Recollections of My Youth/Appendix

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Appendix[edit]

This volume was already in the press, when Abbe Cognat published in the Correspondant (January 25th, 1883) the letters which I wrote to him in 1845 and 1846.[1] As several of my friends told me that they had found them very interesting, I reproduce them here just as they were published.

Treguier, August 14th, 1845.

My dear friend,

Few events of importance have occurred, but many thoughts and feelings have crowded in upon me since the day we parted. I am all the more glad to impart them to you because there is no one else to whom I can confide them. I am not alone, it is true, when I am with my mother; but there are many things that my tender regard for her compels me to keep back, and which, for the matter of that, she would not understand.

Nothing has occurred to advance the solution of the important problem of which, as is only natural, my mind is full. I have learnt nothing more, unless it be the immensity of the sacrifice which God required of me. A thousand painful details which I had never thought of have cropped up, with the effect of complicating the situation, and of showing me that the course dictated me by my conscience opened up a future of endless trouble. I should have to enter into long and painful details to make you understand exactly what I mean; and it must suffice if I tell you that the obstacles of which we have on various occasions spoken are as nothing by comparison with those which have suddenly started up before me. It was no small thing to brave an opinion which would, one knew, be very hard upon one, and to live on for long years an arduous life leading to one knew not what; but the sacrifice was not then consummated. God enjoins me to pierce with my own hand a heart upon which all the affection there is in my own has been poured out. Filial love had absorbed in me all the other affections of which I was capable, and which God did not bring into play within me. Moreover, there existed between my mother and myself many ties arising from a thousand impalpable details which can be better felt than described. This was the most painful part of the sacrifice which God required of me. I have hitherto only spoken to her about Germany, and that is enough to make her very unhappy. I tremble to think of what will happen when she knows all. Her tender caresses go to my very heart, as do her plans for my future, of which she is ever talking to me, and in which I have not the courage to disappoint her. She is standing close to me as I write this to you. Did she but know! I would sacrifice everything to her except my duty and my conscience. Yes, if God exacted of me, in order to spare her this pain, that I should extinguish my thought and condemn myself to a plodding, vulgar existence, I would submit. Many a time I have endeavoured to deceive myself, but it is not in human power to believe or not to believe at will. I wish that I could stifle within me the faculty of self-examination, for it is this which has caused all my unhappiness. Fortunate are the children who all their life long do but sleep and dream! I see around me men of pure and simple lives whom Christianity has had the power to make virtuous and happy. But I have noticed that none of them have the critical faculty; for which let them bless God!

I cannot tell you to what an extent I am spoilt and made much of here, and it is this which grieves me so. Did they but know what is passing in my heart! I am fearful at times lest my conduct may be hypocritical, but I have satisfied my conscience in this respect. God forbid that I should be a cause of scandal to these simple souls!

When I see in what an inextricable net God has involved me while I was asleep, I am unable to resist fatalistic thoughts, and I may often have sinned in that respect; yet I never have doubted my Father which is in Heaven or His goodness. Upon the contrary, I have always given Him thanks, and have never felt myself nearer to Him than at moments like those. The heart learns only by suffering, and I believe with Kant that God is only to be known through the heart. Then too I was a Christian, and resolved ever to remain one. But can orthodoxy be critical? Had I but been born a German Protestant, for then I should have been in my proper place! Herder ended his days a bishop, and he was only just a Christian; but in the Catholic religion you must be orthodox. Catholicism is a bar of iron, and will not admit anything like reasoning.

Forgive me, my dear friend, the wish which I have just expressed and which does not even come from that part in me which still believes without knowing. You must, in order to be orthodox, believe that I am reduced to my present condition by my own fault; and that is very hard. Nevertheless, I am quite disposed to think that it is to a great extent my own fault. He who knows his own heart will always answer, "Yes," when he is told, "It is your own fault." Nothing of all that has happened to me is easier for me to admit than that. I will not be as obstinate as Job with regard to my own innocence. However pure of offence I might believe myself to be, I would only pray God to have pity on me. The perusal of the Book of Job delights me; for in this Book is to be found poetry in its most divine form. The Book of Job renders palpable the mysteries which one feels within one's own heart, and to which one has been painfully endeavouring to give tangible shape.

None the less do I resolutely continue to follow out my thoughts. Nothing will induce me to abandon this, even if I should be compelled to appear to sacrifice it to the earning of my daily bread. God had, in order to sustain me in my resolve, reserved for this critical moment an event of real significance from the intellectual and moral standpoint. I have studied Germany, and it has seemed to me that I have been entering some holy place. All that I have lighted upon in the course of the study is pure, elevating, moral, beautiful, and touching. Oh! My Soul! Yes, it is a real treasure, and the continuation of Jesus Christ. Their moral qualities excite my liveliest admiration. How strong and gentle they are! I believe that it is in this direction that we must look for the advent of Christ I regard this apparition of a new spirit as analogous to the birth of Christianity, except as to the difference of form. But this is of little importance, for it is certain that when the event which is to renovate the world shall recur, it will not in the mode of its accomplishment resemble that which has already occurred. I am attentively following the wave of enthusiasm which is at this moment spreading over the north. M. Cousin has just started to study its progress for himself, I am referring to Ronge and Czerski, whose names you must have heard mentioned. May God pardon me for liking them, even if they should not be pure: for what I like in them, as in all others who have evoked my enthusiasm, is a certain standard of attractiveness and morality which I have assigned them; in short, I admire in them my ideal. It may be asked whether or not they come up to this standard. That to my mind is quite a secondary matter.

Yes, Germany delights me, not so much in her scientific as in her moral aspect. The morale of Kant is far superior to all his logic and intellectual philosophy, and our French writers have never alluded to it. This is only natural, for the men of our day have no moral sense. France seems to me every day more devoid of any part in the great work of renovating the life of humanity. A dry, anti-critical, barren, and petty orthodoxy, of the St. Sulpice type; a hollow and superficial imitation full of affectation and exaggeration, like Neo-Catholicism; and an arid and heartless philosophy, crabbed and disdainful, like the University, make up the sum of French culture. Jesus Christ is nowhere to be found. I have been inclined to think that He would come to us from Germany; not that I suppose He would be an individual, but a spirit. And when we use the word Jesus Christ we mean, no doubt, a certain spirit rather than an individual, and that is the Gospel. Not that I believe that this apparition is likely to bring about either an upset or a discovery; Jesus Christ neither overturned nor discovered anything. One must be Christian, but it is impossible to be orthodox. What is needed is a pure Christianity. The archbishop will be inclined to believe this; he is capable of founding pure Christianity in France. I apprehend that one result of the tendency among the French clergy to study and gain instruction will be to rationalise us a little. In the first place they will get tired of scholasticism, and when that has been got rid of there will be a change in the form of ideas, and it will be seen that the orthodox interpretation of the Bible does not hold water. But this will not be effected without a struggle, for your orthodox people are very tenacious in their dogmatism, and they will apply to themselves a certain quantity of Athanasian varnish which will close their eyes and ears. Yes, I should much like to be there! And I am about, it may be, to cut off my arms, for the priests will be all powerful yet a while, and it may well be that there will be nothing to be done without being a priest, as Ronge and Czerski were. I have read a letter to Czerski from his mother, in which she reminds him of the sacrifices she had made for his clerical education and entreats him to remain staunch to Catholicism. But how can he serve it more sincerely than by devoting himself to what he believes to be the truth?

Forgive me, my dear friend, for what I have just said to you. If you only knew the state of my head and my heart! Do not imagine that all this has assumed a dogmatic consistency within me; so far from that, I am the reverse of exclusive. I am willing to admit counter-evidence, at all events for the time. Is it not possible to conceive a state of things during which the individual and humanity are perforce exposed to instability? You may answer that this is an untenable position for them. Yes, but how can it be helped? It was necessary at one period that people should be sceptical from a scientific point of view as to morality, and yet, at this same period, men of pure minds could be and were moral, at the risk of being inconsistent. The disciples of scholasticism would mock at this, and triumphantly point to it as a blunder in logic. It is easy to prove what is patent to every one. Their idea is a moral state in which every detail has its set formula, and they care little about the substance as long as the outward form is perfect. They know neither man nor humanity as they really exist.

Yes, my dear friend, I still believe; I pray and recite the Lord's Prayer with ecstasy. I am very fond of being in church, where the pure and simple piety moves me deeply in the lucid moments when I inhale the odour of God. I even have devotional fits, and I believe that they will last, for piety is of value even when it is merely psychological. It has a moralising effect upon us, and raises us above wretched utilitarian preoccupations; for where ends utilitarianism there begins the beautiful, the infinite, and Almighty God; and the pure air wafted thence is life itself.

I am taken here for a good little seminarist, very pious and tractable. This is not my fault, but it grieves me now and again, for I am so afraid of appearing not to be straightforward. Yet I do not feign anything, God knows; I merely do not say all I feel. Should I do better to enter upon these wretched controversies, in which they would have the advantage of being the champions of the beautiful and the pure, and in which I should have the appearance of assimilating myself to all that is most vile? for anti-Christianity has in this country so low, detestable, and revolting an aspect that I am repelled from it if only by natural modesty. And then they know nothing whatever about the matter. I cannot be blamed for not speaking to them in German. Moreover, as I have already explained to you, I am so situated intellectually that I can appear one thing to this person and another to that one without any feigning on my part, and without either of them being deceived, thanks to having for a time shaken off the yoke of contradiction.

And then I must tell you that at times I have been within an ace of a complete reaction, and have wondered whether it would not be more agreeable to God if I were to cut short the thread of my self-examination and trace my steps back two or three years. The fact is that I do not see as I advance further any chance of reaching Catholicism; each step leads me further away from it. However this may be, the alternative is a very clear one. I can only return to Catholicism by the amputation of one of my faculties, by definitely stigmatising my reason and condemning it to perpetual silence. Yes, if I returned, I should cease my life of study and self-examination, persuaded that it could only bring me to evil, and I should lead a purely mystic life in the Catholic sense. For I trust that so far as regards a mere commonplace life God will always deliver me from that. Catholicism meets the requirements of all my faculties excepting my critical one, and as I have no reason to hope that matters will mend in this respect I must either abandon Catholicism or amputate this faculty. This operation is a difficult and a painful one, but you may be sure that if my moral conscience did not stand in the way, that if God came to me this evening and told me that it would be pleasing to Him, I should do it. You would not recognise me in my new character, for I should cease to study or to indulge in critical thought, and should become a thorough mystic. You may also be sure that I must have been violently shaken to so much as consider the possibility of such a hypothesis, which forces itself upon me with greater terrors than death itself. But yet I should not despair of striking, even in this career, a vein of activity which would suffice to keep me going.

And what, all said and done, will be my decision? It is with indescribable dread that I see the close of the vacation drawing near, for I shall then have to express, by very decisive action, a very undecided inward state. It is this complication which makes my position peculiarly painful. So much anxiety unnerves me, and then I feel so plainly that I do not understand matters of this kind, that I shall be certain to make some foolish blunder, and that I shall become a laughing-stock. I was not born a cunning knave. They will laugh at my simple-mindedness, and will look upon me as a fool. If, with all this, I was only sure of what I was doing! But then, again, supposing that by contact with them I were to lose my purity of heart and my conception of life! Supposing they were to inoculate me with their positivism! And even if I were sure of myself, could I be sure of the external circumstances which have so fatal an action upon us? And who, knowing himself, can be sure that he will be proof against his own weakness? Is it not indeed the case that God has done me but a poor service? It seems as if He had employed all His strategy for surrounding me in every direction, and a simple young fellow like myself might have been ensnared with much less trouble. But for all this I love Him, and am persuaded that He has done all for my good, much as facts may seem to contradict it. We must take an optimist view for individuals as well as for humanity, despite the perpetual evidence of facts telling the other way. This is what constitutes true courage; I am the only person who can injure myself.

I often think of you, my dear friend; you should be very happy. A bright and assured future is opening before you; you have the goal in view, and all you have to do is to march steadily onward to it. You enjoy the marked advantage of having a strictly defined dogma to go by. You will retain your breadth of view; and I trust that you may never discover that there is a grievous incompatibility between the wants of your heart and of your mind. In that case you would have to make a very painful choice. Whatever conclusion you may perforce arrive at as to my present condition and the innocence of my mind, let me at all events retain your friendship. Do not allow my errors, or even my faults, to destroy it. Besides, as I have said, I count upon your breadth of view, and I will not do anything to demonstrate that it is not orthodox, for I am anxious that you should adhere to it; and at the same time I wish you to be orthodox. You are almost the only person to whom I have confided my inmost thoughts; in Heaven's name be indulgent and continue to call me your brother! My affection, dear friend, will never fail you.

PARIS, November 12th, 1845.

I was somewhat surprised, my dear friend, not to get a reply from you before the close of the vacation. The first inquiry, therefore, which I made at St. Sulpice was for you, first in order to learn the cause of your silence, and especially in order that I might have some talk with you. I need not tell you how grieved I was when I learnt that it was owing to a serious illness that I had not heard from you. It is true that the further details which were given me sufficed to allay my anxiety, but they did not diminish the regret which I felt at finding the chance of a conversation with you indefinitely postponed. This unexpected piece of news, coinciding with so strange a phase in my own life, inspired me with many reflections. You will hardly believe, perhaps, that I envied your lot, and that I longed for something to happen which would defer my embarking upon the stormy sea of busy life and prolong the repose which accompanies home life, so quiet and so free of care. You will understand this when I have explained to you all the trials which I have had to undergo and which are still in store for me. I will not attempt to explain them to you in detail, but will keep them over until we meet. I will merely relate the principal facts, and those which have led to a lasting result.

My firm resolution upon coming to St. Sulpice was to break with a past which had ceased to be in harmony with my present dispositions, and to be quit of appearances which could only mislead. But I was anxious to proceed very deliberately, especially as I felt that a reaction within a more or less considerable interval was by no means improbable. An accidental circumstance had the effect of bringing the crisis to a head quicker than I had intended. Upon my arrival at St. Sulpice, I was informed that I was no longer to be attached to the Seminary, but to the Carmelite establishment, which the Archbishop of Paris had just founded, and I was ordered to go and report myself to him the same day. You can fancy how embarrassed I felt. My embarrassment was still further increased upon learning that the Archbishop had just arrived at the Seminary, and wished to speak to me. To accept would be immoral; it was impossible for me to give the real reason for my refusal, and I could not bring myself to give a false one. I had recourse to the services of worthy M. Carbon, who undertook to tell my story, and so spared me this painful interview. I thought it best to go right through with the matter when once it had been begun, and I completed in one day what I had intended to spread over several weeks, so that on the evening of my return I belonged neither to the Seminary nor to the Carmelite house.

I was terrified at seeing so many ties destroyed in a few hours, and I should have been glad to arrest this fatal progress, all too rapid as I thought; but I was perforce driven forward, and there were no means of holding back. The days which followed were the darkest of my life. I was isolated from the whole world, without a friend, an adviser or an acquaintance, without any one to appeal to about me, and this after having just left my mother, my native Brittany, and a life gilded with so many pure and simple affections. Here I am alone in the world, and a stranger to it. Good-bye for ever to my mother, my little room, my books, my peaceful studies, and my walks by my mother's side. Good-bye to the pure and tranquil joys which seemed to bring me so near to God; good-bye to my pleasant past, good-bye to those faiths which so gently cradled me. Farewell for me to pure happiness. The past all blotted out, and as yet no future. And then, I ask myself, will the new world for which I have embarked receive me? I have left one in which I was loved and made much of. And my mother, to think of whom was formerly sufficient to solace me in my troubles, was now the cause of my most poignant grief. I was, as it were, stabbing her with a knife. O God! was it then necessary that the path of duty should be so stony? I shall be derided by public opinion, and with all that the future unfolded itself before me pale and colourless. Ambition was powerless to remove the veil of sadness and regrets which infolded my heart. I cursed the fate which had enveloped me in such fatal contradictions. Moreover, the gross and pressing requirements of material existence had to be faced. I envied the fate of the simple souls who are born, who live and who die without stir or thought, merely following the current as it takes them, worshipping a God whom they call their Father. How I detested my reason for having bereft me of my dreams. I passed some time each evening in the church of St. Sulpice, and there I did my best to believe, but it was of no use. Yes, these days will indeed count in my lifetime, for if they were not the most decisive, they were assuredly the most painful. It was a hard thing to re-commence life from the beginning, at the age of three and twenty. I could scarcely realise the possibility of my having to fight my way through the motley crowd of turbulent and ambitious persons. Timid as I am, I was ever tempted to select a plain and common-place career, which I might have ennobled inwardly. I had lost the desire to know, to scrutinise and to criticise; it seemed to me as if it was enough to love and to feel; but yet I quite feel that as soon as ever the heart throbbed more slowly, the head would once more cry out for food.

I was compelled, however, to create a fresh existence for myself in this world so little adapted for me. I need not trouble you with an account of these complications, which would be as uninteresting to you as they were painful to myself. You may picture me spending whole days in going from one person to another. I was ashamed of myself, but necessity knows no law. Man does not live by bread alone; but he cannot live without bread. But through it all I never ceased to keep my eyes fixed heavenwards.

I will merely tell you that in compliance with the advice of M. Carbon, and for another peremptory reason of which I will speak to you later on, I thought it best to refuse several rather tempting proposals, and to accept in the preparatory school annexed to the Stanislas College, a humble post which in several respects harmonised very well with my present position. This situation did not take up more than an hour and a half of my time each day, and I had the advantage of making use of special courses of mathematics, physics, etc., to say nothing of preparatory lectures for the M.A. degree, one of which was delivered twice a week, by M. Lenormant I was agreeably surprised at finding so much frank and cordial geniality among these young people; and I can safely say that I never had anything approaching to a misunderstanding while there, and that I left the school with sincere regret. But the most remarkable incident in this period of my life were beyond all doubt my relations with M. Gratry, the director of the college. I shall have much to tell you about him, and I am delighted at having made his acquaintance. He is the very miniature of M. Bautain, of whom he is the pupil and friend. We became very friendly from the first, and from that time forward we stood upon a footing towards one another which has never had its like before, so far as I am concerned. In many matters our ideas harmonised wonderfully; he, like myself, is governed wholly by philosophy. He is, upon the whole, a man of remarkably speculative mind; but upon certain points there is a hollow ring about him. How came it then, you will ask, that I was obliged to throw up a post which, taking it altogether, suited me fairly well, and in which I could so easily pursue my present plans? This, I must tell you, is one of the most curious incidents in my life; I should find it almost impossible to make any one understand it, and I do not believe that any one ever has thoroughly understood it. It was once more a question of duty. Yes, the same reason which compelled me to leave St. Sulpice and to refuse the Carmelite establishment obliged me to leave the Stanislas College. M. Dupanloup and M. Manier impelled me onward; onward I went, and I had to start afresh. It seems as if I were fated ever to encounter strange adventures, and I should be very glad that I had met with this particular one, if for no other reason for the peculiar positions in which it placed me, and which were the means of my making a considerable addition to my store of knowledge.

I had no difficulty, upon leaving the Stanislas College, in taking up one of the negotiations which I had broken off when I joined it, and in carrying out my original plan of hiring a student's lodging in Paris. This is my present position. I have hired a room in a sort of school near the Luxemburg, and in exchange for a few lessons in mathematics and literature I am, as the saying goes, "about quits." I did not expect to do so well. I have, moreover, nearly the whole of the day to myself, and I can spend as much time as I please at the Sorbonne, and in the libraries. These are my real homes, and it is in them that I spend my happiest hours. This mode of life would be very pleasant if I was not haunted by painful recollections, apprehensions only too well founded, and above all by a terrible feeling of isolation. Come and join me, therefore, my dear friend, and we shall pass some very pleasant hours together.

I have spoken to you thus far of the facts which have contributed to detain me for the present in Paris, and I have said nothing to you about the ulterior plans which I have in my head; for you take for granted, I suppose, that I merely look upon this as a transitory situation, pending the completion of my studies. It is upon the more remote future, in fact, that my thoughts are concentrated, now that my present position is assured. From this arises a fresh source of intellectual worry, by which I am at present beset, for it is quite painful to me to have to specialize myself, and besides there is no specialty which fits exactly into the divisions of my mind. But nevertheless it must be done. It is very hard to be fettered in one's intellectual development by external circumstances. You can imagine what I suffer, after having left my mind so absolutely free to follow its line of development. My first step was to see what could be done with regard to Oriental languages, and I was promised some lectures with M. Quatremere and M. Julien, professor of Chinese at the College de France. The result went to prove that this was not my outward specialty. (I say outward because internally I shall never have one, unless philosophy be classed as one, which to my mind would be inaccurate.) Then I thought of the university, and here, as you will understand, fresh difficulties arose. A professorship in the strict sense of the term is almost intolerable in my eyes, and even if one does not retain it all one's life long it must be held for a considerable period. I could get on very well with philosophy if I were allowed to teach it in my own way, but I should not be able to do that, and before reaching that stage one would have to spend years at what I call school literature, Latin verses, themes, etc. The perspective seemed so dreadful that I had at one time resolved to attach myself to the science classes, but in that case I should have been compelled to specialize myself more than in any other branch, for in scientific literature the principle of a species of universality is admitted. And besides, that would divert me from my cherished ideas. No; I will draw as close as possible to the centre which is philosophy, theology, science, literature, etc., which is, as I believe, God. I think it probable, therefore, that I shall fix my attention upon literature, in order that I may graduate in philosophy. All this, as you may fancy, is very colourless in my view, and the bent of the university spirit is the reverse of sympathetic to me. But one must be something, and I have had to try and be that which differs the least from my ideal type. And besides, who can tell if I may not some day succeed thereby in bringing my ideas to light? So many unexpected things happen which upset all calculations. One must be prepared therefore, for every eventuality, and be ready to unfurl one's sail at the first capful of wind.

I must tell you also of an intellectual matter which has helped to sustain and comfort me in these trying moments: I refer to my relations with M. Dupanloup. I began by writing him a letter describing my inward state and the steps which I deemed it necessary to take in consequence. He quite appreciated my course, and we afterwards had a conversation of an hour and a half in the course of which I laid bare, for the first time to one of my fellow-men my inmost ideas and my doubts with regard to the Catholic faith. I confess that I never met one more gifted; for he was possessed of true philosophy and of a really superior intelligence. It was only then that I learnt thoroughly to know him. We did not go thoroughly into the question. I merely explained the nature of my doubts, and he informed me of the judgment which from the orthodox point of view he would feel it his duty to pass upon them. He was very severe and plainly told me,[2] "that it was not a question of temptations against the faith--a term which I had employed in my letter by force of the habit I had acquired of following the terminology adopted at St. Sulpice, but of a complete loss of faith: secondly, that I was beyond the pale of the Church; thirdly, that in consequence I could not partake of any sacrament, and that he advised me not to take part in any outward religious ceremony; fourthly, that I could not without being guilty of deception, continue another day to pass as an ecclesiastic, and so forth." In all that did not relate to the appreciation of my condition, he was as kind as any one possibly could be. The priests of St. Sulpice and M. Gratry were not nearly so emphatic in their views and held that I must still regard myself as tempted.... I obeyed M. Dupanloup, and I shall always do so henceforth. Still, I continue to confess, and as I have no longer M. B---- I confess to M. Le Hir, to whom I am devotedly attached. I find that this improves and consoles me very much. I shall confess to you when you are ordained a priest. However, out of condescension, as he said, for the opinion of others, M. Dupanloup was anxious that I should, before leaving the Stanislas College, go through a course of private prayer. At first, I was tempted to smile at this proposal, coming from him. But when he suggested that I should do this under the care of M. de Ravignan I took a different view of the proposal. I should have accepted, for this would have enabled me to bring my connection with Catholicism to a dignified close. Unfortunately, M. de Ravignan was not expected in Paris before the 10th of November, and in the meanwhile M. Dupanloup had ceased to be superior of the petty seminary and I had left the Stanislas College; the realization of this proposal seems to me adjourned for a long time to say the least of it.

Good-bye, my dear friend, and forgive me for having spoken only of myself. For your own as for your friend's sake, let me beg of you to take care of yourself during the period of convalescence and not to compromise your health again by getting to work too soon. I will not ask you to answer this unless you feel that you can do so without fatigue. The true answer will be when we can grasp hands. Till then, believe in my sincere friendship.

PARIS, September 5th, 1846.

I thank you, my dear friend, for your kind letter. It afforded me great pleasure and comfort during this dreary vacation, which I am spending in the most painful isolation you can possibly conceive. There is not a human being to whom I can open my heart, nor, what is still worse, with whom I can indulge in conversations which, however commonplace, repose the mind and satisfy one's craving for company. One can be much more secluded in Paris than in the midst of the desert, as I am now realizing for myself. Society does not consist in seeing one's fellow-men, but in holding with them some of those communications which remind one that one is not alone in the world. At times, when I happen to be mixed up in the crowds which fill our streets, I fancy that I am surrounded by trees walking. The effect is precisely the same. When I think of the perfect happiness which used to be my lot at this season of the year, a great sadness comes over me, especially when I remember that I have said an everlasting farewell to these blissful days. I don't know whether you are like me, but there is nothing more painful to me than to have to say, even in respect to the most trifling matter, "It is all over, for once and all." What must I suffer, then, when I have to say this of the only pleasures which in my heart I cared for? But what can be done? I do not repent anything, and the suffering induced in the cause of duty brings with it a joy far greater than those which may have been sacrificed to it. I thank God for having given me in you one who understands me so well that I have no need even to lay bare the state of my heart to him. Yes, it is one of my chief sorrows to think that the persons whose approbation would be the most precious to me must blame me and condemn me. Fortunately that will not prevent them from pitying and loving me.

I am not one of those who are constantly preaching tolerance to the orthodox; this is the cause of numberless sophisms for the superficial minds in both camps. It is unfair upon Catholicism to dress it up according to our modern ideas, in addition to which this can only be done by verbal concessions which denote bad faith or frivolity. All or nothing, the Neo-Catholics are the most foolish of any.

No, my dear friend, do not scruple to tell me that I am in this state through my own fault; I feel sure that you must think so. It is of course painful for me to think that perhaps as much as half of the enlightened portion of humanity would tell me that I am hateful in the sight of God, and to use the old Christian phraseology, which is the true one, that if death overtook me, I should be immediately damned. This is terrible, and it used to make me tremble, for somehow or other the thought of death always seems to me very close at hand. But I have got hardened to it, and I can only wish to the orthodox a peace of mind equal to that which I enjoy. I may safely say that since I accomplished my sacrifice, amid outward sorrows greater than would be believed, and which, from perhaps a false feeling of delicacy, I have concealed from every one, I have tasted a peace which was unknown to me during periods of my life to all appearance more serene. You must not accept, my dear friend, certain generalities in regard to happiness which are very erroneous, and all of which assume that one cannot be happy except by consistency, and with a perfectly harmonized intellectual system. At this rate, no one would be happy, or only those whose limited intelligence could not rise to the conception of problems or of doubt. It is fortunately not so; and we owe our happiness to a piece of inconsistency, and to a certain turn of the wheel which causes us to take patiently what with another turn of the wheel would be absolute torture. I imagine that you must have felt this. There is a sort of inward debate going on within us with regard to happiness, and by it we are inevitably influenced in the way we take a certain thing; for there is no one who will deny that he contains within himself a thousand germs which might render him absolutely wretched. The question is whether he will allow them free course, or whether he will abstract himself from them. We are only happy on the sly, my dear friend, but what is to be done? Happiness is not so sacred a thing that it should only be accepted when derived from perfect reason.

You will perhaps think it strange that, not believing in Christianity, I can feel so much at ease. This would be singular if I still had doubts, but if I must tell you the whole truth, I will confess that I have almost got beyond the doubting stage. Explain to me how you manage to believe. My dear friend, it is too late for me to exclaim to you. "Take care." If you were not what you are, I should throw myself at your feet, and implore of you to declare whether you felt that you could swear that you would not alter your views at any period of your existence.... Think what is involved in swearing as to one's future thoughts!... I am very sorry that our friend A---- is definitely bound to the Church, for I feel sure that if he has not already doubted he will do so. We shall see in another twenty years. I hardly know what I am saying to you, but I cannot help wishing with St. Paul, that "all were such as I am," thankful that I have no need to add "except these bonds." With respect to the bonds which held me before, I do not regret them. Philosophy bids us say, Dominus pars.

When I was going up to the altar to receive the tonsure, I was already terribly exercised by doubt, but I was forced onward, and I was told that it was always well to obey. I went forward therefore, but God is my witness, that my inmost thought and the vow which I made to myself, was that I would take for my part the truth which is the hidden God, that I would devote myself to its research, renouncing all that is profane, or that is calculated to make us deviate from the holy and divine goal to which nature calls us. This was my resolve, and an inward voice told me that I should never repent me of my promise. And I do not repent of it, my dear friend, and I am ever repeating the soothing words Dominus pars, and I believe that I am not less agreeable to God or faithful to my promise, than he who does not scruple to pronounce them with a vain heart, and a frivolous mind. They will never be a reproach to me until, prostituting my thought to vulgar objects, I devote my life to one of those gross and commonplace aims which suffice for the profane, and until I prefer gross and material pleasures to the sacred pursuit of the beautiful and the true. Until that time arrives, I shall recall with anything but regret the day on which I pronounced these words.

Man can never be sure enough of his thoughts to swear fidelity to such and such a system which for the time he regards as true. All that he can do is to devote himself to the service of the truth, whatever it may be, and dispose his heart to follow it wherever he believes that he can see it, at no matter how great a sacrifice.

I write you these lines in haste, and with my head full of the by no means agreeable work which I am doing for my examination, so you must excuse the want of order in my ideas. I shall expect a long letter from you which will have on me the effect of water on a thirsty land.


PARIS, September 11th, 1846.

I wish that I could comment on each line of your letter which I received an hour ago, and communicate the many different reflections which it awakens in me. But I am so hard at work that this is impossible. I cannot refrain, however, from committing to paper the principal points upon which it is important that we should come to an immediate understanding.

It grieved me very much to read that there was henceforward a gulf fixed between your beliefs and mine. It is not so--we believe the same things; you in one form, I in another. The orthodox are too concrete, they set so much store by facts and by mere trifles. Remember the definition given of Christianity by the Proconsul (ni fallor) spoken of in the Acts of the Apostles, "Touching one Jesus, which was dead, and whom Paul declared to be alive." Be upon your guard against reducing the question to such paltry terms. Now I ask of you can the belief in any special fact, or rather the manner of appreciating and criticising this fact, affect a man's moral worth? Jesus was much more of a philosopher in this respect than the Church.

You will say that it is God's will we should believe these trifles, inasmuch as He had revealed them. My answer is, prove that this is so. I am not very partial to the method of proving one's case by objections. But you have not a proof which can stand the test of psychological or historical criticism. Jesus alone can stand it. But He is as much with me as with you. To be a Platonist is it necessary that one should adore Plato and believe in all he says?

I know of no writers more foolish than all your modern apologists; they have no elevation of mind, and there is not an atom of criticism in their heads. There are a few who have more perspicacity, but they do not face the question.

You will say to me, as I have heard it said in the seminary (it is characteristic of the seminary that this should be the invariable answer), "You must not judge the intrinsic value of evidence by the defective way in which it is offered. To say, 'We have not got vigorous men but we might have them,' does not touch intrinsic truth." My answer to this is: 1st, good evidence, especially in historical critique, is always good, no matter in what form it may be adduced; 2nd, if the cause was really a good one, we should have better advocates to class among the orthodox:

1. The men of quick intelligence, not without a certain amount of finesse, but superficial. These can hold their own better; but orthodoxy repudiates their system of defence, so that we need not take them into account.

2. Men whose minds are debased, aged drivellers. They are strictly orthodox.

3. Those who believe only through the heart, like children, without going into all this network of apologetics. I am very fond of them, and from an ideal point of view I admire them; but as we are dealing with a question of critique they do not count. From the moral point of view, I should be one with them.

There are others who cannot be defined, who are unbelievers unknown to themselves. Incredulity enters into their principles, but they do not push these principles to their logical consequences. Others believe in a rhetorical way, because their favourite authors have held this opinion, which is a sort of classical and literary religion. They believe in Christianity as the Sophists of the decadence believed in paganism. I am sorry that I have not the time to complete this classification.

You mistrust individual reason when it endeavours to draw up a system of life. Very good, give me a better system, and I will believe in it. I follow up mine because I have not got a better one, and I often mutiny against it.

I am very indifferent with regard to the outward position in which all this will land me; I shall not attempt to give myself any fixed place. If I happen to get placed, well and good. If I meet with any who share my views we shall make common cause; if not, I must go alone. I am very egotistical; left wholly to myself, I am quite indifferent to the views of other people. I hope to earn bread and cheese. The people who do not get to know me well class me as one of those with whom I have nothing in common; so much the worse, they will be all in the wrong.

In order to gain influence one must rally to a flag and be dogmatic. So much the better for those who have the heart for it. I prefer to keep my thoughts to myself and to avoid saying the thing which is not.

If by one of those revulsions which have already occurred this way of putting things comes into favour, so much the better. People will rally to me, but I must decline to mix myself up with all this riffraff, I might have added another category to the classification I made just now: that of the people who look upon action as the most important thing of all, and treat Christianity as a means of action. They are men of commonplace intelligence compared to the thinker. The latter is the Jupiter Olympius, the spiritual man who is the judge of all things and who is judged of none. That the simple possess much that is true I can readily believe, but the shape in which they possess it cannot satisfy him whose reason is in proper proportion with his other faculties. This faculty eliminates, discusses, and refines, and it is impossible to quench it. I would only too gladly have done so if I could. With regard to the cupio omnes fieri, my ideas are as follows. I do not apply it to my liberty. One should, as far as possible, so place oneself as to be ready to 'bout ship when the wind of faith shifts. And it will shift in a lifetime! How often must depend upon the length of that lifetime. Any kind of tie renders this more difficult. One shows more respect to truth by maintaining a position which enables one to say to her, "Take me whither thou wilt; I am ready to go." A priest cannot very well say this. He must be endowed with something more than courage to draw back. If, having gone so far, he does not become celestial, he is repulsive; and this is so true that I cannot instance a single good pattern of the kind, not even M. de Lamennais. He must therefore march ever onward, and bluntly declare, "I shall always see things in the same light as I have seen them, and I shall never see them in a different light." Would life be endurable for an hour if one had to say that?

With regard to the matter of M. A----, and putting all personal consideration upon one side, my syllogism is as follows. One must never swear to anything of which one is not absolutely sure. Now one is never sure of not modifying one's beliefs at some future time, however certain one may be of the present and of the past. Therefore ... I, too, would have sworn at one time, and yet....

What you say of the antagonists of Christianity is very true. I have, as it happens, incidentally made some rather curious researches upon this point which, when completed, might form a somewhat interesting narrative entitled History of Incredulity in Christianity. The consequences would appear triumphant to the orthodox, and especially the first, viz., that Christianity has rarely been attacked hitherto except in the name of immorality and of the abject doctrines of materialism--by blackguards in so many words. This is a fact, and I am prepared to prove it. But it admits, I think, of an explanation. In those days, people were bound to believe in religions. It was the law at that time, and those who did not believe placed themselves outside the general order. It is time that another order began. I believe too that it has begun, and the last generation in Germany furnished several admirable specimens of it: Kant, Herder, Jacobi, and even Goethe.

Forgive me for writing to you in this strain. But I do for you what I am not doing for those who are dearest to me in the world, to my sister, for instance, to whom I yesterday wrote less than half a page, so overburdened am I with work. I solace myself with the anticipation of the conversation which we shall have after my examination, for I mean to take a holiday then. There is, however, much that I should like to write to you about what you tell me of yourself. There, too, I should attempt to refute you, and with more show of being entitled to do so. Let me tell you that there are certain things the mere conception of which entails one's being called upon to realise them.

Good-bye, my very dear friend.... Believe in the sincerity of my affection.

Notes[edit]

  1. See above, page 262.
  2. M. Cognat merely analyses the rest as follows:--"M. Renan then enters into some details with regard to preparing for his examination for admission into the Normal School, and for a literary degree. With regard to his bachelor's degree, the examination for which he has not yet passed, it does not cause him much concern. He had, however, great difficulty in passing, and only did so by producing a certificate of home study, much as he disliked having resort to this evasive course. He did not feel compelled to deprive himself of the benefit of a course which was made use of by every one else, and which seemed to be tolerated by the law of monopoly of university teaching in order to temper the odious nature of its privileges. 'But,' he goes on to say, 'I bear the university a grudge for having compelled me to tell a lie, and yet the director of the Normal School was extolling its liberal-mindedness.'"