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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Grace Elizabeth King (1852–1932)

By Félicité Robert de Lamennais (1782–1854)

HUGUES FÉLICITÉ ROBERT DE LAMENNAIS was born at St. Malo in 1782. His family, the Roberts, belonged to the old bourgeoisie of Brittany. The seigneurial termination of De La Mennais came from his father, a wealthy ship-owner, who was ennobled by Louis XVI. for services during the American war. His mother, of Irish extraction, was noted for her brilliant accomplishments and fervid piety. The mother dying when Félicité was but five years old, the child was left by his busy, preoccupied father entirely in the care of an elder brother, Jean, and of an eccentric free-thinking uncle, who lived in the country in his château of La Chenaie. From Jean, Félicité received the rudiments of his education; and almost at the same time, such was his precocity, he acquired in the great library of La Chenaie the erudition of constant and indiscriminate reading. Hence his first misunderstanding by, rather than with, his Church. In the instruction for his first communion, certain points aroused his spirit of discussion, and into the argument with the priest he poured the mass of his ill-digested philosophical reading: the result was that he was refused the communion. It was not until his twenty-second year upon the occasion of his brother Jean’s ordination, that he rectified his position and became an active member of his church. Shortly afterward, the two brothers, having inherited jointly La Chenaie from their uncle, retired there. From this retreat, two years later, 1807, appeared Lamennais’s first literary essay: a ‘Guide Spirituel,’ the translation of Louis de Blois’s tract the ‘Speculum Monacharum.’ The translation, perfect in itself, is accompanied by a preface which in pure spirituality of thought and expression equals, if it does not surpass, the original tract. Lamennais himself never afterwards surpassed it. It was his next publication a year later, however, that sounds the true note, the war-cry of his genius,—his ‘Reflections upon the State of the Church during the Eighteenth Century and the Actual Situation,’—a fierce arraignment of the despotism which held the Church in a cringing position before the government. The book, published anonymously, was promptly suppressed by Napoleon’s police. Jean, now Vicar of St. Malo and director of the ecclesiastical seminary there, withdrew his brother from La Chenaie, and gave him the position of professor of mathematics in the seminary, persuading him about the same time to receive the tonsure. In collaboration the two brothers wrote ‘The Tradition of the Church on the Institution of Bishops.’ The downfall of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbons opportunely opening the way to Paris, Félicité went thither with the manuscript. The book came out, but it did not sell.

Polemical by nature, the project of an ecclesiastical journal, a Catholic organ, came to him as a necessity of the hour; but, helplessly dependent upon his brother, he urged him to come to Paris and make the venture a possible one. Jean refused to be diverted from his vocation as parish priest. The return of Napoleon put an end to situation and projects. Lamennais went into exile in London. Friendless and without resources, he was wandering around the streets in search of employment, when he met the Abbé Caron, the dispenser of royal charity to French exiles in London. The Abbé befriended Lamennais, and in the end gained over him an influence similar to that of his brother Jean. As a result of their intimacy, and before the Hundred Days were over, Lamennais was persuaded to take the last step in his profession and become a priest. It is in elucidating this period of Lamennais’s life that the publication of his private letters has been of most service to his memory. When he returned to Paris he was ordained priest. Two years later the first volume of his ‘Essay on Indifference in Matters of Religion’ appeared. Its success was instantaneous and immense. To quote Sainte-Beuve: “Its effect upon the world was that of a sudden explosion; the author was bombarded into celebrity by it.” Lamennais was soon surrounded by a party of the most brilliant men among the clergy and laity. The essay, falling into the hands of the law-student Lacordaire, converted him into a student of theology. It must suffice here to state that Lamennais’s creed at this time was that of the strictest Ultramontane. Upon the appearance of the second volume, the debate which the first volume caused waxed into a violent tempest of discussion. To satisfy the orthodox an appeal was made to Rome. Lamennais himself went there for a personal interview with the Pope. He was welcomed by Leo XII. as the foremost living champion of the Church; and returned to Paris, encouraged to continue his warfare. He now entered the period of his highest ecclesiastical devotion and his greatest literary activity. He wrote for Chateaubriand’s paper the Conservateur, for the Drapeau Blanc, and for the Mémorial Catholique; he published his ‘Religion Considered in its Relations to Civil and Political Order,’ and his ‘Progress of the Revolution and of the War against the Church,’ for both of which he was prosecuted and fined; his famous open letters to the Archbishop of Paris appeared.

Lamennais came revolutionized out of the Revolution of July (1830), and joined the Liberals in politics. It was the beginning of the struggle which now took place in his mind between his Ultramontane ideal and his ideal of political liberty. With Montalembert and Lacordaire for associates, he founded the Avenir, which bore for its motto and had for its platform “God and Liberty”; and he organized an agence générale, a secular arm to carry its principles into practice. The government, the Gallicans, and the Jesuits combined into an overwhelming opposition against the Avenir; and Lamennais was denounced to the Pope, Gregory XVI., as a modern Savonarola. The Avenir was ordered to suspend; the editors obeyed, starting immediately for Rome. Lamennais published the account of this journey years afterwards; the book furnishes to the religious and political history of the nineteenth century a page that can never lose its value or interest. It is a masterpiece.

After long days of waiting in Rome, an interview was obtained from the Pope upon condition that no allusion should be made to the object of the interview; after another wearisome period of waiting for definite action or response from the Vatican, the pilgrims decided to return to Paris. At Munich the Pope’s encyclical overtook them; it condemned political freedom in some of its most essential forms. Lamennais wrote an act of submission to the Pope; but it was not an unqualified pledge of adherence to the encyclical, and of absolute obedience to the Pope in temporal as well as spiritual matters. The Pope in a brief, demanded this. Lamennais hesitated, struggled; the pressure of his most intimate affections was brought to bear upon him; “The arts adopted against him,” writes Mazzini, “constituted a positive system of moral torture.” He signed the act of submission demanded, and retired to his old refuge, La Chenaie. Here a small group of devoted scholars gathered around him; among them was Maurice de Guérin, who has described the place and the master in his letters. Before the year was over, the ‘Words of a Believer’ appeared in print. Its effect also was that of an explosion. Sainte-Beuve, who superintended the publication of it, found the printers abandoning their work at it, awe-struck by reading the pages. A council of ministers was called. “It is a red cap stuck on a cross,” said one; “That book could wake the dead,” said the Archbishop of Paris. Guizot demanded the prosecution of the author; the insane asylum was suggested. A hundred thousand copies were sold immediately; it was translated into all European languages. Gregory XVI. condemned its contents as “falsas, calumniosas, temerarias,… impias, scandalosas, erroneas.” In Mazzini’s words: “The priest of the Romish Church became the priest of the church universal.”

‘Modern Slavery,’ the ‘Book of the People,’ ‘Politics for the People,’ followed. A paper on ‘The Country and the Government’ cost Lamennais three months’ imprisonment. For eighteen years he now fought with incessant activity in the ranks of the Radicals, and contributed to the most pronounced Radical papers. He served in the Constituent Assembly, and as member of the Committee on Constitution drew up a draught that was rejected as too radical. He changed the aristocratic form of his name into the familiar Lamennais. The Coup d’Etat of Napoleon, by destroying all hopes of political liberty, freed him from politics; as the encyclical of the Pope, by destroying all hopes of religious liberty, freed him from the Church. Estranged friends, resentful pride, straitened resources, and ill health, are the private chronicle of his life of retirement; during which he employed his indefatigable mind upon a ‘Sketch of Philosophy’ in four volumes, and a translation of Dante.

In January 1854, seized with his last illness, he expired, surrounded by a few devoted friends, who enforced his orders against priestly visits. According to his instructions, no religious services were held over his body; he was conveyed to the cemetery in the hearse of the city poor, and was buried in the common trench, no cross or name marking the spot. Twenty thousand people, headed by Lamartine, Béranger, and Cousin, followed the funeral.