1902 Encyclopedia > Hugues Felicité Robert de Lamennais

Hugues Felicité Robert de Lamennais
French theologian, philosopher and political writer

LAMENNAIS, HUGHES FELICITE ROBERT DE (1782- 1854), French theologian, philosopher, and political writer, was born at St Malo in Britanny. His father, Pierre Louis Robert, merchant and shipowner, had been ennobled by Louis XVI. because of aid to royal naval armaments and for importing and selling corn at easy prices in a time of public distress. His property of La Mennais, with the feudal prefix De, gave him a new surname. His wife was as noted for her saintly temper as her humane husband for scepticism. The death of his mother and his father's bankruptcy deprived young Lamennais early of regular education. An eccentric uncle got charge of him, and for years the freedom of this uncle's library was all his training. His elder brother Jean, priest, educationist, and author, had taught him the elements of Latin, and by his own further efforts he comprehended Livy at ten. Well read in Rousseau at twelve, he criticized religion so adroitly with the parish priest that be could not be admitted to communion. In 1796 he sent a discourse combating modern philosophy to a provincial academy. He visited Paris with his father next year, where he wrote democratic letters to the newspapers. On his return he joined his brother for study at a house near Dinan called La Chenaie, built by their maternal grandfather. Greek, Latin, Hebrew, modern languages, the church fathers, the controversialists, and historians occupied him. Religious struggle, and an intense melancholy, aided it may be by the malheureuse passion which he is said to have suffered from, account for the fact that lie was twenty-two before taking his first communion, though in direct preparation for the clerical life.

In 1808 his hand found its proper work. His Rqlesions on the State of the Church during the 18th Century and on the Actual Situation, published anonymously at Paris, was the first important theological stand made against the materialistic philosophy which had its apotheosis in imperialism. Napoleon's police seized the book as dangerously ideological, with its eager recommendation of religious revival and active clerical organization. It awoke the ultra-montane spirit which has played so great a part since in the politics of churches and states. But Lamennais was not yet ready for the contest. Pious exaltation of spirit was his prevailing mood, as is shown by his translation next year of the ,Spiritual Guide of the ascetic Blosius. Indeed, to the end of his life there is recurrence to what may be called poetic religious feeling, one of his latest reliefs from the storms of political struggle being a translation of the Gospels. In 1811 he took the tonsure, but shortly after became teacher of mathematics in the seminary-founded by his brother at St Malo. Theological politics had large discussion after the concordat of 1802, by which the Gallican Church was re-established ; and the brothers' joint work, Tradition upon the Institution of Bishops, which was published a few days after the restoration, condemns the Galliean principle which allowed bishops to be created irrespective of the pope's sanction.

The revival of the Bourbon monarchy drew Lameunais to Paris, and the Hundred Days sent him to exile. The abbe Caron gave him work in his school for French exiles in London ; and he also became tutor at the house of Lady Jerningham, whose first impression of him as an imbecile changed into friendship. In 1815 he returned with the abbe to Paris, where his seeming fatuity cost him much misery as a seminarist of St Sulpice ; but with Caron's aid, whom he called his spiritual father, lie took full sacerdotal ordination next year, though with reluctance, as a letter to his sister shows. He enjoyed much peace with his friend at the Maison des Feuillautes, and finished there the first volume of his great work, the Essay on Indiference in the Matter of Religion. Published in 1817, it affected Europe like a spell. Since Bossuet no clergyman wielded such power as lie gained at a blow. He denounced toleration, and advocated a Catholic restoration to belief. The right of private judgment, introduced by Descartes and Leibnitz into philosophy and science, by Luther into religion, and by Rousseau arid the Encyclopedists into politics and society, had, he contended, terminated in practical atheism and spiritual death. Ecclesiastical authority, founded on the absolute revelation delivered to .the Jewish people, but supported by the universal tradition of all nations, he proclaimed to be the sole hope of regenerating the European communities. In 1824 the fourth volume completed the work, and the Defence of the same date indicates the violent opposition lie met with, not only from his natural enemies, the lovers of personal freedom in thought, science, and politics, sacred or civil, but from the Galilean bishops and monarchists, because he argued that all authority rests in the Holy See, and from his ultramontane friends, because he dared to support the Christian revelation by an analysis of human, or, as they considered, profane tradition.

Meanwhile Lamennais had become journalist on the Conserrateur, with Chateaubriand, De Bonald, and De Villele for his fellows in essentially political work. When in 1820 De Villele became the chief of the ultras, or friends of absolute monarchy, Lamennais, who was not the monarchist they thought him, left the Conservateur with other contributors, named "the incorruptibles," and in the Drab eau Maw and in the Memorial Catholique he opposed his previous comrade. His principles compelled him to draw a firm line as to the divine right of even legitimate kings, especially in connexion with church supremacies. In 1823 he was before the tribunals for an article in the Drapeau Blanc. He went to Rome in 1824, and Pope Leo. XII., his admirer, offered him the cardinal's hat, which he refused. On his return he published Religion in its Relations to Civil and Political Order, the first volume of which was a picture of the religious state of France, and the second an attack on the competence of the assembly of the clergy in 1682 to decree the liberties of the Gallivan Church. The law accepting these liberties, Lamennais was summoned before the state courts, and with all France keenly interested was condemned to pay a fine. From this time he broke with the legitimists and the liberals, and Rome became to him the only seat of the social problem. His ideal was a pure theocracy.

BLit in the Progress of the Devolution and War against the Church the element of popular political liberty began to appear, modifying such infallibility of the bead of the church as deposing of princes and dispensing with oaths of allogiance taken by their subjects implied. The revolution of 1830 increased his popular leanings, and in the journal L'Avenir, which he founded in September with the mottoes "God and Liberty," "The Pope and the People," theories strange to ultramontanism were broached. With Lacordaire, Montalembert, Gerbet, and other disciples, he demanded rights of local administration, enlarged suffrage, universal and equal freedom of conscience, of instruction, of meeting, and of the press. Methods of worship were to be criticized, improved, or abolished, and all in absolute submission to papal spiritual but not temporal authority. The Jesuits and the prelates grew alarmed, and "the modern Savonarola" was denounced to Gregory XVI. On their spiritual obedience the writers of L'Avenir were ordered to suspend the journal, which they did (1831), and Lamennais, Incordaire, and Montalembert set out for Rome to get the papal pardon and blessing. They were not received, and " Catiline departed," to be overtaken by a bitter encyclical letter at Munich from the pope condemning the new doctrines. So interested was Gregory in the questions raised that under an assumed name lie published a work of refutation. To his demand of submission Lamennais signed obedience, with a saving clause as to his country and humanity. The iron had entered his soul, and deeply wounded he retired to La Chenaie, the scene of his youthful inquiries and memories. His genius had turned the entire Christian church against him, and those whom he fought for so long, the ultramontanes, were the fiercest of all his opponents. The famous Words of a Believer appeared in 1834, and his final rupture with the church took place.' "Small in size but immense in its perversity," was the pope's criticism in a new encyclical letter. A tractate of aphorisms, it has the vigour and sacred breathing of a Hebrew prophet.

Henceforth Lamennais is the apostle of the people alone. The Af,irs of Rome and the Ills of the Church and Society came, from old habit of religious discussions rather than from his real mind of 1837, or at most it was but a last word. Hodern Slavery, The Book of the People, Politics for the People, two volumes of articles from the journal of the extreme democracy, he Monde, are titles of works which show that he has arrived among the missionaries of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and he soon gets a share of their martyrdom. The Country and the Government caused him a year's imprisonment in Ste Pelagic. He struggled through difficulties of lost friendships, limited means, and personal illnesses, faithful to the last to his hardly won dogma of the sovereignty of the people, and, to judge by his contribution to Louis Blanc's Review of Political Progress, was ready for something like communism. He was named president of the "Societe de la Solidarite republicaine," which counted half a million adherents in fifteen days. The Revolution of 1848 had his sympathies, and he stirted Le People Constituant, but was compelled to stop it on 10th July, complaining that silence was for the poor ; hut again he was at the head of La Revolution Dentocratiryne et Sociale, which also succumbed. He managed his own publications ; and pamphlets without number, and at intervals volumes of Melanges, kept his influence fresh and his republican aims to the front as much as possible. In the constituent assembly he sat on the left till the coup d'etat of Napoleon III. in 1851 put an end to all hopes of popular freedom. While deputy he drew up a constitution, but it was rejected as too radical. A translation of Dante chiefly occupied him till his death in the fourth year of the second empire. He refused to be reconciled to the church, and was buried at Pere La Chaise without funeral rites, according to his own directions, moarned for by a countless concourse of democratic and other admirers.

During the most difficult time of his republican period he had one resource by which to find solace for his intellect from the noise of daily politics. From 1811 till 1846 he was engaged on the work which will remain longest as evidence of his thinking power and of his clear brilliant style, his Sketch of a Philosophy. Of the four volumes, the third, which is an exposition of art as development the modest title of the book. Some papers which he wished to be published intact after his death were kept back by the religious zeal of his brother and sister, but in 1855 and afterwards till 1859 six volumes appeared under the whole matter is of private rather than public interest, affecting the position of Lamennais in little degree.

The complete works have been published twice at Paris, in 12 volumes, 1836-37, and in 11 volumes by Pagnerre, 1844 sq. Neither edition is anything like complete, but that of Pagnerre is the more so. Besides the biographical matter given by Forgnes and Maize as preface - the former to the Posthumous Works, the latter to the Unedited Works, Sainte-Beuve has Lamennais as one of his skilful Portraits Contemporains, Castillo has him among the Portraits politiques au dix-neuvieme sieelc, and George Sand's thoughts of the Breton " can be read in Fre-nch Authors at Rome. ilohinet, Gerbet, and llegnault may be selected from many others who give personal details. Querard's Les Svpercheries Litteraires Deveil&'s, article " La Nennais," will give ample introduction to all that is known of the author's works, and of the works connected with him. (1'. SI.)

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