Home » Modern and Post Modern » The Modern and the Postmodern – Flaubert and Kant

The Modern and the Postmodern – Flaubert and Kant


My first written assignment.

It is actually the second assignment for the course but I missed the deadline for the first one. The instructions were:-

Compare the role of historical progress in the ideas of two of the following: Kant, Rousseau, Marx, Flaubert.

It had to be in less than 800 words. I wrote my essay and then was a little flummoxed as both the heading and the references increased the word count. I had to take some words out when I submitted it. This is the essay as it was submitted for review.

Immanuel Kant – Wikipedia

Giraud Flaubert -Wikipedia

Compare the role of historical progress in the ideas of Kant and Flaubert.

I’ll first describe how I have interpreted their works and then I’ll compare them.


Kant’s view of the role of historical progress was that it was inevitable. He said

“ Men will of their own accord  gradually work their way out of barbarism so long as  artificial measures are not deliberately adopted to keep them in it”[Para 9 : 1] .

The violence of the time indicated that ‘man’ had not yet reached this goal. He saw enlightenment as one step on the way to the course that nature had set.

He developed this idea further in his text “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose” [2].

“The history of mankind can be seen, in the large, as the realization of Nature’s secret plan to bring forth a perfectly constituted state as the only condition in which the capacities of mankind can be fully developed, and also bring forth that external relation among states which is perfectly adequate to this end.” [8th thesis: 2]

He believed man had deviated from the path nature had set for humanity by self-imposing shackles to hold back natural progress. Enlightenment would be the escape of humanity from its “self incurred immaturity”[1] or tutelage. Tutelage he said is the £inability to understand without direction not for lack of reason but for lack of courage to use it without direction”. It was too easy for man to accept tutelage.

“If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me,……………., and so on, I need not make any efforts at all. I need not think, so long as I can pay;” [Para 2:1]

Kant felt society would naturally develop leading to the peace and human ideal that nature had intended. Enlightenment brought about greater freedom and autonomous use of reason and thus led to the right conditions for peace. Knowledge is gained through what we do and experience .Kant believed that hope for mankind was in the projection of a universal history. He directed us to the history of the Greek and Roman Empires where barbarism developed into unified  states, civic constitutions and laws through enlightenment [9ththesis : 2].  These states were peaceful and so repressed further progress towards the ideal of humanity.

Daring to be wise (Sapere aude!) of having the courage to use one’s own reason would lead to freedom of thought which would inevitably lead to enlightenment and the natural progress of man.


How can we understand Flaubert’s ideas on history from a fictional novel? Flaubert is renowned for saying “Madame Bovary c’est Moi” .  For him this was not purely a work of fiction but his reflection on society and how it had arrived at this point.

Madame Bovary [3] was written in 1856 when memories of the French revolution and the rein of Napoleon were still much in the public mind. Flaubert was a bourgeoisie living in provincial France. He hated the bourgeoisie and we can see this throughout the book.  An example of this is Emma’s wedding. The celebration sank into a drinking and carousing. You can see Flaubert’s anger at this as the story changes tempo into a Dantesque image of craziness

“and all night in the moonlight, by the country roads there were runaway carts that ran at full gallop plunging into the ditches, jumping over yard after yard of stones, clinging to the slopes, with women leaning out of the door to grab the reigns “. [3]

Flaubert thought that the bourgeoisie had no taste and were vulgar. He shows this through Emma’s reaction to Charles’ eating habits and his depictions of the characters as vain and stupid.

Flaubert is disillusioned with society and the ideals of democracy. Hesaw the rise of the bourgeois as unfavourable for society. He was disgusted by modernity and felt that most of the bourgeoisies ‘positioning’ was stupid.   There are many quotes to support this in correspondence.

“This is a solitary retreat where the disgust of modern life pushed me.” [4]

“The whole dream of democracy is to raise the proletarian to the level of bourgeois stupidity”. [5]

“To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost. [5]

“The history of the human mind is the history of stupidity.” (quoting Voltaire [5]


For Kant the enlightenment was a natural progression for man and would lead to a perfect society with peace and reasoning.

For Faubert the enlightenment was the beginning of man’s folly. Reasoning lead to revolution and one master was replaced with another. Aristocracy were replaced with the bourgeoisie who were worse than their predecessors.


[1] An Answer to the Question: “What is Enlightenment?” (1784) . (From the course link)

[2] Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View (1784).

[3] Madame Bovary. Gustave Flaubert (1856).

[4] Letter to Ernest Feydeau. (1859 )

[5] Letter to George Sand  (1871)

Peer Reviews

 Provides specific quotations the readings in support of their argument.3

Only some parts of the essay are clear and well-constructed. 1.5

Final notes

Peer 1 – The conclusion not this in accordance with the request, this incomplete.

Peer 2 – Poorly organised essay. You threw in many quotes but failed to explain their significance and link them to how they support your argument. Even though the last part was meant to be comparison, there was no actual comparison made.

My comments

I don’t understand the final comment of peer 1.

I thought my last art was clear that the two had a different view of enlightenment.  Evidently I didn’t make it clear enough. I wish more had been said but I will have to live it.

I had a great time reading around the subject particularly Flaubert. My re reading of Madame Bovary after all these years was unexpectedly delightful.



  1. severalfourmany says:

    The peer reviews are very frustrating aren’t they? I reviewed six essays with comments and suggestions. I received a total of about 20 words, all from one reviewer. Better to keep focused on the important part: thinking about the material and communicating an idea. I’m not sure I will put so much effort into the peer review process next time. I think interacting through outside blogs is a much more productive approach.

    I loved your comment “Madame Bovary was written in 1856 when memories of the French revolution and the rein of Napoleon were still much in the public mind.”

    They were very much in mind, as they had just lived through another French revolution (the coup d’état of 1851) and were living in Second Empire under Napoleon III. Marx is just as sarcastic as Flaubert and makes the amusing comment “Hegel remarks somewhere that all the events and personalities of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

    • Louise Taylor says:

      They are a little frustrating. I reviewed four and considered my responses carefully.
      You are right. I should remain focused on what I am trying to achieve. The process of writing the essay served its purpose. Love the Marx quote.

  2. angela says:

    Enjoyed reading your essay. I, too, have been disappointed with the feedback. Your post reminded me to go read my results from #2 – not as good as #1. Tis odd for I only had two peer responses and within that, one of the peers didn’t fill in points on all of the paper – feedback was minimal.

    Severalfourmany had a good point: offer up your paper on this blog for perhaps a more in-depth critique. Actually, I have restrained from critiquing the writer’s premise for that is not part of the rubric – only if he or she followed the contraints of how to address the question which I felt you did.

    The only suggestion – as peer 2 alluded – introduce a comparison at the beginning to circle back to in the concluding paragraph. The bones of the essay are present, now it just needs a strong statement of intent, i.e. how/why Flaubert and Kant viewed historical progress differently…or something to that effect.

    Again – a strong bit of critique on each man’s position, esp. in 800 words. ~ a

    • Louise Taylor says:

      Thank you Angela.
      I need writing practice, I am not very good at essays. I have received some good feedback both here on my blog and on the forum. Certainly points to take forward. I found limiting myself to 800 words quite tough.

  3. […] The Modern and the Postmodern – Flaubert and Kant (louisecharente.wordpress.com) […]

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