Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509

Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine (tehn), born at Vouziers, France, on April 21, 1828, was educated at the Collège Bourbon and the Normal School in Paris. By 1848 he had two baccalaureate degrees, one in science and one in letters. After leaving school he became a teacher at Toulon, but because of his political views he was appointed to successively poorer posts until he left teaching entirely in 1852 and devoted his time to study and writing. In 1853 he completed his Essai sur les fables de La Fontaine (essay on the fables of La Fontaine), written as the thesis for his doctorate at the Sorbonne. He immediately began an essay on Livy, which, entered in competition, won for him an award from the French Academy in 1855. Early in 1854, however, Taine had suffered a breakdown in health because of his arduous program of writing.

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After a period of enforced rest he resumed his literary activities, contributing articles on various subjects to periodicals and entering literary society. One series of articles, published as Les Philosophes classiques du XIX siècle en France (the classic philosophers of the nineteenth century in France), first suggested Taine’s theory of the application of scientific methods to psychological and metaphysical research. The book attracted considerable interest and helped to spread the author’s critical fame. A revised version of his doctoral essay on La Fontaine was published in 1861.

In 1864 Taine received two appointments, both of which gave him security and left him free to study and write. He became examiner at Saint-Cyr and professor of aesthetics and art history at L’École des Beaux Arts. In the same year he published a study of John Stuart Mill, English Positivism. In the meantime his famous History of English Literature had appeared, a work illustrating how determinism could be applied to the study of literature by utilizing the elements of race, milieu, and moment. From 1864 to 1870 Taine fulfilled his tasks at Saint-Cyr and lectured at L’École des Beaux Arts. A general study of the philosophy of art appeared in 1865, followed by volumes on various phases of art and the philosophy of art. He married the daughter of an architect in 1868.

The Franco-Prussian War ended that happy period in Taine’s life and turned his thinking to new paths. Anxious to ascertain the cause of France’s weakness and political instability, and feeling that they were traceable to the French Revolution of 1789, Taine began what was to be his greatest work, his study of the origins of contemporary France. He worked at it constantly, even giving up his professorship in 1884 to avail himself of more time; even so, he left it unfinished when he died in Paris in 1893. The methods that Taine used in this work were the same quasi-scientific and deterministic methods he had already used successfully in his studies of literature and art. The book marked Taine as one of the great intellectual leaders of the nineteenth century, the leader of a generation in France that sought in art, literature, and history truth that could be regarded as “objective” and “scientific.”

Early Life

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Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine was twelve years old when his father, an established attorney, died. Left with a modest inheritance and scholarly inclinations, the young man was sent to a boarding school in Paris. He loved learning and soon revealed a mind superior to both his fellow students and his teachers. Deeply influenced by the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, Taine had lost his religious faith by the age of fifteen. He took a naturalistic view of the world, in which the human intellect and nature are viewed as parts of a single process. History, if it was examined carefully, revealed a total structure that functioned on the same principles as nature. Consequently, societies grew and declined in an organic manner as did natural phenomena, and the historian or philosopher could find the laws of society, history, literature, or any human endeavor in the same way that scientists found such laws to operate in nature.

It was Taine’s devotion to Spinoza that led to his failing the agrégation (a series of examinations at the École Normale Supérieure) in 1851. His conservative examiners found his elucidation of Spinoza’s moral system to be “absurd.” In effect, Taine was flouting their most fundamental conceptions about free will and morality, for he argued that human beings were largely the products of their race, their time, and their environment. Taine seemed to attack the concept of individuality and of moral responsibility, apparently abandoning the notion that human beings created their own world in favor of a belief in determinism.

If Taine’s early academic career was hampered by his unorthodox views, his lectures on literature and art soon brought him attention both in France and abroad. He was the harbinger of the great naturalistic novelists of the nineteenth century such as Émile Zola, who took as their subject matter the way a culture shapes human character. Taine was one of the first men of letters to study science rigorously and to develop a human psychology based on his courses in physiology, botany, zoology, and anatomy. His work was greeted with enormous enthusiasm, since it promised to put the study of history, literature, and culture as a whole on an objective basis and free it from the arbitrary prejudices of the critic.

Life’s Work

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The publication of Taine’s Histoire de la littérature anglaise (1863-1864; History of English Literature, 1871) solidified his reputation as the leading philosophical critic of his age. Rather than simply present summary descriptions of the great English authors’ lives and works, Taine propounded the notion that English literary history was not solely the record of individual achievements. Rather, it had a shape and a structure that could be elucidated, so that each author became a part of a tradition and could be seen as the product of his environment and his age. Literature was no more an accident, or merely the manifestation of an individual mind, than were the elements of nature.

In collections of essays and lectures in the next ten years and in his travels across Europe, Taine promoted a methodology based, he believed, on the rigor of scientific principles. In a lecture on the nature of art (first given in Paris in 1864 and published in English translation in 1875), Taine established the rules of his method. According to Taine, one must first study the artist’s body of work and become familiar with the artist’s characteristic themes and techniques. Then one must examine the artistic tradition out of which the artist develops, taking note of how his work is illustrative of that tradition. Finally, it is necessary to explore the social climate, the intellectual influences, the race, the language, and the customs of the world the artist inhabits. Taken in total, this method, in Taine’s view, yields a comprehensive, unbiased view of art.

Taine’s view of art is historical: “Arts appear and disappear along with certain accompanying social and intellectual conditions,” he asserts in his lecture on the nature of art. The implication of his argument is that artistic genius is an intensified example of environmental influences. The artist is the finest expression of the whole culture but not a creation unto himself. All that makes William Shakespeare distinctive can be found in his contemporaries, Taine argues, but only Shakespeare expresses the exquisite combination and modulation of those elements that make a great artist. Returning to science as his guiding principle, Taine concludes: “The productions of the human mind, like those of animated nature, can only be explained by their milieu.” Such a statement, in his estimation, was a law he had discovered in his study of art, not an idea he foisted upon it. He offers his readers “facts,” for science “imposes no precepts, but ascertains and verifies laws.”

It must be remembered that Taine was writing at a time when eminent Victorian figures such as Thomas Carlyle were advancing a great man theory of history. The legacy of Romanticism had been to exult in individualism and to see society coalescing about the figures of extraordinary men. On the contrary, Taine contends, a writer such as Honoré de Balzac is great precisely because he creates a literature of characters who typify their times, their culture, and their race. Balzac’s La Comédie humaine (1829-1848; The Human Comedy, 1885-1893, 1896), his series of novels on French life, are the best history of his era because he is so attuned to the way in which his characters are manifestations of their society. Similarly, Stendhal repays study because he is so intimately aware of how individual psychology is linked to the history of his times. His characters are motivated by historical conditions; there is a logic to their imaginations that springs from their milieu.

In the last twenty years of his life, Taine shifted from an interest in art and philosophy to the writing of a history of contemporary France. Never deeply engaged by political issues, he nevertheless felt the need (given his historical frame of mind) to discover the roots of his culture. Because he believed that societies grow organically, and thus that individuals and events are all connected to one another, he devised a multivolume history beginning with the ancien régime (the era before the Revolution) and ending in his own day.

The French Revolution bothered Taine because it seemed more like a disruption than a continuation of history. The year 1789 was when France was radically changed from a society that evolved from a tradition to a new country that established a government according to universal, abstract principles. Taine did not believe that such principles existed, except insofar as they might be seen evolving in history. His profoundly conservative cast of mind could not allow for a catastrophic event that suddenly transforms the structure of a society. In his view, such an upheaval is doomed to failure.

Taine is not nostalgic about the past. Indeed his history of France documents the desperate situation of the people in the twenty-five years preceding the Revolution. He does not deny the need for change, but he deplores the anarchy and violence of the Revolution. Napoleon I restored order but at the cost of destroying liberty among various social classes. Having to deal with the failed revolutions of his own time (the upheaval of 1848, the Paris Commune of 1871), Taine was not sanguine about the way his countrymen effected change. His rather vague solution was to counsel a sympathetic understanding of the place of all classes and elements of society.

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