Le Figaro 10 février 1924 (Michelet 03)


The political program of Renan, candidate for the legislative elections, could have been signed by Michelet. Italy provided them with fruitful inspiration. The world, its honors and its festivals repelled them. The Collège de France finally heard their teaching and rejected them in turn.
Destiny sometimes has these ironies. These two very similar existences, existences of labor and intellectual pleasure, were led by men whose thoughts are often in communion, but whose lessons were always foreign to each other. This explains why their closest feelings are marked with such dissimilar imprints.
There is one point above all which, by limiting their respective domains, definitively distances them. This is the notion they had of their personality. Renan, when he was destined for the ecclesiastical state, was afraid of people. Michelet, whose harsh youth had embittered his soul and tempered his spirit, did not know this fear; the world did not frighten him, he ignored it.
Nothing can make this divergence clearer than their diverse attitude towards the attacks they are subjected to: where Michelet would have been indignant, Renan smiles. Michelet defends himself, fulminates from his pulpit, fights in the newspapers and even on the graves. Renan jokes and murmurs that something is missing from the celebration of humanity.
In the midst of the quarrel between the Church and the University, when Michelet published his course on the Jesuits, Sainte-Beuve wrote in Chroniques:
« We see that if Barante is the father of the descriptive school in history, Michelet is the founder of the illuminated school. Never have the I and the me been stilted to this degree. It's threatening. What do you think? »
These few lines surprise and even sadden a little. The critic that Sainte-Beuve was should not have allowed himself such an error of assessment. What he took for an abuse of personality was Michelet's entire method, a method which gave him his most certain glory. Far from the skepticism of Renan in whom I and the self shelter behind the modesty of doubt, of the impossibility of knowing, and of the poetry of obvious uncertainty, Michelet affirms and asserts himself.
It was this flame and this assurance which opened the door to history for him and which led him to the end of his story. If Sainte-Beuve had seriously intended to reproach him for the use of the first person, if he had wanted, as he did for the course at the Collège de France, to choose from his work the most characteristic passages in this regard, he would have fulfilled volumes.
The long walk that Michelet took across ages and countries abounds in personal impressions. The historical truth, in which he believed, unlike Renan, almost disappears at times under the mass of his passions. Each era, each event, each man, evoked in this silence of the archives that he loved so much, reach us through him; wherever he thought to put the light, he simply put his heart.
His prefaces would have offered Sainte-Beuve the opportunity to be more deeply indignant. Michelet seems to only be talking about himself. His thoughts, his tastes, his melancholy, his praises return constantly and as if inseparable from his work. He also loved these prefaces: in each new edition of one of his works, he changed nothing in the text, but placed it again. Does the French Revolution, which was perhaps his greatest happiness, need a commentary?
Every year, he writes, when I come down from my pulpit, when I see the crowd gone, another generation that I will never see again, my thoughts return to me.
Summer is advancing, the city is less populated, the streets less noisy, the past more resounding around my Pantheon. The large white and black slabs resonate under my feet.
Not even the Pantheon is his! But what explains everything is that the Revolution is also his:
You live... I feel it every time that at this time of the year my teaching leaves me and the work weighs on me and the season gets heavier... So, I go to the Champ-de-Mars, I sitting on the dried grass, I breathe the deep breath that runs across the arid plain.
The Revolution undoubtedly, but also all of history, and France itself. They are more than his and he identifies with them. Alternately, and each time equally sincere, he will be the man of all centuries, full of life and full of death, according to his own expression, but also, depending on the times, full of love or full of hatred.
Renan, when he abandoned his ecclesiastical vocation, obeyed a doubt, purely interior thoughts. Michelet, without denying his long and great admiration, spoke out against the Church because of Des Garets, whose pamphlets did not spare him. As in his story, Michelet took a general attack for a personal offense; he kept to himself what was addressed to so many others.
Likewise, his penchant for the people comes from his youth, unhappy, poor, and devoid of sunshine. His hatred of the Empire has no other cause. And when, walking in the cathedral of Reims, he saw in a garland of tortured victims the misery of the people oppressed by kings, it was his childhood, the family printing business where money came little, death of his mother to whom he could not guarantee stable rest in a piece of earth too expensive, which invaded his heart and broke it.
The history of France? But it's him, and it's only him. Unaccustomed to big improvisations in front of a large audience, he exclaimed: “I'm sure I won't keep it short because what I'm saying is me!”
There can be no question of an illuminated school. Michelet was able to teach his students new uses of archives, he was able to teach them to attach themselves to the close bond which unites man and the earth and modifies one through the other. But he could not give them his soul: and it was she who led him.
I passed by the world, he said, and took history for life.
No, he was not mistaken. History was, strictly speaking, his life, if not his life. His History of France is his best biography. His memories, his letters are only the accessory."
Jules Simon, who was his student, and loved him and knew him well, said, in a remarkable formula: “Rousseau to confess himself writes the History of Rousseau, Michelet to confess himself writes the History of France. »
François Montel.
The fifty years of friendship of Michelet and Quinet
In a letter of September 9, 1868, after some reservations about certain historical assessments of Quinet, Michelet added “I have nonetheless done justice to your beautiful book (it was about Creation); I recalled our brotherhood in arms of 1843 and our immutable friendship that nothing can alter in this world, nor in subsequent worlds.”
This solemn declaration, part of a heart which did not know how to give half, also summarizes the history of one of these spiritual unions, of which we find only rare examples in the history of letters because it requires souls exceptional. This friendship was only to end here on earth with the death of the great historian of Joan of Arc, on February 9, 1874, followed thirteen months later by the friend who, too, had devoted all his intellectual and moral strength to to the worship of the homeland and freedom. It had lasted almost fifty years without the slightest cloud ever disturbing their always serene sky.
It was because she was tied to the days of their ardent youth, when, at the dawn of their career, Michelet was twenty-seven, Quinet twenty-two. both burning for the search for the same enthusiasm which was to unite them, they met at the house of the serious philosopher Cousin. The father of eclecticism loved young people, but very patiently tried to discourage those in whom he sensed future rivals for his glory. And this is what happened in this case, as Quinet himself recounts, in a pleasant anecdote, where he presents to us Cousin trying to divert the activity of our young friends towards obscure compilation works of which he would have enriched his own loot.
The Revolution of 1830, which soon occurred, opened unlimited horizons to the two liberal writers, and their literary activity was multiplied. This is the time when Quinet composed his Introduction to the Philosophy of History, his Prometheus and his Ashaverus, a sort of mystical epic, one could say, of humanity in labor and eager to give birth. a God ! For Michelet, what a happy flowering of work and works! While he replaced Guizot in his history course at the Sorbonne, he gave both his summary and the first volumes of this monumental history of France, which he was to pursue for ten years only to bring it to the end of the Middle Ages!
Then came the radiant years of teaching, I was going to write preaching, at the Collège de France, a true apostolate that these two great men were going to undertake each in their own way, but with their eyes fixed on a common ideal to which they were passionately attached. Quinet taught the history and institutions of southern Europe, teaching which he had inaugurated at the University of Lyon and thanks to the support of Michelet.
Michelet himself, first elevated by a fortunate choice to the directorship of the National Archives, then appointed professor of history and morality at the Collège de France, made of this new teaching a true apostolate in favor of well-understood democracy; he was to bring out this beautiful book of the People, a prelude to his admirable Bible of humanity. But above all, from the top of these two twin chairs, vibrant appeals came that found their echo in enthusiastic youth. All oppressed nationalities: Italians, Poles, Hungarians or Czechs, were sure to hear words of encouragement and hope fall from this platform, which carried far and wide.
But the July government wanted to curb this freedom of higher education which it had nevertheless consecrated by resounding appointments to the Collège de France. Villemain, minister of public education, refused for a long time to a measure that Guizot accomplished by striking Quinet, the more daring of the two masters. He demanded the removal of the term Institutions from the course on Southern Europe; it was to behead him. Quinet refused to be suppressed and was suspended in 1846.
The excluded person accepted the judgment which strengthened his influence over liberal youth. Michelel, moreover, took it upon himself to avenge his friend by affirming 'the sustainability of their common aspirations. “I will speak,” he said, opening his lecture, “about the homeland and nationality. » The July government, whose days were numbered, did not dare strike the already famous historian, and Michelet was able to continue his teaching until 1851, a time when the coup d'état was to confuse him again with his friend in the persecution, if not in exile. But, before that, the two great men had been able to enjoy a new period of joy and happy exaltation. The Revolution of February 1848 had just given the rise to free thought for a time. Quinet, reinstated in his functions, reopened his course not at the College itself, too narrow to contain the crowd of his listeners, but in the large amphitheater of the Sorbonne. His entrance, like that of Michelet, standing at his side, was greeted with multiple cheers. Prophets! prophets! » they were shouted from all sides, and certainly Quinet had been so in the literal sense of the word, denouncing in a pamphlet published around 1842 Prussia's emerging ambitions towards hegemony, its distant preparations for war, and even its targeted on parts of our territory.
But already, according to Hugo's expression, Napoleon was making progress under Bonaparte. While Michelet, entirely devoted to his work, had previously declined any candidacy, Quinet, who entered a political career and represented his province in the Assembly, was hit first and hardest. His course was canceled, he was placed at the top of the proscription lists, he had to take the path of exile which, like V. Hugo, he refused to break, despite the urgings of Michelet, after the imperial amnesty in 1862 First taking refuge in Brussels, with the great outlaws of the coup d'état, whose story I told in a recent book, then in Veytaux, in Switzerland, he will show a power of work which will excite the admiration even of his adversaries, and will publish, in addition to other great philosophical and moral works, this long study on Marnix of Sainte-Aldegonde, the Flemish patriot of whom Michelet, perhaps a little biased, wrote: “It is the strongest work of the time, the most virile. »
As for Michelet, having refused the oath of loyalty to the Emperor, he was dismissed from his chair of history without being forced to leave, but he henceforth considered himself a “prisoner inside”. Subsequently domiciled in Mantes, then in Paris itself, before his health forced him to seek the climate of Switzerland or Italy, he also sought oblivion through hard work. This is the time when he mixed with his absorbing works of history, these charming essays of poetic natural history The Bird, the Insect, the Mountain, or these noble works of education: Our Sons, the Bible of l'Humanité, in which he comments with what enthusiasm of an apostle! the happiest ideas of Rousseau and Pestalozzi. Finally, the thunderbolt of 1870 broke out in an already tormented sky, and after Sedan came the proclamation of the Third Republic. The two friends separated by exile, then by the siege of Paris, feel their hearts beating in unison; the misfortunes of a beloved homeland make the joy of reconquered freedom less vivid to them. Will they be able to see each other again? Not even. It is a very pathetic letter from Michelet, because it is the last (June 28, 1871) that the widow of Edgar Quinet collected in the work dedicated for her to the long friendship and correspondence of the two great men. Michelet speaks there of his nobleman. pamphlet France before Europe, which helped it to bear the sadness of the present; he declares himself incapable of "re-integrating Paris as the Barbarians did, paid by the money of Bismarck and blind fanatics." Had he wanted to, he would not have been able to complete the journey. Shortly afterwards he fell seriously ill in Florence. The doctors diagnosed ossification of the heart and recommended the more regular climate of Hyères. The illustrious writer was transported there, and he died there on February 9, 1874. A great light had just gone out! By a painful coincidence, two years earlier, in 1872, Quinet had been marked by destiny. A deputy to the Versailles Assembly, he wanted to fulfill the mandate he had accepted to the end. He still had the strength to raise a vehement protest against the cession of Alsace-Lorraine; then, overcome by illness, fell, in his turn, on March 27, 1875.
The two friends had wrapped themselves, to die, in the shroud of their homeland.

Maurice Wolff.