Recollections of My Youth/The St. Sulpice Seminary/Part III

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The St. Sulpice Seminary/Part III[edit]

The theological struggle defined itself more particularly in my case upon the ground of the so-called revealed texts. Catholic teaching, with full confidence as to the issue, accepted battle upon this ground as upon others with the most complete good faith. The Hebrew tongue was in this case the main instrument, for one of the two Christian Bibles is in Hebrew, while even as regards the New Testament there can be no proper exegesis without Hebrew.

The study of Hebrew was not compulsory in the seminary, and it was not followed by many of the students. In 1843-44, M. Garnier still lectured in his room upon the more difficult texts to two or three students. M. Le Hir had for several years taken the lectures on grammar. I joined the course at once, and the well-defined philology of M. Le Hir was full of charm for me. He was very kind to me, and being a Breton like myself, there was much similarity of disposition between us. At the expiration of a few weeks I was almost his only pupil. His way of expounding the Hebrew grammar, with comparison of other Semitic idioms, was most excellent. I possessed at this period a marvellous power of assimilation. I absorbed everything which he told me. His books were at my disposal and he had a very extensive library. Upon the days when we walked to Issy he went with me to the heights of La Solitude, and there he taught me Syriac. We talked together over the Syriac New Testament of Guthier. M. Le Hir determined my career. I was by instinct a philologist, and I found in him the man best fitted to develop this aptitude. Whatever claim to the title of savant I may possess I owe to M. Le Hir. I often think, even, that whatever I have not learnt from him has been imperfectly acquired. Thus he did not know much of Arabic, and this is why I have always been a poor Arabic scholar.

A circumstance due to the kindness of my teachers confirmed me in my calling of a philologist and, unknown to them, unclosed for me a door which I had not dared open for myself. In 1844, M. Gamier was compelled by old age to give up his lectures on Hebrew. M. Le Hir succeeded him, and knowing how thoroughly I had assimilated his doctrine he determined to let me take the grammar course. This pleasant information was conveyed to me by M. Carbon with his usual good nature, and he added that the Company would give me three hundred francs by way of salary. The sum seemed to me such an enormous one that I told M. Carbon I could not accept it. He insisted, however, on my taking a hundred and fifty francs for the purchase of books.

A much higher favour was that by which I was allowed to attend M. Etienne Quatremere's lectures at the College de France twice a week. M. Quatremere did not bestow much preparatory labour upon his lectures; in the matter of Biblical exegesis he had voluntarily kept apart from the scientific movement. He much more nearly resembled M. Garnier than M. Le Hir. Just another such a Jansenist as Silvestre de Sacy, he shared the demi-rationalism of Hug and Jahn--minimising the proportion of the supernatural as far as possible, especially in the cases of what he called "miracles difficult to carry out," such as the miracle of Joshua, but still retaining the principle, at all events in respect to the miracles of the New Testament. This superficial eclecticism did not much take my fancy. M. Le Hir was much nearer the truth in not attempting to attenuate the matter recounted, and in closely studying, after the manner of Ewald, the recital itself. As a comparative grammarian, M. Quatremere was also very inferior to M. Le Hir. But his erudition in regard to orientalism was enormous. A new world opened before me, and I saw that what apparently could only be of interest to priests might be of interest to laymen as well. The idea often occurred to me from that time that I should one day teach from the same table, in the small classroom to which I have as a matter of fact succeeded in forcing my way.

This obligation to classify and systematize my ideas in view of lessons to be given to fellow-pupils of the same age as myself decided my vocation. My scheme of teaching was from that moment determined upon; and whatever I have since accomplished in the way of philology has its origin in the humble lecture which through the kindness of my masters was intrusted to me. The necessity for extending as far as possible my studies in exegesis and Semitic philology compelled me to learn German. I had no elementary knowledge of it, for at St. Nicholas my education had been wholly Latin and French. I do not complain of this. A man need only have a literary knowledge of two languages, Latin and his own; but he should understand all those which may be useful to him for business or instruction. An obliging fellow pupil from Alsace, M. Kl----, whose name I often see mentioned as rendering services to his compatriots in Paris, kindly helped me at the outset. Literature was to my mind such a secondary matter, amidst the ardent investigation which absorbed me, that I did not at first pay much attention to it. Nevertheless, I felt a new genius, very different from that of the seventeenth century. I admired it all the more because I did not see any limit to it. The spirit peculiar to Germany at the close of the last century, and in the first half of the present one, had a very striking effect upon me; I felt as if entering a place of worship. This was just what I was in search of, the conciliation of a truly religious spirit with the spirit of criticism. There were times when I was sorry that I was not a Protestant, so that I might be a philosopher without ceasing to be a Christian. Then, again, I recognised the fact that the Catholics alone are consistent. A single error proves that a Church is not infallible; one weak part proves that a book is not a revealed one. Outside rigid orthodoxy, there was nothing, so far as I could see, except free thought after the manner of the French school of the eighteenth century. My familiarity with the German studies placed me in a very false position; for upon the one hand it proved to me the impossibility of an exegesis which did not make any concessions, while upon the other hand I quite saw that the masters of St. Sulpice were quite right in refusing to make these concessions, inasmuch as a single confession of error ruins the whole edifice of absolute truth, and reduces it to the level of human authorities in which each person makes his selections according to his individual fancy.

For in a divine book everything must be true, and as two contradictories cannot both be true, it must not contain any contradiction. But the careful study of the Bible which I had undertaken, while revealing to me many historical and esthetic treasures, proved to me also that it was not more exempt than any other ancient book from contradictions, inadvertencies, and errors. It contains fables, legends, and other traces of purely human composition. It is no longer possible for any one to assert that the second part of the book of Isaiah was written by Isaiah. The book of Daniel, which, according to all orthodox tenets, relates to the period of the captivity, is an apocryphal work composed in the year 169 or 170 B.C. The book of Judith is an historical impossibility. The attribution of the Pentateuch to Moses does not bear investigation, and to deny that several parts of Genesis are mystical in their meaning is equivalent to admitting as actual realities descriptions such as that of the Garden of Eden, the apple, and Noah's Ark. He is not a true Catholic who departs in the smallest iota from the traditional theses. What becomes of the miracle which Bossuet so admired: "Cyrus referred to two hundred years before his birth"? What becomes of the seventy weeks of years, the basis of the calculations of universal history, if that part of Isaiah in which Cyrus is referred to was composed during the lifetime of that warrior, and if the pseudo-Daniel is a contemporary of Antiochus Epiphanes?

Orthodoxy calls upon us to believe that the biblical books are the work of those to whom their titles assign them. The mildest Catholic doctrine as to inspiration will not allow one to admit that there is any marked error in the sacred text, or any contradiction in matters which do not relate either to faith or morality. Well, let us allow that out of the thousand disputes between critique and orthodox apologetics as to the details of the so-called sacred text there are some in which by accident and contrary to appearances the latter are in the right. It is impossible that it can be right in all the thousand cases and it has only to be wrong once for all the theory as to its inspiration to be reduced to nothing. This theory of inspiration, implying a supernatural fact, becomes impossible to uphold in the presence of the decided ideas of our modern common sense. An inspired book is a miracle. It should present itself to us under conditions totally different from any other book. It may be said: "You are not so exacting in respect to Herodotus and the poems of Homer." This is quite true, but then Herodotus and the Homeric poems do not profess to be inspired books.

With regard to contradictions, for instance, no one whose mind is free from theological preoccupations can do other than admit the irreconcilable divergences between the synoptists and the author of the Fourth Gospel, and between the synoptists Compared with one another. For us rationalists this is not of much importance; but the orthodox reasoner, compelled to be of opinion that his book is right in every particular, finds himself involved in endless subtleties. Silvestre de Sacy was very much perplexed by the quotations from the Old Testament which are met with in the New. He found it so difficult, with his predilection for accuracy in quotations, to reconcile them that he eventually admitted as a principle that the two Testaments are both infallible of themselves, but that the New Testament is not so when it quotes the Old. Only those who have no sort of experience in the ways of religion will feel any surprise that men of such great powers of application should have clung to such untenable positions. In these shipwrecks of a faith upon which you have centred your life, you cling to the most unlikely means of salvage rather than allow all you cherish to go to the bottom.

Men of the world who believe that people are brought to a decision in the choice of their opinions by reasons of sympathy or antipathy will no doubt be surprised at the train of reasoning which alienated me from the Christian faith, to which I had so many motives, both of interest and inclination, for remaining attached. Those who have not the scientific spirit can scarcely understand that one's opinions are formed outside of one by a sort of impersonal concretion of which one is, so to speak, the spectator. In thus letting my course be shaped by the force of events, I believed myself to be conforming to the rules of the seventeenth century school, especially to those of Malebranche, whose first principle is that reason should be contemplated, that man has no part in its procreation, and that his sole duty is to stand before the truth, free from all personal bias, ready to let himself be led whither the balance of demonstration wills it. So far from having at the outset certain results in view, these illustrious thinkers urged in the interests of the truth the obliteration of anything like a wish, a tendency, or a personal attachment. The great reproach of the preachers of the seventeenth century against the libertines was that they had embraced their desires and had adopted irreligious opinions because they wished them to be true.

In this great struggle between my reason and my beliefs I was careful to avoid a single reasoning from abstract philosophy. The method of natural and physical sciences which at Issy had imposed itself upon me as an absolute law led me to distrust all system. I was never stopped by any objection with regard to the dogmas of the Trinity and the Incarnation regarded in themselves. These dogmas, occurring in the metaphysical ether did not shock any opposite opinion in me. Nothing that was open to criticism in the policy and tendency of the Church, either in the past or the present, made the slightest impression upon me. If I could have believed that theology and the Bible were true, none of the doctrines which were afterwards embodied in the Syllabus and which were thereupon more or less promulgated, would have given me any trouble. My reasons were entirely of a philological and critical order; not in the least of a metaphysical, political, or moral kind. These orders of ideas seemed scarcely tangible or capable of being applied in any sense. But the question as to whether there are contradictions between the Fourth Gospel and the synoptics is one which there can be no difficulty in grasping. I can see these contradictions with such absolute clearness that I would stake my life, and, consequently, my eternal salvation, upon their reality without a moment's hesitation. In a question of this kind there can be none of those subterfuges which involve all moral and political opinions in so much doubt. I do not admire either Philip II. or Pius V., but if I had no material reasons for disbelieving the Catholic creed, the atrocities of the former and the faggots of the latter would not be obstacles to my faith.

Many eminent minds have on various occasions hinted to me that I should never have broken away from Catholicism if I had not formed so narrow a view of it; or if, to put it in another way, my teachers had not given me this narrow view of it. Some people hold St. Sulpice partially responsible for my incredulity, and reproach that establishment upon the one hand with having inspired me with too complete a trust in a scholasticism which implied an exaggerated rationalism, and, upon the other, with having required me to admit as necessary to salvation the suimmum of orthodoxy, thus inordinately increasing the amount of sustenance to be swallowed, while they narrowed in undue proportions the orifice through which it was to pass. This is very unfair. The directors of St. Sulpice, in representing Christianity in this light, and by being so open as to the measure of belief required, were simply acting like honest men. They were not the persons who would have added the gratifying est de fide after a number of untenable propositions. One of the worst kinds of intellectual dishonesty is to play upon words, to represent Christianity as imposing scarcely any sacrifice upon reason, and in this way to inveigle people into it without letting them know to what they have committed themselves. This is where Catholic laymen, who dub themselves liberals, are under such a delusion. Ignorant of theology and exegesis, they treat accession to Christianity as if it were a mere adhesion to a coterie. They pick and choose, admitting one dogma and rejecting another, and then they are very indignant if any one tells them that they are not true Catholics. No one who has studied theology can be guilty of such inconsistency, as in his eyes everything rests upon the infallible authority of the Scripture and the Church; he has no choice to make. To abandon a single dogma or reject a single tenet in the teaching of the Church, is equivalent to the negation of the Church and of Revelation. In a church founded upon divine authority, it is as much an act of heresy to deny a single point as to deny the whole. If a single stone is pulled out of the building, the whole edifice must come to the ground.

Nor is there any good to be gained by saying that the Church will perhaps some day make concessions which will avert the necessity of ruptures, such as that which I felt forced upon me, and that it will then be seen that I have renounced the kingdom of God for a trumpery cause. I am perfectly well aware how far the Church can go in the way of concession, and I know what are the points upon which it is useless to ask her for any. The Catholic Church will never abandon a jot or tittle of her scholastic and orthodox system; she can no more do so than the Comte de Chambord can cease to be legitimist. I have no doubt that there will be schisms, more, perhaps, than ever before, but the true Catholic will be inflexible in the declaration: "If I must abandon my past, I shall abandon the whole; for I believe in everything upon the principle of infallibility, and this principle is as much affected by one small concession as by ten thousand large ones." For the Catholic Church to admit that Daniel was an apocryphal person of the time of the Maccabaei, would be to admit that she had made a mistake; if she was mistaken in that, she may have been mistaken in others, and she is no longer divinely inspired.

I do not, therefore, in any way regret having been brought into contact, for my religious education, with sincere teachers, who would have scrupulously avoided letting me labour under any illusion as to what a Catholic is required to admit. The Catholicism which was taught me is not the insipid compromise, suitable only for laymen, which has led to so many misunderstandings in the present day. My Catholicism was that of Scripture, of the councils, and of the theologians. This Catholicism I loved, and I still respect it; having found it inadmissible, I separated myself from it. This is a straightforward course, but what is not straightforward is to pretend ignorance of the engagement contracted, and to become the apologist of things concerning which one is ignorant. I have never lent myself to a falsehood of this description, and I have looked upon it as disrespectful to the faith to practise deceit with it. It is no fault of mine if my masters taught me logic, and by their uncompromising arguments made my mind as trenchant as a blade of steel. I took what was taught me--scholasticism, syllogistic rules, theology, and Hebrew--in earnest; I was an apt student; I am not to be numbered with the lost for that.