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Introduction to Great Men
By David Arthur Walters
Last edited: Saturday, October 22, 2005
Posted: Saturday, October 22, 2005

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WE are in dire need of truly great men during troubled times.

For Sara Mosher

WE NEED TO IMITATE in order to survive, thus are we natural born mimes. Furthermore, we want to get ahead with a meaningful social life. Wherefore we have our native interest in successful persons, a tendency to refer to and identify with those great examples after whom we model our behavior. We find successful examples of greatness in all walks of life, but first of all let us refer generally to men who have had a greater positive influence on society as a whole than most other people whom we call great.

It obviously behooves us to study great men for our edification. Many historians have discarded the Great Man Theory of History, but a multitude of lesser men are indisposed to give up their great men: indeed, we cling for dear life to our precious biographies. Of couse experience teaches us not to place undue emphasis on either the importance of the leader's characteristics or the type of situation, but to carefully consider the interactions between the two.

No doubt the great-man theory of history is preposterous when it puts the cart before the horse by presuming great men make the masses move by pushing people around. It is more appropriate nowadays to hypothesize that great men are pressed forward by the masses for a reason, say in critical times, to emerge from the masses as representatives in order to organize and lead responses to external or internal threats against social stability and progress.

We are all familiar with the ancient adage that the great leader, although apparently out ahead of the pack, is really its best follower. If such be true , we are responsible for the greatness of our leaders even though we may not become members of the leading aristocracy or power elite. That is to say, we deserve our leaders, even absent a republic or democracy; therefore, everyone should strive to be a better leader in order to press the best leaders forward and to remove the worst ones from office by the best means available for the change or overthrow of governments. It is with that in mind that I make my small symbolic contribution to the subject traditionally referred to as Great Men, and I do so with equal if not greater respect for Great Women who have been more than equal to their traditional circumstances.

SINCE I AM NOT A GREAT MAN MYSELF, I shall, to get a better symbolic grasp of our great subject, stand on the shoulders of a man who enjoyed a few years of greatness, a professor whose tenth lecture in his Course of the History of Modern Philosophy was entitled 'Great Men': Victor Cousin (1792-1867). A brief biography of Cousin is needed to introduce his eclectic theory of great men.

Cousin was born into humble circumstances in 1792. He became a street urchin in Paris, where he saved a rich boy from getting trounced in a fist fight. The boy's mom had witnessed the event; she was grateful, placed Victor in the Lycee Charlemagne and helped him become a prize scholar. He entered the Normal School at age eighteen, eventually became a professor, then rose up the strict ranks to become head of the university. He was well known and highly regarded for his eloquent theatrical lectures at the Normal School - they were faithfully recorded by stenographers.

Cousin ran afoul of the monarchy for his liberal preaching, which had helped inspire a large student movement. But Cousin was not a revolutionary: he was a moderate who favored constitutional monarchy as the most suitable form of government at the time. He was asked to step down from his university post in 1820; his chair remained vacant until he was reinstated in 1828. During that long sabbatical, he translated Plato and traveled to Germany: in 1824, he was arrested in Dresden, charged with being a liberal agitator, and was imprisoned in Berlin for a few months until he managed with the help of German friends to smooth-talk his way out. He conversed with Germany's leading lights, including Goethe, Hegel, Schelling and Schleirmacher.

Cousin visited Germany again, in 1831, to study its schools. His 1833 report on the Prussian educational system established him as a powerful authority on education in France; the report was acclaimed in the United States as well and it is perhaps the widest read report on education of all time. He became a peer of France, and climbed the career ladder to the position of minister of public instruction, in 1840. He was the supreme dictator over what sort of philosophy should be taught in France and who should teach it; the socialist Pierre Leroux wrote:

"M. Cousin is the educative power of France. He exercises an official empire, limitless and uncontrolled, over the teaching of philosophy, and thereby over all public education." 

PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT ACADEMICALLY INCLINED hear nothing of Victor Cousin in the United States today, despite his influence on education, and on the development of American idealism and spiritualism via the movement known as New England Transcendentalism. He was acclaimed throughout the West as a the greatest French philosopher of his day. The Transcendentalist Theodore Parker writes in his memorable 'Experience as a Minister' (1859):

 "The works of Cousin, more systematic, and more profound as a whole, and far more catholic and comprehensive, continental, not insular, in his range... became familiar to the Americans - reviews and translations going where the eloquent original was not heard - and helped free the young mind from the gross sensationalism of the academic philosophy on one side, and the grosser supernaturalism of the ecclesiastic theology on the other."

Indeed, by1841, Cousin was very much in vogue in the United States. According to the North American Review, his writings formed "the popular philosophy of the day." Even his detractors were moved to bow to popular opinion and praise him before calling him an unoriginal charlatan and plagiarist; we see quote this from the British review published in the November 15, 1843 edition of The Present:

"M. Cousin is one of the most celebrated living metaphysians... A splendor of diction; a richness, variety and purity of exposition; an enthusiasm in manner, and an erudition extensive... He is brilliant... It is impossible to read his works without delight and even profit. It is impossible to contemplate the activity of his life without admiration of its versatility and untiring energy. He enjoys a high and wide reputation...

In 1828, a year after visiting Hegel, Cousin ascended the chair of philosophy again. Crowds at the Sorbonne welcomed with loud acclaim the delivery of his brilliant lectures, known as the 'Cours de l'Historie de la Philosophie.'

"The lectures," claimed the British reviewer, "presented striking generalizations of human history, subtle ontological speculations, splendid eloquence, exquisite diction, apposite and abundant illustration, and an animation which rendered the abstrusest subjects interesting; with such qualities their success is not surprising..."

AS IF THEY WERE FLIES ON HONEY, Cousin's corpus attracted, despite its world-wide appeal, many professional detractors. And what was his original sin? What contaminated this so-called "showy" teacher's wondrous lectures? His original sin was in not being original. In fact, he expressly denied being original. Furthermore, he advised all students of truth to be dutiful apprentices, to dig diligently into history for past expressions of truth and to bring them alive; otherwise. truth cannot be presently known and understood. Cousin's "new" philosophy was a new phase of the decomposition and recomposition, or analysis and synthesis cycle; it was a recomposition of what had been decomposed into the philosophical contraries then known as sensualism and idealism.

In other words and at risk of seeming unoriginal, Cousin sought to revitalize truth by employing spirit to bring mind and body into sane harmony; after all, spirit is the living relation of mind and body that enlivens both. Again, Cousin was a moderate: in philosophy, he did not cotton to sensationalist or mentalist extremes.

Cousin composed a harmonious balance of palatable platitudes. He borrowed truths from around the globe and dished them back to the hungry world in a delectable course he called Eclecticism. Most appealing to the New England Trancendentalists were Kant's liberating morsels from the transcendental realm of Pure Reason, leftovers which Cousin reheated and represented, with a more positive mental attitude towards their availability and utility on Earth.

And much to the delight of those who have a taste for the catholic or ecumenical view of history, Cousin used Hegel's trinitarian method to cook up his eclectical course. His thesis on great men as well as other dishes of his course was borrowed from his friend Hegel, who said, after reviewing them, "Cousin has taken some few of my fish, but has added a considerable quantity of his ownsauce."

The British reviewer not only flattered Cousin but also accused the master French chef of professorial plagiary; to wit, of having some poor unemployed students and his disciples translate his popular translations of Plato and Kant. Professor Cousin, in turn, or so the scandal goes, merely added prefaces and facile criticisms, then signed the title pages, taking full credit for the works. Thus, it is claimed, the most important, interpretive aspect of the translations is not Cousin's at all! Of course we know very well that native speakers everywhere claim it is impossible for foreigners to translate the true meaning of their discourse into foreign languages, not to mention the fact that native speakers of a tongue often have difficulty translating their own writing to each other - and even to themselves, long after they wrote the text in question. In any event, Cousin had corrected and smoothed over the translations in his usual urbane manner; the fact they are easily understood must have been quite an insult to the native intelligence of Greeks and Germans and to the Platonist and Kantian cults who speculate in foreign languages, as well as to every ordinary critic who cannot make heads or tails of Plato and Kant in any language. Fortunately for their posterity, Socrates' claim to wisdom was that he was the only one who knew he did not have answers to the ultimate questions, and Kant was exceedingly skeptical about things in themselves and the illusions we entertain about them. 

The  British reviewer proceeded to contradict himself in respect to his chief complaint, Cousin's lack of originality, saying, "He has worked upon other men's ideas without adding any new ones of his own..." Then, "He has always more or less misrepresented ... the doctrines he professed to expound..." Then, "No man was ever completely original." However, this man Cousin made others do his dirty work, and so on - Cousin was a good delegator no doubt. Anyway, there is nothing new under the metaphysical Sun, at least not in our universities where sophists still have the gall to charge for truth and to neglect to give full credit to each and every "original" source.

At this point we may be moved to attend to a wee voice of guilty conscience implanted in me by feminist influences: "What about great women? This great man of yours, not to mention his male critics, probably does not mention a single great woman in his whole essay!"

LADIES SHOULD NOT BE PUT OFF by "Great Men", for modern men, especially historians such as Victor Cousin, openly admit the existence of Great Women despite the sexual politics of any given period including their own. Anti-woman polemics were rife in Cousin's mid-nineteenth century society; some scholars attribute the antipathy to the fear of reversion to one of the horrors of the Revolution - radical women donning men's attire and taking up arms - and the pen as well.

Now Cousin, while minister of education, was not averse to women of letters; in fact, he sponsored the ravishingly beautiful poetess Louise Colet; there is some question as to whether it was her physical beauty or her charming poetry that won awards including pensions. She amply inspired her ardent romantic intimates, which included the likes of Gustav Flaubert, author of the notorious Madame Bovary - the great pioneer of realism disparaged women according to the custom of the day:

"Woman, a vulgar animal... Woman is a production of man; she is a mere result of civilization, a factitious creature."

Regardless of status or intelligence, Colet believed beauty was classically a very good and wonderful thing - she complained beauty was being dishonored by pious Christian women. Her own great women were martyrs of the Revolution; George Sand scolded her for writing Charlotte Corday and Madame Roland. Colet was a bit given to Romantic histrionics in her own life: when she was almost nine months' pregnant with her daughter, she stabbed an anti-feminist critic in the back: he had identified Cousin, whom he hated, as the child's father. The knife hit bone and glanced off; the critic hung it on the wall of his apartment as a momento. Colet's husband praised her valor. Cousin flattered her with this epigram:

"I am a quintessential woman, but I know how to act like a man."

Whomever the father was, Cousin provided support for her daughter. Colet's success was largly due to his influence; she was convinced it was due to the merits of her work. Some time after their affair ended, he expressed misgivings about literary women, and said their "secret beauties" should not be vulgarly exposed by booksellers.

Apparently the right place for great women is in the salon: Louise Colet found nice quarters for her salon in 1841; it was meagerly furnished but well attended by the capital's foremost progressive intellectuals; people were sometimes astonished to see Cousin, peer of France, serving as a doorman there. We know salons have had an enormous influence over the destiny of France including its sexual politics. Great women enjoyed an extraordinary, exalted status in Paris because of their salons. Their wit was accepted as equal to men's, and their gracious virtues were literally worshiped by romantic gallants - great women were not merely show pieces on pedestals.

A popular great woman, known as the Grand Mademoiselle (Princess Anne Marie Louise d' Orleans), leader of the Amazons, actually "manned" a cannon on the Bastille in 1652 and fired it to cover the Grand Conde's retreat during the second war of the Fronde; the shot was said to have ruined her almost certain chance to marry Louis XIV - she was booted from the palace and wound up in a convent instead.

Cousin as an historian was so intrigued by the French salons that he took to writing about several of their illustrious women. He literally worshiped the salon enthusiast, Duchess de Longueville. She was the revolutionary sister of the Great Conde - a famous soldier - he led the second rebellion of the rather farcical, seventeenth-century civil war of the Fronde, a last-ditch stand of nobility and parliament against absolute monarchy. Tall, beautiful and romantic, the Duchess de Longueville frequented Madame de Rambouillett's seventeenth-century, pioneering salon, a salon credited with raising France to a high stage of civilization. A wit wrote this satirical epitaph: "Here lies Victor Cousin, the great philosopher, in love with the Duchess de Longueville, who died a century and a half before he was born."

Yes, Victor Cousin recognized and loved great women. That being said, let us turn to his theory about great men.

To Be Continued

Principal Sources:

Cousin, M. Victor, Course of the History of Modern Philosophy, transl. O.W. Wight, New York: Appleton, 1857

Brewer, Walter Vance, Victor Cousin as a Comparative Educator, New York: Teachers College Press, 1971

Jones, Howard Mumford, America and French Culture, London: Oxford, 1927

The Present, Vol. I, No. III, November 15, 1843

Francine du Plessix Gray, Rage and Fire, A Life of Louise Colet, Pioneer Feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert's Muse, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994. I highly recommend this book as well as the author's other books to readers and to students of the biographical form of writing.

Price, Eleanor C., A Princess of the Old World, New York: Putnam's, 1907. The author provides an entertaining account of the life of The Grand Mademoiselle.

Clergue, Helen, The Salon, New York: Putnam's, 1907.

Mason, Amelia Gere, The Women of the French Salons, New York: Century, 1891. See Chapter II, 'The Hotel de Rambouillet.'

Maland, David, Culture and Society in Seventeenth-Century France, London: Batsford, 1970. See Chapter Two, 'Order and Civility in Society and the Theatre.'

Hamel, Frank, Famous French Salons, New York: Brentano's 1909. See Chapter 1. 'The Hotel de Rambouilett, The Salon of Manners.'

Guizot, M., History of France, transl. Robert Black, Boston: Dana Estes, 18??. See Volume V., Chapter XLIII, 'Louis XIV., The Fronde, and the Government of Cardinal Mazarin. (1648-1661). M. Guizot, historian and statesman, was Cousin's contemporary.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich, On the Different Methods of Translation, transl. Andre Lefevere

Maurois, Andre, The Miracle of France, transl. Henry L. Binsse, New York: Harper, 1948. See Chapter XXIII, 'How the Fronde Was a Revolution - and How It Miscarried.' I highly recommend this concise history of France.

'Company Manners' (1854) Elizabeth Gaskell on Cousin's salon studies.

Brief Internet Biography of the Duchess de Longueville



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