Hippolyte Adolphe Taine (April 21, 1828 - March 5, 1893) was a French critic and historian. He was the chief theoretical influence of French naturalism, a major proponent of sociological positivism, and one of the first practitioners of historicist criticism. Taine is particularly remembered for his three-pronged approach to the contextual study of a work of art, based on the aspects of what he called race, milieu, and moment.
Taine had an enormous influence within French literature. The work of Zola, Bourget and Maupassant can be attributed to Taine's influence.
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. In 1839, owing to his father's serious illness, he was sent to an ecclesiastical pension at Rethel. J. B. 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. His mother accompanied him.
According to the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, 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.
Initially Taine planned to pursue a career in public education. In 1848 he 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 Edmond François Valentin About, Francisque Sarcey, and Frédéric du Suckau. Among those of Taine's fellow-students who afterwards made a name in teaching, letters, journalism, the theatre and politics, etc., were Paul-Armand Challemel-Lacour, Alexis Chassang, Louis Aubé, Philippe Perraud, Jules Ferry, Octave Gréard, Prévost-Paradol and Pierre Émile Levasseur.
The teachers of his second and third years, Emile Deschanel, Nicolas Eugène Géruzez, Eugène Auguste Ernest Havet, Charles Auguste Désiré Filon, Émile Saisset and Jules Simon, were unanimous in praising his character and intellect, though they found fault with his unmeasured taste for classification, abstraction, and formula. 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 that ended the Second Republic, 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 (Louis Napoleon) 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. 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. 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.
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.
He made a long stay in England in 1858, and 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 Franco-Prussian 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.
This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain. Please update as needed.
Louis de Loménie