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THIS work deals with the great French thinkers since the time of Auguste Comte, and treats, under various aspects, the development of thought in relation to the main problems which confronted these men. In the commencement of such an undertaking we are obliged to acknowledge the continuity of human thought, to recognise that it tends to approximate to an organic whole, and that, consequently, methods resembling those of surgical amputation are to be avoided. We cannot absolutely isolate one period of thought. For this reason a brief survey of the earlier years is necessary in order to orient the approach to the period specially placed in the limelight, namely 1851-1921.
In the world of speculative thought and in the realm of practical politics we find reflected, at the opening of the century, the work of the French Revolutionaries on the one hand, and that of Immanuel Kant on the other. Coupled with these great factors was the pervading influence of the Encyclopædists and of the thinkers of the Enlightenment. These two groups of influences, the one sudden and in the nature of a shock to political and metaphysical thought, the other quieter but no less effective, combined to produce a feeling of instability and of dissatisfaction at the close of the eighteenth century. A sense of change, indeed of resurrection, filled the minds and hearts of those who saw the opening of the nineteenth century. The old aristocracy and the monarchy in France had gone, and in philosophy the old metaphysic had received a blow at the hands of the author of the Three Critiques.
No better expression was given to the psychological state of France at this time than that of Alfred de Musset in his Confession d'un Enfant du Siècle. Toute la maladie du siècle présent (he wrote) vient de deux causes; le peuple qui a passé par '93 et par 1814 porte au cœur deux blessures. Tout ce qui était n'est plus; tout ce qui sera n'est pas encore. Ne cherchez ailleurs le secret de nos maux.* De Musset was right, the whole course of the century was marked by conflict between two forces—on the one hand a tendency to reaction and conservatism, on the other an impulse to radicalism and revolution.
[Footnote * : The extract is taken from Première partie, ch. 2. The book was published in 1836. Somewhat similar sentiments are uttered with reference to this time by Michelet. (See his Histoire du XIXe Siècle, vol. i., p. 9).]
It is true that one group of thinkers endeavoured, by a perfectly natural reaction, to recall their fellow-countrymen, at this time of unrest, back to the doctrines and traditions of the past, and tried to find in the faith of the Christian Church and the practice of the Catholic religion a rallying-point. The monarchy and the Church were eulogised by Chateaubriand, while on the more philosophical side efforts on behalf of traditionalism were made very nobly by De Bonald and Joseph de Maistre. While they represented the old aristocracy and recalled the theocracy and ecclesiasticism of the past by advocating reaction and Ultramontanism, Lamennais attempted to adapt Catholicism to the new conditions, only to find, as did Renan later, that "one cannot argue with a bar of iron." Not the brilliant appeals of a Lacordaire, who thundered from Notre Dame, nor the modernism of a Lamennais, nor the efforts in religious philosophy made by De Maistre, were, however, sufficient to meet the needs of the time.
The old traditions and the old dogmas did not offer the salvation they professed to do. Consequently various groups of thinkers worked out solutions satisfactory to themselves and which they offered to others. We can distinguish clearly four main currents, the method of introspection and investigation of the inner life of the soul, the adoption of a spiritualist philosophy upon an eclectic basis, the search for a new society after the manner of the socialists and, lastly, a positive philosophy and religion of humanity. These four currents form the historical antecedents of our period and to a brief survey of them we now turn.
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