Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History
Today is the 235th anniversary of the birth of François Pierre Guillaume Guizot (04 October 1787–12 September 1874), who was born on this date in 1787, and who went on to hold many of the highest political offices in France.
In Robert Flint’s History of the Philosophy of History (1893) we find a somewhat conventional, if severe, portrait of Guizot:
“The story of the life of Francis Guizot (1787–1874) is known to all educated men, for he lived long full in the world’s eye, was not sparing of personal explanations and reminiscences, and had his character, words, and actions closely scrutinised from many points of view. His name recalls to us a most distinguished and influential career, a varied and indefatigable activity, important political services rendered when in opposition, great political ability displayed when in power, dignity and fortitude in the bearing of adversity, brilliant oratorical achievements, numerous literary works, some of which are of high intrinsic value, while all are admirable in aim, and the most rigid probity and propriety of personal conduct It recalls also, unfortunately, other things and qualities — lamentable mistakes, serious inconsistencies, faults which were almost crimes. He was a man of powerful intellect, imperious will, pure and noble sentiments, strong and austere character, but he was deficient in practical political wisdom and tact, inventiveness and resourcefulness. After a perusal of his ‘Memoirs’ the deepest impression left is one of regret that a man so largely endowed with many of the gifts of the statesman should have been so incapable of seeing how to apply the truths which he could expound so well, and to distinguish what was comparatively insignificant in affairs from what was vital.”
For a less conventional portrait Spanish philosophy of history Ortega y Gasset amusingly described these Guizot and the “Doctrinaires.” After the Bourbon Restoration in France, after the tumult of the French Revolution and then Napoleon, François Guizot belonged to an informal group of influential men, known as the Doctrinaires, who sought to reconcile monarchy with the revolution, implying that the demands of political centralization and liberty could be balanced:
“…this group of Doctrinaires, laughed at by everyone, butt of the most slanderous jokes, was in my opinion the most valuable political element on the continent in the nineteenth century. They alone had a clear perception of what had to be done in Europe after the Great Revolution, and moreover in their personal lives they stood for something dignified and removed, in the midst of the growing coarseness and frivolity of that century. At a time when all the norms by which society checks the individual were broken and no longer in force, the only dignity possible was what one extracted from the depths of one’s own being. This necessarily implied a certain exaggeration, even if only in defense against the orgiastic abandon of one’s surroundings. Guizot, like Buster Keaton, was the man who never laughs. He never let himself go. He was the outcome of several generations of Protestants of Nimes, people who always watched their step, never able to drift in their social environment, never losing self-control. It had become an instinct with them to interpret existence as resistance, digging one’s heels into the ground in order to stand against the current. In a time like ours, all ‘currents’ and abandon, it is good to put oneself in contact with men who refuse to be carried away. The Doctrinaires are an unusual case of intellectual responsibility, that is, of the quality most lacking to European intellectuals since 1750, and this lack is in turn one of the deepest causes of the disorder of the present.” (Toward A Philosophy of History, pp. 59–60)
Flint called Guizot a “philosophical historian,” a term in occasional use, and one applicable to figures like Bossuet, who was mostly an historian, but whose history was guided by philosophical principles as much as by historiographical principles. This too describes Guizot, who did not write explicitly philosophical works, but rather wrote works of history of philosophical interest. Guizot himself described histories of philosophical interest in his The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe:
“According to their political state, and in the degree of their civilization, do the peoples consider history under various aspects, and look to it for various kinds of interest. In the early ages of society, whilst all is new and attractive to the youthful imagination of man, he demands poetical interest; the memories of the past form the groundwork of brilliant and simple narratives, fitted to charm an eager and easily satisfied curiosity. If, in such a community, where social existence is in full vigour, and the human mind is in a state of excitement, Herodotus reads to the Greeks assembled at Olympia his patriotic narratives, and the discoveries of his voyages, the Greeks delight in them as in songs of Homer. If civilization is but little advanced — if men live more isolated — if ‘country,’ in the concrete, at least, exists but slightly for them — we find simple chronicles intermingled with fables and legends, but always marked with that naïf and poetical character which, in such a condition of existence, the human mind requires in all things. Such are the European chronicles from the tenth to the fifteenth century. If, at a later period, civilization becomes developed in a country without the coeval establishment of liberty, without an energetic and extensive political existence, when the period of enlightenment, of wealth, and of leisure, does arrive, men look for philosophical interest in history; it no longer belongs to the field of poetry; it loses its simplicity; it no longer wears its former real and living physiognomy; individual characters take up less space, and no longer appear under living forms; the mention of names becomes more rare; the narrative of events, and the description of men, are more its pretext than its subject; all becomes generalized; readers demand a summary of the development of civilization, a sort of theory of the peoples and of events; history becomes a series of dissertations on the progress of the human race, and the historian seems only to call up the skeleton of the past, in order to hang upon it general ideas and philosophic reflections. This occurred in the last century; the English historians of that period, Robertson, Gibbon, and Hume, have represented history under that aspect; and most of the German writers still follow the same system. The philosophy of history predominates; history, properly so called, is not to be found in them.”
In the above, Guizot might well have been describing himself, perhaps even consciously so, though I doubt he considered his work to be philosophyof history to the point htat history, properly so called, is not to be found. Guizot’s work is not exactly a conventional history, and not exactly a history of ideas, but, one could say, a way into history through the ruling ideas of each age.
Guizot’s parsing of what varieties of history appeal to peoples in different stages of social development reminds me of Nietzsche’s The Use and Abuse of History, in which he distinguishes three kinds of history (the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical), and shows how each appeals to different social circumstances. This concern for the stages of social development in Guizot is expressed in his use of the concept of civilization, which is mentioned in the above-quoted passage, as well as in his other major works, such as History of Civilization in Europe.
Guizot’s History of Civilization in Europe is a remarkable work of history, based on lectures that Guizot delivered at the Sorbonne. For those who associate the so-called “cult of progress” with Victorian England, Guizot is a revelation to read, as Guizot defines civilization in terms of progress in four thought experiments in the first chapter of History of Civilization in Europe. There is a sense, then, in which Guizot is a continuator of the project of Condorcet, who defined the entire history of humanity terms of progress.
The following paragraph is from the first chapter of Guizot’s History of Civilization in Europe:
“Civilization, therefore, in its most general idea, is an improved condition of man resulting from the establishment of social order in place of the individual independence and lawlessness of the savage or barbarous life. It may exist in various degrees: it is susceptible of continual progress: and hence the history of civilization is the history of the progress of the human race towards realizing the idea of humanity, through the extension and perfection of the social relations, and as affected, advanced or retarded, by the character of the various political and civil institutions which have existed.”
François Guizot - Wikipedia
François Pierre Guillaume Guizot ( French: [fʁɑ̃swa pjɛʁ ɡijom ɡizo]; 4 October 1787 - 12 September 1874) was a French…
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