte-Beuve, and he renewed friendly relations with Havet, who for three months had been his teacher at the École Normale. These years (1855-56) were Taine's periods of greatest activity and happiness in production. On 1st February 1855 he published an article on Jean de La Bruyère in the Revue de l'Instruction Publique. In the same year he published seventeen articles in this review and twenty in 1856 on the most diverse subjects, ranging from Menander to Macaulay. On 1st August 1855 he published a short article in the Revue des Deux Mondes on Jean Reynaud. On 3rd July 1856 appeared his first article in the Débats on Saint-Simon, and from 1857 onwards he was a constant contributor to that journal. But he was seeking a larger field. On 17th January 1856 his history of English literature was announced, and from 14th January 1855 to 9th October 1856 he published in the Revue de l'Instruction Publique a series of articles on the French philosophers of the 19th century, which appeared in a volume at the beginning of 1857. In this volume he energetically attacked the principles which underlie the philosophy of Victor Cousin and his school with an irony which amounts at times to irreverence. The book closes with the sketch of a system in which the methods of the exact sciences are applied to psychological and metaphysical research. The work itself met with instantaneous success, and Taine became famous. Up until that moment the only important articles on his work were an article by About on the Voyage aux Pyrénees, and two articles by Guizot on his Livy. After the publication of Les Philosophes Français, the articles of Sainte-Beuve in the Moniteur (9th and 16th March 1856), of Sherer in the Bibliothèque Universelle (1858), and of Planche in the Revue des Deux Mondes (1st April 1857) show that from this moment he had taken a place in the front rank of the new generation of men of letters. Caro published an attack on Taine and Renan, called "L'Idée de Dieu dans une Jeune École", in the Revue Contemporaine of 15th June 1857. Taine answered all attacks by publishing new books. In 1858 appeared a volume of Essais de Critique et d'Histoire; in 1860 La Fontaine et ses Fables, and a second edition of his Philosophes Français. During all this time he was persevering at his history of English literature up to the time of Lord Byron. It was from that moment that Taine's influence began to be felt; he was in constant intercourse with Renan, Sainte-Beuve, Sherer, Théophile Gautier, Gustave Flaubert, Saint-Victor and the Goncourts, and gave up a little of his time to his friends and to the calls of society. In 1862 Taine came forward as a candidate for the chair of literature at the Polytechnic School, but De Loménie was elected in his place.

The following year, however, in March, Marshal Randon, Minister of War, appointed him examiner in history and German to the military academy of Saint Cyr, and on 26th October 1864 he succeeded Viollet-le-Duc as professor of the history of art and aesthetics at the École des Beaux Arts. Renan's appointment at the Collège de France and Taine's candidature for the Polytechnic School had alarmed Mgr. Dupanloup, who in 1863 issued an Avertissement à la Jeunesse et aux Pères de Famille, which consisted of a violent attack upon Taine, Renan and Littré: Renan was suspended, and Taine's appointment to Saint Cyr would have been cancelled but for the intervention of the Princess Mathilde. In December 1863 his Histoire de la Littérature Anglaise was published, prefaced by an introduction in which Taine's determinist views were developed in the most uncompromising fashion. In 1864 Taine sent this work to the Academy to compete for the Prix Bordin. M. de Falloux and Mgr. Dupanloup attacked Taine with violence; he was warmly defended by Guizot: finally, after three days of discussion, it was decided that as the prize could not be awarded to Taine, it should not be awarded at all. This was the last time Taine sought the suffrages of the Academy save as a candidate, in which quality he appeared once in 1874 and failed to be elected, Mézières, Caro and Dumas being the rival candidates; and twice in 1878, when, after having failed in May, H. Martin being chosen, he was at last elected in November in place of M. Lomenie. In 1866 he received the Legion of Honor, and on the conclusion of his lectures in Oxford on Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine, the University conferred upon him (1871) its degree of D.C.L.

The period from 1864 to 1870 was perhaps the happiest of Taine's life. He derived pleasure from his employment at the Beaux Arts and Saint Cyr, which left ample leisure for travel and research. In 1864 he spent February to May in Italy, which furnished him with several articles for the Revue des Deux Mondes from December 1864 to May 1866. In 1865 appeared La Philosophie de l'Art, in 1867 L'Idéal dans l'Art, followed by essays on the philosophy of art in the Netherlands (1868), in Greece (1869), all of which short works were republished later (in 1880) as a work on the philosophy of art. In 1865 he published his Nouveaux Essais de Critique et d'Histoire; from 1863 to 1865 appeared in La Vie Parisienne the notes he had taken for the past two years on Paris and on French society under the sub-title of "Vie et Opinions de Thomas Frédéric Graindorge", published in a volume in 1867, the most personal of his books, and an epitome of his ideas. In 1867 appeared a supplementary volume to his history of English literature, and in January 1870 his Théorie de l'Intelligence. In 1868 he married Mademoiselle Denuelle, the daughter of a distinguished architect.

He had made a long stay in England in 1858, and had brought back copious notes, which, after a second journey in 1871, he published in 1872 under the title of Notes sur l'Angleterre. On 28th June 1870 he started to visit Germany, but his journey was abruptly interrupted by the outbreak of the war; his project had to be abandoned, and Taine, deeply shaken by the events of 1870, felt that it was the duty of every Frenchman to work solely in the interests of France. On 9th October 1870 he published an article on "L'Opinion en Allemagne et les Conditions de la Paix", and in 1871 a pamphlet on Le Suffrage Universel; and it was about this time also that the more or less vague ideas which he had entertained of writing on the French Revolution returned in a new and definite shape. He determined to trace in the Revolution of 1789 the reason of the political instability from which modern France was suffering. From the autumn of 1871 to the end of his life his great work, Les Origines de la France Contemporaine, occupied all his time, and in 1884 he gave up his professorship in order to devote himself wholly to his task; but he succumbed before it was finished, dying in Paris on 5th March 1893. In the portion of the work which remained to be finished Taine had intended to draw a picture of French society and of the French family, and to trace the development of science in the 19th century. He had also planned a complementary volume to his Théorie de l'Intelligence, to be entitled Un Traité de la Volonté.

The Origines de la France Contemporaine, Taine's monumental achievement, stands apart from the rest of his work. His object was to explain the existing constitution of France by studying the more immediate causes of the present state of affairs -- the last years of what is called the Ancien Régime, the Revolution and the beginning of the 19th century, to each of which several volumes were assigned. He also had another object, although he was perhaps hardly conscious of it, which was to study man in one of his pathological crises; for Taine makes an investigation into human nature; and the historian checks and endorses the pessimism and misanthropy of Graindorge. The problem which Taine set himself was to inquire why the centralization of modern France is so great that all individual initiative is practically nonexistent, and why the central power, whether it be in the hands of a man or of an assembly, is the sole and only power; also to expose the error underlying two prevalent ideas: (1) That the Revolution destroyed absolutism and set up liberty; the Revolution, he points out, merely caused absolutism to change hands. (2) That the Revolution destroyed liberty instead of establishing it; that France was less centralized before 1789 than after 1800. This also he shows to be untrue. France was already a centralized country before 1789, and grew rapidly more and more so from the time of Louis XIV onwards. The Revolution merely gave it a new form.

The Origines differ from the rest of Taine's work in that, although he applies to a period of history the method which he had already applied to literature and the arts, he is unable to approach his subject in the same spirit; he loses his philosophic calm; he cannot help writing as a man and a Frenchman, and he lets his feelings have play; but what the work loses thus in impartiality it gains in life.

Taine was the philosopher of the epoch which succeeded the era of romanticism in France. The romantic era had lasted from 1820 to 1850. It had been the result of a reaction against the classical school, or rather against the conventionality and lifeless rules of this school in its decadence. The romantic school introduced the principle of individual liberty both as regards matter and style; it was a brilliant epoch, rich in men of genius and fruitful of beautiful work, but towards 1850 it had reached its decline, and a young generation, tired in turn of its conventions, its hollow rhetoric, its pose of melancholy, arose, armed with new principles and fresh ideals. Their ideal was truth; their watchword liberty; to get as near as possible to scientific truth became their object. Taine was the mouthpiece of this period, or rather one of its most authoritative spokesmen.

Many attempts have been made to apply one of Taine's favourite theories to himself, and to define his predominant and preponderant faculty. Some critics have held that it was the power of logic, a power which was at the same time the source of his weakness and of his strength. He had a passion for abstraction. "Every man and every book", he said, "can be summed up in three pages, and those three pages can be summed up in three lines." He considers everything as a mathematical problem, whether it be the universe or a work of art: "C'est beau comme un syllogisme", he said of a sonata of Beethoven. Taine's theory of the universe, his doctrine, his method of writing criticism and history, his philosophical system, are all the result of this logical gift, this passion for reasoning; classification and abstraction. But Taine's imaginative quality was as remarkable as his power of logic; hence the most satisfactory definition of Taine's predominating faculty would be one which comprehended the two gifts. Lemaitre gave us this definition when he called Taine a poète-logicien; Bourget likewise when he spoke of Taine's imagination philosophique, and Barnes when he said that Taine had the power of dramatizing abstractions. For Taine was a poet as well as a logician; and it is possible that the portion of his work which is due to his poetic and imaginative gift may prove the most lasting.

Taine's doctrine consisted in an inexorable determinism, a negation of metaphysics; as a philosopher he was a positivist. Enamored as he was of the precise and the definite, the spiritualist philosophy in vogue in 1845 positively maddened him. He returned to the philosophy of the 18th century, especially to Condillac and to the theory of transformed sensation. Taine presented this philosophy in a vivid, vigorous and polemical form, and in concrete and colored language which made his works more accessible, and consequently more influential, than those of Auguste Comte. Hence to the men of 1860 Taine was the true representative of positivism.

Taine's critical work is considerable; but all his works of criticism are works of history. Hitherto history had been to criticism as the frame is to the picture; Taine reversed the process, and studied literary personages merely as specimens and productions of a certain epoch. He started with the axiom that the complete expression of a society is to be found in its literature, and that the way to obtain an idea of a society is to study its literature. The great writer is not an isolated being; he is the result of a thousand causes; firstly, of his race; secondly, of his environment; thirdly, of the circumstances in which he was placed while his talents were developing. Hence Race, Environment, Time -- these are the three things to be studied before the man is taken into consideration. Taine completed this theory by another, that of the predominating faculty, the faculté maîtresse. This consists in believing that every man, and especially every great man, is dominated by one faculty so strong as to subordinate all others to it, which is the center of the man's activity and leads him into one particular channel. It is this theory, obviously the result of his love of abstraction, which is the secret of Taine's power and of his deficiencies. He always looked for this salient quality, this particular channel, and when he had once made up his mind what it was, he massed up all the evidence which went to corroborate and to illustrate this one quality, and necessarily omitted all conflicting evidences. The result was an inclination to lay stress on one side of a character or a question to the exclusion of all others.

Taine served science unfalteringly, without looking forward to any possible fruits or result. In his work we find neither enthusiasm nor bitterness, neither hope nor yet despair; merely a hopeless resignation. The study of mankind was Taine's incessant preoccupation, and he followed the method already described. He made a searching investigation into humanity, and his verdict was one of unqualified condemnation. In "Thomas Graindorge" we see him aghast at the spectacle of man's brutality and woman's folly. In man he sees the primeval savage, the gorilla, the carnivorous and lascivious animal, or else the maniac with diseased body and disordered mind, to whom health, either of mind or body, is but an accident. Taine is appalled by the bête humaine; and in all his works we are conscious, as in the case of Voltaire, of the terror with which the possibilities of human folly inspire him. It may be doubted whether Taine's system, to which he attached so much importance, is really the most lasting part of his work, just as it may be doubted whether a sonata of Beethoven bears any resemblance to a syllogism. For Taine was an artist as well as a logician, an artist who saw and depicted what he saw in vital and glowing language. From the artist we get his essay on La Fontaine, his articles on Honoré de Balzac and Jean Racine, and the passages on Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the Ancien Régime. Moreover, not only was Taine an artist who had not escaped from the influence of the romantic tradition, but he was by his very method and style a romanticist. His emotions were deep if not violent, his vision at times almost lurid. He sees everything in startling relief and sometimes in exaggerated outline, as did Balzac and Victor Hugo. Hence his predilection for exuberance, strength and splendor; his love of Shakespeare, Titian and Rubens; his delight in bold, highly-colored themes.

Taine's influence was great, and twofold. On his own generation it was considerable; during the epoch in which he lived, while a wave of pessimism was sweeping over French literature, he was the high priest of the cult of misanthropy, in which even science was held to be but an idol, worthy of respect and devotional service, but not of faith. In its turn came the reaction against positivism and pessimism, and an attempt at spiritual renascence. Around a man so remarkable as Taine a school is certain to form itself; Taine's school, which was one of positivist doctrines, rigid systems and resigned hopelessness, was equally certain to produce at some time or another a school of determined opponents to its doctrines and system. If, therefore, the tone which pervades the works of Zola, Bourget and Maupassant can be immediately attributed to the influence we call Taine's, it is also the influence of Taine which is one of the ultimate causes of the protest embodied in the subsequent reaction.

Father: Jean Baptiste Taine (attorney, d. 8-Sep-1840)
Wife: Mademoiselle Denuelle (m. 1868)

    University: École Normale, Paris

    French Academy 1878


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