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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Jacques Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Adolphe Cohn (1851–1930)
 
JACQUES BÉNIGNE BOSSUET, sacred orator, historian, theologian, and controversialist, was born in Dijon, capital of the then Burgundy, on September 27th, 1627. There is no question but he is the greatest Catholic divine whom France ever knew, and one of the greatest, some say the greatest, of prose writers and orators of that country. His importance in the literary history of France is due, moreover, not simply to the high excellence of his productions, but fully as much to their representative character. The power that was wielded with absolute authority by Louis XIV. found in Bossuet the theorist who gave it a philosophical basis, and justified to the Frenchmen of the seventeenth century the conditions under which they lived.  1
  The future educator of Louis XIV.’s son sprang, like most of the great Frenchmen of that time, from the upper ranks of the bourgeoisie. The Bossuet family had been for a long time honorably connected with the legal profession and the judiciary: the father of Jacques Bénigne was in 1627 a counselor practicing before the “Parlement de Dijon,” where his own father had sat as “Conseiller,” or Associate Justice. Later in life he was himself called to a seat on the bench, when a new Parlement was organized in the city of Metz for the province of Lorraine (1638). Ten years later (January 24th, 1648) Bossuet, who had received his education partly from the Jesuits of Dijon, partly in the celebrated Collège de Navarre in Paris, and who had been shriven for the Catholic priesthood when only eight years of age, made what may be called his first public appearance when he defended his first thesis in theology. With this important event of his life we find connected the name of the most brilliant Frenchman of that time, the celebrated Prince de Condé,—famous already by many victories, though hardly twenty-six years of age,—who attended the disputation and had allowed the young theologian to dedicate his thesis to him. Thirty-nine years later, after a long period of close friendship, their names were again associated when the illustrious Bishop of Meaux delivered the funeral oration of the great warrior, and announced, at the close of a magnificent eulogy, that this would be the last occasion on which he would devote his oratory to the praises of any man; a promise which he kept, though he outlived his friend for no less than seventeen years.  2
  Bossuet’s period of study lasted until the year 1652, when at the age of twenty-five he was appointed Archdeacon of Sarrebourg. By virtue of his position he thenceforward, for no less than seven years, resided in Metz, a city whose peculiar position, especially in religious matters, exerted a powerful influence over the direction of his whole intellectual life. He found there what was very rare then in France, representatives of three religions. In addition to the Catholics to whom he was to minister, there were in Metz numerous Protestants,—both Lutherans, and Calvinists or Presbyterians,—and a not inconsiderable number of Jews; and the city was used to continuous theological controversy between minister, rabbi, and priest. The Protestants of Metz received the teachings of two brilliant ministers, David Ancillon and Paul Ferri, the latter of whom soon published a Catechism which was considered by the whole body of French Protestantism the clearest exposition of its doctrines. The Catholic clergy of France had then not yet renounced the hope of bringing all the inhabitants of the country to place themselves voluntarily under the spiritual guidance of Rome; and the conversions that were announced from time to time from the upper ranks both of Protestantism and Judaism to a certain degree justified such a hope.  3
  Bossuet, while constantly improving his knowledge of the writings of the Fathers, especially of St. Augustine, threw himself into the contest with characteristic energy. As against the Jews he tried to demonstrate that the coming of Christ is clearly foretold in the Prophecies. He thus became more familiar with the Old Testament than any other Catholic theologian of his time, and so far molded his style on that of the Bible that it soon became difficult to distinguish in his productions that which came out of the sacred writings from the utterances which belonged only to him. This was done, however, strange to say, without any knowledge of the Hebrew language. Bossuet never read the Bible except in Greek or Latin. There was no good French version of the Bible; and it may be stated here that there is none to the present day which occupies in the French language anything like the position held in English by the Bible of King James, or in German by Luther’s version.  4
  His attitude in regard to the Protestants is more interesting, because more characteristic of the time in which he lived. France in the seventeenth century had become convinced that harmony, unity, fixedness, are the clearest manifestations of truth, the best guarantees of peace, happiness, and prosperity; that variety and change are signs of error and harbingers of disaster. Bossuet’s whole effort in his controversy with Protestantism was directed towards demonstrating that Protestantism lacks and that Catholicism possesses the traits which were considered by his contemporaries to clearly belong to truth; and as his opponents were not unwilling to follow him on his chosen ground, as they never for a moment denied his main proposition,—his statement of the characteristics of truth,—as he even managed during the controversy to bring about a number of conversions to Catholicism, he left Metz fully convinced that he was waging a successful warfare upon unassailable ground.  5
  He had been in Paris less than a year when an event happened which made him doubly sure of the soundness of his position, and tenfold increased his belief in the ultimate victory of his Church over all other denominations. The Commonwealth of England collapsed, and Charles II. was called to the throne from which his father had been hurled by Oliver Cromwell. Nothing can give any idea of the shock experienced by France on hearing of the development and success of the Great Rebellion in England. No Frenchman at that time understood what the English Constitution was. The course of French history had led the people of France to put all the strength they possessed in the hands of their kings, and to treat as a public enemy any one who resisted, or even attempted to limit in any way, the royal authority. To people holding such opinions the English nation after the month of January, 1649, appeared as a nation of parricides. And the feeling was intensified by the fact that the wife of the beheaded king, Henrietta Maria, was a sister of the King of France, a daughter of the beloved Henry IV., whose death by Ravaillac’s dagger was still mourned by every French patriot. The triumph of Cromwell, the proud position which England occupied in Europe during his protectorate, left however hardly any hope that the rebellious nation would ever acknowledge the errors of her ways; and lo! in a moment, without any effort on his part, without any struggle, the dead king’s son resumed his rights, and every one who had been in arms against him lay prostrate at his feet. The same nation that had rebelled against the levying of the “ship money” and the proceedings of the Star Chamber allowed Charles II. almost as absolute an authority as ever the King of France possessed. Once cured of her political errors, was England not to be soon cured of her theological errors? After repenting her rebellion against the King, was she not to repent her rebellion against the Pope? Such were the questions which Bossuet, which the whole of France, began to ask. Or rather, these were to them no longer questions: the people of France began to look across the Channel with confident expectation of a religious counter-revolution. The collapse of the Commonwealth could not but be followed by the collapse of the Reformation.  6
  When Louis XIV., after Cardinal Mazarin’s death, took in his own hands the management of the affairs of the State; when the marriage of the brilliant Henrietta of England with the Duke of Orleans made the sister of the English King a sister-in-law to the King of France; when triumph after triumph on the field of war, of diplomacy, of literature, of art, added to the power and glory of France, which had never swerved in her allegiance either to King or Church,—the feeling grew that only in unity of Faith, Law, and King were truth and prosperity to be found by nations. The saying “Une foi, une loi, un roi” (one faith, one law, one king), which may be said to sum up Bossuet’s religious, social, and political beliefs, seemed to all an incontrovertible and self-evident axiom.  7
  These were the times when Bossuet’s utterances grew in power and magnificence. He was heard in a number of Parisian churches; he was heard at court, where he several times was appointed preacher either for Advent or Lent; he delivered panegyrics of saints, and was called upon to eulogize in death those who had held the highest rank in life. He had just delivered the most splendid and the most touching of his funeral orations, those on Henrietta of France, widow of Charles I. of England (November 16th, 1669), and less than a year later, on her unfortunate daughter, Henrietta of England, Duchess of Orleans (August 21st, 1670), when the King, at the request of the upright Duke de Montausier, called him to court from the bishopric of Condom to which he had been raised, and intrusted to him the education of his son and heir-apparent, the Dauphin of France.  8
  Bossuet’s royal pupil never reigned. He died in 1711, four years before his father’s death: and it must be admitted that during the thirty-one years that elapsed between the moment when he came out of Bossuet’s hands and the end of his life, he gave no evidence of being anything except a very commonplace sort of a man. No such halo surrounds him as surrounds his unfortunate son, the Duke of Burgundy, whose death two years after that of the Dauphin was mourned as a public calamity. Whether Bossuet’s failure to make a great prince out of the Dauphin was due to a faulty system of education or to the unresponsive nature of the pupil, can hardly be considered to-day a matter of great interest. But French literature was certainly the gainer by the appointment of Bossuet to the post of tutor to the Prince. Three of his most remarkable works—his ‘Discourse upon Universal History,’ his ‘Policy according to the Holy Writ,’ and his ‘Treatise on the Knowledge of God and Man’—were written especially for the Dauphin, and read by him as textbooks a long time before their publication. The opening sentence of the ‘Discourse’ tells us clearly the author’s purpose: “Were history useless to other men, it would still be necessary to have it studied by princes.”  9
  In 1680 Bossuet left the Dauphin, who then married a Bavarian princess, and one year later he was called to the bishopric of Meaux. Louis XIV. was then taking steps leading to the important and fatal venture by which three years later he repealed the Edict of Nantes, and forbade the existence in France of the Protestant religion. No one can deny Bossuet’s share in determining the king to follow a policy so fatal to the interests of France, but at the same time so much in accord with the views of Rome. A natural outcome would have been the raising of Bossuet, who was certainly then the greatest orator, the greatest writer, and the greatest theologian in the Catholic clergy, to the Cardinalate. Still Bossuet was never a cardinal.  10
  The explanation lies in Bossuet’s conduct in the year 1682. The King of France in that year called together a General Assembly of the clergy of France, a kind of National Council. His object was to have the clergy assert its national character, and to state that in civil matters it was subject not to the Pope, but to the King. The various statements to that effect constitute what is known as ‘The Liberties of the Gallican Church.’ The statements were adopted after being drafted by Bossuet, who had at the opening of the sessions delivered before the Assembly his celebrated ‘Sermon on the Unity of the Church,’ the main part of which is an eloquent defense of the above-stated views. France was too powerful then for the see of Rome not to yield, but no favors were thenceforth to be expected for the spokesman of the French national clergy.  11
  Still the great divine continued his efforts, and in 1688 he put forth the most complete and masterly exposition of his beliefs, his ‘History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches.’ The Revolution of 1688–89 in England did not in the least, sad though it seemed, weaken his faith in the ultimate triumph of Catholicism. In France at that time the English revolution was not considered an assertion by the people of political and religious rights, but the carrying out of a detestable family conspiracy of a daughter and son-in-law with their father’s enemy. This better than anything else explains the hatred which was harbored against William III., and which found expression in the works even of as free-minded a writer as La Bruyère. It is during the period of the fiercest struggle between Louis XIV. and William III. that Bossuet carried on with the German philosopher Leibnitz a series of negotiations, the object of which was the return to Catholicism of Protestant Germany. We need hardly state that the negotiations utterly failed.  12
  In another controversy which occupied Bossuet’s last years he was entirely successful. The most eloquent of his disciples, Fénélon, then Archbishop of Cambrai, seemed to him to have fallen into dangerous errors. He had adopted the mystic doctrine of Quietism, which had been made known to him first by an erratic woman, Madame Guyon. Bossuet determined that the eloquent archbishop must be compelled to recant. A number of works were published by him in support of his position, the most important one being his ‘Relation on Quietism’; and he did not rest until the Pope had condemned his rival, and Fénélon had submitted to censure in his own cathedral at Cambrai. Some accuse Bossuet of too much harshness in the contest. The Pope himself was reported to have said, “The Archbishop of Cambrai sinned by too much love of God, the Bishop of Meaux by too little love of his fellow-man.”  13
  Bossuet was then a very old man, but neither growing age nor the care that he took of what he considered the general interests of Catholic Christianity ever kept him from giving the closest attention to the spiritual government of his flock. He was a model bishop. He died April 12th, 1704, aged seventy-six years, six months, and sixteen days.  14
  Bossuet was a very prolific writer. In the best edition, that of Abbé Caron, begun in Versailles in 1815, his writings fill not less than forty-one volumes. But it must be stated at once that a great deal of this production belongs decidedly more to theology than to French literature. Some of it is not even in French, but in Latin; for instance, Bossuet’s letter to the Pope on the subject of the education of the Dauphin. Although in French, such works as the ‘Treatise on Communion’ or the ‘Explanation of John the Baptist’s Revelation’ are decidedly outside the pale of literature, as the word is usually understood. We shall mention here only those works of Bossuet which, by virtue of their perfect form and the accessibility of the subject to the general reader, are to this day more or less familiar to the best educated people in France.  15
  The first to be mentioned among these are the ‘Sermons,’ the ‘Funeral Orations,’ and the ‘Discourse upon Universal History.’  16
  Bossuet’s sermons undoubtedly were among his most perfect productions. He was a born orator; his majestic bearing, his melodious and powerful voice, his noble gestures, made the magnificent sentences, the beautiful and striking imagery of his speeches, doubly impressive. Unfortunately, with only a few exceptions Bossuet’s sermons have reached us in a very imperfect form. He did not, as a rule, fully write them, and the art of taking down verbatim the utterances of public speakers had not yet been invented. The sermon ‘On the Unity of the Church’ we possess because Bossuet had committed it to writing before delivering it; other impressive sermons, those on ‘Death,’ on the ‘Conversion of the Sinner,’ on ‘Providence,’ on the ‘Duties of Kings,’ etc., have reached us in a sufficiently correct form to give us an idea of Bossuet’s eloquence: but the reader who really wishes to know the great sacred orator of Louis XIV.’s reign had better turn at once to the ‘Funeral Orations.’  17
  Bossuet’s funeral orations were prepared with great care. They were delivered as a rule several months after the death of the person to be eulogized, as part of a religious ceremony in which a mass was said for the repose of his soul.  18
  Bossuet delivered eleven funeral orations, one of which—that of Anne of Austria, widow of Louis XIII. and mother of Louis XIV.—is lost. Of the other ten, four are youthful productions and deal with people of comparatively small importance. Six remain that are known as the great funeral orations, and they were delivered between November 16th, 1669, and March 10th, 1687. They are those on Henrietta of France, Queen of England; Henrietta of England, Duchess of Orleans; Maria Theresa of Spain, Queen of France; Anne of Gonzaga and Clèves, Princess of the Palatinate; Michel Le Tellier, High Chancellor of France; and Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé.  19
  The most remarkable of these are the first two and the last one. In the funeral oration on Henrietta of France, Bossuet had just the kind of subject which he was best fitted to treat, and it must be considered his masterpiece. It presents in magnificent style, in pompous development, a complete exposition of his historical and political theories, together with a strikingly vivid account of the great English rebellion. His portraits of Charles I. and Oliver Cromwell—the one, of course, altogether too enthusiastic, the other too severe—stand out in as bold relief as the paintings of Van Dyck or Velasquez. His theory of revolutions, which he considers the punishments inflicted by God upon sovereigns for violations of His law, is presented with a wealth of illustrations which was simply overwhelming for the audience that listened to it. It remains to this day one of the most plausible, as it will remain forever one of the most eloquent pieces of historical and theological reasoning.  20
  In the funeral oration on Henrietta of England we find little of history, still less of politics. Here we have a domestic catastrophe of appalling suddenness: a brilliant woman, the worshiped center of the most brilliant court, one to whom the speaker himself was most tenderly attached, so abruptly snatched away by death that the suspicion of foul play at once arose and has not to this day been entirely dispelled. Nowhere has Bossuet, nor perhaps any other orator, so powerfully depicted the uncertainty of everything human. The closeness with which he treated his subjects is well illustrated by an anecdote that is connected with this oration. Only two or three hours before her death, when already conscious of her desperate position, the unfortunate princess had directed that an emerald ring of hers should be after her death handed to the great preacher. “What a pity,” he was told, “that such an incident cannot find place in a funeral oration!”—“Why not?” he answered. When he delivered the oration, the emerald ring was on one of the fingers of his right hand; and when speaking of the princess’s virtues and charming qualities, he alluded to the art of giving, in which she signally excelled. “And this art,” he went on, “never deserted her, not even, I know it, in the throes of death,” at the same time raising his right hand and placing the precious jewel in full view of the audience.  21
  The funeral oration on the Prince de Condé shows us how he triumphed over difficulties. He was a warm friend and ardent admirer of the Prince, and at the same time a devoted subject of the King, rebellion against whom he considered a very grievous sin. Yet the Prince had for years been a rebel against the King during the wars of the Fronde, and had continued in the ranks of the hostile Spaniards even after all the other rebels had submitted to the royal authority. After conducting his narrative down to the time when the Prince, still a faithful subject, was unjustly imprisoned by order of Cardinal Mazarin,—“And,” he goes on, “since I have to speak of these things over which I would fain keep eternally silent, until this fatal imprisonment he had not even dreamed that anything could be attempted against the State…. This is what made him say (I certainly can repeat here, before these altars, the words I received from his lips, since they so clearly show the bottom of his heart)—he said then, speaking of this unfortunate prison, that he had entered it the most innocent, and had left it the guiltiest of men.” Nearly the whole of this oration is devoted to history; it teems with brilliant passages, the most famous of which is the narrative of the Prince’s first victory, the battle of Rocroi, in 1643.  22
  Thoughtful readers seldom pass by the funeral oration on Anne of Gonzaga. It forms a curious incident in Bossuet’s life. The great preacher’s most striking fault was a lack of energy in his dealings with royal characters. “He lacks bones,” some one said of him: and thus when his enemies so intrigued as to have him required to eulogize from the pulpit the erratic princess, who had been a political intriguer and the heroine of many scandals before repentance took hold of her, he lacked the courage to decline the doubtful honor. But in the pulpit, or whenever the priest had to appear, and not simply the man, his better manhood, pure and commanding, at once took the upper hand; and so, facing his critics,—“My discourse,” he said, “which perhaps you think you are to judge, will judge you when the last day comes; and if you do not depart hence better Christians, you will depart hence guiltier men!”  23
  With the funeral orations one might mention another series of religious discourses not strikingly different from them,—the panegyrics of saints, of which twenty have been preserved, that of Saint Paul being indisputably the best.  24
  The ‘Discourse upon Universal History,’ which was originally written for the Dauphin, is a masterly attempt to give a philosophical explanation of the facts of history, beginning with the Biblical account of the Creation, and ending with the assumption by Charlemagne of the imperial crown in 800 A.D. It is divided into three parts: The Epochs; Religion; the Empires. The first part contains the significance of twelve events considered by Bossuet as epoch-making: the Creation, the Flood, the calling of Abraham, Moses and the giving of the Law, the taking of Troy, the building of the Temple of Solomon, the foundation of Rome, Cyrus and the re-establishment of Hebrew nationality, the defeat of Carthage, the birth of Christ, the triumph of the Church under Constantine, the re-establishment of the Empire with Charlemagne.  25
  The second part, which contains thirty-one chapters, has a twofold object: to demonstrate that the coming of Christ is clearly foretold in the Old Testament, and that the Roman Catholic Church is the only faithful representative of true Christianity. The third part is less theological. It is an attempt to explain the facts of history, at least partially, by a study of the various influences to which the different nations have been subjected. The general purpose of the whole work is best explained by the last chapter of this third part, the title of which is: Conclusion of the whole Discourse, in which is shown that all events must be ascribed to a Divine Providence.  26
  Next to the above works we must mention the ‘History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches,’ partly a work of theological controversy, but partly also a brilliant exposition, from a strictly Catholic point of view, of the history of the Reformation. It contains a portrait of Luther which is almost worthy to be compared with that of Cromwell in the funeral oration on Henrietta of France.  27
  The only other works of Bossuet that we would mention here are two admirable devotional works, the ‘Meditations upon the Gospel,’ and the ‘Contemplations on the Mysteries of the Catholic Religion,’ the latter a clear and concise but now superannuated treatise on philosophy; the ‘Treatise on the Knowledge of God and Man,’ a very curious and eloquent and at the same time thoroughly Biblical treatise on theocratic policy; ‘Policy according to the Holy Writ’; and finally his ‘Relation on Quietism,’ which shows what hard blows he could, when thoroughly aroused, deal to a somewhat disingenuous opponent.  28
 
 
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