Jules Michelet. 1797-1874
(text from the 1st edition, 1883 )
The early life of this most original and eloquent of French historians passed amidst much hardship and difficulty. His father, who was a printer, had been employed by the government of the Revolution period (1790-1794), and at the political reaction, a few years later, he found himself reduced to poverty. From the experiences of his earlier life Jules Michelet doubtless derived his contempt for the common rich and luxuriant manner of living. Until his sixteenth year, flesh-meat formed no part of his food; and his diet was of the scantiest as well as simplest kind.
Naturally sensitive and contemplative, and averse from the rough manners and petty tyranny of his schoolfellows, the young student found companionship in a fe choice books, of which A'Kempis' Imitation of Christ seems to have been at that time one of the most read. At the Sorbonne Michelet carried away some of the most valued prizes, which were conferred with all the éclat of the public awards of the Académie. At the age of 24, having graduated as doctor in philosophy, he obtained the chair of History in the Rollin College. His manner, original and full of enthusiasm, though wanting often in method and accuracy, possessed an irresistible fascination for his readers; and all, who had the privilege of listening to him, were charmed by his earnest eloquence.
His first principal work was his Synopsis of Modern History (1827). His version of the celebrated Scientist Nuova of Vico, of whom he regarded himself as the especial disciple, appeared soon after. Upon the revolution of July, Michelet received the important post of Keeper of the Archives, by which appointment he was enabled to prosecute his researches in preparation for his magnum opus in history, L'Histoire de la France, the successive volumes of which appeared at long intervals. It contains some of the finest passages in French prose, he episode of La Pucelle d'Orleans being, perhaps, the finest of all. Having previously held a professorship in the Sorbonne (of which he was deprived by Guizot, then minister), he was afterwards invited to fill the chair of History in the Collège de France.
In 1847 his advanced political views deprived him once more of his professorial post and income, in which the Revolution of the next year, however, reinstated him. The coup d'etat of 1851 finally banished him from public life - at least as far as teaching was concerned - for being to conscientious to subscribe the oath of allegiance to the new Empire. Michelet, like an eminent writer of the present day, upon principle, elected to be his own publisher; a fact which in conjunction with the unpopularity of his opinions, considerably lessened the sale and circulation of his books; and, by this independency of action, the historian was a pecuniary loser to a great extent.
Deprived of the means of subsistence by his conscientiousness, he left Paris almost penniless, and sought an asylum successively in the Pyrenees and on the Normandy coast. In 1856 appeared the book with which the name of Michelet will hereafter be most worthily associated - the one which may be said to have been written with his heart's blood. That the taste of the reading world was not entirely corrupt, was proved by the rapid sale of this the most popular of all his productions, A new edition of L'Oiseau came from the press each year for a long period of time, and it has been translated into various European languages. How far the attractiveness of the book, through the illustrative genius of Giacomelli, influenced the buying public; how far the surpassing merits of the style and matter of the work - we will not stay to determine; but it is certain that The Bird at once established his popularity as a writer, and relieved his pecuniary needs. L'Oiseau was followed by several other eloquent interpretations of Nature. But the first - there can be no question with persons of taste - remains the masterpiece. it is, indeed, unique in its kind in literature - by the intense sympathy and love for the subject which inspired the writer. It is the only book which treats the Bird as something more than an object of interest to the mere classifier, to the natural-history collector, or to the "sportsman." It considers the winged tribes - those of the non-raptorial kinds - as possessed of a high intelligence, of a certain moral faculty, of devoted maternal affection - of a soul, in fine.
Of his remaining writings, La Bible de l'Humanité (1863) is one of the most notable, characteristic as it is of the author's method of treatment of historical and ethnographical subjects.
The calamities of his native land he so greatly loved, through the corrupt government which had brought upon it the devastations of a terrible war, ending, by a natural sequence, in the fearful struggle of the suffering proletariat, deeply affected the aged champion of the rights of humanity. Almost broken hearted, he withdrew from his accustomed haunts and went to Switzerland, and afterwards to Italy. He died at Hyères, in 1874, in the 77th year of his age. A public funeral, attended by great numbers of the working classes, awaited him him in the capital.
In the following passage Michelet virtually subscribes to the creed of Vegetarianism. The saving clause, in which he seems to suppose the diet of blood to be imposed upon our species by the "cruel fatalities" of life, it is pretty certain he would have been the first to wish to cancel, had he enjoyed the opportunity of investigating the scientific bases of dietetic reform :-
"There is no selfish and exclusive salvation. Man merits his salvation only through the salvation of all. The animals below us have also their rights before God. 'Animal life, sombre mystery! Immense world of thoughts and of dumb sufferings! But signs too visible, in default of languages, express those sufferings. All Nature protests against the barbarity of man, who misapprehends, who humiliates, who tortures his inferior brethren.' This sentence which I wrote in 1846, has recurred to me very often. This year (1863), in October, near solitary sea, in the last hours of the night, when the wind, the wave were hushed in silence, I heard the voices of our humble domestics. From the basement of the house , and from the obscure depths, these voices of captivity, feeble and plaintive, reached me and penetrated me with melancholy - an impression of no vague sensibility, but a serious and positive one.
"The further we advance in knowledge, the more we apprehend the true meaning of realities, the more do we understand simple but very serious matters which the hurry (entrainement) of life makes us neglect. Life! Death! The daily murder, which feeding upon other animals implies - these hard and bitter problems sternly placed themselves before my mind. Miserable contradiction! Let us hope that there may be another globe in which the base, the cruel fatalities of this may be spared to us," (1)
Extolling the greater respect of the Hindus for other life, as exhibited in their sacred scriptures, Michelet vindicates the pre-eminently beneficent character of the Cow, in Europe so ungratefully treated by the recipients of her bounty :-
"Let us name first, with honour, his beneficent nurse - so honoured and beloved by him - the sacred Cow, who finished the happy nourishment - favourable intermediate between insufficient herbs and flesh, which excites horror. The Cow, whose milk and butter has been so long the sacred offering. She alone supported the primitive people in the long journey from Bactria to India. By her, in face of so many ruins and desolations - by this fruitful nurse, who unceasingly renovates the earth for him, he has lived and always lives." (2)
In his Bird he constantly preaches the faith that can remove mountains - the faith that regards the regeneration and pacification of earth as the proper destiny of our species :-
"The devout faith we cherish at heart, and which we teach in these pages, is that man will peaceably subdue the whole earth, when he shall gradually perceive that every adopted being, accustomed to a domesticated life, or at least to that degree of friendship and companionship of which his nature is susceptible, will be a hundred times more useful to him than he can be with his throat cut (qu'il ne pourrait l'être egorgé). Man will not be truly man until he shall labour seriously for that which the Earth expects from him - the pacification and harmonious union (ralliement) of all living Nature. Hunt and make war upon the lion and the eagle if you will, but not upon the Weak and Innocent."
This Michelet never wearies of repeating, and he returns again and again to a truth which is scorned by the modern self-seeking and money-getting, as it was by the fighting, wholly barbarous world :-
"Conquerors have never failed to turn into derision this gentleness, this tenderness for animated Nature. The Persians, the Romans in Egypt, our Europeans in India, the French in Algeria, have often outraged and stricken these innocent brothers of man - the objects of his ancient reverence. Cambyses slew the sacred Cow; a Roman the Ibis who destroyed unclean reptiles. But what means the Cow? The fecundity of the country. And the Ibis? Its salubrity. Destroy these animals, and the country is no longer habitable. That which has saved India and Egypt through so many misfortunes and preserved their fertility, is neither the Nile nor the Ganges. It is respect for other life, the mildness and the [comparatively] gentle heart of man.
"Profound in meaning was the speech of the Priest of Saïs to the Greek Herodotus - 'You shall be children always.'
"We shall always be so - we men of the West - subtle and graceful reasoners, so long as we shall not have comprehended, with a simple and more exhaustive view, the motive of things. To be a child, is to seize life only by partial glimpses. To be a man is to be fully conscious of all its harmonious unity. The child disports himself, shatters and destroys; he finds his happiness in undoing. And science, in its childhood, does the same. It cannot study unless it kills. The sole use which it makes of a living mind, is, in the first place, to dissect it. None carry into scientific pursuits that tender reverences for life which Nature rewards by unveiling to us her mysteries." (3)
Like Shelley, he firmly believed in the indefinite amelioration of our world by the ultimate triumph of principles of humaneness, so that the "sting of death" and of pain might almost, if not entirely, be removed. :-
"To prevent death is, undoubtedly, impossible; but we may prolong life. We may eventually render pain rarer, less cruel, and almost suppress it. That the hardened old world laughs at our expression is so much the better. We saw quite such a spectacle in the days when our Europe, barbarised by war, centered all medical art in surgery, and made the knife its only means of cure, while young America discovered the miracle of that profound dream in which all pain is annihilated.
He upbraids the sportsman no less than he does the scientist, and finds sufficient cause for the too general sterility of the intellect in the habituation to slaughter, and in disregard for the subject species :-
"Woe to the ungrateful! By this phase I mean the sporting crowd, who, unmindful of the numerous benefits we owe to other animals, exterminate innocent life. A terrible sentence weighs upon the tribes of 'sportsmen' - they can create nothing. They originate no art, no industry. They have added nothing to the hereditary patrimony of the human species. . . .
"Do not believe the axiom, that huntsmen gradually develop into agriculturalists. It is not so - they kill or die. Such is their whole destiny. We see it clearly through experience. He who has killed will kill - he who has created will create.
"In the want of emotion, which every man suffers from his birth, the child who satisfies it habitually by murder, by a miniature ferocious drama of surprise and treason, of the torture of the weak, will find no great enjoyment in the gentle and tranquil emotions arising from the progressive success of toil and study, from the limited industry which dies everything itself. To create, to destroy - these are the two raptures of infancy. To create is a long, slow process; to destroy is quick and easy.
"It is a shocking and hideous thing to see a child partial to 'sport;' to see a woman enjoying and admiring murder, and encouraging her child. That delicate and 'sensitive' woman would not give him a knife, but she gives him a gun. Kill at a distance if it pleases you, for we do not see the suffering. And this mother will think it admirable that her son, kept confined to his room, will drive off ennui by plucking the wings from flies, by torturing a bird or a little dog.
"Far-seeing mother! She will know, when too late, the evil of having formed a bad heart. Aged and weak, rejected of the world, she will experience, in her turn, her son's brutality.
"Among too many children we are saddened by their almost incredible sterility. A few recover from it in the long circle of life, when they have become experienced and enlightened men. But the first freshness of the heart? It shall return no more." (4)
Although, as has already been indicated, Michelet evidently had not examined the scientific basis of akreophagy, yet all his aspirations an all his sympathies, it is also equally evident, were for the bloodless diet. With Locke and Rousseau, and many others before him, he presses upon mothers the vital import of not perverting the early preferences of their own truer instincts. In one of his books, the most often republished, in laying down rules for the education of young girls, he thus writes :-
"Purity, above everything, in regimen and nourishment. What are we to understand by this?
"I understand by it that the young girl should have the proper nourishment of a child - that she should continue the mild, tranquillising, unexciting regimen of milk; that, if she eats at your table, she will be accustomed not to touch the dishes upon it, which for her, at least, are poisons.
"A revolution has taken place. We have quitted the more sober French regimen, and have adopted more and more the coarse and bloody diet of our neighbours, appropriate to their climate much more than to ours. The worst of it all is that we inflict this manner of living upon our children. Strange spectacle! To see a mother giving her daughter, whom but yesterday she was suckling at her breast, this gross aliment of bloody meats,and the dangerous excitant wine! She is astonished to see her violent, capricious, passionate; but it is herself whom she ought to accuse as the cause. What she fails to perceive, and yet what is very grave, is that with the French race, so precocious, the arousing of the passions is so directly provoked by this food. Far from strengthening, it agitates, it weakens, it unnerves. The mother thinks it fine (plaisant) to have a child so preternaturally mature. All this comes from herself. Unduly excitable, she wishes her child to be such another as she, and she is, without knowing it, the corruptress of her own daughter.
"All this [unnatural stimulation] is of no good to her, and is little better for you, Madame. You have not the heart, you say, to eat anything in which she has no share. Ah, well! abstain yourself, or, at all events, moderate your indulgence in this food, good, possibly, for the hard-worked man, but fatal in its consequences to the woman of ease and leisure - regimen which vulgarises her, perturbs her, renders her irritable, or or oppresses her with indigestion.
"For the woman and the child it is a grace - an amiable grace (grace d'amour) - to be, above all things, frugiverous - to avoid the coarseness and foulness (fétidité) of flesh-meats, and to live rather upon innocent foods, which bring death to no one (qui ne coûtent la mort à personne) - sweet nourishment which charms the sense of smell as much as it does the taste. The real reason why the beloved ones in nothing inspire in us repugnance but, in comparison with men, seem ethereal, is, in a special manner their [presumed] preference for herbs and for fruits - for that purity of regimen which contributes not a little to that of the soul, and assimilates them to the innocency of the flowers of the field. (5)