And I, who have sprung from them, I, who have lived, toiled, and suffered with them—who, more than any other have purchased the right to say that I know them—I come to establish against all mankind the personality of the people. –Jules Michelet
Leopold von Ranke famously advised his students to write impartial histories. An account of the battle of Waterloo, he said, should be agreeable to the French, Germans, and Britons alike. Jules Michelet (1798–1874) would have none of it. There was one perspective on history that interested him: the French perspective.
In this, Michelet was very much a child of his times, for nationalism was not then the quaint and suspect doctrine it often appears today, but a new and fiery religion, capable of inspiring the most ardent devotion imaginable. It was not a doctrine for conservatives and solid citizens either, as it would later become, but of liberals, reformers, radicals, and revolutionaries. In practice, nationalism almost always steamrolled aspirations for impartiality in historical study during the early nineteenth century—even Ranke, for all his prudent counsel, tended to write as if Prussia were the apex of civilization.
What Michelet wanted, above all else, was to speak a living past to living people—to make the French aware of their past, and of their identity as French—not Gascons or Normans or Burgundians, not Catholics and Protestants or rich and poor, but a family united by common feeling and necessity. “Frenchmen, of every condition, every class, every party,” he said, “remember well one thing! You have on earth but one sure friend, France!” To bring his countrymen to this awareness, Michelet wrote an immense History of France (1833–1843; 1855–1867), which explained the origins of the French nation in the Middle Ages and ended, in its first installment, with a moving portrait of Joan of Arc.
She was in many ways a perfect hero for the story he wanted to tell. Like him, she was born into humble circumstances. Like him (and France), she inspired people far and wide with her idealism and bravery. And like him (and France), she ultimately paid the penalty of her virtues—but, like France also, the memory of her deeds continued to inspire. (Joan of Arc was burned by the English as a heretic; Michelet was forced out of the profession for refusing to take a loyalty oath; we note, in passing, that it was at about this time that heretics displaced saints as popular heroes.) Joan was the real spirit of France, Michelet argued, a commoner who had risen in an hour of crisis to defend the nation while the lords and clerics dawdled. She showed what the common people could do, if they believed.
This did not mean that Michelet was an adherent of the “great (wo)man theory of history,” so popular with his fellow romantics. Just the contrary—the people were his hero, not any one person, and his history was much, much larger than just her story. Similarly, Michelet was interested in the entirety of the past. He rejected the history of high politics pioneered by Ranke; economic, geographic, political, cultural, and intellectual history were all equally important, and he saw his task as spinning them together in order to reveal “the tableaux of France.”
What this view sacrificed in objectivity, it more than made up for in clarity of expression and power of feeling. Following Vico, whom he rescued from oblivion, Michelet stressed the importance of intuition, philology, and analogy in understanding the past. There was no need, as Ranke had advised, to view it as if from another planet—the historian must become resident. Similarly, because he saw in documents, not the dusty relics of an irrelevant past, but the voice of people clamoring to be remembered, to be resurrected (his expression, and emphasis), he was able, not just to see, but to feel, to think, to become, the past he wrote about. How else could one hope to explain what it had really been like?
The great moment of the nation, Michelet insisted in his History of the French Revolution (1847–53), was the early years of that eruption. This was the memory that must always be kept alive, for in those years every Frenchman and woman had known that they belonged to a single community, and had lived, thought, and acted as one. Because of it, the French had reformed their nation, abolished the entire rotten feudal order, and ruled the continent for a quarter century. The corruptors of the Revolution—Robespierre, Marat, and Napoleon—could not destroy that unity, and neither could it be defeated in war. Its ideals were too powerful to be forgotten or suppressed, and he rejoiced to see them spreading across Europe in his own time. But this was why, more than anything else, the French had to come together as a people. It was not just a question of idealism or fellow feeling, but of survival, for the rest of Europe was still ruled by tyrants who hated the Revolution.
“Before the ever-enduring coalition of aristocracies,” he reminded his countrymen, “you will always be guilty of one crime—to have wished, fifty years ago, to deliver the world. They have not forgiven it, nor will they ever forget it. You are their dread. … In the face of Europe, know that France will never have but one inexpiable name, which is her true, eternal designation—The Revolution!”
This post in the tenth in a series on the philosophy of history; the previous article in the series is here, the next is here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.
Cannon Hubka says
Love these posts! Keep’em coming! I’m especially interested in this area of history – the first reactions of disillusion with scientific objectivity / Romanticism – but I am fairly ignorant of the details. My knowledge seems to jump from the American founding to the Great Depression with the in-between space just being a vague notion of Industrial Revolution, economic growth, and the development of the hard sciences.
I am a science teacher and a lover of scientific pragmatism, but over the last 7 years or so I have steadily been embracing a more Nietzschean, Kierkegaardian, Seth Paskin style view towards life (i.e., art > knowledge, embrace of aporias and contradictions, deflationary view of reason, etc.).
Can you suggest some good, detailed, and scholarly but enjoyable books/resources on 19th century Romanticism, cultural history of 19th century Western Europe, or the French Revolution (especially how it transitioned from the Declaration of Rights through Napoleon to the 2nd Republic)?
Daniel Halverson says
Thanks for your encouragement, Cannon. I’ll do my best!
John Merriman has taught a course on France from the time of the revolution to the 1st world war which is available for free on youtube through the Great Courses series. He’s primarily a cultural/social historian and very interested in revolution, and also just a great story teller.
Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy contains an excellent discussion of international relations in Europe during this period, and is both informative and extremely well-written.
The Oxford History of the French Revolution by William Doyle is quite good as well, though if I remember right it ends with the establishment of the Napoleonic Empire. It makes the period leap off the page, and helps one understand the euphoria, the terror, and the exhaustion which the revolution evoked.
Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution is a standard introduction to the period 1789-1848. I haven’t read it myself, but it is highly regarded. Hobsbawm’s focus was on economic history.
If you want to get into accounts written by participants and observers, look for The Thomas Paine Reader, Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Late Revolution in France, Alexis de Tocqueville’s the Revolution and the Ancien Regime, and Karl Marx Communist Manifesto. Also Marx’s journalism in the 1850s is a great way to learn about the period, keeping in mind of course that Marx was anything but a neutral observer! For a diametrically opposed view from that of Marx, see Joseph de Maistre Consiferations on France. All but the last are available in Penguin
Classics editions, and vividly describe the political events of the period from all sides of the political spectrum.
Although it’s later than the period you’re looking for, I have to mention Memoirs of a Revolutionist by Petr Kropotkin. Kropotkin was famous as both a geographer and an Anarchist revolutionary in late 19th century Europe, and he really gives you a sense of how the times must have felt. Also the way that the line between politics and science tended to blur in that period, as people like Herbert Spencer and Ernst Haeckel started reading Origin of the Species as a guide to politics, on the very dubious assumption that since evolution is a theory of biology, and human beings are biological, ecolution must contain the secrets of society. Stephen Jay Gould’s essay Kropotkin was no Crackpot discusses his views on evolution, both as a theory and as a political idea. Both are very well written. John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World is an eye witness account of the Russian Revolution that really puts you in the moment, as well, and another book I just have to mention. Both are available for free through Libravox.
Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy is largely the story of 19th century philosophy, and contains an excellent discussion of Hegel, the leading romantic philosopher.
I hope those sources work for you! If you do read some of them I hope you’ll let me know what you think in the comments section of one of my articles, or feel free to send me an email.
Daniel Halverson says
Excuse me, John Merriman’s course is through the Yale Courses series, not the Great Courses series. Daniel