Chateaubriand's memoirs, XLII, 16

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XLII- Chapter 16
The Christian ideal is the future of the world



In fact my investigations lead me to conclude that the old society is breaking up, that it is impossible for anyone not a Christian to imagine a future society pursuing its course while satisfying at the same time the purely republican ideal or the modified royalist ideal. On any hypothesis, the improvement you desire can only be grasped through Scripture.

At the heart of current secular theory, there is always plagiarism, a parody of Scripture, always the apostolic principle re-emerges: that principle is so embedded within us, that we treat it as if it belonged to us; we consider it natural, though it is not; it comes to us from our ancient faith, to give that latter two or three degrees of ascendancy over us. The free thinker who occupies himself with perfecting his fellow man would never have though of it if the rights of man had not been formulated by the Son of Man. Every philanthropic act in which we indulge, every system we dream up to the benefit of humanity, is only a return of the Christian ideal, changed in name and too often disfigured: it is always the word made flesh!

Do you choose to say that the Christian ideal is merely the progress of the human ideal? I agree to that; but open up the various cosmogonies and you will realise that Christian revelation advanced traditional Christianity on this earth. If the Messiah had not come and had not spoken, as he himself said, the ideal would not have been clear, the truth would have remained confused, such as one sees in the writings of the ancients. So whichever way you interpret it, it is from revelation, from Christ that you possess all; it is with the Saviour, Salvator, the Consoler, Paracletus, that you must always start; it is from Him that you received the germs of civilisation and philosophy.

You will see then that I find no solution for the future other than in Christianity, and Catholic Christianity; the religion of the Word is the manifestation of truth, as the creation is God made visible. I do not claim that a general renewal has taken place, since I admit that entire nations are sworn to destruction; I also admit that faith has withered in certain countries: but if there remains a single seed of grain, if it falls on a little earth, be that in the debris from a shattered vessel, that grain will grow, and a second incarnation of the Catholic spirit will re-animate society.

Christianity is the most philosophical and rational appreciation of God and the creation; it encapsulates the three great universal laws, the divine law, the moral law, the political law: the divine law, God united in three persons; the moral law, charity; the political law, that is to say liberty, equality and fraternity.

The first two principles have been discussed; the third, political law has not been furthered, because it cannot flower while intelligent belief in infinite being and universal morality are not solidly established. Now, Christianity has first to clear away the absurdities and abominations with which idolatry and slavery have encumbered the human race.

Enlightened people cannot comprehend why a Catholic such as I persists in sitting in the shadow of what they call ruins; according to such people it is an impossible stance, a simple prejudice. But tell me, out of pity where shall I find a family or a god in the individualistic and philosophic society you propose? Tell me and I will follow you; if not then do not find fault if I lie down in Christ’s tomb, the only shelter you leave me in my desolation.

No, I am not adopting an impossible position: I am sincere; this is what has happened to me: all my plans, my studies, and my experiences have disabused me completely of everything that the world pursues. My religious conviction, in growing, has consumed all my other convictions; down here, there is no more faithful Christian and no more sceptical a man than I. Far from being at an end, religion the liberator has scarcely entered its third age, the age of politics, liberty, equality and fraternity. Scripture, a sentence of acquittal, has not yet been read to all; we are still under the curse pronounced by Christ: ‘Woe unto you…who lade men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers!’

Christianity, fixed in its dogmas, is fluid in its enlightenment; its transformation encompasses the universal transformation. When it attains its highest point, the shadows will have cleared away; freedom, crucified at Calvary with the Messiah, will return with him; freedom will again grant its new testament to the nations, written for their benefit and until now hindered in its execution. Government will pass away, moral evil will vanish, and that renewal will announce the end of centuries of death and oppression born of The Fall.

When will that longed-for day occur? When will society reconstitute itself according to the least concealed of generative principles? No one can say; no one can predict the stubbornness of the passions.

Death has numbed the peoples more than once, shedding silence over events, as fallen snow smothers the noise of wheels. Nations do not grow as quickly as the individuals that compose them and do not vanish as swiftly. How much time has to pass to achieve a given thing! The agony of the Later Empire seemed never-ending; the Christian era, already so prolonged, has not sufficed to end slavery. Such calculations, I know, do not suit the French temperament; in our revolutions we never consider the element of time: that is why we are always astonished by results contrary to those we expected. Full of a generous courage, young men are in a hurry; they advance head first towards a lofty region which they glimpse and try hard to attain. Nothing is more worthy of admiration; but they waste their lives in these efforts and reaching the end, after many setbacks, they consign the weight of disillusioned years to further abused generations who carry it to the next grave; and so on. The time of the desert has returned; Christianity begins again in the barren Thebaid, in the midst of a formidable idolatry, the idolatry of man towards himself.

There are two historical consequences, one immediate and instantly known, the other more distant and not yet perceived. These consequences often contradict one another; one derives from our limited wisdom, the other from a wisdom that endures. The workings of Providence are visible after human events. God rises up behind Man. Deny the supreme counsel as much as you wish, disagree that it ever acts, quibble over words, call the power of things or reason what the vulgar call Providence, gaze at the outcome of some given event, and you will see that it has always produced the opposite effect to that intended, whenever it has not first been established in morality and justice.

If Heaven has not pronounced its Last Judgement; if a future is to exist, a powerful and free future, that future is still far off, far beyond the visible horizon; it can only be reached with the aid of that Christian hope whose wings spread wider the more all seems to deny it, a hope more permanent than time and stronger than adversity.