Recollections of My Youth/First Steps Outside St. Sulpice/Part III

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First Steps Outside St. Sulpice/Part III[edit]

The friendship of M. Berthelot, and the approbation of my sister, were my two chief consolations during this painful period, when the sentiment of an abstract duty towards truth compelled me at the age of three and twenty to alter the course of a career already fairly entered upon. The change was, in reality, only one of domicile, and of outward surroundings. At bottom I remained the same; the moral course of my life was scarcely affected by this trial; the craving for truth, which was the mainspring of my existence, knew no diminution. My habits and ways were but very little modified.

St. Sulpice, in truth, had left its impress so deeply upon me, that for years I remained a St. Sulpice man, not in regard to faith but in habit. The excellent education imparted there, which had exhibited to me the perfection of politeness in M. Gosselin, the perfection of kindness in M. Carbon, the perfection of virtue in M. Pinault, M. Le Hir and M. Gottofrey, made an indelible impression upon my docile nature. My studies, prosecuted without interruption after I had left the seminary, so completely confirmed me in my presumptions against orthodox theology, that at the end of a twelvemonth, I could scarcely understand how I had formerly been able to believe. But when faith has disappeared, morality remains; for a long time, my programme was to abandon as little as possible of Christianity, and to hold on to all that could be maintained without belief in the supernatural. I sorted, so to speak, the virtues of the St. Sulpice student, discarding those which appertain to a positive belief, and retaining those of which a philosopher can approve. Such is the force of habit. The void sometimes has the same effect as its opposite. Est pro corde locus. The fowl whose brain has been removed, will nevertheless, under the influence of certain stimulants, continue to scratch its beak.

I endeavoured, therefore, on leaving St. Sulpice to remain as much of a St. Sulpice man as possible. The studies which I had begun at the seminary had so engrossed me, that my one desire was to resume them. One only occupation seemed worthy to absorb my life, and that was the pursuit of my critical researches upon Christianity by the much larger means which lay science offered me. I also imagined myself to be in the company of my teachers, discussing objections with them, and proving to them that whole pages of ecclesiastical teaching require alteration.

For some little time, I kept up my relations with them, notably with M. Le Hir, but I gradually came to feel that relations of this kind, between the believer and the unbeliever, grow strained, and I broke off an intimacy which could be profitable and pleasant to myself alone.

In respect to matters of critique, I also held my ground as closely as I possibly could, and thus it comes that, while being unrestrictedly rationalist, I have none the less seemed a thorough conservative in the discussions relating to the age and authenticity of Holy Writ. The first edition of my Histoire Generale des Langues Semitiques, for instance, contains so far as regards the book of Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon, several concessions to traditional opinions which I have since eliminated one after the other. In my Origines du Christianisme, upon the other hand, this reserved attitude has stood me in good stead, for in writing this essay, I had to face a very exaggerated school--that of the Tuebingen Protestants--composed of men devoid of literary tact and moderation, by whom, through the fault of the Catholics, researches as to Jesus and the apostolic age have been almost entirely monopolised. When a reaction sets in against this school, it will be recognised perhaps that my critique, Catholic in its origin, and by degrees freed from the shackles of tradition, has enabled me to see many things in their true light, and has preserved me from more than one mistake.

But it is in regard to my temperament, more especially, that I have remained in reality the pupil of my old masters. My life, when I pass it in review, has been one long application of their good qualities and their defects; with this difference, that these qualities and defects, having been transferred to the world's stage, have brought out inconsistencies more strongly marked. All's well that ends well, and as my existence has, upon the whole, been a pleasant one, I often amuse myself, like Marcus Aurelius, by calculating how much I owe to the various influences which have traversed my life, and woven the tissue of it. In these calculations, St. Sulpice always comes out as the principal factor. I can venture to speak very freely on this point, for little of the credit is due to me. I was well trained, and that is the secret of the whole matter. My amiability, which is in many cases the result of indifference; my indulgency, which is sincere enough, and is due to the fact that I see clearly how unjust men are to one another; my conscientious habits, which afford me real pleasure, and my infinite capacity for enduring ennui, attributable perhaps to my having been so well inoculated by ennui during my youth that it has never taken since, are all to be explained by the circle in which I lived, and the profound impressions which I received. Since I left St. Sulpice, I have been constantly losing ground, and yet, with only a quarter the virtues of a St. Sulpice man, I have, I think, been far above the average.

I should like to explain in detail and show how the paradoxical resolve to hold fast to the clerical virtues, without the faith upon which they are based, and in a world for which they are not designed, produced so far as I was concerned, the most amusing encounters. I should like to relate all the adventures which my Sulpician habits brought about, and the singular tricks which they played me. After leading a serious life for sixty years, mirth is no offence, and what source of merriment can be more abundant, more harmless, and more ready to hand than oneself? If a comedy writer should ever be inclined to amuse the public by depicting my foibles I would readily give my assent if he agreed to let me join him in the work, as I could relate things far more amusing than any which he could invent. But I find that I am transgressing the first rule which my excellent masters laid down, viz., never to speak of oneself. I will therefore treat this latter part of my subject very briefly.