"A man set under authority"—these words, better than any other, define Bossuet. Above him was God, represented in things spiritual by the Catholic Church, in things temporal by the French monarchy; below him were the faithful confided to his charge, and those who would lead the faithful astray from the path of obedience and tradition. Duty to what was above him, duty to those placed under him, made up the whole of Bossuet's life. To maintain, to defend, to extend the tradition he had received, was the first of duties. All his powers as an orator, a controversialist, an educator were directed to this object. He wrote and spoke to dominate the intellects of men and to subdue their wills, not for the sake of personal power, but for the truth as he had received it from the Church and from the monarchy.
JACQUES-BÉNIGNE BOSSUET was born in 1627, at Dijon, of a middle-class family, distinguished in the magistracy. In his education, pursued with resolute ardour, the two traditions of Hellenism and Hebraism were fused together: Homer and Virgil were much to him; but the Bible, above all, nourished his imagination, his conscience, and his will. The celebrity of his scholarship and the flatteries of Parisian salons did not divert him from his course. At twenty-five he was a priest and a doctor of the Sorbonne. Six years were spent at Metz, a city afflicted by the presence of Protestants and Jews, where Bossuet fortified himself with theological studies, preached, panegyrised the saints, and confuted heretics. His fame drew him to Paris, where, during ten years, his sermons were among the great events of the time. In 1669 he was named Bishop of Condom, but, being appointed preceptor to the Dauphin, he resigned his bishopric, and devoted himself to forming the mind of a pupil, indolent and dull, who might one day be the vicegerent of God for his country. Bishop of Meaux in 1681, he opened the assembly of French clergy next year with his memorable sermon on the unity of the Church, and by his authority carried, in a form decisive for freedom while respectful towards Rome, the four articles which formulated the liberties of the Gallican Church. The duties of his diocese, controversy against Protestantism, the controversy against Quietism, in which Fénelon was his antagonist, devotional writings, strictures upon the stage, controversy against the enlightened Biblical criticism of Richard Simon, filled his energetic elder years. He ceased from a life of glorious labour and resolute combat in April 1704.
The works of Bossuet, setting aside his commentaries on Holy Scripture, devotional treatises, and letters, fall into three chief groups: the eloquence of the pulpit, controversial writings, and writings designed for the instruction of the Dauphin.
Political eloquence could not exist where power was grasped by the hands of one great ruler. Judicial eloquence lacked the breadth and elevation which come with political freedom; it contented itself with subtleties of argument, decked with artificial flowers of style. The pulpit was the school of oratory. St. Vincent de Paul had preached with unction and a grave simplicity, and Bossuet, his disciple, felt his influence. But the offering which Bossuet laid upon the altar must needs be costly, an offering of all his powers. While an unalterable good sense regulates all he wrote, the sweep of his intellect demanded plenitude of expression; his imagination, if it dealt with life and death, must needs deal with them at times in the way of magnificence, which was natural to it; and his lyrical enthusiasm, fed by the prophetic poetry of the Old Testament, could not but find an escape in words. He sought no literary fame; his sermons were acts of faith, acts of duty. Out of the vast mass of his discourses he printed one, a sermon of public importance—that on the unity of the Church.
At the request of friends, some of the Funeral Orations were published. These, with his address on the profession of Louise de La Vallière, were all that could be read of Bossuet's pulpit oratory by his contemporaries. His sermons were carefully meditated and prepared, but he would not check his power of lofty improvisation by following the words of a manuscript. After his death his papers had perilous adventures. By the devotion of his first editor, Déforis, nearly two hundred sermons were after many years recovered; later students have presented them with as close an approximation as is possible to their original form. Bossuet's first manner—that of the years at Metz—is sometimes marred by scholastic subtleties, a pomp of quotations, too curious imagery, and a temper rather aggressive than conciliating. During the period when he preached in Paris he was master of all his powers, which move with freedom and at the same time with a majestic order; his grandeur grows out of simplicity. As Bishop of Meaux he exhorted his flock out of the abundance of his heart, often without the intermediary of written preparation.
He is primarily a doctor of the faith: dogma first, determined by authority, and commending itself to human reason; morality, not independent, but proceeding from or connected with dogma, and while truly human yet resting upon divine foundations. But neither dogma nor morals are presented in the manner of the schools; both are made living powers by the preacher's awe, adoration, joy, charity, indignation, pity; in the large ordonnance of his discourse each passion finds its natural place. His eloquence grows out of his theme; his logic is the logic of clear and natural ideas; he is lucid, rapid, energetic; then suddenly some aspect of his subject awakens a lyrical emotion, and the preacher rises into the prophet.
Bossuet's panegyrics of the saints are sermons in which doctrine and morals are enforced by great examples. His Oraisons Funèbres preach, for the uses of the living, the doctrine of death. Nowhere else does he so fill the mind with a sense of the greatness and the glory of life as when he stands beside the bier and reviews the achievements or presents the characters of the illustrious deceased. Observing as he did all the decorum of the occasion, his discourses do not degenerate into mere adulation; some are historic surveys, magnificent in their breadth of view and mastery of events. He presents things as he saw them, and he did not always see aright. Cromwell is a hypocrite and an impostor; the revocation of the edict of Nantes is the laudable act of a king who is a defender of the faith. The intolerance of Bossuet proceeds not so much from his heart as from the logic of his orthodoxy. His heart had a tenderness which breaks forth in many places, and signally in the discourse occasioned by the death of the Duchess of Orleans. This, and the eloquent memorials of her mother, Henrietta, Queen of England, and of the Prince de Condé, touch the heights and depths of the passions proper to the grave.
Bossuet's polemic against Protestantism is sufficiently represented by his Exposition de la Doctrine Catholique (published 1671) and the Histoire des Variations des Églises Protestantes (1688). The latter, in its fifteen books, is an attempt to overwhelm the contending Protestant communions by one irresistible attack. Their diversities of error are contrasted with the one, unchanging faith of the infallible Church. Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, the Albigenses, the Hussites, the Wicliffites are routed and slain, as opponents are slain in theological warfare—to rise again. History and theology co-operate in the result. The characters of the Protestant Reformers are studied with a remorseless scrutiny, and an art which can bring into relief what the work of art requires. Why the children of the infallible Church rose up in disobedience against their mother is left unexplained. The great heresy, Bossuet was persuaded, had almost reached its term; the intellectual chaos would soon be restored to universal order under the successors of Innocent XI.
In the embittered controversy with his brother-Bishop of Cambrai, on the significance of which the singular autobiography of Madame Guyon1 throws much light, Bossuet remained the victor. It was a contention between dogmatic rectitude and the temper of emotional religion. Bossuet was at first unversed in the writings of the Catholic mystics. Being himself a fully-formed will, watchful and armed for obedience and command—the "man under authority"—he rightly divined the dangers to dogmatic faith arising from self-abandonment to God within the heart. The elaborate structure of orthodoxy seemed to dissolve in the ardour of a personal emotion; it seemed to him another form of the individualism which he condemned. The Church was a great objective reality; it had laid down a system of belief. A love of God which ignored the method of God, was but a spurious love, leading to destruction.
1 Translated into English for the first time in full, 1897, by T. T. Allen.
Protestant self-will, mystical private emotion—these were in turn met by the champion of tradition, and, as he trusted, were subdued. Another danger he perceived, not in the unregenerate will or wandering heart, but in the critical intelligence. Bossuet again was right in viewing with alarm the Biblical studies of Richard Simon. But his scholarship was here defective. He succeeded in suppressing an edition of the Histoire Critique du Vieux Testament. There were printers in Holland beyond the reach of Bossuet's arm; and Simon continued the work which others have carried further with the aids of more exact science.
To doubt the government of His world by the Divine Ruler, who assigns us our duty and our place, is to sap the principles of authority and of obedience. The doctrine of God's providence is at the centre of all Bossuet's system of thought, at the heart of his loyal passions. On earth, the powers that be; in France, the monarch; in heaven, a greater Monarch (we will not say a magnified Louis XIV.) presiding over all the affairs of this globe. When Bossuet tried to educate his indocile pupil the Dauphin, he taught him how God is above man, as man is above the brute. Monarchy—as he showed in his Politique Tirée de l'Écriture Sainte—is hereditary and absolute; but absolute power is not arbitrary power; the King is God's subject, and his laws must conform to those of his Divine Ruler. The Discours sur l'Histoire Universelle (1681) was written in the first instance for the Dauphin; but its purpose was partly apologetic, and Bossuet, especially in the second part of the book, had the errors of free-thinkers—Spinoza and Simon—before his mind.
The seventeenth century had not contributed largely to historical literature, save in the form of memoirs. Mézeray, in the first half of the century, Fleury, in the second, cannot be ranked among those writers who illuminate with profound and just ideas. The Cartesian philosophy viewed historical studies with haughty indifference. Bossuet's Discours is a vindication of the ways of God in history, a theology of human progress. He would exhibit the nations and generations of human-kind bound each to each under the Providential government. The life of humanity, from Adam to Charlemagne, is mapped into epochs, ages, periods—the periods of nature, of the law, and of grace. In religion is found the unity of human history. By religion is meant Judaism and Christianity; by Christianity is meant the Catholicism of Rome.
Having expounded the Divine policy in the government of the world, Bossuet is free to study those secondary causes which have determined the rise and fall of empires. With magisterial authority, and with majestic skill, he presents the movements of races and peoples. His sympathy with the genius of ancient Rome proceeds not only from his comprehensive grasp of facts, but from a kinship between his own and the Roman type of character. The magnificent design of Bossuet was magnificently accomplished. He hoped to extend his studies, and apply his method to other parts of his vast subject, but the hope was not to be fulfilled. A disinterested student of the philosophy of history he is not; he is the theologian who marshals facts under an accepted dogma. A conception of Providence may indeed emerge from the researches of a devout investigator of the life of humanity as their last result; but towards that conception the secular life and the various religions of the world will contribute; the ways of the Divine Spirit will appear other than those of the anthropomorphic Ruler of Bossuet's imagination. He was not an original thinker; he would have scorned such a distinction—"l'hérétique est celui qui a une opinion"; he had received the truth, and only gave it extended applications. He is "le sublime orateur des idées communes."
More than an orator, before all else he was a combatant. Falling at his post as the eighteenth century opened, he is like some majestic, white-haired paladin of old romances which tell of the strife between French chivalry and the Saracenic hordes. Bossuet fell; the age of growing incredulity and novel faiths was inaugurated; the infidels passed over the body of the champion of conservative tradition.