Élie Halévy Essay - Critical Essays

Halévy, Élie


Élie Halévy 1870-1937

French historian and philosopher.

Halévy was a noted twentieth-century historian whose six-volume Histoire du peuple anglais au XIXesiècle (1912-47; A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century) is considered one of the most influential studies of modern English social history. In this work, Halévy forwarded the thesis that England was spared from the violent revolutions in France of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries due to the intercession of Methodism as a socially stabilizing force. Among his many other contributions as a philosopher and historian, Halévy produced a notable examination of English Utilitarianism, and substantial assessments of twentieth-century liberalism, socialism, and totalitarianism.

Biographical Information

Halévy was born in Etretat on 6 September 1870, the son of Ludovic Halévy, a playwright. He was educated in Paris at the Lycée Condorcet and later attended the Ecole Normale Supérieure. In 1892 Halévy was invited to lecture on English politics at the Ecole des Sciences Politiques, and maintained a professorship at the school for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, he co-founded and co-edited the scholarly journal Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale in 1893 and received his doctorate of philosophy in 1901 after submitting the first volume of his La Formation du radicalisme philosophique: La Revolution et la doctrine de l'utilité (1789-1815) (1900; The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism) as his thesis. After making frequent visits to Great Britain as part of his professional activities, Halévy began in 1901 the work that was to occupy the majority of his career, A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century, the first volume of which was published in 1912. The ensuing years were devoted to teaching, to scholarship, and to this and other works of history and philosophy. Halévy died at Sucy-en-Brie in August of 1937, having completed five more volumes of his masterwork.

Major Works

The multiple volumes of Halévy's A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century feature a thorough study of English social history focusing on the years to 1815 to 1852 and 1895 to 1914. In the first volume of the work, subtitled L'Angleterre on 1815, Halévy considers English political and social institutions of the eighteenth century and proposes the controversial thesis that England avoided revolutionary chaos during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries due to the balancing presence of religious nonconformity in the form of evangelical Protestantism. Halévy's Epilogue to the History deals with England in the years leading up to World War I, and offers an interpretation of British nationalism and socialism, which Halévy contrasts with the more conservative and authoritarian varieties practiced by the major nations of continental Europe. Among Halévy's other works, his early Growth of Philosophic Radicalism studies British utilitarian thought, principally the philosophical and economic theories of Jeremy Bentham and his followers. In the work, Halévy traces lines of development in economics and constitutionalism from their origins in the Enlightenment to nineteenth and twentieth century tensions between personal liberty and heightened social organization. L'Ére des tyrannies: Études sur le socialisme et la guerre (1938; The Era of Tyrannies: Essays on Socialism and War) focuses on changes in European political organization following World War I. In these essays, Halévy emphasizes increases in state power and nationalistic furor at the expense of personal liberty. Although he uses the term tyranny in this volume, Halévy's analysis of the rise of fascism and Bolshevism in the twentieth century remains one of earliest explorations of totalitarianism.

Critical Reception

The areas of principal critical interest in regard to Halévy's historical works lie in the contemporary estimation of his A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century and the so-called “Halévy thesis” it contains. On one end of the spectrum, Myrna Chase has suggested that the thesis can be viewed as a viable alternative to Marxist materialist history in the case of English industrial, social, and political development. Other, more highly critical views have also been forwarded, as the thesis has sparked considerable contention among historians, many of whom have found considerable flaws in Halévy's historical conclusions. Despite reassessments since Halévy's death, however, scholars continue to perceive A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century as a masterpiece of English history. Likewise, Halévy's other works, including Growth of Philosophic Radicalism and The Era of Tyrannies: Essays on Socialism and War, have been praised as significant and enduring contributions to modern European social, economic, and intellectual history.

Principal Works

La Théorie platonicienne des sciences (philosophy) 1896

La Formation du radicalisme philosophique: La Revolution et la doctrine de l'utilité (1789-1815) [The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism] (philosophy) 1900

Thomas Hodgskin (1787-1869) (biography) 1903

L'Angleterre et son empire (history) 1905

La Naissance du methodisme en Angleterre [The Birth of Methodism in England] (essay) 1906

Histoire du peuple anglais au XIXesiècle. 6 vols. [A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century] (history) 1912-47

La Part de la France: Lettre ouverte d'un soldat français aux soldats américains (essay) 1917

The World Crisis of 1914-18: An Interpretation (lecture) 1930

L'Ère des tyrannies: Études sur le socialisme et la guerre [The Era of Tyrannies: Essays on Socialism and War] (essays) 1938

Histoire du socialisme européen: Redigée d'après des notes de cours par un groupe d'amis et d'élèves (history) 1948

Correspondence, 1891-1937 (letters) 1996


C. E. Fryer (review date 1913)

SOURCE: A review of Histoire de Peuple Anglais au XIXe Siecle, Vol. I, in The American Historical Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, January, 1913, pp. 367-68.

[In the following review, Fryer praises the originality of Halévy's thesis concerning nineteenth-century English history, while acknowledging the logical shortcomings of his arguments.]

This volume [Histoire du Peuple Anglais au XIXe Siècle. Tome I. L'Angleterre en 1815] is the first of four projected by M. Halévy as a history of the English people in the nineteenth century. The undertaking is monumental. It deserves notice because M. Halévy is one of the first writers to essay a definitive synthesis of the monograph material for the period. But, to judge from this first installment, his interpretation will disregard traditional views and offer suggestions that are quite new. Already, in this introductory volume, dealing with English society at the close of the Napoleonic struggle, he advances a theory the originality of which is apparent. He is trying to determine why England, in contrast to the Continental states of Europe, has enjoyed throughout the nineteenth century a public opinion that invariably maintains itself within conservative and non-revolutionary limits. The question draws from M. Halévy an exhaustive review of the institutional side of English life—this being the substance of the first volume.

The commonplace view that English political institutions make for stability he rejects entirely: in the sphere of economics he sees in distribution,...

(The entire section is 670 words.)

H. W. C. Davis (review date 1927)

SOURCE: A review of Histoire du Peuple Anglais au XIXe Siecle: Epilogue, in History, October, 1927, pp. 269-70.

[In the following review, Davis surveys the major points of Halévy's Histoire du peuple anglais au XIXe siècle.]

M. Halévy has turned aside (not, we hope, indefinitely) from his great work on nineteenth-century England to write the epilogue of that unfinished story. The epilogue [of Histoire du Peuple Anglais au XIXe Siècle] is by no means an improvisation. It has been simmering in his mind for thirty years, and its materials have been laboriously collected in the course of his duties as a teacher at the...

(The entire section is 1032 words.)

Emery Neff (review date 1929)

SOURCE: A review of The Growth of Philosophical Radicalism, in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. XXVI, No. 15, July 18, 1929, pp. 414-17.

[In the following review, Neff notes the historical and philosophical significance of Halévy's study of English Utilitarianism, The Growth of Philosophical Radicalism.]

The appearance of M. Halévy's Formation du Radicalisme Philosophique in English twenty-five years after its publication may be taken as discouraging evidence of the slowness of international communication of ideas. Or it may seem rather the more discouraging that a translation should be necessary to introduce so important a work on an English subject to...

(The entire section is 1190 words.)

D. C. Somervell (review date 1933)

SOURCE: A review of Histoire de Peuple Anglais au XIXe Siecle: Epilogue, in History, Vol. XVIII, No. 71, October, 1933, pp. 275-76.

[In the following review of the Epilogue and second volume of Halévy's Histoire du peuple anglais au XIXe siècle, Somervell observes a few minor errors in what he calls “a truly admirable piece of work.”]

The qualities of M. Halévy's splendid History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century have been made known by previous volumes. The first was an elaborate panorama of English Society in 1815. Two volumes then followed carrying the story down to 1841, at which point the author broke off in...

(The entire section is 621 words.)

Ernest Barker (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: “Élie Halévy,” in The English Historical Review, Vol. LIII, No. CCIX, January, 1938, pp. 79-87.

[In the following essay, Barker recounts Halévy's life and work as a historian and philosopher.]

Élie Halévy was born at Etretat on 6 September 1870, two days after the proclamation of the French Republic. (His mother had fled there from Paris before the final advance of the German armies.) His father, Ludovic (1834-1908), the nephew of a famous Jewish composer of operas, was himself a writer of libretti, especially for the music of Offenbach; and indeed music was a tradition in the family. But Ludovic Halévy was a man of many sides. He had inherited from...

(The entire section is 4175 words.)

J. R. M. Butler (review date 1948)

SOURCE: “Élie Halévy,” in The English Historical Review, Vol. LIII, No. CCIX, January, 1948, pp. 79-87.

[In the following review, Butler examines the principal themes of Halévy's study of England from 1841 to 1852, including the triumphs of free trade and the middle class.]

When Professor Élie Halévy brought out the third volume of his well-known history in 1923, it was his intention to complete the work in four more volumes, of which the next to appear would be entitled ‘La politique libre-échangiste (1841-1865)’, and the last would bring the story down to 1895. The volumes, however, which in fact appeared next, in 1926 and 1932, were not those...

(The entire section is 3323 words.)

W. L. Burn (review date 1948)

SOURCE: A review of Histoire de Peuple Anglais au XIXe Siecle, Vol. IV, in History, Vol. Nos. 117 & 118, February & June, 1948, pp. 155-57.

[In the following review of Histoire, volume four, Burn acknowledges the considerable importance of Halévy's work to the study of English history, and notes the subjects left unexamined after Halévy's death.]

We cannot read this book [Histoire du peuple anglais au xixe siècle: Pt. iv. Le milieu du siècle, 1841-52.] without feeling more acutely than ever before, the damaging effect upon the study of English history of Élie Halévy's death in August 1937. It is as though one saw the...

(The entire section is 764 words.)

R. K. Webb (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: A preface to The Era of Tyrannies, by Élie Halévy, translated by R. K. Webb, Anchor Books, 1965, pp. vii-xvii.

[In the following preface to his translation of The Era of Tyrannies, Webb discusses the method of Halévy's sociological writing.]

Élie Halévy (1870-1937) is best known to American and English readers for his contributions to our knowledge of English history from the end of the eighteenth century to the twentieth century, contributions with a scope, power, and influence unmatched by the work of any English historian of the period. But the English-speaking world has remained largely unaware of Halévy's equally strong interest in socialism....

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Gertrude Himmelfarb (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: “The Victorian Ethos: Before and After Victoria,” in Victorian Minds, Alfred A. Knopf, 1968, pp. 275-99.

[In the following essay, Himmelfarb presents a view of Victorian England informed by Halévy's historical thesis, then proceeds to examine contemporary analysis of this thesis.]

Where once it was the fashion to vilify “Victorianism,” today one might be tempted to deny that there had ever been such a thing. The period, one might argue, was too long, the tempo of change too rapid, the cast of characters too motley to permit of generalization. How can we lump together sixty-four years of economic, political, social, and cultural revolution? How can we...

(The entire section is 7654 words.)

J. D. Walsh (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “Élie Halévy and the Birth of Methodism,” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 25, 1975, pp. 1-20.

[In the following essay, Walsh evaluates Halévy's observations on the creation and growth of the Methodist movement in 1738-39.]

Probably the most famous passages in Halévy's work are those attributing England's immunity from revolution after 1789 to the influence of Methodism. The ‘Halévy thesis’ encouraged, though it did not begin, a debate which still fizzes, jumps and occasionally explodes. Little attention has been given to Halévy's first essay in Methodist history, The Birth of Methodism in England, which appeared in...

(The entire section is 8295 words.)

Francisco Vergara (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “A Critique of Elie Halévy,” in Philosophy, Vol. 73, No. 283, January, 1998, pp. 97-111.

[In the following essay, Vergara maintains that Halévy, in his Growth of Philosophical Radicalism, “completely misunderstood the writings of the English and Scottish utilitarian philosophers.”]

The prestigious French publisher Presses Universitaires de France has recently brought out (November 1995) a new French edition of Elie Halévy's well known book The Growth of Philosophical Radicalism, first published in France in three volumes as La formation du radicalisme philosophique (1901-1904) and translated into English in 1926.1 The...

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Further Reading


Chase, Myrna. Elie Halévy: An Intellectual Biography. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980, 293 p.

Critical biography of Halévy containing an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources.


Barraclough, Geoffery. “Historian at the End of His Tether.” The New York Review of Books 5, No. 11 (January 6, 1966): 20-22.

Views Halévy as a sociologist, discusses his ideas on socialism, and observes the limitations of his historical theories.

Brebner, J. Bartlet. “Halévy: Diagnostician of Modern Britain.” Thought XXIII, No. 88...

(The entire section is 530 words.)