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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Jean-Baptiste Massillon (1663–1742)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Joel Foote Bingham (1827–1914)
 
THE SUBJECT of this sketch, the celebrated Bishop of Clermont, was the last of the three greatest preachers of the great age of pulpit eloquence in France—the age, as Voltaire has observed, probably the greatest in pulpit oratory of all time. Massillon, by the consensus of the world, has been adjudged the greatest of the great three, in the region of the pathetic, or persuasion by the resource of emotion, or in still other words, as a preacher; that is, in the power of stirring the hearts and moving the passions of multitudes of men towards that which all men know to be the noblest and best, whatever the practice of their lives may be.  1
  Bossuet, the monarch of the pulpit, moved on with a magnificent and thundering tread, trampling down all opposition; in a dignified and elegant fury, subduing all things to his imperial will. Bourdaloue, the Jesuit and incomparable logician, a combatant by far more skillful than even Bossuet, with no flourish of trumpets, brought up the irresistible battalions of arguments, marshaled with matchless skill, swiftly succeeding one another with an unerring aim, all in fighting undress, without waving plumes or the clank of glittering trappings or the frippery of gilded lace and pompous orders, but with victory written on every banner; and when the hour of conflict was over, stood on a field strewed with the wrecks of every adversary.  2
  Massillon, coming immediately after these giants of a worldwide renown, while yet the air was ringing of their hitherto unequaled achievements,—with the great advantage, indeed, of being offered the opportunity of learning much from their skill,—yet struck out a wholly new method for himself. Each of the three evinced enormous native oratorical talent. Each had acquired and mastered whatever the schools can furnish of rhetorical skill and finish; and this is much. But Massillon evinced an enormous superiority in that which was a peculiarity of his own—and it was a peculiarity of measureless consequence. He evinced a moral constitution more subtle and more refined than either; a knowledge of the secret depths of the human heart more profound; and a certain sympathetic power, indescribable in words, but infinitely effective in stirring the emotions and rousing the passions of the hearer into an irresistible conflict in his soul with his own perverse inclinations: while at the same moment he was enchanting him with the purest and most perfect graces of style; and was sweetly, almost unconsciously, leading him along, not able, not wishing, to resist; or even affrighting him by a sudden cry of alarm, as sincere and tender as that of a mother frightening her infant away from the wrong way into the right.  3
  In respect of purity and beauty of style, Fénelon, and Fénelon alone of all preachers, might come into competition with him; but Fénelon having ordered his sermons to be burned, we have little or nothing of his in this line.  4
  It is a happy consequence of this extreme elegance, this matchless purity and beauty of style,—and it is one of the rarest in the world, in the case of the great preachers,—that after deducting the necessary and unspeakable loss of his majestic presence, his impressive manner, his wonderfully lovely voice, his perfect and bewitching elocution, his printed sermons were read by the most refined of his contemporaries in the closet, and for nearly two hundred years have been and are still read (in the original), with unabated delight. The young King Louis XV., we are told, “learned them by heart, the magistrate had them in his office, the fine lady on her toilet table.” Unfortunately there are not, perhaps there cannot be, any translation of his masterpieces which in respect of style would be judged, by those most competent to judge, to be worthy of him. From the smoothness and harmonious flow of his sentences, Voltaire named him the Racine of the pulpit; and tells us that the ‘Athalie’ of Racine and the ‘Grand Carême’ of Massillon (the forty-two sermons preached at Versailles before Louis XIV. during the Lent of 1704) are always lying on his table side by side.  5
  This remarkable man was the son of a minor officer of the law; born in the little city of Hyères,—an ancient watering-place on the French Riviera, some fifty miles east of Marseilles,—and educated at the College of the Oratorians at Marseilles, of which liberal order he became in due time a priest. He was a true child of the fervid south. The warm blood of Provence galloped through his veins, and the hot passions of human nature were strong in his soul. His infant rambles were among orange groves, olives, and palms. The soft breezes of the Mediterranean fanned the cheeks of his youth; and from infancy up his ears were daily saluted by the gay and amorous melodies of the Troubadours. He was rusticated from his college for some faux pas with the sex. It was nothing very serious, we imagine (he was only eighteen), and he was restored to his classes within the year. After his great sermon on the Prodigal Son, in which he so profoundly analyzes the workings of the voluptuous passions, he was asked “where, being a recluse, he could have obtained such a profound knowledge of the voluptuous life?” He replied, “In my own heart.”  6
  He was not only born in the land of love and song, he was born an orator. It is related of him that in early childhood he was accustomed, on Sundays and holy days, to gather his comrades around him, then mount a rock, a box, or a chair, and declaim to them the substance of the sermon he had heard at mass. In college he pursued the humanities with the greatest zeal, and was greatly distinguished in all the rhetorical exercises; yet after becoming a priest and furnished with such a magnificent equipment, he grew shy of this great talent, made repeated attempts to escape the pulpit, and finally began the exercise of his remarkable gifts only on the absolute command of the superior of his order. From the first moment a brilliant career was assured. Success swiftly followed success. He passed rapidly up the ladder of promotion. The great capital was already whispering his fame, when in his thirty-third year he found himself actually planted in that wicked Babylon, and summoned to preach in its most prominent pulpits. Improving his opportunity to hear the greatest preachers there (including of course Bossuet and Bourdaloue, and probably Fléchier and Mascaron), he said on one occasion to a brother priest who accompanied him: “I feel their intellectual force, I recognize their great talents; but if I preach, I shall not preach like them.” And surely he did not.  7
  From this moment, to hear a sermon of Massillon was a new experience to Paris. Many stories have come down to us of the effects of this new method in the hands of this unparalleled master. We can cite but a specimen. To illustrate how widely his influence pervaded the lowest as well as the highest classes of society, it is related that when Massillon was to preach in Notre Dame, the crush at the entrance was something extraordinary even for a Paris crowd. On one occasion a rather powerful woman of the town, bent on hearing him, roughly elbowing her way through the mass, whispered aloud, “Eh! wherever this devil of a Massillon preaches, he makes such a row!” Baron, the comic author and actor, at that time the leading star of the French stage, soon went to hear him. Struck by the simplicity of his manner and the impressive truthfulness of his elocution, he said to a brother actor who accompanied him, “There, my friend, is an orator: we are but players.” Laharpe relates that a courtier, going to a new opera, found his carriage blocked in a double file of carriages, the one bound for the opera, the other for the Quinzevingts. The church was near where Massillon was preaching. In his impatience he dismounted from the carriage, and out of curiosity for a sight of the famous preacher, he entered the church. The sermon was already begun. It was the celebrated discourse ‘On the Word of God.’ At that moment Massillon raised his usually downcast look, and sweeping the congregation with his wonderful eye, uttered the apostrophe—Tu es ille vir! [Thou art the man.] The gentleman was struck as by an arrow. He remained till the end of the sermon, fixed in his place as by a charm. At the close he did not go to the opera, but returned to his home a changed man. Bourdaloue, after hearing him, being asked by a distinguished brother of his own order how he ranked the new orator, is said to have replied in the words of the Forerunner concerning the just appearing Messiah: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” The celebrated compliment of Louis XIV. at the close of the ‘Grand Carême,’ though threadbare and possibly intended to be equivocal, must not be omitted, because it was unquestionably as true as it was elegant, when he said to him: “Father, I have heard several great orators in my chapel; I have been mightily pleased with them: as for you, every time I have heard you, I have been very much displeased—with myself.” He presently added: “And I wish to hear you, father, hereafter every two years.” Yet for this or some other now unknown reason, Massillon was never again invited by Louis XIV. to preach before him. Bourdaloue, than whom there could be no abler or severer judge, after reading his printed discourses declared: “The progress one has made in eloquence must be judged of by the relish he finds in reading Massillon’s works.” In 1717 he was appointed by Louis XV. Bishop of Clermont, and in 1719 he was elected one of the French Academy. He died at the age of eighty, of apoplexy, in his country house a few miles outside his see-city.  8
  Now what were the great and distinguishing features of this “new method,” which resulted in such enormous contemporary as well as lasting success? Setting aside, as having been sufficiently noticed, the extraordinary witchery of his person, of his voice, of his manner, of even his delicious language and perfect literary form, what particulars can we discover, in the printed pages of his sermons, as we have them in our hands to-day, to account for the prodigious strength and unrelaxing permanence of his grip on the minds and hearts of men? This we shall try to show in the selections we now offer the reader from his most famous discourses.  9
  There are two observations to be made in a general way toward answering this question, before descending to more definite particulars. One strikes us, on the first notice of the subjects he has chosen to discourse on. He had observed, he once said, that there was too much dwelling on external manners and a general and vague morality. If we examine, we find that his subject-matter is always something definite and personal, something that comes home to “the business and bosom” of every one of his auditory. This is too evident in every one of his discourses to need any citations.  10
  Then it is conspicuous how little space he gives to establishing accepted truths and general propositions universally adopted. He assumes these, or at most confirms them in a paragraph or two. Then he sets himself to search out in the bottom of the hearts of his hearers—in their criminal attachments, in their earthly interests—the reasons why each one in particular, without contesting the existence of the law or the necessity of obeying it, pretends that he can give himself a dispensation from submitting himself to it. This too, as we shall see, appears in every sermon.  11
  Another characteristic which pervades his whole method, and is found in every discourse, and in which Buffon in his treatise on ‘Eloquence’ gives it as his judgment that Massillon surpasses all the orators ancient and modern, is called in the schools Amplification. It consists in the difficult but effective art of developing a principal thought in one long composite sentence, which occupies an entire paragraph, and is made up of an expanding series of intensifying clauses, flowing in one indivisible stream of multiplying minor thoughts, which roll the fundamental sentiment along, exhibiting continually new relations, new colors, new charms, with ever increasing force. As he thus revolved his thought through every application and under every light, not only did the gathering force bear on all before it, but each individual for himself, sooner or later, found his own moral picture flashed into his soul; and these individual convictions, melting into one mighty sentiment, set the whole auditory in commotion as if it were but a single soul. For an example of the pathetic thus amplified, take the famous ‘Picture of the Death-Bed of a Sinner.’  12
 
 
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