VII. BOSSUET: 1627–88

For the present, however, the French Church was triumphant, and stood at the summit of splendor and authority. Intolerant in its corporate spirit, and cruel in its power, it had nonetheless the best-educated body of men in Europe, and its tyrants were rivaled by its saints. Several of its bishops were humanitarians sincerely devoted to the public good as they saw it; and two of them entered almost as brilliantly as Pascal, and in their time more prominently, into the literature of France. Rarely had French ecclesiastics rivaled the prestige of Bossuet, or the popularity of Fénelon.

Jacques Bénigne Bossuet (whose middle name better fitted Fénelon) was born prosperous to a prominent lawyer and member of the Parlement of Dijon (1627). His parents dedicated him to the priesthood, had him tonsured at eight, and made him at thirteen a canon in the cathedral of Metz. At fifteen he was sent to the Collège de Navarre in Paris. At sixteen he was already so eloquent that the bluestockings at the Hôtel de Rambouillet persuaded him, shyly proud, to preach a sermon to them in mid-salon. Graduating with honors, he returned to Metz, was ordained, and soon advanced to a doctorate in theology. He was scandalized to find that ten thousand of Metz’s thirty thousand souls were God-damned Protestants. He entered into a polite controversy with Paul Ferry, a Huguenotleader; he admitted some evils in Catholic practice, but argued that schism was a greater evil still. He remained on friendly terms with Ferry for twelve years, just as, later, he was to labor amicably with Leibniz for a reunion of Christendom. Anne of Austria, hearing him preach at Metz, thought him too good for so unseemly an environment, and persuaded the King to invite him to Paris. Thither he moved in 1659.

At first he preached to simple audiences in the Monastery of St.-Lazare, under the auspices of Vincent de Paul. In 1660 he addressed the fashionable congregation at the Church of Les Minimes near the Place Royale. The King heard him, and recognized in the young orator a judicious union of eloquence, orthodoxy, and strong character. He invited him to preach the Lenten sermons of 1662 in the Louvre; he attended these discourses with conspicuous piety, except on the Sunday when he galloped off to recapture Louise de La Vallière from a convent. The presence of the King stimulated Bossuet to clear his style of provincial crudities, scholastic scaffolding, and dialectical argument; the refinement of the court passed to the upper clergy, and generated an age of pulpit eloquence rivaling the forensic oratory of Demosthenes and Cicero. During the next eight years Bossuet made himself the favorite preacher in the chapels of the court. He became director of conscience to highborn ladies like Henrietta “Madame” d’Orléans, Mme. de Longueville, and Mlle, de Montpensier. 106 Sometimes in his sermons he addressed the King directly, usually with excessive flattery, once with an earnest call to abandon his adulteries and return to his wife. For a while he forfeited the royal smile, but he regained it by converting Turenne. In 1667 Louis chose him to deliver the funeral oration at the burial of Anne of Austria. Two years later he preached over the remains of Henrietta Maria, dowager Queen of England, and in 1670 he had the melancholy task of delivering the burial sermon for the younger Henrietta, his beloved penitent, who had died in his arms in the precarious charm of her youth.

Those sermons over the mother and the sister of England’s Charles II are the most renowned in the literature of France—for the still more famous address of Pope Urban II, calling Europe to the First Crusade (1095), was spoken in Latin, though on French soil. The earlier of these oraisons funèbres began with Bossuet’s brave and favorite theme: that kings should learn from the lessons of history, and that a divine nemesis of revenge will punish them if they do not use their power for the public good. But instead of seeing in Charles I of England an example of such retribution, he found no fault in him except too great clemency, and none at all in his devoted wife. He apostrophized the dead Queen as a saint who had labored to make her husband and England Catholic. He digressed at length on another topic dear to him: the endless variations of Protestantism, and the disorder of morals that results from the disturbance of faith; the Great Rebellion had been God’s punishment for England’s apostasy from Rome. But how exemplary had been the behavior of the Queen after the horrible and criminal execution of her husband! She had accepted her sorrows as an atonement and a blessing, had thanked God for them, and had lived for eleven years in humble and patient prayer. At last she had been rewarded; her son was restored to his throne, and the Queen Mother might again have dwelt in palaces. She had preferred to live in a convent in France, making no use of her new fortune except to multiply her charities.

More moving, and closer to history and French memories, was the sermon that Bossuet delivered ten months later over Henrietta Anne. He had recently been made bishop of Condom in southwest France; for this oration he came to the abbey church of St.-Denis in full episcopal state, preceded by heralds and crowned with the miter; and on his finger shone the great emerald given him by the dead princess. Usually, in these sermons, the emotion of the speaker had been checked by his thinking of death in general terms; now it was the death of one who only yesterday had been the joy of the King and the radiance of the court; and the stately prelate broke into tears as he recalled the bitter suddenness of the blow that had set all France mourning and marveling at the ways of God. He described Henrietta with no cold objectivity, but with the prejudice of love—“always sweet and peaceful, generous and benevolent” 107—and he merely hinted, with discreet brevity, that her happiness had not been proportioned to her deserts. For a moment even the careful bishop, pillar and guardian of orthodoxy, dared to ask God why so much evil and injustice flourish on the earth. 108 He consoled himself and his auditors with the remembrance of Henrietta’s dying piety, of the sacraments that had cleansed her of all worldly attachments; surely so tender and purified a spirit merited salvation, and would grace Paradise itself!

It was through a rare mistake in judging character that Louis, moved by such eloquence, appointed Bossuet (1670) preceptor to the Dauphin, and trusted him to train the stolid, backward lad in the knowledge and character required to rule France. Bossuet gave himself faithfully to this task; he resigned his bishopric to be near his ward and the court, and he wrote for the young Louis such earnest manuals of world history, logic, the Christian faith, government, and the duties of a king, as should have made the boy a monster of perfection and power.

In one of these treatises, Politique tirée des propres paroles de l’Écriture sainte (1679, 1709)—Politics as Drawn from the Very Words of Holy Scripture—Bossuet defended absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings with more than the ardor of Cardinal Bellarmine upholding the supremacy of the popes. Was it not said in the Old Testament that “God has given to every people its ruler”? 109 And in the New Testament, with all the authority of St. Paul, that “the powers that be are ordained of God”? 110 Yes, and the Apostle had added: “Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves eternal damnation.” Obviously, anyone who accepts the Bible as the word of God must honor the king as God’s vice-regent, or, as Isaiah called Cyrus, “the anointed of the Lord.” 111 Consequently the royal person is sacred, the royal power is divine and absolute, the king is responsible only to God. But that responsibility lays upon him severe obligations: he must in every word and deed obey the laws of God. Fortunately for Louis, the God of the Bible had been well disposed toward polygamy.

For the Dauphin, too, Bossuet wrote (1679) his famous Discours sur l’histoire universelle. Scandalized by Descartes’ suggestion that—given one initial push by God—all events in the objective world could be explained mechanically as following from the laws and constitution of nature, Bossuet retorted that on the contrary every major event in history was part of a divine plan, was an act of Providence leading up to the sacrifice of Christ and the development of Christianity into an expanding City of God. Again taking the Bible as divinely inspired, he centered all history on the career of the Old Testament Jews and the nations enlightened by Christianity. “God used the Assyrians and the Babylonians to chastise His chosen people, the Persians to restore them, Alexander to protect them, Antiochus to test them, the Romans to preserve Jewish liberty against Syrian kings.” If this seems foolish, we must remember that it was also the view of the authors of the Bible, whom Bossuet confidently identified with God. So he began with a summary of Old Testament history, and he performed that task with his usual flair for order, compactness, and vigorous eloquence. The chronology was taken from Archbishop Ussher’s scheme, dating the creation at 4004 B.C. Bossuet took only passing notice of the nations that lay outside the Biblical reference, but of these he gave synoptical accounts of remarkable insight and power, and showed a sympathetic understanding of pagan virtues and accomplishments. Through all the kaleidoscope of rising and falling empires he saw some advance; in him, as in Charles Perrault and other contemporary defenders of the moderns versus the ancients, the idea of progress took form and flesh, and prepared, from afar off, for Turgot and Condorcet. With all its faults, the book created the modern philosophy of history, which is achievement enough for one man.

Bossuet’s royal pupil did not appreciate the honor of having great books written for his instruction. And Bossuet’s spirit was too serious and severe to be an ingratiating teacher. He was more in his element when he gently-guided Louise de La Vallière out of adultery into a nunnery. He preached the sermon when she took the vows; and in that year 1675 he spoke up again in reproof of the philandering King. Louis heard him impatiently, but restored him to the episcopate as bishop of Meaux (1681), near enough to Versailles to let Bossuet savor the pomp and splendor of the court. Through that proud generation he was the authoritative exponent and leader of the French clergy. For them he drew up the Four Articles that reaffirmed the “Gallican liberties” of the French Church as against papal domination. Bossuet forfeited thereby a cardinal’s hat, but he became the pope of France.

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FIG. 1—GIRARDON: Louis XIV. Louvre, Paris

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FIG. 2—JEAN NOCRET: Anne of Austria. Château de Versailles (Bettmann Archive)

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FIG. 3—ANTOINE COYSEVOX: Colbert. Château de Versailles (Bettmann Archive)

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FIG. 4—PIERRE MIGNARD: Cardinal Mazarin. Musée de Condé, Chantilly (Photo Giraudon)

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FIG. 5—UNKNOWN ARTIST: Ninon de Lenclos. Château de Versailles

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FIG. 6—PIERRE MIGNARD: Madame de Montespan. From Pierre Pradel, L’Art au siècle de Louis XIV (Paris: Éditions de Clairefontaine, 1949; Photo by J. E. Bulloz)

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FIG. 7—JOOST VAN EGMONT: The Great Condé. Château de Versailles

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FIG. 8—N. DE L’ARMESSIN: Louise de La Vallière (Bettmann Archive)

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FIG. 9—HYACINTHE RIGAUD: Henrietta Anne, Duchess of Orléans. Private Collection, Paris (Bettmann Archive)

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FIG. 10—Death Mask of Blaise Pascal. From Ernst Benkard, Undying Faces (London: Hogarth Press, 1929)

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FIG. 11—JOSEPH VIVIEN: Fénelon. Alte Pinakothek, Munich (Bettmann Archive)

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FIG. 12—HYACINTHE RIGAUD: Jacques Bossuet. Louvre, Paris (Bettmann Archive)

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FIG. 13—Church of Val-de-Grâce (1645), Paris. Courtesy of the French Cultural Services, New York (Photo by Molinard, Couleurs du Monde)

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FIG. 14—GIRARDON: Bathing Nymphs. Château de Versailles

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FIG. 15—ANDRÉ CHARLES BOULLE: Ebony cabinet. The Wallace Collection, London

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FIG. 16—The Louvre Colonnade (Photo Giraudon)

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FIG. 17—Church of St.-Louis-des-lnvalides (1670), Paris. Courtesy of the French Embassy Press and Information Division, New York

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FIG. 18—CHARLES LE BRUN: Gobelin Tapestry: The Family of Darius at the Feet of Alexander. Louvre, Paris (Bettmann Archive)

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FIG. 19—Chapel at Versailles (1699). Château de Versailles

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FIG. 20—ANTOINE COYSEVOX: Duchess of Burgundy. Château de Versailles

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FIG. 21—DESJARDINS: Pierre Mignard. Louvre, Paris

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FIG. 22—PIERRE MIGNARD: Duchess of Maine as a Child. Château de Versailles

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FIG. 23—La Rochefoucauld. From Memoirs of Madame de Motteville, Vol. II (Boston: Hardy, Pratt & Co., 1901)

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FIG. 24—HOUDON: Molière. Joseph Duveen Collection (Bettmann Archive)

He was not a bad pope. Though he insisted on the dignity and ceremony of the episcopal state, he remained humane and kind, and spread his mantle over many varieties of Catholic belief. Without condoning the passion and scorn that sharpened the Provincial Letters, he agreed in condemning the excesses of casuistry; in 1700 he persuaded the assembly of the clergy to repudiate 127 propositions taken from Jesuit casuists; and he remained on friendly terms with Arnauld and other Jansenists. He was reputed to be lenient in the confessional, and deprecated austerities in laymen, but he warmly approved the asceticism of Raneé, went into frequent retreat at La Trappe, and wished at times that he might win the peace of a monastic cell. The glamour of the court, however, overcame his aspirations to sanctity, and tarnished his theology with ambitions to rise in the hierarchies of Church and state. “Pray for me,” he asked the abbess at Meaux, “that I may not love the world.” 112 In his later years he became more severe. We must excuse him for denouncing the theater and Molière in his Maximes sur la comédie (1694), for Molière had shown religion only in its puritanical and hypocritical forms, hardly doing justice to men like Vincent de Paul.

Bossuet was more intolerant in theory than in practice. He thought it absurd that any individual mind, however brilliant, should think to acquire in one lifetime the knowledge and wisdom fitting him to sit in judgment upon the traditions and beliefs of the family, the community, the state, and the Church. The sens commun was more trustworthy than individual reasoning; not “common sense” as the thought of common persons, but as the collective intelligence of generations taught by centuries of experience, and taking form in the customs and creeds of mankind. What man could pretend to know better than so many men the needs of the human soul, and the answers to questions unanswerable by knowledge alone? Consequently the human mind needs an authority to give it peace, and free thought can only destroy that peace; human society needs an authority to give it morals, and free thought, by questioning the divine origin of the moral code, brings the whole moral order into ruin. Hence heresy is treason to society and the state as well as to the Church, and “those who believe that a prince should not use force in religious matters . . . are guilty of an impious error.” 113 The bishop favored persuasion rather than force in the conversion of heretics, but he defended force as a last resort, and hailed the Revocation as “the pious edict that will give the deathblow to heresy.” In his own district he enforced the decree with such lenience that the intendant reported, “Nothing can be done in the diocese of Meaux; the weakness of the Bishop is a hindrance to conversion.”114 Most of the Huguenots in that area persisted in their faith.

He hoped to the last that argument could win even Holland, Germany, and England to the old faith, and we shall see him negotiate for years with Leibniz over the philosopher’s plan for reuniting the severed segments of Christianity. In 1688 he wrote his masterpiece, Histoire des variations des églises protestantes, which Buckle rated as “probably the most formidable work ever directed against Protestantism.” 115 The four volumes were distinguished by painstaking scholarship; every page was propped up with references—a type of conscience that was just beginning to take form. The bishop made an attempt at fairness. He acknowledged the ecclesiastical abuses against which Luther had rebelled; he saw much to admire in Luther’s character; but he could not stomach the jolly coarseness that mingled, in Luther, with patriotic courage and masculine piety. He drew almost a loving picture of Melanchthon. Nevertheless he hoped, by showing the personal weaknesses and theological disputes of the Reformers, to loosen the attachment of their followers. He ridiculed the idea that every man should be free to interpret the Bible for himself and found a new religion on a new reading; anyone acquainted with human nature could have foreseen that this, if unopposed, would result in the fragmentation of Christianity into a wilderness of sects, and of morals into an individualism in which the instincts of the jungle could be checked only by the endless multiplication of police. From Luther to Calvin to Socinus—from the rejection of the papacy to the rejection of the Eucharist to the rejection of Christ—and then from Unitarianism to atheism: these were easily descending steps in the dissolution of belief. From religious to social revolt, from Luther’s theses to the Peasants’ War, from Calvin to Cromwell to the Levellers to regicide: these were slippery steps in the disintegration of social order and peace. Only a religion of authority could give sanction to morals, stability to the state, and strength to the human spirit in the face of bewilderment, bereavement, and death.

It was a powerful argument, impressive with learning and eloquence, containing pages unsurpassed in the French prose of that age except by the polemics and Pensées of Pascal. It might have had more success if its appeal to reason had not been stultified by the appeal to force in the barbarities of the Revocation. A hundred refutations appeared in Protestant lands excoriating the pretense to reason in a man who approved spoliation, banishment, confiscation, and galley slavery as arguments for Catholic Christianity. And—asked the rejoinders—were there not variations in Catholicism too? What century had passed without divisions in the Church—Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Armenian Catholics, Uniates? Were not the Jansenists of Port-Royal at that moment warring with their fellow Catholics of the Society of Jesus? Was not the Gallican clergy, led by Bossuet himself, in bitter dispute with the Ultramontanes, almost to the point of schism with Rome? Was not. Bossuet fighting Fénelon?

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