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Critical Miscellanies (Vol. 3 of 3) Essay 8: France in the Eighteenth Century   By: (1838-1923)

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Essay 8: France in the Eighteenth Century



M. Taine as a man of letters 261

Political preparation needed for the historian 262

M. Taine's conception of history 265

Its shortcomings 266

Chief thesis of his book 268

The expression of this thesis not felicitous 269

Its substance unsatisfactory 272

Cardinal reason for demurring to it 275

Adaptation of the literary teaching of the eighteenth century to the social crisis 277

Why that teaching prevailed in France while it withered in England 280

Social Elements. The French Court 282

The Nobility 283

M. Taine exaggerates the importance of literature 286

Historic doctrine could have saved nothing 287

Lesson of the American Revolution 288

Conclusion 289


The announcement that one of the most ingenious and accomplished men of letters in Europe was engaged upon a history of the French Revolution, raised some doubts among those who have thought most about the qualifications proper to the historian. M. Taine has the quality of the best type of a man of letters; he has the fine critical aptitude for seizing the secret of an author's or an artist's manner, for penetrating to dominant and central ideas, for marking the abstract and general under accidental forms in which they are concealed, for connecting the achievements of literature and art with facts of society and impulses of human character and life. He is the master of a style which, if it seems to lack the breadth, the firmness, the sustained and level strength of great writing, is yet always energetic, and fresh, and alive with that spontaneous reality and independence of interest which distinguishes the genuine writer from the mere weaver of sentences and the servile mechanic of the pen. The matter and form alike of M. Taine's best work and we say best, for his work is by no means without degrees and inequalities of worth prove that he has not shrunk from the toil and austerity of the student, from that scorn of delight and living of laborious days, by which only can men either get command of the art of just and finished expression, or gather to themselves much knowledge.

[1] Les Origines de la France Contemporaine . Tom. i. L'Ancien RĂ©gime. Par H. Taine. Paris: Hachette. 1876.

But with all its attractiveness and high uses of its own, the genius for literature in its proper sense is distinct from the genius for political history. The discipline is different, because the matter is different. To criticise Rousseau's Social Contract requires one set of attainments, and to judge the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly or the Convention requires a set of quite different attainments. A man may have the keenest sense of the filiation of ideas, of their scope and purport, and yet have a very dull or uninterested eye for the play of material forces, the wayward tides of great gatherings of men, the rude and awkward methods that sometimes go to the attainment of wise political ends.

It would perhaps not be too bold to lay down this proposition; that no good social history has ever been written by a man who has not either himself taken a more or less active part in public affairs, or else been an habitual intimate of persons who were taking such a part on a considerable scale... Continue reading book >>

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