Recollections of My Youth
Ernest Renan

Part 2 out of 4

serving under Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse, he passed several years on the
pontoons. His great delight was to go each year, when the conscription
was drawn, and humiliate the recruits by relating his experiences as
a volunteer. Regarding with contempt those who were drawing lots, he
would add: "We used not to act in this way," and he would shrug his
shoulders over the degeneracy of the age.

It is from what I have seen of these excellent sailors, and from what
I have read and heard about the peasants of Lithuania, and even of
Poland, that I have derived my ideas as to the innate goodness of our
races when they are organised after the type of the primitive clan. It
is impossible to give an idea of how much goodness and even politeness
and gentle manners there is in these ancient Celts. I saw the last
traces of it some thirty years ago in the beautiful little island of
Brehat, with its patriarchal ways which carried one back to the time
of the Pheacians. The unselfishness and the practical incapacity of
these good people were beyond conception. One proof of their nobility
was that whenever they attempted to engage in any commercial business
they were defrauded. Never in the world's history did people ruin
themselves with a lighter or more careless heart, keeping up a running
fire of paradox and quips. Never in the world were the laws of common
sense and sound economy more joyously trodden under foot. I asked my
mother, towards the close of her life, whether it was really the case
that all the members of our family whom she had known were upon as bad
terms with fortune as those whom I could remember.

"All as poor as Job," she answered me. "How could it be different?
None of them were born rich, and none of them pillaged their
neighbours. In those days the only rich people were the clergy and the
nobles. There is, however, one exception, I mean A----, who became a
millionaire. Oh! he is a very respectable person, very nearly a member
of parliament, and quite likely to become one."

"How did A---- contrive to make such a large fortune while all his
neighbours remained poor?"

"I cannot tell you that.... There are some people who are born to be
rich, while there are others who never would be so. The former have
claws, and do not scruple to help themselves first. That is just what
we have never been able to do. When it comes to taking the best piece
out of the dish which is handed round our natural politeness stands
in our way. None of your ancestors could make money. They took nothing
from the general mass, and would not impoverish their neighbours. Your
grandfather would not buy any of the national property, as others did.
Your father was like all other sailors, and the proof that he was born
to be a sailor and to fight was that he had no head for business. When
you were born we were in such a bad way that I took you on my knees
and cried bitterly. You see that sailors are not like the rest of the
world. I have known many who entered upon a term of service with
a good round sum of money in their possession. They would heat
the silver pieces in a frying-pan and throw them into the street,
splitting their sides with laughter at the crowd which scrambled for
them. This was meant to show that it was not for mercenary motives
that they were ready to risk their lives, and that honour and duty
cannot be posted in a ledger. And then there was your poor uncle
Peter. I cannot tell you what trouble he used to give me."

"Tell me about him," I said, "for somehow or other I like him very

"You saw him once; he met us near the bridge, and he lifted his hat to
you, but you were too much respected in the neighbourhood for him to
venture to speak to you, though I did not like to tell you so. He was
one of the best-natured creatures in existence, but he could never be
got to apply himself to work. He was always lounging about, passing
the best part of the day and night in taverns. He was honest and
good-hearted withal, but there was no getting him to follow any
trade. You have no idea how agreeable he was until the life he led
had exhausted him. He was a universal favourite, and with his
inexhaustible stock of tales, proverbs, and funny stories, he was
welcome everywhere. He was very well read, too, and by no means devoid
of learning. He was the oracle of the taverns, and was the life and
soul of any party at which he might be present. He effected a regular
literary revolution. Heretofore the only books which people cared for
were the _Quatre Fils d'Aymon_ and _Renaud de Montauban_. All these
ancient characters were familiar to us, and each of us had his or her
favourite hero, but Peter taught us more modern tales which he took
from books, but which he remodelled to suit the local taste.

"We had at that time a pretty good library. When the mission fathers
came to Treguier, during the reign of Charles X., the preacher
delivered such an eloquent sermon against dangerous books that we all
of us burnt any such volumes as we had. The missionary had told us
that it was better to burn too many than too few, and that, for the
matter of that, all books might under certain conditions be dangerous.
I did like the rest of the people, but your father put several upon
the top of the large wardrobe, saying that they were too handsome
to be burnt; they were _Don Quixotte, Gil Bias_, and the _Diable
Boiteux_. Peter found them there, and would read them to the common
people and to the men employed in the port. And so the whole of our
library disappeared. In this way he spent the modest little fortune
which he possessed, and became a regular vagabond, though in spite of
this he remained kind and generous, incapable of harming a worm."

"But," I rejoined, "why did not his friends send him to sea? that
would have made him more regular in his ways."

"That could never have been, for he was so popular that all his
friends would have run after him and fetched him back. You have no
idea how full of fun he was. Poor Peter! with all his faults I could
not help liking him, for he was charming at times. He could set you
off into a fit of laughter with a word. He had a knack of his own for
springing a joke upon you in the most unexpected way. I shall never
forget the evening when they came to tell me that he had been found
dead on the road to Langoat. I went and had him properly laid out. He
was buried, and the priest spoke in consoling terms about the death
of these poor waifs whose heart is not always so far from God as some
people may imagine."

Poor Uncle Pierre! I have often thought of him. This tardy esteem will
be his sole recompense. The metaphysical paradise would be no place
for him. His lively imagination, his high spirits, and his keen sense
of enjoyment constituted him for a distinct individualism in his
own sphere. My father's character was just the opposite, for he was
inclined to be sentimental and melancholy. It was when he was advanced
in years and upon his return from a long voyage that he gave me birth.
In the early dawn of my existence I felt, the cold sea mist, shivered
under the cutting morning blast and passed my bitter and gloomy watch
on the quarter-deck.



I was related on my maternal grandmother's side to a much more prim
class of people. My grandmother was a very good specimen of the
middle-classes of former days. She had been excessively pretty. I can
remember her towards the close of her life, and she was always dressed
in the fashion which prevailed at the time of her being left a widow.
She was very particular about her class, never altered her head-dress,
and would not allow herself to be addressed except as "Mademoiselle."
The ladies of noble birth had a great respect for her. When they met
my sister Henrietta they used to kiss her and say, "My dear, your
grandmother was a very respectable person, we were very fond of her.
Try to be like her." And as it happened my sister did like her very
much and took her as a pattern, but my mother, always laughing and
full of wit, differed from her very much. Mother and daughter were in
all respects a marked contrast.

The worthy burghers of Lannion and their families were models of
simplicity, honour, and respectability. Several of my aunts never
married, but they were very light-spirited and cheerful, thanks to the
innocence of their hearts. Families dwelt together in unity, animated
by the same simple faith. My aunts' sole amusement on Sundays after
mass was to send a feather up into the air, each blowing at it in turn
to prevent it from falling to the ground. This afforded them
amusement enough to last until the following Sunday. The piety of my
grandmother, her urbanity, her regard for the established order
of things are graven in my heart as the best pictures of that
old-fashioned society based upon God and the king--two props for which
it may not be easy to find substitutes.

When the Revolution broke out my grandmother was horror-struck, and
she took the lead with so many other pious persons in hiding
the priests who had refused to take the oath of fidelity to the
Constitution. Mass was celebrated in her drawing-room, and as the
ladies of the nobility had emigrated she thought it her duty to
take their place. Most of my uncles, on the other hand were ardent
patriots. When any public misfortune occurred, such, for instance, as
the treason of Dumouriez, my uncles allowed their beards to grow and
went about with long faces, flowing cravats, and untidy garments. My
grandmother would at these times indulge in delicate but rather
risky satire. "My dear Tanneguy, what is the matter with you? Has any
trouble befallen us? Has anything happened to Cousin Amelie? Is my
Aunt Augustine's asthma worse?"--"No, cousin, the Republic is in
danger."--"Oh, is that all, my dear Tanneguy? I am so glad to hear you
say so. You quite relieve me." Thus she sported for two years with
the guillotine, and it is a wonder that she escaped it. A lady named
Taupin, pious like herself, was associated with her in these good
works. The priests were sheltered by turns in her house and in that
of Madame Taupin. My uncle Y----, a very sturdy Revolutionist, but a
good-hearted man at bottom, often said to her: "My cousin, if it came
to my knowledge that there were priests or aristocrats concealed in
your house, I should be obliged to denounce you." She always used to
reply that her only acquaintances were true friends of the Republic
and no mistake about it.

So it was that Madame Taupin was the one to be guillotined. My mother
never related this incident to me without being very deeply moved. She
showed me when I was a child the spot where the tragedy was enacted.
Upon the day of the execution, my grandmother went, with all her
family, out of Lannion, so as not to participate in the crime which
was about to be committed. She went before daybreak to a chapel,
situated rather more than a mile from the town in a retired spot and
dedicated to St. Roch. Several pious persons had arranged to meet
there, and a signal was to let them know just when the knife was
about to drop so that they might all be in prayer when the soul of the
martyr was, brought by the angels before the throne of the Most High.

All this bound people together more closely than we can form any idea
of. My grandmother loved the priests and believed in their courage and
devotion to duty. She was destined to meet with a very cool reception
from one of them. When during the Consulate religious worship was
re-established, the priest whom she had sheltered at the risk of her
life was appointed incumbent of a parish near Lannion. She took my
mother, then quite a child, with her, and they walked the five miles
under a scorching sun. The thought of meeting again one whom she
had seen keeping the night watch at her house under such tragical
circumstances made her heart beat fast. The priest, whether from
sacerdotal pride or from a feeling of duty, behaved in a very strange
manner. He scarcely seemed to recognise her, never asked her to be
seated, and dismissed her with a few short remarks. Not a word of
thanks or an allusion to the past. He did not even offer her a glass
of water. My grandmother could scarcely keep from fainting; and she
returned to Lannion in tears, whether because she reproached herself
for some feminine error of the heart or because she was hurt by so
much pride. My mother never knew whether in after years she looked
back to this incident with the more of injured pride or of admiration.
Perhaps, she came at last to recognise the infinite wisdom of the
priest, who seemed to say to her, "Woman, what have I to do with
thee?" and who would not admit that he had any reason to be grateful
to her. It is difficult for women to comprehend this abstract feeling.
Their work, whatever it may be, has always a personal object in view,
and it would be hard to make them believe it natural that people
should fight shoulder to shoulder without knowing and liking one

My mother, with her frank, cheerful, and inquisitive ways, was rather
partial to the Revolution than the reverse. Unknown to my grandmother
she used to go and hear the patriotic songs. The _Chant du Depart_
made a great impression upon her, and when she repeated the stirring
line put in the mouth of the mothers,

"De nos yeux maternels ne craignez point de larmes,"

her voice was always broken. These stirring and terrible scenes had
imprinted themselves for ever upon her mind. When she began to go back
over these recollections, indissolubly bound up with the days of
her girlhood, when she remembered how enthusiasm and wild delight
alternated with scenes of terror, her whole life seemed to rise up
before her I learnt from her to be so proud of the Revolution that I
have liked it since, in spite of my reason and of all that I have said
against it. I do not withdraw anything that I have already said; but
when I see the inveterate persistency of foreign writers to try and
prove that the French Revolution was one long story of folly and
shame, and that it is but an unimportant factor in the world's
history, I begin to think that it is perhaps the greatest of all our
achievements, inasmuch as other people are so jealous of it.



Among those whom I have to thank for being more a son of the
Revolution than of the Crusaders was a singular character who was long
a puzzle to us. He was an elderly man, whose mode of life, ideas, and
habits were in striking contrast with those of the country at large.
I used to see him every day, with his threadbare cloak, going to buy
a pennyworth of milk which the girl who sold it poured into the tin
he brought with him. He was poor without being literally in want. He
never spoke to any one, but he had a very gentle look about the eyes,
and those who had happened to be brought into contact with him spoke
in very eulogistic terms of his amiability and good sense. I never
knew his name, and I do not believe that any one else did. He did not
belong to our part of the country, and he had no relations. He was
allowed to go his own way, and his singular mode of life excited no
other feeling than one of surprise; but it had not always been so.
He had passed through many vicissitudes. At one time he had been in
communication with the people of the place and had imparted some
of his ideas to them; but no one understood what he meant. The word
_system_ which he used several times tickled their fancy, and this
nickname was at once applied to him. If he had gone on imparting his
ideas he would have got himself into trouble, and the children would
have pelted him. Like a wise man he kept his tongue between his teeth,
and no one attempted to molest him. He came out every day to make
his modest purchases, and of an evening he would take a walk in some
unfrequented spot. He was of a serious but not melancholy cast of
countenance, and with more of an amiable than morose expression. Later
in life when I read Colerus's _Life of Spinoza_, I at once saw that
as a child I had had before my eyes the very image of the holy man of
Amsterdam. He was left to follow his own courses, and was even treated
with respect. His resigned and affable airs seemed like a glimpse from
another world. People did not understand him, but they felt that he
possessed higher qualities to which they paid implicit homage.

He never went to church, and avoided any occasion of having to
make external display of religious belief. The clergy were very
unfavourable to him and though they did not denounce him from the
pulpit, as he had never given any cause for scandal, his name was
always mentioned with repugnance. A peculiar incident occurred to fan
this animosity into a flame, and to involve the aged recluse in an
atmosphere of ghostly terror. He possessed a very large library,
consisting of works belonging to the eighteenth century. All those
philosophical treatises which have exercised a wider influence than
Luther and Calvin were to be found in it, and the old bookworm knew
them by heart, and eked out a living by lending them to some of
his neighbours. The clergy looked upon this as the abomination of
desolation, and strictly forbade their flocks to borrow these books.
System's lodging was looked upon as a receptacle for every kind of

I, as a matter of course, looked upon him and his books in the
same light, and it was only when my ideas upon philosophy were well
consolidated that I came to understand that I had been fortunate
enough during my youth to contemplate a truly wise man. I had no
difficulty in reconstructing his ideas by piecing together a few words
which at the time had appeared to me unintelligible, but which I had
remembered. God, in his eyes, was the order of nature, from which all
things proceed, and he would not brook contradiction upon this point.
He loved humanity as representing reason, and he hated superstition as
the negation of reason. Although he had not the poetic afflatus which
the nineteenth century has given to these great truths, System, I feel
sure, had very high and far-reaching views. He was quite in the right.
So far from failing to appreciate the greatness of God, he looked with
contempt upon those who believed that they could move Him. Lost in
profound tranquillity and unaffected humility, he saw that human error
was more to be pitied than hated. It was evident that he despised his
age. The revival of superstition, which, he thought, had been buried
by Voltaire and Rousseau, seemed to him a sign of utter imbecility in
the rising generation.

He was found dead one morning in his humble room, with his books and
papers littered all about him. This was soon after the Revolution of
1830, and the mayor had him decently interred at night. The clergy
purchased the whole of his library at a nominal price and made away
with it. No papers were found which served to elucidate the mystery
which had always surrounded him, but in the corner of one drawer
was found a packet containing some faded flowers tied up with a
tricoloured ribbon. At first this was supposed to be some love-token,
and several people built upon this foundation a romantic biography
of the deceased recluse, but the tricolour ribbon tended to discredit
this version. My mother never believed that it was the correct one.
Although she had an instinctive feeling of respect for System, she
always said to me: "I am sure that he was one of the Terrorists. I
sometimes fancy that I remember seeing him in 1793. Besides, he has
all the ways and ideas of M----, who terrorised Lannion and kept the
guillotine in constant play there during the time that Robespierre
had the upper hand." Fifteen or twenty years ago, I read the following
paragraph in a newspaper:

"There died yesterday, almost suddenly, in an unfrequented street
of the Faubourg St. Jacques, an old man whose way of living was a
constant source of gossip in the neighbourhood. He was respected in
the parish as a model of charity and kindness, but he was careful
to avoid any allusion to his past. A few works, such as Volney's
_Catechism_, and odd volumes of Rousseau, were scattered about the
table. All his property consisted of a trunk, which, when opened by
the Commissary of Police, was found to contain only a few clothes and
a faded bouquet carefully wrapped up in a piece of paper on which was
written: 'Bouquet which I wore at the festival of the Supreme Being,
20 Prairial, year II.'"

This explained the whole thing to me. I remembered how the few
disciples of the Jacobite School whom I had known were ardently
attached to the recollections of 1793-94 and incapable of dwelling
upon anything else. The twelvemonths' dream was so vivid that those
who had experienced it could not come back to real life. They were
ever haunted by the same sinister fancy; they had a _delirium tremens_
of blood. They were uncompromising in their belief, and the world at
large, which no longer pitched its note to their cry, seemed idle and
empty in their eyes. Left standing alone like the survivors of a world
of giants, loaded with the opprobrium of the human race, they could
hold no sort of communion with the living. I could quite understand
the effect which Lakanal must have produced when he returned from
America in 1833 and appeared among his colleagues of the _Academic
des Sciences Morales et Politiques_ like a phantom. I could understand
Daunou looking upon M. Cousin and M. Guizot as dangerous Jesuits. By
a not uncommon contrast these survivors of the fierce struggles and
combats of the Revolution had become as gentle as lambs. Man, to be
kind, need not necessarily have a logical basis for his kindness. The
most cruel of the Inquisitors of the middle ages, Conrad of Marburg
for instance, were the kindest of men. This we see in _Torquemada_,
where the genius of Victor Hugo shows us how a man may send his
fellows to the stake out of charity and sentimentalism.



Although the religious and too premature sacerdotal education which I
had received prevented me from being on any intimate terms with young
people of the other sex, I had several little girl-friends one of
whom more particularly has left a profound impression upon me. From an
early age I preferred the society of girls to boys, and the latter
did not like me, as I was too effeminate for them. We could not play
together, as they called me "Mademoiselle," and teased me in a variety
of ways. On the other hand, I got on very well with girls of my own
age, and they found me very sensible and steady. I was about twelve or
thirteen, and I could not account for the preference. The vague idea
which attracted me to them was, I think, that men are at liberty to do
many things which women cannot, and the latter consequently had, in
my eyes, the charm of being weak and beautiful creatures, subject in
their daily life to rules of conduct which they did not attempt to
override. All those whom I had known were the pattern of modesty.
The first feeling which stirred in me was one of pity, so to speak,
coupled with the idea of assisting them in their becoming resignation,
of liking them for their reserve, and making it easier for them. I
quite felt my own intellectual superiority; but even at that early
age, I felt that the woman who is very beautiful or very good, solves
completely the problem of which we, with all our hard-headedness, make
such a hash. We are mere children or pedants compared to her. I as yet
understood this only vaguely, though I saw clearly enough that beauty
is so great a gift that talent, genius, and even virtue are nothing
when weighed in the balance with it; so that the woman who is really
beautiful has the right to hold herself superior to everybody and
everything, inasmuch as she combines not in a creation outside of
herself, but in her very person, as in a Myrrhine vase, all the
qualities which genius painfully endeavours to reproduce.

Among these, my companions, there was, as I have said, one to whom
I was particularly attached Her name was Noemi, and she was quite a
model of good conduct and grace. Her eyes had a languid look which
denoted at once good-nature and quickness; her hair was beautifully
fair. She was about two years my senior, and she treated me partly as
an elder sister, partly with the confidential affection of one child
for another. We got on very well together, and while our friends were
constantly falling out, we were always of one mind. I tried to make
these quarrels up, but she never thought that I should be successful,
and would tell me that it was hopeless to try and make everybody
agree. These attempts at mediation, which gave us an imperceptible
superiority over the other children, formed a very pleasing tie
between us. Even now I cannot hear "_Nous n'irons plus an bois_," or
"_Il pleut, il pleut, bergere_" without my heart beating rather more
quickly than is its wont. There can be no doubt that but for the fatal
vice which held me fast, I should have been in love with Noemi two or
three years later; but I was a slave to reasoning, and my whole time
was devoted to religious dialectics. The flow of abstractions which
rushed to the head made me giddy, and caused me to be absent-minded
and oblivious of all else.

This budding affection was, moreover, turned from its course by
a peculiar defect which, has more than once been injurious to my
prospects in life. This is my indecision of character, which often
leads me into positions from which I have great difficulty in
extricating myself. This defect was further complicated in this
particular case by a good quality which has led me into as many
difficulties as the most serious of defects. There was among these
children a little girl though much less pretty than Noemi, who, gentle
and amiable as she was, did not get nearly so much notice taken of
her. She was even fonder of making me her companion than Noemi, of
whom she was rather jealous. I have never been able to do a thing
which would give pain to any one. I had a vague sort of idea that a
woman who was not very pretty must be unhappy and feel the inward pang
of having missed her fate. I was oftener, therefore, with her than
with Noemi, because I saw that she was melancholy. So I allowed my
first love to go off at a tangent, just as, later in life, I did in
politics, and in a very bungling sort of way. Once or twice I noticed
Noemi laughing to herself at my simple folly. She was always nice with
me, but at times her manner was slightly sarcastic, and this tinge of
irony, which she made no attempt to conceal, only rendered her more
charming in my eyes.

The struggles amid which I grew to manhood nearly effaced her from my
memory. In after years I often fancied that I could see her again, and
one day I asked my mother what had become of her. "She is dead," my
mother replied, "and of a broken heart. She had no fortune of her
own. When she lost her father and mother, her aunt--a very respectable
woman who kept the equally respectable Hotel ----, took her to live
there. She did the best she could. Even as a child, when you knew
her, she was charming, but at two-and-twenty she was marvellously
beautiful. Her hair--which she tried in vain to keep out of sight
under a heavy cap--came down over her neck in wavy tresses like
handfuls of ripe wheat. She did all that she could to conceal her
beauty. Her beautiful figure was disguised by a cape, and her long
white hands were always covered with mittens. But it was all of no
use. Groups of young men would assemble in church to see her at her
devotions. She was too beautiful for our country, and she was as good
as she was beautiful." My mother's story touched me very much. I have
thought of her much more frequently since, and when it pleased God to
give me a daughter I named her Noemi.



The world in its progress cares little more how many it crushes than
the car of the idol of Juggernaut. The whole of the ancient society
which I have endeavoured to portray has disappeared. Brehat has passed
out of existence. I revisited it six years ago and should not have
known it again. Some genius in the capital of the department has
discovered that certain ancient usages of the island are not in
keeping with some article of the code, and a peaceable and well-to-do
population has been reduced to revolt and beggary. These islands and
coasts which were formerly such a good nursery for the navy are so no
longer. The railways and the steamers have been the ruin of them. And
like old Breton bards, to what a case they have been brought! I found
several of them a few years ago among the Bas-Bretons who came to eke
out a miserable existence at St. Malo. One of them, who was employed
in sweeping the streets, came to see me. He explained to me in
Breton--for he could not speak a word of French--his ideas as to the
decadence of all poetry and the inferiority of the new schools. He was
attached to the old style--the narrative ballad--and he began to sing
to me the one which he deemed the prettiest of them. The subject of
it was the death of Louis XVI. He burst into tears, and when he got to
Santerre's beating of the drums he could not continue. Rising proudly
to his feet, he said: "If the king could have spoken, the spectators
would have rallied to him." Poor dear man!

With all these instances before me the case of the wealthy M.A.,
seemed to me all the more singular. When I asked my mother to explain
it to me, she always evaded an answer and spoke vaguely of adventures
on the coast of Madagascar. Upon one occasion, I pressed her more
closely and asked her how it was that the coasting trade, at which no
one had ever made money, could have made a millionaire of him. "How
obstinate you are, Ernest," she replied. "I have often told you not
to ask me that! Z---- is the only person in our circle who has any
pretensions to polish; he is in a good position; he is rich and
respected; there is no need to ask him how he made his money." "Tell
me all the same." "Well if you must know, and as people cannot get
rich without soiling their fingers more or less, he was in the slave

A noble people, fit only to serve nobles, and in harmony of ideas with
them, is in our day at the very antipodes of sound political economy,
and is bound to die of starvation. Persons of delicate ideas, who
are hampered by honourable scruples of one kind and another, stand no
chance with the matter-of-fact competitors who are the men not to let
slip any advantage in the battle of life. I soon found this out when
I began to know something of the planet in which we live, and hence
there arose within me a struggle or rather a dualism which has been
the secret of all my opinions. I did not in any way lose my fondness
for the ideal; it still is and always will be implanted in me as
strongly as ever. The most trifling act of goodness, the least spark
of talent, are in my eyes infinitely superior to all riches and
worldly achievements. But as I had a well-balanced mind I saw that the
ideal and reality have nothing in common; that the world is, at all
events for the time, given over to what is commonplace and paltry;
that the cause which generous souls will embrace is sure to be the
losing one; and that what men of refined intellect hold to be true
in literature and poetry is always wrong in the dull world of
accomplished facts. The events which followed the Revolution of
1848 confirmed all their ideas. It turned out that the most alluring
dreams, when carried into the domain of facts, were mischievous to
the last degree, and that the affairs of the world were never so well
managed as when the idealists had no part or lot in them. From that
time I accustomed myself to follow a very singular course: that is to
shape my practical judgments in direct opposition to my theoretical
judgments, and to regard as possible that which was in contradiction
with my desires. A somewhat lengthy experience had shown me that
the cause I sympathised with always failed and that the one which I
decried was certain to be triumphant. The lamer a political solution
was, the brighter appeared to me its prospect of being accepted In the
world of realities.

In fine, I only care for characters of an absolute idealism: martyrs,
heroes, utopists, friends of the impossible. They are the only persons
in whom I interest myself; they are, if I may be permitted to say so,
my specialty. But I see what those whose imagination runs away with
them fail to see, viz., that these flights of fancy are no longer of
any use and that for a long time to come the heroic follies which were
deified in the past will fall flat. The enthusiasm of 1792 was a great
and noble outburst, but it was one of those things which will not
recur. Jacobinism, as M. Thiers has clearly shown, was the salvation
of France; now it would be her ruin. The events of 1870 have by no
means cured me of my pessimism. They taught me the high value of
evil, and that the cynical disavowal of all sentiment, generosity
and chivalry gives pleasure to the world at large and is invariably
successful. Egotism is the exact opposite of what I had been
accustomed to regard as noble and good. We see that in this world
egotism alone commands success. England has until within the last
few years been the first nation in the world because she was the most
selfish. Germany has acquired the hegemony of the world by repudiating
without scruple the principles of political morality which she once so
eloquently preached.

This is the explanation of the anomaly that having on several
occasions been called upon to give practical advice in regard to
the affairs of my country, this advice has always been in direct
contradiction with my artistic views. In so doing, I have been
actuated by conscientious motives. I have endeavoured to evade the
ordinary cause of my errors; I have taken the counterpart of my
instincts and been on guard against my idealism. I am always afraid
that my mode of thought will lead me wrong and blind me to one side of
the question. This is how it is that, much as I love what is good,
I am perhaps over indulgent for those who have taken another view of
life, and that, while always being full of work, I ask myself very
often whether the idlers are not right after all.

So far as regards enthusiasm, I have got as much of it as any one;
but I believe that the reality will have none of it, and that with the
reign of men of business, manufacturers, the working class (which is
the most selfish of all), Jews, English of the old school and Germans
of the new school, has been ushered in a materialist age in which it
will be as difficult to bring about the triumph of a generous idea as
to produce the silvery note of the great bell of Notre Dame with one
cast in lead or tin. It is strange, moreover, that while not pleasing
one side I have not deceived the other. The bourgeois have not been
the least grateful to me for my concessions; they have read me better
than I can read-myself, and they have seen that I was but a poor sort
of Conservative, and that without the most remote intention of acting
in bad faith, I should have played them false twenty times over out of
affection for the ideal, my ancient mistress. They felt that the hard
things which I said to her were only superficial, and that I should be
unable to resist the first smile which she might bestow upon me.

We must create the heavenly kingdom, that is the ideal one, within
ourselves. The time is past for the creation of miniature worlds,
refined Thelemes, based upon mutual affection and esteem; but life,
well understood and well lived, in a small circle of persons who can
appreciate one another, brings its own reward. Communion of spirit is
the greatest and the only reality. This is why my thoughts revert so
willingly to those worthy priests who were my first masters, to the
honest sailors who lived only to do their duty, to little Noemi who
died because she was too beautiful, to my grandfather who would not
buy the national property, and to good Master Systeme, who was
happy inasmuch as he had his hour of illusion. Happiness consists in
devotion to a dream or to a duty; self-sacrifice is the surest means
of securing repose. One of the early Buddhas who preceded Sakya-Mouni
obtained the _nirvana_ in a singular way. He saw one day a falcon
chasing a little bird. "I beseech thee," he said to the bird of prey,
"leave this little creature in peace; I will give thee its weight from
my own flesh." A small pair of scales descended from the heavens, and
the transaction was carried out. The little bird settled itself upon
one side of the scales, and the saint placed in the other platter a
good slice of his flesh, but the beam did not move. Bit by bit the
whole of his body went into the scales, but still the scales were
motionless. Just as the last shred of the holy man's body touched the
scale the beam fell, the little bird flew away and the saint entered
into _nirvana_. The falcon, who had not, all said and done, made a bad
bargain, gorged itself on his flesh.

The little bird represents the unconsidered trifles of beauty and
innocence which our poor planet, worn out as it may be, will ever
contain. The falcon represents the far larger proportion of egotism
and gross appetites which make up the sum of humanity. The wise man
purchases the free enjoyment of what is good and noble by making over
his flesh to the greedy, who, while engrossed by this material feast,
leave him and the free objects of his fancy in peace. The scales
coming down from above represent fatality, which is not to be moved,
and which will not accept a partial sacrifice; but from which, by a
total abnegation of self, by casting it a prey, we can escape, as it
then has no further hold upon us. The falcon, for its part is content
when virtue, by the sacrifices which she makes, secures for it
greater advantages than it could obtain by the force of its own claws.
Desiring a profit from virtue, its interest is that virtue should
exist; and so the wise man, by the surrender of his material
privileges, attains his one aim, which is to secure free enjoyment of
the ideal.



Many persons who allow that I have a perspicuous mind wonder how
I came during my boyhood and youth to put faith in creeds, the
impossibility of which has since been so clearly revealed to me.
Nothing, however, can be more simple, and it is very probable that if
an extraneous incident had not suddenly taken me from the honest but
narrow-minded associations amid which my youth was passed, I should
have preserved all my life long the faith which in the beginning
appeared to me as the absolute expression of the truth. I have said
how I was educated in a small school kept by some honest priests, who
taught me Latin after the old fashion (which was the right one), that
is to say to read out of trumpery primers, without method and almost
without grammer, as Erasmus and the humanists of the fifteenth and
sixteenth century, who are the best Latin scholars since the days of
old, used to learn it. These worthy priests were patterns of all that
is good. Devoid of anything like _pedagogy_, to use the modern phrase,
they followed the first rule of education, which is not to make too
easy the tasks which have for their aim the mastering of a difficulty.
Their main object was to make their pupils into honourable men. Their
lessons of goodness and morality, which impressed me as being the
literal embodiments of virtue and high feeling, were part and parcel
of the dogma which they taught. The historical education they had
given me consisted solely in reading Rollin. Of criticism, the natural
sciences, and philosophy I as yet knew nothing of course. Of all that
concerned the nineteenth century, and the new ideas as to history
and literature expounded by so many gifted thinkers, my teachers knew
nothing. It was impossible to imagine a more complete isolation from
the ambient air. A thorough-paced Legitimist would not even admit the
possibility of the Revolution or of Napoleon being mentioned except
with a shudder. My only knowledge of the Empire was derived from the
lodge-keeper of the school. He had in his room several popular prints.
"Look at Bonaparte," he said to me one day, pointing to one of these,
"he was a patriot, he was!" No allusion was ever made to contemporary
literature, and the literature of France terminated with Abbe Delille.
They had heard of Chateaubriand, but, with a truer instinct than that
of the would-be Neo-Catholics, whose heads are crammed with all
sorts of delusions, they mistrusted him. A Tertullian enlivening his
Apologeticum with _Atala_ and _Rene_ was not calculated to command
their confidence. Lamartine perplexed them more sorely still;
they guessed that his religious faith was not built on very strong
foundations, and they foresaw his subsequent falling away. This gift
of observation did credit to their orthodox sagacity, but the result
was that the horizon of their pupils was a very narrow one. Rollin's
_Traite des Etudes_ is a work full of large-minded views compared to
the circle of pious mediocrity within which they felt it their duty to
confine themselves.

Thus the education which I received in the years following the
Revolution of 1830 was the same as that which was imparted by the
strictest of religious sects two centuries ago. It was none the worse
for that, being the same forcible mode of teaching, distinctively
religious, but not in the least Jesuitical, under which the youth of
ancient France had studied, and which gave so serious and so Christian
a turn to the mind. Educated by teachers who had inherited the
qualities of Port Royal, minus their heresy, but minus also their
power over the pen, I may claim forgiveness for having, at the age of
twelve or fifteen, admitted the truth of Christianity like any pupil
of Nicole or M. Hermant. My state of mind was very much that of so
many clever men of the seventeenth century, who put religion beyond
the reach of doubt, though this did not prevent them having very clear
ideas upon all other topics. I afterwards learnt facts which caused me
to abandon my Christian beliefs, but they must be profoundly ignorant
of history and of human intelligence who do not understand how strong
a hold the simple and honest discipline of the priests took upon the
more gifted of their students. The basis of this primitive form
of education was the strictest morality, which they inculated as
inseparable from religious practice, and they made us regard the
possession of life as implying duties towards truth. The very
effort to shake off opinions, in some respects unreasonable, had its
advantages. Because a Paris flibbertigibbet disposes with a joke of
creeds, from which Pascal, with all his reasoning powers, could not
shake himself free, it must not be concluded that the Gavroche is
superior to Pascal. I confess that I at times feel humiliated to think
that it cost me five or six years of arduous research, and the study
of Hebrew, the Semitic languages, Gesenius, and Ewald to arrive at
the result which this urchin achieves in a twinkling. These pilings
of Pelion upon Ossa seem to me, when looked at in this light, a mere
waste of time. But Pere Hardouin observed that he had not got up at
four o'clock every morning for forty years to think as all the world
thought. So I am loth to admit that I have been at so much pains to
fight a mere _chimaera bombinans_. No, I cannot think that my labours
have been all in vain, nor that victory is to be won in theology as
cheaply as the scoffers would have us believe. There are, in reality,
but few people who have a right not to believe in Christianity. If
the great mass of people only knew how strong is the net woven by the
theologians, how difficult it is to break the threads of it, how much
erudition has been spent upon it, and what a power of criticism is
required to unravel it all.... I have noticed that some men of talent
who have set themselves too late in life the task have been taken in
the toils and have not been able to extricate themselves.

My tutors taught me something which was infinitely more valuable than
criticism or philosophic wisdom; they taught me to love truth, to
respect reason, and to see the serious side of life. This is the only
part in me which has never changed. I left their care with my moral
sense so well prepared to stand any test, that this precious jewel
passed uninjured through the crucible of Parisian frivolity. I was so
well prepared for the good and for the true that I could not possibly
have followed a career which was not devoted to the things of the
mind. My teachers rendered me so unfit for any secular work that I was
perforce embarked upon a spiritual career. The intellectual life
was the only noble one in my eyes; and mercenary cares seemed to me
servile and unworthy.

I have never departed from the sound and wholesome programme which my
masters sketched out for me. I no longer believe Christianity to be
the supernatural summary of all that man can know; but I still believe
that life is the most frivolous of things, unless it is regarded as
one great and constant duty. Oh! my beloved old teachers, now nearly
all with the departed, whose image often rises before me in my
dreams, not as a reproach but as a grateful memory, I have not been so
unfaithful to you as you believe! Yes, I have said that your history
was very short measure, that your critique had no existence, and
that your natural philosophy fell far short of that which leads us to
accept as a fundamental dogma: "There is no special supernatural;"
but in the main I am still your disciple. Life is only of value by
devotion to what is true and good. Your conception of what is good was
too narrow; your view of truth too material and too concrete, but
you were, upon the whole, in the right, and I thank you for having
inculcated in me like a second nature the principle, fatal to worldly
success but prolific of happiness, that the aim of a life worth living
should be ideal and unselfish.

Most of my fellow-students were brawny and high-spirited young
peasants from the neighbourhood of Treguier, and, like most
individuals occupying an inferior place in the scale of civilization,
they were inclined to air an exaggerated regard for bodily strength,
and to show a certain amount of contempt for women and for anything
which they considered effeminate. Most of them were preparing for the
priesthood. My experiences of that time put me in a very good position
for understanding the historical phenomena, which occur when a
vigorous barbarism first comes into contact with civilization. I can
quite easily understand the intellectual condition of the Germans at
the Carlovingian epoch, the psychological and literary condition of
a Saxo Grammaticus and a Hrabanus Maurus. Latin had a very singular
effect upon their rugged natures, and they were like mastodons going
in for a degree. They took everything as serious as the Laplanders
do when you give them the Bible to read. We exchanged with regard to
Sallust and Livy, impressions which must have resembled those of the
disciples of St. Gall or St. Colomb when they were learning Latin. We
decided that Caesar was not a great man because he was not virtuous,
our philosophy of history was as artless and childlike as might have
been that of the Heruli.

The morals of all these young people, left entirely to themselves and
with no one to look after them, were irreproachable. There were very
few boarders at the Treguier College just then. Most of the students
who did not belong to the town boarded in private houses, and their
parents used to bring them in on market day their provisions for
the week. I remember one of these houses, close to our own, in which
several of my fellow-students lodged. The mistress of it, who was an
indefatigable housewife, died, and her husband, who at the best of
times was no genius, drowned what little he had in the cider-cup every
evening. A little servant-maid, who was wonderfully intelligent, took
the whole burden upon her shoulders. The young students determined to
help her, and so the house went on despite the old tippler. I always
heard my comrades speak very highly of this little servant, who was
a model of virtue and who was gifted, moreover, with a very pleasing

The fact is that, according to my experience, all the allegations
against the morality of the clergy are devoid of foundation. I passed
thirteen years of my life under the charge of priests, and I never saw
anything approaching to a scandal; all the priests I have known have
been good men. Confession may possibly be productive of evil in
some countries, but I never saw anything of the sort during my
ecclesiastical experience. The old-fashioned book which I used for
making my examinations of conscience was innocence itself. There was
only one sin which excited my curiosity and made me feel uneasy. I
was afraid that I might have been guilty of it unawares. I mustered
up courage enough, one day, to ask my confessor what was meant by the
phrase: "To be guilty of simony in the collation of benefices." The
good priest reassured me and told me that I could not have committed
that sin.

Persuaded by my teachers of two absolute truths, the first, that no
one who has any respect for himself can engage in any work that is not
ideal--and that all the rest is secondary, of no importance, not to
say shameful, _ignominia seculi_--and the second, that Christianity
embodies everything which is ideal, I could not do otherwise than
regard myself as destined for the priesthood. This thought was not the
result of reflection, impulse, or reasoning. It came so to speak, of
itself. The possibility of a lay career never so much as occurred
to me. Having adopted with the utmost seriousness and docility the
principles of my teachers, and having brought myself to consider all
commercial and mercenary pursuits as inferior and degrading, and only
fit for those who had failed in their studies, it was only natural
that I should wish to be what they were. They were my patterns in
life, and my sole ambition was to be like them, professor at the
College of Treguier, poor, exempt from all material cares, esteemed
and respected like them.

Not but what the instincts which in after years led me away from these
paths of peace already existed within me; but they were dormant. From
the accident of my birth I was torn by conflicting forces. There was
some Basque and Bordeaux blood in my mother's family, and unknown
to me the Gascon half of myself played all sorts of tricks with the
Breton half. Even my family was divided, my father, my grandfather,
and my uncles being, as I have already said, the reverse of clerical,
while my maternal grandmother was the centre of a society which knew
no distinction between royalism and religion. I recently found among
some old papers a letter from my grandmother addressed to an estimable
maiden lady named Guyon, who used to spoil me very much when I was a
child, and who was then suffering from a dreadful cancer.

TREGUIER, _March_ 19, 1831.

"Though two months have elapsed since Natalie informed me of your
departure for Treglamus, this is the first time I have had a few
moments to myself to write and tell you, my dear friend, how deeply
I sympathise with you in your sad position. Your sufferings go to my
heart, and nothing but the most urgent necessity has prevented me from
writing to you before. The death of a nephew, the eldest son of my
defunct sister, plunged us into great sorrow. A few days later, poor
little Ernest, son of my eldest daughter, and a brother of Henriette,
the boy whom, you were so fond of and who has not forgotten you, fell
ill. For forty days he was hanging between life and death, and we have
now reached the fifty-fifth day of his illness and still he does not
make much progress towards his recovery. He is pretty well in the day
time, but his nights are very bad. From ten in the evening to five
or six in the morning, he is feverish and half-delirious. I have said
enough to excuse myself in the eyes of one who is so kind-hearted and
who will forgive me. How I wish I was by your side to repay you the
attention you bestowed on me with so much zeal and benevolence. My
great grief is to be unable to help you.

"_March 20th_.

"I was sent for to the bedside of my dear little grandson, and I was
obliged to break off my conversation with you, which I now resume, my
dear friend, to exhort you to put all your trust in God. It is He who
afflicts us, but He consoles us with the hope of a reward far beyond
what we suffer. Let us be of good cheer; our pains and our sorrows do
not last long, and the reward is eternal.

"Dear Natalie tells me how patient and resigned you are amid the most
cruel sufferings. That is quite in keeping with your high feelings.
She says that never a complaint comes from you however keen your pain.
How pleasing you are in God's sight by your patience and resignation
to His heavenly will. He afflicts you, but those whom He loveth He
chasteneth. What joy can be compared to that which God's love gives?
I send you _L'Ame sur le Calvaire_, which will furnish you with much
consolation in the example of a God who suffered and died for us.
Madame D---- will be so kind, I am sure, as to read you a chapter
of it every day, if you cannot read yourself. Give her my kindest
regards, and beg her to write and tell me how you are going on, and
how she is herself. If you will not think me troublesome I will write
to you more frequently. Good-bye, my dear friend. May God pour upon
you His grace and blessing. Be patient and of good cheer.

"Your ever devoted friend,


"In taking the Communion to-day my prayers were specially for you. My
daughter, Henriette, and Ernest, who has passed a much better night,
beg to be remembered, as also does Clara. We often talk of you. Let
me know how you are, I beg of you. When you have read _L'Ame sur
le Calvaire_ you can send it back to me, and I will let you have
_L'Esprit Consolateur_."

The letter and the books were never sent, for my mother, who was to
have forwarded them, learnt that Mademoiselle Guyon had died. Some of
the consolatory remarks which the letter contains may seem very trite,
but are there any better ones to offer a person afflicted with cancer?
They are, at all events, as good as laudanum. As a matter of fact the
Revolution had left no impress upon the people among whom I lived. The
religious ideas of the people were not touched; the congregations
came together again, and the nuns of the old orders, converted into
schoolmistresses, imparted to women the same education as before. Thus
my sister's first mistress was an old Ursuline nun, who was very fond
of her, and who made her learn by heart the psalms which are chanted
in church. After a year or two the worthy old lady had reached the end
of her tether, and was conscientious enough to come and tell my mother
so. She said, "I have nothing more to teach her; she knows all that
I know better than I do myself." The Catholic faith revived in these
remote districts, with all its respectable gravity and, fortunately
for it, disencumbered of the worldly and temporal bonds which the
ancient _regime_ had forged for it.

This complexity of origin is, I believe, to a great extent the cause
of my seeming inconsistency. I am double, as it were, and one half
of me laughs while the other weeps. This is the explanation of my
cheerfulness. As I am two spirits in one body, one of them has always
cause to be content. While upon the one hand I was only anxious to be
a village priest or tutor in a seminary. I was all the time dreaming
the strangest dreams. During divine service I used to fall into long
reveries; my eyes wandered to the ceiling of the chapel, upon which
I read all sorts of strange things. My thoughts wandered to the great
men whom we read of in history. I was playing one day, when six years
old, with one of my cousins and other friends, and we amused ourselves
by selecting our future professions. "And what will you be?" my
cousin asked me. "I shall make books." "You mean that you will be a
bookseller." "Oh, no," I replied, "I mean to make books--to
compose them." These dawning dispositions needed time and favourable
circumstances to be developed, and what was so completely lacking in
all my surroundings was ability. My worthy tutors were not endowed
with any seductive qualities. With their unswerving moral solidity,
they were the very contrary of the southerners--of the Neapolitan, for
instance, who is all glitter and clatter. Ideas did not ring within
their minds with the sonorous clash of crossing swords. Their head was
like what a Chinese cap without bells would be; you might shake it,
but it would not jingle. That which constitutes the essence of talent,
the desire to show off one's thoughts to the best advantage, would
have seemed to them sheer frivolity, like women's love of dress, which
they denounced as a positive sin. This excessive abnegation of self,
this too ready disposition to repulse what the world at large likes by
an _Abrenuntio tibi, Satana_, is fatal to literature. It will be said,
perhaps, that literature necessarily implies more or less of sin. If
the Gascon tendency to elude many difficulties with a joke, which I
derived from my mother, had always been dormant in me, my spiritual
welfare would perhaps have been assured. In any event, if I had
remained in Brittany I should never have known anything of the vanity
which the public has liked and encouraged--that of attaining a certain
amount of art in the arrangement of words and ideas. Had I lived in
Brittany I should have written like Rollin. When I came to Paris I had
no sooner given people a taste of what few qualities I possessed than
they took a liking for them, and so--to my disadvantage it may be--I
was tempted to go on.

I will at some future time describe how it came to pass that special
circumstances brought about this change, which I underwent without
being at heart in the least inconsistent with my past. I had
formed such a serious idea of religious belief and duty that it was
impossible for me, when once my faith faded, to wear the mask which
sits so lightly upon many others. But the impress remained, and though
I was not a priest by profession I was so in disposition. All my
failings sprung from that. My first masters taught me to despise
laymen, and inculcated the idea that the man who has not a mission in
life is the scum of the earth. Thus it is that I have had a strong and
unfair bias against the commercial classes. Upon the other hand, I am
very fond of the people, and especially of the poor. I am the only man
of my time who has understood the characters of Jesus and of Francis
of Assisi. There was a danger of my thus becoming a democrat like
Lamennais. But Lamennais merely exchanged one creed for another,
and it was not until the close of his life that he acquired the cool
temper necessary to the critic, whereas the same process which
weaned me from Christianity made me impervious to any other practical
enthusiasm. It was the very philosophy of knowledge which, in my
revolt against scholasticism, underwent such a profound modification.

A more serious drawback is that, having never indulged in gaiety while
young, and yet having a good deal of irony and cheerfulness in my
temperament, I have been compelled, at an age when we see how vain
and empty it all is, to be very lenient as regards foibles which I had
never indulged in myself, so much so that many persons who have not
perhaps been as steady as I was have been shocked at my easy-going
indifference. This holds especially true of politics. This is a matter
upon which I feel easier in my mind than upon any other, and yet a
great many people look upon me as being very lax. I cannot get out
of my head the idea that perhaps the libertine is right after all and
practises the true philosophy of life. This has led me to express too
much admiration for such men as Sainte-Beuve and Theophile Gautier.
Their affectation of immorality prevented me from seeing how
incoherent their philosophy was. The fear of appearing pharisaical,
the idea, evangelical in itself, that he who is immaculate has the
right to be indulgent, and the dread of misleading, if by chance all
the doctrines emitted by the professors of philosophy were wrong, made
my system of morality appear rather shaky. It is, in reality, as solid
as the rock. These little liberties which I allow myself are by way
of a recompense for my strict adherence to the general code. So in
politics I indulge in reactionary remarks so that I may not have the
appearance of a Liberal understrapper. I don't want people to take me
for being more of a dupe than I am in reality; I would not upon any
account trade upon my opinions, and what I especially dread is to
appear in my own eyes to be passing bad money. Jesus has influenced
me more in this respect than people may think, for He loved to show up
and deride hypocrisy, and in His parable of the Prodigal Son He places
morality upon its true footing--kindness of heart--while seeming to
upset it altogether.

To the same cause may be attributed another of my defects, a tendency
to waver which has almost neutralized my power of giving verbal
expression to my thoughts in many matters. The priest carries his
sacred character into every relation of life, and there is a good deal
of what is conventional about what he says. In this respect, I have
remained a priest, and this is all the more absurd because I do
not derive any benefit either for myself or for my opinions. In my
writings, I have been outspoken to a degree. Not only have I never
said anything which I do not think, but, what is much less frequent
and far more difficult, I have said all I think. But in talking and
in letter-writing, I am at times singularly weak. I do not attach any
importance to this, and, with the exception of the select few between
whom and myself there is a bond of intellectual brotherhood, I say to
people just what I think is likely to please them. In the society of
fashionable people I am utterly lost. I get into a muddle and flounder
about, losing the thread of my ideas in some tissue of absurdity. With
an inveterate habit of being over polite, as priests generally are, I
am too anxious to detect what the person I am talking with would
like said to him. My attention, when I am conversing with any one,
is engrossed in trying to guess at his ideas, and, from excess of
deference, to anticipate him in the expression of them. This is based
upon the supposition that very few men are so far unconcerned as to
their own ideas as not to be annoyed when one differs from them. I
only express myself freely with people whose opinions I know to sit
lightly upon them, and who look down upon everything with good-natured
contempt. My correspondence will be a disgrace to me if it should be
published after my death. It is a perfect torture for me to write a
letter. I can understand a person airing his talents before ten as
before ten thousand persons, but before one! Before beginning to
write, I hesitate and reflect, and make out a rough copy of what I
shall say; very often I go to sleep over it. A person need only look
at these letters with their heavy wording and abrupt sentences to see
that they were composed in a state of torpor which borders on sleep.
Reading over what I have written, I see that it is poor stuff, and
that I have said many things which I cannot vouch for. In despair, I
fasten down the envelope, with the feeling that I have posted a letter
which is beneath criticism.

In short, all my defects are those of the young ecclesiastical student
of Treguier. I was born to be a priest, as others are born to be
soldiers and lawyers. The very fact of my being successful in my
studies was a proof of it. What was the good of learning Latin so
thoroughly if it was not for the Church? A peasant, noticing all my
dictionaries upon one occasion, observed: "These, I suppose, are the
books which people study when they are preparing for the priesthood."
As a matter of fact, all those who studied at school at all were in
training for the ecclesiastical profession. The priestly order stood
on a par with the nobility: "When you meet a noble," I have heard it
observed, "you salute him, because he represents the king; when you
meet a priest, you salute him because he represents God." To make a
priest was regarded as the greatest of good works; and the elderly
spinsters who had a little money thought that they could not find
a better use for it than in paying the college fees of a poor but
hard-working young peasant. When he came to be a priest, he became
their own child, their glory, and their honour. They followed him
in his career, and watched over his conduct with jealous care. As a
natural consequence of my assiduity in study I was destined for the
priesthood. Moreover, I was of sedentary habits and too weak of
muscle to distinguish myself in athletic sports. I had an uncle of a
Voltairian turn of mind, who did not at all approve of this. He was
a watchmaker, and had reckoned upon me to take on his business. My
successes were as gall and wormwood to him, for he quite saw that all
this store of Latin was dead against him, and that it would convert
me into a pillar of the Church which he disliked. He never lost an
opportunity of airing before me his favourite phrase, "a donkey loaded
with Latin." Afterwards, when my writings were published, he had his
triumph. I sometimes reproach myself for having contributed to the
triumph of M. Homais over his priest. But it cannot be helped, for
M. Homais is right. But for M. Homais we should all be burnt at the
stake. But as I have said, when one has been at great pains to learn
the truth, it is irritating to have to allow that the frivolous, who
could never be induced to read a line of St. Augustine or St. Thomas
Aquinas, are the true sages. It is hard to think that Gavroche and M.
Homais attain without an effort the alpine heights of philosophy.

My young compatriot and friend, M. Quellien, a Breton poet full of
raciness and originality, the only man of the present day whom I have
known to possess the faculty of creating myths, has described this
phase of my destiny in a very ingenious style. He says that my soul
will dwell, in the shape of a white sea-bird, around the ruined church
of St. Michel, an old building struck by lightning which stands above
Treguier. The bird will fly all night with plaintive cries around the
barricaded door and windows, seeking to enter the sanctuary, but not
knowing that there is a secret door. And so through all eternity
my unhappy spirit will moan, ceaselessly upon this hill. "It is
the spirit of a priest who wants to say mass," one peasant will
observe.--"He will never find a boy to serve it for him," will rejoin
another. And that is what I really am--an incomplete priest.
Quellien has very clearly discerned what will always be lacking in
my church--the chorister boy. My life is like a mass which has some
fatality hanging over it, a never-ending _Introibo ad altare Dei_ with
no one to respond: _Ad Deum qui loetificat juventutem meam_. There is
no one to serve my mass for me. In default of any one else I respond
for myself, but it is not the same thing.

Thus everything seemed to make for my having a modest ecclesiastical
career in Brittany. I should have made a very good priest, indulgent,
fatherly, charitable, and of blameless morals. I should have been as
a priest what I am as a father, very much loved by my flock, and as
easy-going as possible in the exercise of my authority. What are now
defects would have been good qualities. Some of the errors which
I profess would have been just the thing for a man who identifies
himself with the spirit of his calling. I should have got rid of some
excrescences which, being only a layman, I have not taken the trouble
to remove, easy as it would have been for me to do so. My career would
have been as follows: at two-and-twenty professor at the College of
Treguier, and at about fifty canon, or perhaps grand vicar at St.
Brieuc, very conscientious, very generally respected, a kind-hearted
and gentle confessor. Little inclined to new dogmas, I should have
been bold enough to say with many good ecclesiastics after the Vatican
Council: _Posui custodiam ori meo._ My antipathy for the Jesuits
would have shown itself by never alluding to them, and a fund of mild
Gallicanism would have been veiled beneath the semblance of a profound
knowledge of canon law.

An extraneous incident altered the whole current of my life. From the
most obscure of little towns in the most remote of provinces I
was thrust without preparation into the vortex of all that is most
sprightly and alert in Parisian society. The world stood revealed to
me, and my self became a double one. The Gascon got the better of the
Breton; there was no more _custodia oris mei_, and I put aside the
padlock which I should otherwise have set upon my mouth. In so far as
regards my inner self I remained the same. But what a change in the
outward show! Hitherto I had lived in a hypogeum, lighted by smoky
lamps; now I was going to see the sun and the light of day.



About the month of April, 1838, M. de Talleyrand, feeling his end draw
near, thought it necessary to act a last lie in accordance with human
prejudices, and he resolved to be reconciled, in appearance, to
a Church whose truth, once acknowledged by him, convicted him of
sacrilege and of dishonour. This ticklish job could best be performed,
not by a staid priest of the old Gallican school, who might have
insisted upon a categorical retractation of errors, upon his making
amends and upon his doing penance; not by a young Ultramontane of the
new school, against whom M. de Talleyrand would at once have been very
prejudiced, but by a priest who was a man of the world, well-read,
very little of a philosopher, and nothing of a theologian, and upon
those terms with the ancient classes which alone give the Gospel
occasional access to circles for which it is not suited. Abbe
Dupanloup, already well known for his success at the Catechism of the
Assumption among a public which set more store by elegant phrases
than doctrine, was just the man to play an innocent part in the comedy
which simple souls would regard as an edifying act of grace. His
intimacy with the Duchesse de Dino, and especially with her daughter,
whose religious education he had conducted, the favour in which he was
held by M. de Quelen (Archbishop of Paris), and the patronage which
from the outset of his career had been accorded him by the Faubourg
St. Germain, all concurred to fit him for a work which required more
worldly tact than theology, and in which both earth and heaven were to
be fooled.

It is said that M. de Talleyrand, remarking a certain hesitation on
the part of the priest who was about to convert him, ejaculated: "This
young man does not know his business." If he really did make this
remark, he was very much mistaken. Never was a priest better up in his
calling than this young man. The aged statesman, resolved not to erase
his past until the very last hour, met all the entreaties made to him
with a sullen "not yet." The _Sto ad ostium etpulso_ had to be brought
into play with great tact. A fainting-fit, or a sudden acceleration
in the progress of the death-agony would be fatal, and too much
importunity might bring out a "No" which would upset the plans so
skilfully laid. Upon the morning of May 17th, which was the day of
his death, nothing was yet signed. Catholics, as is well known, attach
very great importance to the moment of death. If future rewards and
punishments have any real existence, it is evident that they must be
proportioned to a whole life of virtue or of vice. But the Catholic
does not look at it in this light, and an edifying death-bed makes up
for all other things. Salvation is left to the chances of the eleventh
hour. Time pressed, and it was resolved to play a bold game. M.
Dupanloup was waiting in the next room, and he sent the winsome
daughter of the Duchesse de Dino, of whom Talleyrand was always so
fond, to ask if he might come in. The answer, for a wonder, was in the
affirmative, and the priest spent several minutes with him,
bringing out from the sick-room a paper signed "Charles Maurice de
Talleyrand-Perigord, Prince de Benevent."

There was joy--if not in heaven, at all events in the Catholic world
of the Faubourgs St. Germain and St. Honore. The credit of this
victory was ascribed, in the main, to the female grace which had
succeeded in getting round the aged prince, and inducing him to
retract the whole of his revolutionary past, but some of it went to
the youthful ecclesiastic who had displayed so much tact in bringing
to a satisfactory conclusion a project in which it was so easy to
fail. M. Dupanloup was from that day one of the first of French
priests. Position, honours, and money were pressed upon him by the
wealthy and influential classes in Paris. The money he accepted, but
do not for a moment suppose that it was for himself, as there never
was any one so unselfish as M. Dupanloup. The quotation from the Bible
which was oftenest upon his lips, and which was doubly a favourite
one with him because it was truly Scriptural and happened to terminate
like a Latin verse was: _Da mihi animas; cetera tolle tibi_. He had
at that time in his mind the general outlines of a grand propaganda by
means of classical and religious education, and he threw himself
into it with all the passionate ardour which he displayed in the
undertakings upon which he embarked.

The seminary Saint Nicholas du Chardonnet, situated by the side of
the church of that name, between the Rue Saint Victor and the Rue de
Pontoise, had since the Revolution been the petty seminary for the
diocese of Paris. This was not its primitive destination. In the great
movement of religious reform which occurred during the first half of
the seventeenth century, and to which the names of Vincent de Paul,
Olier, Berulle, and Father Eudes are attached, the church of Saint
Nicholas du Chardonnet filled, though in a humbler measure, the same
part as Saint Sulpice. The parish of Saint Nicholas, which derived its
name from a field of thistles well known to students at the University
of Paris in the middle ages, was then the centre of a very wealthy
neighbourhood, the principal residents belonging to the magistracy.
As Olier founded the St. Sulpice Seminary, so Adrien de Bourdoise,
founded the company of Saint Nicholas du Chardonnet, and made this
establishment a nursery for young priests which lasted until the
Revolution. It had not, however, like the Saint Sulpice establishment,
a number of branch houses in other parts of France. Moreover, the
association was not revived after the Revolution like that of Saint
Sulpice, and their building in the Rue Saint Victor was untenanted. At
the time of the Concordat it was given to the diocese of Paris, to be
used as a petty seminary. Up to 1837, this establishment did not make
any sort of a name for itself. The brilliant Renaissance of learned
and worldly clericalism dates from the decade of 1830-40. During the
first third of the century, Saint Nicholas was an obscure religious
establishment, the number of students being below the requirements of
the diocese, and the level of study a very low one. Abbe Frere, the
head of the seminary, though a profound theologian and well versed in
the mysticism of the Christian faith, was not in the least suited to
rouse and stimulate lads who were engaged in literary study. Saint
Nicholas, under his headship, was a thoroughly ecclesiastical
establishment, its comparatively few students having a clerical career
in view, and the secular side of education was passed over entirely.

M. de Quelen was very well inspired when he entrusted the management
of this college to M. Dupanloup. The archbishop was not the man to
approve of the strict clericalism of Abbe Frere. He liked _piety_,
but worldly and well-bred piety, without any scholastic barbarisms or
mystic jargon, piety as a complement of the well-bred ideal which,
to tell the truth, was his main faith. If Hugues or Richard de Saint
Victor had risen up before him in the shape of pedants or boors he
would have set little store by them. He was very much attached to M.
Dupanloup, who was at that time Legitimist and Ultramontane. It was
only the exaggerations of a later day which so changed the parts that
he came to be looked upon as a Gallican and an Orleanist. M. de
Quelen treated him as a spiritual son, sharing his dislikes and his
prejudices. He doubtless knew the secret of his birth. The families
which had looked after the young priest, had made him a man of
breeding, and admitted him into their exclusive coterie, were those
with which the archbishop was intimate, and which formed in his eyes
the limits of the universe. I remember seeing M. de Quelen, and he was
quite the type of the ideal bishop under the old _regime_. I remember
his feminine beauty, his perfect figure, and the easy grace of all his
movements. His mind had received no other cultivation than that of a
well-educated man of the world. Religion in his eyes was inseparable
from good breeding and the modicum of common sense which a classical
education is apt to give.

This was about the level of M. Dupanloup's intellect. He had neither
the brilliant imagination which will give a lasting value to certain
of Lacordaire's and Montalembert's works, nor the profound passion
of Lamennais. In the case of the archbishop and M. Dupanloup, good
breeding and polish were the main thing, and the approval of those who
stood high in the world was the touchstone of merit. They knew nothing
of theology, which they had studied but little, and for which they
thought it enough to express platonic reverence. Their faith was
very keen and sincere, but it was a faith which took everything for
granted, and which did not busy itself with the dogmas which must be
accepted. They knew that scholasticism would not go down with the
only public for which they cared--the worldly and somewhat frivolous
congregations which sit beneath the preachers at St. Roch or St.
Thomas Aquinas.

Such were the views entertained by M. de Quelen when he made over to
M. Dupanloup the austere and little known establishment of Abbe Frere
and Adrien de Bourdoise. The petty seminary of Paris had hitherto, by
virtue of the Concordat, been merely a training school for the clergy
of Paris, quite sufficient for its purpose, but strictly confined
to the object prescribed by the law. The new superior chosen by the
archbishop had far higher aims. He set to work to re-construct the
whole fabric, from the buildings themselves, of which only the old
walls were left standing, to the course of teaching, which he re-cast
entirely. There were two essential points which he kept before him.
In the first place he saw that a petty seminary which was altogether
ecclesiastical could not answer in Paris, and would never suffice to
recruit a sufficient number of priests for the diocese. He accordingly
utilised the information which reached him, especially from the west
of France and from his native Savoy, to bring to the college any
youths of promise whom he might hear of. Secondly, he determined that
the college should become a model place of education instead of being
a strict seminary with all the asceticism of a place in which the
clerical element was unalloyed. He hoped to let the same course of
education serve for the young men studying for the priesthood, and
for the sons of the highest families in France. His success in the
Rue Saint Florentin (this was where Talleyrand died) had made him
a favourite with the Legitimists, and he had several useful friends
among the Orleanists. Well posted in all the fashionable changes, and
neglecting no opportunity for pushing himself, he was always quick to
adapt himself to the spirit of the time. His theory of what the world
should be was a very aristocratic one, but he maintained that there
were three orders of aristocracy: the nobility, the clergy, and
literature. What he wished to insure was a liberal education, which
would be equally suitable for the clergy and for the youths of the
Faubourg Saint Germain, based upon Christian piety and classical
literature. The study of science was almost entirely excluded, and he
himself had not even a smattering of it.

Thus the old house in the Rue Saint Victor was for many years the
rendezvous of youths bearing the most famous of French names, and
it was considered a very great favour for a young man to obtain
admission. The large sums which many rich people paid to secure
admission for their sons served to provide a free education for young
men without fortune who had shown signs of talent. This testified to
the unbounded faith of M. Dupanloup in classical learning. He looked
upon these classical studies as part and parcel of religion. He held
that youths destined for holy orders and those who were in afterlife
to occupy the highest social positions should both receive the same
education. Virgil, he thought should be as much a part of a priest's
intellectual training as the Bible. He hoped that the _elite_ of his
theological students would, by their association upon equal terms with
young men of good family, acquire more polish and a higher social tone
than can be obtained in seminaries peopled by peasants' sons. He was
wonderfully successful in this respect. The college, though consisting
of two elements, apparently incongruous, was remarkable for its unity.
The knowledge that talent overrode all other considerations prevented
anything like jealousy, and by the end of a week the poorest youth
from the provinces, awkward and simple as he might be, was envied by
the young millionaire--who, little as he might know it, was paying for
his schooling--if he had turned out some good Latin verses, or written
a clever exercise.

In the year 1838, I was fortunate enough to win all the prizes in my
class at the Treguier College. The _palmares_ happened to be seen by
one of the enlightened men whom M. Dupanloup employed to recruit his
youthful army. My fate was settled in a twinkling, and "Have him sent
for" was the order of the impulsive Superior. I was fifteen and a half
years old, and we had no time to reflect. I was spending the holidays
with a friend in a village near Treguier, and in the afternoon of the
4th of September I was sent for in haste. I remember my returning home
as well as if it was only yesterday. We had a league to travel through
the country. The vesper bell with its soft cadence echoing from
steeple to steeple awoke a sensation of gentle melancholy, the image
of the life which I was about to abandon for ever. The next day I
started for Paris; upon the 7th I beheld sights which were as novel
for me as if I had been suddenly landed in France from Tahiti or



No Buddhist Lama or Mussulman Fakir, suddenly translated from Asia to
the Boulevards of Paris, could have been more taken aback than I was
upon being suddenly landed in a place so different from that in which
moved my old Breton priests, who, with their venerable heads all wood
or granite, remind one of the Osirian colossi which in after life
so struck my fancy when I saw them in Egypt, grandiose in their long
lines of immemorial calm. My coming to Paris marked the passage
from one religion to another. There was as much difference between
Christianity as I left it in Brittany and that which I found current
in Paris, as there is between a piece of old cloth, as stiff as a
board, and a bit of fine cambric. It was not the same religion. My old
priests, with their heavy old-fashioned copes, had always seemed to
me like the magi, from whose lips came the eternal truths, whereas
the new religion to which I was introduced was all print and calico, a
piety decked out with ribbons and scented with musk, a devotion which
found expression in tapers and small flower-pots, a young lady's
theology without stay or style, as composite as the polychrome
frontispiece of one of Lebel's prayer-books.

This was the gravest crisis in my life. The young Breton does not bear
transplanting. The keen moral repulsion which I felt, superadded to
a complete change in my habits and mode of life, brought on a very
severe attack of home-sickness. The confinement to the college was
intolerable. The remembrance of the free and happy life which I had
hitherto led with my mother went to my very heart. I was not the only
sufferer. M. Dupanloup had not calculated all the consequences of
his policy. Imperious as a military commander, he did not take into
account the deaths and casualties which occurred among his young
recruits. We confided our sorrows to one another. My most intimate
friend, a young man from Coutances, if I remember right, who had been,
transported like myself from a happy home, brooded in solitary grief
over the change and died. The natives of Savoy were even less easily
acclimatised. One of them, who was rather my senior, confessed to me
that every evening he calculated the distance from his dormitory on
the third floor to the pavement in the street below. I fell ill, and
to all appearances was not likely to recover. The melancholy to which
Bretons are so subject took hold of me. The memories of the last notes
of the vesper bell which I had heard pealing over our dear hills, and
of the last sunset upon our peaceful plains, pricked me like pointed

According to every rule of medicine I ought to have died; and it is
perhaps a pity that I did not. Two friends whom I brought with me from
Brittany, in the following year gave this clear proof of fidelity.
They could not accustom themselves to this new world, and they left
it. I sometimes think that the Breton part of me did die; the
Gascon, unfortunately, found sufficient reason for living! The latter
discovered, too, that this new world was a very curious one, and was
well worth clinging to. It was to him who had put me to this severe
test that I owed my escape from death. I am indebted to M. Dupanloup
for two things: for having brought me to Paris, and for having saved
me from dying when I got there. He naturally did not concern himself
much about me at first. The most eagerly sought after priest in Paris,
with an establishment of two hundred students to superintend or rather
to found, could not be expected to take any deep personal interest in
an obscure youth. A peculiar incident formed a bond between us. The
real cause of my suffering was the ever-present souvenir of my mother.
Having always lived alone with her, I could not tear myself away from
the recollection of the peaceful, happy life which I had led year
after year. I had been happy, and I had been poor with her. A
thousand details of this very poverty, which absence made all the more
touching, searched out my very heart. At night I was always thinking
of her, and I could get no sleep. My only consolation was to write her
letters full of tender feeling and moist with tears. Our letters,
as is the usage in religious establishments, were read by one of the
masters. He was so struck by the tone of deep affection which pervaded
my boyish utterances that he showed one of them to M. Dupanloup, who
was very much surprised when he read it.

The noblest trait in M. Dupanloup's character was his affection for
his mother. Though his birth was, in one way, the greatest trouble of
his life, he worshipped his mother. She lived with him, and though
we never saw her, we knew that he always spent so much time with her
every day. He often said that a man's worth is to be measured by the
respect he pays to his mother. He gave us excellent advice upon
this head which I never failed to follow, as, for instance, never to
address her in the second person singular, or to end a letter without
using the word _respect_. This created a connecting link between us.
My letter was shown to him on a Friday, upon which evening the reports
for the week were always read out before him. I had not, upon that
occasion, done very well with my composition, being only fifth or
sixth. "Ah!" he said, "if the subject had been that of a letter which
I read this morning, Ernest Renan would have been first." From that
time forth he noticed me. He recognised the fact of my existence, and
I regarded him, as we all did, as a principle of life, a sort of god.
One worship took the place of another, and the sentiment inspired by
my early teachers gradually died out.

Only those who knew Saint Nicholas du Chardonnet during the brilliant
period from 1838 to 1844 can form an adequate idea of the intense
life which prevailed there.[1] And this life had only one source, one
principle: M. Dupanloup himself. The whole work fell on his shoulders.
Regulations, usage administration, the spiritual and temporal
government of the college, were all centred in him. The college was
full of defects, but he made up for them all. As a writer and an
orator he was only second-rate, but as an educator of youth he had no
equal. The old rules of Saint Nicholas du Chardonnet provided, as
in all other seminaries, that half an hour should be devoted every
evening to what was known as spiritual reading. Before M. Dupanloup's
time, the readings were from some ascetic book such as the _Lives of
the Fathers in the Desert_, but he took this half hour for himself,
and every evening he put himself into direct communication with all
his pupils by the medium of a familiar conversation, which was so
natural and unrestrained that it might often have borne comparison
with the homilies of John Chrysostom in the Palaea of Antioch. Any
incident in the inner life of the college, any occurrence directly
concerning himself or one of the pupils furnished the theme for a
brief and lively soliloquy. The reading of the reports on Friday was
still more dramatic and personal, and we all anticipated that day with
a mixture of hope and apprehension. The observations with which he
interlarded the reading of the notes were charged with life and death.
There was no mode of punishment in force; the reading of the notes and
the reflections which he made upon them being the sole means which he
employed to keep us all on the _qui vive_. This system, doubtless, had
its drawbacks. Worshipped by his pupils, M. Dupanloup was not always
liked by his fellow-workers. I have been told that it was the same
in his diocese, and that he was always a greater favourite with his
laymen than with his priests. There can be no doubt that he put every
one about him into the background. But his very violence made us like
him, for we felt that all his thoughts were concentrated on us. He was
without an equal in the art of rousing his pupils to exertion, and
of getting the maximum amount of work out of each. Each pupil had a
distinct existence in his mind, and for each one of them he was an
ever-present stimulus to work. He set great store by talent, and
treated it as the groundwork of faith. He often said that a man's
worth must be measured by his faculty for admiration. His own
admiration was not always very enlightened or scientific, but it was
prompted by a generous spirit, and a heart really glowing with the
love of the beautiful. He was the Villemain of the Catholic school,
and M. Villemain was the friend whom he loved and appreciated the most
among laymen. Every time he had seen him, he related the conversation
which they had together in terms of the warmest sympathy.

The defects of his own mind were reflected in the education which he
imparted. He was not sufficiently rational or scientific. It might
have been thought that his two hundred pupils were all destined to be
poets, writers, and orators. He set little value on learning without
talent. This was made very clear at the entrance of the Nicolaites
to St. Sulpice, where talent was held of no account, and where
scholasticism and erudition alone were prized. When it came to a
question of doing an exercise of logic or philosophy in barbarous
Latin, the students of St. Nicholas, who had been fed upon more
delicate literature, could not stomach such coarse food. They were
not, therefore, much liked at St. Sulpice, to which M. Dupanloup,
was never appointed, as he was considered to be too little of a
theologian. When an ex-student of St. Nicholas ventured to speak of
his former school, the old tutors would remark: "Oh, yes! in the time
of M. Bourdoise," as much as to say that the seventeenth century was
the period during which this establishment achieved its celebrity.

Whatever its shortcomings in some respects, the education given at St.
Nicholas was of a very high literary standard. Clerical education has
this superiority over a university education, that it is absolutely
independent in everything which does not relate to religion.
Literature is discussed under all its aspects, and the yoke of
classical dogma sits much more lightly. This is how it was that
Lamartine, whose education and training were altogether clerical,
was far more intelligent than any university man; and when this is
followed by philosophical emancipation, the result is a very frank and
unbiased mind. I completed my classical education without having read
Voltaire, but I knew the _Soirees de St. Petersbourg_ by heart, and
its style, the defects of which I did not discover until much later,
had a very stimulating effect upon me.

The discussions on romanticism, then so fierce in the world outside,
found their way into the college and all our talk was of Lamartine and
Victor Hugo. The superior joined in with them, and for nearly a year
they were the sole topic of our spiritual readings. M. Dupanloup did
not go all the way with the champions of romanticism, but he was much
more with them than against them. Thus it was that I came to know of
the struggles of the day. Later still, the _solvuntur objecta_ of the
theologians enabled me to attain liberty of thought. The thorough
good faith of the ancient ecclesiastical teaching consisted in not
dissimulating the force of any objection, and as the answers were
generally very weak, a clever person could work out the truth for

I learnt much, too, from the course of lectures on history. Abbe
Richard[2] gave these lectures in the spirit of the modern school
and with marked ability. For some reason or other his lectures were
interrupted, and his place was taken by a tutor, who with many other
engagements on hand, merely read to us some old notes, interspersed
with extracts from modern books. Among these modern volumes, which
often formed a striking contrast with the jog-trot old notes, there
was one which produced a very singular effect upon me. Whenever he
began to read from it I was incapable of taking a single note, my
whole being seeming to thrill with intoxicating harmony. The book was
Michelet's _Histoire de France_, the passages which so affected me
being in the fifth and sixth volumes. Thus the modern age penetrated
into me as through all the fissures of a cracked cement. I had come to
Paris with a complete moral training, but ignorant to the last degree.
I had everything to learn. It was a great surprise for me when I
found that there was such a person as a serious and learned layman.
I discovered that antiquity and the Church are not everything in this
world, and especially that contemporary literature was well worthy of
attention. I ceased to look upon the death of Louis XIV. as marking
the end of the world. I became imbued with ideas and sentiments which
had no expression in antiquity or in the seventeenth century.

So the germ which was in me began to sprout. Distasteful as it was
in many respects to my nature, this education had the effect of a
chemical reagent, and stirred all the life and activity that was in
me. For the essential thing in education is not the doctrine taught,
but the arousing of the faculties. In proportion as the foundations of
my religious faith had been shaken by finding the same names applied
to things so different, so did my mind greedily swallow the new
beverage prepared for it. The world broke in upon me. Despite its
claim to be a refuge to which the stir of the outside world never
penetrated, St. Nicholas was at this period the most brilliant and
worldly house in Paris. The atmosphere of Paris--minus, let me
add, its corruptions--penetrated by door and window; Paris with its
pettiness and its grandeur, its revolutionary force and its lapses
into flabby indifference. My old Brittany priests knew much more Latin
and mathematics than my new masters; but they lived in the catacombs,
bereft of light and air. Here, the atmosphere of the age had free
course. In our walks to Gentilly of an evening we engaged in endless
discussions. I could never sleep of a night after that; my head was
full of Hugo and Lamartine. I understood what glory was after having
vaguely expected to find it in the roof of the chapel at Treguier. In
the course of a short time a very great revelation was borne in upon
me. The words talent, brilliancy, and reputation, conveyed a meaning
to me. The modest, ideal which my earliest teachers had inculcated
faded away; I had embarked upon a sea agitated by all the storms and
currents of the age. These currents and gales were bound to drive my
vessel towards a coast whither my former friends would tremble to see
me land.

My performances in class were very irregular. Upon one occasion I
wrote an _Alexander_, which must be in the prize exercise book,
and which I would reprint if I had it by me. But purely rhetorical
compositions were very distasteful to me; I could never make a decent
speech. Upon one prize-day we got up a representation of the Council
of Clermont, and the various speeches suitable to the occasion were
allotted by competition. I was a miserable failure as Peter the Hermit
and Urban II.; my Godefroy de Bouillon was pronounced to be utterly
devoid of military ardour. A warlike song in Sapphic and Adonic
stanzas created a more favourable impression. My refrain _Sternite
Turcas_, a short and sharp solution of the Eastern Question, was
selected for recital in public. I was too staid for these childish
proceedings. We were often set to write a Middle Age tale, terminating
with some striking miracle, and I was far too fond of selecting the
cure of lepers. I often thought of my early studies in mathematics,
in which I was pretty well advanced, and I spoke of it to my fellow
students, who were much amused at the idea, for mathematics stood very
low in their estimation, compared to the literary studies which
they looked upon as the highest expression of human intelligence.
My reasoning powers only revealed themselves later, while studying
philosophy at Issy. The first time that my fellow pupils heard me
argue in Latin they were surprised. They saw at once that I was of a
different race from themselves, and that I should still be marching
forward when they had reached the bounds set for them. But in rhetoric
I did not stand so well. I looked upon it as a pure waste of time and
ingenuity to write when one has no thoughts of one's own to express.

The groundwork of ideas upon which education at St. Nicholas was based
was shallow, but it was brilliant upon the surface, and the elevation
of feeling which pervaded the whole system was another notable
feature. I have said that no kind of punishment was administered; or,
to speak more accurately, there was only one, expulsion. Except in
cases where some grave offence had been committed, there was nothing
degrading in being dismissed. No particular reason was alleged, the
superior saying to the student who was sent away: "You are a very
worthy young man, but your intelligence is not of the turn we require.
Let us part friends. Is there any service I can do you?" The favour
of being allowed to share in an education considered to be so
exceptionally good was thought so much of that we dreaded an
announcement of this kind like a sentence of death. This is one of
the secrets of the superiority of ecclesiastical over state colleges;
their _regime_ is much more liberal, for none of the students are
there by right, and coercion must inevitably lead to separation.
There is something cold and hard about the schools and colleges of
the state, while the fact of a student having secured by a competitive
examination an inalienable right to his place in them, is an
infallible source of weakness. For my own part I have never been
able to understand how the master of a normal school, for instance,
manages, inasmuch as he is unable to say, without further explanation,
to the pupils who are unsuited for their vocation: "You have not the
bent of intelligence for our calling, but I have no doubt that you are
a very good lad, and that you will get on better elsewhere. Good-bye."
Even the most trifling punishment implies a servile principle of
obedience from fear. So far as I am myself concerned, I do not think
that at any period of my life I have been obedient. I have, I know,
been docile and submissive, but it has been to a spiritual principle,
not to a material force wielding the dread of punishment. My
mother never ordered me to do a thing. The relations between my
ecclesiastical teachers and myself were entirely free and spontaneous.
Whoever has had experience of this _rationabile obsequium_ cannot put
up with any other. An order is a humiliation whosoever has to obey is
a _capitis minor_ sullied on the very threshold of the higher life.
Ecclesiastical obedience has nothing lowering about it; for it is
voluntary, and those who do not get on together can separate. In one
of my Utopian dreams of an aristocratic society, I have provided that
there should only be one penalty, death; or rather, that all serious
offences should be visited by a reprimand from the recognised
authorities which no man of honour would survive. I should never have
done to be a soldier, for I should either have deserted or committed
suicide. I am afraid that the new military institutions which do
not leave a place for any exceptions or equivalents will have a very
lowering moral effect. To compel every one to obey is fatal to genius
and talent. The man who has passed years in the carriage of arms after
the German fashion is dead to all delicate work whether of the hand or
brain. Thus it is that Germany would be devoid of all talent since she
has been engrossed in military pursuits, but for the Jews, to whom she
is so ungrateful.

The generation which was from fifteen to twenty years of age, at the
brilliant but fleeting epoch of which I am speaking, is now between
fifty-five and sixty. It will be asked whether this generation has
realised the unbounded hopes which the ardent spirit of our great
preceptor had conceived. The answer must unquestionably be in the
negative, for if these hopes had been fulfilled the face of the world
would have been completely changed. M. Dupanloup was too little in
love with his age, and too uncompromising to its spirit, to mould men
in accordance with the temper of the time. When I recall one of these
spiritual readings during which the master poured out the treasures of
his intelligence, the class-room with its serried benches upon which
clustered two hundred lads hushed in attentive respect, and when I set
myself to inquire whither have fled the two hundred souls, so closely
bound together by the ascendency of one man, I count more than one
case of waste and eccentricity; as might be expected, I can count
archbishops, bishops, and other dignitaries of the Church, all to a
certain extent enlightened and moderate in their views. I come upon
diplomatists, councillors of state, and others, whose honourable
careers would in some instances have been more brilliant if Marshal
MacMahon's dismissal of his ministry on the 16th of May, 1877, had
been a success. But, strange to say, I see among those who sat beside
a future prelate a young man destined to sharpen his knife so well
that he will drive it home to his archbishop's heart.... I think I
can remember Verger, and I may say of him as Sachetti said of the
beatified Florentine: _Fu mia vicina, andava come le altre._ The
education given us had its dangers; it had a tendency to produce over
excitement, and to turn the balance of the mind, as it did in Verger's

A still more striking instance of the saying that "the spirit bloweth
where it listeth," was that of H. de ----. When I first entered at
Saint-Nicholas he was the object of my special admiration. He was a
youth of exceptional talent, and he was a long way ahead of all his
comrades in rhetoric. His staid and elevated piety sprung from a
nature endowed with the loftiest aspirations. He quite came up to
our idea of perfection, and according to the custom of ecclesiastical
colleges, in which the senior pupils share the duties of the masters,
the most important of these functions were confided to him. His piety
was equally great for several years at the seminary of St. Sulpice. He
would remain for hours in the chapel, especially on holy days, bathed
in tears. I well remember one summer evening at Gentilly--which was
the country-house of the Petty Seminary of Saint-Nicholas--how we
clustered round some of the senior students and one of the masters
noted for his Christian piety, listening intently to what they told
us. The conversation had taken a very serious turn, the question under
discussion being the ever-enduring problem upon which all Christianity
rests--the question of divine election--the doubt in which each
individual soul must stand until the last hour, whether he will be
saved. The good priest dwelt specially upon this, telling us that no
one can be sure, however great may be the favours which Heaven has
showered upon him, that he will not fall away at the last. "I think,"
he said, "that I have known one case of predestination." There was a
hush, and after a pause he added, "I mean H. de ----; if any one is
sure of being saved it is he. And yet who can tell that H. de ---- is
not a reprobate?" I saw H. de ---- again many years afterwards. He
had in the interval studied the Bible very deeply. I could not tell
whether he was entirely estranged from Christianity, but he no longer
wore the priestly garb, and was very bitter against clericalism. When
I met him later still I found that he had become a convert to extreme
democratic ideas, and with the passionate exaltation which was the
principal trait in his character, he was bent upon inaugurating the
reign of justice. His head was full of America, and I think that he
must be there now. A few years ago one of our old comrades told me
that he had read a name not unlike his among the list of men shot for
participation in the Communist insurrection of 1871. I think that he
was mistaken, but there can be no doubt that the career of poor H. de
---- was shipwrecked by some great storm. His many high qualities were
neutralised by his passionate temper. He was by far the most gifted of
my fellow pupils at Saint-Nicholas. But he had not the good sense
to keep cool in politics. A man who behaved as he did might get shot
twenty times. Idealists like us must be very careful how we play
with those tools. We are very likely to leave our heads or our
wing-feathers behind us. The temptation for a priest who has thrown up
the Church to become a democrat is very strong, beyond doubt, for
by so doing he regains colleagues and friends, and in reality merely
exchanges one sect for another. Such was the fate of Lamennais. One
of the wisest acts of Abbe Loyson has been the resistance of this
temptation and his refusal to accept the advances which the extreme
party always makes to those who have broken away from official ties.

For three years I was subjected to this profound influence, which
brought about a complete transformation in my being. M. Dupanloup
had literally transfigured me. The poor little country lad struggling
vainly to emerge from his shell, had been developed into a young man
of ready and quick intelligence. There was, I know, one thing wanting
in my education, and until that void was filled up I was very cramped
in my powers. The one thing lacking was positive science, the idea
of a critical search after truth. This superficial humanism kept my
reasoning powers fallow for three years, while at the same time it
wore away the early candour of my faith. My Christianity was being
worn away, though there was nothing as yet in my mind which could be
styled doubt. I went every year, during the holidays, into Brittany.
Notwithstanding more than one painful struggle, I soon became my old
self again just as my early masters had fashioned me.

In accordance with the general rule I went, after completing my
rhetoric at Saint-Nicholas du Chardonnet, to Issy, the country
branch of the St. Sulpice seminary. Thus I left M. Dupanloup for an
establishment in which the discipline was diametrically opposed to
that of Saint-Nicholas. The first thing which I was taught at St.
Sulpice was to regard as childish nonsense the very things which M.
Dupanloup had told me to prize the most. What, I was taught, could
be simpler? If Christianity is a revealed truth, should not the chief
occupation of the Christian be the study of that revelation, in other
words of theology? Theology and the study of the Bible absorbed my
whole time, and furnished me with the true reasons for believing in
Christianity and for not adhering to it. For four years a terrible
struggle went on within me, until at last the phrase, which I had long
put away from me as a temptation of the devil, "It is not true," would
not be denied. In describing this inward combat and the Seminary of
St. Sulpice itself, which is further removed from the present age than
if encircled by thousands of leagues of solitude, I will endeavour
also to show how I arose from the direct study of Christianity,
undertaken in the most serious spirit, without sufficient faith to be
a sincere priest, and yet with too much respect for it to permit of my
trifling with faiths so worthy of that respect.

[Footnote 1: A very graphic description of it has been given by
M. Adolphe Morillon in his _Souvenirs de Saint-Nicolas_. Paris.

[Footnote 2: See the excellent memoir by M. Fonlon (now Archbishop of
Besancon) upon Abbe Richard.]



The Petty Seminary of Saint-Nicholas du Chardonnet had no
philosophical course, philosophy being, in accordance with the
division of ecclesiastical studies, reserved for the great seminary.
After having finished my classical education in the establishment so
ably directed by M. Dupanloup, I was, with the students in my class,
passed into the great seminary, which is set apart for an exclusively
ecclesiastical course of teaching. The grand seminary for the diocese
of Paris is St. Sulpice, which consists of two houses, one in
Paris and the other at Issy, where the students devote two years to
philosophy. These two seminaries form, in reality, one. The one is the
outcome of the other, and they are both conjoined at certain times;
the congregation from which the masters are selected is the same. St.
Sulpice exercised so great an influence over me, and so definitely
decided the whole course of my life, that I must perforce sketch its
history, and explain its principles and tendencies, so as to show how
they have continued to be the mainspring of all my intellectual and
moral development.

St. Sulpice owes its origin to one whose name has not attained any
great celebrity, for celebrity rarely seeks out those who make a
point of avoiding notoriety, and whose predominant characteristic is
modesty. Jean-Jacques Olier, member of a family which supplied the
state with many trusty servitors, was the contemporary of, and a
fellow-worker with, Vincent de Paul, Berulle, Adrien de Bourdoise,
Pere Eudes, and Charles de Gondren, founders of congregations for the
reform of ecclesiastical education, who played a prominent part in the
preparatory reforms of the seventeenth century. During the reign of
Henri IV. and in the early years of the reign of Louis XIII.,
the morality of the clergy was at the lowest possible point. The
fanaticism of the League, far from serving to make their morality more
rigorous, had just the contrary effect. Priests thought that because
they shouldered musket and carbine in the good cause they were at
liberty to do as they liked. The racy humour which prevailed during
the reign of Henri IV. was anything but favourable to mysticism. There
was a good side to the outspoken Rabelaisian gaiety which was not
deemed, in that day, incompatible with the priestly calling. In many
ways we prefer the bright and witty piety of Pierre Camus, a friend of
Francois de Sales, to the rigid and affected attitude which the French
clergy has since assumed, and which has converted them into a sort of
black army, holding aloof from the rest of the world and at war with
it. But there can be no doubt that about the year 1640 the education
of the clergy was not in keeping with the spirit of regularity and
moderation which was becoming more and more the law of the age. From
the most opposite directions came a cry for reform. Francois de Sales
admitted that he had not been successful in this attempt, and he told
Bourdoise that "after having laboured during seventeen years to train
only three such priests as I wanted to assist me in re-forming
the clergy of my diocese, I have only succeeded in forming one
and-a-half." Following upon him came the men of grave and reasonable
piety whom I named above. By means of congregations of a fresh type,
distinct from the old monkish rules and in some points copied from
the Jesuits, they created the seminary, that is to say the well-walled
nursery in which young clerks could be trained and formed. The
transformation was far extending. The schools of these powerful
teachers of the spiritual life turned out a body of men representing
the best disciplined, the most orderly, the most national, and it
maybe added, the most highly educated clergy ever seen--a clergy which
illustrated the second half of the seventeenth century and the whole
of the eighteenth, and the last of whose representatives have only
disappeared within the last forty years. Concurrently with these
exertions of orthodox piety arose Port-Royal, which was far superior
to St. Sulpice, to St. Lazare, to the Christian doctrine, and even
to the Oratoire, as regarded consistency in reasoning and talent in
writing, but which lacked the most essential of Catholic virtues,
docility. Port-Royal, like Protestantism, passed through every phase
of misfortune. It was distasteful to the majority, and was always in
opposition. When you have excited the antipathy of your country you
are too often led to take a dislike to your country. The persecuted
one is doubly to be pitied, for, in addition to the suffering which he
endures, persecution affects him morally; it rarely fails to warp the
mind and to shrink the heart.

Olier occupies a place apart in this group of Catholic reformers. His
mysticism is of a kind peculiar to himself. His _Cathechisme chretien
pour la Vie interieure_, which is scarcely ever read outside
St. Sulpice, is a most remarkable book, full of poesy and sombre
philosophy, wavering from first to last between Louis de Leon and
Spinoza. Olier's ideal of the Christian life is what he calls "the
state of death."

"What is the state of death?--It is a state during which the heart
cannot be moved to its depths, and though the world displays to it its
beauties, its honours, and its riches, the effect is the same as if it
offered them to a corpse, which remains motionless, and devoid of all
desire, insensible to all that goes on.... The corpse may be agitated
outwardly, and have some movement of the body; but this agitation
is all on the surface; it does not come from the inner man, which is
without life, vigour, or strength. Thus a soul which is dead within
may easily be attached by external things and be disturbed outwardly;
but in its inner self it remains dead and motionless to whatever may

Nor is this all. Olier imagines as far superior to the state of death
the state of burial.

"Death retains the appearance of the world and of the flesh; the dead
man seems to be still a part of Adam. He is now and again moved; he
continues to afford the world some pleasure. But the buried body is
forgotten, and no longer ranks with men. He is noisome and horrible;
he is bereft of all that pleases the eye; he is trodden under foot in
a cemetery without compunction, so convinced is every one that he is
nothing, and that he is rooted from among the number of men."

The sombre fancies of Calvin are as Pelagian optimism compared to
the horrible nightmares which original sin evokes in the brain of the
pious recluse.

"Could you add anything to drive more closely home the conception as
to how the flesh is only sin? It is so completely sin that it is all
intent and motion towards sin, and even to every kind of sin; so much
so, that if the Holy Ghost did not restrain our souls and succour us
with His grace, it would be carried away by all the inclinations of
the flesh, all of which tend to sin.

"What is then the flesh?--It is the effect of sin; it is the principle
of sin.

"If that is so, how comes it that you did not fall away every hour
into sin?--It is the mercy of God which keeps us from it.... I am,
therefore, indebted to God if I do not commit every kind of
sin?--Yes ... this is the general feeling of the saints, because the flesh
is drawn down towards sin by such a heavy weight that God alone can
prevent it from falling.

"But will you kindly tell me something more about this?--All I can
tell you is that there is no conceivable kind of sin, no imperfection,
disorder, error, or unruliness of which the flesh is not full, just
as there is no levity, folly, or stupidity of which the flesh is not
capable at any moment.

"What, I should be mad, and comport myself like a madman in the
highways and byways, but for the help of God?--That is a small matter,
and a question of common decency; but you must know that without
the grace of God and the virtue of His Spirit, there is no impurity,
meanness, infamy, drunkenness, blasphemy, or other kind of sin to
which man would not give himself over.

"The flesh is very corrupt then?--You see that it is.

"I cannot wonder therefore that you tell us we must hate our flesh and
hold our own bodies in horror; and that man, in his present condition,
is fated to be accursed, vilified and persecuted.--No, I can no longer
feel surprise at this. In truth, there is no form of misfortune and
suffering but which he may expect his flesh to bring down upon him.
You are right; all the hatred, malediction, and persecution which
beset the demon must also beset the flesh and all its motions.

"There is, then, no extremity of insult too great to be put up with
and to be looked upon as deserved?--No.

"Contempt, insult, and calumny should not then disturb our peace of
mind?--No. We should behave like the saint of former days, who was led
to the scaffold for a crime which he had not committed, and from which
he would not attempt to exculpate himself, as he said to himself that
he should have been guilty of this crime and of many far worse but for
the preventing grace of God.

"Men, angels, and God Himself ought, therefore to persecute us without
ceasing? Yes, so it ought to be.

"What! do you mean to say that sinners ought to be poor and bereft of
everything, like the demons?--Yes, and more than that. Sinners ought
to be placed under an interdict in regard to all their corporal and
spiritual faculties, and bereft of all the gifts of God."

A hero of Christian humility, Olier was acting as he thought for the
best in making a mock of human nature and dragging it through the
mire. He had visions, and was favoured with inner revelations of which
the autographic account, written for his director, is still at St.
Sulpice. He stops short in his writing to make such reflections as
these: "My courage is at times utterly cast down when I see what
impertinences I have been writing. They must, I think, be a great
waste of time for my good director, whom I am afraid of amusing. I
pity him for having to spend his time in reading them, and it seems
to me that he ought to stop my writing this intolerable frivolity and

But Olier, like nearly all the mystics, was not merely a strange
dreamer, but a powerful organizer. Entering very young into holy
orders, he was appointed, through the influence of his family, priest
of the parish of St. Sulpice, which was then attached to the Abbey of


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