1902 Encyclopedia > Paul Maxime Emile Littré

Paul Maxime Emile Littré
French lexicographer and philosopher
(1801-81)




PAUL MAXIMILIEN EMILE LITTRÉ (1801-1881), the compiler of the best dictionary of any living language, and the Frenchman of most encyclopaedic knowledge since Diderot, was born at Paris on February 1, 1801. His father had been a gunner, and afterwards sergeant-major of marine artillery, in the French nav}', and was deeply imbued with the revolutionary ideas of the day. Settling down as a collector of taxes, he married Sophie Johannot, a free-thinker like himself, and devoted himself to the education of his son Emile. The boy was sent to the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, where he had for friends Hachette and Eugène Burnouf, and he distinguished himself alike in his work and in all athletic exercises. After he had completed his course at school, he hesitated for a time as to what profession he should adopt, and meanwhile made himself master, not only of the English and German languages, but of the classical and Sanskrit literature and philology. At last he determined to study medicine, and in 1822 entered his name as a student of medicine. He passed all his examinations in due course, and had only his thesis to prepare in order to obtain his degree as doctor when in 1827 his father died, leaving his mother absolutely without resources. He at once renounced his degree, and, while attending the lectures of Rayer and taking a keen interest in medicine, began teaching Latin and Greek for a livelihood. He carried a musket on the popular side in the revolution of February 1830, and was one of the national guards who followed Charles X. to Rambouillet. At last, in 1831, when quite thirty years of age, he obtained an introduction to Armand Carrel, the editor of the National, who gave him the task of reading the English and German papers for excerpts. Carrel by the merest chance, in 1835, discovered the ability of his reader, who from that time became a constant contributor, and eventually director of the paper. In 1836 he began to contribute articles on all sorts of subjects to the Revue des Deux Mondes; in 1837 he married; and in 1839 appeared the first volume of his edition of the works of Hippocrates. This volume at once placed Littré in the forefront of the literary and scientific world ; its ability was recognized by his election the same year into the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. At the age of thirty-eight then he had won for himself a high reputation as a learned man of letters and of science, but was still tormented by the unsettled ideas and thoughts which generally beset younger men, and were only increased by the study of his favourite authors Byron and Obermann. At this epoch he came across the works of Auguste Comte,, the reading of which formed, as he himself said, " the cardinal point of his life," and from this time onward appears the influence of positivism on his own life, and, what is of even more importance, his influence on positivism, for he gave at least as much to positivism as he received from it. He brought to it a wide knowledge of scienct and literature, a great and growing reputation, and a clear head. He soon became an intimate friend of Comte's, and set to work to popularize his ideas in numerous works on the positivist philosophy, while at the same time continuing his edition of Hippocrates, which was not completed till 1862, publishing a similar edition of Pliny's Natural History, assisting after 1844 in the place of Fauriel at the committee engaged on the Histoire littéraire de la France, where his knowledge of the early French language and literature was invaluable, and contributing largely to the National and Revue des Deux Mondes. In the revolution of July 1848 he took a keen interest, and himself took part in the repression of the extreme republican party in June 1849, under the banner of order. His essays, contributed during this period to the National, were collected together and published under the title of Conservation, Révolution, et Positivisme in 1852, and show, not only a lively faith in a good time coming, but a thorough acceptance of all the doctrines propounded by Comte. However, during the later years of his master's life, he began to perceive that he could not wholly accept all the dogmas or the more mystic ideas of his friend and master, but he studiously concealed his differences of opinion almost from himself, and Comte failed to perceive that his pupil had outgrown him, as he himself had outgrown his master Saint-Simon. Comte's death in 1858 freed Littré from any fear of embittering his master's later years, and he published his own ideas in his Paroles de la Philosophie Positive in 1859, and at still greater length in his work in Auguste Comte et la Philosophie positive in 1863. In this book he traces the origin of Comte's ideas through Turgot, Kant, and Saint-Simon, then eulogizes Comte's own life, his method of philosophy, his great services to the cause, and the effect of his works, and finally proceeds to show where he himself differs from him. He approved wholly of Comte's philosophy, his great laws of society, and his philosophical method, which indeed he defended warmly against J. S. Mill, but declared that, while he believed in a positivist philosophy, he did not believe in a religion of humanity. In the year 1863, after completing his Hippocrates and his Pliny, he set to work on his great French dictionary, bringing to the task an unexampled knowledge of old French, of modern and classical languages, and of modern philology, which were to make his dictionary unique in its interest and accuracy. In the same year he was proposed for the Académie Française, but rejected, owing to the opposition of the fiery bishop of Orleans, who denounced him as the chief of the French materialists. He also at this time started with M. Wyrouboff the Philosophie Positive, a review which was to embody the views of modern positivists, and to which he largely contributed. His life was thus absorbed in literary work, and flowed quietly on, till the overthrow of the empire called on him to take a part in politics. He felt himself too old to undergo the privations of the siege of Paris, and retired with his family to Britanny, whence he was summoned by M. Gambetta to Bordeaux, to lecture on history, and thence to Versailles to take his seat in the senate to which he had been chosen by the department of the Seine. In December 1871 he was elected a member of the Académie Française in spite of the renewed opposition of the Mgr. Dupanloup, bishop of Orleans, who resigned his seat rather than receive him. His dictionary was completed in 1873, and he lived on full of years and honours, for in 1874 he was elected a life senator. The most notable of his productions in these latter years were his political papers attacking and unveiling the confederacy of the Orleanists ' and legitimists, and in favour of the republic, his republication of many of his old articles and books, among others the Conservation, Revolution, et Positivisme of 1852 (which he reprinted word for word, appending a formal, categorical renunciation of many of the Comtist doctrines therein contained), and a little tract Pour la dernière fois, in which he maintained his unalterable belief in materialism. When it became obvious that the old man could not live much longer, Ms wife and daughter, who had always been fervent Catholics, strove to convert him to their religion. He had long interviews with Père Millériot, a celebrated controversialist, and was much grieved at his death; but it is hardly probable he would have ever been really converted. Nevertheless, when on the point of death, his wife had him baptized, and his funeral was conducted with the rites of the Catholic Church. He died June 2, 1881.





It is almost impossible to characterize the varied learning and immense intellectual activity of Littré. As a philosopher he had popularized and sifted the ideas of Comte, and had succeeded Comte as Comte succeeded Turgot, Kant, and Saint-Simon ; as a lexicographer he has been compared to Johnson, though his work is as far ahead of Johnson's as the philological knowledge of the 19 th century is in advance of that of the 18th ; and as a man of almost universal knowledge, and a writer on every sort of subject, from barbarian learning and modern science to epic poetry and the military genius of Napoleon, he remains unrivalled, even in a country which can boast of Diderot and Comte.

It would take too much space to give a complete list of all Littré's voluminous works, but the following are those of greatest importance :—his editions of Hippocrates, 1839-61, and of Pliny's Natural History, 1848-50 ; his translation of Strauss's Vie de Jésus, 1839-40, and Miiller's Manuel de Physiologie, 1851 ; his edition of the works of Armand Carrel, with notes, 1854-58 ; the Histoire de la langue française, a collection of magazine articles, 1862 ; and his Dictionnaire de la langue française, 1863-72. In the domain of science must be noted his edition, with Charles Robin, of Nysten's Dictionnaire de médecine, de chirurgie, &c, 1855 ; in that of philosophy, his Analyse raisonnée du cours de philosophie positive de M. A. Comte, 1845 ; Application de la Philosophie positive au Gouvernement, 1849; Conservation, Révolution, et Positivisme, 1852 (2d edition with supplement, 1879) ; Paroles de la Philosophie positive, 1859 ; Auguste Comte et la Philosophie positive, 1863 ; La Science au point de vue philosophique, 1873 ; Fragments de philosophie et de sociologie contemporaine, 1876 ; and his most interesting miscellaneous works, his Études et Glanures, 1880 ; La Vérité sur la mort d'Alexandre le Grand, 1865 ; Études sur les barbares et le moyen âge, 1867 ; Médecine et Médecins, 1871 ; Littérature et Histoire, 1875 ; and Discours de Reception à V Académie française, 1873.

For his life consult Sainte-Beuve's notice, 1862, and the numerous articles published after his death in the newspapers and reviews, of which the best are the notices of M. Durand-Gréville in the Nouvelle Revue of August 1881, of M. Caso in the Revue des Deux Mondes, and of M. Frédéric Godefroy in the Lettres chrétiennes. (H. M. S.)






The above article was written by H. Morse Stephens.



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