Page images

Maximes teach us that the soul is corrupt by nature, given over to evil. Even “nos vertus ne sont le plus souvent que des vices déguisés” (heading to the Maximes, page 114). But while they continually insist on this view of man's degradation, and constantly repeat that humanity obeys the promptings of selfishness and self-seeking, they rarely show that desire for moral regeneration which actuated Pascal, or consider anything beyond the limits of earthly gratification. “ Amour-propre ” is the fulcrum of La Rochefoucauld's world.

It is not the thought, then, of the Maximes which has assured them a lasting place in literature The explanation of their survival is to be found in their form. Their casting is epigrammatic, attaining its final shape only after repeated handlings, in which some of the highest minds of France shared with their avowed author. For conciseness, directness and polish the Maximes may safely be called models of expression. Subsequent writers for many generations are under obligations to them in these particulars, and none perhaps more so than Voltaire, who thus indirectly acknowledges his debt to the collection : “Il accoutume à penser et à renfermer ses pensées dans un tour vif, précis et délicat” (Siècle de Louis XIV, c. 32).


Posterity has long admired in Bossuet' the orator and the historian, and has begun to do justice to the merit of his polemical writings also. With his contemporaries he was undoubtedly one of the great powers of the time, though his plebeian

1 Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, born at Dijon, September 27, 1627. Jesuit school at Dijon; College of Navarre at Paris, 1642. In 1643 extemporized a sermon at the Hôtel de Rambouillet. Bachelor's thesis defended, 1648, in presence of Condé, governor of his province. Priest and doctor of Sorbonne, 1652. Canon at Metz, 1649 to 1659; preached at Dijon (1656) and Paris (1657). Stationed at Paris from 1659. Bishop of Condom 1669. Preceptor to the Dauphin, 1670. Bishop of Meaux, 1681. Died April 12, 1704.Many sermons, funeral orations, polemics against heretics, free-thinkers, and the like, religious treatises, and Discours sur l'Histoire universelle (1681).


birth closed to him the doors of the highest ecclesiastical distinctions. But it could not injure his leadership. He had fixed on his vocation early in life. His studies had given the appropriate historical support to his faith and the equipment necessary to a theologian. From his very ordination he was in demand as a preacher. Few churchmen have ever received the applause he did, or been rewarded with so much worldly suc

Yet, in spite of this publicity and intercourse with the ruling element of the nation, Bossuet remained as true to the principles of the Gospel as Pascal had done in his retirement. Nor did any personal friendship prevent him from applying them. His zeal was pure, his faith was simple. The discourses in which he found himself face to face with the grandees of the land, his sermons and funeral orations, repeat without ceasing the truth which was also the great burden of the Pensées : Without divine grace man is vanity.

Bossuet was always an evangelist, laboring for the salvation of souls with unfaltering fervor. He was also an expounder of historical Christianity. We read in his Discours sur l'Histoire universelle how the progress of the world, from the earliest ages, had been conditioned by the evolution of the Jewish and Christian religion. The proclamation of the Gospel had been prepared by God's dealings with the Hebrews and preluded by all the events which had taken place even among the heathen. The real reason for the creation of man was to be found in his redemption through Christ. The rise and fall of empires are but illustrations of this great fact. It is God's providence, therefore, and not the working out of blind forces, which leads humanity along its earthly way, and this same providence sanctifies all individual trials and triumphs to the common end of universal salvation.

The historian with Bossuet went hand in hand with the polemist. The great custodian of historical Christianity, he argued, is the Church, which has grown with the growth of the faith, and developed with its development. Creeds and decrees are the visible records of this growth. They are formulated from time to time as the spirit of religion demands expression. To object, then, to the established usages of the Church, or to refuse obedience to its regulations, is tantamount to attacking Christianity itself. Occupying this point of view, we are not surprised to find that many of Bossuet's religious controversies were with earnest believers who doubted the authority of the Councils, or who claimed to follow a purer faith than the one generally accepted. Towards the Protestants on the one hand and the Quietists on the other he was exceptionally severe, though he always supported the claims of the Gallican church among the Catholics. In the dispute between Port-Royal and the Jesuits, on the subject of ethics, his sympathies for the moral teachings of the former led him to take an active part in the condemnation of the casuists, which Pascal's Provinciales eventually brought about. The Jansenist doctrine of grace, however, did not meet with his approval. He also had the intellectual keenness to perceive the mischief Cartesianism might do religion, and in his apologetics he answered in advance much of the reasoning which the sceptics of the eighteenth century were to borrow from that philosophical system.

The funeral orations of Bossuet are the works by which he is most widely known, and which, perhaps, best constitute his claim to fame. For he made them literature. Funeral orations, before his day, were eulogies, panegyrics for the most part, in which there was but little substance or regard for style. Bossuet's idea of his priestly mission did not allow him to be satisfied with such productions. In taking up the funeral oration, he remodelled it, gave it the general outline and plan of a sermon, made it part of the church service, not only praised the dead, but drew lessons from their departed greatness for the admonition of the living, and vitalized it with his own earnest spirit. His aggressive temperament was well suited to the display of oratory. It supplied the chief characteristics of his style, such as force, directness, flow, eloquence, sublimity even,

The re

sults of his study of the Scriptures are revealed in his language, which reproduces on many occasions the picturesqueness, grandeur and pathos of the Old Testament. He exhorts openly, like a prophet of Israel, strengthening his appeals with an abundance of rhetoric which was natural to him. But the form he kept subservient to the thought. His constant affirmation of the vanity of earthly greatness implied the necessity of finding true nobility in God, so that the highest type of eloquence which the classical period of French literature could create was a direct means of urging man to seek the way of salvation.


La Bruyère ? somewhat surprises us by his complexity. The purpose of Descartes, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld or Bossuet, is evident. Whatever their deviations from their chosen way, through temporary misgivings or transient preoccupations, their way was always plain, and their wanderings brief. But La Bruyère seems to follow no one path. He “ returns to the public what it has loaned ” him (page 196). He is a portrait painter, and also a moralist. In other words, he observes, and meditates on his observations. The writers we have considered before him were also observers, but their observation was subordinated to a preconceived purpose. The opposite process seems to have been preferred by La Bruyère, and his purpose is often lost sight of in his observation. His predecessors were more subjective; he is more objective ; yet without reaching the standpoint of a complete realist. If we compare him to La Rochefoucauld — and the Maximes and Caractères meet at many points we see at once that La Bruyère is the broader observer of man. His station in life was more humble than La Rochefoucauld's. He naturally would look up, and did not disdain to look down. As a consequence, he studies a greater number of people, the middle as well as the upper classes, and he sometimes touches even on the lower. His attitude is much like La Rochefoucauld's. His remarks on his equals are indulgent enough, on his inferiors they are even compassionate, but for the nobles and the newly enriched plebeians his pen is guided by the bitterness of the slights he suffered as a dependent of the great family of Condé. So La Bruyère's chronicle of contemporaneous society is to be accepted with certain reservations. In many instances he is as impartial a student of mankind as was Montaigne, whom he occasionally quotes with admiration. In others he is limited and prejudiced, like the author of the Maximes.

1 Jean de La Bruyère, born at Paris, August 16, 1645. Degree in law at Orleans, 1665. Attached to the Parliament of Paris. Preceptor to the Duc de Bourbon (Condé's grandson), through Bossuet's influence, in 1684. at Versailles, May 10, 1696. — Bookworm and antiquarian. Translated TheophrastusCharacters, and published them as an introduction to his own Caractères (1688). Nine editions by 1695. Left posthumous Dialogues sur le Quiétisme.

We might call the Caractères the final repository of the prose writers of the seventeenth century. They contain abundant traces of Cartesianism, eulogies of Bossuet, the firm friend of their author, and frequent references to Pascal, the Pascal of the Pensées. Indeed, in the Discours sur Théophraste which prefaces the Caractères, La Bruyère frankly comments on the similarity between his work and the work of Pascal and La Rochefoucauld : “ Moins sublime que le premier et moins délicat que le second, il ne tend qu'à rendre l'homme raisonnable ;'' a conclusion which evokes at once the shades of Descartes.

The study of man, which was the chief study of the prose writers of France from Montaigne down through the seventeenth century, is continued by La Bruyère. But it is continued in a different way, and from quite a different standpoint. The objective method of the author of the Caractères does not explain this divergence. Montaigne was perhaps as objective as he. It can only be explained by his animus. No one before La Bruyère, not even La Rochefoucauld, would have changed mankind, unless it were a change from evil to good. All took

« PreviousContinue »