Emile Littre, 1801-1881. (Great Minds)

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This year France celebrates an important literary anniversary, the bicentennial of the birth of Victor Hugo (1802-1885), arguably France's greatest nineteenth-century writer. But as we salute the author of Les Miserables, we might well pause to honor the memory of an important contemporary of Hugo's, whose own bicentennial came and went quietly one year ago. The man in question, famous in his day for his courageous opposition to the Church and tireless defense of democracy, scientific method, and reason, was France's Noah Webster, Emile Littre.

Littre's fame rests principally on his lexical masterpiece, the Dictionnaire etymologique, historique et grammaticale de la langue francaise. Published in eight volumes over a fifteen-year period (1863-1878), this dictionary is noteworthy both for its philological erudition and for its many illustrative quotes, culled from a wide range of French authors. Called by Encyclopaedia Britannica "perhaps the greatest dictionary ever written by one man," Littre's monumental word book holds a lasting place of honor among French reference works. Equally distinguished, though less widely remembered today, are Littre's contributions to the cause of freethought.

Littre was born in Paris on February 1,1801. His parents had lived through the French Revolution, emerging from it imbued with republican ideals that they proudly passed on to their son. Emile spent his twenties as a medical student. Lack of money prevented him from finishing his degree, but he went on to write voluminously about medicine. Of special note in this regard is his ten-volume translation and critical edition of the writings of Hippocrates (published 1839-1861), a scholarly achievement that made him France's leading medical historian.

Paralleling his interest in medicine was a passion for languages. While pursuing his medical studies, Littre learned and taught English, Itailan, Spanish, and German, combining these modern languages with a repertoire of classical tongues that included Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. His 1840 translation from the German of David Friederich Strauss's Life of Jesus marked an important step in the dissemination of Germany's Higher Criticism into France.

In 1840--1841, at the halfway point of his life, Littre discovered the positivism of Auguste Comte, as expounded in the latter's six-volume Course in Positive Philosophy (1830--1842). In 1844, six articles by Littre in Le National introduced the general reading public to Comte's ideas. By mid-century, Littre was universally regarded as Comte's leading disciple.

In 1851-1852, however, Littre broke with his mentor. A republican to the core, he was offended by Comte's endorsement of the coup d'etat that enabled Louis-Napoleon to become Emperor Napoleon III, thereby turning France's Second Republic into its Second Empire. Also repuguant to Littre was Comte's veering off into a quasi-religion of his own devising, a kind of godless mysticism in which great historical figures were transformed to "secular saints." Determined to keep positivism a secular movement, Littre formed his own school under the banner of Scientific Positivism. In 1867, his group gained an official platform when Littre founded the review La Philosophie Positive. This periodical Cal vived for sixteen years, appearing in bimonthly numbers from 1867 to 1883. By the time of his death in 1881, Littre had contributed some sixty articles and notes to the review Two important ideas recur throughout these writings: that all religions (theologies is Littre's usual term, borrowed from Comte) have been outgrown b y humanity and will soon disappear; and that any hypothesis--including all belief systems--that cannot be supported by positive, factual evidence must be discarded as unworthy of investigation.

Throughout the second half of his life, Littre was roundly demonized by the Church and its defenders. …