The Moral Revival in France

FRANCE has ever been in the dramatic situation of carrying the general ideas which become, at different times, common human property to their extreme conclusions. The intellectual crises through which it passes are thrown into such objective shape, every manifestation of the French spirit is so lucidly projected against the background of things, that the home of classicism, of the Revolution, of Auguste Comte, of SaintSlmonism, is, as it were, a looking-glass, in which other nations, of a genius more relative and less impelled to generalization, may see and study the history of the ideas that mould them.

We of the western world are passing, at this moment, through a phase of religious reaction. Even while, after thirty years of science, the bonds of orthodox beliefs are being loosened more and more, a stream from the higher intellectual places is setting the other way. Not skepticism, but faith, is the watchword now sounded from those higher places. A certain rigidity in our Anglo-Saxon nature — what Matthew Arnold would call our Hebraism — has prevented us, in America and England, from feeling the full force both of the first movement and of its present countercheck. The continent of Europe has been more sensitive to each influence. A religious, a moral revival is strong in Russia ; it inspires certain youthful and still unknown poets of new Germany ; it can be traced in the best writers of Italy and Spain. But even as no people have gone further than the French in the application of the conception of life that sprang from the emancipation of reason, and the belief in science as the only revelation, so, with them, the rebound has brought into being conditions more defined, results more practical.

There have been special and national as well as general causes for this. The birth of the so-called Neo - Christian movement in France is commonly dated from 1886, when M. Melchior de Vogüé published his Roman Russe. These studies in the “ religion of human suffering ” as it had been expounded by the Russian novelists, from Gogol to Tolstóy, and as it was now expounded to his own countrymen, with an ardent sympathy, by M. de Vogüé, are held among French men of letters to have marked a turning-point in the skepticism which had permeated literary France during the Second Empire, and in the fifteen years after 1870. Of course they know, however, that the true turning-point was reached in that same fatal year, 1870. Says M. de Vogüé, speaking of the night of September 1, when the French prisoners were being led down the hills that descend from Bazeilles to Douzy : “ Below, the bivouacs of the victors starred with their fires all the valley of the Moselle, From the fields where those hundred thousand men were encamped, and where we thought them heavy with sleep, exhausted by their victory, a mighty voice arose, — one single voice issuing from those hundred thousand throats. It was Luther’s choral. The majestie prayer seemed to fill the heavens; it spread over the horizon so far as there were German camp-fires and German men. We heard it far into the night. It thrilled us with its grandeur and beauty. . . . Many of us were young then, and little matured in reflection, yet we recognized at that moment the power which had vanquished us : it was not the superior force of regiments, but that one soul, made up of so many souls, tempered in faith, national and divine, and firmly persuaded that its God marched by its side to victory.” After fifteen years of terrible national fatigue and disheartenment, the germ then sown began to bear outward and visible fruit. The men who saw in 1870 that a nation can have no solidarity, no concerted action, no greatness or effectiveness, without faith and patience and submission in its units, are the men who now, in the maturity of their powers, are urging upon the rising generation the acquisition of moral qualities, latterly too much neglected by their compatriots. And the rising generation — all those young men who are completing their higher studies in the schools that cluster about the old Sorbonne — are said to be lending a very docile ear to these teachings. If we are to believe their leaders, — of whom the chief are, perhaps, M. de Vogüé and M. Ernest Lavisse, the historian. — neither the ethical reveries of Renan, nor the positivism of Taine, nor the naturalism of Zola hold or satisfy any longer these youths who will form the France of fifteen or twenty years hence. They are manifesting a new desire for vital and tangible principle, for character testified in action; an indifference to some of the allurements of pleasure, which, if genuine, must strike one as novel in the French student; and finally, the presence of that socialistic inclination that is the sign of the times.

The soil thus prepared, M. de Vogüé’s studies of the Russians, with the passion for humanity, the long endurance, the mute faith, that breathe from their literature, made, very easily, an epoch. People were not accustomed to points of view of this sort in Paris. But they took to them kindly. They have taken to them so kindly, indeed, that, as month after month brings to one’s hand some new proof, in historical or literary criticism, and even in novel-writing, of the ideas which the little group of NeoChristian writers are striving to impress upon their fellow-countrymen; as one realizes that these ideas appeal with a surety of response to a large number of eager young minds at the formative period, one is prompted to ask one’s self whether France be not truly on the verge of taking, in the moral and intellectual life, a direction hitherto not generally associated with it in the minds of other nations.

It is possible, to be sure, to exaggerate the importance of this movement; or, rather, its chance of lasting effects. It is possible to find some chauvinism in the patriotic note sounded by some of the writers of the moral revival, too. But this would be an unsympathetic task. It is a fine thing to see a people, still bleeding from the humiliation of defeat, incited by noble words to the cultivation of the difficult virtues that lead to national regeneration. It is a fine thing, for instance, to see those young men of the French colleges told that the new African colonies of France are not only a great source of national hope, but a great opportunity for national sacrifice ; that the mother country owes its progeny the duty of a high example in heroism,—the “ royal virtue” of “energycultivated for itself,”—in unselfishness, in endurance, in the faith that walks on in spite of not seeing the goal, and the faith that does the right in spite of no formal assurance that there be such a thing. In all the utterances of this little band of choicer contemporary French minds there is something very inspiriting ; and the more that the patriotic preoccupation, while it gives impetus and intensity to the higher moral feeling, is, after all, secondary to it. “ The best minds of this day perceive that now, as always, and more than always, in the West as in the East, under the tangle of interests in which men of infirm sight detect nothing but questions of politics, there is but one fundamental question, the religious.” These words of M. de Vogüé apply directly to his own country now.

This interest in the moral problem shows itself variously in these French literary men. With MM. Jules Lemaïtre, Paul Bourget, Maurice Barrès, Charles Morice, and at times even with M. Huysmans, it declares itself by an attitude of meditative respect toward religion, dilettante and divorced from all belief in dogma, but admiring and regretfully sympathetic. With MM. de Vogüé, Paul Desjardins, Edouard Rod, Pierre Lasserre, not to mention others, what there may be of literary affectation in their first-mentioned companions is laid aside. These are the true leaders of the moralist movement, the real NeoChristians ; and whatever may be thought of the eventual efficaciousness of their crusade, it would be impossible to mistake the sincerity, the loyalty, the earnestness, with which it is conducted. These writers not only admire, but would desire to revive, the morality of the Christian religion, rigidly to enforce it, to make it the ever-present rule of every-day life, but all this while repudiating its orthodox, dogmatic foundations. There are, finally, a number — a very small number — of writers entirely within the Roman Catholic tradition and faith, who have contributed some invigorating pages to the work of moral regeneration in France. And here one may also speak of M. Ferdinand Brunetière, that austere critic of every aspect of modern life; that strenuous student and supporter of the serious century of Pascal, Bossuet, Massillon, Racine; the man who explicitly, in the name of objective universal ” morality, in the name of the traditional French spirit of clarity, sanity, and taste, protested recently against the erection of a statue to Charles Baudelaire. M. Brunetière probably would not care to be counted among the Neo-Christians and the NeoIdealists of his time. He seeks no affiliation with his contemporaries. Yet, in spite of himself, he testifies, by the strength and the inflexibleness of his moral convictions, in behalf of the beliefs now informing the mental life of his country.

Whence, then, comes this unanimity of perception and impulse to be detected at almost every centre of intellectual activity at the present hour ? We see a revulsion against science; a return to the standard which orders life by things felt, not seen. In part, this is without doubt due to one of the periodic recrudescences of the mystic instinct in human nature. In part, also, — however unreasonably, for science has barely had time for a diagnosis of the social evils, and that diagnosis, in itself, has been of advantage through the more altruistic conception of human nature which it has awakened in us, — in part, also, it may be due to disappointment that the high scientific promises of two or three decades ago should not be reaching a fulfillment as rapid as was claimed for them. But this is not a sufficient explanation of the drift of thought around us. We shall find the explanation in democracy. If spirits sensitive to the currents of the higher atmosphere seem now to wish, with one accord, to lean back against the real, the right Christianity, the Christianity of Christ, is it not that there exists at this moment a lucid perception that modern democracy is the other half of that gospel of humility and neighborly love preached in Galilee nineteen hundred years ago; that the two halves must be united; that the one can but prove to be a seed of disintegration without the close joint action of the other ? Jesus, wandering through the land with his little following, said that all men should be equal; but they should be equal loving one another, and each with meekness in his soul. “ For eighteen centuries this leaven, the gospel, has been working in the world ; and the last revolution which has issued from it is its triumph, the definite sign of its advent.” Modern democracy, the last revolution, can only mean confusion, hatred, sordid ugliness, if that which called it into being, lowliness to self, love to others, be withdrawn, shrivel at its source. “ In all things,” writes M. Leroy-Beaulieu, “ we are brought back to this conclusion : there can be nothing efficacious, nothing solid or durable, for our democratic societies, outside of the Christian spirit, outside of the Christian fraternity.” A Christian church of some sort — modified, modernized, what you will, but always a Christian church — is alone capable, writes M. Henry Bérenger, “ of giving any safe direction to our contemporary democracy.

“ When right and power are one.” M. Charles Secrétan had said before. “ who shall set limits to them ? And if it please the omnipotence of the masses to overthrow the barriers which they themselves have prescribed, who shall raise those barriers again ? . . . The morality of the greater number is the sole recourse of liberty in a democracy. . . . Political salvation in democracy depends solely on private efforts, on an inward mission.”

Here, then, we find that we have left any purely local ground of a moral revival, and are in a stream that belongs to the whole of contemporary life and thought. Everywhere the world wants a new Christianity. But it wants it, and will have it, differently, according to race and need. A Tolstóy attains his by a comparatively simple effort. With him, — with all those obscurer men throughout the various classes of Russian life who think and feel as he does,1 — the fusion of the modern democratic spirit with the spirit of primitive Christianity is an operation full of naïveté, one that goes of itself. This is possible with a people that is very young and very old at the same time. Russia is very young as a nation, and at that imaginative Stage, when ideas are realized immediately, — seen, as it were, pictorially, as mental images. It is very old in the sense that it still draws its life more directly from the old Aryan stock than almost any other Indo-European branch. Its tongue is closely allied to the Sanskrit elder-sister tongue ; its soul is the near kinsman of the vast, vague, dreaming Hindu soul, forever intent upon the problem of life and death. The development of the many Russian sects that, leaving the orthodox Greek Church, are still tormented with the desire de croire à côté need be traced to no other origin. A man of what is known as good birth, a man of commanding talents, a man of the world, abandoning the hardly earned fruits of civilization to return to a semi-vegetative existence, in which all curiosity of the sensation and the intellect shall be quelled, and shall give place to a species of spiritual trance, no longer appears a unique manifestation, without affiliation or connection, when we think of him as cousingerman to the Hindu fakir. Tolstóy’s life is a phenomenon from the standpoint of Occidental civilization: it is the most natural of manifestations from the standpoint of millions of our brothers in that far Eastern branch of our race. It has not been difficult for him to take one great step backward — beyond the orthodoxy of a Byzantine church which has long been lifeless, beyond rote and practices and dogmas vivified by no later intellectual infusions — straight to that simple religion of the fishermen of Palestine, which, being full of pity and mercy, has “ insensibly softened our blood, and made the man of modern times, with his moral and social conceptions, his æsthetics, his politics, the inclination of his mind and heart toward humble things and humble creatures.” In taking this step the Russian is only entering into his own. The things which he best loves in Christianity are those in which its Founder more closely approximated to the spiritual divinations of one who was amongst the great fathers of his own race; one who brought the revelation of charity and of moral and social liberty to the Aryan world of the East. It is because of his racial affinity to Buddhism, which likewise was an upheaval of the democratic sentiment displayed against the narrow Brahmanical theocracy, that Count Tolstóy so well penetrates the innermost heart of Christianity.

With the French Neo-Christians matters are more complicated. Between them and primitive Christianity there stands a great church which is not dead, which has for centuries been served by the power and subtlety of philosophers, poets, dialecticians ; a church which has Hellenized, Latinized, the early Semitic Christianity, made it what it had to become when it was adopted as the Roman state religion ; a marvelous organization, built up with all the Latin sense of form, highly differentiated, yet cohesive, compactly erected on a basis of Greek dogmatization. This Helleno-Latin conStruction, this organ of a thousand stops, is admirably fitted to satisfy the imaginative reason of a people like the French.

The basis of the French nature is Celtic, and the unction of the Roman Catholic Church will always appeal to the Celtic emotions. The superstructure is GræcoLatin, the civilization is Græco-Latin ; and the Græco-Latin cannot abidingly adhere to a religion purely spiritual, without definite symbols, without form, without centralization, without visibility. This is why the modern Frenchman, whose soul yearns for the Neo-Christianity, succeeds most often in finding Neo-Catholicism. This is why, when M. de Vogue meditates upon the democratic direction of modern societies, a natural bent, a Latin bent, leading him to admiration of all mighty organizations, causes him to thrill at the spectacle of the Catholic organization striving to strike new roots in the new soil, to extend its conquests in the new direction ; writing encyclicals on the condition of workmen, opening wide the long-closed doors of St. Peter’s to bands of pilgrims from “ the country where Democracy is queen.” This is why he feels that, if it choose to stretch its orthodoxy in certain quarters, to adapt itself to meet the exigencies of modern societies, the chair of St. Peter must maintain itself as the greatest moral leader of the future. This is why that charming writer, M. Edouard Rod, weary with his search for the answer to the enigma of life, finds a profound melancholy allurement in the mere mental picture of a church which remains absolute where everything is relative, which affirms and reaffirms where everything denies, which is as “ a calm centre of rest in a vortex of storms.” M. Rod is a Swiss, like Amiel, and, though more faintly than Amiel, has likewise an infusion of Calvinism in his blood; but he succumbs to the Catholic fascination,— a fascination of his literary, his æsthetic sense. He too believes, as does Tolstóy, that the only good, the only meaning of life, lie in humility, in meekness, in serviceableness, in the renouncement of intellectual pride; but he will ask, “ What more than the Catholic Church insists on these things ? ” Even M. Paul Desjardins, who announced himself, in the much-discussed pamphlet, Le Devoir Présent (published January, 1892), as taking rather the Protestant view of the Neo-Christianity, dreaming, as its basis, of lay associations, a simple unanimity of spirit, disengaged from dogma and doctrine, — even M. Paul Desjardins does not leave his task without also recommending to his disciples the cultivation of certain spiritual conditions which have always been regarded as the fruit of plenary belief in Roman Catholic dogmas, and not very easily attainable by those outside of the Catholic tradition. When M. Desjardins speaks to us of the “ spiritual phenomena ” consequent upon the “ beatitude of renunciation,” the “ primacy of humility,” the “ effects of asceticism,” we must feel that he is, as has been declared, not far from Leo XIII. M. Desjardins himself would say, however, “Why not? ” Since his dream is of a universal church, to which any and every one can belong, and does belong, who believes in two things, duty and a human destiny, why should not, he would say, all those aids be welcomed which earnest, seeking souls in any quarter have found of service in their religious life ? No one could object to the fairness of this. But there is the obstinate fact to oppose to it, that illuminated states of the soul, of the sort precisely which M. Desjardins has in mind, are never possible (to the mass) except where some beautiful spiritual theories, submissively accepted as facts, have long moulded and saturated the religious consciousness. “ Religion is a pious exaltation, a state of the mind, and therefore subjective,” said Sehleiermacher. This was the sentiment that throughout characterized the Catholic revival of the German Romanticists. It is identically the sentiment of M. Desjardins, who feels the religious flame in himself as a"divine gayety,” an “ état sublime;” and who would like all his Compagnons de la Vie Nouvelle to feel it in the same way. But this religious glow must have a beauty, a mellowness, of manifestation ; it must not be, let us say, the raw Methodist emotionality. What M. Desjardins wants, without saying so, is precisely the Roman Catholic unction. It is the nuance that M. Renan never ceased to love. But when M. Desjardins desires it without desiring its theological foundations, he is, for the multitude, involving himself in a contradiction. M. Rod, without pronouncing himself for or against these theological bases, sees things more philosophically. “ A morality,” he says, “ which is not rooted in declared dogmas is always vacillating.” And then those dogmas themselves, — what a force of intellectual attraction they possess for many of these French thinkers, who in the end, as one of them has said, are literary men chiefly, by a hundred fibres of their nature, and, beside, inheritors of a genius logical, analytical, rhetorical, prone always to involuntary admiration for that subtle soldering of morality upon dogma, and dogma upon metaphysics, to which the great minds of the Latin Church have devoted themselves through the centuries !

This Catholic line of French thought, manifesting itself just as the Republic had succeeded in banishing it from public instruction, is very curious. One can trace it, in its successive degradations, from the fine, earnest utterances of these representative writers, through the sensuous spirituality of the poet Paul Verlaine (to our loss so little known in America) and the perverted studies in dæmonism of Huysmans, down to its final vulgarization and debauch in the spirit which has led to the covering of the walls of the last two or three Salons at the Champ de Mars with such representations as that of a modernized Jesus of Nazareth sitting at meat in the house of a fashionable nineteenth-century publican, with a Magdalene in the ball dress of the period prostrate at his feet.

I return to M. Desjardins’s Le Devoir Præsent, because it is the most definite attempt that has been made to formulate, in France, a general spiritual power which shall be in accord with the metaphysical demands of our time. Two leading ideas detach themselves from M. Desjardins’s catechism: the one is a belief in an intellectual priesthood ; the other, a belief that all mental gifts and attainments are to be regarded as usufructs, to which the mentally unendowed and physically disinherited have a right. These concepts lay, in their entirety, in the saner notions of Saint-Simon. And indeed, every endeavor made, in the second half of this century, to establish on a practical basis a beginning of the scientific idealism which awaits the race in the future is to be met in the germ in Saint-Simon’s philosophical generalizations.

It is true in this case, although M. Desjardins has distinctly asserted that, he has no desire to form a spiritual sect after the Saint-Simonian or other manner. He outlines no cult; but he wishes to found in France a lay religious association, a Society of Moral Succor, — somewhat after the fashion of our own Societies of Ethical Culture in America, — which shall have its journals, its lecturers, its writers, and even its seminary ; a School of Liberty, in which the youth of the country shall be prepared, by studying Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, the gospel, St. Augustine, St. Paul, and St. Vincent de Paul,” to enter life with the highest moral, and yet the purest practical aims. This is the intellectual priesthood. It must seek to form character in itself and others. If it speculate on the universe, it must only be in so far as, from the fruits of such speculation, immediate incentives may be forthcoming for the furtherance of right actions.

As to the socialistic side, M. Desjardins would like to see parents subject their sons, when they have left the universities, to a few months’ contact with the poorest classes of the population, that they may serve an apprenticeship in the trade of life. He would like this knowledge of hardship and ignorance, thus acquired by participation in the lot of the poor, to be retained by frequent subsequent intercourse with the working classes. He repudiates every form of traditional philanthropy. Intellectual almsgiving — free lectures, free readingrooms — he discountenances as much as physical almsgiving. Procure work, he says, for the needy; and to a few workmen, more intelligent than their fellows, suggest that they establish a reading-club among themselves, that they hire, at their own expense, a lecturer who will treat before them subjects which it is to their interest to know; for the things of the mind can never have any meaning to these people until they are bought at the cost of personal sacrifice.

Upon those who are morally ill, infirm and perverted of soul, M. Desjardins would impose, through the medium of his Society of Moral Succor, this same saving grace and cure of sacrifice ; some direct, immediate task for the aid or the redemption of others. “ Right action,” he observes, “ can alone throw light on mental doubts.” And now mark these further words, which connect themselves with the last, and are those that one most respectfully bears away from a perusal of M. Desjardins’s little pamphlet: “ For faith is, purely and simply, the consciousness in us of our moral progress, gradual as that progress itself, and its recompense. . . . The fact that we cannot formulate our faith, far from weakening our position, is on the contrary, our principal force. For it would be unmoral that faith should be capable of being formulated and contained in words, so that whoso could read might possess it, and whoso could not read must be deprived of it. Faith is incommunicable, and should be, even as is moral merit, from which it springs.” Thus we reach the conviction that the religious sentiment is the result of the moral life, and not the moral life the result of the religious sentiment. This is very pure Tolstóyism ; and it is the ground on which all of M. Desjardins’s friends in France and Switzerland and Belgium are at one with him, I think, though they may not go the entire distance by his side in other respects.

M. Desjardins’s ideal association is to include Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Neo-Kantians, men of all shades of belief; for the basis of accord will be a common one, and there will be no disturbing dogmas to bring about division. It would be interesting to observe how far such an association of lay priests could prosper in France. One cannot be free from the feeling that the friends of M. Desjardins, who with him lead the moral movement, are not in full intellectual sympathy with it. If France escaped the Reformation, it was for reasons inherent in her mental structure. The broadest, most philosophical French minds will always slip through the sectarian net and the driest foi’ins of rationalism, for these presuppose a constant personal preoccupation with problems of right and wrong that leaves time for nothing else. They will always hold that the tradition of nations will have solved these matters better than any individual effort can ; and that, the ultimate substance, not the form, being of import, an accepted creed to which one fully subscribes really leaves the philosophic temper more true liberty and leisure to act than would be possible where every hair was split and every detail endlessly discussed.

The place given to Jews and to Jewish thought in the councils of the NeoChristians is an interesting and a significant feature of the movement. Perhaps M. Renan’s long studies in the history of the Jewish People, the clearness with which he shows the Christian law of love and charity and humility forming, for seven hundred years before the advent of Christianity, in that people, have had an influence on the intellectual perceptions of France. But there are many Swift currents of human thought, hitherto divergent, that now flow toward one confluent. It is not always easy to trace their sources or their future. If we were to seek the character common to them all, we should find it again in M. Paul Desjardins’s creed, — action ; in that strong spiritual divination of the time, that faith is of the same nature as action, not of the same nature as thought; and that, finally, as says M. Pierre Lasserre. “ on the day when reason can clothe it in an exact, formula it is very near extinction.”

Aline Gorren.

  1. I have in mind a rich landowner of the province of Orel, Count Paul J., who in 1868 had already divided his estates amongst his peasants; who lived in the fields with them, helped them gather their harvest, etc.