1. De la Connaissance de Dieu et de Soi-même.
2. Discours sur l’Histoire Universelle.
3. Politique tirée de l’Ecriture Sainte.
There are books which owe their value neither to the positions which they establish nor to the information which they contain, but to the completeness and vigour, and possibly to the beauty, with which they represent a particular view of some subject of general and lasting importance. To do this in such a way as to command the attention of the world for a great length of time is the greatest of all literary exploits. A mere discovery has about it something of the nature of a happy accident. Ordinary qualities, united with a laborious disposition, will enable a commonplace man to write an instructive and useful book; but no one except a great man can succeed in uniting into one harmonious whole various lines of thought and study, so as to make his facts and his thoughts illustrate and support each other, to show the essential unity of views which at first sight appear to relate to different subjects, and to arrest the attention and express the convictions of a considerable section of mankind. A work which rises to such a level throws, for all future times, a light upon the age in which it was written which scarcely anything else can give.
Hardly any one ever performed this feat more impressively than Bossuet in the three books now before us. Collectively, they may be said to express the high Tory theory of life — absolutism—in its flower and perfection. For nearly two hundred years the tide has flowed in a diametrically opposite direction. A few men of genius, gravitating like De Maistre towards mysticism, or recoiling like Dr. Newman from scepticism, have, for more or less eloquent reasons, attempted to stem the general current, and to think as men thought at a different stage of the world's history, but they have made no deep or lasting impression. They are forced to admit that they exercise no real influence on the course of affairs, and express no view of them which is unconsciously held by any considerable number of disciples. By looking back for a time to the teaching of their great predecessors, we learn to see the real value of their theories, and to understand under what conditions of life and knowledge men really could believe what they, after all, only try to believe.
If it were the order of nature that God should be represented upon earth by infallible priests and irresponsible kings, it would be impossible to imagine a nobler system of education for a great king than that which Bossuet conceived, or a teacher better suited to carry it out than Bossuet himself. No one can read his letters to Innocent XI. de institutione Delphini without a strange mixture of respect for the teacher's intense earnestness, magnificent vigour, and immovable self-confidence— pity for the unfortunate pupil who was subjected to a pressure which no human being could be expected to endure— and wonder at the splendid falsehood of the whole course of instruction. No castle in the air was ever more magnificent, or less solid in its foundations, than that which Bossuet builds up in these memorable books with the most perfect confidence in its stability. Certain parts of his teaching, no doubt, are sound and true, and all are expressed with incomparable majesty of style and thought; but, viewed as a whole, and in their mutual relations and connections, his opinions have, by the mere force of time and facts, become altogether incredible and untenable on the terms on which he held them.
The drift of the whole course of study might be thus expressed. Thus ought a King of France, the first of mankind, to think of man and his destiny, and to rule the noblest branch of the human race. This general subject is arranged under three great heads: The knowledge of God and man in general; the knowledge of the dealings of God with man in fact, as displayed in universal history; the knowledge of the laws given by God to man for his guidance in political life. The treatise De la Connaissance de Dieu et de Soi-même, seems to have been the first of the three works, both in the date of its composition, and in the scheme of education to which the Dauphin was submitted.
Its purport is thus summed up by Bossuet himself in his letter to Innocent XI.:
'Nous expliquons la structure du corps, et la nature de l'esprit, par les choses que chacun expérimente en soi; et feaisons voir qu'un homme qui sait se rendre présent a lui-même trouve Dieu plus présent que toute autre chose, puisque sans lui il n'auroit ni mouvement, ni esprit, ni vie, ni raison, selon cette parole vraiment philosophique de l'apostole prêchant a Athènes.'The book is divided into five chapters, treating respectively of the soul, the body, the union between them, God their Creator, and the difference between men and animals. Its most characteristic feature is its extreme and unflinching dogmatism. It never occurs to Bossuet that any conclusion but one can be reasonable, and that conclusion is, of course, the essence of orthodoxy. Strange, however, as the expression may appear, Bossuet was a thoroughgoing rationalist. He says: 'The understanding (l'entendement) is the light which God has given us for our guidance. It has different names; in its inventive and penetrating capacity it is called spirit (esprit); in so far as it judges and directs to truth and goodness, it is called reason and judgment. Reason, in so far as it turns us from the true evil of man, which is sin, is called conscience.'
He adds elsewhere that, unless it is seduced by passion, reason is infallible. Error, he says, is caused by haste, pride, impatience, and sloth, and he adds: 'It is certain that reason, when purged of these vices, and truly attentive to its object, will never err, because then it will either see clearly, and what it sees will be true, or it will not see clearly, and then it will be certain that it ought to doubt till light appears. . . . The understanding is never forced to err, and never does err except for want of attention; and if it judges wrong by following the senses or the passions derived from them too readily, it will correct its judgment if a right will makes it attentive to its object and to itself.'
The object of reason is truth, eternal and immutable. This is asserted with characteristic emphasis and courage in a passage which shortly sums up the drift of the whole book, in these words:
'If everything done by the rule of proportions—that is to say, if all natural objects except myself were destroyed, these rules would survive in my thoughts, and I should clearly see that they would always be good and always be true, even if I myself were destroyed, and if no one were left capable of understanding them. If now I inquire where and in what subject they subsist eternal and immutable, as they are, I am forced to admit a being where truth subsists eternally and is always understood; and this being must be the truth itself, and nothing but truth, and it is from it that truth flows to all existing objects external to it. It is, then, in this being, in a manner to me incomprehensible, still it is in this being that I see these eternal truths, and to see them is to turn to him who is unchangeably true, and to receive his light. This eternal object is God, eternally subsisting, eternally true, eternally the truth itself.'Farther on, he says that these eternal truths, which are always the same to every mind, and which themselves regulate the understanding, 'sont quelque chose de Dieu, ou plutôt sont Dieu même.'
These passages contain the main propositions of the whole treatise, part of which consists of an anatomical description of the more important organs of the body, and another part of a speculation on the way in which the soul acts on the nerves, and so on the muscles and limbs.
The only difficulty which Bossuet appears to have felt at all seriously was that which is derived from the animal creation. If animals have will and reason, and if God and eternal truth are the proper objects of reason, why do they not believe in God and eternal truth, and why are they not moral agents? He labours greatly to answer this difficulty, and though he does not go quite so far as Descartes (whose influence on his mind is everywhere apparent) in making the beasts mere machines, he goes a long way in that direction. He will hardly allow them even sensation, and he utterly denies that an animal can, in any proper sense of the word, be educated. Their training is a mere mechanical process. 'A man who trains a dog gives him a piece of bread, takes a stick in his hand, drives (enfonce) material objects (so to speak) into every organ, and teaches him by blows of a stick as you forge iron with blows of a hammer.'
It is well worthy of observation that the a priori theory of human knowledge and of the human soul always leads to these coarse and ignorant views of the nature of animals. As to the arguments on which the theory itself is based, it is probably true that some minds are satisfied by it, but to the great bulk of mankind, it will always appear to amount to nothing more than a passionate assertion of the truth of a preconceived opinion, thrown into an ostensibly argumentative and philosophical shape. It probably never convinced any one who was not convinced before, or silenced any one who was not prevented either by legal or social penalties from speaking his mind. We refer to those arguments here not for the sake of discussion, but in order to point out their relation to other parts of Bossuet's teaching of more immediate practical importance.
The principle that the mind not only can attain to a direct transcendental knowledge of these divine and eternal truths, but that the power of doing so is the specific quality by which man is distinguished from the brutes, affords an appropriate introduction to the doctrine of the Discours sur l’Histoire Universelle, the first great attempt ever made to view the whole course of history as a whole, traversed and sustained by one great design.
From our own reflections we learn that there is a God possessed of certain attributes and ruling over the world. Though this being has chosen to leave us free, he has secret ways of controlling and disposing of our free will in such a manner as to work out his designs (this is the principal lesson of the separate dissertation called the Traiti du Libre Arbitre). The history of the world must, and does, show specifically how he has directed human affairs, and what is their great general lesson. It would be hard to mention any book which shows more magnificent qualities than this, the sublime audacity of its conception being perhaps the most striking of them all. It is an apotheosis of authority in all its forms. Its great lesson is that, from the beginning of the world to the time at which Bossuet wrote, there had been one great succession of awful and venerable institutions, ecclesiastical and civil, which were the representatives of God to men.
One of the most characteristic passages is in these words: 'Quelle consolation aux enfants de Dieu! mais quelle conviction de la vérité, quand ils voient que d'Innocent XI., qui remplit aujourd'hui si dignement le premier siège de l'Eglise on remonte sans interruption jusqu'à Saint Pierre, établi par Jésus Christ prince des Apôtres, d'où en reprenant les pontifes qui ont servi sous la loi on va jusqu'à Aaron et jusqu'à Moise; de la jusqu'aux patriarches et jusqu'a l'origine du monde! quelle suite, quelle tradition, quel enseignement merveilleux!'
The most prominent object in the book is, of course, the establishment and growth of religion, which he views as the great central event of human history to which everything conduces, and from which everything derives its importance. The vigour and unhesitating conviction with which this is put forward is certainly more impressive than convincing.
Voltaire observed with truth that, in order to produce the desired effect, Bossuet was obliged to give to the history of the Jews a degree of prominence out of all proportion to that which really belonged to it. Voltaire himself may have fallen into the opposite fault, but it is certainly true that Bossuet so managed his argument as to make not merely the substantial truth, but almost the verbal accuracy, of the whole Mosaic history vitally essential to his cause.
When he wrote, the questions to which so much attention has been directed in the course of the last few years by Bishop Colenso, were just beginning to be agitated, and had been very lately handled in a heterodox direction by Spinoza and Simon. Bossuet's indignation and contempt against such speculations knew no bounds. He declared that to doubt that Moses wrote the Pentateuch was to destroy the foundation of his whole theory. 'Les dates,' he says, 'font tout en cette matière,' and he seems to have regarded all such criticism as a mere effort of wickedness, determined on destroying the Bible on account of the check which it lays upon human passion.
The vehemence with which Bossuet undertook the defence of particular facts which he considered necessary to his creed was the weak side of his mind. He will allow nothing to be doubtful. Prophecy, in particular, he seems to have considered the strongest and clearest kind of evidence in his favour. He says, in relation to fulfilled prophecies: 'Quatre ou cinq faits authentiques, et plus clairs que la lumiere du soleil, font voir notre religion aussi ancienne que le monde.' Even the primacy of St. Peter, and the fact that the Popes were his successors, cannot, he thinks, be doubted in good faith: 'J'avance hardiment ces faits, et même le dernier comme constant, parcequ'il ne peut jamais etre contesté de bonne foi,' etc. Over and over again he triumphs in the ‘faits positifs' on which his own creed stands, and challenges those who impugn it to produce the like. In a word, he is throughout triumphant, audacious, certain of his facts, and utterly contemptuous towards his antagonists.
Flushed with this triumphant establishment of his fundamental theories, he proceeds, in chapters which form a lasting title to fame, to describe the lay part of history. He describes, with wonderful vigour, and with a power of style which has probably never been surpassed, the manners, the laws, the institutions, and the national characteristics of the great nations of antiquity.
Perhaps the most remarkable point in these chapters is their extreme generality. Bossuet hardly mentions individual men or isolated facts, except by way of allusion and illustration. He enters into hardly any details, but contents himself with a broad general outline, of which it would be difficult to find any other example at that period. On the great temporal Empires themselves which he passes in review, he looks in a light different from, but kindred to, that in which he had viewed the Church. They were venerable for other causes, as the great divine machinery for the temporal government of the world, and as the principal theatres on which Divine Providence displayed itself. The heading of the first chapter of the lay part of the book is highly significant —' Les Revolutions des Empires sont reglées par la Providence et servent à humilier les Princes.'
All of them, however, were earthly and corruptible, and derived their importance from the degree in which they favoured or hindered the chief design of Providence and the one great divine institution— namely, the Church:
'Thus, when you see passing before your eyes, I do not say kings and emperors, but the great empires which made the universe tremble —when you see the earlier and later Assyrians, the Medes, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans, present themselves before you in succession, and fall, so to say, one upon another— this dreadful crash makes you feel that there is nothing solid amongst men, and that inconstancy and agitation are the proper lot of human affairs.'The concluding words of the book are to the same effect:
'As you see them fall of themselves, whilst religion sustains itself by its own force, you will easily see where solid grandeur is, and where a man of sense will put his trust.'Certainly that conception of human history which sets before us one perfect and immutable society, infallible and incorruptible, in the midst of the wreck of all human institutions, is impressive in itself; but Bossuet makes it far more impressive, by connecting it with an explanation of the principles by which these worldly and transient societies ought to be governed.
The Politique tirée de l’Ecriture Sainte forms a natural conclusion to the two other works noticed above. In form, it is a kind of cento of passages of the Bible, especially of the Old Testament, bearing more or less on political duties. In substance, it is a vindication of the highest doctrines of absolutism. The general object of human life is to love God, and to love men because they are made in the image of God. No man is a stranger to, or independent of, any other man, and hence men are associated together in nations and otherwise. Government is essential to civil society, and laws or express general rules are essential to constant and uniform government. Law is, in Bossuet's eyes, something divine and mysterious:
'Laws are founded on the first of all laws, that of nature—that is to say, right reason and natural equity. . . . Law is sacred and inviolable. . . . All those who have spoken well on the subject regard law in its origin as an agreement and solemn treaty by which men agree by the authority of princes on what is necessary to form their society. . . . This does not mean that the authority of laws depends on the consent and acquiescence of the people, but only that the prince, who also by his character has no other interest than that of the public, is assisted by the wisest minds of the nation and supported by the experience of past ages. . . . Law is considered to have a divine origin. The agreement spoken of has a double effect. It unites the people to God and also to each other. . . . There are fundamental laws which cannot be changed.'This general conception of law as something good in itself, beyond the power of those who make it, and specially authorised by God, naturally leads to a similar conception of authority in general. God is the true king. All governments, whatever may be their form, represent divine authority; but of all forms of government 'monarchy is the most common, the most ancient, and the most natural.' Hereditary monarchy is the best of monarchies, and hereditary monarchy from which women are excluded is the best of hereditary monarchies. Hence follows a conclusion, which to us reads like a bathos, though Bossuet no doubt viewed it as a splendid climax:
'Thus France, where the succession is regulated by these principles, may boast of having the best possible political constitution, and the one most in conformity with that which God himself has established; which shows both the wisdom of our ancestors and the peculiar protection of God for this kingdom;'and also, we may add, the degree in which Bossuet can be considered as a trustworthy guide.
Royal authority thus established is sacred, for the king is God's agent. It is paternal, for the king is bound in conscience to promote the happiness of his people. But, on the other hand, it is absolute. No one can coerce the prince, let him do what he will. 'The persons of kings are sacred, and to attack them is sacrilege.' Absolute government, however, is not arbitrary. The king is bound in conscience to obey the laws and to rule according to their prescriptions. Bossuet enlarges at length, and with great sagacity and good feeling, on the duties imposed on a good prince by his position, and on the means by which he may be guided so as to perform those duties aright; but whatever the practical value of this part of his work may have been to his pupil, its speculative interest is at present inconsiderable.
Such are the main propositions of these three remarkable works, and such the general view of human affairs and human life which they presented to a pupil whom his teacher, not unnaturally, believed to be destined to occupy the first place, after the Pope, amongst mankind. The incompleteness and unavoidable condensation of this sketch make it impossible to give any notion of the majesty and the massive vigour of style and thought with which these great lessons are taught. All the praise given to Bossuet's style is deserved. He must certainly be pronounced one of the most powerful of modern writers. It must, however, be admitted that his power of style and confidence of assertion greatly outrun his power of thought.
Let us look for a moment at the chief results of Bossuet's system taken as a whole. They may be summed up thus: Reason is the distinctive quality of man, and it leads him to absolute truth—above all, to belief in God. History shows that, for the government of the human race, God has established a vast spiritual corporation as ancient as the world itself, infallible, incorruptible, and everlasting. He has also established many temporal governments with different institutions—that of France, which is an absolute monarchy regulated by law, being the most glorious and perfect. These governments between them prescribe to men their duties, and provide them with a sphere in which to discharge them.
This conception of life in general is like a landscape taken from one particular point of view. So long as you choose to stand still at that particular spot and look in one direction, things may appear to be of that particular shape. Move a few yards in one direction or another, turn your head on one side, and the whole scene is changed.
To men trained in modern habits of thought, and accustomed to care for words only in so far as they represent things, the Traité de la Connaissance de Dieu et de Soi-même will seem to be an attempt to arrive at the knowledge of facts by juggling with words. The Discours sur l'Histoire Universelle will appear to owe its unity to the fact that its author was altogether ignorant of modern science, and scornfully refused to notice even what he might have learnt from the criticism of his own day. And the Politique tirée de l’Ecriture Sainte will wear the appearance of a collection of mottoes put together to illustrate preconceived opinions which never were true, and which the history of the last two centuries has utterly refuted.
In short, to us this apotheosis of authority in Church and State, and in the very mind itself, is like a dissolving view. It shows us what sort of gorgeous palaces and cloud-capt towers a man of genius could suppose himself to see in human history two hundred years ago.
Of the three books referred to, the Discours sur l’Histoire Universelle is by far the most important. It was the first great attempt to separate the wheat of history from the chaff, and to convert it from a subject for pedants into the most practical and interesting of all intellectual studies. Voltaire's Essai sur les Moeurs is the book with which it is most natural to compare it. There are, of course, points on which Voltaire is greatly inferior to Bossuet, and there are matters in connection with which his prejudices lead him quite as far wrong, though in a different direction. But if any one will carefully read Voltaire and Bossuet, and compare their general views with the subsequent discoveries of science and criticism, he will probably conclude that, with all his faults, Voltaire was on the right road and Bossuet on the wrong one— unless, indeed, all modern discoveries in criticism and physical science are mere delusions, and all modern improvements in law, in government, and in politics are changes for the worse, based on wrong principles.
A not less instructive lesson to be learnt from Bossuet is the change of tone which has come over the advocates of views analogous to his. Reason, Dr. Newman tells us, has been in fact— whatever it ought to have been by right— the enemy of religion. He goes to the very brink of the assertion that atheists have the best of the fundamental controversy of religion. With Bossuet, the truth of religion in general, and of his own view of it in particular, is so evident that it cannot be denied in good faith, and may be called the essence of reason. Talk as we may about reason and faith, no one really begins to depreciate reason till he suspects strongly that it means to give judgment against him. Every one gets as much of it on his own side as he possibly can.
Saturday Review, August 27, 1864.