New in the Library: “History Of Civilization In The Fifth Century” (Frédéric Ozanam)

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoFrédéric OzanamLeave a Comment

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Author: Frédéric Ozanam · Year of first publication: 1896.
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Two volumes published in 1896.

From the preface:

The following version in English, of an historical work which is well known and valued in France, is offered to a public which has welcomed the kindred writings of the Comte de Montalembert. It treats of a period which was the turning point in the history of Western civilization, and although the standpoint of the author may to a certain extent influence the method of treatment, and cause many in this country to take exception to details, yet it is submitted that all will agree to its main argument, the position of the Christian Church as the great the only civilizing force that survived the revolution which left the prostrate Empire face to face with the invading hordes. This fact, which is insisted on by the followers of Comte, will in these days surely not be controverted by any of those whose thought is governed by Christianity.

A few words may be said as to the career of the author, Frederic Ozanam, whose name has not yet become widely known in this country. He was born August 23rd, 1813, at Milan, where his father, who had fallen into poverty, was residing and studying medicine. His mother, whose maiden name had been Marie Nantas, was daughter to a rich Lyonnese merchant, and it was to that city that his parents returned in 1816. The father obtained there a considerable reputation as a doctor, and died from the effects of an accident in 1837. His son pursued his studies at Paris with great success, and was destined for the Bar. He took a prominent place in the thoughtful and religious party among the students, and his published letters show how he became identified with the movement set on foot by Lacordaire and others. He was especially distinguished, however, by the foundation of an association of benevolence, called the Society of St. Vincent of Paul, which from its small beginnings in Paris spread over France, and has at the present time its conferences, composed of laymen, in all the larger towns of Europe. M. Ozanam showed, even during his student life, a leaning towards literary pursuits, and a distaste for the profession of the Bar, to which he was destined ; but he joined the Bar of Lyons, obtained some success as an advocate, and was chosen in 1839 as the first occupant of the professorial chair of Commercial Law which had just been established in that city. The courses of lectures given by him were well attended, the lectures themselves were eloquent and learned, and M. Ozanam seems to have preferred inculcating the science of jurisprudence to practising in the Courts. But in the course of the following year, 1840, he obtained an appointment which was still more suitable to his talent, the Professorship of Foreign Literature at Paris, and which gave him a perfect opportunity for the cultivation of his favourite pursuit, the philosophy of history. Shortly after his appointment, M. Ozanam married, and the remaining years of his life were spent in the duties of his calling; in travelling partly for the sake of health and pleasure, partly to gain information which might be woven into his lectures; and in visits to his many friends, chiefly those who had taken an active part with him in upholding the interests of religion in France. He never entered upon active political life, though he offered himself upon a requisition of his fellow-townsmen as representative of Lyons in the National Assembly of 1848. In politics M. Ozanam was a decided Liberal, in religion a fervent Catholic. His letters show a great dislike of any alliance between the Church and Absolutism, and a conviction that religion and an enlightened democracy might flourish together. He wrote in the ” Correspondant” which embodied the newer ideas, and was frequently animadverted upon by the “Univers,” which represented the more conservative party in Church and State. His more important works were developed from lectures delivered at the Sorbonne : and his scheme was to embrace the history of civilization from the fall of the Eoman Empire to the time of Dante. But failing health, although much was completed, did not allow him entirely to achieve the great object which he had originally conceived when a mere boy ; and the touching words in which he expressed his resignation to an early death, when his already brilliant life promised an increase of success, and his cup of domestic happiness was entirely full, may be found among his published writings. M. Ozanam seems to have continued his literary labours as long as rapidly increasing weakness would permit, but after a stay in Italy, which did not avail to restore his broken health, he reached his native country only to die, September 8th, 1853, in the fortieth year of his age, and the heyday of a bright and useful career.

He was lamented by troops of friends, old and young, rich and poor the latter indeed being under especial obligations to his memory. His friend M. Ampere became his literary executor, and undertook the task of giving his complete works to the public, for which end a subscription was quickly raised amongst those who had known and respected him at Lyons and elsewhere. From the lectures which he had completed and revised, from reports of others, and his own manuscript notes, an edition of his complete works was formed in nine volumes, comprising La Civilization au Cinquieme Siecle, Etudes Germaniques, Les Poetes Franciscains, Dante et la Philosophic Catholique au Treizieme Siecle, and Melanges, to which were added two volumes of his letters.

The work which has now been translated forms the first two volumes of the above series, and was intended by the author as the opening of the grand historical treatise which he had designed. But it is also complete in itself, and seems well worthy of an introduction into England. As it was delivered originally in the shape of lectures, and preserves that form in the French edition, it has been necessary, in order to preserve the continuity of the historical narrative, to alter the construction occasionally, and to pass over a sentence here and there, which refers solely to the audience of students to which the lectures were originally addressed. The last chapter but one being based upon a lecture which the author had never revised, and which stands in the French in the shape of rough notes, has been rendered into connected English, regard being had to the general style of the completed lectures. With these exceptions the original form of the treatise has, as far as was compatible with the exigencies of our idiom, been steadily maintained, and every idea has, in accordance with the accepted canons of translation, been scrupulously preserved. But the translator is fully conscious of the defects of his work, and only trusts that some portion of the beauty and earnest eloquence of the original may show through the veil which has been cast upon it.

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