Recollections of My Youth/The Issy Seminary/Part II

The Issy Seminary/Part IIEdit

As I have already explained, the two years of philosophy which serve as an introduction to the study of theology are spent, not in Paris, but at the country house of Issy, situated in the village of that name outside Paris, just beyond the last houses of Vaugirard. The seminary is a very long building at one end of a large park, and the only remarkable feature about it is the central pavilion, which is so delicate and elegant in style that it will at once take the eye of a connoisseur. This pavilion was the suburban residence of Marguerite de Valois, the first wife of Henri IV., between the year 1606 and her death in 1615. This clever but not very strait-laced princess (upon whom, however, we need not be harder than was he who had the best right to be so) gathered around her the clever men of the day, and the Petit Olympe d'Issy, by Michel Bouteroue,[1] gives a good description of this bright and witty court. The verses are as follows:

Je veux d'un excellent ouvrage,
Dedans un portrait racourcy,
Representer le paisage
Du petit Olympe d'Issy,
Pourven que la grande princesse,
La perle et fleur de l'univers,
A qui cest ouvrage s'addresse,
Veuille favoriser mes vers.

Que l'ancienne poesie
Ne vante plus en ses ecrits
Les lauriers du Daphne d'Asie
Et les beaux jardins de Cypris,
Les promenoirs et le bocage
Du Tempe frais et ombrage,
Qui parut lors qu'un marescage
En la mer se fut descharge.

Qa'on ne vante plus la Touraine
Pour son air doux et gracieux,
Ny Chenonceaus, qui d'une reyne
Fut le jardin delicieux,
Ny le Tivoly magnifique
Ou, d'un artifice nouveau,
Se faict une douce musique
Des accords du vent et de l'eau.

Issy, de beaute les surpasse
En beaux jardins et pres herbus,
Dignes d'estre au lieu de Parnasse
Le sejour des soeurs de Phebus.
Mainte belle source ondoyante,
Decoulant de cent lieux divers,
Maintient sa terre verdoyante
Et ses arbrisseaux toujours verds.

  • * * * *


Un vivier est a l'advenuee
Pres la porte de ce verger,
Qui, par une sente cognuee,
En l'estang se va descharger;
Comme on voit les grandes rivieres
Se perdre au giron de la mer,
Ainsi ces sources fontenieres
En l'estang se vont renfermer.

  • * * * *


Une autre mare plus petite,
Si l'on retourne vers le mont,
Par l'ombre de son boys invite
De passer sur un petit pont,
Pour aller au lieu de delices,
Au plus doux sejour du plaisir,
Des mignardises, des blandices,
Du doux repos et du loysir.

After the death of Queen Marguerite, the house was sold and it belonged in turn to several Parisian families which occupied it until 1655. Olier turned it to more pious uses than it had known before, by inhabiting it during the last few years of his life. M. de Bretonvilliers, his successor, gave it to the Company of St. Sulpice as a branch for the Paris house. The little pavilion of Queen Marguerite was not in any way changed, except that the paintings on the walls were slightly modified. The Venuses were changed into Virgins, and the Cupids into angels, while the emblematic paintings with Spanish mottoes in the interstices were left untouched, as they did not shock the proprieties. A very fine room, the walls of which were covered with paintings of a secular character, was whitewashed about half a century ago, but they would perhaps be found uninjured if this was washed off. The park to which Bouteroue refers in his poem is unchanged; except that several statues of holy persons have been placed in it. An arbour with an inscription and two busts marks the spot where Bossuet and Fenelon, M. Tronson and M. de Noailles had long conferences upon the subject of Quietism, and agreed upon the thirty-four articles of the spiritual life, styled the Issy Articles.

Further on, at the end of an avenue of high trees, near the little cemetery of the Company, is a reproduction of the inside of the Santa Casa of Loretta, which is a favourite spot with the residents in the seminary, and which is decorated with the emblematic paintings of which they are so fond. I can still see the mystical rose, the tower of ivory, and the gate of gold, before which I have passed many a long morning in a state betwixt sleep and waking. Hortus conclusus, fons signatus, very plainly represented by means of what may be described as mural miniatures, excited my curiosity very much, but my imagination was too chaste to carry my thoughts beyond the limits of pious wonder. I am afraid that this beautiful park has been sadly injured by the war and the Communist insurrection of 1870--71. It was for me, after the cathedral of Treguier, the first cradle of thought. I used to pass whole hours under the shade of its trees, seated on a stone bench with a book in my hand. It was there that I acquired not only a good deal of rheumatism, but a great liking for our damp autumnal nature in the north of France. If, later in life, I have been charmed by Mount Hermon, and the sunheated slopes of the Anti-Lebanon, it is due to the polarisation which is the law of love and which leads us to seek out our opposites. My first ideal is a cool Jansenist bower of the seventeenth century, in October, with the keen impression of the air and the searching odour of the dying leaves. I can never see an old-fashioned French house in the Seine-et-Oise or the Seine-et-Marne, with its trim fenced gardens, without calling up to my mind the austere books which were in bygone days read beneath the shade of their walks. Deep should be our pity for those who have never been moved to these melancholy thoughts, and who have not realised how many sighs have been heaved ere joy came into our heart.

The mutual footing upon which masters and students at St. Sulpice stand is a very tolerant one. There is not beyond doubt a single establishment in the world where the student has more liberty. At St. Sulpice in Paris, a student might pass his three years without having any close communication with a single one of the superiors. It is assumed that the regime of the establishment will be self-acting. The superiors lead just the same life as the students, and intervene as little as possible. A student who is anxious to work has the greatest of facilities for doing so. On the other hand, those who are inclined to be idle have no compulsion to work put upon them; and there are very many in this case. The examinations are very insignificant in scope; there is not the least attempt at competition, and if there was it would be discouraged, though when we remember that the age of the students averages between eighteen and twenty, this is carrying the doctrine of non-intervention too far. It is beyond doubt very prejudicial to learning. But after all said and done, this unqualified respect for liberty and the treating as grown-up men of the lads who are already in spirit set apart for the priesthood, are the only proper rules to follow in the delicate task of training youths for what is in the eye of the Christian the most exalted of callings. I am myself of opinion that the same rule might be applied with advantage to the department of Public Instruction, and that the Normal School more especially might in some particulars take example by it.

The superior at Issy, during my stay there, was M. Gosselin, one of the most amiable and polite men I have ever known. He was a member of one of those old bourgeois families which, without being affiliated to the Jansenists, were not less deeply attached than the latter to religion. His mother, to whom he bore a great likeness, was still alive, and he was most devoted in his respectful regard for her. He was very fond of recalling the first lessons in politeness which she gave him somewhere about 1796. He had accustomed himself in his childhood to adopt a usage which it was at that time dangerous to repudiate, and to use the word citizen instead of monsieur. As soon as mass began to be celebrated after the Revolution, his mother took him with her to church. They were nearly the only persons in the church, and his mother bade him go and offer to act as acolyte to the priest. The boy went up timidly to the priest, and with a blush said, "Citizen, will you allow me to serve mass for you?" "What are you saying!" exclaimed his mother; "you should never use the word citizen to a priest." His affability and kindness were beyond all praise. He was very delicate, and only attained an advanced age by exercising the strictest care over himself. His engaging features, wan and delicate, his slender body, which did not half fill the folds of his cassock, his exquisite cleanliness, the result of habits contracted in childhood, his hollow temples, the outlines of which were so clearly marked behind the loose silk skull-cap which he always wore, made up a very taking picture.

M. Gosselin was more remarkable for his erudition than his theology. He was a safe critic within the limits of an orthodoxy which he never thought of questioning, and he was placid to a degree. His Histoire Litteraire de Fenelon is a much esteemed work, and his treatise on the power of the Pope over the sovereign in the Middle Ages[2] is full of research. It was written at a time when the works of Voigt and Hurter revealed to the Catholics the greatness of the Roman pontiffs in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This greatness was rather an awkward obstacle for the Gallicans, as there could be no doubt that the conduct of Gregory VII. and Innocent III. was not at all in conformity with the maxims of 1682. M. Gosselin thought that by means of a principle of public law, accepted in the Middle Ages, he had solved all the difficulties which these imposing narratives place in the way of theologians. M. Carriere was rather inclined to laugh at his sanguine ideas, and compared his efforts to those of an old woman who tries to thread her needle by holding it tight between the lamp and her spectacles. At last the cotton passes so close to the eye of the needle that she says "I have done it now!"--'Not so, though she was scarcely a hairsbreadth off; but still she must begin again.

At my own inclination, and the advice of Abbe Tresvaux, a pious and learned Breton priest who was vicar-general to M. de Quelen, I chose M. Gosselin for my tutor, and I have retained a most affectionate recollection of him. No one could have shown more benevolence, cordiality and respect for a young man's conscience. He left me in possession of unrestricted liberty. Recognising the honesty of my character, the purity of my morals and the uprightness of my mind, it never occurred to him for a moment that I could be led to feel doubt upon subjects about which he himself had none. The great number of young ecclesiastics who had passed through his hands had somewhat weakened his powers of diagnosis. He classed his students wholesale, and I will, as I proceed, explain how one who was not my tutor read far more clearly into my conscience than he did, or than I did myself. Two of the other tutors, M. Gottofrey, one of the professors of philosophy, and M. Pinault, professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, were in every respect a contrast to M. Gosselin. The first named, a young priest of about seven and twenty, was, I believe, only half a Frenchman by descent. He had the bright rosy complexion of a young Englishwoman, with large eyes which had a melancholy candid look. He was the most extraordinary instance which can be conceived of suicide through mystical orthodoxy. He would certainly have made, if he had cared to do so, an accomplished man of the world, and I have never known any one who would have been a greater favourite with women. He had within him an infinite capacity for loving. He felt that he had been highly gifted in this way; and then he set to work, in a sort of blind fury, to annihilate himself. It seemed as if he discerned Satan in those graces which God had so liberally bestowed upon him. He boiled with inward anger at the sight of his own comeliness; he was like a shell within which a puny evil genius was ever busy in crushing the inner pearl. In the heroic ages of Christianity, he would have sought out the keen agony of martyrdom, but failing that he paid such constant court to death that she, whom alone he loved, embraced him at last. He went out to Canada, and the cholera which raged at Montreal gave him an excellent opportunity for attaining his end. He nursed the sick with eager joy and died.

I have always thought that there must have been a hidden romance in the life of M. Gottofrey, and that he had undergone some disappointment in love. He had perhaps expected too much from it, and finding that it was not boundless, had broken it as he would an idol. At all events he was not one of those who, knowing how to love have not known how to die. At times I fancy that I can see him in heaven amid the hosts of rosy-hued angels which Correggio loved to paint: at others, I imagine that the woman whom he might have taught to love him to distraction is scourging him through all eternity. Where he was unjust was in making his reason, which was in nowise to blame, suffer for the perturbation of his uneasy nature (or spirit). He practised the studied absurdity of Tertullian and emulated the exaltation of St. Paul. His lectures on philosophy were an absolute travesty, as his contempt for philosophy was made apparent in every sentence; and M. Gosselin, who set great value upon the divinity of the schools, quietly endeavoured to counteract his teaching. But fanaticism does not always prevent people from being clear-sighted. M. Gottofrey noticed something peculiar about me, and he detected that which had escaped the paternal optimism of M. Gosselin. He stirred my conscience to its very depths, as I shall presently explain, and with an unrelenting hand tore asunder all the bandages with which I had disguised even from myself the wounds of a faith already severely stricken.

M. Pinault was very much like M. Littre in respect to his concentrated passion and the originality of his ways. If M. Littre had received a Catholic education, he would have gone to the extreme of mysticism; if M. Pinault had not received a Catholic education he would have been a revolutionist and positivist. Men of their stamp always go to one extreme or another. The very physiognomy of M. Pinault arrested attention. Eaten up by rheumatism, he seemed to embody in his person all the ways in which a body may be contorted from its proper shape. Ugly as he was, there was a marked expression of vigour about his face; but in direct contrast to M. Gosselin, he was deplorably lacking in cleanliness. While he was lecturing he would use his old cloak and the sleeves of his cassock as if it were a duster to wipe up anything; and his skull-cap, lined with cotton wool to protect him from neuralgia, formed a very ugly border round his head. With all that he was full of passion and eloquence, somewhat sarcastic at times, but witty and incisive. He had little literary culture, but he often came out with some unexpected sally. You could feel that his was a powerful individuality which faith kept under due control, but which ecclesiastical discipline had not crushed. He was a saint, but had very little of the priest and nothing of the Sulpician about him. He did violence to the prime rule of the Company, which is to renounce anything approaching talent and originality, and to be pliant to the discipline which enjoys a general mediocrity.

M. Pinault had at first been professor of mathematics in the university. In associating himself with studies which, in our view, are incompatible with faith in the supernatural and fervent catholicism, he did no more than M. Cauchy, who was at once a mathematician of the first order and a more fervent believer than many members of the Academy of Sciences who are noted for their piety. Christianity is alleged to be a supernatural historical fact. The historical sciences can be made to show--and to my mind, beyond the possibility of contradiction--that it is not a supernatural fact, and that there never has been such a thing as a supernatural fact. We do not reject miracles upon the ground of a priori reasoning, but upon the ground of critical and historical reasoning, we have no difficulty in proving that miracles do not happen in the nineteenth century, and that the stones of miraculous events said to have taken place in our day are based upon imposture and credulity. But the evidence in favour of the so-called miracles of the last three centuries, or even of those in the Middle Ages, is weaker still; and the same may be said of those dating from a still earlier period, for the further back one goes, the more difficult does it become to prove a supernatural fact. In order thoroughly to understand this, you must have been accustomed to textual criticism and the historical method, and this is just what mathematics do not give. Even in our own day, we have seen an eminent mathematician fall into blunders which the slightest knowledge of historical science would have enabled him to avoid. M. Pinault's religious belief was so keen that he was anxious to become a priest. He was allowed to do very little in the way of theology, and he was at first attached to the science courses which in the programme of ecclesiastical studies are the necessary accompaniment of the two years of philosophy. He would have been out of place at St. Sulpice with his lack of theological knowledge and the ardent mysticism of his imagination. But at Issy, where he associated with very young men who had not studied the texts, he soon acquired considerable influence. He was the leader of those who were full of ardent piety--the "mystics," as they are now called. All of them treated him as their director, and they formed, as it were, a school apart, from which the profane were excluded, and which had its own important secrets. A very powerful auxiliary of this party was the lay doorkeeper of the college, Pere Hanique, as we called him. I always excite the wonder of the realists when I tell them that I have seen with my own eyes, a type which, owing to their scanty knowledge of human society, has never come beneath their notice, viz., the sublime conception of a hall-porter who has reached the most transcendent limits of speculation. Hanique in his humble lodge was almost as great a man as M. Pinault. Those who aimed at saintliness of life consulted him and looked up to him. His simplicity of mind was contrasted with the savant's coldness of soul, and he was adduced as an instance that the gifts of God are absolutely free. All this created a deep division of feeling in the college. The mystics worked themselves up to such a pitch of mental tension that several of them died, but this only increased the frenzy of the others. M. Gosselin had too much tact to offer them a direct opposition, but for all that, there were two distinct parties in the college, the mystics acting under the immediate guidance of M. Pinault and Pere Hanique, while the "good fellows" (as we modestly entitled ourselves) were guided by the simple, upright, and good Christian counsels of M. Gosselin. This division of opinion was scarcely noticeable among the masters. Nevertheless, M. Gosselin, disliking anything in the way of singularities or novelties, often looked askance at certain eccentricities. During recreation time he made a point of conversing in a gay and almost worldly tone, in contrast to the fine frenzy which M. Pinault always imported into his observations. He did not like Pere Hanique and would not listen to any praise of him, perhaps because he felt the impropriety of a hall-porter being taken out of his place and set up as an authority on theology. He condemned and prohibited the reading of several books which were favourites with the mystical set, such as those of Marie d'Agreda. There was something very singular about M. Pinault's lectures, as he did not make any effort to conceal his contempt for the sciences which he taught and for the human intelligence at large. At times he would nearly go to sleep over his class, and altogether gave his pupils anything but a stimulus to work; and yet with all that he still had in him remnants of the scientific spirit which he had failed to destroy. At times he had extraordinary flashes of genius, and some of his lectures on natural history have been one of the bases of my philosophical strain of thought. I am much indebted to him, but the instinct for learning which is in me, and which will, I trust, remain alive until the day of my death, would not admit of my remaining long in his set. He liked me well enough, but made no effort to attract me to him. His fiery spirit of apostleship could not brook my easy-going ways, and my disinclination for research. Upon one occasion he found me sitting in one of the walks, reading Clarke's treatise upon the Existence of God. As usual, I was wrapped up in a heavy coat. "Oh! the nice little fellow," he said, "how beautifully he is wrapped up. Do not interfere with him. He will always be the same. Fie will ever be studying, and when he should be attending to the charge of souls he will be at it still. Well wrapped up in his cloak, he will answer those who come to call him away: 'Leave me alone, can't you?'" He saw that his remark had gone home. I was confused but not converted, and as I made no reply, he pressed my hand and added, with a slight touch of irony, "He will be a little Gosselin."

M. Pinault, there can be no question, was far above M. Gosselin in respect to his natural force and the hardihood with which he took up certain views. Like another Diogenes, he saw how hollow and conventional were a host of things which my worthy director regarded as articles of faith. But he did not shake me for a moment. I have never ceased to put faith in the intelligence of man. M. Gosselin, by his confidence in scholasticism, confirmed me in my rationalism, though not to so great an extent as M. Manier, one of the professors of philosophy. He was a man of unswerving honesty, whose opinions were in harmony with those of the moderate universitarian school, at that time so decried by the clergy. He had a great liking for the Scottish philosophers, and gave me Thomas Reid to study. He steadied my thoughts very much, and by the aid of his authority and that of M. Gosselin, I was enabled to put away the exaggerations of M. Pinault; my conscience was at rest, and I even got to think that the contempt for scholasticism and reason, so stoutly professed by the mystics, was not devoid of heresy, and of the worst of all heresies in the eyes of the Company of St. Sulpice, viz., the Fideism of M. de Lamennais.

Thus I gave myself over without scruple to my love for study, living in complete solitude during' two whole years. I did not once come to Paris, readily as leaves were granted. I never joined in any games, passing the recreation hours on a seat in the grounds, and trying to keep myself warm by wearing two or three overcoats. The heads of the college, better advised than I was, told me how bad it was for a lad of my age to take no exercise. I had scarcely done growing before I began to stoop. But my passion for study was too strong for me, and I gave way to it all the more readily because I believed it to be a wholesome one. I was blind to all else, but how could I suppose that the ardour for thought which I heard praised in Malebranche and so many other saintly and illustrious men was blameworthy in me, and was fated to bring about a result which I should have repudiated with indignation if it had been foreshadowed to me.

The character of the philosophy taught in the seminary was the Latin divinity of the schools--not in the outlandish and childish form which it assumed in the thirteenth century, but in the mitigated Cartesian form which was generally adopted for ecclesiastical education in the eighteenth century, and set out in the three volumes known by the name of Philosophic de Lyon. This name was given to it because the book formed part of a complete course of ecclesiastical study, drawn up a hundred years ago by order of M. de Montazet, the Jansenist Archbishop of Lyons. The theological part of the work, tainted with heresy, is now forgotten; but the philosophical part, imbued with a very commendable spirit of rationalism, remained, as recently as 1840, the basis of philosophical teaching in the seminaries, much to the disgust of the neo-Catholic school, which regarded the book as dangerous and absurd. It cannot be denied, however, that the problems were cleverly put, and the whole of these syllogistical dialectics formed an excellent course of training. I owe my lucidity of mind, more especially what skill I possess in dividing my subject (which is an art of capital importance, one of the conditions of the art of writing), to my divinity training, and in particular to geometry, which is the truest application of the syllogistical method. M. Manier mixed up with these ancient propositions the psychological analysis of the Scotch school. He had imbibed through his intimacy with Thomas Reid a great aversion to metaphysics, and an unlimited faith in common sense. Posuit in visceribus hominis sapientiam was his favourite motto, and it did not occur to him that if man, in his quest after the true and the good, has only to explore the recesses of his own heart, the Catechisme of M. Olier was a building without a foundation. German philosophy was just beginning to be known, and what little I had been able to pick up had a strangely fascinating effect upon me. M. Manier impressed upon me that this philosophy shifted its ground too much, and that it was necessary to wait until it had completed its development before passing judgment upon it. "Scottish philosophy," he said, "has a reassuring influence and makes for Christianity;" and he depicted to me the worthy Thomas Reid in his double character of philosopher and minister of the Gospel. Thus Reid was for some time my ideal, and my aspiration was to lead the peaceful life of a laborious priest, attached to his sacred office and dispensed from the ordinary duties of his calling in order to follow out his studies. The antagonism between philosophical pursuits of this kind and the Christian faith had not as yet come in upon me with the irresistible force and clearness which was soon to leave me no alternative between the renunciation of Christianity and inconsistency of the most unwarrantable kind.

The modern philosophical works, especially those of MM. Cousin and Jouffroy, were rarely seen in the seminary, though they were the constant subject of conversation on account of the discussion which they had excited among the clergy. This was the year of M. Jouffroy's death, and the pathetic despairing pages of his philosophy captivated us. I myself knew them by heart. We followed with deep interest the discussion raised by the publication of his posthumous works. In reality, we only knew Cousin, Jouffroy, and Pierre Leroux by those who had opposed them. The old-fashioned divinity of the schools is so upright that no demonstration of a proposition is complete unless followed by the formula, Solvuntur objecta. Herein are ingenuously set forth the objections against the proposition which it is sought to establish; and these objections are then solved, often in a way which does not in the least diminish the force of the heterodox ideas which are supposed to have been controverted. In this way the whole body of modern ideas reached us beneath the cover of feeble refutations. We gained, moreover, a great deal of information from each other. One of our number, who had studied philosophy in the university, would recite passages from M. Cousin to us; a second, who had studied history, would familiarise us with Augustin Thierry; while a third came to us from the school of Montalembert and Lacordaire. His lively imagination made him a great favourite with us, but the Philosophie de Lyon was more than he could endure, and he left us.

M. Cousin fascinated us, but Pierre Leroux, with his tone of profound conviction and his thorough appreciation of the great problems awaiting solution, exercised a still more potent influence, and we did not see the shortcomings of his studies and the sophistry of his mind. My customary course of reading was Pascal, Malebranche, Euler, Locke, Leibnitz, Descartes, Reid, and Dugald Stewart. In the way of religious books, my preferences were for Bossuet's Sermons and the Elevations sur les Mysttres. I was very familiar, too, with Francois de Sales, both by continually hearing extracts from his works read in the seminary, and especially through the charming work which Pierre le Camus has written about him. With regard to the more mystical works, such as St. Theresa, Marie d'Agreda, Ignatius de Loyola, and M. Olier, I never read them. M. Gosselin, as I have said, dissuaded me from doing so. The Lives of the Saints, written in an overwrought strain, were also very distasteful to him, and Fenelon was his rule and his limit. Many of the early saints excited his strongest prejudices because of their disregard of cleanliness, their scant education, and their lack of common sense.

My keen predilection for philosophy did not blind me as to the inevitable nature of its results. I soon lost all confidence in the abstract metaphysics which are put forward as being a science apart from all others, and as being capable of solving alone the highest problems of humanity. Positive science then appeared to me to be the only source of truth. In after years I felt quite irritated at the idea of Auguste Comte being dignified with the title of a great man for having expressed in bad French what all scientific minds had seen for the last two hundred years as clearly as he had done. The scientific spirit was the fundamental principle in my disposition. M. Pinault would have been the master for me if he had not in some strange way striven to disguise and distort the best traits in his talent. I understood him better than he would have wished, and, in spite of himself. I had received a rather advanced education in mathematics from my first teachers in Brittany. Mathematics and physical induction have always been my strong point, the only stones in the edifice which have never shifted their ground and which are always serviceable. M. Pinault taught me enough of general natural history and physiology to give me an insight into the laws of existence. I realised the insufficiency of what is called spiritualism; the Cartesian proofs of the existence of a soul distinct from the body always struck me as being very inadequate, and thus I became an idealist and not a spiritualist in the ordinary acceptation of the term. An endless fieri, a ceaseless metamorphosis seemed to me to be the law of the world. Nature presented herself to me as a whole in which creation of itself has no place, and in which therefore, everything undergoes transformation.[3] It will be asked how it was that this fairly clear conception of a positive philosophy did not eradicate my belief in scholasticism and Christianity. It was because I was young and inconsistent, and because I had not acquired the critical faculty. I was held back by the example of so many mighty minds which had read so deeply in the book of nature, and yet had remained Christians. I was more specially influenced by Malebranche, who continued to recite his prayers throughout the whole of his life, while holding, with regard to the general dispensation of the universe, ideas differing but very little from those which I had arrived at. The Entretiens sur la Metaphysique and the Meditations chretiennes were ever in my thoughts.

The fondness for erudition is innate in me, and M. Gosselin did much to develop it. He had the kindness to choose me as his reader. At seven o'clock every morning I went to read to him in his bedroom, and he was in the habit of pacing up and down, sometimes stopping, sometimes quickening his pace and interrupting me with some sensible or caustic remark. In this way I read to him the long stories of Father Maimbourg, a writer who is now forgotten, but who in his time was appreciated by Voltaire, various publications by M. Benjamin Guerard, whose learning was much appreciated by him, and a few works by M. de Maistre, notably his Lettre sur l'Inquisition espagnole. He did not much like this last-named treatise, and he would constantly rub his hands and say, "How plain it is that M. de Maistre is no theologian." All he cared for was theology, and he had a profound contempt for literature. He rarely failed to stigmatise as futile nonsense the highly-esteemed studies of the Nicolaites. For M. Dupanloup, whose principal dogma was that there is no salvation without a good literary education, he had little sympathy, and he generally avoided mention of his name.

For myself, believing as I do that the best way to mould young men of talent is never to speak to them about talent or style, but to educate them and to stimulate their mental curiosity upon questions of philosophy, religion, politics, science, and history--or, in other words, to go to the substance of things instead of adopting a hollow rhetorical teaching, I was quite satisfied at this new direction given to my studies. I forgot the very existence of such a thing as modern literature. The rumour that contemporary writers existed occasionally reached us, but we were so accustomed to suppose that there had not been any of talent since the death of Louis XIV., that we had an a priori contempt for all contemporary productions. Le Teleinaque was the only specimen of light literature which ever came into my hands, and that was in an edition which did not contain the Eucharis episode, so that it was not until later that I became acquainted with the few delightful pages which record it. My only glimpse of antiquity was through Teleinaque and Aristonoues, and I am very glad that such is the case. It was thus that I learnt the art of depicting nature by moral touches. Up to the year 1865 I had never formed any other idea of the island of Chios except that embodied in the phrase of Fenelon: "The island of Chios, happy as the country of Homer."

These words, so full of harmony and rhythm,[4] seemed to present a perfect picture of the place, and though Homer was not born there--nor, perhaps, anywhere--they gave me a better idea of the beautiful (and now so hapless) isle of Greece than I could have derived from a whole mass of material description.

I must not omit to mention another book, which together with Telemaque, I for a long time regarded as the highest expression of literature. M. Gosselin one day called me aside, and after much beating about the bush, told me that he had thought of letting me read a book which some people might regard as dangerous, and which, as a matter of fact, might be in certain cases on account of the vivacity with which the author expresses passion. He had, however, decided that I might be trusted with this book, which was called the Comte de Valmont. Many people will no doubt wonder what could have been the book which my worthy director thought could only be read after a special preparation as regards judgment and maturity. Le Comte de Valmont; ou, Les Egarements de la Raison, is a novel by Abbe Gerard, in which, under the cover of a very innocent plot, the author refutes the doctrines of the eighteenth century, and inculcates the principles of an enlightened religion. Sainte-Beuve, who knew the Comte de Valmont, as he knew everything, was consumed with laughter when I told him this story. But for all that the Comtede Valmont was a rather dangerous book. The Christianity set forth in it is no more than Deism, the religion of Telemaque, a sort of sentiment in the abstract, without being any particular kind of religion.[5] Thus everything tended to lull me into a state of fancied security. I thought that by copying the politeness of M. Gosselin and the moderation of M. Manier I was a Christian.

I cannot honestly say, moreover, that my faith in Christianity was in reality diminished. My faith has been destroyed by historical criticism, not by scholasticism nor by philosophy. The history of philosophy and the sort of scepticism by which I had been caught rather maintained me within the limits of Christianity than drove me beyond them. I often repeated to myself the lines which I had read in Brucker:--

"Percurri, fateor, sectas attentius omnes,
Plurima qusesivi, per singula quaque cucurri,
Nee quidquam invent melius quam credere Christo."

A certain amount of modesty kept me back. The capital question as to the truth of the Christian dogmas and of the Bible never forced itself upon me. I admitted the revelation in a general sense, like Leibnitz and Malebranche. There can be no doubt that my fieri philosophy was the height of heterodoxy, but I did not stop to reason out the consequences. However, all said and done, my masters were satisfied with me. M. Pinault rarely interfered with me. More of a mystic than a fanatic, he concerned himself but little with those who did not come immediately in his way. The finishing stroke was given by M. Gottofrey with a degree of boldness and precision which I did not thoroughly appreciate until afterwards. In the twinkling of an eye, this truly gifted man tore away the veils which the prudent M. Gosselin and the honest M. Manier had adjusted around my conscience in order to tranquillise it, and to lull it to sleep.

M. Gottofrey rarely spoke to me, but he followed me with the utmost curiosity. My arguments in Latin, delivered with much firmness and emphasis, caused him surprise and uneasiness. Sometimes, I was too much in the right; at others I pointed out the weak points in the reasons given me as valid. Upon one occasion, when my objections had been urged with force, and when some of the listeners could not repress a smile at the weakness of the replies, he broke off the discussion. In the evening he called me on one side, and described to me with much warmth how unchristian it was to place all faith in reasoning, and how injurious an effect rationalism had upon faith. He displayed a remarkable amount of animation, and reproached me with my fondness for study. What was to be gained, he said, by further research. Everything that was essential to be known had already been discovered. It was not by knowledge that men's souls were saved. And gradually working himself up, he exclaimed in passionate accents--" You are not a Christian!"

I never felt such terror as that which this phrase, pronounced in a very resonant tone, evoked within me. In leaving M. Gottofrey's presence the words "You are not a Christian" sounded all night in my ear like a clap of thunder. The next day I confided my troubles to M. Gosselin, who kindly reassured me, and who could not or would not see anything wrong. He made no effort, even, to conceal from me how surprised and annoyed he was at this ill-timed attempt upon a conscience for which he, more than any one else, was responsible. I am sure that he looked upon the hasty action of M. Gottofrey as a piece of impudence, the only result of which would be to disturb a dawning vocation. M. Gosselin, like many directors, was of opinion that religious doubts are of no gravity among young men when they are disregarded, and that they disappear when the future career has been finally entered upon. He enjoined me not to think of what had occurred, and I even found him more kindly than ever before. He did not in the least understand the nature of my mind, or in any degree foresee its future logical evolutions. M. Gottofrey alone had a clear perception of things. He was right a dozen times over, as I can now very plainly see. It needed the transcendent lucidity of this martyr and ascetic to discover that which had quite escaped those who directed my conscience with so much uprightness and goodness.

I talked too with M. Manier, who strongly advised me not to let my faith in Christianity be affected by objections of detail. With regard to the question of entering holy orders, he was always very reserved. He never said anything which was calculated either to induce me or dissuade me. This was in his eyes more or less of a secondary consideration. The essential point, as he thought, was the possession of the true Christian spirit, inseparable from real philosophy. In his eyes there was no difference between a priest, or professor of Scotch philosophy, in the university. He often dwelt upon the honourable nature of such a career, and more than once he spoke to me of the Ecole Normale. I did not speak of this overture to M. Gosselin, for assuredly the very idea of leaving the seminary for the Ecole Normale, would have seemed to him perdition.

It was decided, therefore, that after my two years of philosophy I should pass into the seminary of St. Sulpice to get through my theological course. The flash which shot through the mind of M. Gottofrey had no immediate consequence. But now at an interval of eight and thirty years, I can see how clear a perception of the reality he had. He alone possessed foresight, and I much regret now that I did not follow his impulse. I should have quitted the seminary without having studied Hebrew or theology. Physiology and the natural sciences would have absorbed me, and I do not hesitate to express my belief--so great was the ardour which these vital sciences excited in me--that if I had cultivated them continuously I should have arrived at several of the results achieved by Darwin, and partially foreseen by myself. Instead of that I went to St. Sulpice and learnt German and Hebrew, the consequence being that the whole course of my life was different. I was led to the study of the historical sciences--conjectural in their nature--which are no sooner made than they are unmade, and which will be put on one side in a hundred years time. For the day is not we may be sure, very far distant when man will cease to attach much interest to his past. I am very much afraid that our minute contributions to the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, which are intended to assist to an accurate comprehension of history, will crumble to dust before they have been read. It is by chemistry at one end and by astronomy at the other, and especially by general physiology, that we really grasp the secret of existence of the world or of God, whichever it may be called. The one thing which I regret is having selected for my study researches of a nature which will never force themselves upon the world, or be more than interesting dissertations upon a reality which has vanished for ever. But as regards the exercise--and pleasure of thought is concerned--I certainly chose the better part, for at St. Sulpice I was brought face to face with the Bible, and the sources of Christianity, and in the following chapter I will endeavour to describe how eagerly I immersed myself in this study, and how, through a series of critical deductions, which forced themselves upon my mind, the bases of my existence, as I had hitherto understood it, were completely overturned.

NotesEdit

  1. Paris, 1609-1612.
  2. First Edition, 1839; second and much enlarged edition, 1845.
  3. An essay which describes my philosophical ideas at this epoch, entitled the "Origine du Langage," first published in the Liberte de penser (September and December, 1848), faithfully portrays, as I then conceived it, the spectacle of living nature as the result and evidence of a very ancient historical development.
  4. In the French the phrase is, "L'ile de Chio, fortunee patrie d'Homere."
  5. I went a short time ago to the National Library to refresh my memory about the Comte de Valmont. Having my attention called away, I asked M. Soury to look through the book for me, as I was anxious to have his impression of it. He replied to me in the following terms: "I have been a long time in telling you what I think of the Comte de Valmont. The fact is that it was only by an heroic effort that I managed to finish it. Not but what this work is honestly conceived and fairly well written. But the effect of reading through these thousands of pages is so profoundly wearisome that one is scarcely in a position to do justice to the work of Abbe Gerard. One cannot help being vexed with him for being so unnecessarily tedious. "As so often happens, the best part of this book are the notes, that is to say, a mass of extracts and selections taken from the famous writers of the last two centuries, notably from Rousseau. All the 'proofs' and apologetic arguments ruin the work unfortunately, the eloquence and dialectics of Rousseau, Diderot, Helvetius, Holbach, and even Voltaire, differing very much from those of Abbe Gerard. It is the same with the libertines' reasons refuted by the father of the Comte de Valmont. It must be a very dangerous thing to bring forward mischievous doctrines with so much force. They have a savour which renders the best things insipid, and it is with these good doctrines that the six or seven volumes of the Comte de Valmont are filled. Abbe Gerard did not wish his work to be called a novel, and as a matter of fact there is neither drama nor action in the interminable letters of the Marquis, the Count and Emilie. "Count de Valmont is one of those sceptics who are often met with in the world. A man of weak mind, pretentious and foppish, incapable of thinking and reflecting for himself, ignorant into the bargain, and without any kind of knowledge upon any subject, he meets his hapless father with all sorts of difficulties against morality, religion and Christianity in particular, just as if he had a right to an opinion on matters the study of which requires so much enlightenment and takes up so much timed. The best thing the poor fellow can do is to reform his ways, and he does not fail to neglect doing this at nearly every volume. "The seventh volume of the edition which I have before me is entitled, La Theorie du Bonheur; ou, L' Art de se rendre Heureux mis a la Portee de tous les Hommes, faisant Suite ait 'Comte de Valmont,' Paris Bossange, 1801, eleventh edition. This is a different book, whatever the publisher may say, and I confess that this secret of happiness, brought within the reach of everybody, did not create a very favourable impression upon me."