By: Claire J. Noyes
Many cities have claimed to represent a whole civilization – its ideas, its letters, and its sciences. Athens and Rome have been called an epitome of the ideas and customs of the Greeks and the Romans. But it is rare that a capital city has concentrated the spirit of a people, as Paris has that of France. For ten centuries Paris has been the home of the intellectual, moral, and social life of France. It is a matter of choosing the most characteristic epochs in the history of France during those ten centuries of reconstructing the various illuminating moments in the development of French civilization, to show the preponderant role of Paris in France. But it is another task to show the role of Paris as the cultural and intellectual center of Europe. Yet that is not too much to claim for Paris through the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance, even through modern times – this and the role of leavener – indeed of magnetizer in Europe.
The twelfth century saw Paris as a Mecca for students of various countries of the world. Today, the new “University City” in Paris attracts the youth of many different countries. Within this group of twenty-five buildings, each nation maintains its own dormitory and recreation center for its nationals – all located within twenty minutes of the University itself. Thus, through the ages, the same force of attraction has caused an uninterrupted continuity.
Paris seems to have been predestined, prepared, and called to this particular role. As Rome evokes the idea of the great religious capital of the world, and London of the most powerful commercial and financial metropolis, the activity of Paris through the centuries seems to have retained an intellectual and cultural character. Furthermore, Paris has a spiritual vocation. This vocation falls to Paris first, as the capital of France. In fact, Paris draws her strength from her relationship to France. Centralization, stronger than in other countries, (excessive perhaps?) has accumulated in Parisian forces, which condense there. Paris is charged like a dynamo. She offers the most complete expression of things “French,” France, which France enjoys as the privilege of her seniority in the intellectual history of Europe.
The intellectual origins of France are literally lost in the night of time. One must go back – almost beyond the deluge – to find in France the most ancient traces of human art with the Troglodytes and the Cro-Magnons, while Southern France is the cradle of Paleolithic civilization which occurred some 750,000 years before the time of Christ. But pre–historic times are a bit remote, more recent history will suffice us – as does geography, for France looks out on three oceans: on the north, the English Channel and the Straits of Dover; on the west, the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean; and on the south, the Mediterranean Sea. Furthermore, her rivers and plains on the northwest put her into communication with Central and Eastern Europe. She is situated so as to participate in all civilizations and to serve as a bond among them.
A German philosopher wrote in the eighteenth century: “Nature seems to have destined the French nation to spread out, as in so many canals, into all the states of Europe.” Yes, the power of expansion, but also the power of attraction, and it was France's power of attraction that had to be paid for so dearly. The ancient Gallic Empire was invaded countless times – by the Ligurians, the Celts, the Iberians, and the Basques; the Greeks; the Romans; and the Saracens, and the Germanic tribes; the Franks, the Goths, the Burundians, and the Vandals; by the Saxons, the British, and the Norsemen. So it was that history saw mingled on French soil, civilized peoples and barbarian peoples. Yes, France has to admit to a mixed blood, but the miracle of her history is to have made of these invaders, one people, one nation – marvelously homogeneous; and in that process to have been called, not only to preserve antique cultures that came to her, but also to form her own culture.
The Gauls, conquered by the Romans, quickly gathered to themselves the culture of their new masters. One can understand nothing of the thought or institutions of France if one does not constantly keep in mind the fact that for four centuries and one-half, Gaul was Roman, and that for at least 300 of these years, it was as Roman as the most Latin regions of the Roman Empire – not by constraint or by mere reflection, but by adoption and complete conviction. The Gallic provinces spoke a passable Latin and by the second century, they had given to the Roman Empire writers, lawyers, artists, and sometimes even rulers. They lived, thought, and acted “Roman.” When the Empire fell, they were ardent in the defense of their old world against the barbarians. It was in France that, after the barbarian invasions, the flame of classic culture was relit with the advent of the Court of Charlemagne. There had appeared in the Gallic Empire schools located in Marseilles, Bordeaux, Lyons, and Toulouse. At this time Latin, Greek, law, philosophy, and medicine were all taught in Latin. Paris was still only a little local capital. But the Roman Emperor, Julian, had a particular fondness for that city – even though it was then only a village on an island in the River Seine – and he wrote concerning her: "Her waters are peaceful, limpid; her winters are mild; her vineyards are green all year."
Even after two centuries of the Merovingian Dynasty (brought to prominence by King Clovis), Paris was still of less importance than such other French towns as Rheims, Rouen, Orleans, Tours, Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Limoges. But a secret mingling of three streams of civilization – the Celtic, the Roman, the Nordic – had been accomplished and a King of the Francs, Charlemagne, became the well known and powerful Emperor of Western Europe. Charlemagne saved for Europe the civilization of France, which was then menaced by great perils. So great was this first European dynasty that its history was almost immediately changed into legend in the form of the great French epics.
Charlemagne was an educator. He decreed that each monastery should have its own School, which would teach grammar, singing, history, art, and calligraphy. He ordered that the people should be taught in free schools; and he opened his palace to poor children. Thus, the Empire of France was, early-on founded on the basic elements of knowledge, culture, and spiritual values. Furthermore, this early culture was not limited to the islands of Paris, for to aid him in his task Charlemagne called on scholars from other countries: from Italy, Ireland, and Britain. As a matter of fact, the great scholar and teacher Alcuin, (originally from York, England), became the first French Minister of Public Instruction.
Soon, Paris was destined to outshine various other university cities, for she had become the capital of the Isle de France – that region of which she is the center, in which was located the cradle of the new dynasty. The first Capetians were Counts of Paris, and soon their capital became the capital of Western Europe. One of their great kings, Saint Louis, would rule a France whose peace and prosperity made her the center of business and commerce, as well as the intellectual center of Europe. At the great fairs on the roads from the Rhine to the Rhone, from the North to the Mediterranean, the riches of her world were displayed. Lombards and Greeks shouldered Bretons and Flemish, and there was indeed "a Babel of languages, customs, and products." Paris markets were world centers, and her university was a world Mecca.
The University of Paris, true to the spirit of the Middle Ages sought a universal truth. Such a state of mind is difficult for us to understand today with our insistence on racial and national differences. However, the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were intellectually French and yet this culture was the result of a European collaboration – or rather a Christian collaboration – and British, Italians, and Germans all had their part in it. The Church was universal; civilization was the work of the Church; and this civilization had but one center – Paris. The great geniuses of Germany, Italy, and England, as well as those of France, taught, by and large in one place – The University of Paris.
But the schools themselves were not yet organized. The first incorporation of these schools came from the “Privilege” by which in the year 1200, Philip Augustus put the teachers and students of Paris under ecclesiastical jurisdiction. In 1215 a Papal Bull recognized the group as an ecclesiastical corporation and gave it the right of meeting, granted it a seal, and placed it under the direct authority of the Pope.
By the middle of the thirteenth century, teaching in the University was systematized along general lines. The teacher’s word was all powerful since books and libraries did not yet exist and manuscripts were still both rare and expensive. Instruction was entirely oral and in Latin; which fit was well, indeed, too international institutions.
Nations with political frontiers as we know them today did not then exist. The students of the University were grouped into what were called "nations," according to their language or country. The “Nation of France, the largest of the groups, included students from the Isle de France, from South of the Loire River, from the valley of the River Rhone, as well as from the Lombards in northern Italy The other nations involved were the Normans, the Picards, and the English. There also grew up what were called “Colleges,” originally hostels for students. The most famous of these hostels was erected in 1557 by Robert of Sorbonne, Chaplain, of the King St. Louis. He united in his hostel masters and students of theology. The King gave them a building on the site of the present Sorbonne. By the middle of the 15th century there were eighty Colleges for students of all countries, in addition to students from all the provinces of France.
At the same time that Parisian theology was guiding European thought, French artists were spreading their works in Germany, Bohemia, Hungary, and Italy. The aim of this art was to reveal invisible things by the intermediary of visible things – in cathedrals and abbeys. The Christian message, which was translated into stone – by means of Gothic architecture – was soon to become the predominant feature of European style.
We have seen the University of Paris at its height during the Middle Ages. As the number of its Colleges increased, so decadence began to set in. Instruction seemed to mark time, and its vitality lessened, teaching took on a formal character and descended into subtleties, disputes, and arguments. Education (which came from mummified Greeks and petrified Romans) consisted of' dead formulae. Furthermore, a candidate for the doctorate must reply to all objections to his thesis for twelve hours, without eating or drinking. But in spite of these abuses, the University of Paris had taught Europe to reason, and had given it a taste for order, method, clarity, and precision in language. We can still see the advantages of the university system today: However, the Renaissance period was to revolt against that system.
Who can estimate what was done for European education by Rabelais and Erasmus – Rabelais in insurrection, Erasmus in independence, both lighting the conservative Sorbonne of Paris? The University of Paris suffered a severe setback with the invention of printing. The University had welcomed this “wolf into the sheepfold,” by calling from Germany, three printers, of whom one remained permanently in Paris. Soon the real teacher became the book, not the man, and the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw the decline of the power and prestige of the University professor.
The Renaissance spirit was flowing from Italy into every land in Europe – but amazingly the arts were not, and Paris was laggard in receiving the Spirit – that is, the Paris of the University, the Paris of officialdom, the Paris of a growing absolute monarchy. Still there was “a municipal porcupine,”: Francis I, who was aglow with Renaissance youth and enthusiasm, found the Loire Valley more receptive of his Italian Renaissance. Here he raised his Italianate chateaux – a place which marked quite gracefully the change from feudalism, through the Renaissance, and on to absolutism.
True, Francis did later turn his attention to Paris, leaving his seasonal hunting and his futile and expensive Italian wars, to make certain changes in Paris – the City of his Parliament and of his University. He felt the need to propitiate this Paris, whose influence was growing. With the weakening of the kingdoms in France, Paris was to become the capital, politically. So Francis gave the Cathedral space in which to breathe by tearing down the evil tenements that surrounded it. He brought to bear on the frowning Louvre the taste acquired from his friends, Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea del Sarto, Benvenuto Cellini, and Giovanni della Robbia. He built a harbor for Paris on the tranquil Seine. He gave to Paris, art (to be sure looted from Italy), with such paintings among them as the Mona Lisa given to him freely (or under duress) by the dying Leonardo da Vinci.
Today – the College of France stands as an institution of the highest rank. Its only purpose is the advancement of human knowledge. It has absolute freedom. It confers no degree and has no specified curriculum. What is its mission? It makes known the latest progress in human knowledge, in all domains and aids new sciences in processes of development: Each professor is an eminent scholar in his own field and he himself chooses the subject of his courses and gives thirty lectures a year exposing the result of his research, its stage of development, its hopes, its mistakes, and its ideals. Nothing could be more interesting, more suggestive – since here is a mind in the business of creating truth. This “fountain of truth is free, the public may come and drink” – a true and logical outcome of the Renaissance spirit in which the College was founded, and a witness to the fact that the Renaissance was not so soon smothered in conservatism and dogmatic opposition, as one might suppose when viewing the sixteenth century.
The lively intellect of Rabelais, his faith in science and mankind (in spite of his skepticism, which was mostly uncurbed enthusiasm for life) the burning conscience of Calvin; the tolerant scholarship of Desiderius Erasmus; the bookish wisdom of Michele de Montaigne; the clear voice of Martin Luther – all finding wings in the printed word –were not suppressed long by the burnings, the hangings, and the proscriptions of the Sorbonne. Francis I, the friend of Italian artists, may have bowed to the University, but, if he did, it was only in the interest of politics. For Paris was soon to bear the fruit of Italy – the University was soon to revise its courses and fall in step with a new ideal of life.
Whereas in England, the Rabelaisian genial folk quality, with its pagan zest for life and liberality of instinct carried on from the Renaissance, was to flower in Shakespeare; the French habit of mind and temperament was carried on in an aristocratic form. The old scholasticism turned the French Renaissance into a classic period of elegance, quite divorced from the masses. Rabelais hailed the dawn of the new learning as a liberation of man from intellectual and moral bondage; but Montaigne, in the midday of the Renaissance, retired to his study, to browse, to live in books, and to receive chosen guests with whom commerce should be elegant and instructive – mildly subversive of formulae, yes, but with acceptance of custom. His Paris of the latter sixteenth century was the center of a polite society.
To the philosophy and theology in her Colleges Paris owed her early prestige in Europe – her schools, her scholars, her humanists, her printers having spread over the Europe that illumined “the Renaissance.” Now, with the opening of the first salon in Paris a new power was born. The ideal of the salon groups consists in subordinating the individual to society. The Renaissance had revived art and letters, glorifying both nature and the individual. The Reformation had combated the Renaissance in its arts and luxuries and had risen up with Calvin against the so-called cult of nature.
But although hostile on these points, both
Renaissance and Reformation were in agreement in one respect: they both
worked for the emancipation of the individual. However, this emancipation
was not destined to become the licensed development of the individual, for
the French had learned through civil wars, foreign wars, through the
confusion of the last Valois, through the crimes of Catherine de Medici, and
through court corruption to appreciate the value of social institutions.
However, to achieve such social order each person must make some
sacrifices. In the seventeenth century the ideal to obtain this order of
mutual services did not suffice: there must also be a mutual exchange of
ideas and sentiments. To provide occasions for such exchanges, and for the
perfecting of the ideal social man, “the gentleman” – “the lady” – salons
were established. During the next 150 years they were to exert a strong
influence on culture, education, and manners – and in consequence – upon
literature. The salons of Paris – such as that of Madame de Rambouillet
about 1650 – protected and encouraged young geniuses such as Corneille,
Racine, La Fontaine, Madame de LaFayette, and La Roche. Although salons
sprang up in provincial towns and in countries in Europe other than
France, Paris remained the arbiter of this society.
What was accomplished in the refinement of morals and manners, in the art of listening and speaking, in the development of tolerance and reason, in perfection of language we all know – yes a society of writers – but also a company of lovers of fine works in many fields. There have always been among the Academicians, men of high society, great lords, statesmen and churchmen, as well as professional men of letters. And so it was that poets, historians, and philosophers sat side by side – in company with great statesmen, generals, and bishops – all united in one ideal: to advance the arts of conversations and good manners and to develop great taste among professional people of varying interests.
The art of conversation (styled “French”) flourished all over Europe. It consisted, as now, in the treating of subjects of general or common interest – individual and personal subjects being avoided. Psychological and moral analyses were expressed in a language clear and precise. A great lady of the times wrote: “Conversation is the greatest pleasure of all cultured men, a tie among them, a means of introducing not only manners, but also morals and virtue into society.”
Concerning the importance of conversation a historian writes: “Out of ten things I know, I have learned nine through conversation.” Since all phrases of life in an epoch are closely connected, sociability, honor, even love, were inextricably connected in the new ideal. Thus, a foundation is laid for the masterpieces of the seventeenth century – the Golden Age of French literature, during which were to triumph charity, measure, and order.
This perfection ideal was mirrored in literature, in society, and in government. Cardinal Richelieu, Protector, had already realized his ideal of order in governing France. An organizer of genius, he conceived plans great in both general design and in detail. To him was afforded the great opportunity to introduce into things of the mind, the same rules and disciplines that had been present in social matters. He had the future in his mind when from insignificant meetings of certain men of letters in Paris, he formed in 1635, one of the most durable and justly famous of French institutions – the French Academy. The French Academy is not only a literary group, a society of writers, but a company of lovers of fine works in many fields.
The next century, the eighteenth, marked the reign of the mind – and that mind was French! Never had its expansion been greater. The Middle-Ages and the Renaissance, it is true, had witnessed a European civilization concentrated in Paris. Now it was a French civilization, which from Paris spread throughout Europe. In the sixty years preceding the French Revolution, Paris shone with her own light – receiving nothing from outside. The salons, which had been founded to form a polite society and to discipline minds and manners, now received a new impulse and rebelled against the old rules. They discussed and criticized institutions, manners, and morals; they became centers of a new philosophy. They gave a seal of approbation to writers – establishing the reputations of such philosophers/writers as the Baron Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the Abbé de Condillac.
This influence of the social world on literature ushered in the New Era when, with the growth of democracy, writers formed their own “Republic of Letters,” an institution which acted collectively and concertedly. This group of writers had their parliament – the salons; their official organ – the Encyclopedia; their sovereign – Voltaire. They exchanged ideas in salons and cafes.
You may today take your cup of coffee at a sidewalk table on the very spot where sat Diderot, Voltaire, Robespierre, and later, Napoleon Bonaparte, Alfred de Musset, and Victor Hugo. Conversation reigned and ideas were discussed freely. Soon there appeared a new generation of thinkers, impatient, bold, propagandists – who for twenty years preceding 1790 prepared for the French Revolution.
During these years many other foreigners trooped to Paris expressly, or passed through on their travels. There was the English historian Gibbons, the philosopher, Hume; the Italian, Galiani; and Prince Poniatowski, who was later King of Poland. Madame Geoffrin, whose salon received these distinguished visitors, made a triumphal tour of Europe among which, among which the cities of Berlin, Vienna, and Moscow feted her. The salon of Madame du Deffand also received Englishmen, among them Lord Bath who wrote: “One evening we discussed English history. How often I was surprised to see that the company knew our history better than we do ourselves!” Horace Walpole, twenty years younger than Deffand preserved more than 800 letters of this woman of superior wit and intelligence. Her companion, Mlle. de Lespinasse later received in her salon all the great lords and famous foreigners who passed through Paris. “To be welcomed, one had to be a member of the party of intellectuals and progressives; one must hate despotism, and adore England and liberty.”
During this time the French language, everywhere spoken and understood, became, through literature and society, the universal language. It was recognized as the most perfect instrument for the exchange of ideas. Many foreigners were among the best writers in the French language. The letters of the King of Sweden, of the King of Poland, of an Austrian Field Marshal, of the Italian Abbề Galiani, were all composed in the best French style. And even more extraordinary, the King of Prussia, Frederick II, was a great writer of French. He invited to his court Voltaire. He gave as the subject of competitive essays to his Berlin Academy, “The Universality of the French Language.”
The esprit francais – that is, the French manner of observing and judging, the French conception of life – became an object of study and emulation in Europe. Voltaire undertook to define it, as it shone in the daily meetings of French thinkers in the cafes of Paris. For him, the expression of the French mind is made up of nuances, of contrasts, of oppositions, of delicate juxtapositions, of unexpected comparisons – of expressing only half a thought allowing the other half to be inferred. French thought thus readily falls into irony – the habit of considering both sides of a question – the forced smile; the contemplation of the futile efforts of man to achieve unity and justice in action. Irony tells the truth, inoffensively; is frank without cruelty, severely misanthropic. Pascal of the seventeenth century, the French philosopher Voltaire of the eighteenth century and Anatloe France of the nineteenth century, epitomize this "esprit francais." The results of this habit of mind are freedom, clarity, and personality.
Many foreigners, believing themselves to have found its secret, fall into an excess of wit, of pedantry on the one hand, or of lightness on the other – mockery, parody, and joking having lead them into mediocrity. Some French writers, notably Parisians, are also guilty of this talkativeness, which ends in obscurity or crudity. They seek a false clarity by abuse of reasoning; they have an excessive confidence in formulae in which they dispense with reflection; they have an air of profundity, which is mere platitude, eloquence which is mere theatricalism. Thus, the surprise is all the greater when we see these foreign Frenchmen of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries achieving real French "esprit."
Paris was drunk in an orgy of thought and sentiment. She awoke to Revolution, the crumbling of the old regime, and the Napoleonic debacle. In spite of the momentary return of the Bourbons with Louis XVIII, in spite of his successor Charles X – a return to the past was impossible.
Paris was now in a state of fermentation, of transformation – and from her center of action, Europe caught the fever – as did the New World.
For the new movement of ideas of the first half of the nineteenth century, we historians have crystallized the word “Romanticism” – a convenient term to designate something quite complex: a revolution in ideas, society, and politics. The individual found himself released from the old rules, laws, and social distinctions. Reason and thought and their universal laws gave way to what was personal and intimate in each individual who found that his feelings, his imagination, and his dreams could release him from a confusing, difficult, and unstable reality. Victor Hugo established himself as the leader of this new movement in literature and art. He constituted himself the defender of the “moderns” against the “classicists” Cervantes, Rabelais, and Shakespeare were his gods, since they employed all of nature, all of mankind as their material. Although one may overlook the exaggerations and the excesses of Romanticism, there remains this fact: that Paris was the center of this new ideal in thought, art, and action. In fact, Paris gave to aspiration the form of a doctrine: She gave it rules and produced innumerable masterpieces. Paris also became the center of discussions – political, historical, and philosophical – a veritable boiling pot of agitation. Humanitarianism, and socialism – in fact all sorts of systems to reorganize society sprang up. A great concert of doctrines, utopias, and aspirations arose.
We are still cognizant of those times, the works of poets, musicians, and painters – the poetry of Lamartine, of Hugo, and Musset – of the music of Berlioz, the paintings of Delacroix. Such physical and natural scientists as the physicist, André Ampere and the chemist-physicist, J.L. Gay-Lussac were active in the new movement. But we should not forget that leaders in other disciplines also partook in the new movement – the scientists were Ampere, Gay-Lussac, and Cuvier. The science of Egyptology owes its birth to Romanticism. The French romantics created history as a science: henceforth, history was considered to be a living evocation of the past – a "resurrection," in the words of the great French historian, Michelet. Scholars and professors in the University looked to foreign countries with curious eyes. It was the time of translations, then times of literacy and of the moderns: of English, Italian, German, and Spanish writers – of von Schiller, Shakespeare, Byron, Schlegel, and Sir Walter Scott.
What seduction was there on the Boulevard? It must have been strong, for never was Paris more hospitable to foreigners – and yet – never more peculiarly “Parisian” – Parisian life – Parisian wit – these epithets still travel the world over. A novel labeled "Parisian” was sure to become a bestseller all over Europe. The Boulevard theatres and cafes made fortunes. The newly developed railways and ocean steamers brought a veritable stream of visitors to the capital – from the French provinces, from Central Europe, from Russia, and from Sweden. Paris was, suddenly, only ten days from America. Furthermore, easy communication linked her to the Orient. That Turks, Egyptians, and Chinese arrived in great numbers in Paris at the Fairs of 1855 and 1867 only served to increase the number of visitors. The Boulevard, a distance of less than a mile and a half, in Paris – became the center of attraction. Its restaurants, clubs, theatres, and publishing houses became world famous.
The Emperor of Russia, before arriving in Paris for attendance at an exposition, telegraphed for two boxes of seats at the Variety Theatre. Upon arrival, he took a few moments to greet the French Emperor, then with his sons, (the Grand Dukes) went to applaud the current play. Chancellor Bismarck also succumbed to the attraction of the Boulevard Theatres he had the pleasure of attending, in Paris, as well as to the operas of his countryman, Jacques Offenbach. Among the habitués of the Paris restaurants there were many European princes who – though foreigners – soon became more Parisian than the Parisians. They spoke French like Parisians and even had the Parisian turn of mind. They loved French art and letters, in fact, Paris had won them over completely. They adopted the spirit of Paris for their own – including the use of that indefinable commentary which was called esprit parisian – defined as a sort of impertinent, inoffensive joke, meant to amuse by its criticism, but not to destroy. Qualifying neither as political, nor as moral satire, it had the piercing effects of destroying false appearances, of unmasking vanity, stupidity, and pretension. It was a sophisticated means of putting men and things in their places.
In these years France aspired to achieve order – a peaceful order – of activity. If the activity of Paris and her Boulevards was extravagant – even spurious – if at defined moments, the reputation of France abroad was that of a feverish, superficial child – nevertheless, serious work was being accomplished there, including the creative work of various other historians, scientists, and critics to swell the volume of literature. It was serious work by the relatively young at that: Louis Pasteur was only twenty-six, when he discovered molecular dissymmetry, a discovery that changed many of the techniques of scientific research; H.A. Taine published his dissertation essay; “Essay on the Fables of LA Fontaine” (in 1853 when he was just twenty-five years old; and Gustave Flaubert worked for five years during his early thirties finishing and finally publishing his masterpiece, Madame Bovary, in 1856, when he had just turned thirty-five.
Scientific research, and methods as well as methodology in history and in literary criticism evolved quickly. The experimental sciences brought forth numerous theoretical and practical discoveries. New and creative forces of industry were discovered. The “world of infinite smallness,” among the many galaxies of billions of stars was studied and the techniques of medicine and surgery were revolutionized. It was in fact, said of Louis Pasteur that modern medicine began with him – that all before him was antiquity.
It is important to remember that writings on the new sciences were not merely exposés of specialties – they were literary exposés of the ideas, hypotheses, and acquisitions in philosophy, science, and general erudition. Literature was thus given an extension without limits – a richness unsurpassed. Literature proper that (poetry, drama, and the novel) does not consist merely in the success of the Boulevard’s light Parisian novels and untoward poetic movements. We have also the poetry of Baudelaire, the novels of Flaubert, the plays of Augier, and Dumas, and the writings of historians, scientists, and critics also swelling the volume of literature.
Underneath the glitter of Parisian nights there was always working “a Paris of the mind,” which remained healthy and active. The defeat suffered by the France of 1870 made manifest once again the power and vitality of Paris. For twenty years following the Franco-Prussian War, Paris turned her back on Europe, occupying herself with her own problems, her own cares and duties. The national spirit concentrated in Paris on the task of repairing the strength of France and restoring her to health. As Paris turned her eyes inward, she became introspective and more profound. Historians particularly sought to learn from the past the lessons necessary for the present and future security of France. The resulting founding of a School of Political Science attracted historians from all over the world.
By 1819, the wounds of war being well on the way to health, Paris knew once again the joy of living – which to her was always the joy of working and creating. The University strengthened its Faculties of Letters and Sciences – multiplied its professorships, established fellowships – and endowed its libraries. Moreover, she regained international prestige through the establishment of a new educational system which was in place as of 1896. The “new” university offered an infinite variety of courses: there were now fourteen chairs in Philosophy, alone; seven, in Ancient History; six, in History of the Middle Ages; fourteen, in Modern History; fourteen, in Ancient Literature; fourteen, in Modern Literature as well as twenty chairs in Foreign Languages – all of which offered innumerable resources to foreign students. A feature of the new system was the establishment of Institutes, or study centers, where there could be found all the materials, laboratories, specialized libraries, and practical courses which related to a given subject. Fifty Institutes now existed in connection with the various Faculties of the University. Thus, the University of Paris had, once again, taken up its ancient role of being the cultural center of Europe. Eight thousand foreign students now attended its courses. Paris opened to foreigners its 250 libraries and fifty museums, as well as its many other “Schools of Higher Learning.”
Following the 1914-1918 War there was perhaps a great increase in the foreign student body caused by the prestige of victory – perhaps – but more likely brought on by the afflux of foreigners to France during and immediately after the War. As early as 1917, the American University Union was founded for the benefit of American students and professors studying in Paris. The French National Office of Schools and Universities worked to spread abroad knowledge of education available in France. An additional reason for Paris’ growth in popularity was the renewed prestige of the French language, which before the war had achieved a universal character as the language of diplomacy, as the language of the intellectual elite everywhere, and as the language of the social world. French, then being diffused far and wide by the War, grew in importance in the United States so rapidly that the United States had to call on France itself to supply the U.S.A. with properly equipped French language teachers.
U.S. graduate students went to France to complete their French culture and language preparation – and so the great system of courses especially geared to foreign students was developed in Paris. These courses included the language, literature, history, philosophy, geography, and sociology of the French people – a far cry from the unified curriculum of the School’s of the Middle Ages, which grew up on St. Genevieve’s Hill. Then, everyone conformed to a universal ideal of education set down by Pope and King, and of course, the University of Paris owed its first prestige to its ability to supply that unified culture. Later, however, other needs and other circumstances, led Paris to offer the great diversity of studies we have observed and the Schools of Paris hastened to give to the foreign student that which he had come seeking.
The American genius differs so manifestly from the French that our best proof of the seductive qualities of Paris lies in a study of the large number of American students who studied there. Perhaps it is an American instinct – that of a young composite race – that may feel that the generous amount of general cultural background that France offers for the development of the individual greatly benefits the American-reared student, that the help received from a study of French humanism – “a precious ferment to be introduced into America’s too heavy resources. One soon come to realize that the quality that France offers to replace, that the quantity of creative thought is much more than mere polishing activity. One comes to realize that the French approach is actually a whole new way of looking at life that results in a whole new way of studying cultural history.
The final evidence of the attraction of Paris to foreign students lies in the large number of buildings which are continually rising at her southern gate – on the site of the last line of fortifications, significantly torn down to make way for the Student’s League of Nations. The University City currently consists of twenty-five dormitories and recreation centers – each housing nationals of a different country in the national style of architecture of the country which endows it. Not the least among these houses is our own “United States House.” The greatest among the houses is, of course, the International House where national and racial differences are forgotten. This House is a gift of our own John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (another American born in the Alsace). Murray Guggenheim has endowed rooms for the students of the border provinces.
Paris was pre-destined for this great work. France did not make her mark internationally through the exportation of excess products, or excess populations, or the overflow of commercial and financial activities. She has earned her international role by means of the diffusion of her letters, her arts, her methods of thought, and the elegance of her language. Her culture has been incorporated unconsciously into the culture of many other nations. France came into her own in the minds and affections of other peoples. As Victor Hugo has so aptly put it: “France has invisible boundaries, which stop only where mankind ceases to speak her language, that is to say, at the boundaries of the civilized world.”
To sum up briefly the past and present roles of Paris in Europe; one should remember that the Paris of the Middle Ages was the intellectual center of Christianity in a unified Europe; during the Reformation that destroyed European unity and intensified political and national differences, Paris changed her role and achieved universality in her own right as a dispenser of culture and of a universal language. During the age of Classicism, Paris shone, through her court, her society, and her literature, imposing on Europe a purely national cultural period. It seems enigmatic, but she was never less international and yet never more universal then during the period that her educational system became a closed corporation, more and more highly specialized as Napoleon founded special Schools to meet the needs of his new Empire. These Schools enjoyed great privilege, and accomplished miracles of research and method. Soon their research became “European” through publication and expansion. Finally, the Third Republic recognized the advantage of such an open system of education, employing it as the most powerful means of propagating French culture.
I would close my remarks by presenting two pictures of Paris – one of the Latin Quarter of the thirteenth century – where students of all the countries of Europe met in groups called “Nations,” to acquire universality, that is uniformity of thought and culture, and a same perfection in method and doctrine. During this century teachers of different nations taught in one tongue, Latin. The European spirit was over all.
The other picture is that of the University City of today, where students of different Nations are grouped according to their distinctive character and thought processes. Each group has for its primary purpose the development of its national genius to the maximum. However, each comes to Paris to learn to practice in the matter of the civilizing of ideals. Each Nation in its Home and as a neighbor to other Nation’s Houses that surround it, exchanging ideas and influences. Each House contains an intellectual elite and all the Houses combine in a common desire to drink of French culture. Thus Paris is “perpetually rejuvenated by the hosts of young men and women, native and foreign, who spend here unforgettable years of their lives. Their enthusiasms and aspirations are as varied as their backgrounds, traditions, and languages; yet in this temporary meeting place they fuse into one great stimulating student body and the richness of spirit which one brings becomes the wealth of all.” Indifferent to all prejudices of nations, races, and politics, these students are devoted solely to study, to mutual comprehension, and to developing a stimulating comradeship.
The resulting spirit is universitaire and universel – university and universal. Is it too visionary to ascribe to the Paris of today not only her age-old role of magnet for students of the world but a new role – that of one creator of a new world spirit of understanding and tolerance – a spirit born in the lecture hall, the library, and the laboratory, as well as in books and in the words and deeds of great men.