Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
0111206502-Bossuet.jpg Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Bossuet was one of the most eloquent orators in seventeenth century France. In his sermons and funeral orations, he expressed profound psychological insights in a very refined and effective style. His major contributions were to rhetoric and sacred oratory.

Early Life

Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet was born in the Burgundian city of Dijon, where his father, Bénigne, was a lawyer. From 1636 to 1642, he attended a Jesuit school in Dijon, where he studied rhetoric, Greek, and Latin. During his lifetime, Bossuet read an enormous amount of works written in both Latin and Greek. His lengthy study with the Jesuits would help him years later to understand the many influences of the classical tradition on the development of Christian theology. In October of 1642, he began his preparation for the priesthood and his formal study of theology at the College of Navarre in Paris. Bossuet’s major professor was the learned theologian Nicolas Cornet, who convinced Bossuet that a solid understanding of the early church fathers and Saint Thomas Aquinas was essential for the proper exposition of biblical texts. In 1652, Bossuet was ordained a priest and also received his doctorate in theology. Later in 1652, he moved to the French city of Metz, where he soon established a reputation as a very eloquent preacher. His fame would spread throughout France by the end of the 1650’s. Even before he reached the age of thirty, Bossuet had enriched the cultural and spiritual life of France through his sermons.

Life’s Work

Although Bossuet had a long and distinguished career as a bishop, as the private tutor for King Louis XIV’s eldest son, as a respected member of the French Academy, and as a writer on such varied subjects as the history of Christianity, biblical exposition, and political theory, his fame rests largely on several well-crafted sermons and funeral orations that he delivered between the 1650’s and the 1680’s. Although his contemporaries greatly admired his very learned historical work Discours sur l’histoire universelle (1681; A Discourse on the History of the Whole World, 1686), this book and other of his extensive writings on the differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are considered irrelevant by many contemporary theologians. Bossuet’s eloquent sermons and funeral orations, however, included such universal themes as fear, despair, hope, the search for moral values, social injustice, and death that these speeches still continue to move even those readers who may not share Bossuet’s religious beliefs.

Divine Providence constituted the unifying theme in Bossuet’s works. Readers since his day have revered Sermon sur la providence (1662; Sermon on Providence, 1801), Sermon sur la mort (1662; Sermon on Death, 1801), and Oraison funèbre d’Henriette Anne d’Angleterre (1670; Funeral Oration for Henrietta of England, 1801). These masterpieces of French prose illustrate Bossuet’s creativity in expanding the meaning of divine Providence in order to enrich his listeners’ understanding of widely different human emotions.

On March 10, 1662, Bossuet preached his Sermon on Providence at the Louvre, then the French royal court. Twelve days later, he delivered Sermon on Death. These were part of a series of fourteen Lenten sermons that he gave at the royal court in 1662. Based on the sermon titles, listeners may well have thought that these two sermons would differ significantly in perspective and in subject matter. Yet these two sermons both illustrate the Christian belief that divine justice eventually rewards the just and punishes evildoers.

Bossuet argues quite sensibly that worldly success and pleasure are ephemeral. He uses a curious but effective comparison in order to convey this truth to his listeners. He reminds them that “pure wine” pleases the palate, whereas watered-down or “mixed wine” merely satisfies the thirst. Bossuet affirms that the pleasures of “pure wine” represent the eternal joys of the beatific vision, whereas the satisfaction from “mixed wine” symbolizes the happiness and disappointments of daily life. Bossuet begins Sermon on Providence by citing Saint Luke’s contrast between the cruel rich man whose soul will never leave Hell and the virtuous but poor Lazarus, who is spending eternity in Paradise. Bossuet ends this sermon with an equally powerful biblical image. He tells his listeners that if they imitate Lazarus, who was never discouraged by injustice in this life, they too “will rest in the bosom of Abraham and possess with him eternal riches.”

Despite its title, Bossuet’s Sermon on Death presents a highly optimistic view of the human condition by stressing the essential grandeur and excellence of each person. This sermon develops extensively the opposition between appearance and reality. Bossuet makes a curious reference to chemical compounds in order to explain the meaning of death for Christians:...

(The entire section is 2087 words.)