Lamennais, Hugues Félicité Robert de (1782–1854)

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Hugues Félicité Robert de Lamennais, the French ecclesiastic and philosopher, was born in Saint-Malo, Brittany, and died in Paris. Lamennais received the tonsure in 1809 but was not ordained a priest until 1816. His early works in defense of ultramontanism won him the approval of Rome, but it was not long before his inability to compromise in the interest of expediency led to his condemnation. Although never excommunicated, he voluntarily relinquished all sacerdotal functions and died after refusing the last rites.


Lamennais's first influential work, De la tradition de l'église sur l'institution des évêques (Paris, 1814), written in collaboration with his brother Jean, was an attack on Gallicanism. Directly inspired by Vicomte de Bonald, it propounded three thesesthe supremacy of the Church of Rome, papal infallibility in matters of doctrine, and the basic authority of tradition. It did not, however, grant the pope any sovereign rights in temporal matters. Lamennais's second work, the Essai sur l'indifférence en matière de religion (18171823) was welcomed enthusiastically in Catholic circles and received the approval of Leo XII. It took as its premises that no beliefs are without influence on the welfare of society and that religious beliefs are of primary importance in this respect. Hence, no man has the right to be neutral in religious disputes. Neutrality may arise from false notions of religion's place in life, from a failure to distinguish between orthodoxy and heresy, or from ignorance, lack of serious purpose, or simple sloth. Since no one can rightly maintain two antithetical ideas, there can be only one religious truth, one mouthpiece for it, and one tradition.


The traditionalism involved in this led to Lamennais's denial of the individual's rational powers, a denial that he clung to consistently. Our senses, feelings, and reason may lead to the truth, but only accidentally. Certitude can be acquired only by the common reason, that of the human race. One must therefore fuse his opinions with those of his fellow men and find the solution to his problems in faith, authority, and common sense. Trust in one's own insight is madness, as is eccentricity of behavior. But if one asks whence comes the authority of the general reason, the answer is, from God. God has entrusted it to the church, which speaks through the pope. No individual philosopher, even though he be a Descartes, can substitute his method for that based on revelation.

The Condemnation

So extreme a form of ultramontanism may have been logical, granted its premises, but it was politically inexpedient. Its anti-Gallicanism alone would have aroused resentment, but it was coupled with violent attacks on the French university system, the Charter, and certain personalities, such as Comte Denis de Frayssinous. Lamennais paid little attention to his critics, turned from them to the Vatican, and was shocked to receive in 1832 the encyclical Mirari Vos, which, without mentioning him by name, nevertheless condemned his ultramontanism on the ground that it disrupted the existing harmony between church and state. At the same time, it condemned freedom of conscience and opinion, which could lead only to freedom to err. Lamennais submitted but restricted his submission to questions of religion. During this period he also published his Paroles d'un croyant (1834), a series of prose poems that preached fraternity, freedom of association, and confidence in God and in prayer. This work was condemned outright in the encyclical Singulari Nos (1834).


In substituting "the Christianity of the human race" for that of the Vatican, Lamennais retained his traditionalism but abandoned his ultramontanism. His point of view was expressed in a three-volume work, the Esquisse d'une philosophie (1840), of which he published a fourth volume in 1846. It began with a theology, continued through a philosophical anthropology, aesthetics, and philosophy of science, and was to have been completed with a social philosophy. Lamennais's theology was Trinitarian and made the three persons of the Deity power, intelligence, and love, all interfused. Each realm of being reflected this triune nature, which was undemonstrable but demanded by the very nature of human thought. The work as a whole developed this thesis.

Lamennais's philosophy was Christian traditionalism minus ecclesiasticism, but with a philosophy of nature added. No man, he held, can assent to his own deductions if they are not in harmony with those of the whole human race, and the opinions of the human race will be found in tradition. The inconsistencies of tradition were never dwelt upon. His Esquisse, because of its Christian overtones, had no popularity in republican circles and, as for his Catholic associates, they felt little if any need for it.

See also Bonald, Louis Gabriel Ambroise, Vicomte de; Continental Philosophy; Traditionalism.


works by lamennais

De la tradition de l'église sur l'institution des évêques. 3 vols. Liège and Paris, 1814.

Essai sur l'indifférence en matière de religion. 4 vols. Paris, 18171823.

Défense de l'essai sur l'indifférence. Paris, 1821.

Paroles d'un croyant. Paris, 1834.

Oeuvres complètes. 12 vols. Paris: n.p., 18361837. Not complete.

Oeuvres choisies et philosophiques. 10 vols. Paris, 18371841.

Esquisse d'une philosophie. 4 vols. Paris, 18401846.

Amschaspands et Darvands. Paris, 1843.

works on lamennais

Duine, F. La mennais. Évreux, 1922. The most authoritative work, based in part on previously unpublished material.

Gibson, William. The Abbé de Lamennais and the Liberal Catholic Movement in France. London and New York: Longmans, Green, 1896.

Janet, Paul. La philosophie de Lamennais. Paris: Alcan, 1890.

Mourre, M. Lamennais, ou l'hérésie des temps modernes. Paris: Amiot-Dumont, 1955.

Spuller, Eugène. Lamennais: étude d'histoire politique et religieuse. Paris, 1892.

George Boas (1967)