Chateaubriand, François René de (1768–1848)

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François René de Chateaubriand, the French author, was born at Saint-Malo in Brittany and educated at Dol-de-Bretagne and Rennes in preparation for studying for the priesthood at the Collège de Dinan. Finding that he had no vocation, he followed the tradition of his social class and became an army officer instead. In 1788 he joined the order of the Knights of Malta, went to Paris, and began to associate with men of letters. From then on literature was his chief interest in life, though his literary career was paralleled by a career in diplomacy and politics. In 1803 he was appointed an attaché at the French embassy in Rome, and upon the return of Louis XVIII to power he played a role in politics in the Ministry of the Interior. His main diplomatic post was that of French plenipotentiary at the Congress of Verona, an account of which he published in 1838.

Chateaubriand's political as well as his religious views were in a state of constant flux. As a young man he had been favorable to the revolution, but he was soon disillusioned and in 1792 went into voluntary exile in London. There he published his Essai historique, politique et moral sur les révolutions, which he later retracted. This work was clearly influenced by the Philosophes, especially Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and, though far from atheistic, was definitely favorable to deism and opposed to Christianity. As Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve showed a half-century later in his Causeries du Lundi, the printed version of Chateaubriand's views was much less extreme than what he really thought. Having undergone a personal crisis when he learned of the death of his mother, he returned from exile in 1800 and began the preparation of one of his most famous works, Le génie du Christianisme. The aim of the volume was to persuade the public that Christianity had as many themes worthy of artistic expression as paganism. It produced, said Sainte-Beuve, "a whole army of parlor Christians." This was precisely the goal of its author, to make Christianity fashionable.

In September 1816, Chateaubriand published his pamphlet De la monarchie selon la charte, which preached political liberalism in a constitutional monarchy. This brought on his temporary political ruin, but he soon recovered and was utilized by the government in various diplomatic posts. Toward the close of his life he developed an intimacy with Mme. Récamier and her circle but withdrew from politics and devoted himself to the preparation of his memoirs, the Mémoires d'outretombe (published posthumously in 1849).

Chateaubriand's contributions to French philosophy were indirect. The early Essai sur les révolutions made it clear that he considered any type of philosophy to be antireligious and religion to be a substitute for philosophy. In it he attempted to show that no philosophy could ever hope to reach the truth, for truth was discovered not by reasoning but by some inner light, a kind of feeling (sentiment ), perhaps what Blaise Pascal called the heart. It was this belief that appeared in such works as Atala, where the theme of the Noble Savage is developed. Though Atala is herself a Christian, she is a Christian by sentiment, not by reason, and her form of Christianity was believed by her inventor to be higher and nobler than that deduced by argument.

Similarly, Chateaubriand anticipated William Wordsworth in maintaining even as a young man that in the contemplation of nature, in the sense of the landscape, there is a spontaneous revelation of the truths of morality and religion. The famous passage "Night among the American Savages," which terminates the Essai and was reprinted in part in the Génie du Christianisme, is not only a description of a moonlight scene near Niagara Falls but also an evocation of the nobility of soul that belongs only to men who have lived in a state of cultural primitivism far from the contamination of society. Like Rousseau, Chateaubriand pitted nature and society against each other, and it is significant that in this passage the Indians are only two women, two small children at the breast, and two warriors. There is no mention of a tribe or village. The sole contact these people have with anything outside themselves is with the "ocean of trees." But it is to be noted that far from reinforcing the sense of individuality, this contact, on the contrary, induces an absence of all distinct thoughts and feelings, a kind of mystical union with that God who is nature itself.

This type of anti-intellectualism reappeared in the Génie du Christianisme. Chateaubriand said in the preface to this work that he turned away from eighteenth-century liberalism when he learned of his mother's death. He was in exile in London at the time. "I wept," he wrote, "and I believed." The evidence of tears was proof of the truths of Catholicism, as in the Essai the feelings aroused by natural scenery were proofs of the truth of deism. But Catholicism is hardly a religion spontaneously kindled in the hearts of all people. It is a religion initiated and developed in society. Hence, Chateaubriand found himself aligned with the Traditionalists, a group as far from Rousseauistic sentimentalism as can be imagined. For whereas Joseph Marie de Maistre and the Vicomte de Bonald believed reason was the faculty that united human beings, the sentimentalists believed it was what divided them into conflicting sects.

It was perhaps for this reason that Chateaubriand emphasized the gifts Christianity had made to European culture. He wrote at the height of the Neoclassical movement, when the masters were Jacques Delille in poetry, Antonio Canova in sculpture, and Jacques Louis David in painting. They, of course, found their inspiration in classical mythology and history. Chateaubriand tried to prove that there was more to be found in the Catholic tradition. However true this may have been, the point he was making was that to the extent that any set of beliefs increases the amount of beauty and goodness in the world, that set of beliefs is true. There is a concealed pragmatic test here that is of interest historically and would probably not be able to resist criticism. But at a time when men had lived through a period of horror brought on by the suppression of religion, it was understandable that they should attribute the horrors to the philosophy they believed had generated the antireligious practices. To Chateaubriand at this time the one alternative to philosophy was Catholicism, not that natural religion which he had lauded in the Essai. And this belief he never abandoned. He was not the type of writer to set down a body of premises from which he would deduce certain inferences. On the contrary, his hatred of philosophy was such that he simply stated his conclusions as his heart dictated; it remained for others to disentangle the form of his argument. He established a cultural atmosphere rather than a set of doctrines, and his works are more properly viewed as long poems of a purely lyrical nature than as doctrinal treatises.


works by chateaubriand

Essai historique, politique et moral sur les révolutions. London, 1797.

Le génie du Christianisme. Paris, 1802. See especially the preface.

Les martyrs. Paris, 1809.

Oeuvres complètes, 20 vols. Paris, 18581861. Introduction by C. A. Sainte-Beuve.

works on chateaubriand

Bertrin, Abbé Georges. La sincérité religieuse de Chateaubriand. Paris, 1899.

Blum, Christopher O., ed. and tr. Critics of the Enlightenment: Readings in the French Counter-Revolutionary Tradition. Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2004.

Chinard, G. L'exotisme américain dans l'oeuvre de Chateaubriand. Paris: Hachette, 1918.

Grimsley, Ronald. Soren Kierkegaard and French Literature: Eight Comparative Studies. Cardiff: Wales University Press, 1966.

Hilt, Douglas. Ten against Napoleon. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1975.

Law, Reed G., and Bobbie W. Law. From Reason to Romanticism. Denver: Big Mountain Press, 1966.

Sainte-Beuve, C. A. "Chateaubriand, anniversaire du Génie du Christianisme." In Causeries du Lundi. Vol. X, pp. 7490. Paris: Garnier, 1855.

Sainte-Beuve, C. A. Chateaubriand et son groupe littéraire sous l'Empire. Paris, 1869.

George Boas (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)

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Chateaubriand, François René de (1768–1848)

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