Victor Cousin's great dalliance with Louise Colet
may have earned some minor measure of giggling, jostling notoriety (this was
in Paris, after all), but the main battles of life were philosophical
. Born in the Paris
ian "Quartier Saint-Antoine" on November 28, 1792, his sixty-five years on this Earth
left a substantial impact, still felt far beyond the recognition that he has received for it.
He was precocious even as a schoolchild, winning an award for his Latin recitation upon completion of secondary school
. Cousin came to national prominence with a series of lectures on the philosophies of John Locke
and Immanuel Kant
, in 1819 and 1820, respectively, hewing to neither philosophy but offering well developed criticisms of both. Cousin's own ideas were influenced both by those greats and by some French philosophers, known in their day but long since forgotten. The propositions were set forth in a system that he denoted as "[eclecticism
," and this conception achieved a certain vogue in England
, and with some modification
in the direction of idealism
, in the United States
. Octavius Brooks Frothingham
, an historian
of the generation
succeeding Cousin's summarized it thusly in the 1870s:
The cardinal principle of eclecticism was that truth was contained in no system or group of systems, but in all together; that each had its portion and made its contribution; and that the true philosophy would be reached by a process of intellectual distillation by which the essential truth in each would be extracted. A method like this would have nothing to recommend it but its generosity, if there were no criterion by which truths could be tested, no philosophical principle, in short, to govern the selection of materials. Eclecticism must have a philosophy before proceeding to make one, must have arrived at its conclusion before entering on its process. And this it did.
A shorthand way of attacking this conundrum
is to say that the solutions or routes to them have already been arrived at by earlier philosophers, but now we must put all those old ideas up against each other to wring out the best of the best, and so to at last establish the "true" philosophy. And as well, Cousin determined that the refinement of thought must be accomplished methodically, and not haphazardly, and that mere abstractions would not do. Our Universe contains man within it, reflected Cousin, and so man expresses a universal consciousness
, also a reflection of our Universe. Man, then, can turn inwards through analysis of our own observations, and apply psychology
phenomenologically (at the time, psychology itself was a discipline
in its infancy
), ultimately realizing that dispassionate reason is the summit of conceptual gifts, and the direction to be pursued in examining the World.
Writing came naturally, and successfully to Cousin. Barred from teaching for his royalist leanings in the post-Napoleonic era
(roughly 1821 to 1828), he rendered multiple volumes including distillations of his own philosophy and translations and commentaries of those works that had preceded him. Reinstated to a university position in 1828, he rose triumph
antly on the strength of lecture
s encapsulating his philosophical writings of the intervening years. And on the strength of his delivery burst forth a rekindled flavor for philosophy in France. Nor did his return to the lectern quell his ambition for publication. It seems that no subject escaped Cousin's interest. He was a great reformer in education, and it is to him that France credits the adoption of many still-existing elements of its primary education system. Just as his older contemporary, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
, sought to develop a systematic explanation of color, Cousin sought to systematize art
itself. Cousin was equally delved in societal matters, publishing biographies of great men and women of the country.
, Cousin was to a great degree an heir to the less fortunate Giordano Bruno
(whose doctrines Cousin openly admired). This, of all of his philosophical proposals, engendered the greatest controversy. He perceived duality in the Universe, between "the self" and everything else that was not of the self -- but our sense of which must proceed from some source outside the self acting both upon as and within us. And so he determined that these senses were absolutes, joined together creating the greater absolute of a God that was both the cause and result of all that was. Labeled a pantheist
, he repudiated that assertion on the basis of his belief in God as a Creator
as well as the substance
itself. Cousin's argument, summed up in an 1890 Encyclopaedia Britannica
, read thusly:
I distinguish the two finite causes self and not-self from each other and from the infinite cause. They are not mere modifications of this cause or properties, as with Spinoza,--they are free forces having" their power or spring of action in themselves, and this is sufficient for our idea of independent finite reality. I hold this, and I hold the relation of these as effects to the one supreme cause. The God I plead for is neither the deity of Pantheism, nor the absolute unity of the Eleatics, a being divorced from all possibility of creation or plurality, a mere metaphysical abstraction. The deity I maintain is creative, and necessarily creative. The deity of Spinoza and the Eleatics is a mere substance, not a cause in any sense. As to the necessity under which Deity exists of acting or creating, this is the highest form of liberty, it is the freedom of spontaneity, activity without deliberation. His action is not the result of a struggle between passion and virtue. He is free in an unlimited manner the purest spontaneity in man is but the shadow of the freedom of God. He acts freely but not arbitrarily, and with the consciousness of being able to choose the opposite part. He cannot deliberate or will as we do. His spontaneous action excludes at once the efforts and the miseries of will and the mechanical operation of necessity.
But even for this trouble, Cousin still endured his share of slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. For example, the Italian phrenologist Luigi Ferrarese
wrote of Cousin's doctrine in 1838, "il suo posto con quello del pensiero istintivo e dell' affermazione senza riflessione e colloca la ragione fuori della persona dell'uomo dichiarandolo un frammento di Dio, una spezie di pandeismo spirituale introducendo, assurdo per noi, ed al Supremo Ente ingiurioso
" -- that is, that it "locates reason outside the human person, declaring man a fragment of God, introducing a sort of spiritual pandeism
for us, and injurious to the Supreme Being."
But the ultimate fate of Cousin's philosophical ventures fell short of his hopes; initially embraced by transcendentalists
for his rejection of materialism
, Cousin's ideas eventually fell out of favor for their vagueness, and their failure to spur original thought. Cousin's public life petered out in the late 1840's and early 1850's -- still holding to royalism, the 1848 abdication of the last King of France (Louis Philippe
, giving up the crown
well before the Last King of Scotland
) led to Cousin again losing his teaching post; Cousin retreated to an effective (if comfortably appointed) retirement
for roughly his fifteen years. His great distraction during that time was the perusal of the vast library
that he had acquired over his lifetime, including hundreds of original prints that were even then several centuries old, and which upon his death he instructed to be donated
to the University of Paris
-- where they can still be perused today.