(13 August 1842
- 29 June 1906
), was a French historian
. He was born at Honfleur
and remained throughout his life a lover of his native Normandy
. His father, a rich manufacturer, wanted him to take over 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 poetry
(La Grande Falaise
, 1785-1793, Le Docteur Egra
in 1873. Despite these fantastic characteristics, Sorel was not a great socialite.
Anxious to understand present as well as past events, he was above all 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. He proved a most valuable collaborator, full of finesse, good temper, and excellent judgment, and at the same time hard-working and discreet. After the war, when Emile Boutmy
founded the Ecole libre des sciences politiques
(which later became the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris
or, as it is more widely known, Sciences Po
). Sorel was appointed to teach diplomatic history (1872), a duty which he performed with striking success. Some of his courses were converted into books: Le traité de Paris du 20 novembre 1815
(1873); Histoire diplomatique de la guerre franco-allemande
(1875); and 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 position where he could observe and review affairs, he performed valuable service, especially under the presidency of the duc d'Audiffred Pasquier, who was glad to have Sorel's 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 repeat the work already done by Heinrich von Sybel
but from a less restricted point of view and with a clearer and calmer understanding of the chessboard of Europe. He spent almost thirty years in the preparation and composition of the eight volumes of this diplomatic history of the French Revolution
(vol. i., 1885; vol. viii., 1904).
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 French Revolution, inexperienced or mediocre as they were, and incompetent to develop the enormous enterprises of Napoleon I.
In the earlier volumes the reader is struck by the grandeur and relentless logic of the drama which the author unfolds. In the later volumes the reader may begin to have reservations, but the work is so complete and so powerfully constructed that it commands its audiences 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
(The Spirit of the Laws
Later, in Bonaparte et Hoche en 1797, he produced a critical comparison which is one of his most finished works (1896). 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). These writings contain a great deal of information and 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 had 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.