Maximilien-Paul-Émile LittréMaximilien-Paul-Emile Littré (February 1, 1801 - June 2, 1881), French lexicographer and philosopher, was born in Paris.
His father had been a gunner, and afterwards sergeant-major of marine artillery, in the French navy, and was deeply imbued with the revolutionary ideas of the day. Settling down as a collector of taxes, he married Sophie Johannot, a free-thinker like himself, and devoted himself to the education of his son Émile. The boy was sent to the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, where he had for friends Hachette and Eugène Burnouf. After he had completed his course at school, he hesitated for a time as to what profession he should adopt, and meanwhile made himself master, not only of the English and German languages, but of the classical and Sanskrit literature and philology.
At last he determined to study medicine, and in 1822 entered his name as a student of medicine. He passed all his examinations in due course, and had only his thesis to prepare in order to obtain his degree as doctor when in 1827 his father died, leaving his mother absolutely without resources. He at once renounced his degree, and, while attending the lectures of PFO Rayer and taking a keen interest in medicine, began teaching Latin and Greek for a livelihood. He carried a musket on the popular side in the revolution of February 5830, and was one of the national guards who followed Charles X to Rambouillet. In 1831 he obtained an introduction to Armand Carrel, the editor of the National, who gave him the task of reading the English and German papers for excerpts. Carrel by chance, in 1835, discovered the ability of his reader, who from that time became a constant contributor, and eventually director of the paper.
In 1836 Littré began to contribute articles on all sorts of subjects to the Revue des deux mondes; in 1837 he married; and in 1839 appeared the first volume of his edition of the works of Hippocrates. The value of this work was recognized by his election the same year into the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. At this epoch he came across the works of Auguste Comte, the reading of which formed, as he himself said, "the cardinal point of his life," and from this time onward appears the influence of positivism on his own life, and, what is of more importance, his influence on positivism, for he gave as much to positivism as he received from it. He soon became a friend of Comte, and popularized his ideas in numerous works on the positivist philosophy. At the same time he continued his edition of Hippocrates, which was not completed till 1862, published a similar edition of Pliny's Natural History, and after 1844 took Fauriel's place on the committee engaged on the Histoire littéraire de la France, where his knowledge of the early French language and literature was invaluable.
It was about 1844 that he started working on his great Dictionnaire de Ia langue francaise, which was, however, not to be completed till thirty years after. In the revolution of July 1848 he took part in the repression of the extreme republican party in June 1849. His essays, contributed during this period to the National, were collected together and published under the title of Conservation, revolution et positivisme in 1852, and show a thorough acceptance of all the doctrines propounded by Comte. However, during the later years of his master's life, he began to perceive that he could not wholly accept all the dogmas or the more mystic ideas of his friend and master, but he concealed his differences of opinion, and Comte failed to perceive that his pupil had outgrown him, as he himself had outgrown his master Saint-Simon.
Comte's death in 1858 freed Littré from any fear of embittering his master's later years, and he published his own ideas in his Paroles de la philosophie positive in 1859, and at still greater length in his work in Auguste Comte et la philosophie positive in 1863. In this book he traces the origin of Comte's ideas through Turgot, Kant and Saint-Simon, then eulogizes Comte's own life, his method of philosophy, his great services to the cause and the effect of his works, and finally proceeds to show' where he himself differs from him. He approved wholly of Comte's philosophy, his great laws of society and his philosophical method, which indeed he defended warmly against JS Mill, but declared that, while he believed in a positivist philosophy, he did not believe in a religion of humanity.
About 1863, after completing his Hippocrates and his Pliny, he set to work in earnest on his French dictionary. In the same year he was proposed for the Académie Française, but rejected, owing to the opposition of Mgr. Dupanloup, bishop of Orleans, who denounced him in his Avertissement aux pères de famille as the chief of the French materialists. He also at this time started with G Wyrouboff the Philosophie Positive, a review which was to embody the views of modern positivists.
His life was thus absorbed in literary work till the overthrow of the empire called on him to take a part in politics, lie felt himself too old to undergo the privations of the siege of Paris, and retired with his family to Britanny, whence he was summoned by M. Gambetta to Bordeaux, to lecture on history, and thence to Versailles to take his seat in the senate to which he had been chosen by the department of the Seine. In December 1871 he was elected a member of the Académie Française in spite of the renewed opposition of Mgr. Dupanloup, who resigned his seat rather than receive him.
Littré's Dictionary was completed in 1873. An authoritative interpretation is given of the use of each word, based on the various meanings it had held in the past. In 1875 Littré was elected a life senator. The most notable of his productions in these years were his political papers attacking and unveiling the confederacy of the Orleanists and legitimists, and in favour of the republic, his republication of many of his old articles and books, among others the Conservation, revolution et positivisme of 1852 (which he reprinted word for word, appending a formal, categorical renunciation of many of the Comtist doctrines therein contained), and a little tract Pour la derniere fois, in which he maintained his unalterable belief in materialism. When it became obvious that the old man could not live much longer, his wife and daughter, who had always been fervent Catholics, strove to convert him to their religion. He had long interviews with Père Millériot, a celebrated controversialist, and was much grieved at his death; but it is hardly probable he would have ever been really converted. Nevertheless, when on the point of death, his wife had him baptized, and his funeral was conducted with the rites of the Catholic Church.
The following are his most important works:
- his editions of Hippocrates (1839-1861), and of Pliny's Natural History (1848- 1850)
- his translation of Strauss's Vie de Jésus (1839-1840), and Möller's Manuel de physiologie (1851)
- his edition of the works of Armand Carrel, with notes (1854-1858)
- the Histoire de la langue française, a collection of magazine articles (1862)
- and his Dictionnaire de la langue française (1863-1872).
In that of philosophy:
- Analyse raisonnéc du cours de philosophie positive de M. A. Comte (1845)
- Application de la philosophie positive au gouvernement (1849)
- Conservation, revolution et positivisme (1852, 2nd ed., with supplement, 1879)
- Paroles de la philosophie positive (1859)
- Auguste Comte et la philosophie positive (1863)
- La Science an point de vue philosophique (1873)
- Fragments de philosophie et de sociologie contemporaine (1876)
- Etudes et glanures (1880)
- La Verité sur la mort d'Alexandre le grand (1865)
- Etudes sur les barbares et le moyen âge (1867)
- Médecine et médecins (1871)
- Littérature et histoire (1875)
- Discours de reception a l'Académie française (1873).
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.