Bossuet's contemporaries esteemed him as a preacher less highly than they esteemed the Jesuit Bourdaloue. The life of LOUIS BOURDALOUE (1632-1704) is told in the words of Vinet: "He preached, confessed, consoled, and then he died." It does credit to his hearers that they valued him aright—a modest man of simple probity. He spoke, with downcast eyes and full harmonious voice, as a soul to souls; his eloquence was not that of the rhetorician; his words were grave and plain and living, and were pressed home with the force of their reality. He aimed never at display, but always at conviction. When the crowd at St. Sulpice was moved as he entered the church and ascended the pulpit, "Silence!" cried the Prince de Condé, "there is our enemy!" Bourdaloue marshalled his arguments and expositions with the elaborate skill of a tactician; he sought to capture the judgment; he reached the heart through a wise director's knowledge of its inmost processes. When his words were touched with emotion, it was the involuntary manifestation of the life within him. His studies of character sometimes tended to the form of portraits of moral types, features in which could be identified with actual persons; but in these he was the moralist, not the satirist. During four-and-thirty years Bourdaloue distributed, to those who would take it, the bread of life—plain, wholesome, prepared skilfully and with clean hands, never varying from the evenness and excellence of its quality. He does not startle or dazzle a reader; he does what is better—he nourishes.
Bourdaloue pronounced only two Oraisons Funèbres, and those under the constraint of duty. He thought the Christian pulpit was meant for less worldly uses than the eulogy of mortal men. The Oraison Funèbre was more to the taste of Mascaron (1634-1703), whose unequal rhetoric was at its best in his panegyric of Turenne; more to the taste of the elegant FLÉCHIER, Bishop of Nîmes. All the literary graces were cultivated by Fléchier (1632-1710), and his eloquence is unquestionable; but it was not the eloquence proper to the pulpit. He was a man of letters, a man of the world, formed in the school of preciosity, a haunter of the Hôtel de Rambouillet; knowing the surface of society, he knew as a moralist how to depict its manners and the evil that lay in them. He did not apply doctrine to life like Bossuet, nor search the heart with Bourdaloue's serious zeal; to save souls was indeed important; to exhibit his talents before the King was also important. But the true eloquence of the pulpit has deeper springs than lay in Fléchier's mundane spirit. Already the decadence has begun.
Protestantism had its preacher in JACQUES SAURIN (1677-1730), clear, logical, energetic, with negligences of style and sudden flashes of genius. But he belongs to London, to Geneva, to the Hague more perhaps than to France. An autumnal colouring, bright and abundant, yet indicative of the decline, is displayed in the discourses of the latest of the great pulpit orators, JEAN-BAPTISTE MASSILLON (1663-1742), who belongs more to the eighteenth than to the seventeenth century. "He must increase," said Bourdaloue, "but I must decrease." Massillon, with gifts of person and of natural grace, sensitive, tender, a student and professor of the rhetorical art, sincerely devout, yet with waverings towards the world, had something in his genius that resembled Racine. A pathetic sentiment, a feeling for human passions, give his sermons qualities which contrast with the severer manner of Bourdaloue. They are simple in plan; the preacher's art lay in deploying and developing a few ideas, and infusing into them an imaginative sensibility; he is facile and abundant; faultless in amenity, but deficient in force and fire. Yet the opening words of the Funeral Oration on Louis XIV.—"God alone is great, my brethren"—are noble in their simplicity; and the thought of Jesus suddenly appearing in "the most august assembly of the world"—in the chapel at Versailles—startled the hearers of the sermon on the "small number of the elect." "There is an orator!" cried the actor Baron, "we are only comedians;" but no actor would have instituted a comparison between himself and Bourdaloue. "When one enters the avenue at Versailles," said Massillon, "one feels an enervating air."
He was aware of the rising tide of luxury and vice around him; he tried to meet it, tracing the scepticism of the time to its ill-regulated passions; but he met scepticism by morality detached from dogma. The Petit Carême, preached before Louis XV. when a child of eight, expresses the sanguine temper of the moment: the young King would grow into the father of his people; the days of peace would return. Great and beneficent kings are not effeminately amiable; it were better if Massillon had preached "Be strong" than "Be tender." Voltaire kept on his desk the sermons of Massillon, and loved to hear the musical periods of the Petit Carême read aloud at meal-time. To be the favourite preacher of eighteenth-century philosophers is a distinction somewhat compromising to an exponent of the faith.