Letters of Frédéric Ozanam. Chapter 02

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Author: Frédéric Ozanam · Translator: Ainslie Coates. · Year of first publication: 1886.

English translation of Volume X of Frédéric Ozanam's Œuvres complètes, edited by Jean-Jacques Ampère (París 1862, 11 vol.)

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Lawyer’s office — Plans for future writing — Literacy occupations.

Frederic Ozanam left college at sixteen or seventeen as Bachelor of Letters, and, by his father’s desire, entered as clerk in the study of M. Coulet, a distinguished lawyer of the bar of Lyons. Dr. Ozanam had set his heart on his son’s entering the magistracy. He wished, he said, in some memoirs which he left behind, to make him an advocate, or rather a counsellor, a judge, in some Royal Court. “He has delicate sentiments,” added the father, “pure and generous, and he will be an enlightened and upright magistrate. I dare to hope he will be our con­solation in our old age.” When Frederic entered the office of M. Coulet, his father gave him, apparently as a douceur, a master in drawing and also in German, to re­lieve the dryness of his law occupations. But his mind was surging with all manner of thoughts outside his apparent career; and, as letters of this date show, his work which he intended to write never ceased to occupy him.


Lyons, January 15th, 1831.


…As for me, my part is taken, my task is traced for life; and, in character of friend, I ought to let you share it.

As you, I feel that the past is falling, that the founda­tions of the old building are shaken, and that a terrible shock has changed the face of the earth. But what will rise out of the ruins? Will society remain buried under the rubbish of overturned thrones, or will she re-appear more brilliant, younger, and more beautiful? Shall we see “Novas arks et novam terrain”? There is the great question. I, who believe in Providence, and who do not despair of my country as Charles Nodier, I believe in a sort of palingenesis. But what will be the form of it? What will be the law of the new society? I do not undertake to decide it.

Nevertheless, that which I believe to be certain is, that there is a Providence, and that this Providence could never abandon during six thousand years reasonable creatures, naturally desirous of the true, the good, and the beautiful, to the evil genius of ill and of error; that, consequently, all the beliefs of the human kind cannot be extravagances, and that there are truths all over the world. These truths, the point is to find again, to dis­engage them from the error which envelops them, We must search in the ruins of the old world for the corner­stone on which to reconstruct the new. This would be almost like the columns which, according to historians, were raised before the deluge to transmit the deposit of traditions to those who should survive as the ark floated over the waters, carrying with her the fathers of the human race.

But this stone of hope, this column of traditions, this barque of safety, where must we seek it? Among all the ideas of antiquity, where shall we disinter the only true, the only legitimate ones? Where shall we begin, where finish?

Here I pause, and I reflect: the first need of man, the first need of society, are the religious ideas; the heart thirsts for the infinite. Besides, if there is a God, and if there are men, there must be relations between them; from thence a religion; consequently a primitive revela­tion; consequently, again, it is a primitive religion, an­cient in its origin, essentially divine, and by that even essentially true.

It is this heritage, transmitted from on high to the first man, and from the first man to his descendants, that I am eager to search out. I wander away, then, across the countries and the ages, stirring the dust on all the tombs, rummaging the debris of all the temples, digging up all the myths, from the savages of Koock until the Egypt of Sesostris, from the Indians of Vishnu to the Scandinavians of Odin. I examine the traditions of each people. I ask myself the origin, the reason of them; and, aided by the lights of geography and history, I acknowledge in all religion two elements sufficiently dis­tinct: an element variable, particular, secondary, which has its origin in the circumstances of time and of place in which each people was found, and an element immu­table, universal, primitive, inexplicable by history and geography. And as this element is found in all religious beliefs, and appears so much more entire, so much purer, as one returns to the most ancient times, I conclude that it is it alone which reigns in the earliest days, and which constitutes the primitive religion. I conclude, conse­quently, that religious truth is that which, spread over all the earth, is found again among all nations, trans­mitted by the first man to his posterity, afterwards corrupted, mingled with all fables and with all errors.

Here is the need which I have felt in society; in myself I have felt one altogether analogous: I must have something solid to which I may attach myself and take root to resist the torrent of doubt. And then, O my friends! my soul is filled with joy and consolation; for see! by the strength of her reason, she has found again precisely this Catholicism1 which was formerly taught me by the mouth of an excellent mother, which was so dear to my childhood, and which nourished so often my mind and my heart with its beautiful memories and its hopes yet more beautiful—Catholicism with all its grandeurs, with all its delights! Shaken some, time by doubt, I felt an invincible need to attach myself with all my strength to the column of the temple, even should it crush me in its fall; and now, behold to-day I find it again, this column, resting upon knowledge, luminous with the rays of wisdom, glory, and beauty! I find it again; I embrace it with enthusiasm, with love. I will abide beside it, and from it I will stretch out my arm. I will show it as a pharos of deliverance to those who are floating on the sea of life, happy if some friends will group themselves around me! Then we would join our efforts, we would create a work together; others should unite themselves to us, and perhaps one day society would gather altogether under this protecting shadow. Catholicism, full of youth and force, should rise all at once upon the world; it should put itself at the head of the new-born century to conduct it to civilization, to happiness! O my friends! I feel myself moved in speaking to you, I am filled with intellectual enjoyment; for the work is magnificent, and I am young. I have much hope; and I believe that the time will come when I shall have nourished, strengthened my thought, when I shall be able to express it worthily. Yes, preliminary labours have already discovered to me the vast perspec­tive which I have just opened out, and over which my imagination hovers with transport. But it is little to contemplate the road which I have to run. I must put myself in the way, for the hour has come; and if I wish to make a book at thirty-five, I must begin at eighteen the preliminary labours, which are in great number.

In effect, to know a dozen languages, to consult sources and documents, to know tolerably well geology and astronomy, to be able to discuss the chronologic and cosmogonic systems of peoples and of learned men; to study, in a word, universal history in all its extent, and the history of religious beliefs in all its depth—that is what I have to do to attain to the expression of my idea. You will exclaim, without doubt; you will mak merry over the temerity of this poor Ozanam; you will think of the frog of La Fontaine, and of the ridiculus muus of Horace. As you please! I also have been astonished at my boldness; but what is to be done? When an idea has seized upon you for two years, and taken the first place in your thought, impatient as it is to spread itself without, are you master to hold it back? When a voice cries to you without ceasing, Do this, I will it! can you tell it to keep silence?

For the rest, I have communicated my thought to M. Noirot, who has encouraged me much to accomplish my plan. And as I showed him that I feared to find the charge too heavy for me, he has assured me that I should find many studious young people ready to help me with their counsels and their labours: then I have thought of you, my good friends.

I would tell you yet many things, but the departure of the bearer of the letter does not leave me the time. Another time I will speak to you of my manner of thinking on Saint-Simonism: it does not take here, and it is not generally thought of in a favourable manner.

My little brother Chariot has written to H—, but I have not his letter here to send it.

Adieu! many things to the friends at Paris; and to you, dear friends, the sincere friendship of your college companion.


Lyons, February 21st, 1831.


It is my turn to scold. You had promised to my next letter a prompt reply; I have written, more than a month has passed, and I have not yet heard from you. And yet the months now are centuries, the weeks are epochs. All these vast spectacles ought to stir young souls; all this ought to make young hearts gush out, and feel their need of overflowing to those around by sweet and familiar intercourse. Why, then, do you thus leave your poor friends of the province in a complete emptiness of ideas and of documents?

As to myself, many things pass in my mind; and certainly, if I had the leisure to reflect, I should have in myself wherewith to make a good course in psychology. When my eyes turn towards society, the prodigious variety of events excites in me the most different senti­ments: by turns my heart is inundated with joy or steeped in bitterness; my mind dreams a future of glory and of happiness, or fancies it sees in the distance bar­barism and desolation approaching with rapid steps. .. . I tell myself that the spectacle to which we are called is grand; that it is great to assist at so solemn an epoch; that the mission of a young man in society is to-day very grave and very important. Far from me the thoughts of discouragement! Dangers are an aliment for a soul which feels in itself an immense and undefined want which nothing can satisfy. I rejoice at being born at an epoch when perhaps I shall have to do much good, and then I feel a new ardour for work.

I pursue my researches as much as possible, I pre­pare myself for my work; for, denuded as I am of scientific resources, all that I can do is to give myself up to preliminary studies. I endeavour to embrace in one general glance the subject which must one day take up all my faculties; I measure the course, and the more I survey it, the more satisfaction I feel, because my presentiments on the issue of my researches take more force and consistency, and I see more clearly for the last result the great principle which at first appeared to me through so many clouds—the perpetuity, the catholicism of religious ideas, the truth, the excellence, the beauty of Christianity.

I needed, my good friends, to open my heart a little, separated as I am almost continually from my dear M— and my other old companions. I have seen M. Noirot. He is better: his indisposition has lessened, but his goodness is always the same. He received us very well; he has explained to us thy two letters, my dear Fortoul: he little approves that thou shouldst give thyself up exclusively to metaphysical speculations. He always loves thee much, and begs thee much to write to him, to tell him of all thy philosophical designs. What a friend is this good M. Noirot! To him eternal grati­tude,—to you inviolable attachment, and the constant memory of your friend and companion-in-arms.

It will be seen by the date that Frederic was not eighteen when these letters were written. He had arranged the plan and foreseen the reasons for his work, the way of executing it, and the numerous studies necessary for it. He walked the streets reading old books as he went along, absorbed in his own thoughts and occupations; and, being very short-sighted, striking sometimes against the people he happened to meet, although he hastened to excuse himself earnestly when such misadventures happened. The next letter is to a dear cousin and companion:


Lyons, September 4th, 1831.


. . . Since I have reflected on the fate of humanity, one principal idea has always struck me: in the same way as a flower contains in its bosom the innumerable germs of flowers which must succeed it, in the same way the present, which comes from the past, contains the future. If, then, it is true that humanity is to undergo a new recomposition at the end Of the revolutions which she experiences, we must acknowledge that the elements of this definitive synthesis are to be found again in the past; for we must not admit that Providence has left the human race sitting during six thousand years in the shadow of error and of death, without light and without support.

In applying this formula to religion we will say that, man being a being essentially religious, and religion being absolutely necessary to his development, intellec­tual and moral, it is impossible that he should remain a century even, in ignorance or in error on a subject so grave. On the other side, could he, by his own forces, arrive quickly at religious truth? No, since at the end of four thousand years, Aristotle and Plato, the two greatest geniuses which have ever existed, were yet very far from possessing pure ideas; and that which is best in Plato are the traditions which he has copied. Besides, physical wants absorbing the attention, left little time for philosophic reflection. And it is proved that without education man remains shut up in the material world; that to education alone it belongs to raise him to moral ideas. This education transmitted from father to son, from whom did the first father receive it? There is the proof of a primitive revelation. Then this question of right, What is the religious future of humanity? de­velops, clears up, and gives place to this question of fact, What was the primitive religion?

Nunc animis opus, AEnea, nunc pectore firmo. Here we must arm ourselves with courage and resolution for immense researches; for here we are about to make the tour of the world. It is a question of describing all the religions of the peoples of antiquity, and of the savage peoples (who are also from our point of view, ancient primitive); it is a question of bringing together in one vast tableau all the beliefs and their phases. I call this first labour Hierography.

We have acquired the knowledge of facts, we must determine their relations, we must understand the genealogy, the parentage of the diverse religions. Now, the parent beliefs are divided into sects, into multiplied branches. This work I name Symbolic.

Now, it remains to discover the causes of this innu­merable variety. We must explain each myth to dis­cover its spirit and meaning: to discover under the veil of allegory the fact, or the mystery, which is hidden there; and, putting on one side all the secondary, vari­able elements, those which relate to times, places, circum­stances, to gather up, as the gold from the bottom of the crucible, the primitive, universal element—Christianity; this is Hermeneutic.

And these three sciences—the one of facts, the second of relations, the third of causes—are brought together in a single one, which I name Mythology.

Elaborated thus, in an order analytic and rational, this science brought to its term may be presented under the form of synthesis or history.

Then would be offered to our attention, upon the first plan, the creation of man and the primitive revela­tion; after that, sin and the corruption of belief; lastly, the developments and the subdivisions of each of these adulterated sources and the permanence of the tradition of the Mosaic law till the day of Christ.

And there, if death or old age have not yet arrested us, there, rises up the grand figure of Christianity in all its splendour: the Christ, the philosophy of His doctrine presented as the definitive law of humanity; afterwards, its glorious application during eighteen centuries; and in the end, the determination of the future.

Magnificent trilogy, in which should be retraced the origin of Christianity, its doctrine, its establish­ment; or, if thou choosest, the laborious birth of humanity, the exposition of the law which should govern it, and its first steps in this divine law. Thou understandest that this labour necessitates a knowledge sufficiently profound of the geography, of the natural history of each country, of astronomy, of psychology, of philology, of ethnography.

For an acquaintance with the revolutions of lan­guages and of peoples will serve for foundation and for counterproof to the history of religious revolutions; and besides, as the phenomena of the physical and the social world, as well as the passions of the heart, come by turns to reflect themselves in the beliefs, we must needs know how to disentangle them, and we must needs know them.

Nevertheless, do not be discouraged; there is already behind us much labour accomplished. The Mithri dates of Adelung, the Symbolique of Creuzer, the labours of Champollion, of Abel Remusat, of Eckstein, of Schlegel and of Goerres, offer us rich mines to dig from; besides, we are two, and we may even join to ourselves other labourers. With regard to that, I have a project which I will communicate to thee by living voice. In a word, to conquer without peril is to triumph without glory, and the more difficult the work is, the greater it will be to accomplish it.

Thy ideas about glory are natural enough to a young man: we must not make an end of it, but accept it as a favour. Amorous of his own existence, man desires incessantly to see it prolonged; he lives again in his children, he lives again in his works. He seems to him­self to live again in the heart of all those who bless his. name. True glory is the gratitude of posterity. As the good man does not scatter his benefits to obtain grati­tude, and nevertheless accepts these tributes with a sweet satisfaction, so the true philosopher, the Christian, does not act for glory, and nevertheless cannot hinder himself from being sensible of it. But, as often ingrati­tude and forgetfulness follow the greatest benefits, the righteous man carries his hopes higher; his reward and glory he awaits from an incorruptible Judge; he appeals from ungrateful man to a God who will recom­pense.

I have received from M. de Lamartine a very flatter­ing letter, and from L’ Avenir a very honourable report of my work. I tell thee this because I know that thou art interested in all which interests me, and because in this little pamphlet I have thrown the germ of the idea which must occupy our life.

I have seen Fortoul and H again. They are both so romantic that I no longer comprehend them, so romantic that they even become classic to excess. Thou laughest! Thou art wrong. I reply to thee that they are so bewitched by Victor Hugo, that they only swear by him, and maintain that the entire age ought to walk after him. Now, to walk in the leading-strings of a man, I maintain is to be classic par excellence. They know no longer neither Lamartine nor Chateaubriand; they din into your ears without ceasing, Notre Dame de Paris, Flick et Flock, Atar-Gull, Marion Delorme, etc.; and if you have not read what they have read, Malediction! is the compliment which they address to you. They are so tolerant, these gentlemen! It is almost like Nemesis, a Liberal journal, which said lately—

“And let Liberty, goddess with the agile wing,
Arms in her hand, her gospel bring.”

Then these folks go about declaiming against the In­quisition and against the armed conversions of Charle­magne Ri sum teneati s, anzici

Here is a very long letter! What would you? One does not weary of conversing with a good friend.

The letter of Lamartine referred to follows. The reference is to a small work which Frederic had actually published now—a kind of beginning of the defence of Christianity to which he had vowed his life, “Reflections on the Doctrines of Saint-Simon.” It was about a hundred pages, and was published in April. It was written on account of the coming of this singular sect to Lyons about this time:


Macon, August 18th, 1831.

I have just received with gratitude, and read with astonishment for your age, and admiration for your sen­timents and your talent, the work which you have done me the honour to address to me. Receive all my thanks. I am proud that a thought from me, hardly expressed, has inspired you with so good a commentary. Believe that the thought was in you; mine has only been the spark which has lighted your soul.

This beginning promises us one combatant more in the sacred conflict of religious and moral philosophy which this age wages against a materialist reaction. As you, I augur well of the success. We possess it not; but the voice of conscience, that infallible prophecy of the heart of the honest man, assures us of it for our children. Let us trust to this instinct and live in the future.

Receive, sir, the assurances of my highest considera­tion.


Meanwhile, the young clerk had superadded to his clerkship various studies, Sanscrit and Hebrew among them, that he might be able to comprehend the better the primitive religions. He “read enormously,” and wrote both poetry and prose for a Lyons publication called The Bee. He conversed at large with his elder brother during long and interesting excursions which they made together in the holidays, and he consulted other friends concerning his plans. His brother says that he sometimes engaged him to narrow his plan, which seemed too vast ” not to pass the strength and duration of one man’s life.” The priest-brother, too, seems to have been somewhat afraid lest, in his ardour, Frederic should unintentionally be making some attack on some sacred dogma by the width and breadth and generality of his intended inquiries, and he recommended a prudence ” from which,” he adds, however, ” he (Frederic) never departed.”

At the same time, Frederic was not without oppor­tunities for evil. In his daily calling he had met with young men who would willingly have made him their companion, and who related to him their various orgies, while they uttered against religion those sacrilegious railleries which they had gathered from their books. Frederic, however, soon put an effectual stop to these conversations, and let them know that he was neither weak nor wicked, though much younger than they. They had so much restraining power still at work in them, that they neither despised nor hated him for his prowess. On the contrary, they treated him hence­forth with respect. His endless law-copying went on, and possibly in the manner of doing it there might be some room for the remorse that crept into his mind, the more that, not content with the necessary studies for his future book, not content with his contribu­tions to The Bee, the indefatigable student had laid out the plan of an epic poem in Latin verse on the taking of Jerusalem by Titus. This chapter may finish with a little ode which he wrote for his father on New Year’s Day, 1831:

As on the borders of the flowing stream,
The traveller pauses as in lingering dream,
Lays down his staff some stony seat beside,
And with bent brow regards the hastening tide;

So, while our unresisting lives along,
The wave bears swiftly with monotonous song,
To mark the waters as they onward race
I sit me down and dream a little space.

Adieu to you who with a constant flight
Still flee away, my earliest years so bright;
As friends of old who pass for ever on,
Take my regrets ere yet ye all are gone.

With you, too, flee your joys, each festal day,
Each blooming wreath, your own hand takes away:
All you bear off; even hours of grief depart;
All save the yearning memories of the heart.

A son’s fond memories time may not control;
Safe in the very holiest depth of soul,
In vain years pass away; this braves their course,
And holds its own with an unyielding force.

And thou, New Year, with blessing will we greet,
New hopes and joys round thy advancing feet;
Are they not in our road, and will not rays
From brighter sun light up more peaceful days?

Hear thou my word! Oh, give from out thy hand
Peace and goodwill to my own beauteous land;
Draw spirits each to each, and in thine arms
Stifle the demon with his war’s alarms.

To those from whom all came to me—whose Truth
And Love wrapped round my childhood and my youth,
Give them to bring to port a favouring wind,
And in full cup pure honey may they find.

Give to their child—to me—with force I ask,
And light, even to the end to work my task;
And of the seed which their own hands have sown,
Grant me to render them the fruits—their own.

  1. It must be remembered that this word is used by Ozanam to a great extent as a synonym for Christianity.

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