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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Where Bossuet fortified himself with theological studies


"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-BENIGNE 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 Fenelon 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.

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