Front Page Titles (by Subject) PREFACE. - The Origins of Contemporary France: The Modern Regime, vol. II
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
PREFACE. - Hippolyte Taine, The Origins of Contemporary France: The Modern Regime, vol. II 
The Origins of Contemporary France: The Modern Regime, vol. II, trans. John Durand (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1894).
About Liberty Fund:
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
“To treat of the Church, the School, and the Family, describe the modern milieu and note the facilities and obstacles which a society like our own encounters in this milieu,” such was the programme of the last1 section of the “Origins of Contemporary France.” The preceding volume is a continuation of the first part of this programme; after the commune and the department, after local societies, the author was to study moral and intellectual bodies in France as organized by Napoleon. This study completed, this last step taken, he was about to reach the summit. He was about to view France as a whole, to comprehend it no longer through a detail of its organs, in a state of formation, but its actual existence; no longer isolated, but plunged, along with other occidental nations, into the modern milieu, experiencing with them the effects of one general cause which changed the physical and intellectual condition of men; which dissolved sentiments formerly grouping them together, more or less capable at length of adapting themselves to new circumstances and of organizing according to a new type suited to the coming age that now opens before us.
Only a part of this last volume was written, that which relates to the Church and to public instruction. Death intervened and suddenly arrested the pen. M. Taine, at this moment, was about completing his analysis of subordinate societies in France.—For those who have followed him thus far it is already clear that the great defect of the French community is the dissociation of individuals, isolated, dwindling, and prostrate at the feet of the all-powerful State, rendered incapable by remote historical causes, and yet more so by modern legislation, of “spontaneously grouping around a common interest.” Very probably—and of this we may judge by two sketches of a plan, undoubtedly provisional, but the ideas of which were long settled in his mind—M. Taine would have first described this legislation and defined its principles and general characteristics. He meant to show it more and more systematic, deliberately hostile to collective enterprise, considering secondary bodies not as “distinct, special organs,” endowed with a life of their own, “maintained and stimulated by private initiation,” but as agents of the State “which fashions them after a common pattern, imposes on them their form and prescribes their work.”—This done, this defect pointed out, the author was to enumerate the consequences flowing from it, the social body entirely changed, “not only in its proportions but in its innermost texture,” every tendency weakened by which individuals form groups that are to last longer than themselves, each man reduced to self, the egoistic instinct developed while the social instinct wastes away for want of nourishment, his daily imaginings confined solely to merely life-long aims, his political incapacity “lacking spheres of action in which he may train himself according to his experiences and faculties,” his listlessness in the inaction and ennui of the French province or his thirst for pleasure and success,—in sum, an organic impoverishment of all the cohesive faculties culminating in the destruction of natural centres of grouping and, consequently, in political instability.1
One association of special import remains, the most spontaneous, the deepest rooted, so old that all others derive from it, so essential that in any attack upon it we see even the substance of the social body decaying and diminishing. On the nature of the Family; on its profound physiological origins; on its necessary rôle in the prolongation and “perpetuation of the individual” by affording him “the sole remedy for death”; on its primitive constitution among men of our own race; on its historic organization and development “around the fireside”; on the necessity of its subsistence and continuance in order to insure the duration of this fireside; on its other needs, M. Taine, with his knowledge of man and of his history, had given a good deal of thought to fundamental ideas analogous to those which he has consecrated to the classic spirit, to the origin of honor and conscience, to the essence of local society, so many stones, as it were, shaped by him from time to time and deeply implanted as the foundations of his criticism of institutions. Having set forth the proper character and permanent wants of the Family he was able to study the legislation affecting it, and, first, “the Jacobin laws on marriage, divorce, paternal authority and on the compulsory public education of children; next, the Napoleonic laws, those which still govern us, the Civil Code” with that portion of it in which the equality and levelling spirit is preserved, along with “its tendency to regard property as a means of enjoyment” instead of the starting-point and support of “an enduring institution.”—Having exposed the system, M. Taine meant to consider its effects, those of surrounding institutions, and to describe the French family as it now exists. He had first studied the “tendency to marriage”; he had considered the motives which, in general, weaken or fortify it, and appreciated those now absent and now active in France. According to him, “the healthy ideal of every young man is to found a family, a house of infinite duration, to create and to rule.” Why, in modern France does he give his thoughts to “pleasure and of excelling in his career”? Why does he regard marriage “without enthusiasm, as a last measure, as a ‘settling-down,’ and not as a beginning, the commencement of a veritable career, subordinating all others to it and regarding these, pecuniary and professional, as auxiliary and as means?”—After the tendency to marriage, “the tendency to paternity.” How does the curtailed family come to live only for itself? In what way, in default of other interests,—homestead, domain, workshop, lasting local undertakings,—how does the heart, now deprived of its food by the lack of invisible posterity, fall back on affection for visible progeny?1 In a country where there are few openings, where careers are overcrowded, what are the effects of this paidolatrie, and, to sum up in one phrase, in what way does the French system of to-day tend to develop the most fatal of results, the decrease of births?
Here, the study of institutions on a grand scale terminated. Formerly, M. Taine had contemplated a completion of his labors by a description of contemporary France, the product of origins scrutinized by him and of which he had traced the formation. Having disengaged his factors he meant to combine them, to show them united and acting in concert, all centring on the great actual facts which dominate the rest and which determine the order and structure of modern society. As he had given a picture of old France he aimed to portray France as it now is, with its various groups,—village, small town and large city,—with its categories of men, peasants, workmen, bourgeois, functionaries and capitalists; with the forces that impel each class along, their passions, their ideas, their desires. Besides the numerical statistics of persons he meant to have set forth the moral statistics of souls. According to him, psychological conditions exist which render the social activity of men possible or impossible. And, especially, “in a given society, there is always a psychological state which provokes the state of that society.” It was his aim to seek out in the novel, in poetry, in the arts since 1820, that is to say in all works that throw light on the various and successive kinds of the reigning ideal—in philosophy, in religion, in industry, in all branches of French action and thought—the signs of the psychological tendencies of modern Frenchmen in this or that social condition. What would this book have been? M. Taine had sketched it out so far back, he had abandoned it for so long a time and never alluded to it, that nothing remains by which we can form any idea of it. Nevertheless, in this undertaking demanding such keen scientific perceptions, such an intuitive sense, such habits of accurate observation, such general views and precise generalization—in so vast a study requiring such profound knowledge, not alone of France but of societies offering points of comparison with her, one may imagine that the author of Notes sur Paris, Notes sur l’Angleterre, of the Ancien Régime, the critic accustomed to interpret civilizations, literature and works of art, the thinker, in fine, who, to prepare himself for the greatest task he undertook, travelled five times over France, studying its life with the eyes of an artist, in the light of history and of psychology, ever preceding his philosophic study with visual investigation, would have been equal to the task. Already for several years, M. Taine, aware that his time was short, had narrowed the limits of the work he was engaged upon. But what his work lost in breadth and in richness of detail it would have gained in depth and in power. All his master ideas would have been found in it, foreshortened and concentrated. Always seeking in this or that group of them what he called his generators, intellectual and moral as well as political, he would have described all those which explain the French group. Unfortunately, here again the elements are wanting which allow one to foreshadow what this final analysis and last construction might have been. M. Taine did not write in anticipation. Long before taking the pen in hand he had derived his most significant facts and formed his plan. He carried them in his brain where they fell into order of themselves. Ten lines of notes, a few memoranda of conversations—faint reflections, to us around him, of the great inward light—are all that enable one to attempt an indication of the few leading conceptions which were to complete Les Origines de la France Contemporaine.
Le Milieu Moderne, was to have been the title of the last book. The question here is how to discover the great characteristics of the period into which European societies had entered and about were to live. Rising to a higher point of view than that to which he had confined himself in studying France, M. Taine regarded its metamorphosis as a case of transformation as general as the passage of the Cité antique over to the Roman Empire, or the Roman Empire over to the feudal State. Now, as formerly, this transformation is the effect of a “change in the intellectual and physical condition of men”; that is to say, in other words, in the environment that surrounds them. Such is the advent of a new geological period, of a glacial period, for example, or, more precisely, “the very slow and then accelerated upheaval of a continent, forcing the submarine species which breathe by gills to transform themselves into species which breathe by lungs.” It is impossible to divine in what sense this adaptation takes place if we do not comprehend the event, that is to say if we do not perceive its starting-point and the innate force which produces it. According to Taine, this force, in the present case, is the progress, the increasing authority of positive, verifiable science. What a definition he would have given of science and its essence! What a tableau of its progress, the man whose thought was matured at the moment when the scientific spirit entered into history and literature; who breathed it in his youth with the fervid and sacred enthusiasm of a poet seeing the world grow brighter and intelligible to him, and who, at the age of twenty-five, demanded of it a method and introduced this into criticism and psychology in order to give these new life—the mechanical equivalent of heat, natural selection, spectroscopic analysis, the theory of microbes, recent discoveries in physics and the constitution of matter, research into historic origins, psychological explanation of texts, extension of oriental researches, discovery of prehistoric conditions, comparative study of barbaric communities—every grand idea of the century to which he has himself contributed, all those by which science embraces a larger and larger portion of the universe, he saw them containing the same essence; all combining to change the conception of the world and substitute another, coherent and logical in the best minds, but then confused and disfigured as it slowly descends to the level of the crowd.—He would have described this descent, this gradual diffusion, the growing power of the new Idea, the active ferment which it contains after the manner of a dogma, beneficent or pernicious according to the minds in which it lodges, capable of arming men and of driving them on to pure destruction when not fully comprehended, and capable of reorganizing them if they can grasp its veritable meaning.
Its first effects are simply destructive, for, through Darwinism, through experimental psychology, through the physiology of the brain, through biblical exegesis, through the comparative study of savage communities and their moral systems, the new conception at first shocks the religious idea which it tends to replace; even, with the half-cultivated and in the minds of novices, it tends to pure negation, to hostility against existing religions. To every social gathering around the religious idea that explains and sustains it, what a disturbance in the secular system formed by the co-ordination and mutual adaptation of laws, customs, morality, and institutions! What a rupture of the inward equilibrum which maintains man passive and tranquil! What mental agitation! To what feverishness it leads, to what impulsions, to what ambitions, to what lassitude, to what despondency, to what disorder in all the sentiments which had thus far maintained every species of society, the family, the commune, the Church, free association and the State!—Now, along with the immediate effects of science on the intellectual habits of men consider the effects of its application to their material condition; at first, their increased well-being, their power increased, then the rupture of the ties that bind them to their birthplace, the concentration of masses of workmen in the towns to which they are attracted by great and rapid industrial development, the influx of new ideas, of every species of information, the gradual decline of the old hereditary prejudices of caste and parish which act automatically as instincts, and are useful as instincts to the small groups in which the individual is born and in which he lives. How could such a profound change in the condition of humanity fail to undermine everywhere the order of things which group men together? Why should not the new milieu at once attack all ancient forms of society? For, at the moment of its establishment, there exists in Europe a general form of society manifest through features in common; a monarchy—hereditary royalty, dynastic but frequently limited, at least in fact,—a privileged nobility performing military service as a special function, a clergy organized as a Church, proprietary and more or less privileged, local or special bodies also proprietary—provinces, communes, universities, brotherhoods, corporations—laws and customs which base the family on paternal authority, perpetuating it on the natal soil and by social rank; in brief, institutions which modern ideas disturb in every direction, the first effect of which is, while developing the spirit of doubt and investigation, to break down subordination to the king, to the gentleman, to the noble, and, in general, to dissolve society founded on heredity. Like phenomena are observable among them all, the ruin of feeble corporations by the state, its constant tendency to interference, to the absorption of every special service and the descent of power into the hands of a numerical majority.—What plan, then, governs these societies in the way of reorganization, and, since they all belong to a common type, what are the common resources and difficulties of adaptation? On what lines must the metamorphosis be effected in order to arrive at viable creations? And, abandoning the general problem in order to return to contemporary France, grown up and organized under our own eyes, how does the great modern event affect it? How does “this common factor combine with special factors, permanent and temporary,” belonging to our system? With the French, whose hereditary spirit and character are easily defined, in this society founded on Napoleonic institutions moved by our “administrative mechanism,” what are the peculiar tendencies of a levelling democracy which seeks immediate establishment? Among the maladies which are special with us—feeble birth-rate, political instability, absence of local life, slow industrial and commercial development, despondency and pessimism—can an aptitude for transformation which we do not possess be distinguished in the sense demanded by the new milieu? The knowledge we have of our origins, of our psychology, of our present constitution, of our circumstances, what hopes are warranted?
M. Taine could not have replied to all these interrogatories. If, twenty years ago, on the morrow after our disasters, just as we once more set about a new organization, putting aside literature, art, and philosophy, noble contemplation and pure speculation, abandoning works already projected, he gave himself up to the technical study of law, political economy and administrative history; if, for twenty years, he secluded himself and devoted himself to his task—at what a cost of prolonged effort, with what a strain on his mental faculties, with what weariness and often with what dissatisfaction!—if he shortened his life, it was to discharge what he deemed a duty to that suffering France which he loved with tender and silent passion, the duty of aiding in her cure by establishing the general diagnosis which a philosopher-historian was warranted in presenting after a profound study of its vital constitution. The examination finished, he felt that he had a right to offer the diagnosis. Not that his modesty permitted him to foretell the future or to dictate reforms. When his opinion was asked in relation to any reform he generally declined giving it. “I am merely a consulting physician,” he would reply; “I do not possess sufficient details on that particular question—I am not sufficiently familiar with circumstances which vary from day to day.” In effect, according to him, there is no general principle from which one can deduce a series of reforms. On the contrary, his first recommendation would have been not to try to find simple solutions in political and social matters, but to proceed by experiments, according to temperaments, and accepting the irregular and the incomplete.—One becomes resigned to this course by a study of history and by acquiring “the sense of surrounding facts and developments.” Here do we find the general remedy for the destructive effects produced by the brusque progress of science, and she herself furnishes this remedy, when, from the hasty and the theoretical, she becomes experimental and builds on the observation of facts and their relations. “Through psychological narrations, through the analysis of psychological conditions which have produced, maintained, or modified this or that institution, we may find a partial solution to each question of reform,” gradually discovering laws and establishing the general conditions that render possible or impossible any given project. When constituted and then developed, reorganized, respected and applied to human affairs, the sciences of humanity may become a new instrument of power and civilization, and, just as the natural sciences have taught us to derive profit from physical forces, they may teach us to benefit by moral forces. M. Taine believed that the French were very well qualified for this order of study: if any other people possess the faculty of memory to a greater extent and a more general knowledge of philology, he thought we had in our favor a superiority of the psychological sense.
By the side of this beneficent principle which provides general hygienic regulations, could M. Taine have suggested immediate remedies? It is scarcely probable. In any event, he was not a partisan for hasty decentralization. When, under the influence of a bad system, an organism has contracted a vice that reaches its elements, this régime becomes almost a necessity;1 in any event, no sudden modification of it must be thought fo; all that can be done is to lessen its pernicious effects by expedients. Taking advantage of unforeseen circumstances, using great circumspection, noting favorable symptoms that had impressed him—for example a certain new birth of the spirit of association under the Third Republic—leaving to political authorities the care “of adjusting means” to the diversity and mobility of things, we may believe that M. Taine would have confined himself to indicating in what sense we could, with prudence, lay our course. To do this, it sufficed for him to sum up his diagnosis and lay down the conditions of duration and progress. In a matter of such vital import nobody can speak for him. Accordingly, if the conclusion is not written, whoever knows how to read his thought may divine it. The work, such as it is, is finished; it already contains his ideas in full; the intelligent eye has only to follow them and to note their consequences and combination.
Menthon, St.-Bernard, October, 1893.
See preface to “The Modern Régime,” Vol. I.
On some of the ideas above indicated see “The Modern Régime,” Vol. I. p. 120.
An allusion to Malthusianism, practised by many heads of families in France. M. Taine would probably have shown this practice contrary to national welfare.—Tr.
On this idea see Volume I of “The Modern Régime,” page 332, to the end of the chapter.