A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 7.

Theologians and Preachers.

There is no period in the whole course of French literature in which theological writers and orators contribute so much to literary history as in the seventeenth century. The causes of this energy can only be summarily indicated here. They were the various sequelae of the Reformation and the counter-reformation, the latter of which was in France extraordinarily powerful; the influence of Richelieu and Mazarin in politics, which assured to the Church a great predominance in the State, while its rival, the territorial aristocracy, was depressed and persecuted; the personal inclination of Louis XIV., who made up for his loose manner of life by the straitest doctrinal orthodoxy; but perhaps most of all the accidental determination of various men of great talents and energy to the ecclesiastical profession. Bossuet, Fénelon, Bourdaloue, Massillon, Fléchier, Mascaron, Claude, Saurin, to name no others, could hardly have failed to distinguish themselves in any department of literature which they had chosen. Circumstances of accident threw them into work more or less wholly theological.

St. François de Sales.

This peculiarity of the century, however, belongs chiefly to its third and fourth quarters. The first preacher and theologian of literary eminence in this period belongs about equally to it and to the preceding, but his most remarkable work dates from this time. François de Sales was born at Annecy in 1567. He was destined for the law, and completed his education for it at Paris, but his vocation for the church was stronger, and he took orders in 1593. He soon distinguished himself by reconverting a considerable number of persons to the Roman form of faith in the district of Chablais, and at the beginning of the seventeenth century preached at Paris, and latterly at Dijon. He was soon made bishop of Geneva, an episcopate which, it need hardly be said, might almost be described as in partibus infidelium. But in the south of France, in Savoy, and in Paris itself, his influence was great. His chief works are the 'Introduction to a Devout Life' (1608), the Traité de l'Amour de Dieu, 'Spiritual Letters' (to Madame de Chantal), and sermons. His style is by no means destitute of archaism, but it is clear, fluent, and agreeable. He and Fenouillet, bishop of Marseilles, with other preachers whose names are now forgotten, were the chief instruments in recovering the art of sacred oratory from the low estate into which it had fallen during the heat of the religious wars and the League, when it had been disgraced alternately by violence and buffoonery. But the Thirty Years' War and the Fronde were again unfavourable to theological discussion, except of a quasi-political kind, and the best spirits of this time threw themselves into the unpopular direction of Jansenism. The 'Siècle de Louis Quatorze' proper, that is the period subsequent to 1660, was the palmy time, from the literary point of view, of theological eloquence and discussion in France.


Of the authors already named Bossuet deserves precedence in almost every respect except that of private character. Jacques Benigne Bossuet279 was born at Dijon, in 1627, of a family of distinction in the middle class. He went to school to the Jesuits in his native town, and finished his education at the Collège de Navarre in Paris, receiving his doctor's degree and a canonry at Metz in 1652. He soon distinguished himself both as an orator and a controversialist, preached before the king in Advent 1661, and in 1669 was appointed to the bishopric of Condom. His subsequent appointment to the post of tutor to the Dauphin made him resign his bishopric; but on the completion of his task (in virtue of which he had been elected to the Academy in 1680) he was made almoner to the prince, and in the following year received the bishopric of Meaux. He was soon after engaged in the Gallican controversy, in which he defended not so much the rights of the Church as the claims of the royal prerogative. The most unfortunate incident of his life was his controversy with Fénelon. Bossuet, though thoroughly learned in some respects, was not a man of the widest culture, and the whole region of mystical theology was unknown to him. He, therefore, mistook certain utterances of the archbishop of Cambray, which were neither new nor alarming, for heterodox innovations, and began a violent polemic against him. Supported by the king, he was able to obtain a nominal victory, but the moral success rested with Fénelon, and still more the advantage in the literary duel. Bossuet died in 1704. His works were very numerous, and of very various kinds. His first reputation was, as has been said, earned as a controversialist (his principal adversaries in this respect were the Protestant ministers Ferri and Claude) and as a preacher on general subjects. On his appointment to the see of Condom, however, he struck out a new line, that of funeral discourses (oraisons funèbres), and produced, on the occasions of the death of the two Henriettas of England, mother and daughter, of the great Condé, of the Princess-Palatine, and of others, works which are undoubtedly triumphs of French eloquence, and which, with the exception of the best passages of Burke, are perhaps the only things of the kind comparable to the masterpieces of antiquity. His controversial work is equal in perfection of execution to his oratory, the Exposition de la Doctrine de l'Église Catholique, and still more the Histoire des Variations des Églises Protestantes, being deservedly regarded as models of their kind, notwithstanding the obvious fallacy pervading the latter. Of his other works the most remarkable (perhaps the most remarkable of all if originality of conception and breadth of design be taken into account) is his Discours sur l'Histoire Universelle jusqu'à l'Empire de Charlemagne. This has, though not universally, been held to be the first attempt at the philosophy of history, that is to say, the first work in which general history is regarded and expounded from a single comprehensive point of view, and laws of a universal kind drawn from it. In Bossuet's case the point of view is, of course, strictly theological, and the laws are arranged accordingly.

Bossuet's character was unamiable, and, despite the affected frankness with which he spoke to the king, it will always remain a blot on his memory that he did not seriously protest either against the loose life of Louis, or against his ruinous ambition and lawless disregard of the rights of nations. There is, however, no doubt whatever of his perfect sincerity and of the genuineness of his belief in political autocracy, provided that the autocrat was a faithful son of the Church. He was a Cartesian, and was probably not unindebted to Descartes for the force and vigour of his reasonings, though he was hardly so careful as his master in enlarging the field of his knowledge and assuring the validity of his premises. The extraordinary majesty of his rhetoric, perhaps, brings out by force of contrast the occasionally fallacious character of his reasoning, but it must be confessed that even as a controversialist he has few equals. The rhetorical excellence of the Oraisons and the gorgeous sweep, not merely of the language but of the conception, in the Histoire Universelle, show him at what is really his best; while many isolated expressions betray at once an intimate knowledge of the human heart, and a hardly surpassed faculty of clothing that knowledge in words. Bossuet no doubt is more of a speaker than a writer. His excellence lies in the wonderful survey, and grasp of the subject (qualities which make his favourite literary nickname of the 'Eagle of Meaux' more than usually appropriate), in the contagious enthusiasm and energy with which he attacks his point, in his inexhaustible metaphors and comparisons. He has not the unfailing charm of Malebranche, nor that which belongs in a less degree, and with more mannerism, to Fénelon; he is very unequal, and small blemishes of style abound in him. Thus, in his most famous passage, the description of the sudden death of Henrietta of Orleans, occurs the phrase 'comme un coup de tonnerre cette étonnante nouvelle,' a jingle of words as unpleasant as it is easily avoided. But blemishes of this kind (and it is, perhaps, noteworthy that French is more tolerant of them than almost any other language of equal literary perfection) disappear in the volume and force of the torrent of Bossuet's eloquence. It is fair to add that, though he is almost always aiming at the sublime, he scarcely ever oversteps it, or falls into the bombastic and the ridiculous. Even his elaborate eulogy (it would hardly be fair to call it flattery) of the great is so cunningly balanced by exposition of the nothingness of men and things, that it does not strike the mind's eye with any immediate sense of glaring impropriety. The lack of formal perfection which is sometimes noticeable in him is made up to a greater degree almost than in any other writer by the intense force and conviction of the speaker and the imposing majesty of his manner. It is pretty certain that most attempts to imitate Bossuet would result in a lamentable failure; and it is not a little significant that the only two Frenchmen who in prose have shown themselves occasionally his rivals, Michelet and Lamennais, are among the most unequal of writers.


The contrast between Bossuet and his chief rival was in all respects great. To begin with, Fénelon was a much younger man than Bossuet, belonging it might be said almost to another generation. He inherited some of the noblest blood in France, while Bossuet was but a roturier, and this may have had something to do with the more independent character of Fénelon. Bossuet was a vigorous student of certain defined branches of knowledge, but of general literature he took little heed. Fénelon was a man of almost universal reading, and one of the most original and soundest literary critics of his time. Fénelon felt deeply for the misery of the French people; Bossuet does not appear to have troubled himself about it. Finally Bossuet, with all his merits, had grave faults of moral character, while to Fénelon — quite as justly as to Berkeley — every virtue under heaven may be assigned. François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon280 was born at the castle of the same name in the province of Perigord, on August 16th, 1661. He was educated first at home, then at Cahors, and then at the Collége de Plessis at Paris. He finally studied in a theological seminary for some years, and did not formally enter the Church till he was four-and-twenty. He then devoted himself partly to the poor, partly to education, especially of girls, and his treatise on this latter subject was his first work. In 1687 he was appointed preceptor to the Duke de Bourgogne, son of Bossuet's pupil, and heir to the throne. For the duke he wrote a great number of books, among them Télémaque (or at least the first sketch of it). In 1697 he was appointed archbishop of Cambray. Into his connection with Madame Guyon, the celebrated apostle of quietism, and his consequent quarrel with Bossuet, there is no need to enter further. Whichever of the two may have been theologically in the right, there are no two opinions on the question that Bossuet was in the wrong, both in the acrimony of his conduct and the violence of his language. In the latter respect, indeed, he brought down upon himself a well-deserved punishment. Fénelon was the mildest of men, but he possessed a faculty of quiet irony inferior to that of no man then living, and he used it with effect in the controversy against Bossuet's declamatory denunciations. When, at last, the matter had been referred to the Pope, and judgment had been given against himself, Fénelon at once bowed to the decision and acknowledged his error. Louis, however, had many more reasons for disliking him than the mere odium theologicum with which Bossuet had inspired him. Fénelon was known to disapprove of much in the actual government of France, and the surreptitious publication of Télémaque completed his disgrace. He was banished from court and confined to his diocese, in which he accordingly spent the last part of his life, doing his best to alleviate the misery caused on the borders by the war of the Spanish succession, and dying at Cambray in 1715.

Fénelon was an industrious writer. Few of his finished sermons have been preserved; but these are excellent, as are also his fables written for the Duke de Bourgogne, his already-mentioned Education des Filles, and his Dialogues des Morts, also written for the Duke, in which the form is borrowed from Lucian, but in which moral lessons are substituted for mere satire. Like Bossuet, Fénelon was a Cartesian, and his Traité de l'Existence de Dieu is a philosophico-religious work of no small merit. In literary history he is remarkable for having directly opposed the victorious work of Boileau. He has left several exercises in literary criticism, such as his Lettre sur les Occupations de l'Académie Française, one of the latest of his works; his Dialogues sur l'Eloquence, and a contribution to the famous dispute of ancients and moderns in correspondence with La Motte. He regretted the impoverishment of the language, and the loss of much of the energy and picturesque vigour of the sixteenth century. In his controversy with Bossuet, though the matter is not strictly literary, there is, as has been noticed, much admirable literary work; but his chief claim to a place in literary history is, of course, Télémaque, which work he had anticipated by the somewhat similar Aventures d'Aristonous. It has often been regretted that classics in any language should be used for purposes of instruction in the rudiments, and hardly any single work has suffered more from this practice than Télémaque, for learners of French are usually set to read it long before they have any power of literary appreciation. A continuous narrative, moreover, is about the least suited of all literary forms to bear that process of cutting up in short pieces which is necessary in education. The pleasure of the story is either lost altogether, or anticipated by surreptitious reading on the part of the pupil, after which the mechanical plodding through matter of which he has already exhausted the interest is disgusting enough. Yet it can hardly be doubted that if Télémaque had not, in the case of most readers, this fatal disadvantage, its beauties would be generally acknowledged. Its form is somewhat artificial, and the author has, perhaps, not escaped the error of most moral fiction writers, that of making his hero too much of a model of what ought to be, and too little of a copy of what is. But the story is excellently managed, the various incidents are drawn with remarkable vividness and picturesqueness, the descriptions are uniformly excellent, and the style is almost impeccable. Even were the moral sentiments and the general tendency of the book less excellent than they are, its value as a model of French composition would probably have secured it something like its present place side by side with La Fontaine's Fables as a school-book. It is fair to add that in the character of Calypso, where the need of the author for a 'terrible example' freed him from his restraints, very considerable powers of character-drawing are shown, and the same may be said of not a few of the minor personages.


The third greatest name of the period in this class of men of letters is beyond all question that of Massillon. He, like Fénelon, belongs to the second, if not the third, generation of the Siècle de Louis Quatorze, being nearly forty years younger than Bossuet. He was a long liver, and his death did not occur till far into the reign of Louis XV., when the reputation of Voltaire was established, and the eighteenth-century movement was in full swing. But his literary and oratorical activity had ceased for nearly a quarter of a century at the time of his death. Jean Baptiste Massillon281 was a native of Hières, and was born on June 24, 1663. His father was a notary, and he himself was destined for the same profession; but his vocation for the Church was strong, and he was at last permitted to enter the Oratorian Congregation. His aptitude for preaching was soon discovered, and when very young he distinguished himself by Oraisons Funèbres on the archbishops of Lyons and Vienne. He was of a retiring disposition, and, wishing to avoid publicity, joined a stricter order than that of the Oratory, but was induced, and indeed ordered, by the Cardinal de Noailles, who heard him preach in his new abode, not to hide his light under a bushel, but to come to Paris and do the Church service. He obeyed, and was established in the capital in 1696. His fame soon became great, and he preached before the king more than one course of sermons. He was appointed bishop of Clermont in 1717, and in the same year preached the celebrated Petit Caréme, or course of Lent sermons, before Louis XV. In 1719 he was elected of the Academy. He preached his last sermon at Paris in 1723, and then retired to his diocese, where he spent the last twenty years of his life, dying of apoplexy at the age of eighty, Sept. 28, 1742.

Massillon has usually, and justly, been considered the greatest preacher, in the strict sense of the word, of France. Only Bossuet and Bourdaloue could contest this position; and though both preceded him, and he owed much to both, he excels both in sermons properly so called. Bossuet was, perhaps, a greater orator, if the finest parts of his work only are taken; but he was, as has been said, unequal, and in the two great objects of the preacher, exposition of doctrine and effect upon the consciences of his hearers, he was admittedly inferior to Massillon. The latter, moreover, has, of all French preachers (for Fénelon, it must be remembered, has left but few sermons), the purest style, and possesses the greatest range. His special function was considered to be persuasion; yet few pulpit orators have managed the sterner parts of their duty more forcibly. Massillon's sermon on the Prodigal Son, and that on the Deaths of the Just and the Unjust, are models of his style. It is, moreover, very much to his credit that he was the most uncompromising, despite his gentleness, of all the great preachers of the time, and, therefore, the least popular at court. Louis the Fourteenth's famous epigram, to the effect that other preachers made him contented with them, but Massillon made him discontented with himself, was somewhat comically illustrated by the fact that, after the second course of sermons preached before him, that of Lent 1704, the preacher, though then in the very height of his powers, was never asked again to preach at court. We are, however, more concerned with the manner than with the matter of his orations. He had (after the example of Bourdaloue, it is true) entirely discarded the frippery of erudition with which most of his predecessors had been wont to load their sermons, as well as the occasional oddities of gesticulation and anecdote which had once been fashionable. His style is simple, straightforward, and yet extremely elegant. In the commonplaces of French literary history of the old school he is called the Racine of the pulpit, a compliment determined by the extreme purity and elegance of his style, but not otherwise very applicable, inasmuch as one chief characteristic of Massillon is an energy and masculine vigour of expression in which Racine is, for the most part, wanting.


If we have postponed Bourdaloue to Massillon, despite the order of chronology, it has been in accordance with Bourdaloue's own remark when Massillon made his first reputation, 'He must increase, but I must decrease.' This remark is characteristic of the disposition of the man, which was as stainless as Massillon's own. Louis Bourdaloue was born at Bourges on the 20th August, 1632, and was thus not many years the junior of Bossuet. He entered the Society of Jesus early, and served it as professor of philosophy and kindred subjects. But his superiors soon discovered his talents as a preacher, and he was sent to make his way before the court, where he became a great favourite, especially with Madame de Sévigné, who was no mean critic. He died in 1704.

The chief characteristic of Bourdaloue's eloquence is a remarkable absence of ornament, and a strict adherence to dialectical order. None of the great French preachers admit of logical abstraction and précis so well as he. Another peculiarity is his preference for ethical subjects. More than any of his contemporaries he was an expounder of Christian morality, and his sermons are wont to deal with simple virtues and vices rather than with points of devotional piety. He was, like Massillon, and even more than Massillon, absolutely fearless and uncompromising, preaching against adultery in the very face of Louis XIV. in his early days, and sparing no vice or folly of the court. But, perhaps owing to the somewhat severe and exclusively intellectual character of his oratory, it does not appear to have produced the effects, salutary doubtless for the hearers, but somewhat inconvenient for the preacher, which attended the more cunningly-aimed attacks of Massillon.

The example of the three great preachers — Bossuet, Bourdaloue, and Massillon — raised up many imitators, some of whom, such as De la Rue, Cheminais, and others, were popular in their day. There are, however, four orators — two Roman Catholics, and two belonging to the French Protestant Church — to whom is usually and rightly accorded the second rank, while sectarian partiality sometimes claims even the first for them. These were Fléchier, Mascaron, Claude, and Saurin.

Minor Preachers.

Esprit Fléchier was born at Pesmes in 1632. For a time he was a member of the congregation of the Brothers of Christian Doctrine, which, however, on an alteration of its constitution by a new superior-general (he had been introduced to it by his uncle, who held that office), he quitted. He then went to Paris and tried various methods of gaining a livelihood, such as writing verses in Latin and French, and teaching in a school. In these early days he indulged in various forms of miscellaneous literature. The most curious and interesting of these works is a little account of the Grands Jours d'Auvergne, a sort of provincial assize which he visited. This has much liveliness, and the sketches of character and manners show a good deal of skill. But at length he found his proper sphere in the pulpit. He acquired reputation by his Oraison Funèbre on Turenne. He became a member of the Academy (being admitted on the same day as Racine); and he was appointed, first, to the bishopric of Lavaur, then to that of Nîmes, where, in a very difficult position (for the revocation of the edict of Nantes had exasperated the Protestants, who were numerous in the diocese), he made himself universally beloved. He died in 1710. The most famous of Fléchier's discourses are those on Madame de Montausier (the heroine of the Guirlande de Julie282 and the idol of the Hôtel de Rambouillet), that on Madame de Montausier's husband, and that on Turenne. Fléchier represents a somewhat older style of diction and expression than either of his great contemporaries, Bossuet and Bourdaloue; and his style, unlike some other work of this older school, is not characterised by many striking occasional phrases, but his sermons as a whole are vigorous and well expressed.

Jean Mascaron was born at Marseilles in 1634. It is worth noticing that almost all these orators came from the south of France. He preached frequently before the king, and did not hesitate to rebuke his vices, notwithstanding or because of which he was appointed to the bishopric of Tulle, whence he was afterwards translated to Agen. He died in 1703. Mascaron is chiefly remembered for his Oraison on that same death of Turenne which gave occasion to so many orators. He is usually reproached with a certain affectation of style, and there is justice in the reproach.

Of the two Protestant divines who have been mentioned Claude was the less distinguished, though he sustained on pretty even terms a public controversy with Bossuet himself. Jacques Saurin was of less political influence with his own sect, but he possessed greater eloquence, and critics of his own persuasion in France and Switzerland have equalled him to Bossuet. His works, moreover, long continued to be the most popular body of household divinity with French Protestants. He was born at Nîmes, 1677, and was thus considerably younger even than Massillon. The revocation of the edict of Nantes (which had formed the subject of some of Claude's most famous discourses) prevented him from making a name for himself in France. He was at first appointed, in 1701, after studying at Geneva, to a Walloon congregation in London, but soon moved, in consequence of weak health, to the Hague. He there became a victim of the petty dissensions which seem to have been more frequent among Dutch Protestant sects than anywhere else, and to the vexation of these is said to have been partly due his comparatively early death in 1730. He left a very considerable number of sermons and some theological treatises. He was admittedly a great orator, excelling in striking pictures and forcible imagery.

It will have been observed that, though this age contributes more to theology of the literary kind than almost any other, its most memorable contributions are almost exclusively oratorical. Incidentally, however, much that was intended to be read, not heard, was of course written. But less of it has been thought worthy the attention of posterity. The chief theological names in this department have already been named in naming those of the other. Of the school of Port Royal, who preached little but wrote much, J. J. Duguet, a man of great talent and saintly life, deserves mention.

279 Bossuet's works are extremely voluminous. The most important of them are easily obtainable in the Collection Didot and similar libraries.

280 There is a fairly representative edition of Fénelon in five vols. large 8vo. Didot. Separate works are easily accessible.

281 Edition as in Fénelon's case. Selections of all the orthodox sermon-writers are abundant.

282 This was an album to which the poets of the day, from Corneille downwards, contributed verses, each on a different flower.


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