Lamennais: From Reaction to Revolution

For a modern liberal Catholic, particularly for an American, cleric or lay, the alignment of forces in the Church in Europe in the first years of Restoration after the fall of Napoleon is almost incomprehensible. This is specially true since the Johannine revolution, as theological, ecclesiastical, and political radicalism have finally converged. Yet it is essential to understand the religious situation in France — where the action was — as Restoration, counterrevolution, and the Holy Alliance shut down over Europe — because it was then that the major tendencies for reform came into being. Otherwise what is happening today would seem quite falsely to be a total overturn, the work of forces born since Vatican II.

The problem is one of sorting — at their birth the forces of change in the Church were not only contradictory then, and amongst themselves, but some of them have since completely changed their meaning. Plus has changed to minus, radicalism to reaction, and vice versa. After all, well-organized groups within the Church holding beliefs which were bundles of contradictions still existed commonly only a short time ago. The most politically radical American Catholic group were not only Maximalists, believers in rigid and naïve interpretations of the Tridentine creed and the decisions of Vatican I, but given to the veneration of dubious relics and questionable miracles, and amongst their more far out members, something very like grossly superstitious practices — all this coupled with a social vision of an anarchist utopia where all men were brothers under a theocracy of the confessional, under a Pope infallible in faith, morals and everything else, ex cathedra or not. In contrast the average theologian interpreting St. Thomas to mean the opposite of what he said, or the Biblical scholar who accepted the Higher Criticism of his liberal Protestant brethren, were very likely to be political conservatives and with no pressing sense of social responsibility — for the simple that, triply cloistered within the ghetto of Catholic life, within the cloister of the Catholic academy, and within the sanctuary of the clerical and usually the religious life, they were unaware of anything that went on in society beyond the pale.

In France, with the Bourbon Restoration the Church was brought face to face with all the problems that had been kept more or less smothered since the beginning of the Counter-Reformation. During the height of the Revolution she had been compromised or demoralized or driven underground. Large numbers of clergy and religious had been executed or had left the Church. Outside of a few religious orders which taught a thoroughly mechanized Thomism, the Church had no philosophy. A well-educated, devout layman in America today is far more familiar with the Summa Theologica than was the average French archbishop in 1820. A popular philosophy was an amorphous Cartesianism, lightly sautéed in holy water.

The Vatican had spent the years of the Napoleonic Empire in Babylonian Captivity. In the eyes of the restorers of Europe, Castlereagh and Metternich and Alexander II, the Papacy was compromised. It may well have been Metternich who first said, “How many divisions has the Pope?” After all, it was the Czar, whom no one would accuse of being a Papist, who invented the notion of the Holy Alliance, and who supported the territorial claims of Rome against Metternich’s ambitions for Austrian control of all of North Italy.

All during the eighteenth century the ancient nobility and beauty of ritual and liturgy had been subject to the attrition of vulgarization, reactionary modernization and secularization. The non-juring clergy who had refused allegiance to either Revolution or Napoleon were back in power and were intransigently legitimist. They had forgotten nothing and learned nothing. Christianity to them meant obedience to the house of Bourbon. Those who had collaborated were on the defensive, not just for their positions in the hierarchy, but for their right to the sacraments. On both sides, legitimism to the contrary notwithstanding, a tidal wave of wholesale bourgeoisification was sweeping the Church. Except for a few eccentrics, even the strictest religious orders were out to meet the nouveaux riches of the nouveau siècle more than half way. Very simply, the Church was being vulgarized in every aspect. It was in these years that stopwatch masses and plaster statues with glass eyes, the computerized confessional and the anti-mind pedagogy began.

More important than all this tawdriness in exterior things was an ever-growing spiritual vulgarity. Mysticism was the dirtiest word in the pastoral vocabulary and over-indulgence in prayer far worse than the sin of impure touch. As for contemplation, the average priest, if asked to define it, would say it was something actresses did with mirrors. In society generally, complete skepticism was almost universal. The ruling class of the Restoration were punctilious in their attendance at Mass as a political demonstration. Voltairean skepticism had given way to pious fear, not of God, but of the people. Superficially regarded, the Church seemed to be only a flimsy mask of piety for the restored ancien régime, which was in fact neither old nor capable of ruling without the support of Russian bayonets. The French Church looked as though it would not survive the only too obviously doomed dynasty of the Bourbons. Instead it experienced the most vital revival since the Council of Trent.

The first influential spokesman for this revival was Chateaubriand, founder of Catholic estheticism, out of which has come everything from the pre-Raphaelites to the churchiness of people like Oscar Wilde and Rémy de Gourmont, but also all those movements of de-vulgarization, usually the revival of a purged medievalism, the rebirth of pure Gregorian chant, the reform of vestments, and the appreciation of medieval Latin poetry, the great dignity and beauty of the liturgy amongst certain religious orders and Anglo-Catholics.

Joseph de Maistre was the founder of irreconcilable, intransigent Maximalism, but in support of secular autocracy. The Holy Father was not just holy, but Trisagios, and the throne was only doubly holy.

Out of Lamennais came almost everything else. In addition, in one way or another, and at one time or another, he was also a spokesman for, or an influence on, all the other movements and forces of that aggiornamento. This was not due to opportunism or intellectual instability, quite the opposite. Behind the contradictory and antagonistic positions assumed by Lamennais in the course of his life, stood the massive consistency of the man himself. Lamennais as a person changed hardly at all. He remained a very specific kind of spiritual personality. He has been called a prophet in the literal sense and that he was, not just one of the major or minor prophets accepted into the canon of Scripture but brother to all the anonymous nabis who appear now and again in the Biblical narrative, holy men out of the hills and deserts whose function is to correct the relations of high priest, king, and chosen people to that all-enveloping transcendence and ever-elevating immanence which was the meaning of the term “chosen” in “Chosen People.” Since from the very beginning his role as prophet was frustrated, he repeated, as ontogeny repeats phylogeny, the spiritual history of Israel. He moved from prophecy to apocalypse.

If apocalyptic can be defined as disappointed prophecy, there is a spiritual quality which unites the two and that is an ecstatic mysticism which is at the same time the most intense ethical activism. This is a kind of prayer and a life so lived is a life of prayer, just as much as that of any Trappist or Carthusian. Here is the real and abiding heritage of Lamennais. With a few exceptions indeed his has been the personality or spiritual sensibility shared by all those who have come after him to take up the struggle to recall the Church to the apostolic life. Not in the Catholic Church only — the Quaker, George Fox, or the Methodist, John Wesley, or the Socialist Anglo-Catholics in their slum parishes who went to jail for putting candles on the altar, and Albert Schweitzer, who probably did more than any other one man to popularize the apocalyptic ethic — all are brethren of Lamennais. Today, it is apparent to all but those who have eyes and see not and ears and hear not, neither walk they with their feet, that apocalypse at last has come and that even with fools’ luck if man goes on another million years, we are at this moment living morally in the Last Days. It is Lamennais’s personality, not the details of his changing theology and philosophy, that embodies the archetype of these men of renewal. His doctrines changed, his life did not, and so it is his life and the literary, one might say, poetic, expression of that life consistency which is important. Nobody is quite sure how many people wrote the book called Isaiah. It shifts from prophecy to apocalyptic back and forth with the changing relations of Israel and the Persian Empire, but it is one poem, one kind of prayer. As Isaiah to the Persian Empire, so was Lamennais to the world of France of the first half of the nineteenth century.

Félicité Robert de la Mennais was born in 1782 into a family of wholesale merchants and ship owners at Saint Malo in Brittany. His father had been ennobled by Louis XVI, but he managed to survive, and even for a while grow rich, by a careful adjustment of his activities and opinions to the Revolution and to Napoleon. In his latter years the business declined, but until he was himself middle-aged, Lamennais never had any economic problems. His uncle, M. des Saudrais, was a man of considerable learning with a large library. He assumed the responsibility for the boy’s education after the death of his mother when he was five, and seems to have solved the problem by turning him loose in the library, letting him read whatever he liked and sometimes discussing it with him. Later Lamennais helped his uncle in his own literary career.

1787 to 1797 were the years of ferment and passionate discussion, of idealistic reformation, of Terror — which the family narrowly escaped, and finally of get-rich-quick vulgarity and compromise. The young Lamennais spent them reading, teaching himself languages. Like many home-taught or autodidacts he was immensely erudite and thoughtful. He seems to have formed early — perhaps that’s the wrong term — perhaps he was physiologically so constituted — as to be given to a habitual state of passionate meditation. Slowly through the years of adolescence, both he and his brother Jean turned back toward the Church. It was a strange church they turned to as they neared their majority — compromised, persecuted, manipulated and very nearly emptied of content, if the true content of the Church is life modeled on the historic Jesus. Both brothers returned to the Church, not as submissive converts, much less as frightened bourgeois conformists, but as passionate reformers. It was pretty close to impossible for a religious man to return to the Church for any other reason in those days.

Their first two books were joint productions, Réflexions sur l’état de l’église en France pendant le XVIIIe siècle, et sur la situation actuelle and Tradition de l’église sur l’institution des évêques (Reflections on the Situation of the Church in France During the Eighteenth Century and on the Contemporary Situation, and Church Tradition on the Institution of Bishops).

Napoleon’s police suppressed Réflexions. That action is a good measure of the subjection of the Church. It was not so much the position of the brothers on the question of the relations of Church and State, empire and papacy, Pope and Church that Napoleon considered dangerous, it was the intensely religious revivalism that pervaded every page. All that Réflexions really advocates is what today we would call Home Missions, ordinary discipline of a large, authoritarian, corporative body, decency and order in worship, adequate training of the clergy, education and conscientious pastoral care of the laity, responsibility on the part of the episcopacy and a commitment to a Christian life for all professing Christians. Such notions as these Napoleon had the good sense to understand were totally subversive of the values of his empire. Bonapartism may be an arguable political ideology, but it is not one of the Theological Virtues.

Between Réflexions and Tradition de l’église, Félicité Lamennais translated from Latin The Spiritual Guide of Louis de Blois. It was the first indication of his extraordinary genius for the exquisite transported rhetoric — in the best sense of the word — which was to assure him a place as one of the greatest writers of the Romantic era and the first of many other works of devotion and meditation that are seldom included even in bibliographies, much less in the various editions of his collected works, and are today amongst the rarest books of the period. The famous ones are Les paroles d’un croyant, De l’esclavage moderne, Le livre du peuple, Une voix de prison, Du passé et de l’avenir du peuple, the pieces which make up the Classiques Garnier volume and are known to all educated French people. They are really works of devotion, prophetic and apocalyptic ecstasy, which only seems to become ever more and more laïque as Lamennais moves away from the established Church. The evolution of his ideas can be described as facts in the intellectual history of himself, and of the early nineteenth century of which he was an incarnation, but the real Lamennais is to be found only by reading his devotional works — prose poems calling mankind to total moral revolution, eschatological prayers.

Before we can understand the development of Lamennais’s ideas, from Napoleon’s Concordat with the Pope in 1801 in his first books, to his Des progrès de la révolution et de la guerre contre l’église in 1829 and the second revolution and the bourgeois monarchy in 1830, it is necessary to understand the special situation of popular Catholic apologetics in which he began his career.

Immediately after the Concordat, Chateaubriand, probably the most fashionable writer of the period and a master of sentimental rhetoric, published Le génie du christianisme. Catholicism suddenly became fashionable with the excessively sentimental nouveaux riches of the new empire. Greek and Roman costumes and furniture might still be chic amongst Bonapartists but the old neo-classicism of the French Revolution was being corrupted by the sentimental medievalism of the young Romantic movement.

Thousands — no, millions — of pages have been wasted on definitions of Romanticism. Whatever else it was, it was literature for women — idle, luxurious and usually young. The audience for literature had shifted its balance — the husbands were too busy making money to read Chateaubriand or Benjamin Constant. Chateaubriand sold the Church to this new class on miracle, mystery, authority and millinery, those virtues Ivan Karamazov would consider its principal vices. Chateaubriand did not make Catholicism convincing; he made it fascinating, something like sin. The tradition he established has lasted until our own day, although its last notable exponents were the English Decadents and Joris-Karl Huysmans, who returned to the Church because he found High Mass more thrilling than Black Mass. It is not just Chateaubriand’s prose, Béchamel sauce full of false rubies, that is contemptible, it is the argument that one should re-enter the Vatican because it resembles “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Napoleon’s new aristocracy did not find Chateaubriand contemptible. They thought him simply divine.

Joseph de Maistre was a horse of another color. He was the archetype of the steely, razor sharp, relentless Maximalist. There was nothing new about Ultramontanism, nothing new about a rigidly uncompromising interpretation of the most disputed doctrines and passages of Scripture. What was new about the new Ultramontanism was its quality and meaning, its justification and purpose. De Maistre’s Du Pape had very little indeed to do with Christianity and nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth. He believes in authority, not because he believes, as did St. Thomas, that the order of the universe and the order of the mind are reflected one in another and are, because of the nature of reason, hierarchic in structure, but because he does not. He believes in the infallibility of the Pope because he believes in the fallibility of everything else. He believes in Papal infallibility because he believes in absolute authority. He believes in absolute authority because he believes in absolute power. He believes in absolute power because without it there rages a chaos of disorder and delusion called the Revolution, or, more simply, the people, who at any moment, if control were to weaken and become less than absolute, would rise up like a storm of lava and melt away all the newly minted gold in the pockets of the new self-styled aristocracy. This is a kind of reverse Jacobinism. As Marx did Hegel, so de Maistre stood Robespierre on his head. This was not literature for idle young brides living la vie luxueuse, but for their husbands. It shows in the prose. De Maistre writes like the snapping of a chain of steel traps. When reading Chateaubriand one is often tempted to giggle. Nobody ever giggled over Du Pape except perhaps the Holy Father himself, very nervously, in his Babylonian captivity to the Emperor of the French.

In practical politics de Maistre, who spent most of his life in the diplomatic service of the House of Savoy, was a moderate legitimist, but his moderation was not due to any disbelief in the divine right of kings. He simply believed that the secular power of any throne was infinitely inferior — of a different order of being — to the spiritual and temporal power of the Vicar of Christ. Also since he was aware that no state could exercise unlimited power, unchallenged, he trusted no state, however totalitarian. It was this profound suspicion of the effectiveness of secular power sowed by Du Pape which germinated the radical and eventually even revolutionary Ultramontanism of succeeding generations. It was de Maistre who began a process which would end in the anarchist communalism ruled solely by the hierarchy of spiritual authority that is still even in our day a quasi-respectable Catholic theory of the state.

Any variety of Ultramontanism was subversive of Gallicanism, the Church-State relationship which was peculiar to France and was the heritage of the Constantinian Church, of the days when the Christian Church moved into the deserted legal structure of Roman paganism. The “Gallican privileges” place the French church under the control of the state almost to the degree of the Russian. Like the Russian, the French state-sponsored and paid hierarchy and educational structure were enthusiastic supporters of the authority that supported them. The Revolution and Napoleon had impoverished the Papacy and abolished the Papal States. The Vatican was certainly not in the position to pay anybody’s wages in Paris. Once the restored Bourbon monarchy, the Russian Czar and the Austrian Emperor had guaranteed again the integrity of the Papal States, the Vatican was not in a position to challenge the Gallicanism of the French throne and episcopacy. Furthermore it was uneasy with any extreme Ultramontanism. If the authority of the Papacy was as absolute as that of the Deity Incarnate, the temporal authority over an impoverished and rebellious central Italy was not really very important.

Behind all these controversies about the relation of Church, State and individual lay a metaphysical crisis. Where was the principle of order in the universe and in man to find its foundations? De Maistre’s most trenchant logic is to be found in his devastating attack on Locke, but it was an attack, like Hume’s or Kant’s, which imperceptibly destroyed the attacker along with his enemy. The problem would eventually be solved not by logic but by an ever spreading revolution of the sensibility. Lamennais was one of the first, most potent, and most vocal exponents of that sensibility. It is what makes his life massively consistent in spite of all his changes and self-contradictions, as an expression of that sensibility, he was soon to discover his own peculiar “principle of order,” his other major life consistency of thought.

To return to his life. In 1809 Lamennais was tonsured and from then on lived mostly at his family’s country home, La Chesnaie, where he gradually developed around himself a semi-monastic community, an Oratory remarkable for its utter freedom from episcopal or other ecclesiastical control. During the Hundred Days he fled to England fearing persecution for a pamphlet he had written on Church control of the university and for anti-Bonaparte passages in Tradition. He made a few friends but mostly he hated the English, English culture, and the Anglican Church, a passion which was another of his life consistencies. However revolutionary he became, he never became an internationalist, least of all vis-à-vis England.

In London he placed himself under the spiritual direction of the famous Abbé Carron, who persuaded him to enter the priesthood. Through the Abbé he also met a young man, Henry Moorman, modest in circumstances and demeanor, whom he converted from Low Church Anglicanism. The letters which are a record of this friendship Lamennais later published as Lettres sur le protestantisme. The book is seldom discussed by biographers of Lamennais, although recent and fashionable psychoanalytic ones have made everything of it. Henry Moorman was a lonely, chronically ill boy with a stepfather and no sense of home, one of the first of the many lovelost people who would be drawn to Lamennais. One does not have to be a psychoanalyst to see that this is the decisive love relationship of Lamennais’s life, himself a person who never was securely confident of the love of others. The boy ran away from home, came to La Chesnaie, but returned home on the advice of Abbé Carron, without seeing Lamennais. His mother and stepfather finally accepted his conversion. As he was planning to return and become one of the brotherhood at La Chesnaie, he died. Lamennais was to fall in love later in a rather desultory fashion with a couple of women, but Henry Moorman remained to him as did Beatrice to Dante.

What characterizes Lettres sur le protestantisme is their passion. There is nothing sexual about them. They are love letters, the record of a courtship of which conversion to Roman Catholicism, rather than sex, was envisioned as the culmination. Today we realize there is nothing wrong with all of this. A generation ago vulgar Freudian critics made much of this aspect of Lamennais’s career. Monckton-Milnes, possibly the most notorious milord deviant of his time, visited La Chesnaie and wrote about it, and one of his most eccentric lovers, Charles Justin McCarthy, the nephew of the Rector of the English College at Rome, Dr. Wiseman, later Cardinal Archbishop of England, was probably Lamennais’s most troublesome spiritual protégé. Quite possibly it was his knowledge as confessor and counselor to such people that threw his very prose into paroxysms of rage when describing the besetting sin of the English — their hypocrisy, their universal conspiracy against the facts of life. McCarthy was a character out of Baron Corvo or Ronald Firbank. He actually seems to have had some kind of brain disease. McCarthy remained a passionate defender of Lamennais through all his later troubles with the Vatican, although eventually his help came to consist largely of dishing the dirt about inner Vatican politics to the innocent and easily disturbed Lamennais. McCarthy eventually straightened out, or turned straight, and went off to become governor of Ceylon. McCarthy is important because it is through him that Lamennais’s influence penetrated to the glittering, perverse, and exceedingly churchy young men who became so common in late nineteenth-century fashionable intellectual circles. Lamennais’s purity of heart could not be better shown than by the spiritual beauty of his innocent letters to such incense soaked denizens of churchy high society.

Chateaubriand, de Maistre, Lamennais to the contrary notwithstanding, the real secret of the society of the Bourbon restoration is that nobody believed anything, except Charles X himself, who was deficient mentally. Lamennais attacked, not skepticism, but spiritual indifference, head on, with one of the major works of his career, Essai sur l’indifférence en matière de religion. It is one of the great books of apologetics in the history of the Church. Like most polemicists, Lamennais operated from the premises of his opponents. He established once and for all what even to this day is probably the occult philosophy of most French Catholics, Catholic skepticism. It is implicit in Pascal, at least vestigial in both Bossuet and Fénelon, and it is the whole hidden meaning of de Maistre, but in Lamennais’s Essai it is forthrightly stated. The book is not just an attack on rationalism, but upon the validity of individual reason. The first volume is an even more devastating, because more emotional, demolition of the rationalists of the Enlightenment than de Maistre’s. The difference is that Lamennais not only believed, but he was a man consumed by faith as a virtue, passion, and habitude, physiological in intensity. Faith to Lamennais, as it had been to St. Paul, or would be to George Tyrrell, was not an act of acquiescence in creed or catechism or Summa Theologica, it was not even a “way of life” but life itself, a life of prayer. Lamennais does not look like a contemplative because he jumps around so much, but it is ecstasy, not argument, that demolishes Diderot and Voltaire in the Essai.

When Lamennais tried to find a cornerstone for this faith, an ultimate principle of authority, he developed a notion which is probably the most naïve in the entire history of the epistemology of religion, the sensus communis which he translated as consentement commun. The Latin might mean anything, from common sense to the Zeitgeist and the French is vague enough. What Lamennais meant by it was something like the general reason, even sometimes, the group mind, even sometimes something like Jung’s collective unconscious. Sometimes he talks as though he was using that favorite apothegm of High Church Anglican theologians, the Canon of Vincent of Leirins, the consensus orbis terrarum, “that which has been held by all men at all times everywhere in the church.” Sometimes, and as his life went on, increasingly, he is sort of an epistemological Averroist and “common sense” becomes a universal intellectual soul, and since le peuple, the working class, are more universal than anybody else, they become, for the last half of his career, the source of authority.

It is only too obvious that there are no principles which can be stated as such — logically verbalized — which have been held by all men everywhere. If so, there would be no need for speech or logic. Society would simply run by mute consent. It is even more obvious that there is not an iota of the Christian creed which has been held by all men everywhere at all times and that the Vincentine Canon is a purely circular definition. As for any more philosophical definition of the term, it would be very nice if it were true, but it all too obviously is not. And furthermore there is embedded in it a kind of epistemological construction of the Socratic fallacy. Men knowing the good rationally do not necessarily choose it, and good men may well be more irrational than not. But it is true that Lamennais carried over into the nineteenth century what can only be called the revolutionary Averroism of the Left of the Revolution, the mystical notion of The People as the ultimate source of value and validation. We should not forget that Marx and Engels and Bakunin read everything they could get of Lamennais — enthusiastically — no matter how much they might disagree with him, and in the Revolution of 1848 he was incomparably more influential than all three of them put together.

The sensus communis was certainly an incongruous cornerstone to choose as a support for the Petrine Throne. Lamennais always talks as if he knew practically nothing of any part of the world except Western Europe, and little of that except France. The notion that the peculiarly French structure of Catholicism, whether Gallican or Ultramontane, could be developed from any consentement commun could arise only in a mind of an innocent and holy chauvinist. Perhaps this Frenchiness is the reason, along with the magnificent rhetoric, and the discrediting of Voltaire, that led to Lamennais’s marching with one step, the Essai, into the very center of French intellectual life. He became what he would call “world” famous overnight.

As the volumes of the Essai went on Lamennais moved from a concept of the relationship between regal and papal authority not greatly different from de Maistre’s to an ever increasing Ultramontanism. The reason lay not just in Lamennais himself, or in the development of his ideas, but in the relations of church and state in France. It was becoming obvious that Gallicanism did not represent “freedom from Rome” as an Anglican would put it, but domination by a monarchy which, behind all its medieval trappings (Charles had insisted on being anointed at Rheims just like Jeanne d’Arc’s Charles) was fundamentally secular and bourgeois and busy sprinkling Marx’s primitive accumulation of capitalism with holy water licensed by the state. It was always necessary to bear in mind that Lamennais flourished in the period described in Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England and the horrifying chapters in Marx on primitive accumulation. If that was the condition of the working class in England, their condition in France was worse.

Meanwhile Lamennais had become one of the most famous men in Europe, the darling of Pope Leo the XII, and immensely fashionable in circles he never visited and which, of course, did not read him. It is still disputed whether toward the end of his reign the Pope made him a Cardinal in petto.

Through it all Lamennais continued on his way, the leader of a brotherhood remarkably like the Catholic pietist ones which flourished in the Rhineland before the Reformation. So it is not surprising that as an antidote to apologetics and controversy he translated and annotated Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, still the best translation in French. It is hard to see how he found time to write such many-volumed works. His correspondence was immense and he was available as a spiritual counselor and confessor to all who came to La Chesnaie. Lamennais survives in the written word, and so is thought of as an apologist, a kind of nineteenth century Origen, but he was actually far more a pastor. His power was based on prayer and the pastoral sacraments of the altar and confessional. All of his apologetics preach faith, not as belief or, like Pascal, submission to the articles of a creed, but as life.

In 1825 and 1826 he published De la religion considérée dans ses rapports avec l’ordre politique et civil, another definite step on the road which we can now see was already marked out for him. Lamennais no longer trusts the state and has come to think of society in fundamentally apocalyptic terms. The only practical conclusion to be drawn from the book would be a complete papal theocracy in which the secular power would just be a government department with a cabinet post, the exact reverse of the Church in relation to the French Monarchy. But now there is a third power. Lamennais has seen the dark satanic mills, and he does not as yet know where to place them in what is becoming more and more the vision of a cosmic struggle. The people appear as an apocalyptic beast. Lamennais recognizes in them a supernatural dynamism. He cannot make up his mind whether they are one of the animals that draw the chariot in Ezekiel or one of the Great Beasts of Chaos in Revelation.

In the next book, Des progrès de la révolution et de la guerre contre l’église (1829), every secular power has been weighed and found wanting. Lamennais has become a complete apocalypticist. The communal society headed by the representative of the Messiah and governed by the sacraments is the Kingdom. “He who is near to me is near the Fire. He who is far from me is far from the Kingdom.” Although Lamennais would be lost in the eschatological Higher Criticism that would come at the end of the century and was never interested in such matters anyway, it is here that he belongs. From now on, far more than Albert Schweitzer, his is an ethic of the end of the world. But the vision of Apocalypse is one form of contemplation, one of the highest forms of prayer.

With the fall of legitimacy and the establishment of the bourgeois monarchy of 1830, Lamennais’s vision was able to take concrete form as a revolutionary program and take flesh in a group of disciples who would become the most brilliant Catholic spokesmen of the first half of the century, notably Montalembert, Lacordiare, and Maurice de Guérin. Guérin can be read about in Matthew Arnold’s famous essay. Arnold unknowingly communicates the special temper fostered by the oratory of La Chesnaie which Newman characterized as “unwholesome.” In 1830 they founded the daily paper, L’Avenir, dedicated to Dieu et liberté. Within two years L’Avenir became the most influential thing of its kind in the world. Its subscription was mostly amongst seminarians, young clergy and radical Catholic aristocrats of the kind who would later become a force in the Church (like Lord Acton or Baron von Hügel in another generation), but for every subscriber there was a multitude of readers and discussants. The paper was pushed by its opposition in the French hierarchy, the Roman Curia, and the ranks of the reactionary laity, bourgeois or aristocratic, further and further toward what today we would call the left, but what was in fact a concept of society identical with that of the Apostles awaiting the Coming. There is an uncanny resemblance to the narrative of Acts in the story of L’Avenir, and the memoirs and letters of its little apostolate. They attacked the secular power in the name of the Pope and in defense of the people. But the Pope was completely dependent upon the dying Holy Alliance, and, if the secular power were challenged, totally, fundamentally, intransigently, the power of the Papacy would be subverted along with it. The power of the Papacy was not the power of Peter and Paul wandering Romewards along the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean, ragged and barefoot, preaching the Coming of the Kingdom. Leo was dead and Gregory XVI was terrified of the revolutionary Ultramontanism of L’Avenir. He did not even dare attack Lamennais directly, but in the encyclical Mirari vos condemned him anonymously. The result was the most apocalyptic prayer in French, Paroles d’un croyant, 1834, comparable to Blake’s Prophetic Books or Christopher Smart or in some ways to Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror. At the end, not unlike the Gospels and Epistles, Paroles preaches rendering unto Caesar, or Caesar’s heir as Pontifex Maximus, the things that are Rome’s, and unto God the things that are God’s, and lays great emphasis on the societal duties of an evangelical community. In substance the book is a long apocalyptic prose poem. It is the work of a nineteenth-century Zealot. It reads as though it had been found in a jar in a cave in the desert. Perhaps Lamennais says, “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword,” a statement of course as equivocal as “Render unto Caesar. . . .“ But he only preaches abstention from the sword of iron because he believes that there is available to each man of the people a sword of the spirit infinitely more effective.

The book went off like a nuclear explosion in the intellectual community of Europe. Although Lamennais, with the holy foolishness that comes from a diet of honey and locusts, was unaware of it, the Vatican had sealed his fate. The situation had become intolerable, and he and his comrades decided to go to Rome and submit the future of L’Avenir and themselves to the Pope. The Pope responded with unqualified condemnation. Montalembert and Lacordiare submitted, and what is most shocking, broke personally with Lamennais, their spiritual father. Lamennais went over to the Revolution.

His revolution, like his Ultramontanism, was his own, and quite unlike anybody else’s. Most writers on Lamennais are interested in him almost exclusively as a Catholic apologist who came to a tragic end. They write from within the Church, Roman or Anglican. Most of them dismiss the entire latter part, and in fact, most influential part, of his life, as lived out in poverty and obscurity. This is nonsense. He always lived in poverty. He gave up his beloved La Chesnaie and lived in poor rooms in the working class quarters of Paris, but it never would have occurred to him to do anything else. True, he managed his money affairs badly, but he didn’t believe in money at all. As soon as he was condemned by the Vatican, he entered as an equal into the ranks of the leaders of the French intellectual Left. Many of his most powerful writings come from these latter days — Le Livre du peuple, Une voix de prison, Du passé et de l’avenir du peuple, De l’esclavage moderne are the works by which most Frenchmen know him, and that make him a “classic.” The earlier are lost to the laïque world in the ghetto of the history of theological controversy. He never loses the apocalyptic vision. His style remains that of a visionary on Patmos. Probably the people for whom and to whom he spoke scarcely understood him, but they loved him and his presence was always greeted with enthusiasm. After all, it is very flattering to an auditorium full of strikers in Lyon to tell them they are a cosmogonic force.

For the rest of his life Lamennais was tirelessly active in the support of every revolutionary cause in Europe, or at least, in Catholic Europe. He never got over his antagonism to, and ignorance of, Protestant Europe. Like most Frenchmen he was completely ethnocentric. He talks a great deal about the world and all mankind, when what he really means is France and Frenchmen. His prose poems in defense of the Polish Revolution, motivated by unconscious French geopolitics — as Marx always was by German — were what first frightened the Pope. From then on his name appears on what today we would call all the “radical front groups” and committees for defense and relief of the oppressed and persecuted, but he was also extremely active personally.

By 1840 in Le Pays et le gouvernement he had come to advocate defensive violence in the Revolution. The authorities put him in prison for a year of fantastically fecund production. There he wrote many of his best works — including another apocalypse which was probably the direct inspiration for Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, however differing in intent. Amschapands et Darvands derives its imagery from the Zend Avesta, a deliberate choice. Like most prophets who have seen the community of love stillborn, or even murdered in its cradle by its parents, Lamennais had come to look upon the cosmos as the theater of a struggle between the Good and an almost, but not quite, equally omnipotent evil. As Chesterton once remarked, it is much easier to believe in a personal devil than it is to believe in a personal God.

In prison he also worked on his Esquisse d’une philosophie. This immense and unfinished work surpasses Trotsky’s theory of the Permanent Revolution because it places the revolution at the center of ontology. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful are the revolutionary powers of God, something like the Trinity — something like the Sephiroth of the Kabbalah. No one but scholars reads all of Esquisse (an ironic title if ever there was one) today — but the chapters on art and the beautiful are still read as the strongest statement of the esthetics and the theory of the relations of art and society usually identified with Tolstoy. I have never read anything about the influence of Lamennais on Tolstoy but it is impossible that he should not have read him and the resemblances are obvious. The difference is that Lamennais, trained in the Church, is more of a systematic metaphysician and so grounds his theory of art, as what a skeptic would dismiss as revolutionary propaganda, in the very nature of being itself. Art is the derived secondary formal manifestation of the Beautiful which is the primary form of the True. As such it is only a stage toward the realization of Truth. The final activity of man in relation to God is science, the understanding by the intellect of God as the True, the infinite being who is the Intellect of intellects.

Reading such mentalism in the midst of the poisoned tares sown by Science unrestrained, this vision of being probably strikes most of us today as rather awful, a bit like Aristotle filtered through Arabic and thence through the mind of a skeptic scholastic. Although Lamennais was a man of great love, the God who is Love plays only a minor role in his final philosophic synthesis. He must have realized this because as he grew old and death became for him an ever present reality, he thought of life after death as the end of Time when even the noblest fetters would fall away and the soul of man would expand like an infinite blossom under the sun of an infinite love.

On the trip to Rome Lamennais stopped off in Germany and met Döllinger, Möhler and Schelling and von Baader, and corresponded with Schelling for quite a while afterwards. Certainly they influenced each other. Von Baader, who owed so much to Boehme, may well have not introduced him to, but involved him with the thought of Lamennais. For Lamennais is certainly a kind of Gallic Boehme, as he is also a Gallic Blake.

Every other aspect of Lamennais’s multifarity has been written about, but I know of no paper called “Félicité Lamennais, Boehmenist,” yet the resemblances are worthy of further study. Boehme lays quite outside almost all later Catholic thought, so it is easy to forget how influential his ideas were in those days. Louis Saint-Martin, “le philosophe inconnu,” had died in 1803, but Martinism was still extremely fashionable. Saint-Martin was the leading mystical writer of the Revolutionary period, and translated almost all of Jakob Boehme during the very years of the overturn of all things by fire. To him the Revolution and Terror were a kind of sacramental showing forth of the Last Judgment. He was an apocalypticist if ever there was one. Furthermore, he believed in the withering away of the Church into a communal theocracy not unlike the Jesuit communes in Paraguay. The guiding principle of human association, action, and faith would be precisely Lamennais’s sensus communis. The great difference is that he interpreted this basic, initial motion of being and knowing as an overflowing of the infinite, uncontainable Divine Love. It is quite impossible that Lamennais could not have read him from the very beginning of his self-education in his library. In the latter days of his life he was to come to a not dissimilar belief. Saint-Martin, one of the saints of religious Freemasonry like Jacques de Molay, died uncensored by Rome, in the grace of the last sacraments.

Franz von Baader, one of the strongest of all apologists for Catholicism, combined Jakob Boehme, Saint-Martin, and anticipations of Kierkegaard, along with late medieval Rhenish mysticism, Ruysbroek, Meister Eckhart, and even St. Mechtild of Magdeburg and St. Hildegard of Bingen, into a unique synthesis. He too believed in a millenarian communal theocracy, ruled by grace flowing from the sacraments. Like Lamennais, and unlike Saint-Martin, he placed the main emphasis on God as Truth and the divine human relation as one of knowing — but only prior to the Fall. For fallen man, God appears as overflowing love, and the life of faith a life immersed in that love, as fish in water. There was a strong Lutheran tinge to von Baader’s moral philosophy which relates him to Kierkegaard. By the Fall, man has totally alienated himself from God — total insignificance, total contingency, over against totally omnipotent absolute Being. But across that unbridgeable gulf flows God himself as love, immanent and incarnate. Man’s salvation lies not in faith as belief, and not at all in works, but in faith as absorption in the divine life. Once again we come back to the ancient sequence: knowledge is being (not the other way around), being is illumination, illumination is love. Von Baader was a contributor to L’Avenir, a frequent correspondent of Lamennais’s, and wrote a pamphlet passionately defending him in his hours of tribulation after the journey to Rome. Eventually forbidden to teach philosophy himself, he was the only friend who stayed in the Church to remain loyal to Lamennais.

In the Revolution of 1848 Lamennais got more votes than anybody else, including Victor Hugo, and was elected freeholder to the Committee for a New Constitution. He submitted Projet de constitution de la république française (1848) but a little group of radical politicians whose responsibility was the result of bargaining, compromise or pressure, were not prepared to build Jerusalem in France’s green and pleasant land. In the elections for the new assembly Lamennais increased his vote by 9000, from 104,000 to 113,000. When Louis Bonaparte seized power in 1851, he retired and spent his last three years translating The Divine Comedy. Again, one of the best translations in French. Lamennais’s translations, incidentally, which include the Gospels, are full of notes and exegesis by himself and make fascinating reading.

At the beginning of 1854 while finishing the Divine Comedy, the same book Blake was illustrating on his death bed, Lamennais died, after a very short illness. He refused all ministrations of the clergy and any hint of reconciliation with the Church. He said, “I wish to be buried in the middle of the poor and like the poor, with nothing to mark my grave, not even the simplest stone. Carry my body straight to the cemetery and do not bring it to any church.”

His friends decided on a day for his funeral. The government, afraid of a demonstration, insisted that it be performed before dawn and forbade any demonstration procession to follow the coffin, and refused entrance to the cemetery to all but a handful of his friends. Before dawn on the morning of March 1st, the tiny procession began its march to the cemetery through a dense fog. The band of faithful disciples, as they started up the boulevards through the poorest workers’ quarters of Paris, were joined at the Place de la Bastille by a crowd of maskers returning through the fog-bound streets from all-night Mardi Gras revels. Their shouts attracted the attention of the first workers on their way to work.

From person to person, and door to door, and window to window, the word spread through the streets of the poor, through Saint Antoine and Belleville and the Marais to Clignancourt — “Lamennais is being carried to his grave!” Soon the funeral cortège that had started out so tiny and even so, guarded by the police, was an immense throng that had to battle its way to the new-made grave. He was buried without oratory and someone said, “That is all. Go home,” and there remained only a heap of new earth marked with a cleft stick, in it a piece of paper — “Félicité Robert de la Mennais.”

There are many thousands gone — clerics and laymen — from devotion to the living, historic Jesus, step by imperceptible step, pedetemtin, into defense of an ecclesiastical power structure. Most French apologists were apologists for the Church, not the apostolic life modeled on Christ. It is a peculiarity of French Catholic apologetic that it is singularly un-Christian, or shall we say, very Catholic, but very un-Jesus-like. The story of Lamennais is the reverse of the usual. He started out as one of the most powerful apologists for power, but he based that power on a principle, his sensus communis, which could only make sense if it was translated, “The Communion of the Saints” and if that in turn was translated “The Communion of the Nazarene Personality in All Men.” This is certainly the Living Body, the Hidden Church, the body and blood of the creative principle of the universe. So it is only too obvious that, like many other thousands gone, before and after Lamennais, the Church as a power structure left him, he did not leave the Body of Christ. To the end his writings are a form of prayer and he died with Dante’s immense mystical vision of the conflict of power and illumination in his hands — just like Blake before him. In his day two roads diverged in a yellow wood, whose leaves were the gold of the cash nexus. One led from the Beatitudes to the Vatican Council; the other to Marx’s apocalyptic poem inserted in The Communist Manifesto. Somewhere at that point of divergence there is a transcendent signpost erected by Lamennais and only now is its direction becoming fully legible. It points to an ekklesia katholikos in the most ancient sense of those old Greek words.


This essay originally appeared in Continuum (date unknown) and was reprinted in The Elastic Retort (Continuum, 1973). Copyright 1973. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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