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Historical figures

BALZAC, Honoré
1799 – 1850
France
LITERATURE

 

Honoré de Balzac was a prolific author of short stories and novels amounting to 90+ and including the major collection on the 'Human Condition' in all its social ambiguity. Informed by an early background in legal training which required the discipline of report writing and attention to detail, familiarity with the working of French law and exposure to people across a wide range of backgrounds. Balzac subsequently became a passionate interpreter of people, human behaviour and motivation in his imaginative writings. Self-centredness is everywhere apparent; will power is central in this for good and ill. His own working routine involved punishingly long hours; he’s been described as a romantic realist. Enormously influential on contemporary European and N American
writers – as on film-makers since.

Life

http://www.gavroche.org/vhugo/balzaceulogy.shtml

http://www.online-literature.com/honore_de_balzac

Writings

http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/b#a251

http://thinkexist.com/quotes/honore_de_balzac

BARTHES. Roland
1915 - 1980
France
LITERATURE, PHILOSOPHY

 

Pioneering exponent of structuralism and semiology, Barthes insisted on the primacy of any individual reader/actor to make their own personal sense of immediate objects and experiences. That which is authentically ethical is born in that moment of personal exchange.

Life

 Writings

 

 

 

 

 

 

BAUDELAIRE, Charles
1821 - 1867
France
LITERATURE

 

Baudelaire is renowned as a romantic poet, but the title of the most famous collection of his poems – Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil) – points to the complexity within his natural enthusiasm. His preferred life-style is commonly described as that of a ‘dandy’, but it did not blunt his Parisian engagement with the activities of the second French revolution of 1848. His poems are explicit in their exploration of sexual themes, satanism and the darker side of human experience which he addresses with a moral passion in search of meaning. Whilst tilting against social convention and scandalising contemporary commentators, he was highly regarded by writers and painters, including the likes of Flaubert and Goya, Victor Hugo and Edgar Allen Poe, and a continuing inspiration of others into the 20th century – TS Eliot, Proust and Sartre. The side effects of opium-smoking and syphilis, combined with physical weakening from childhood ill-health, probably explain his relatively early death.

Life

Writings

BAYLE, Pierre
1647 - 1706
France
PHILOSOPHY, RELIGION

 

Though born in the south of France, his Huguenot (Protestant) predisposition made it necessary for him to move to Holland. He was and is recognised as a major instigator and resource for clarity of thinking in all matters pertaining to ethics and religion. These include the relation between faith and reason, evil, the limits of conscience. His voluminous Historical and Critical Dictionary was a space for subjecting all manner of beliefs and arguments to sceptical review and analysis.

Life

Writings

 

 

 

BEAUVOIR Simone de
1908 - 1996
France
LITERATURE, PHILOSOPHY

 

Powerfully articulate exponent of human freedom and feminine perspective. Prolific in writing of literary criticism, novels and autobiographical reflections. Sharpened to daily ambiguities from living in Nazi occupied Paris; more simply dismissive of ‘the American Way of Life’ and naively enthusiastic about China under Mao and the USSR under Stalin. Determinedly unwed in her lifelong partnership with Jean Paul Sartre. She was open and transparent throughout all their relationships - in mutual thought world, literary interdependence and physical intimacies, The evidence of abuse of others during this closeness raises serious ethical issues.

Life

Writings

Video

Interview with Simone de Beauvoir (French with English subtitles) (40 mins) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFRTl_9CbFU

BECKETT, Samuel
1906 - 1989
Ireland/France
LITERATURE, PHILOSOPHY

 

Multilingual wordsmith. He dramatized the ordinary in life and found meaning in the silences between the words to be as potent as the words themselves. He was shaken by the death of his father, he was active in the French Resistance during WW2, and he chose to wed – moral statements in themselves, even though finding the words for moral sense is commonly a struggle for him in a world of negativity and emptiness.

Life

 Writings

Video

Samuel Beckett (11 mins) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpgOcWZHEcY&list=PLssmvVigZDMlUSU2AksFc_2Z70KthwMV3

BERDYAEV, Nicolas
1874 - 1948
Russia + France
RELIGION, PHILOSOPHY

 

His familiarity with Marxist philosophy from his early academic years, stayed with him when he espoused the thinking and beliefs of the Russian Orthodox Church and into the decade leading to the Revolution. He was a critical believer who challenged the superficial theocracy of Tsarist culture, but he also questioned the emergent version of Marxism. His independent mindedness cost him his position teaching Philosophy at Moscow University; he left for Berlin in 1922. From 1924 onwards he lived, wrote and taught in or near Paris, with an increasing intellectual following. His theology was distinctive in its focus on the prospect of spiritual transformation – different from both legal conformity and the socialist optimism of Marxism which he saw as dangerously oppressive of human freedom. Creative energy is the source of genuine freedom.

Life

Writings

CALVIN, John
1509 - 1564
France
RELIGION

Along with Luther and Zwingli, one of the key protagonists of Protestant church movement to break from the Rome-centred version of European Christianity. In his early years he was influenced in this critical reaction by his father's views and then more especially by his exposure to Luther's writings during his Humanities studies in Paris. No longer acceptable in France, in 1533 he moved to Switzerland where he formulated and published his Institutes of the Christian Religion. This rationale for personal and social ethics formed the basis for the entire city of Geneva - a virtual theocracy. The irony of its celebration of a God-given freedom for humanity alongside its commanding control of any dissidence was as noticeable there as subsequently in its 17th century exponents in Massachusetts or its secularised manifestations in Soviet Marxism.

Life

http://www.calvin500.com/john-calvin/biography

http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin

http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/John_Calvin.htm

Writings

Institutes of Christian Religion http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.toc.html

On the Christian Life http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/chr_life.html

DANTON, Georges J
1759 - 1794
France
POLITICS

 

French revolutionary leader and powerful impromptu speaker who wrestled with the issue of how far to go with violence in the pursuit of social justice. He wasn't guillotined for killing the king, but for being squeamish about extending the scale of terror.

Life

https://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hist255/kat_anna/danton.html

http://www.nndb.com/people/658/000092382

http://www.executedtoday.com/2008/04/05/1794-georges-danton-camille-desmoulins

Writings

Famous quotations http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/g/georges_jacques_danton.html

Dare, dare, dare again, always dare!

http://www.bartleby.com/268/7/20.html

To the Tribunals http://www.marxists.org/history/france/revolution/1792/to-tribunals.htm

DESCARTES, Rene
1596 - 1650
France
PHILOSOPHY

 

Jesuit educated, widely travelled, settling in Holland at the age of 32 and remaining there until summoned by the Queen of Sweden to tutor her in philosophy in 1649. Rene Descartes’s distinctive approach was one of ‘radical doubt’, which in turn leads to individual awareness: ‘I think therefore I am’. My mind which is within me is different from the material world which is out there. It is different also from the otherness of God – an absolutely perfect being. This distinction becomes known as ‘Cartesian dualism’. His approach to morality is: think carefully, act resolutely, be realistic, chose a matching career and be generous.

 

Life

 

Writings

 

 

DIDEROT, Denis
1713 - 1784
France
PHILOSOPHY

 

Jesuit educated, avoiding any established professional career, for ten years he earned a living from part-time teaching, translating and clerking for a book-seller. Subsequently, he began reflective writings, but they were banned as politically contentious. With D’Alembert he took on the editorial role – strategic mapping, author commissioning, and organisational management – of what over a 20 year period became the massive Encyclopaedia (17 volumes of text and 11 volumes of plates). Within this, and in his own independent writings (eg on blindness and slavery),  he challenged social convention and ecclesiastical authority.He lived in a condition of financial uncertainty – in part because of the political sensitivity of some of the views expressed. This was one of the reasons he agreed to bring and sell his library, and spend six months at the court of Catherine the Great in St Petersburg.

 

Life

 

Writings

DOMINIC
1170 -1221
Spain and France
RELIGION

Founder of the Dominican Order of friars with its emphasis on poverty, prayer and preaching. His main sphere of activity was the French region of Languedoc. Though his own preaching secured only a poor response, his life style did attract followers. He had papal encouragement to counter Cathar/Albigensian popularity – deemed to be based on heretical teachings. The extent of Dominic’s association with the violence already emerging in the persecution of Cathars and the subsequent Inquisition is debated, but there is no doubting his zeal to extirpate all that is perceived as inimical to God in the world.

 

Life

Writings

DUNS SCOTUS
1266 - 1308
Scotland, England, France, Germ
RELIGION, PHILOSOPHY

 

Highly influential medieval philosopher and theologian, Franciscan trained and then teaching and writing in Oxford, Paris and Cologne. The primacy of all reasoning is from God whose will is all-determining – including what counts as good. Appeal to divine authority which supports both church and state is sufficient to justify their compulsory baptising of Jews.

Life

Writings

DURKHEIM, Emile
1858 - 1917
France
SOCIAL SCIENCE

 

One of the ‘founding fathers’ of sociology as an academic discipline, believing strongly that individual human identity is socially created as each person is inducted into a shared condition of collective consciousness. This is set out in relation both to modern society and Australian aboriginals.The direct impact of prevailing religious belief system on quite intimate human behaviour is illustrated in his study of Suicide in which its late 19th century incidence is directly correlated with the predominance of Protestants in northern Europe and Catholics in southern Europe. The former are more susceptible to lone- ranging individualism; the latter, as with Jews, to more continually sustaining social integration.This thesis of ‘social determinism’ might be invoked in respect of his own priorities as deriving from his own rabbinic family ancestry. Certainly the industry of his publishing output, and the priority given to public education and university service correspond with this. All were pursued, at least until his son’s death in the first year of World War 1, in a spirit of open optimism.

 Life

 Writings

FLAUBERT, Gustave
1821 - 1880
France
LITERATURE

 

Novelist with critical eye for the hypocrisies of middle-class society, generally pessimistic about the prospects of happy family life. 

Life

Work

FOUCAULT, Michel
1926 - 1984
France
PHILOSOPHY

Marxist-minded interpreter of popular ideas and attitudes especially in regard to criminality, ill health and mental illness, and sexual identity. ‘Deviance’ is exposed as providing a rationalisation for the exercise of power. He enjoyed prompting people to see the world differently, as in his reports from Iran.

Life

 Work

Video

'The Lost Interview' (English subtitles) (16 mins)  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzoOhhh4aJg

FOURIER, Charles
1772 - 1837
France
PHILOSOPHY, SOCIAL SCIENCE

 

Having lived through the decade of the French Revolution and observed what he saw as the distresses of contemporary society, he devised a utopian alternative. This abandoned the conventional norms of marriage and property and in their place designed a social structure which he believed would bring greater fulfilment and flourishing. This took the form of communal phalanxes – ideally 1620 size – with their members chosen for a balance of ages, aptitudes and skills. Close examination suggests that his imagination was not the most reliable basis for realising perfect harmony, but attempts formally to create such experimental units were made in both France and North America.

Life

 Work

GENNEP, Arnold van
1873 - 1957
France
SOCIAL SCIENCE

Major French anthropologist and folklorist, a gifted linguist. Best known for his notion of Rites of Passage. Documented from contemporary practice as well as primitive societies, he identifies the recurrent features of transition involved at birth, puberty, marriage and death. A threshold is passed through (hence the term ‘liminality’ from the Latin) involving a degree of uncertainty leaving behind a previously secure condition before arriving at a new status and identity. The passage is one of moral development.

 Life

Video

Rites of passage and liminality (3 mins) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pw70Vlx09lg

GIDE, André
1869 - 1951
France
LITERATURE

 

Novelist, autobiographer and letter writer revealing of the tension between a religiously prescribed moral education and an openly pursued bisexual activity.

 

Life

Works

 

GURDJIEFF, Georgy
1877 - 1949
Russia France
RELIGION

 

Proponent of a distinctive approach to the human future based on extensive reading, travelling and consultations with scholars and mystics across the world. He established the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Paris. As well as working closely with the individuals both singly and as a group, he set out in writing the full range of his philosophical system. It promised the liberated immortality which he believed to be at the heart of all religions. There is now an international network of groups practising Gudjieff’ teachings - the ‘Fourth Way’ which includes mind-body exercises and ‘truth dancing’. Intellectually and economically challenging.

 

Life

Video

Archive film footage (6 mins) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MI0LxEhFuRg

JAVOUHEY, Anne
1779 - 1850
France
RELIGION

 

Anne-Marie Javouhey was for over 50 years pioneering as a Catholic Christian the development of local provision for education and health in France and in both French and British colonies in Africa. Challenging of slavery, as of male domination within religious and political institutions, she had a dramatic effect on many individual lives in many different countries. Her distinctive religious convictions had very positive moral consequences.

Life

 

JOAN OF ARC
1412 - 1431
France
RELIGION, POLITICS

 

Extraordinary teenager who inspired by religious vision challenged contemporary instititutional orthodoxies. She took on positions of military leadership, especially against English domination in France, and was subsequently burnt for heresy. Her life raises questions about the nature of mystical experience as also about the moral interface between Christianity and nationalism. She is canonised as a Roman Catholic saint.

Life

Works

LEVI-STRAUSS, Claude
1908 - 2009
France
SOCIAL SCIENCE

 

From an academic training in philosophy and law, he shifted his disciplinary approach to that of social anthropology, focussing on kinship, myth and ritual. These are the means by which we order our lives socially and there are recurrent structures common across tribes and nations. Much of his field work was carried out in Brazil, but wherever he looked at cultural diversity he sensed an underlying moral humanity.

Life

Writings

Video

Claude Levi-Strauss returns to the Amazon (3 mins) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSARoT1f86k

 

MARCEL, Gabriel
1889 - 1973
France
PHILOSOPHY

 

Marcel was a philosopher and dramatist. He is often identified as a Christian existentialist, he took issue with Sartre’s apparent repudiation of genuine reciprocity in human relationships, as also with abstract theorising which risked losing touch with individual and everyday humanity.

 

Life

Writings

MARITAIN, Jacques
1882 - 1973
France
PHILOSOPHY, RELIGION

 

Roman Catholic  convert like his wife (he from a Protestant background, she Russian Jewish). His philosophy was shaped by the thinking of Aquinas which he elaborated and applied to the spheres of contemporary arts and politics. Knowledge has several forms and levels which include but also go beyond physical sensation. In his notion of ‘Integral Humanism’ he sets out the basis for human freedom which he believes to be rooted in God-given reason.

Life

Writings

Video

Jacques Maritain - a brief biography (4 mins) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ChB07RIV7wQ

MAUSS, Marcel
1872 - 1950
France
PHILOSOPHY, SOCIAL SCIENCE
MERTON, Thomas
1915 - 1968
France England United State
RELIGION, PHILOSOPHY

Widely regarded for his dual focus on contemplation and social ethics. After converting to Roman Catholicism and becoming a Trappist monk, bound by vows of silence, his written output was prolific. His faith  drove him to greater depth of internal reflection, openness to the faith of others and engagement with global issues.

Life

Writings

Video

Thomas Merton's last talk (4 mins) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywE6bhApcSk

 

MOLIERE
1622 -- 1673
France
LITERATURE

 

Moliere is the stage name of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin – one of the most highly regarded of French playrights, especially of comedy with a strong emphasis on justice and hypocrisy.

Life

Writings

MONTAIGNE, Michel
1533 - 1592
France
PHILOSOPHY, LITERATURE

 

Lifelong writer of critical essays and opinion pieces, sceptical of many taken-for-granted beliefs and values. He promoted the importance of tolerance and toleration and the issue of moral relativism is made apparent by his reference to evidences of human diversity.

Life

Writings

 

NAPOLEON
1769 1821
CORSICA + FRANCE
POLITICS

Corsican born, followed by education in France, Napoleon Bonaparte is best known as Emperor with military prowess proven by his succession of military successes (mostly on land, rather than naval) across Europe. He is criticised for self-promotion. He deserves recogntion for his part in the development of civil law and its extension across Europe. In the aftermath of the French Revolution he was responsible for introducing the Napoleonic Code in 1804 which included controls against the privilege of birth and need for employment based on qualifications and merit; freedom of speech and religion; trial by jury

 

  • Life

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/bonaparte_napoleon.shtml

http://www.historytoday.com/gemma-betros/napoleon-man

http://www.napoleonguide.com

http://www.intelligencesquared.com/events/napoleon-the-great-andrew-roberts-adam-zamoyski

http://www.crf-usa.org/bill-of-rights-in-action/bria-15-2-a-the-code-napoleon

 

  • Writings

http://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/111napoleon.html

http://www.napoleon-series.org/research/government/c_code.html

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3567/3567-h/3567-h.htm

 

 

PASCAL, Blaise
1623 - 1662
France
PHILOSOPHY, RELIGION

 

Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician, best known for his wager regarding the existence or otherwise of God. He asserted the reality of moral obligation and natural justice, distorted and corrupted by powerful greed and self-interest.

RASHI
1040 - 1105
FRANCE GERMANY
RELIGION, LITERATURE

His name Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac forms the popular acronym by which he is commonly known. He was and is greatly respected in Jewish and Christian scholarship, for his commentaries on the writings of the Hebrew Bible; they became an authoritative source for accessing Jewish law and guidelines for daily life. These draw on and clarify previous midrash interpretations by earlier rabbis. His works were the first Hebrew books to appear in print in the 15th century.

ROUSSEAU, Jean Jaques
1712 - 1778
France
PHILOSOPHY, LITERATURE

 

There are sorry aspects of his life – mother’s death immediately following his birth and insanity during his final years. There is also a shocking inconsistency – handing over of his five children born to his innkeeper assistant to hospitals for unwanted births. In spite of all this – and his lack of any formal education - he published distinctive and highly regarded treatises on the human condition and education. ‘Man is born free, but everywhere is in chains’ is his affirmation of human innocence subsequently corrupted by society, hence the need for a strategy to control this which is set out in his Social Contract. Emile is his fictional account of an alternative way of educating a child – one which had a major impact on the thinking of Froebel and Pestalozzi.

SARTRE, J P
1905 - 1980
France
LITERATURE, PHILOSOPHY

 

Renowned as an exponent of atheistic existentialism, Jean Paul Sartre resisted easy labelling. In his life-style and writings (novels and systematic philosophy) he continually challenged any established order. Moral rules and conscience are to be demolished rather than trusted, as is the controlling effect of another’s gaze on how an individual behaves. Much of his thinking, as for years his daily behaviour, is shaped in interplay with Simone de Beauvoir.

Video

Sartre on intellectualism (5 mins) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_g8JVK4Fppw

TARDE, Gabriel
1843 - 1904
FRANCE
SOCIAL SCIENCE, PHILOSOPHY

From a background of 25 years working as a magistrate, Gabriel Tarde achieved academic renown as a criminologist and philosopher who drew insights from both psychology and sociology. He argued that typically any social action is based on individual imitation, opposition or invention.

TEILHARD de CHARDIN, Pierre
1881 - 1955
FRANCE
SOCIAL SCIENCE, PHILOSOPHY

Teilhard de Chardin was a palaeontologist with extensive field work experience in Egypt and China. He was continually focussed on the nature of evolution. Based on the evidence of increasing  complexification and convergence, combined with increases in consciousness culminating in human beings, he argued that the continuing refinement of this ‘Omega Point’ is the natural scientific equivalent of the Christian future hope.  As a Jesuit, his writings came under scrutiny from the Vatican. They were widely published and read, but only after his death. For a time they were at the centre of what was called Christian-Marxist dialogue.

TOCQUEVILLE, Alexis de
1805 - 1859
France
LITERATURE, POLITICS

 

Though for some time directly engaged in national politics, Alexis de Tocqeville is best known for his critically reflective writings on American, British and French society and politics. In these there is the recurring theme of how individual freedom can be maintained in the face of the trend towards centralising government, which he identifies as happening even in revolutionary settings.

VOLTAIRE
1694 - 1778
France
LITERATURE, PHILOSOPHY

 

'Voltaire' is the pseudonym of Francois-Marie Arouet. He was hugely independent minded in ways which challenged the established authorities of royalty and the Roman Catholic Church, he expressed his views in a plethora of plays, philosophical treatises, and political satire. He continued with his learning and writing during periods of exile in both Switzerland and England. The principle of the freedom of belief and speech is fundamental to all he wrote.

WEIL, Simone
1909 - 1943
France
LITERATURE, PHILOSOPHY

 

Much of Simone Weil's relatively short life was spent in direct engagement with the interests of others – farm labourers, Renault car factory workers, republican fighters in the Spanish Civil War, students in school, French resistance movement in London. A continual seeking after how to be good led her to starvation whilst identifying with the afflictions of World War 2 victims. The intimacy and intensity of her moral passion and resistance to evil in all its forms comes over powerfully from her writing.

A brief biography (7 mins) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmBwVgOirPM

 

ZOLA, Emil
1840 - 1902
FRANCE
LITERATURE

Emile Zola was a prolific novelist whose industry created astonishingly vivid portraits of all aspects of French life - rural and urban, miners and bankers, artists and railway workers. He conveyed with telling realism the disordered anguish of drunkenness, sexual exploitation, natural disasters, religious deceptions and anti-semitism.

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