Hippolyte Taine

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Portrait of Hippolyte Taine on French postage stamp of 1966

Hippolyte Adolphe Taine (April 21, 1828 - March 5, 1893) was a French critic and historian.



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 renaissance.

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.

Early years

Taine was born at Vouziers, Ardennes, France, the son of Jean Baptiste Taine, an attorney at law. He was taught at home by his father until his eleventh year, also attending a small school under the direction of M. Pierson. In 1839, owing to his father's serious illness, he was sent to an ecclesiastical pension at Rethel. JB Taine died on September 8, 1840, leaving a small income to his widow, his two daughters, and his son. In the spring of 1841 Hippolyte was sent to Paris, and entered as a boarder at the Institution Mathé, where the pupils attended the classes of the College Bourbon. Madame Taine followed her son to Paris.

Taine distinguished himself at school. At fourteen 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 working. In 1847, as vétéran de rhétorique, he carried off six first prizes in the general competition, the prize of honour, and three accessits; he won all the first school prizes, the three science prizes, and two prizes for dissertation. It was at the College Bourbon that he formed lifelong friendships with several of his schoolfellows who afterwards were to exercise a lasting influence upon him. Among these were Prévost-Paradol, for many years his closest friend; Planat, the future "Marcelin" of the Vie Parisienne; and Cornélis de Witt, who introduced him to Guizot in 1846.

Middle years

Public education was the planned career after Taine's remarkable school successes. In 1848 he accordingly took both his baccalauréat 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 theatre 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 by his learning, his energy, his hard work, and 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 analysed 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 his character and intellect; they found fault with his unmeasured taste for classification, abstraction. and formula. The director of studies, M. 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 (agrégation de philosophie) 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 was a scandal. Taine's reputation had already spread beyond the college. Everybody had taken for granted that he would be admitted first, but his examiners sincerely considered his ideas to be absurd, his style 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 October 6 1851; but he never entered upon his duties, as he did not wish to be so far from his mother, and on October 13 he was transferred to Nevers as a substitute. Two months later, on December 27, 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 December 10, 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 March 29 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 disfavour, and on September 25 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 October 9 1852, and renewed every year till 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 April 10 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 June 8 (1852) they were finished, and 150 pages of French prose on the Sensations and a Latin essay were sent to Paris. On July 15 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 August 1 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 May 30 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 Académie française. Here again the moral tendency of his work excited lively opposition, and after much discussion the competition was postponed till 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 guide-book of that region. 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 fellowmen, 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 colour; 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-centred and solitary. He lived with his mother in the Île 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 M. 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 February 1 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 August 1 1855 he published a short article in the Revue des Deux Mondes on Jean Reynaud. On July 3 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 January 17 1856 his history of English literature was announced, and from January 14 1855 to October 9 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 till that moment the only important articles on his work were an article by About on the Voyage aux Pyrenees, 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 Shereri in the Bibliothèque Universelle (1858), and of Planche in the Revue des Deux Mondes (April 1 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 June 15, 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 Byron. It was from that moment that Taine's influence began to be felt; he was in constant intercourse with Renan, Sainte-Beuve, Sherer, Gautier, 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 M. 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 October 26 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 College 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. Loménie. In 1866 he received the Legion of Honour, and on the conclusion of his lectures in Oxford on Corneille and 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.

Later years

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 June 28 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 October 9, 1870 he published an article on "L'Opinion en Allemagne et les Conditions de la Paix," and in 1871 a pamphlet on Le Suffrage Univend; 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. 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 Volatile.


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 Regime, 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 non-existent, 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. M. Lemaître gave us this definition when he called Taine a poète-logicien; M. Bourget likewise when he spoke of Taine's imagination philosophique, and M. Barrès 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. Enamoured 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 coloured 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.

Critical work

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 centre 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 Balzac and Racine, and the passages on Voltaire and 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 splendour; his love of Shakespeare, Titian and Rubens; his delight in bold, highly-coloured themes.


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The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, in turn, gives the following references:

  • The official life, H. Taine, sa vie et sa correspondance, was published in 3 vols. in 1902-5 (Eng. trans. by Mrs RL Devonshire, 1902-8).
  • His friend, ME Boutmy, published an appreciative study of Taine's philosophy in his Taine, Scherer, Laboulaye (Paris, 1901).
  • A Sorel, Nouveaux essais d'histoire et de critique (1898)
  • Gabriel Monod, Les Maîtres de l'histoire (Paris, 1894)
  • Émile Faguet, Politiques moralities au XIX' siècle (Paris, 1900)
  • P Lacombe, La psychologie des individus et des sociétés chez Taine (1906)
  • P Neve, La philosophie de Taine (1908)
  • "and especially" Victor Giraud, Essai sur Taine, son œuvre et son influence, d'après des documents inédits (and ed., 1902)
  • V Giraud, Bibliographie de Taine (Paris, 1902).
  • A comprehensive list of books and articles on Taine is given in HP Thieme's Guide bibliographique de la littérature française de 1800 a 1906 (Paris, 1907).
  • More recently (as of 1911), Taine's historical work has been adversely criticized, especially by A Aulard in lectures delivered at the Sorbonne in 1905-6 and 1906-7 (Taine, historien de la révolution française, 1907), devoted to destructive criticism of Taine's work on the French Revolution.

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Preceded by:
Louis de Loménie
Seat 25
Académie française
Succeeded by:
Albert Sorel

fr:Hippolyte Taine pl:Hippolyte Taine zh:丹纳


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