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Felicite de Lamennais

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Felicite de Lamennais

Hugues-Félicité Robert de Lamennais (or de la Mennais) (June 19, 1782 - February 27, 1854), was a French priest, philosopher and political theorist.


Lamennais was born at Saint-Malo in the ancient Province of Brittany on June 19, 1782, the son of a wealthy merchant who had recently received a coat of arms from the king. He lost his mother at the age of five and as a result, he and his brother Jean-Marie were sent for education to an uncle, Robert des Saudrais at La Chênaie, an estate near Saint-Malo. He spent long hours in his uncle's library, reading Rousseau and Pascal, among others, and acquired a vast and varied learning.

First publications

Of a sickly and sensitive nature, and shocked by the events of the French Revolution, Lamennais developed a morbid frame of mind. He first held rationalistic views, but partly through the influence of his brother Jean-Marie and partly as a result of his philosophical and historical studies, he came to see the power of faith and religion. He voiced his convictions in Réflexions sur l'état de l'église en France pendant le 18ieme siècle et sur sa situation actuelle, published anonymously in Paris in 1808. It recommended religious revival and active clerical organization and the awakening of an ultramontane spirit. Napoleon's police deemed the book dangerously ideological and tried to suppress it.

Lamennais devoted most of the following year to translating Louis de Blois's Speculum Monachorum into French, which he published in 1809 under the title French: Le Guide spirituel.

In 1811 Lamennais received the tonsure and became professor of mathematics in an ecclesiastical college founded by his brother at Saint-Malo.

In 1814 he published, with his brother, De la tradition de l'église sur l'institution des éveques (1814), in which he strongly condemned Gallicanism and the interference of political authority in ecclesiastical affairs. It was provoked by Napoleon's nomination of Jean Siffrein Maury as Archbishop of Paris in accordance with the provisions of the Concordat of 1801.

Exile and return

Lamennais hailed the Bourbon restoration of 1814, which he witnessed in Paris, because he saw Louis XVIII as a force for religious regeneration. During the Hundred Days, he escaped to London. After the final overthrow of Napoleon in 1815, he returned to Paris. In 1816, despite misgivings as to his calling, he was ordained a priest by the Bishop of Rennes on March 9, 1817.

Essai sur l'indifférence en matière de religion

The first volume of his great work, Essai sur l'indifference en matière de religion, appeared in 1817 and established his reputation throughout Europe. He became, according to Lacordaire, "a humble priest with all the authority once enjoyed by Bossuet". Lamennais denounced religious indifference by the state and toleration while advocating for a restoration of the pre-Revolutionary authority of the Catholic Church. He contended that private judgment, introduced by Martin Luther into religion, by Descartes and Leibniz into philosophy and science, and by Rousseau and the Encyclopaedists into politics, had resulted in practical atheism and spiritual death. He asserted that ecclesiastical authority, founded on the absolute revelation delivered to the Jewish people, but supported by the universal tradition of all nations, was the sole hope of regenerating the European communities.

Three more volumes (Paris, 1818–1824) followed and met with a mixed reception from the Gallican bishops and monarchists, but with the enthusiastic support from the younger clergy. Three Roman theologians examined his work and Pope Leo XII gave it his formal approval. Lamennais visited Rome at the pope's request. He was offered and refused a position at the Sacred College.

Lamennais also published works of piety, for example, a widely read French version of The Imitation of Christ with notes and reflections (1824), Guide du premier âge, Journée du Chrétien, and Recueil de piété (1828). The failure of a publishing house aimed at spreading this pious literature resulted in his own financial ruin.

Political advocacy

On his return to France he took a prominent part in political work. Together with Chateaubriand and the Comte de Villèle he was a regular contributor to Le Conservateur littéraire. However, when Villèle became the chief supporter of absolute monarchy, Lamennais withdrew his support and started two rival organs, Le Drapeau blanc and Le Mémorial catholique. He authored a pamphlet criticizing the 1825 Anti-Sacrilege Law introduced by Villèle's administration. Various other minor works, together with De la religion considérée dans ses rapports avec l'ordre civil et politique (1825–1826) kept his name before the public.

Ultramontane and theocratic democracy advocacy

He retired to La Chênaie and gathered a group of disciples, including Montalembert, Lacordaire and Maurice de Guérin. He espoused ultramontanism and aimed to create an organized body of opinion to campaign against Gallicanism, the control and influence of the state in church matters. Les Progrès de la revolution et de la guerre contre l'église (1828) marked his complete renunciation of royalist principles and from that time on he advocated on behalf of a theocratic democracy.

Lamennais founded L'Avenir, the first issue of which appeared on October 16, 1830, with the motto "God and Liberty." The paper was aggressively democratic, demanding rights of local administration, an enlarged suffrage, separation of church and state, universal freedom of conscience, instruction, assembly, and the press. Styles of worship were to be criticized, improved or abolished in absolute submission to the spiritual, not to the temporal authority. With the help of Montalembert, he founded the Agence générale pour la défense de la liberté religieuse, which became a far-reaching organization with agents throughout France who monitored violations of religious freedom. As a result, the periodical's career was stormy and its circulation opposed by conservative bishops.

In response, Lamennais, Montalembert and Lacordaire suspended their work and in November 1831 set out to Rome to obtain the approval of Pope Gregory XVI. After much opposition, they gained an audience, but only on condition that their political project should not be mentioned. A few days later they received a letter from Cardinal Pacca, advising their departure from Rome and suggesting that the Holy See, while admitting the justice of their intentions, would like the matter left open for the present.

Lacordaire and Montalembert departed immediately, but Lamennais stayed on until Gregory's letter to the Polish bishops, which denounced the Polish revolution against the Tsar, dashed his last hopes. While staying in Munich, Lamennais received the 1832 encyclical Mirari vos, which condemned religious pluralism in general and certain of Lamennais's ideas advanced in L'Avenir without mentioning his name. After this, Lamennais and his two lieutenants declared that out of deference to the pope they would not resume the publication of L'Avenir and dissolved the Agence générale as well.

Separation from the Church and further publications

Lamennais retired to La Chénaie. He communicated his resentment and political beliefs only through correspondence. The Vatican in turn demanded his frank and full adhesion to the encyclical Mirari vos. Lamennais refused to submit without qualification and in December 1833 renounced his ecclesiastical functions and abandoned all external profession of Christianity.

In May 1834, Lamennais penned Paroles d'un croyant (1834), a collection of aphorisms that denounced the established social order -- what he called the conspiracy of kings and priests against the people -- and declared his rupture with the Church. In the encyclical Singulari nos, Pope Gregory XVI condemned the book as "small in size, but immense in perversity", and censured Lamennais' philosophical system. Paroles was inspired by Adam Mickiewicz's Księgi narodu polskiego i pielgrzymstwa polskiego (Books of the Polish Nation and Polish Pilgrimage).[1]

Lamennais was increasingly abandoned by his friends and in 1837 published Les Affaires de Rome, des maux de l'église ci de la société, in which he provided his perspective on his relations with Gregory XVI.

After this, Lamennais penned several articles in the Revue des Deux Mondes, the Revue du Progrès and Le Monde, and published the pamphlets Le Livre du peuple (1837), De l'esclavage moderne (1839), Politique a l'usage du peuple (1839), Discussions critiques (1841), Du passé et de l'avenir du peuple (1841), Amschaspands et Darvands (1843), in which he espoused popular sovereignty and attacked contemporary society and the public authorities. After the publication of Le Pays et le gouvernement (1840), he was censored and imprisoned for a year in 1841.

From 1841 to 1846, Lamennais published the four-volumes of Esquisse d'une philosophie, a treatise on metaphysics, which detailed his departure from Christianity. The third volume, an exposition of art as a development of the aspirations and needs of worship, formed its core. Lamennais also published Les Evangiles, a French translation of the Gospels with added notes and reflections.

In 1846 Lamennais published Une voix de prison, written during his imprisonment.

Involvement in the Second Republic

Lamennais sympathized with the Revolution of 1848 and was elected a deputy for Paris to the Constituent Assembly. He drew up a plan for a Constitution, which was rejected as too radical. After this, he confined himself to silent participation in the sessions. He also started the newspapers Le Peuple constituant and La Révolution démocratique et sociale, espousing radical revolution. Both papers quickly ceased publication. He was also named president of the Société de la solidarité républicaine. He remained a deputy in the legislative assemblies until Napoleon III's 1851 coup, which depressed and isolated him once more.

Later years

After 1851, he occupied himself with La Divine Comédie, a translation of Dante's Divine Comedy and refused several attempts to reconcile him to the Church. He died in Paris in 1854 and was buried according to his own directions at Père Lachaise Cemetery without funeral rites, mourned by political and literary admirers.


There are two Œuvres complètes de Lamennais in ten volumes, the first published in 1836-1837, the second published in 1844. Both are incomplete.


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Further reading

  • Carolina Armenteros, The French Idea of History: Joseph de Maistre and his Heirs, 1794-1854 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2011).
  • Thomas Bokenkotter, Church and Revolution: Catholics and the Struggle for Democracy and Social Justice (NY: Doubleday, 1998)

External links

  • 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
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