The Academician of Life


THE author of The Moral Revival in France rightly refers to M. Melchior de Vogüé as the primary apostle of the Neo-Christian movement, and it is worth while to look a little more closely at the personality of a man who is such a figure to-day in French letters. The Vogüé family has lived for centuries in the heart of France, among the volcanic mountains of the Vivarais. Its history goes further back than the crusaders who fought for the tomb of Christ. There is a Melchior always in the family, because of some delightful legend of the Middle Ages which makes the first of the name a descendant of the wise Melchior, one of the three kings from the East who followed the star of Bethlehem, and offered gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh at the feet of the new-born Saviour.

The present Melchior had no time for dreaming in his youth. He was called to fight for his country in the disastrous war of 1870, and he afterwards had time, in a German prison, to meditate on the irreligious selfishness which was eating out the heart of France. Then he learned to know the inner life of nations in the service of diplomacy. This gave him that strikingair of one familiar with the handling of human affairs which makes his writing so acceptable to studious and ambitious youth. But his principal work, as already pointed out, is the revelation to his countrymen of a literature, new and enthusiastic, if fanciful and incomplete, having all the qualities which are so sadly wanting in their own later writers. The gospel which is according to Count Tolstóy, the prelude to faith which is found in Dostoievsky’s scenes of pity, may seem but meagre spiritual fare to the devout reader of the New Testament. But they are calculated to reach and arouse cars deaf to the old gospel.

This scion of an old aristocracy, who has received into his veins more than his share of modern democracy, does not limit his work to a mere saying over of the thoughts of others. He would be the first to admit that their thoughts are incomplete and even contradictory. He has tried to work out for himself, and others like him, a philosophy of the life which is around him. He is, morally, in sympathy with the old beliefs ; but he also sees the new difficulties of the world as it is. In this he is like Taine, his master and friend. It is of him, I believe, that his young wife laughingly said, in answer to an inquiry, “ He has gone to Rome to ask the Holy Father’s leave to be a Protestant.” It is probable that Catholic and Protestant alike would find him too preoccupied with what goes before religion. Yet both should be interested in knowing what lessons he has for converting men to be themselves, instead of being simply la bête humaine.

More even than Tolstóy he is in sympathy with the virtues of the Christ who suffered that he might save. For the true man is not that product of modern culture whom the sorrows of life find “ resigned provided that he has his provender of daily pleasure, having decided to despise men while making of them the best possible use for his own enjoyment.” He is rather one of those who are despised by modern culture, some character from his own simple Winter’s Tales.

There is the peddler Fédia, old, unlucky, distrusted, who confides his philosophy of life to the one innocent boy who sees something good in him. He has been refused shelter for the night, and the storm is threatening.

“‘But if the hurricane of snow should catch you on the road, what would become of you ? ’

“ The man made his humble grimace, like a frightened hare. ‘ It ’s nothing, bârine ; who cares for Uncle Fédia ? He has n’t a great place in God’s world. If misfortune happens to him, that will not trouble anybody.’ ”

The story goes on to tell how the old man whose misfortunes would trouble no one fell under suspicion of murder. There is no evidence against him, and he is cleared; but strong circumstantial evidence comes up against a poor woman, who is the mother of helpless children. She is on the point of being condemned. “ Sunk to earth, with choking sobs, with her hands and eyes lifted toward the crucifix, she burst out in heartrending tones : —

“ ‘ Saviour Christ, save me ! Lord, have pity on thy servant and her children ! Have pity ! ’ ”

All the peasants throw themselves upon their knees in the court room, when, in the midst of solemn silence, Uncle Fédia, with humble and timid mien, comes forward and takes his place before the judges. He recalls to them that a tar-pot found beside the murdered man was evidently from his own merchandise ; it must be he who is the guilty one. The judges are persuaded, the people are more than ever convinced that the disreputable old man deserved all their suspicions, and he is condemned to the mines of Siberia.

As the officers drag him away, the little boy, who has watched him closely, slips a few coins into his hand. “ ‘ Farewell, poor Uncle Fédia ! ’

“ He murmured, ‘ Thank you, bârine ! It is nothing; my misfortune will not trouble anybody.’ ”

Six years later, the miller, who had bought the tar-pot from the peddler, confessed with his dying breath that he was the real murderer. “ Of the peddler he said, ‘ He was a soul of the good God : he must have had pity on the widow and her children ; he must have given himself up to save them.’ ”

All the search made in Siberia could not find Uncle Fédia. He had died from exposure in one of the mines.

“ When they learned in the village the failure of the steps we had taken, the widow brought a basket of eggs to the priest, begging him to celebrate a service for the repose of the soul of poor Uncle fédia. We all went to the church. I never prayed with so full a heart ; for the first time I understood well the meaning of the verse which the celebrant read in the gospel of the day : As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them. I understood, seeing again before my eyes the humble figure of Uncle Fédia, trembling in his foxskin cape, in the midst of the judgment hall, scorned of the people.”

Notwithstanding the case of conscience involved in this little story, it is essentially Christian, — far more so than the tales of Tolstóy. And its author has not that unpractical mysticism which prevents the Russian writer from becoming an effectual teacher of youth. He sees the providential education of the world even in such evils as war. Here suffering is not the great evil, but only immorality and degradation. This argument we must give in his own words :

“ You ask me my opinion on the possible success of the Universal Congress of Peace. I believe with Darwin that violent struggle is a law of the nature which rules all creatures ; I believe with Joseph de Maistre that it is a divine law, —two different fashions of naming the same thing. If, by an impossibility, a fragment of human society — let us say all the civilized West — should succeed in suspending the effect of this law, races more governed by instinct would take it on themselves to apply it against us: these races would prove that nature is right against human reason ; they would succeed, because the certainty of peace (I do not say peace; I say the absolute certainty of peace) before fifty years would engender a corruption and a decadence more destructive of man than the worst of wars.

“ I consider that we must do for war, which is the criminal law of humanity, that which we ought to do for all our criminal laws : we should soften them by making their application as rare as possible ; we should tend with all our efforts to making them useless. But the whole experience of history teaches us that you cannot suppress them so long as there remain on earth two men, and bread, money, and a woman between them.

I shall be very happy if the Congress puts me in the wrong ; I doubt if it will do as much for history, nature, God.”

This lack of sentimentality in a writer full of the highest Christian feeling is not the least sign of a movement which returns toward Christianity. The Christian argument against the Utopias of socialism and other anarchy, moral or political, has always been drawn from human nature, call it depraved or what you will ; and its remedy for evil has also been drawn from the divine principle of sacrifice.