Lamennais, FélIcité roBert
Lamennais, Félicité Robert
Abbe de, a Roman Catholic theologian and philosopher, occupies a distinguished place in the ecclesiastical, political, and literary history of France of the 19th century. He was born of a noble family at St. Malo, in Bretagne, June 6, 1782. In his boyhood, his clerical tutor having fled to England on the outbreak of the Revolution, he and his brother continued their studies together with singular independence. It is said that when only twelve years old he was able to read Livy and Plutarch with ease. "In 1794, having been sent to live with an uncle, this relation, not knowing what to do with a wilful boy, used to shut him up for whole days in a library consisting of two compartments, one of which, called 'Hell,' contained a large number of prohibited books, which little Robert was enjoined not to read. But the lad already cared for none but books of reflection, and finding some of these on the prohibited shelves, that division became his favorite. Long hours were thus spent in reading the ardent pages of Rousseau, the thoughtful volumes of Malebranche, and other writers of sentiment and philosophy. Such a course of reading, far from producing its usual effects of precocious vainglory and unbelief on so young a mind, served rather to ripen his judgment, and to develop that religious fervor which was a part of his nature" (English Cyclopaedia). He soon took a decidedly religious course, and, though offered a mercantile career by his father, chose the clerical profession. Before, however, entering upon the studies of the sacred office, he accepted in 1807 the position as teacher of mathematics in the college of his native place.
To promote practical piety, he published in 1808 a translation of the ascetic Guide Spirituel of Louis de Blois. In reference to the Concordat of Napoleon, he wrote Reflexions sur l'etat de l'eglise en France pendant le dix-huitieme siecle et sur la situation actuelle (1808). He here denounces the materialism propagated by the philosophers of the 18th century, bitterly deplores the apathy thence induced to religion, and expresses much hope from the beneficent influence of the Concordat, and declares the laws of religion and morality to be the supreme laws of life. The imperial censorship, however, detected a dangerous independent tendency in this work, especially in the demand for ecclesiastical synods and conferences, and the issue of the first edition was suppressed. After having received the clerical tonsure (in 1811), he published, in defense of the papal authority and against Napoleon, Tradition de l'eglise sur 1'institution des eveques (Paris, 1814). From retirement in England, whither he had been obliged to flee during the Hundred Days, Lamennais returned to France (in 1816) in full sympathy with the Restoration, and entered more ardently than ever upon the work of disseminating his earlier opinions. He was ordained priest in 1817, and in this year began the publication of his Essai sur l'indifference en matiere de religion (Paris, 1817-1820, 4 volumes). This work, of which Lacordaire said that it caused its author to rise, in a single day, like a new Bossuet above the horizon, thoroughly aroused public attention to the author and his principles, attracted many readers by the eloquence of its style, and has passed through many editions. The work belongs to the Catholic reactionary school of philosophy, to which Joseph de Maistre had given the leading impulse. The author first points out certain perilous tendencies of the age which seem to threaten another revolution, and notices the various systems of religious indifference. He next asserts the absolute importance of religion to the individual and the state. The inquiry concerning the ground of certainty in matters of religion is then met by postulating authority — that is, the consenting testimony of mankind as the only ground. This testimony finds its interpretation by divine appointment in the Catholic Church, and finally in the pope. This whole scheme proceeds upon the basis of skeptical philosophy, which denies to the individual reason the possession of certainty concerning any truth, whether scientific, philosophic, or religious, and which takes refuge for the attainment of religious certainty in a common consent divinely guided. It thus becomes the duty of the state, for the security of its own welfare and that of the individual, to enforce by every moral and physical means the decisions of this authoritative Church. Here was an attempt to win back both prince and people to the absolute submission demanded by Gregory VII and Innocent III. The French Church was alarmed at so extreme a position, and disavowed its own champion. A Defense de l'Essai sur l'indifference was issued by the author. In 1818 Lamennais joined hands for a brief period with certain Royalists in founding the "Conservateur;" but afterwards, in sympathy with another coterie called the drapeau blanc. his severity in writing against the management of the university invited the attention of the police authorities. In 1824 he visited Rome, and was received with distinction by pope Leo XII; he is said to have declined a cardinalship, as he had previously declined a bishopric which had been urged upon him by the ministry at Paris. In La Religion consideree dans ses rapports avec l'ordre civil et politique (Paris, 1825- 26, 2 volumes) he first began to exhibit that freedom of thought, reaching to the last boundary of revolution (but which, however. independent of Church interests, abandons nothing in spiritual faith). It contained an attack upon Gallican principles, and upon some measures of the king, which brought him again before the courts. Defended by the legal skill of Berryer, he was let off with a fine of thirty francs. There is a manifest prognostication of the coming disturbance, of the breach between the hierarchical authority and the spirit of the times in his Progres de la revolution et de la guerre contre l'eglise (1829).
The July revolution completed, the Church must now be saved by bringing it into harmoiny with the demands of civil liberty, and to serve such an end Lamennais enters upon the second period of his career. With the cooperation of Lacordaire (q.v.) and Montalembert (q.v.) he foundeed the journal L'Avenir, which had for its motto "God and Freedom," and for its guiding thought concerning the Church that the latter can save itself from the ruin which waits on political absolutism only by freeing itself from all relations with the state, and from the corruptions of hierarchical luxury, while it is to flourish only through the voluntary devotion of its adherents, and in harmony with laws which secure for the people freedom of education and worship. He preached such a doctrine enthusiastically, and believed that Rome would receive it. He was present at Rome in 1831 with Lacordaire and Montalembert, and sought to win the representatives of the French, Russian, Austrian, and Prussian courts to his views. An audience was granted by the pope only on condition of silence concerning the matters agitated. When, however, Lacordaire had presented a scheme of these views in writing, the French bishops, on April 22, 1832, presented an outspoken opposition to them. A few extracts from an encyclical letter condemnatory of such principles which was issued by Gregory XVI on August 15, 1832, best explains the peculiar position assumed by the writers of L'Avenir: "From this infectious source of indifferentism," says the encyclical, "flows that absurd and erroneous maxim, or, rather, that madness, which would insure and guarantee to all liberty of conscience. The way is prepared for this pernicious error by the free and unlimited liberty of opinion which is spreading abroad. to the misfortune of civil and religious society, some asserting with extreme imprudence that it may be productive of certain advantages to religion." And afterwards it adds: "With this is connected that lamentable liberty which we cannot regard with too much horror, the liberty of the press to publish all sorts of writings, a liberty which some persons dare to demand and extol with so much noise and ardor." A copy of it was sent with special explanations to Lamennais by cardinal Pacca, who urged him to render submission to the authority he had himself so highly extolled, and, as if to make even more explicit the meaning of the encyclical of which he was the transmittent, added, "The doctrines of the L'Avenir upon the liberty of worship and the liberty of the press are very reprehensible, and in apposition to the teaching, the maxims, and the policy of the Church [the italics are ours]. They have exceedingly astonished and afflicted the holy father; for if, under certain circumstances, prudence compels us to tolerate them as lesser evils, such doctrines can never be held up by a Roman Catholic as good in themselves, or as things desirable." Strangely enough, as it must appear to Protestant ideas, the three editors of L'Avenir — Lamennais and his two younger coadjutors, Lacordaire and Montalembert submitted to the papal see, and, of course, to evince their sincerity, discontinued the publication of L'Avenir. But Lamennais having afterwards, in certain smaller articles, expressed himself in a spirit contrary to the views of the encyclical, he received a letter from the pope on the subject, and thereupon, in a formal wav. subscribed a submission, December 11, 1833, at the palace of the archbishop of Paris. In the Affaires de Rome (see below), however, he declared that this submission on his part had been made only for the sake of peace, and that, in truth, the welfare of the people must be considered before that of the Church. In 1834 Paroles d'un croyant appeared, which passed in a few years through 100 editions, and was translated into many languages. In this work a new spirit is manifest. In earnest language the former and existing evils of society are deplored, while in a style of prophetic ardor the future is anticipated. A new Christianity, based on the principles of the New Testament, in a revolutionized democratic state is sought. A certain ideal external form was still Lamennais' hope. Ie had ideal ized the Church, and would now seek a like panacea inl a social reorganization (see Brit. and For. Evangel. Review, October 1863, page 731). This work was severely condemned by a special decree of Gregory XVI, August 7,1834.
In the Affaires de Rome (Paris, 1836) Lamennais enters fully upon the final period of his life. He here breaks completely and irrevocably with the Church; declares the Roman hierarchy, of which he had losn been the champion, to be incompatible with a true Christianity and a true humanism, and hereafter Lamennais was regarded by the Church authorities as an apostate. Like Luther, Ulrich vou Hutten, and many other great men, Lamennais had been completely disenchanted by the sight of the corruptions of Rome in her very stronghold. "His strong and clear vision saw in her but a corpse which it was vain to attempt to resuscitate; a conglomerate religion made up of Christianity perverted by Jewish symbolism, and degraded and sensualized by Oriental and classical mythology and philosophy. Yet he hesitated long before he could make uip his mind to deny his whole previous life, to forsake and repudiate what he had formerly defended, to become an antagonist of the Church of which he had formerly been the bulwark and the champion; and it required a year's meditation and self-examination, amid the woods of his paternal domain of La Chesnaye, before he resolved finally and forever to break with the Church of Rome. In a worldly point of view, he had everything to lose and nothing to gain by the course which he pursued, and it required no ordinary courage, no small portion of the martyr-spirit to act as he acted" (For. and Brit. Evang. Review, October 1863, page 730). In 1837 he began to edit a daily journal, Le livre de Peuple. His work, Le Pays et le Gouvernment (1840),was obnoxious to the authorities, and caused the author two years' imprisonment and a fine of 2000 francs. The most important and elaborate work of the latter days of Lamennais is his Esquisse d'une Philosophie, in 4 volumes (Paris, 1840-46); a work eloquent and religious in tone, and exhibiting the author's general philosophical conceptions in this later period of his life. Here the authoritative ground of certainty is found, not in the common testimony of mankind, but in the common reason. Philosophy is understood in a broad sense, having for its range the facts of general being; it is not merely a matter of psychology or metaphysics. The method of this philosophy is the assumption of certain foundation truths which all mankind admit. Absolute existence is not capable of proof, and in like manner God and the world are two fundamental assumptions. God has in his own essence necessity and variety. He is an eternal conscious Ego. He has the triune attributes of power, intelligence, and love, which in Scripture language are expressed as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God has society within himself, is the type of all society, and the three attributes produce and explain the laws of whatever is outside of God. These attributes are recognized as controlling elements through every development of this philosophical system. Creation is not emanation, but the original divine ideas are made real by God's free power. This is not Pantheism or Dualism. Matter arises under the mysterious power of God in the limitation of individuals. Properly speaking, matter is not a distinct entity; it is but a limitation of that which exists. Time and space, the modes of our existence, are the limitations of eternity and immensity, which are the modes of God's existence. The nature of the universe is to be determined by the aid of the disclosures of science, but the laws of its existence and operation in the forms of inorganic, organic, and intellectual being are determined by the application of the principles inherent in the three divine attributes. Man is the most elevated of the beings known to us. The great problem concerning man is the origin of moral evil. This is to be explained as a limitation of the free moral agent in his communion with God. Thus, although hurtful to the subject, the actuality of moral evil does not introduce any positive disorder into the universe regarded as a realization of the divine ideas. The true purpose of man's life is to free himself from this state of isolation, of negation in self, and come into entire harmony with the divine will. The application of this system to the several faculties and pursuits of man is developed at large. Hope for the world thus lies in the development of the people. Religion and nature will issue in one when fully disclosed. Everything in the work seems to proceed from a religious, but no longer churchly stand-point.
Lamennais' Discussions Critiques et pensees diverses sur la Religion et la Philosophie (Paris, 1841) gives the author's views on social questions. In place of the Church authority whose claims he formerly advocated, he would now have the democratic theocracy honored. This is in great measure a retraction of his work Sur l'indifference en matiere de Religion. Of similar import is La Religion du passe et de l'avenir du People (1842). It is no longer the future of the Church of which he speaks, but of the people. His Church is now the religion of brotherly love, and he will have it rise upon the ruins of both Romanism and Protestantism. Amschaspands et Darvans (1843), and Les evangiles, traduction nouvelle avec des notes et des reflexions (1846), were issued professedly as a defense for the people against a mythological and superstitious credulity. Lamennais was greatly interested in the February Revolution, and exerted his influence to prevent acts of violence against the Church and religious interests. Gratitude for his services in this regard led to his election to the Assembly from the department of the Seine, and in his seat he always sided with the Left. He is said to have spoken but once, and that in opposition to the dictatorship of Cavaignac. He undertook the editorship, conjointly with Pascal Duprat, of the journal Le Peuple Constituant. He was grieved by the violence of the Red Republicans, though still steadfast in his hope of the democracy; and was forced into retirement by the coup d'etat, meeting with disappointment in this direction likewise. Nothing, however, availed to change the views he had in later years adopted, and the Church sought in vain, through the influence of relatives, to recall him to her faith on his dying bed. He died at Paris, in the Rue du Grand Chartres, February 27, 1854. He had refused to see a minister, and his will ordered that no formal ceremony should attend his burial. He wished his body to be placed in the corbillard des pauvres. or pauper's hearse, and this direction was complied with. His remains were followed by a few friends, as Beranger and Garnier Pages, and also, notwithstanding the police prohibition, by a large number of the people, who gathered at the cemetery Pere la Chaise. No prayer was uttered, nor last word said, and the remains were placed in the common grave, without cross or stone to mark their resting-place. Lamennais was small of stature, though of attractive physiognomy; somewhat slow and hesitating in speech, with something of the Bretagne dialect; less able with his tongue than with his pen. His family had lost most of their property in the first Revolution, and he himself a large part of his own through misplaced confidence. In later years he resided mostly on a small estate in Lachesnaye, near Dinan, in Bretagne.
As a literary character, Lamennais occupied a prominent place in the revival of style under the Restoration. His era succeeds that of Chateaubriand, and corresponds with that of Madamne de Stael and Joseph de Maistre. He was an earnest if not profound thinker, but especially brilliant as a writer. He had the culture of art combined with the vehemence of passion, though the latter element perhaps too often expressed itself in the manner of declamation. As a theorist in social philosophy he had a counterpart in Benjamin Constant, who took his stand-point in individual liberty, while Lamennais set out from the assumption of a consenting unity in society and religion. It has been claimed that his steadfastness to this primary principle explains the variation of position which changed political circumstances seemed to necessitate, causing him to be at one time all for the Church, at another all for the people. There were, at all events, three distinct periods in his career, in the first of which he was Ultramontanen in the second he sought to mediate between the Church and democratic ideas; while at the last he cast off all churchly control, and became a chiliastic prophet of the democracy.
M. Guizot, in the second series of his Meditations on the Actual State of Christianity, thus portraitures Lamennais "This apostle of universal reason was at the same time the proudest worshipper of his own reason. Under the pressure of events without, and of an ardent controversy, a transformation took place in him, marked at once by its logical deductions and its moral inconsistency; he changed his camp without changing his principles; in the attempt to lead the supreme authority of his Church to admit his principles he had failed; and from that instant the very spirit of revolt that he had so severely rebuked broke loose in his soul and in his writings, finding expression at one time in an indignation full of hatred leveled at the powerful, the rich, and the fortunate ones of the world; at another time in a tender sympathy for the miseries of humanity. The Words of a Believer are the eloquent outburst of this tumult in his soul. Plunged in the chaos of sentiments the most contradictory, and yet claiming to be always consistent with himself, the champion of authority became in the state the most baited of democrats, and in the Church the haughtiest of rebels. It is not without sorrow that I thus express my unreserved opinion of a man of superior talent — mind lofty, soul intense; a man in the sequel profoundly sad himself, although haughty in his very fall. One cannot read in their stormy succession the numerous writings of the abbe de Lamennais without recognizing in them traces, I will not say of his intellectual perplexities — his pride did not feel them — but of the sufferings of his soul, whether for good or for evil. His was a noble nature, but full of exaggeration in his opinions, of fanatical arrogance, and of angry asperity in his polemics. One title to our gratitude remains to the abbe de Lamennais — he thundered to purpose against the gross and vulgar forgetfulness of the great moral interests of humanity. His essay on indifference in religious questions inflicted a rude blow upon that vice of the time, and recalled men's souls to regions above. And thus it was, too, that he rendered service to the great movement and awakening of Christians in the 19th century, and that he merits his place in that movement, although he deserted it." One of Lamennais' last and most earnest injunctions was that certain papers, which contained his latest sentiments, should be published without alteration or suppression; but the religious advisers of his niece (who was also his housekeeper) so far wrought on her susceptibility as to cause her to refuse to give up the papers to the persons whom Lamennais had authorized to superintend their publication. The matter was in consequence brought before the proper legal tribunal, when the judges directed (August, 1856) that the papers should be handed over for publication in their integrity.
The first edition of Lamennais' collected works was published under the title (Euvres comspletes (Paris, 183637,12 volumes, 8vo). Several editions have appeared since. See Paganel, Examen critique des Opinions de l'Abbe de Lamennais (2d edit. 1825, 2 volumes, 8vo); H. Lacordaire, Considerations sur le Systeme Philosophique de M. de Lamennais (1834, 8vo) ; E. Lerminier, Les A dversaires de Lamennais (in the Revue des Deux Mondes, 1834); Robinet, Etudes sur l'abbe de Lamennais (1835); Madrolle, Histoire secsrte du Partie et de l'Apostasie de M. de Lamennais (1843); Lomenie, JM. de Lamennais (1840); Sainte-Beuve, Critique et Portraits Litteraires, 5 (Paris, 1846); and, by the same author, Portraits Contemporains (1846), 1:134-191; E. Renan, Lamennais et ses ecrits (in the Revue des Deux Mondes, August, 1857); Morell, Hist. Modern
Philosophy, pages 527-37; Damiron, Essai sur l'histoire de la Philosophie en France au 19eme siecle (1828), pages 105-197; Haag, Les Dogmqwes Chretiens, 1:449 sq.; Foreign Quar. Rev. April 1838; Brit. and For. Rev. 1843, page 382 sq.; Westminster Review, April, 1859; 1866, page 174; Revue Chlreienne, volume 14, No. 3, page 173. See also the excellent articles in Herzog, Real-Encycklop. 8:178-184; Hoefer, Nouv. Biog. Generale, 29:182 sq.