Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Albert Sorel

Albert Sorel (August 13, 1842 - June 29, 1906), French historian, was born at Honfleur.

He was of a characteristically Norman type, and remained all his life a lover of his native province and its glories. His father, a rich manufacturer, would have liked him to succeed to the business, but his literary vocation prevailed. He went to live in Paris, where he studied law, and after a prolonged stay in Germany entered the Foreign Office (1866). He had strongly-developed literary and artistic tastes, was an enthusiastic musician, even composing a little, and wrote both verses and novels, which appeared a little later (La Grande Falaise, 1785-1793, in 1871, Le Docteur Egra in 1873); but he did not go much into society.

He was anxious to know and understand present as well as past events, but he was above all things a student. In 1870 he was chosen as secretary by M. de Chaudordy, who had been sent to Tours as a delegate in charge of the diplomatic side of the problem of national defence; in these affairs he proved himself a most valuable collaborator; he was unremitting in his labours, full of finesse, good temper and excellent judgment, and at the same time so discreet that we can only guess at the part he played in these terrible crises. After the war, when Boutmy founded the Ecole libre des sciences politiques, Sorel was appointed to teach diplomatic history (1872), a duty which he performed with striking success. Some of his courses have formed books: Le traité de Paris du 20 novembre 1815 (1873); Histoire diplomatique de la guerre franco-allemande (1875); we may also add the Précis du droit des gens which he published (1877) in collaboration with his colleague Theodore Funck-Brentano.

In 1875 Sorel left the Foreign Office and became general secretary to the newly-created office of the Présidence du sénat. Here again, in a congenial position where, without heavy responsibilities, he coud observe and review affairs, he performed valuable service, especially under the presidency of the duc d'Audiffred Pasquier, who was glad to avail himself of his advice in the most serious crises of internal politics. His duties left him, however, sufficient leisure to enable him to accomplish the great work of his life, L'Europe et la revolution française. His object was to do over again the work already done by Sybel, but from a less restricted point of view and with a clearer and more calm understanding of the chessboard of Europe. He spent almost thirty years in the preparation and composition of the eight volumes of this history (vol. i., 1885; vol. viii., 1904).

For he was not merely a conscientious scholar; the analysis of the documents, mostly unpublished, on French diplomacy during the first years of the Revolution, which he published in the Revue historique (vol. v.-vii., x.-xiii.), shows with what scrupulous care he read the innumerable despatches which passed under his notice. He was also, and above all things, an artist. He drew men from the point of view of a psychologist as much as of a historian, observing them in their surroundings and being interested in showing how greatly they are slaves to the fatality of history. It was this fatality which led the rashest of the Conventionals to resume the tradition of the Ancien régime, and caused the revolutionary propaganda to end in a system of alliances and annexations which carried on the work of Louis XIV. This view is certainly suggestive, but incomplete; it is largely true when applied to the men of the Revolution, inexperienced or mediocre as they were, and incompetent to develop the enormous enterprises of Napoleon I.

In the earlier volumes we are readily dominated by the grandeur and relentless logic of the drama which the author unfolds before our eyes; in the later ones we begin to make some reservations; but on the whole the work is so complete and so powerfully constructed that it commands our admiration. Side by side with this great general work, Sorel undertook various detailed studies more or less directly bearing on his subject. In La Question d'Orient au XVIII' siècle, les origines de la triple alliance (1878), he shows how the partition of Poland on the one hand reversed the traditional policy of France in eastern Europe, and on the other hand contributed towards the salvation of republican France in 1793. In the Grands écrivains series he was responsible for Montesquieu (1887) and Mme de Staël (1891); the portrait which he draws of Montesquieu is all the more vivid for the intellectual affinities which existed between him and the author of the Lettres persanes and the Esprit des lois.

Later, in Bonaparte et Hoche en 1797, he produced a critical comparison which is one of his most finished works (1896); and in the Recueil des instructions données aux ambassadeurs he prepared vol. i. dealing with Austria (1884). Most of the articles which he contributed to various reviews and to the Temps newspaper have been collected into volumes: Essais d'histoire et de critique (1883), Lectures historiques (1894), Nouveaux essais d'histoire et de critique (1898), Etudes de littérature et d'histoire (1901); in these are to be found a great deal of information and of ideas not only about political men of the last two centuries, but also about certain literary men and artists of Normandy. Honours came to him in abundance, as an eminent writer and not as a public official. He was elected a member of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques (December 18, 1889) on the death of Fustel de Coulanges, and of the Académie française (1894) on the death of Tame.

His speeches on his two illustrious predecessors show how keenly sensible he was of beauty, and how unbiased was his judgment, even in the case of those whom he most esteemed and loved. He bad just obtained the great Prix Osiris of a hundred thousand francs, conferred for the first time by the Institut de France, when he was stricken with his last illness and died at Paris on the 29th of June 1906.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.