The Students' Academician
— The article on The Moral Revival in France, in the September Atlantic, and the special reference to Vogüé, must be my excuse for a few words regarding Ernest Lavisse.
The Forty Immortals who make up the French Academy are important men in the world of letters. They represent the scholarship, signed and sealed, of a great nation. Into the other learned Academies — of Sciences, and the like—special scholars may enter ; but this is the Academy of France, reserved for the chosen Forty.
Surprise was naturally felt when a simple professor of the Sorbonne, whose writings were little known to the general public, was elected to a vacant chair in the Academy. Even now, the press outside of France seems not to understand the true position of this sturdy, open-faced, offhand, hard-working professor. Observant men in France, on the contrary, rank his influence above that of almost any other living Frenchman. They consider that the spirit with which he inspires so many of the French youth is, perhaps, the only present offset to the deadly marasmus which people are beginning to associate, rightly or wrongly, with the name of Ernest Renan.
Ernest Lavisse was a young member of the University— he had not yet taken his doctor’s degree — when the great war of 1870 came to reveal to Frenchmen the selfishness and greed and the irresponsible love of pleasure which were eating away the nation’s life. Shortly afterwards, he went to study the history of Prussia on the spot. German scholars were surprised to see in their midst this matter-of-fact Frenchman, patiently and persistently at work among the most neglected documents of their archives. They spoke of him as “ the Frenchman who is studying the Mark of Brandenburg.” After a time a book appeared from his pen, — a book not likely to become known to others than serious students of history. It treated of the “ origins of the Prussian monarchy.”
Meanwhile, the student was eking out his income by letters on the Germany of to-day in the Journal des Débats. These were conceived in such a spirit of fair, dispassionate observation that only the thoughtful attended to them. Among the mass of readers there was still too much feeling against “ the enemy ” for them to give ear to lessons drawn for their benefit from German practice. The student was not dazzled with what he saw. He noted the tendency of the new Empire to change its old laborious morals for an easy-going luxury among the higher classes, and the growth of a strongly disciplined socialism among the lower. But, chiefly, he pointed out to his own people that it was the spirit of labor and unselfish love of country which had made the Germans their conquerors.
In a few years other serious works appeared from the same unwearied pen. To those of his countrymen who were willing to read his pages he showed the elements of Prussian success found in their militarism, beginning with the half-mad father of Frederick the Great, and exemplified in all his descendants. It is, perhaps, his volume on the great Frederick which will best reward the study of the general reader who is not greatly interested in the welfare of France as a nation. For, in all his writings, Professor Lavisse has ever before him how best to read a lesson for the present from the experience of the past. He is not of those historians who shut themselves away from the real life around them, the better to live again the life of ages past. This may have helped to prevent an earlier recognition of his valuable labors among foreign students. But the importance of his teaching of history is light in comparison with the making of history which seems likely to result from it.
On his return to France, Ernest Lavisse was named to a chair of modern history, which he still holds. By the general public he was less heard of than ever. In the University world he soon drew all eyes on himself.
There was no teacher whom the students heard so willingly. In his lectures, as in his books, it is the actual life of our day which he explains, in its needs and defects and in its glorious possibilities. It matters not that he speaks professedly of the events of a past century. He is a professor, as he has been an historian, joined with a journalist. Yet his course shows none of the fireworks of eloquence which draw so many benevolent hearers to the lectures of his fellows. He speaks to the students alone ; he demands serious work, such as he himself has given.
His jealous watchfulness over the work of his students has naturally inspired them with confidence in his direction. Little by little, there has sprung up around him the giant Association of University Students, which now numbers many thousands. A Philistine like Francisque Sarcey, a chronicler of Paris qui s’amuse for the last thirty years, declares that he knows nothing in our century comparable to the influence of Ernest Lavisse over the youth of France.
It was impossible that the government should not recognize the importance of such a man. Professor Lavisse was a stanch Republican from the beginning. But the ultra-Republicans, who have ruled France to their own advantage for so many years, have vainly tempted him with offers. He has continued to stand aloof from the game of politics, though he has worked hard and with some effect at many needed University reforms. His real work, with which he is content, lies deeper than passing politics.
The first lesson which he draws from history for the benefit of young Frenchmen is that men cannot afford to live for themselves alone. It is egotism, self-indulgent, cowardly, heartless, that has brought France within an ace of her ruin. This is a direct condemnation of the literature which is built up on the principle of “ art for the sake of art.” Literature and art are for the sake of life, and life is not for self.
The second lesson follows naturally. It is the lesson of patient labor and lofty ambition ; man must have an ideal, and live for it. This is against the spirit of empty and scornful dreaming over life and its mysteries with which Renan inspired nearly all the younger men of his day. In the eulogy of his predecessor in the Academy, which custom demanded of Professor Lavisse on his reception to the vacant chair, he summed up tersely a career based on truer principles : —
“Admiral Jurien de la Gravière did in this world what he ought to do ; he went into the next world tranquilly.”
His final lesson, beyond which a man in his place should hardly be expected to go, is the necessity of an earnest and enlightened patriotism. It is this which makes his influence over the students of such importance to the future of France. He said to them, not long since, words which they received with frenzied applause : —
“As for me, I well know that if I withdrew from myself certain feelings and certain ideas, the love of my native soil, the long remembrance of our forefathers, the joy of finding my own soul in their thoughts and their actions, in their history and their legend ; if I did not feel myself part of one whole, whose origin is lost in the mists, and whose future is without limit ; if I did not thrill to the singing of the national hymn ; if I had not for the flag the worship of a pagan for his idol which wishes incense, and on certain days hecatombs ; if there should grow up in me forgetfulness of our national sorrows, — truly, I should no longer know what I am, nor what I do lit this world. I should lose the chief reason for living.”
To the colder Anglo-Saxon this may seem to smack too much of French enthusiasm. But it is essentially different from the French Radicalism which, in the name of the Revolution, would root up all the past of France, including what remains of religion and morality, to make everything new according to some system written on paper.
Perhaps the theorists of universal peace may make their reserves about a peculiarity of the new spirit. This is the hearty recognition of the necessity of war, as a consequence of healthy national life. It supposes that the evils of war are less than those of selfishness triumphant in a whole nation, and that patriotism alone can furnish the motives necessary to self-sacrifice on the part of the community at large. The discussion of this would lead too far afield. It belongs to the sphere of Melchior de Vogüé, who shares with Professor Lavisse the directing influence in the new movement of minds in France.