Jacques Benigne Bossuet

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BOSSUET, JACQUES-BÉNIGNE (16271704), French cleric, preacher, political philosopher, theologian, and writer. Bossuet's father was a magistrate in the parlements of Burgundy and Metz. Born and raised in Dijon, France, Bossuet began his classical studies at the Jesuit College of Godrans in Dijon and completed his education at the College of Navarre in Paris, where St. Vincent de Paul served as his mentor, influencing his education and early career. Once Bossuet completed his doctorate and was ordained in 1652, he became a canon in the diocese of Metz.

Although he remained in Metz, Bossuet traveled to Paris often and came to the attention of the royal family. As a result of his growing reputation as an eloquent preacher, he was invited to give the Lenten sermons for the royal family in 1662. In subsequent years, his fame as an orator spread and he provided moving funeral sermons for many members of the royal family including Henrietta Marie, queen of England (in 1669), her daughter Henrietta Anne of England (1670), Maria Theresa, queen of France and King Louis XIV's wife (1683), and the Princess Palatine, Anne de Gonzague (1685). He also gave the funeral sermons for other prominent figures such as Chancellor Michel Le Tellier (1685) and the Great Condé (1686). These sermons were eventually published under the title Funeral Orations and remain an important literary legacy.

In 1669 Bossuet became the bishop of Condom, but he resigned soon after his consecration in 1670, when Louis XIV named him tutor to his eldest son, the dauphin. As a result of his duties as the primary educator for the heir to the throne, he eventually published a book on world history, Discourse on Universal History (1681), one among many texts he wrote for his student, and was elected to the French Academy. When the marriage of his young charge ended his duties as tutor in 1681, Bossuet became bishop of Meaux. He took an active part as the primary ecclesiastical supervisor for the region, making visits to local parishes and bringing recalcitrant communities, such as the Benedictine Abbey at Jouarre, fully under his authority. He remained in this position until his death.

Bossuet was a great defender of the unity of the Catholic Church and throughout his life worked to this end, both in his dealings with internal Catholic controversies and in his relations with Protestants and Protestant communities. While at his first post in Metz, he sought to convert Protestants using debates, sermons, and writings such as Refutation of the Catechism of Paul Ferry, which came out of his debates with Ferry, a local Protestant minister. He also reportedly played a role in the conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism of the celebrated war hero, the duke of Turenne.

From 1679 until 1694, Bossuet corresponded with the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716). Their epistolary debates were part of his effort to reunify Christendom. Leibniz, a Lutheran and under the patronage of the electors of Hanover, also hoped to see an end to infighting among Christian groups and a reunion of all churches, Protestant and Catholic alike. Their exchanges explored possible terms of a reunion between Protestant and Catholic factions, but arrived at no concrete resolutions because Bossuet rejected all compromises that entailed altering existing Catholic doctrine.

Bossuet was also an important mediator between King Louis XIV and papal authority. He defended papal authority and doctrinal unity, but, at the same time, played a major part in the emergence of Gallicanism, policies that allowed the French king more control over some aspects of church institutions in France and increased independence from Rome, especially in regard to secular issues. In the early 1680s Bossuet served as an important negotiator for Louis XIV and Pope Innocent XI when the king sought control over vacant dioceses and their revenues. In the Assembly of Clergy that met in 1682 to discuss the issue, Bossuet gave the opening sermon and also helped to draft the treatise of the four articles published by the assembly as their final ruling on the issue. The four articles contributed to Gallicanism by declaring the king's control over vacant sees and rejecting the pope's authority over secular issues.

The last decades of Bossuet's life, the late 1680s and 1690s, were dominated by the controversy over Quietism, a mystical and spiritual movement led by a French noblewoman, Madame Guyon. At the urging of King Louis XIV, a panel of French theologians that included Bossuet examined Madame Guyon's teachings and found them incompatible with orthodox Catholic doctrine and practice; they officially condemned her methods and writings in 1695. Bossuet's very public feud with fellow French cleric and theologian, François Fénelon (16511715), archbishop of Cambrai, followed on the heels of the initial Quietism controversy. Bossuet denounced Fénelon's writings that lauded some aspects of Quietism, such as the notion of "pure love." A papal brief issued in 1699 censured Fénelon's work and finally resolved their bitter public debate, which had been waged in books and pamphlets.

Today, Bossuet is best known for his work, Politics Drawn from the Holy Scripture (1709). In this treatise on political philosophy, he articulated the theory of divine-right kingship associated with King Louis XIV's reign, using passages from the Bible to support the theory of an absolute monarch and arguing that the king's political power came directly from God and was, therefore, sacred and indivisible. Under divine-right theory, Bossuet maintained that it was not only unlawful but also a sin to rebel against the king. At the same time, he urged the king to fulfill his duty to protect and care for his subjects in keeping with his godly charge.

See also Condé Family ; Divine Right Kingship ; Fénelon, François ; Gallicanism ; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm ; Louis XIV (France) ; Louvois, François Le Tellier, marquis de ; Maria Theresa (Holy Roman Empire) ; Quietism ; Vincent de Paul.


Primary Sources

Bossuet, Jacques-Bénigne. Discourse on Universal History. Translated by Elborg Forster. Edited by Orest Ranum. Chicago, 1976.

. Politics Drawn from the Very Words of Holy Scripture. Translated and edited by Patrick Riley. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1990.

. Selections from the Funeral Orations of Bossuet. Edited by F. M. Warren. Boston, 1907.

Secondary Sources

Meyer, Jean. Bossuet. Paris, 1993.

Reynolds, Ernest Edwin. Bossuet. Garden City, N.Y., 1963.

Sara Chapman

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French writer, bishop and orator; b. Dijon, France, Sept. 27, 1627; d. Paris, April 12, 1704. He was the seventh child of Bénigne Bossuet, a judge in the parliament of Dijon, and Madeleine Mochet. For more than half a century his ancestors, both paternal and maternal, had occupied judicial posts. He began his classical studies at the Jesuit college in Dijon and, when his father was appointed to the parliament of Metz, remained in Dijon under the care of an uncle. He made remarkable progress, at the same time becoming thoroughly acquainted with the Bible, which always remained his principal source of inspiration. Destined for the Church, he received the tonsure at the age of eight and at 13 obtained a canonicate in the cathedral of Metz. Moving to Paris in 1642, he continued his classical studies adding philosophy and theology, at the Collège de Navarre. He defended his theses for the Bachelor in Theology (tentativa ) in 1648, was ordained subdeacon the same year, deacon the next, and began to preach at Metz. His theses for the Licenciate were defended in 1650 and 1651, after which he prepared for the priesthood under St. Vincent de Paul (15761660). He was ordained March 18, 1652, and received the degree of doctor of theology a few weeks later. He then resided at Metz for seven years, engaged in preaching, study of the Bible and the Fathers, discussion with Protestants, and activities as a member of the Assembly of the Three Orders. He was associated also with the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement.

In 1659 Bossuet returned to Paris on business for his chapter, but was induced to remain there as a preacher, largely through the influence of Vincent de Paul and the Queen Mother, Anne of Austria. He retained his connection with Metz and was appointed dean when his father, a widower, became a priest and canon at the same cathedral. In 1670 Bossuet was consecrated bishop of Condom. Although he was not obliged to reside in his diocese, his convictions in this matter caused him to resign a year later, at which time also he was elected to the French Academy. He was named tutor to the Dauphin in 1670 and threw himself energetically into his functions, even composing books for his pupil's instruction (see below). After the Dauphin's marriage in 1681, Bossuet was assigned to the bishopric of Meaux. He administered his see in residence, following the Assembly of the French Clergy in 1682, but was called away more and more frequently to Paris or to wherever the court might be staying. His health was failing by 1700, but he continued to defend his principles to the end, dictating letters and polemical essays to his secretary from his bed.

Court Orator. Bossuet's eminence as an orator is uncontested. He has been called the voice of France in the age of Louis XIV and is a perfect exemplar of the period's classicism. His simple but facile vocabulary well served the intensity of his thought, often expressed in the deep sonority of periodic sentences. His thought turned normally to terms of universality, majesty, balance, order, and raison in the 17th-century sense. He was passionately devoted to unity and considered its attainment possible only in absolutism. He believed in the divine right of kings and in a hierarchy involving both Church and State; and if he was himself somewhat authoritarian, this resulted probably from his conviction that it was his duty to demand from inferiors and those he directed the

same obedience that he himself must render to superiors. Yet he was remarkably human, and, until his last years, conciliatory to the point of being accused of weakness.

With unfailing courageand with some success he preached and counseled against the King's adulterous liaisons. When Louis bridled, insisting that monarchs are above the law of men, Bossuet conceded this much but insisted that even kings are not above the law of God. Although this stand was clearly taken, Bossuet continued to admire the great ruler who, with all his faults, could unify and glorify France. Inspired by St. Vincent, Bossuet pleaded the cause of the poor against the extravagance of the court, but at the same time he felt that the proper discharge of his own role demanded a certain wealth, used with detachment of spirit. He also frankly enjoyed position and power, but most biographers find no justification for the charge that he actively sought them. He remained at court probably because he was convinced that his presence there acted as a Christian leaven in the midst of corruption.

Bossuet was physically and mentally robust and usually convinced that he was right. He was sometimes sanguine to the point of naïveté. Thus he approved the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685), while neither approving nor expecting the use of force, because he was convinced that Protestants would be amenable to the new ruling and would collaborate for Christian unity. (see nantes, edict of.)

Writer and Preacher. Bossuet's first published work, Réfutation du catéchisme du sieur Paul Ferry, ministre de la religion prétendue réformée (1655), was directed against a Protestant pastor at Metz. During this early period he began also to compose and preach panegyrics on the saints. Those on St. Francis of Assisi (1652), St. Bernard (1653), St. Paul (1657), and the Apostle Peter (1661) are among the best. The studies served as bases for moral lessons; he employed the same tactic in his masterpieces, the Oraisons funèbres. The first of these was preached at Metz, but the more highly perfected ones came later, notably those for Henriette de France (1669), for Henriette d'Angleterre (1670), and for le Prince de Condé (1687).

Bossuet's ordinary sermons, not composed for publication, were scattered in manuscript and note form and have been recovered only gradually and incompletely. His greatest preaching period extended from 1659 to 1670. He was invited to give the Lenten sermons at the Louvre in 1662 and his stern commentary on the wicked rich, the efficacy of Penance, death, and so on, sometimes leveled at the King personally, and accompanied by threats of damnation, was little calculated to improve its author's welcome, although it was recognized that a genuine orator had emerged from a host of preachers. Soon, however, he became involved in the Jansenist controversy (see jansenism). The degree of his sympathy with port-royal is debated. While he undoubtedly favored the austere Jansenist morality and condemned what he considered the "easy devotion" of the Jesuits, he agreed with full conviction that five propositions drawn from augustinus were to be found in Port-Royal doctrine and should be condemned. His own spirituality was Bérullian (see bÉrulle, pierre de), influenced by St. Vincent de Paul and by the works of St. Francis de Sales (15671622).

Three of Bossuet's most important works were composed primarily for the instruction of the Dauphin: Traité de la connaissance de Dieu et de soi-même (1677), Politique tirée de l'Écriture Sainte (1679), and the Discours sur l'histoire universelle (1681). He considered the Discours his most important written work; he published two revisions, and was working on another at the time of his death. In what was one of the first "philosophies of history," Bossuet conceived the whole of history as directed by Providence, and in relation to a single event, the Incarnation. In philosophy as such, Bossuet was partially Thomist, but he taught the Dauphin the ideas of Descartes, which he later repudiated. In the Assembly of the Clergy called by the King to deal with jurisdiction over vacant episcopal sees, the whole question of papal authority and the rights and liberties of the Gallican church came up for debate (see gallicanism). Although Bossuet was Gallican by family tradition and patriotism and did not believe in papal infallibility, he had no thought of renouncing due submission to Rome. He sought a compromise and was chosen to draw up the Four Articles (1682) that Pope Innocent XI rejected. An act of submission from the French bishops in 1693 ended the troubles, and it was chiefly Bossuet's loyalty and spirit of moderation that recalled France from the brink of schism.

Severity of His Later Years. To the period of Meaux belongs his Histoire des variations des églises protestantes (1688); in 1691 he began a correspondence with leibniz, a kindred spirit who, from the Protestant point of view, also dreamed of a Christian unification of the world. Their rapprochement failed and their hopes were soon abandoned. So many reverses in Bossuet's grandiose plans began to weaken the patience that had always characterized him, and a certain harsh and sometimes unjust insistence marked his final controversies. He was a ruthless foe of any innovations in Biblical or historical criticism and strongly opposed the works of R. Simon and L. Ellies do Pin's Bibliothèque des auteurs ecclésiastiques. He began furiously to blame the classics and the theater for relaxed morality, and condemned all poetry and amusement. These ideas are expressed in his Traité de la concupiscence (1693) and Maximes sur la comédie (1694). Most 17th-century moralists tended to frown upon the theater, but Bossuet's frown was as grim as the Jansenists'. In this period the great quarrel over quietism arose (especially c. 16941700). Bossuet, neither conversant with mysticism nor drawn to it by temperament, worked hard to grasp its meaning when asked to examine Mme. guyon, whom fÉnelon defended. Bossuet recognized in Mme. Guyon an unbalanced personality and a false mysticism. He had a hand in the Articles of Issy that condemned propositions drawn from Mme. Guyon's writings. Bossuet wrote during this affair the Instruction sur les états d'oraison (1696) and Relation sur le quiétisme (1698). His remaining years were troubled by the resurgence of Jansenism; his death however reflected the calm and majesty of his great works.

Bibliography: Oeuvres complètes, ed. e. n. guillaume, 10 v. (Bar-le-Duc 1877); Oeuvres oratoires, ed. j. lebarq et al., 7 v. (Paris 192227); Correspondance, ed. c. urbain and e. levesque, 15 v. (Paris 190925). j. calvet, Bossuet: L'Homme et l'oeuvre (Paris 1941); Histoire de la littérature française, v.5 (Paris 1939) 259319, good bibliography 450453. a. rÉbelliau, Bossuet (Paris 1900). j. truchet, La Prédication de Bossuet (Paris. 1960),a. largent, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al. (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951 ) 2:104989. p. dudon, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, m. viller et al., 1:187483. w. j. simpson, A Study of Bossuet (New York 1937). d. o'mahony, ed., Panegyrics of the Saints: From the French of Bossuet and Bourdaloue (St. Louis 1924), also contains parts of other works of Bossuet. a. g. martimort, Le Gallicanisme de Bossuet (Paris 1953).

[l. tinsley/

j. m. gres-gayer]

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Jacques Bénigne Bossuet

The French prelate and writer Jacques Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704) is best known for his sermons and orations. His ecclesiastical career traversed the principal milieus and encompassed the major religious questions of his time.

Jacques Bossuet was born in Dijon on Sept. 27, 1627. He was raised by his uncle Claude, the mayor of Dijon. Bossuet was tonsured at the age of 10, a logical step for a seventh son in eventual need of a career. He distinguished himself at the Collège des Godrans in Dijon and later at the Collège de Navarre in Paris, where he received a doctorate of theology in 1652. Ordained that same year, he was a leading figure in Parisian theological circles and also frequented the fashionable salon of Madame de Rambouillet.

Bossuet might have pursued a worldly career had he not come under the influence of Vincent de Paul, whose apostolic ideal included charity to the poor, missionary zeal, and counterreformatory activity. Partially motivated by him, in 1653 Bossuet took up residence in Metz, a frontier city with a diverse religious population. Until 1659 he was immersed there in religious studies, Catholic-Protestant relations, the Jewish apostolate, and civil and ecclesiastical affairs. His Réfutation du catéchisme de Paul Ferry (1655; Refutation of the Catechism of Paul Ferry) exhibits the firm but nonpolemical spirit which he brought to Catholic-Protestant relations.

After his return to Paris in 1659, Bossuet devoted himself to preaching in convents and churches as well as at court. In 1662 and 1666 he preached before the King during Advent, but it was not until the Advent sermons of 1669 that this worldly milieu was completely receptive to him. Between 1655 and 1687 he pronounced his famous funeral orations; among these were the orations for Anne of Austria (1667), Henrietta of France (1669), Henrietta of England (1670), Maria Theresa (1683), and the Prince of Condé (1687).

In 1669 Louis XIV named Bossuet bishop of Condom and in 1670 tutor of the Dauphin. Bossuet strove to provide a practical education for his charge, composing such works as the Discours sur l'histoire universelle (Discourse on Universal History) and the Traité de la connaissance de Dieu et de soi-même (Treatise on the Knowledge of God and of Oneself) for the Dauphin's use. During this period he continued to address himself to the Protestant question, publishing L'Exposition de la doctrine catholique (1671; Exposition of Catholic Doctrine), and exercised a moderating moral influence at court. He was elected to the Académie Française in 1671.

Named bishop of Meaux in 1681, after the completion of his pedagogical task, Bossuet devoted himself to his pastoral duties with Vincentian zeal. He played a leading role in the Assembly of the Clergy (1681), which decreed the subordination of the national churches to the pope. The Histoire des variations des églises protestantes (1688; History of Variations of Protestant Churches) was Bossuet's last counterreformatory work. His Instruction sur les états d'oraison (Instruction in States of Prayer) and Relation sur le quiétisme (1698; Report on Quietism) were instrumental in the condemnation of the doctrine of quietism.

Chronic kidney stones gradually forced Bossuet to give up his pastoral duties, and he died at Meaux on April 12, 1704.

Further Reading

Translated selections from Bossuet's works are available in Bossuet: A Prose Anthology, edited by J. Standring (1962), and in Bossuet's Selections from Meditations on the Gospel, translated by Lucille Corinne Franchère (1962). A biography of Bossuet in English is Ernest Edwin Reynolds, Bossuet (1963). Background studies include Albert Léon Guérard, France in the Classical Age: The Life and Death of an Ideal (1965), and G. R. R. Treasure, Seventeenth Century France (1966), which discusses Bossuet at length.

Additional Sources

Lanson, Gustave, Bossuet, New York: Arno Press, 1979.

Meyer, Jean, Bossuet, Paris: Plon, 1993. □