JHUP Home Page copyright Table of Contents Master Index About the Guide Search Screen

Taine, Hippolyte

 Hippolyte Taine (1828-93) is best known for his theory that literature is the product of "la race, le milieu et le moment" (Histoire xxiii), a proposition that places him squarely in the positivist camp of Auguste Comte and other nineteenth-century French thinkers. Yet Taine's view of the essential nature of an author's surroundings is not as limiting as it appears, and in fact Taine often found himself at odds with prevailing positivist and naturalist theories. He was a prolific writer who explored history, literature, metaphysics, and psychology, all the while scorning Comte for his restricted vision of the world. Yet despite Taine's considerable influence in various disciplines, his principal interest to modern scholars can be resumed in the words "race," "milieu," and "moment."
 Taine was born in the Ardennes mountains to a middle-class family of modest means. When his father died in 1840, Taine was sent to Paris to study, eventually attending the École Normale. Although he was clearly the outstanding student of his class, he failed his final examination for the agrégation because the conservative examiners disapproved of his lesson on Spinoza's moral system. This episode would have a profound effect upon Taine's career and on his attitude toward the dominant philosophers of his day. Forced to abandon his goal of university teaching, he taught secondary classes and gave private lessons, which allowed him time to produce such important works as Les Philosophes classiques du dix-neuvième siècle en France (1857, The Nineteenth-Century French Philosophers), Essais de critique et d'histoire (1858, Critical and Historical Essays), History of English Literature (1864), and On Intelligence (1870). He devoted much of the last 20 years of his life to his Origins of Contemporary France. For all his influential work and his active entry into the social life of the Parisian intellectuals, Taine was mistrusted by positivists, naturalists, and Romantics alike. It was not until his election to the Académie française in 1878, on his third attempt, that he was accepted by his contemporaries as a major force in nineteenth-century French thought.
 While Taine's first love was psychology, his lasting contribution has been as a critic of literature and art. His studies in psychology, history, and philosophy have been relegated to the realm of minor works, but his literary criticism, and particularly his work on Honoré de Balzac, has stood the test of time, for it is here that he incorporates the scientific, naturalistic, and even Romantic views that shape his critical thought. His scientific side remained predominant, however, and resulted in the formulation of his theory of literary production.
 In the introduction to History of English Literature Taine presents his view of the forces that determine the nature of a particular society. In this deterministic outlook, "race," "milieu," and "moment" are the sources of what he calls the master faculties, the "soul" of a nation (Histoire xxxiv). For Taine, race is defined as the innate and hereditary dispositions we bring with us into the world. It is a distinct force that can always be recognized despite the vast deviations the other two forces produce in us. As an example, Taine uses the Aryan race, spread throughout the world but retaining many similarities. Milieu is seen as the accidental and secondary tendencies that overlie our primitive traits, the physical or social circumstances that disturb or confirm our character. It includes all external powers that mold human character. Moment, finally, is what Taine calls the "acquired momentum" (xxix). It is indeed the accumulation of all past experiences, but as critics such as René Wellek have pointed out, it is more importantly the situation of a particular time of the history of a nation or a race, the Zeitgeist.
 Taine, like G. W. F. Hegel, whom he greatly admired, believed that "all great change has its roots in the soul" and that the "psychological state is the cause of the social state" (quoted in Wellek 36). Taine does not, however, follow logical causal sequences but instead reduces a phenomenon to its logical precedence, its law, its essence. Like Hegel, he sees history as the development of large forces, nations, races, philosophies, literatures, and arts. These collective forces are expressed and represented by great individuals, who can be divided into two groups: those men of the classical ages and Latin races (scientists, orators, men of letters) and those of the Romantic ages and Germanic races (poets, prophets, inventors). It is precisely this division between the classical and the Romantic that we find within Taine himself and that accounts for much of his inconsistency.
 Taine applies his ideas about society to literature in the same introduction to History of English Literature. For him a work of literature is a transcript of contemporary manners, a representation of a certain kind of mind. Behind each document there was a "man." One studies the document in order to know the man. But Taine is not a biographer; when he writes "man," he means not the individual author but the author as a representative of his race, surroundings, and epoch.
 For twentieth-century critics, Taine's view of literature is oversimplified, naive, and limited. They point to Taine's disregard for the written document as an entity having its own life and significance. At the same time, they fail to recognize his Romantic side, which is less visible in the enunciation of the theory than is the influence of scientific positivism. Yet, Taine is very much a product of his time, divided between Romantic idealism, visible in his melancholy and in his sometimes violent style, and positivistic determinism. He eventually repudiated many of the Romantic writers he had once admired, but he retained a Romantic sensibility as well as a respect for the power of nature.
 Taine's essay on Balzac is generally considered his most successful transposition of his theory to literary criticism. Although it was written in 1858, five years before History of English Literature, this essay contains all the elements found in the better-known introduction. In the analysis of Balzac, we also see the same contradiction between Romantic and realist that existed in Taine himself. Despite such opposing forces, there is a unity in Balzac's works. He is representative of his time, but he looks beyond contemporary mores to try to depict the hidden meaning in contemporary history. It is this hidden meaning, this amalgam of symbols, types, and characters, that constitutes the unity of Balzac's work and gives it its force. Taine links the man--his greed for money, his sensuality, his ambition, and his capacity for hard work--with his society, the imaginary world of his characters, his style, and his philosophy. The unity in contradiction, the interconnections, are developed effectively. Taine convincingly presents the sensation of the totality of the writer, his work, and the civilization he represents.
 Despite the truth of much of his theory and his skill in applying it to Balzac, Taine is most often criticized for his lack of rigor in the development of a scientific theory. He deals only in generalities, leaving us dissatisfied with the lack of system, order, and evidence in his method. He either did not understand or rejected the work of literature as a text that could be considered a totality, isolated from its creator. Rather, he saw literature as indicative of an age, a nation, or individual mind. Taine's limitations thus render him less useful for those twentieth-century critics whose major concern is the text itself.

William VanderWolk

Notes and Bibliography

See also French Theory and Criticism: 3. Nineteenth Century.

Hippolyte Taine, Balzac: A Critical Study (1858, trans. Lorenzo O'Rourke, 1906), De l'intelligence (1870), Essais de critique et d'histoire (1858), Histoire de la littérature anglaise (1864, History of English Literature, trans. H. van Laun, 1872), Les Origines de la France contemporaine (1875-93, The Origins of Contemporary France: The Ancient Regime, The Revolution, The Modern Regime: Selected Chapters, ed. Edward T. Gargan, 1974), Les Philosophes classiques du dix-neuvième siècle en France (1857), Philosophie de l'art (1865).

André Chevrillon, Taine: Formation de sa pensée (1932); Alvin Eustis, Hippolyte Taine and the Classical Genius (1951); Colin Evans, "Taine and His Fate," Nineteenth-Century French Studies 6 (1977-78); Simon Jeune, "Taine, le romantisme et la nature," Romantisme 30 (1980); Sholom J. Kahn, Science and Aesthetic Judgment: A Study in Taine's Critical Method (1953); Philosophies, special issue, Romantisme 32 (1981); K. de Schaepdryver, Hippolyte Taine: Essai sur l'unité de sa pensée (1938); Leo Weinstein, Hippolyte Taine (1972); René Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism, 1750-1950, vol. 4, The Later Nineteenth Century (1965).

Topics Index Cross-references for this Guide entry:
classic/romantic, positivism, race, moment, milieu

JHUP Home Page copyright Table of Contents Master Index About the Guide Search Screen

Copyright © 1997 The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved. This document may be used, with this notice included, for noncommercial purposes within a purchasing institution. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically outside of the subscribed institution, in whole or in part, without written permission from the JHU Press.