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Science and Polity in France:
The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Years
Charles Coulston Gillispie

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The modern period in the history of both politics and science opens out of the quarter century of the French Revolution and its Napoleonic sequel. In both respects the relative importance of developments in France then reached a maximum in ways that were reciprocally reinforcing although neither one, in my view, was reducible to the other, nor were they to any further sector of historical change. In an earlier volume treating the last decades of the old regime, I ventured to identify and analyze loci of interaction between politics and science. The present purpose is to continue that approach throughout the time when the density of the intersections increased to a degree that is characteristic of modern polity in general.

Let me state first the exordium concerning politics.

The issues defined by the French Revolution were paramount in the politics of every country in Europe throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. In France the central thrust was toward democratization encased in a nationalism purporting to be cosmopolitan. In other countries, the order was reversed, owing in part to revulsion from French domination. Whichever the sequence, the imperative that governed feelings was assertion of the equal worth of every citizen sharing in, or confronted with, the only legitimate power, the power of the state, enormously augmented. In the exercise of government, bureaucracy displaced particularism, while the appetite of the state for power grew by what it fed on, filling and overflowing the vacuum left by the dissolution of all the intermediate powers, whether local, regional, juridical, clerical, or economic, which had governed life in its many aspects while buffering the subject from direct exposure to the authority of the sovereign.

Nowhere did resolution of the issues of the Revolution prove to be a simple matter of liberalism prevailing over reaction, and certainly not in France. The Terror of 1793-94 and Napoleonic despotism were no less intrinsic to its inwardness than the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The violence of the former pertained to means and the principles of the latter to ends, although the two could become conflated, as in the minds of those who thought like Robespierre. For the French Revolution was as much the progenitor of modern totalitarianism as of modern democracy. Both in totalitarian and in democratic states the constant preoccupation of government is its immediate relation to the whole people. Absolute monarchs of the old regime would have found the practices of twentieth-century dictators no less unthinkable than the liberties of twentieth-century democracy.

Let me in the second place state the exordium concerning science. In Europe generally, the French establishment predominated throughout the half-century and more of which the Revolution was the centerpiece, from the 1770s through the 1820s. The chemical revolution, analytical and celestial mechanics, the rigorization of the calculus, the mathematicization of physics, botanical systematics, comparative anatomy, experimental physiology, clinical medicine--French scientists were the prime movers and French institutions the initial loci of all these new departures along the road of modernization.

It would appear, indeed, that for a time the vigor of high culture in France had passed from arts and letters into science. In a graph of the importance of French literature, of French art, of French music, the quarter century between 1789 and 1815 would show a dip, not to say a trough, between the peaks of the Enlightenment and of the nineteenth century. What writers in that interval are still read for the quality of their language? Two, André Chénier and Chateaubriand. What painters stand out? Two again, David and, later, Ingres. What composers wrote music that lives, other than the Marseillaise? One, Cherubini--an Italian whose name has failed to find its way into the Nouvelle Dictionnaire de Biographie Française. In Germany and England, on the other hand, the literary landscape was anything but barren.

The paucity of French talent expressing itself in the humanities in our period is to be contrasted to the galaxy of leading scientific lights who constitute the dramatis personae of this book--Lavoisier, Laplace, Lagrange, Berthollet, Cuvier, Jussieu, Lamarck, Fourier, Legendre, Cauchy, Amp`ere, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Pinel, Bichat, Magendie, Fresnel, Poisson, Gay-Lussac, Monge, Sadi Carnot--some twenty stars of the first magnitude, not altogether arbitrarily singled out from among another two to three dozen luminaries of second and third magnitude and as many more practitioners, in sum a larger scientific population than in the rest of Europe put together.

The wellsprings of vigor manifest in comparable ways in the politics and science of revolutionary France lie in cultural strata deeper than the surface layer of either and issue through different channels. It is not through following the occasional political activities of scientists that we will get at them, however, nor is it through considering the involvements of science in the arena where parties, classes, and interests compete for momentary power. Such episodes there were, often interesting and occasionally momentous. We will need to mark them, but in the last analysis their importance was incidental rather than systematic.

With respect to politics, indeed, historiography may possibly have occupied itself too exclusively with the turbulence at the surface. For a striking feature of the Revolution is the contrast between the magnitude of the events and the stature of the participants. Until Napoleon Bonaparte gave his measure, and by then the merely political dynamism was exhausted, not a single great man stood forth within the forum. No one was to the French Revolution what Solon and Pericles were to Athenian democracy, what Luther and Calvin were to the Protestant reformation, what Washington and Jefferson were to the American Revolution, or what Lincoln and Lee were to the Civil War. Mirabeau, Lafayette, Barnave, the two Lameths, Duport, Roland, Brissot, Vergniaud, Desmoulins, Marat, Pache, Hébert Carnot, Danton, Robespierre, Couthon, Saint-Just, Barras, Boissy d'Anglas, Reubell, LaReveillière-Lépaux--of the whole lot, and dozens more, one feels that it was only by slight accidents of circumstance that they, instead of almost any other among hundreds of deputies, occupied the positions they did. And of the deputies to all the legislative bodies, one feels the same thing relative to almost any others among tens of thousands of intelligent, educated French-men, newly awakened politically. The leaders came and went, mostly after a very short interval at the forefront. The policies they implemented were not so much their own creations as items in the logical set of possibilities, eventually exhausted. The events produced the men, and not the men the events.

Neither the passions of politics nor the force of ideologies were what made the Revolution all it was historically. Its enduring features have not been the outcome of disputes in the National Assembly between constitutional monarchists and republicans, Girondists and Montagnards, Jacobins and Thermidoreans. Nor do they derive from the larger configuration of leftward movement culminating in the rule of the Committee of Public Safety followed by Thermidorean reaction, political bankruptcy during the Directory, and military receivership under Bonaparte. Ideas lead little further. Condorcet's belief in the perfectibility of man, Marat's friendship for the people, Robespierre's ideal of civic virtue--such notions have played an altogether negligible role in the daily life of citizens of France in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (though the same may not be said of Napoleonic glory).

No, the changes that mark off modern polity from the old regime transpired at a level deeper than the political or ideological. The factors differentiating the lives of Frenchmen in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from the lot of their ancestors in the old regime were those that realized the principles affirmed in 1789, and that were not afterward in dispute among the factions: sovereignty of the nation, liberty of conscience and opinion, freedom of the press, national unity, equality before the law, presumption of innocence until proof of guilt, absolute right of property, equitable rules of inheritance, universal and secular education, access to health care, public responsibility for the disadvantaged, universal obligation for military service, a standard system of weights and measures. These matters are intrinsic to the lives people lead. Once the principles were established, and the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen accomplished that at the outset, provision for realizing them came out of administrative and institutional practice, not out of politics, though politics had to make the provision possible.

More generally, the French Revolution was the surface manifestation of something like a seismic shift relieving pressures that had been building throughout the Enlightenment. For a century and more, if a tectonic metaphor is permissible, the philosophic plate carrying the value structure shifted past the plate of social and juridical structure until convocation of the States-General in 1789 triggered the release in all directions of enormous political energies. A society in which roles were defined by status then gave way to a society in which roles are defined by function. What matters in a civic sense is what one does, not who one is, the person one comes to be, not the person one was born to be. These are fundamental determinants of attitude which, along with the modernization of their institutional and juridical embodiment, transcend, or rather underlie, the battle of revolutionary politics. On these, the fundamentals, there was no difference between constitutional monarchists and republicans, between Girondists and Montagnards, between Thermidoreans and surviving Jacobins under the Directory, eventually between Bonapartists and the onetime democrats of the year II. The fundamental shifts were irreversible. They survived restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1815. The disputes throughout the preceding quarter-century had been over means, not ends. The difference over ends, and it was unbridgeable, was between pre-modern and modern polity in general, between the Old Regime and the Revolution, between status and mobility, between subjects of the King and citizens of the Republic.

Indicative of the change in ethos was universal acceptance of the bourgeois axiom that careers, whether in the public or private sector, should be open to talent, not birth. Clearly, the proposition is one with which the norms of the scientific community are altogether congruent. More broadly than that, however, indeed much more broadly, political and social sensibility shifted toward the orientation characteristic of science, toward shaping the future, rather than conserving the past.

Characteristic of science, but of what science? For a comparable shift, at bottom the same shift, occurred there. In the long half-century of French scientific predominance, from the 1770s through the 1820s, we are in the presence of two generations of scientists, well marked off from each other by the crisis of the Revolution. In the earlier, leadership of the old Academy belonged to Lavoisier, to Condorcet, to Vicq d'Azyr. They and their colleagues had had their general education in the excellent clerical colleges of the eighteenth century, and beyond that were largely self-taught in a culture dominated by letters. Their successors consisted of the first set of scientists formed in the new, professional institutions: the Museum of Natural History, the Faculty of Medicine drawing on the clinical facilities of the Hôum;tel-Dieu and other hospitals, the École Polytechnique. Only five careers of great note spanned the divide--those of Laplace and Lamarck, and less fully so of Lagrange, Monge, and Berthollet.

We are concerned here not merely with the succession of generations, although that certainly, but also with two distinct modes of doing science. The one, the earlier, is encyclopedic. The other, its successor, is positivist. By encyclopedic is meant the science done according to the method defined by Condillac. Analysis orders a complex sector of experience--in the global case of the Encyclopédie itself, all experience--by identifying its elements. Science then arranges those elements according to the natural connections inherent in the phenomena, whether chemical, botanical, mineralogical, mathematical, technological, social, economic, political, or whatever. Thus, Lavoisier's chemistry only begins with an explanation of combustion. That was merely the theory. The actual ordering of the science is a tabulation arranging the fifty-five known simple substances laterally by class and species while the columns show the relation of compounds to the action on each species of the principles of caloric, oxygen, acidity, and non-acidity.

The approach is also that of the Jussieu system of natural classification, in which flowering plants are ranged in genera and families according to their relations in nature. This was no mere taxonomy. The Botanical School at the Jardin du Roi and the Trianon garden were actually planted that way. Thus does Romé de l'Isle, and after him René-Just Haüy, classify minerals on the basis of the cleavage forms of their crystals. Thus does Gaspard Monge classify geometric surfaces according to their mode of generation. Thus does the technology of the Encyclopédie amount to a natural history of industry.

Many practices deriving from the encyclopedic mode of science are still with us, of course. Chemical nomenclature is the most obvious, but the most widespread is also the most characteristic. The metric system based weights and measures on dimensions drawn from nature. For the natural sciences, in a word, the general problem is to find where things belong, their status in nature, and for the human sciences to show how we fit, our status in society. Application then consists in reforming practice in conformity with principles that are true to the nature of things physical and social.

The science of the next generation, by contrast, is functional, a positive science of how things work. By positive is meant the actual practice from which Auguste Comte abstracted his philosophy, a philosophy--be it noted--of politics as well as science, though not a political philosophy. The phenomena investigated are actions in nature, and indeed on nature, rather than arrangements. Thus, to anticipate, Fresnel's problem is the interference of the light waves, not the waves themselves, and his integrals predict the illumination of the shadow of a refracting diskette. Thus, too, Malus polarizes light, and his formulas predict the relative intensities of rays of ordinary and extraordinary refraction. Thus, Amp`ere makes magnetism consist of electricity in motion. Thus, Fourier performs mathematical investigations of the conduction, not the nature, of heat, and Sadi Carnot analyzes the conditions of maximum yield of a heat engine. The thrust is similar in other sciences. Berthollet initiates a fully physical chemistry with the study of mass action. Cuvier bases comparative anatomy on the relation between the functioning of the organism and its mode of life. Lamarck makes the life processes the constitutive factor in the economy of nature. Bichat and, much more, Magendie intervene in the functioning of the organism.

But apart from these indications, it will be best to reserve a characterization of that science until we have set forth an account of the revolutionary transformation of the context, which is the main purpose of this book.1

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File created: 8/7/2007

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