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Hughes Felicité Robert de Lamennais

Hughes Felicité Robert de Lamennais (June 19, 1782 - February 27, 1854), French priest, and philosophical and political writer, was born at Saint-Malo, in Brittany.

He was the son of a ship-owner of Saint-Malo ennobled by Louis XVI for public services, and was intended by his father to follow mercantile pursuits. He spent long hours in the library of an uncle, devouring the writings of Rousseau, Pascal and others. He thereby acquired a vast and varied, though superficial, erudition, which determined his subsequent career. Of a sickly and sensitive nature, and impressed by the horrors of the French Revolution, his mind was early seized with a morbid view of life, and this temper characterized him throughout all his changes of opinion and circumstance. He was at first inclined towards rationalistic views, but partly through the influence of his brother Jean-Marie (1775-1861), partly as a result of his philosophical and historical studies, he felt belief to be indispensable to action and saw in religion the most powerful leaven of the community. He gave utterance to these convictions in the Réflexions sur l'état de l'église en France pendant le 18ieme siècle et sur sa situation actuelle, published anonymously in Paris in 1808. Napoleon's police seized the book as dangerously ideological, with its eager recommendation of religious revival and active clerical organization, but it awakened the ultramontane spirit which has since played so great a part in the politics of churches and of states.

As a rest from political strife, Lamennais devoted most of the following year to a translation, in exquisite French, of the Speculum Monachorum of Ludovicus Blosius (Louis de Blois) which he entitled Le Guide spirituel (1809). In 1811 he received the tonsure and shortly afterwards became professor of mathematics in an ecclesiastical college founded by his brother at Saint-Malo. Soon after Napoleon had concluded the Concordat of 1801 with Pius VII he published, in conjunction with his brother, De la tradition de l'église sur l'institution des éveques (1814), a writing occasioned by the emperor's nomination of Cardinal Maury to the archbishopric of Paris, in which he strongly condemned the Gallican principle which allowed bishops to be created irrespective of the pope's sanction. He was in Paris at the first Bourbon restoration in 1814, which he hailed with satisfaction, less as a monarchist than as a strenuous apostle of religious regeneration. Dreading the Cent fours, he escaped to London, where he obtained a meagre livelihood by giving French lessons in a school founded by the abbé Jules Carron for French émigrés; he also became tutor at the house of Lady Jerningham, whose first impression of him as an imbecile changed into friendship. On the final overthrow of Napoleon in 1815 he returned to Paris, and in the following year, with many misgivings as to his calling, he yielded to his brother's and Carron's advice, and was ordilined priest by the bishop of Rennes.

The first volume of his great work, Essai sur l'indifference en matière de religion, appeared in 1817 (Eng. trans. by Lord Stanley of Alderley, London, 1898), and affected Europe like a spell, investing, in the words of Lacordaire, a humble priest with all the authority once enjoyed by Bossuet. Lamennais denounced toleration, and advocated a Catholic restoration to belief. The right of private judgment, introduced by Descartes and Leibniz into philosophy and science, by Luther into religion and by Rousseau and the Encyclopaedists into politics and society, had, he contended, terminated in practical atheism and spiritual death. Ecclesiastical authority, founded on the absolute revelation delivered to the Jewish people, but supported by the universal tradition of all nations, he proclaimed to be the sole hope of regenerating the European communities.

Three more volumes (Paris, 1818-1824) followed, and met with a mixed reception from the Gallican bishops and monarchists, but with the enthusiastic adhesion of the younger clergy. The work was examined by three Roman theologians, and received the formal approval of Leo XII Lamennais visited Rome at the pope's request, and was offered a place in the Sacred College, which he refused. On his return to France he took a prominent part in political work, and together with Chateaubriand, the vicomte de Villèle, was a regular contributor to the Conservateur, but when Villéle became the chief of the supporters of absolute monarchy, Lamennais withdrew his support and started two rival organs, Le Drapeau blanc and Le Memorial catholique. Various other minor works, together with De la religion considérée dans ses rapports avec l'ordre civil et politique (2 vols., 1825-1826), kept his name before the public.

He retired to La Chênaie and gathered round him a host of brilliant disciples, including C. de Montalembert, Lacordaire and Maurice de Guérin, his object being to form an organized body of opinion to persuade the French clergy and laity to throw off the yoke of the state connexion. With Rome at his back, as he thought, he adopted a frank and bold attitude in denouncing the liberties of the Gallican church. His health broke down and he went to the Pyrenees to recruit. On his return to La Chênaie in 1827 he had another dangerous illness, which powerfully impressed him with the thought that he had only been dragged back to life to be the instrument of Providence. Les Progrès de la revolution et de la guerre contre l'église (1828) marked Lamennais's complete renunciation of royalist principles, and henceforward he dreamt of the advent of a theocratic democracy.

To give effect to these views he founded L'Avenir, the first number of which appeared on October 16 1830, with the motto "God and Liberty." From the first the paper was aggressively democratic; it demanded rights of local administration, an enlarged suffrage, universal freedom of conscience, freedom of instruction, of meeting, and of the press. Methods of worship were to be criticized, improved or abolished in absolute submission to the spiritual, not to the temporal authority. With the help of Montalembert, he founded the Agence generale pour la defense de la liberté religieuse, which became a far-reaching organization, it had agents all over the land who noted any violations of religious freedom and reported them to headquarters. As a result, L'Avenir's career was stormy, and the opposition of the Conservative bishops checked its circulation; Lamennais, Montalembert and Lacordaire resolved to suspend it for a while, and they set out to Rome in November 1831 to obtain the approval of Gregory XVI.

The "pilgrims of liberty" were, after much opposition, received in audience by the pope, but only on the condition that the object which brought them to Rome should not be mentioned. This was a bitter disappointment to such earnest ultramontanes, who received, a few days after the audience, a letter from Cardinal Pacca, advising their departure from Rome and suggesting that the Holy See, whilst admitting the justice of their intentions, would like the matter left open for the present. Lacordaire and Montalembert obeyed; Lamennais, however, remained in Rome, but his last hope vanished with the issue of Gregory's letter to the Polish bishops, in which the Polish patriots were reproved and the tsar was affirmed to be their lawful sovereign. He then shook the dust of Rome from off his feet." At Munich, in 1832, he received the encyclical Mirari vos, condemning his policy; as a result L'Avenir ceased and the Agence was dissolved.

Lamennais, with his two lieutenants, submitted, and deeply wounded, retired to La Chénaie. His genius and prophetic insight had turned the entire Catholic church against him, and those for whom he had fought so long were the fiercest of his opponents. The famous Paroles d'un croyant, published in 1834 through the intermediary of Sainte-Beuve, marks Lamennais's severance from the church. "A book, small in size, but immense in its perversity," was Gregory's criticism in a new encyclical letter. A tractate of aphorisms, it has the vigour of a Hebrew prophecy and contains the choicest gems of poetic feeling lost in a whirlwind of exaggerations and distorted views of kings and rulers. The work had an extraordinary circulation and was translated into many European languages. It is now forgotten as a whole, but the beautiful appeals to love and human brotherhood are still reprinted in every hand-book of French literature.

Henceforth Lamennais was the apostle of the people alone. Les Affaires de Rome, des maux de l'église ci de la société (1837) came from old habit of religious discussions rather than from his real mind of 1837, or at most it was but a last word. Le Livre du peuple (1837), De l'esclavage moderne (1839), Politique a l'usage du peuple (1839), three volumes of articles from the journal of the extreme democracy, Le Monde, are titles of works which show that he had arrived among the missionaries of liberty, equality and fraternity, and he soon got a share of their martyrdom. Le Pays et le gouvernement (1840) caused him a year's imprisonment. He struggled through difficulties of lost friendships, limited means and personal illnesses, faithful to the last to his hardly won dogma of the sovereignty of the people, and, to judge by his contribution to Louis Blanc's Revue du progrès was ready for something like communism.

He was named president of the "Société de la solidarité républicaine," which counted half a million adherents in fifteen days. The Revolution of 1848 had his sympathies, and he started Le Peuple constituant; however, he was compelled to stop it on July 10, complaining that silence was for the poor, but again he was at the head of La Revolution démocratique et sociale, which also succumbed. In the constituent assembly he sat on the left till the coup d'état of Napoleon III in 1851 put an end to all hopes of popular freedom. While deputy he drew up a constitution, but it was rejected as too radical. Thereafter a translation of Dante chiefly occupied him till his death, which took place in Paris on the 27th of February 1854. He refused to be reconciled to the church, and was buried according to his own directions at Père Lachaise without funeral rites, being mourned by a countless concourse of democratic and literary admirers.

During the most difficult time of his republican period he found solace for his intellect in the composition of Une voix de prison, written during his imprisonment in a similar strain to Les paroles d'un croyant. This is an interesting contribution to the literature of captivity; it was published in Paris in 1846. He also wrote Esquisse de philosophie (1840). Of the four volumes of this work the third, which is an exposition of art as a development from the aspirations and necessities of the temple, stands pre-eminent, and remains the best evidence of his thinking power and brilliant style.

There are two so-called œuvres complètes de Lamennais, the first in 10 volumes (Paris, 1836-1837), and the other in 10 volumes (Paris, 1844); both these are very incomplete and only contain the works mentioned above. The most noteworthy of his writings subsequently published are: Amschaspands et Darvands (1843), Le Deuil de la Pologne (1846), Mélanges philosophiques et politiques (1856), Les Evangiles (1846) and La Divine Comédie, these latter being translations of the Gospels and of Dante.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.