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Bossuet, Jacques Bénigne (1627–1704)


Jacques Bénigne Bossuet was born in Dijon, the son of a lawyer. At the age of thirteen he was a boy canon of Metz. After a period in Paris, where he became known in the salons and distinguished himself as a theologian, he was ordained priest in 1652 (having been prepared by Vincent de Paul) and began his ministry at Metz. Friends in high places secured his recall to Paris in 1659, and he soon established a reputation as preacher and spiritual director. Contemporaries agree that he had the ability, and presumably the desire, to please everyone; and his early reputation for moderation may reflect tactics more than convictions. Winning favor at Court, he was rewarded in 1669 with the see of Condom and was appointed tutor to the dauphin, Louis XIV's son, in 1670. He is most famous for the series of funeral orations he delivered as Court preacher (16661687), of which the last and finest commemorates the great Condé. Besides these set (and published) pieces, he preached numerous sermons for all occasions, often using the feast of a particular saint for an exposition of his own views on a contemporary question, such as the relations between church and state, lucidly discussed in the panegyric of St. Thomas of Canterbury (Becket). Some 200 sermons survive, mostly as notes on which he usually improvised, and it is easier to establish his main ideas than to reconstruct his mastery of the spoken word.

On completion of the tutorial task, he was transferred in 1681 to Meaux, conveniently near Paris, where he remained until his death. His influence at Court gave him more effective power than his hierarchical superiors, and in 1682 he composed and presented the Gallican Articles as spokesman for the whole French church. His last years were marred by quarrels, especially with his former protégé François Fénelon, whose condemnation for quietism he secured only by resorting to methods so ignoble that formal victory was bought at the cost of moral defeat. Despised at Court and broken in health, he ended his life among relatives of notoriously unedifying character.

All Bossuet's thinking was deeply influenced by St. Augustine and characterized by a peculiar emphasis on authority. In his eyes, obedience and discipline are the highest virtues. The supreme authority of the church and the divine right of kings are inseparable and constantly recurrent themes in his work. In the Politique tirée de l'ecriture sainte (Politics Drawn from Scripture), written for the dauphin, he is heavily in favor of the absolute monarch, chosen by God and responsible to him alone (distinguished, however, from the arbitrary monarch, a tyrant who merely gratifies his own whims). The Traité de la connaissance de Dieu et de soi-même (Treatise concerning the Knowledge of God and Oneself) combines Thomist and other standard teaching with a marked sympathy for the reassuringly authoritarian side of Cartesianism, with its insistence on order and certainty, although Bossuet elsewhere denounced the dangers of encouraging individual reason and inquiry. The unfinished Discours sur l'histoire universelle (Discourse on Universal History) was intended to teach the dauphin not so much what had happened as why. Though later editions made some concessions to currently changing views on the chronology of ancient times, history was primarily interpreted as showing the ways of God to man, especially as revealed in the Bible. In tracing the fortunes of empires down to Charlemagne (and to Louis XIV, if he had completed his plan), Bossuet emphasized moral and religious development, regarding freedom as a prime cause of decadence.

Similarly, the Histoire des variations des églises protestantes (History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches) attributes to Protestant reliance on individual liberty of conscience a disunity amounting to near anarchy. Bossuet naturally regarded heresy and sedition as twinned evils; and in his orations on Henrietta Maria and Henrietta Anne (widow and daughter of Charles I), he adduces the recent revolution in England to prove his contention that social equality is an impious chimera. He was curiously ambivalent in his relations with Protestants, converting many individuals (including the vicomte de Turenne) and courteously corresponding with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in an attempt to effect a reconciliation, while greeting the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, followed as it was by brutal persecution, with an embarrassingly effusive eulogy of Louis's piety.

Bossuet earns his place in history above all as a public figure, "the eagle of Meaux." In the grand siècle Bossuet was the church, just as Louis was the state.

See also Augustine, St.; Authority.


works by bossuet

Oeuvres complètes. 31 vols, edited by F. Lachat. Paris, 18621866.

Discourse on Universal History, edited by Orest Ranum; translated by Elborg Forster. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Politics Drawn from the Very Words of Holy Scripture, edited by Patrick Riley. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

works on bossuet

Adam, A. Histoire de la littérature française au XVIIe siècle. Paris, 1956, Vol. V, Ch. 4.

Calvet, J. Bossuet, l'homme et l'oeuvre. Paris: Boivin, 1941.

Hazard, P. La crise de la conscience européenne. 2nd ed. Paris: Fayard, 1961. Translated by J. L. May as The European Mind. London: Hollis and Carter, 1953.

Kearns, Edward J. Ideas in Seventeenth Century France. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979.

Lebarcq, J. Histoire critique de la prédication de Bossuet. Lille, 1888.

Rebelliau, A. Bossuet. Paris, 1900.

A. J. Krailsheimer (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)

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