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A LIFE OF DE LAMENNAIS.

The appearance of a work by the Hon. W. Gibson on The Abbe de Lamennais, and the Catholic Liberal Movement in France, invites us to a new attempt to grapple with a problem which has so far met with no satisfactory solution, and probably never will. Up to a certain point we seem to follow more or less intelligently the working of the restless soul of De Lamennais; but at the last and great crisis of his life we find all our calculations at fault; “we try to understand him; we wish that penetrating into the inmost recesses of his wounded soul, we could force it to yield up its secret, and once more sympathize with him, perhaps console him; but we cannot. He is an enigma, as impenetrable as the rocks on his native shore.”

From whatever point of view the story of his life is regarded, it presents itself as a tragedy. The believing Catholic sees there the ruin of a vocation to such a work as only a few souls in the history of the Church are called to accomplish a ruin desperate and deplorable in proportion to the force of the talents and energies diverted from the right path. The non-Catholic or unbeliever cannot fail to be moved by contemplating the fruitless struggles of a mind so keen, a heart so enthusiastic in the cause of light and liberty struggles ending in failure, perplexity, confusion, and misery. But while we allow a large element of mystery in his character which will never be eliminated, yet as we return time after time to gaze upon the picture of his life, as a whole, and in its details, the seemingly discordant items begin quietly to drop into their places one after another, and to exhibit unnoticed connections; and the idea of his distinctive personality begins to shape itself into a coherent unity.

It is not our purpose here to summarize Mr. Gibson’s admirable work, or to give even an outline of so well-known a history; but rather to attempt some brief criticism of the man himself, and incidentally of his views.

Temperament and early education are among the principal determinants of character; and certainly when we contrast Feli with his brother Jean, who presumably received the same home-training, we see how largely he was the creature of temperament. Jean was by nature the “good boy,” tractable and docile; Feli, the unmanageable, the lawless, the violent. While Jean was dutifully learning his lessons to order, Feli, the obstreperous, imprisoned in the library, was feeding his tender mind with Diderot, Montaigne, Pascal, Voltaire, Rousseau, and similar diet, and at twelve exhibited such infidel tendencies as made it prudent to defer his first Communion for some ten years.

From first to last, whether we consider his childish waywardness and outbreaks of violent passion, which persevered in a less childish form through manhood; or the fits of intense depression and melancholy, alternating with spells of high nerve-tension and feverish excitement; or the restlessness and impatient energy which showed themselves always and everywhere, and at times drove him like a wild man into the woods, “seeking rest and finding none;” or the prophetic, not to say, the fanatical strain which breaks out in so much of his writing, especially in the Paroles d’un Croyant, in all alike there is evident that predominance of the imaginative and emotional elements which, combined with intellectual gifts, constitute genius as commonly understood. For such a character the training which would suffice for half a dozen good little Jeans would be wholly inadequate. So much fire and feeling ill submits to the yoke of self-restraint in matters moral or intellectual. The mind is apt to be fascinated by the brilliant pictures of the imagination and to become a slave to the tyranny of a fixed idea; while the strength of passionate desire paralyzes the power of free deliberation. It is precisely this self-restraint, the fruit of a careful education given and responded to, that we miss in De Lammenais both in his moral character and in his mind. Peace and tranquillity of soul are essential to successful thinking, more especially in philosophy; and in proportion as a brilliant imagination is a help, it is also a danger if let run riot. At times, wearied out with himself, he seems to have felt the need of retreat and quiet; but he was almost as constitutionally incapable of keeping still, as certain modern statesmen in their retirement from public life. We smile when we hear him in the violent first fervour of his conversion, talking about becoming a Trappist, and, later, a Jesuit. He knew himself better when he shrank so long and persistently from the yoke of priesthood, and when, having yielded against his truer instincts to the indiscreet zeal of pious friends, he experienced an agony of repugnance at his first Mass. With different antecedents he might have profited by the yoke, but as things stood it could but gall him.

In spite of Mr. Gibson’s contention to the contrary, it can hardly be maintained that De Lamennais was well educated in the strict sense of the expression. The evidence he adduces points to a marvellous diversity of interests, and even to close and careful reading. But on the whole he was self-taught, and a self-taught man is never educated. Without intercourse with other living minds, education is impossible. This is indeed hoisting De Lammenais with his own petard. For, according to “Traditionalism,” the mind is paralyzed by isolation, and can be duly developed only in society. An overweening self-confidence and slight regard for the labours of other thinkers usually characterizes self-taught genius. This it was that led him to cut all connection with the philosophy of the past, and to attempt to build up, single-handed, a new system to supplant that which had been the fruit of the collective mind-labour of centuries. “I shall work out,” he writes calmly to the Abbe Brute, “a new system for the defence of Christianity against infidels and heretics, a very simple system, in which the proofs will be so rigorous that unless one is prepared to give up the right of saying I am, it will be necessary to say Credo to the very end.” Only a man with a very slight and superficial acquaintance with the endeavours of previous apologists, and the extreme difficulty of the problem, could speak with such portentous self-confidence. And the result bears out this remark. For grand and imposing as is the structure of the Essai sur l’Indifference, it rests on fallacies so patent that none but a man of no philosophical training could have failed to perceive them. Here it is that the self-taught man comes to grief and often misses the mere truisms of traditional teaching.

Doubtless ecclesiastical philosophy and theology was then more than ever painfully fossilized, and altogether lifeless and out of sympathy with the spirit of the age. It needed to be quickened, adapted and applied to modern exigencies. The undue intrusion of metaphysics into the domain of positive knowledge needed checking; the value of consensus communis as a criterion required to be insisted on, defended, and exactly defined. With characteristic impetuosity, De Lamennais, like Comte, must bundle metaphysics out of doors altogether as a merely provisional but illusory synthesis, necessary for the human intellect in its adolescence, but to be discarded in its maturity; and thereupon he proceeds to erect his system of Traditionalism mid-air, quite unconscious that in clearing away metaphysics he has deprived the structure of its only possible foundation. But this is the man all over. Because there is a truth in Traditionalism, therefore, it is the whole and only truth; because metaphysics alone can do little, it is therefore unnecessary and worthless. Had he spent but a fraction of the time and trouble he gave to the elaboration of his own system, in a liberal and critical study of that which he desired to supersede, his genius might have accomplished a work for the Church which is still halting badly on its way to perfection. One feels something like anger in contemplating such hot-headed zeal standing continually in its own light, and frustrating with perverse ingenuity the very end which it was most desirous to realize. For no one can deny that from his first conversion to his unhappy death De Lamennais was dominated by the highest and noblest and most unselfish motives; that he was a man of absolute sincerity of purpose.

His earliest enthusiasm was for the defence and exaltation of the Catholic Faith, for the liberation of the Church from the bonds of nationalism and Erastianism. Even those who repudiate altogether the extreme Ultramontanism of De Maistre and De Lamennais must allow their conception to be one of the boldest and grandest which has inspired the mind of man. He realized more vividly than many that the cause of the Church and of society, of Catholicism and humanity, were one and the same. It was the very intensity and depth of his convictions that made him so importunate in pressing them on others, so intolerant of delay, so infuriated by opposition. For indeed nothing is more common than to find a thousand selfishnesses co-existing and interfering with a dominant unselfishness, lessening or totally destroying its fruitfulness for good. A man who is unselfish enough to devote his fortune to charity will not necessarily be free from faults which may more than undo the good he proposes.

The same hastiness of thought which moved him to a wholesale, indiscriminate condemnation of metaphysics, led him to conclude that because hitherto no happy adjustment of the relations between Church and State had been devised, there could be no remedy save in their total severance. Doubtless such a severance would be better, if Gallicanism were the only alternative; or if the Church’s liberty and efficiency were to be seriously curtailed. A superficial glance might fancy a fundamental discrepancy in this matter, as well as in the questions of toleration, and of the freedom of the press, between the official teaching of Gregory XVI. and Pius IX., and that of Leo XIII. But a closer inspection shows no alteration of principle, and only a recognition of altered circumstances, either necessitating a connivance at inevitable evils, or totally changing the aspect of the question. But De Lamennais should have learnt from his own teaching that liberty does not mean the independence of isolation, but the full enjoyment of all the means necessary for perfect self-development; that it does not mean the weakness of dissociation, but the strength of a perfectly organized association for mutual help and protection. And this holds good, not for individuals alone, but for societies, and for Church and State. Aiming at one common end, the perfection of humanity, they cannot but gain by association and lose by dissociation. Each is weaker even, in its own sphere, apart from the other. It is an unreal abstraction that splits man into two beings a body and a soul; that draws a clean, hard-and-fast line between his temporal and eternal welfare; that commits the former interest to one society, the latter to another, absolutely distinct and unconnected. But all this holds true only in the hypothesis of a nation of Christians or Theists.

When a large fraction of the community has ceased to believe in Christianity and the Church, the demands of justice and reason are different. It may well be allowed that, to determine the exact relation of the Catholic Church and Christian State, and the law of their organization into one complex society, is a problem for whose perfect solution we must wait the further development of the ideas of ecclesiastical and civil society. But to wait for growth of subjective truth was just what De Lamennais could not do. He saw that past solutions of the problem had been unsuccessful; that in most cases the Church was eventually drawn into bondage under the State as its creature and instrument in the cause of tyranny and oppression; that it was insensibly permeated with the local and national spirit, differentiated from Catholic Christendom, and severed from the full influence of its head, the Vicar of Christ. The independence of the Church he rightly judged to be the great safeguard of the people against the tyranny of their temporal rulers. In the face of that world-wide spiritual society, whose voice was at once the voice of humanity and the voice of God, he felt that “iniquity would stop its mouth,” and injustice be put to shame. Yet all this seemed to him impossible so long as the Church depended on the State for temporalities, and because he could devise no form of association that would be guarantee against all abuses, he therefore insisted on total, severance, not merely as expedient for the present pressure, but as a divine and eternal principle.

When, therefore, it seemed to him that Gregory XVI. had condemned Ultramontanism, it was, to De Lamennais, as though he had condemned the cause of the Church and of humanity, and thrown the weight of his authority into that of Gallicanism. Here again we see how his mental intensity and impatience reduced him to the dilemma which found solution in his apostasy. Holding as he did to the Papal infallibility in a form far more extreme than that subsequently approved by the Vatican Council, he was bound in consistency to accept the Pope’s decision as infallible in respect to its expediency and in all its detail. Thus it seemed to him that the ideal for which he had lived was shattered by a self-inflicted blow. The infallible voice of humanity had declared against the cause of humanity. He found himself compelled, in virtue of his principles, to choose between two alternatives. Either the cause of humanity, as he conceived it, was not the cause of God; or else the Pope was not the Vicar of Christ and the divinely-appointed guardian of that cause. But of the two denials the former was now to him the least tolerable. “Catholicism,” he said, “was my life, because it was that of humanity.” Sacramenta, propter homines; the Church was made for man, and not man for the Church. Given the dilemma, who shall blame his choice? But the dilemma was purely subjective and imaginary. Though truths are never irreconcilable, the exaggerations of truth may well be so.

Had he possessed that intellectual patience in perplexity, without which not only faith, but true science, is impossible, he would have been driven not to apostasy, but to a careful re-sifting of his views, issuing, perhaps, in a reconciliation of apparently adverse positions, or at all events in a confession of subjective, uncertainty and confusion. Faith, in the wider sense of the word, would have bid him to believe, without seeing, what we have lived to see under Leo XIII.

This seems to be the intellectual aspect of his defection, though of course there were many accelerating causes at work. Perhaps if Gregory XVI. had met his appeal with a few words of simple explanation and advice, instead of with that mysterious reticence which is falsely supposed to be the soul of diplomacy, the issue might have been as happy as it was miserable. De Lamennais himself, in his Affaires de Rome, makes the same remark in so many words. Again, the illiberal and ungenerous persecution of his triumphant adversaries, who endeavoured to goad him into some open act of rebellion in order to bring him under still heavier condemnation, can scarcely have failed to embitter and harden a soul naturally disposed to pessimism and melancholy. Nor can we omit from the influences at work upon him, that dramatic instinct which makes a mediocre and colourless attitude impossible for those who are strongly under its influence. Perhaps no nation is more governed by it than the French, with their partiality for tableaux and sensation; and in De Lamennais its presence was most marked, as the pages of his Paroles will witness. In the Too Late with which he received the overtures of Pius IX.; in the studied sensationalism of his funeral arrangements, and in many other minute points, we are made sensible that if his life culminated in a tragedy, the tragic aspect of it was not altogether displeasing to him. Still it would be a grievous slur on so great a character to suppose that such a weakness could have had any considerable part in his steady and deliberate refusal to see a priest at the last. This is sufficiently accounted for by the fact that he believed he could not be absolved without accepting the condemnation of his own views, and so abandoning the cause of humanity. While under the spell of his imaginary dilemma, he was constrained to follow the rule for a perplexed conscience, and to choose what seemed to him the less of two evils.

After his ideal had been destroyed, and the Church could no longer be for him the Saviour of the Nations, he threw himself without reserve into the cause of humanity and liberty. But his aims were now almost entirely destructive and revolutionary. His enthusiasm was rather a hatred of the things that were, than an ardent zeal for the things that ought to be; and the bitter elements in his character become more and more accentuated as he finds himself gradually thrust aside and forgotten cast off by the Church, ignored by the revolution. Even his friends, with one or two exceptions, dropped off one by one; some fleeing like rats from a sinking ship, others perplexed at his obstinacy or offended by his violence; others removed by death or distance; and we see him in his old age poor and lonely, and intensely unhappy.

When dangerously ill in 1827, he exclaimed, on being told that it was a fine night, “For my peace, God grant that it may be my last.” The prayer was not heard, for, as he felt on his recovery, God had a great work for him to do. How that work was done we have just seen. Feli de Lamennais, who would have been buried as a Christian in 1827, was buried as an infidel in 1854.

It is vain to contend that he was not a man of prayer. That he had a keen discernment in spiritual things is evident from his Commentary on the Imitation and his other spiritual writings, as well as from the testimony of his young disciples at La Chênaie, to whom he was not merely a brilliant teacher, a most affectionate friend and father, but also a trusted guide in the things of God. Yet this would be little had we not also assurance of his personal and private devoutness.

All this would make his unfortunate ending a stumbling-block to those who cannot acquiesce in the fact that in every soul tares and wheat in various proportions grow side by side, and that which growth is to be victorious is not possible to predict with certainty; who deem it impossible that one who ends ill could ever have lived well; or that one who loses his faith, or any other virtue, could ever at any time have really possessed it. There is indeed some kind of double personality in us all which is perhaps more observable in strongly-marked characters like De Lamennais, where, so to say, the bifurcating lines are produced further. Proud men have occasional moods of genuine humility; and habitual bitterness is allayed by intervals of sweetness; and conversely, there are ugly streaks in the fairest marble.

And as to the fate of that restless soul, who shall dare to speak dogmatically? We cling gladly to the story of the tear that stole down his face in death, and would fain see in it some confirmation of the view according to which the soul receives in that crucial hour a final choice based on the collective experience of its mortal life. We would hope that as there is a baptism of blood or of charity, so there may perhaps be some uncovenanted absolution for one who so earnestly loved mankind at large, and especially the poor and the oppressed; who in his old age and misery was found by their sick-bed; who willed to be with them in his death and burial. And yet we feel something of that agonizing uncertainty which forced from the aged Abbe Jean the bitter cry, “Feli, Feli, my brother!”

Jan. 1897.