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Essays - Abbe Felicete Robert De Lamennais

ON FEBRUARY 27, 1854, the day was gloomy and lowering. An immense concourse of people, estimated at twenty thousand and headed by such celebrites as Lamertine Beranger and Victor Cousin, followed through the streets of Paris to Père la Chaise the hearse of the city poor. That hearse bore to its burial the remains of a remarkable man. It is safe to say there were no in-different spectators; all who knew him were divided into two and only two classes: those who admired, and those who detested and cursed him.

By his own orders there were no religious services whatever performed over his body. No cross and no name were to mark the place of his burial; that place was the common pauper trench. Only a few friends and a file of soldiers stood immediately by during the interment. But one word was spoken on the part of the friends, and that word a monosyllable. The grave digger, supposing it was one of the common destitute, asked, as he looked around on the group, "Il n'y a pas de croix?" "Non," was the solitary answer.

And this was the man whose fame for years had reverberated through Europe, who in earlier years had been regarded as the most brilliant and impassioned champion of ecclesiastical authority, even of the absolute supremacy of the Pope.

Born at St. Malo in Brittany in 1782, dwarfish in stature, of delicate and nervous constitution, he never attended regularly either school or university. Under the random guidance of a skeptic uncle he pursued his studies altogether in accordance with his own tastes. His ardent zeal for knowledge and his exception-ally keen mental powers soon made him proficient in the classics and in several of the modern languages. Philosophy and mathematics were also favorite studies. He began his career as a writer at the age of twenty, in 18o2, and for fifty-two years, up to the date of his death, his pen was incessantly active.

He became a priest in 1816, in his thirty-fourth year. The year after, in 1817, he began the publication of his largest work, in four volumes, the last volume appearing in 1823. The title was, "Essay on the Indifference in Matters of Religion."

His temperament and genius were essentially poetic, his style rhythmic and impassioned. He lived in the extremes of mental mood. Passionate love or intense indignation seemed to be the normal states of his soul. Despite the immense force and fertility of his intellectual powers, he was essentially and at all times a man in whom the feelings were dominant. Renan was just twenty-one at the time of Lamennais' death. The lives of these two men, polar opposites in temperament, purpose, and philosophy of life, illustrate the truth of the old saying that "Life is a comedy to those who think, but a tragedy to those who feel."

To the casual student of Lamennais' life, that life seems separated into two parts, not only distinct but contradictory; in the one an apologist, in the other an apostate, the definite break being assigned to the year 1834, the year in which appeared the most popular and best known of his books, "Words of a Believer." Beginning as the most uncompromising defender and advocate of the absolute authority of the Pope, he becomes a Democratic Socialist and ends, in the opinion of many, as a defiant infidel. Such a verdict, however, is essentially superficial. A more careful study of the man and his works causes the startling inconsistency to disappear. From first to last, in passion and purpose, he was the same man. "There were no folds in that inflexible spirit." One dominant principle ruled his life and gave it unity. There was change indeed, but it was change of method, not of fundamental purpose or ideal. That dominant principle which unified his life was his abiding and passionate sympathy and love for the mass of his countrymen, the plain people, the insignificant poor, the oppressed of mankind. He was, in reality, all unconsciously to himself, a Socialist masquerading in the garb of a priest from the very first.

Let us consider some points in illustration. In 1817 appeared the first volume of his most elaborate work, the "Essay on the Indifference in Matters of Religion." This (to use the language of St. Beuve and also of Lacordaire) raised him at a single stroke to a position of religious leadership and power unexampled since Bossuet. This volume, falling into the hands of Lacordaire, a young law student and professed infidel, converted him to Christianity; and the celebrated conferences of Notre Dame are the offspring of the "Essay on Indifference." The ultramontanism of de Maistre and the traditionalism of de Bonald were fused and developed to their extreme limits by Lamennais.* In the first two volumes he emphasizes the errors of the senses and of the reasoning faculties in order to overthrow the right of private judgment. After this destruction of all certitude derived from individual reasoning, he attempts to restore what he has destroyed by establishing a new criterion, viz., universal consent. On this basis he seeks to ground and to demonstrate the truth of Deism, Revelation, and Catholicism, the essence of Catholicism being the absolute, unquestioned authority and supremacy of the Pope. In the last two volumes he traced the transmission of truth through the ages and collected the scattered traditions of various peoples, and sought to show that Christianity and Christianity alone possesses the double character of universality and perpetuity. t The double doctrine of the book, supremacy of the Pope and the validity of universal tradition of which the Pope is mouthpiece, apart from revelation, roused up vigilant and determined enemies from opposite quarters the "free thinkers," the Liberals and the Ultramontanists; the first condemning his disparagement of Reason, the second condemning his support of extreme ecclesiastical pretensions, and the third (in the words of Ueberweg) denounced him as the founder of theological skepticism in the nineteenth century.

In 1824 he went to Rome. Leo XII, who two years before had offered him a Cardinal's hat, which he refused, now treated him with coldness and manifest dislike.

The year 183o was the culminating point of the unpopularity of the Church in France. The Archbishop's palace was destroyed by fire, and for three years no priest dared appear in the street in his cassock.

After the Revolution of 183o he founded the political journal L'Avenir, with its motto: "Dieu et Liberte le Pape et le Peuple."

Lacordaire and Montalambert, who had been fired by the sight of the wrongs of Catholic Ireland (it was from Ireland that Montalambert wrote to Lamennais, placing his services at his disposal), assisted him in the cares of editorship. The journal took a bold stand, advocating extension of suffrage, freedom of worship, universal and equal freedom of conscience, freedom of instruction, and liberty of the press.

A stormy year ensued. Opposition fierce and widespread arose on every hand from all shades of ecclesiastical belief. The journal was suspended, and Lamennais, Lacordaire, and Montalambert made a pilgrimage to Rome to lay their cause and their arguments before the Pope. Gregory XVI refused to see them. After a useless wait (Roma patiens qua aeterna) of several weeks, they set out on their return, and at Munich were overtaken by the Papal encyclical formally and unconditionally condemning the doctrines advocated in L'Avenir.

Lamennais returned to the seclusion of his old home, La Chenaie in Brittany. What was he to do? He had ably, loyally, and sincerely tried to interest and induce organized Christianity, as represented in the Roman Catholic Church, to bring about the one dominant object of his life the material, moral, and spiritual uplift and betterment of the masses, the common people —and that organization had painfully failed him. What should he do? Well, one experiment had failed, but there was still an-other possible. If organized Christianity would not listen to his appeal, he would turn direct to the people themselves. In the retirement of La Chenaie, after months of profound and painful reflection, he took the decisive step and composed in one week that wonderful little book "Paroles d'un Croyant " a book which St. Beuve, who superintended its publication, declares compelled the printers, awestruck, to abandon their typesetting for hours entranced with reading its pages. "That book," said the Archbishop of Paris, "could wake the dead," and demanded instant punishment of its revolutionary author. More than one hundred thousand copies were sold in a short time, and translations were made almost contemporaneously into all the languages of Europe. Gregory XVI condemned its contents as "falsas, calumnisas, temerarias, scandalsas, erroneas, and impias."

This book dates his final and definite rupture with the Roman Catholic Church. Henceforth Lamennais is the apostle of the People alone. The shock of transition was far greater in appearance than in reality, for, as Renan well points out, Lamennais' religious belief had always been "more moral and political than dogmatic," so that his piety might well survive, even flourish, upon the ruins of his former faith. He dropped the aristocratic prefix " de " from his name, took his stand, so to speak, in the very ranks of the common people, and for eighteen years waged incessant and powerful battle in the cause of extreme Radicalism, putting forth book after book, To mention the chief: "A Voice from Prison," "Modern Slavery," "The Book of the People," "The Past and Future of the People," "A Sketch of Philosophy," "Philosophical and Political Miscellanies."

He had believed sincerely in organized Christianity, had championed its cause with incomparable brilliancy and ability, until he had found it utterly deaf and indifferent to his importunate appeals in behalf of the ignorant, oppressed, and depraved, appeals dictated alone by his sense of justice and mercy and the belief in human brotherhood. Then he broke with it; and by very necessity of his nature and genius broke with it completely. The human mind, says de Maistre, cannot suddenly rise to supreme heights of audacity. It is necessary again to place Ossa on Pelion before declaring war on heaven. Here was an exception. This intrepid priest, without pause or preliminary, began forth-with to launch his bolts against the powers on high, impelling them with such energy of indignation and such passion for social righteousness that, like the shafts of Acestes, they seemed to take fire by the very speed of their flight.

Renan attempts an indirect compliment to himself in comparison with Lamennais on the fact that he (Renan) made his exit from the faith in formal or organized Christianity by the quiet and orderly road of History and Criticism. Of the two, we think Lamennais' exit incomparably the nobler, rock strewn and difficult though the pathway be along which he pressed with bleeding feet. He went forth, not as a lettered saunterer, not as one amused rather than disturbed at the spectacle of Life its comedy of errors, its much ado about nothing but with his burden of moral passion and the pain of social wrong like a prophet he went forth as of old by the Spirit into the wilderness.

The last work that engaged his hand was for the common people: a translation of the four canonical Gospels. This work will be taken by not a few to emphasize the fact that in turning away from the Christianity of the churches, the organized Christianity of the day, Lamennais believed he was but returning to the Christianity of Christ.

The vitality, variety, and power of his genius are seen in the fact that his works are a treasury from which the leaders of prominent and opposing religious movements have largely borrowed their arguments. Both Liberals and Ultramontanists find in them materials suitable to their use. De Maistre and Lamennais were favorite authors with the second school of tractarians.

In his earlier career he tried to realize his ideal of a religious democracy by allying the people and the Pope against the monarchy, in contrast with de Maistre, whose plan was a system of union between papal and regal absolutism. In the later part, he sought to exalt the people to supremacy in spite of both the Pope and civil monarchy. He became the prophet and inspirer of Modern Christian Socialism. That part of his "Essay on Indifference" which treats of the fragments of Divine truth held by all peoples that the ethnic religions are not simply devil-invented delusions is conceived in the very spirit and anticipates many of the approved conclusions of the best works in Comparative Religion of today.

( Originally Published 1914 )

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