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The Philosopher Princes of 19th Century France

Styles of uniforms for students at the Ecole Polytechnique during the 19th Century (source)

Plato described the model leader as intelligent, educated, and devoted to the good of the people — a philosopher king. During the 19th century France pursued this ideal more than any other nation in modern times by creating a corps of highly educated engineers to serve the needs of the state. However, the creation of France’s national corps of engineers also influenced the development of engineering as a profession. Therefore, the legacy of the French engineer-as-philosopher-prince lives on in present-day engineers worldwide.

It is the fate of most people to live their lives profoundly ignorant of the true state of the world. Each of us is limited by what our senses tell us and by our ability to interpret what little information they provide. Plato compared this to being trapped in a darkened cave and unable to perceive what is going on outside the cave — in the real world — except through shadows projected on the walls by light coming in through the entrance to the cave.

Plato used his analogy of the cave to illustrate how our inherent limitations can affect politics and the fortunes of a nation. In Plato’s world, a philosopher is someone who, by sacrifice and effort, frees them self from the cave and, venturing out, sees the truth of the world. Returning to the cave with this knowledge, the philosopher is best equipped to improve the fortunes of the nation as its leader. Thus, Plato introduced the philosopher-king an ideal leader.

Beginning with the Age of Enlightenment, at the end of the 18th century, science and mathematics were valued as pathways to the truth. The study of science and mathematics was also part of the training of engineers in France. Following the French Revolution, in 1789, the new national government recruited and trained young engineers to lead France through a difficult transition. Thus, a national corps of engineers was created that cast engineers in the role of philosopher-princes.

Through the 17th and 18th centuries, France and other European countries came to depend increasingly on specialists with expertise in critical areas of technology, especially military technology. France created specialized units of the army with expertise in fortifications — both their construction and how to defeat them — and artillery, as well as civilian corps of engineers with expertise in roads and bridges and in mining. By the middle of the 18th century, France had established a specialized school to train new recruits in each of these areas of technical expertise.

The French Revolution precipitated an expansion and reform of this system, principally through the creation of the Ecole Polytechnique. The Revolution created a crisis in the availability of technical expertise needed to sustain critical functions of the national government. The Ecole Polytechnique was founded to provide France with a supply of young engineers with a broad base of knowledge in math and sciences, taught by world-class scientists who were recruited from France’s Academy of Science.

As the new system settled into place, the Ecole Polytechnique became the gateway for recruitment and training of technocrats needed by the French government across the full range of technical expertise. Students graduating from the Ecole Polytechnique continued their studies at one of the original specialty schools — fortifications, artillery, roads and bridges, and mines — before entering practice as engineers in service to the state. The Ecole Polytechnique provided students with a level of training in math and the sciences far beyond that provided at the specialty schools prior to the Revolution, indeed far beyond what was available anywhere in the world.

The influence of the Ecole Polytechnique and the state engineers who had been trained there solidified in the decades following the French Revolution, under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. The value placed on technical expertise opened a pathway for advancement to bright young men charged with ambition. Napoleon began his career with training for the artillery corps, and as something of a mathematical prodigy he was elected a member of the Academy of Science before he embarked on his political career. Napoleon’s rise from the station of a young military officer to the position of emperor of France demonstrated the extent of the opportunities now available.

Napoleon was a keen supporter of the Ecole Polytechnique. Napoleon reformed the Ecole Polytechnique, bringing it more firmly under the control of the military and instituting military discipline among the student body. And, he recruited Polytechnique students and professors to fill key positions on his staff, while he was a military officer, and in government after he seized political power. Napoleon’s patronage reinforced the idea that mastery of math and science was the key to success in the new age that was opening with the beginning of the 19th century.

A Polytechnique education was a formative experience. This gave the state corps of engineers employed in various capacities a strong sense of mission and a collective identity as a special class, set apart from the majority of government bureaucrats and political operatives. The influence of engineers in government grew steadily through the 19th century as the national identity of France more and more came to depend on technological capacity and industrial might.

By the end of the 19th century, philosopher-princes trained at the Ecole Polytechnique occupied the highest positions in industry and government, including political positions. Sadi Carnot, president of France from 1887 until 1894, was a graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique, as well as being the grandson of one of the school’s founders, Lazare Carnot. Charles Freycinet, who served four times as prime minister between 1879 and 1892, was a graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique who had a long career in the public works ministry before entering politics.

Outside of France, the success of the Ecole Polytechnique made it a model for engineering education. Throughout the world, the academic training of young engineers begins by providing a broad foundation of mathematics and science. And, the original mission of Polytechnique graduates — science and technology in service to the public — continues today as a part of the public identity of the engineering profession and guides the practice of engineers.

References:

Chatzis, K., 2009. Les ingénieurs français au XIXème siècle (1789–1914) — Émergence et construction d’une spécificité nationale. Sabix Bulletin 44, pp. 53–63.

Belhoste, B. and Chatzis, K., 2007. From Technical Corps to Technocratic Power: French State Engineers and their Professional and Cultural Universe in the First Half of the 19th Century. History and Technology 23:3, pp. 209–225.

Read more about the 19th century roots of the engineering profession and the 72 engineers and scientists named on the Eiffel Tower.

RE: Engineering publishes occasional notes and comment on what it means to be an engineer in a world created by science and technology. Sign up to receive future issues by email.

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