Chapter II: Literary attempts
A lawyer’s cleric – Profession of his belief – The Bee — Saint Simonism in Lyons – Reflexions sur la doctrine de Saint Simon — Programme of the Demonstration du Christianisme.
Dr. Ozanam had settled views about the future of his son. In his family diary in 1829, the following lines are to be found: “I desire to make Frederic a Barrister, or preferably, a member of the Magistracy or a Judge in the Royal Court of Justice. He has refined, pure and noble sentiments: he will make an upright and enlightened judge. I venture to hope that he will be our consolation in our old age. After college, where he is at this moment finishing his philosophy, he will study the practice of the law with a lawyer; thence he will go to read law at Paris or Dijon.”
This preconceived notion of a legal profession for his son, instead of a literary life which attracted Ozanam, was to be the source of eight years’ suffering, which weighed heavily on the young man.
The filial son gave way to the desire of his father. The next year, 183o, the young bachelor is to be found as an apprentice in the chambers of one of the principal attorneys of Lyons, a M. Coulet, transcribing briefs, noting or engrossing deeds. But neither his heart nor his mind was in his work. Since finishing his philosophy, his thoughts were engrossed by a sublime ideal.
The Doctor well understood that it was necessary to find some occupation to fill up the tireless intellectual energy of his son. He engaged for him at the same time a German teacher, with whom the young man made rapid strides in that language. It was a valuable instrument which a far-seeing Providence placed in the hands of the future Professor of Foreign Literature as well as Historian of the Civilisation of the Germans and the Franks. Lessons in drawing were added. That was his mother’s wish who, herself, handled the brush with refinement. It would also be a pleasant interlude in the thankless task of petty clerking. As a matter of fact, it was the first infusion of that esthetic culture, which was to show itself later in discriminating critiques on art and on the Christian artists of the Middle Ages.
The environment was good for neither study nor art. The 17-yearold Christian was to have the unpleasant task of making his faith and its practice respected by others.
The chambers of M. Coulet had on its staff some young blackguards, who indulged in indecent literature and who frequented immoral haunts. These did not hesitate to brag of their carouses before the new corner. Ozanam blushed at first; then, losing patience and filled with indignation, he boldly broke in upon their conversation, scorned their ill-timed jests, exposed their ignorance, made them ashamed of their subjects of conversation and silenced them; he, the youngest of the lot! “Frederic,” his brother recalls, “related to us with animation the details of that first skirmish and victory. It won for him the respect and esteem of the sorry youths who, but the previous day, thought him a noodle and a child.”
He had a similar experience at his drawing course. M. Leonce Curnier, the author of an excellent work on Ozanam’s Youth, gives the following account, which I abridge: “It was at the end of 1830. We were at drawing class, sitting beside one another, surrounded by dissolute young men. It pained us to have to listen to them; but, overwhelmed by numbers, we maintained silence looking from one to another. One day, however, matters came to such a pass that we both cried out in protest. Ozanam stood up. I seem now to see that countenance and hear that voice, of which I had hitherto only known the modesty and gentleness. He grew animated, became indignant, commanded and imposed silence. In a firm but restrained tone he proclaimed his Catholic Faith, without, at the same time, uttering one word that could hurt the feelings of those misguided young men. These were silenced.” . . . . “In re-seating himself,” adds the witness of this scene, “the future Professor of the Sorbonne grasped the hand of the simple industrial apprentice. That hand, my young and noble friend never withdrew.”
Their friendship lasted for life. In his recollections of Ozanam’s Youth, dedicated to his sons, Leonce Curnier wrote: “My daily contact with Frederic Ozanam constituted the whole charm of my stay in Lyons. We often had delightful walks together on the charming banks of the Saline, the beauty of which threw him into poetical ecstasy. A picturesque site, a landscape with an infinite horizon, a river with a graceful sinuous course would ever entrance him. The fields and the woods, the verdure and the flowers held for him ineffable delight, which evoked expressions of thanks and homage to the Creator. More than once, during our trips in the suburbs of Lyons, I have heard such expressions burst forth from the deeply religious heart of my friend. On each occasion, as if hanging on his lips, I felt drawn upward by him on those mystic flights, and my soul endeavoured to soar with his.”
The same friend continues: “With us both the isle of Barbe, that enchanting oasis of verdure, so dear to the inhabitants of Lyons, was a favourite spot. Ozanam would point out to me with veneration the remains of an old Abbey of the 7th century, or he would make me climb with him the steep rocks, from the summit of which, it is said, Charlemagne beheld his army file past, in that heroic age of Faith which was to live again in the writings of my young companion.”
“Notre Dame de Fourviere held for him a charm other than the splendid panorama which’ unfolded itself from the mountain. It was for him a place of prayer. He had a great devotion to the Mother of God, whose modest shrine bore on its walls many evidences of miracles obtained through her intercession. Ozanam, who knew the history of this holy place intimately, called up before my eyes the notable visitors of former times: Thomas a Beckett, Innocent IV., Louis XI, Anne of Austria, Louis XIII, and, in our days, Pius VII, on his return from the coronation of Napoleon.”
“The whole soul, mind and heart, benefitted by such conversations,” continues the friend from Nimes. “When God in His infinite mercy, gave me Ozanam for a friend, I was young, left to myself, far from home, in a great city where many dangers surrounded me. At the first breath of that general scepticism which was characteristic of the time, I felt the faith which I had had at the knees of my mother totter, and the only force which I could oppose to the seduction of the passions weaken. Ozanam crossed my path to arrest me at the edge of the precipice. I afterwards walked with a firm and steady step in the path traced out for me by his example. . . . It was the destiny of Frederic Ozanam to preserve, or to win back from the demon of unbelief many young men of his own time. I am perhaps the first who was thus saved from ruin.”
When his professional course was finished, M. Lionce Curnier returned to Nimes, his native city, of which he became one of the most distinguished citizens. He lived in the charm of those memories, and under the benign influence of that example, as we shall see from their later correspondence.
We have already shared Frederic’s confidence with one of his college friends, M. Materne, afterwards Professor in the University, and renowned for his scholarly work on Grecian Literature. Now, in June 1830, Ozanam entertains his friend with admiration for the religion which he has regained, and with the great happiness which he experiences in belief. But in this the young Christian has some fault to find with himself, in that he is not as Christian as he ought to be and as he would wish to be. “I bring more conviction than fervour to the practice of my religion, and this causes me much suffering. I wish to be a worthy son of the Church. I do indeed perform most regularly my religious exercises, but Confession is for me a sore trial. This springs from my pride, from the embarrassment which I experience; . . and, above all, from the laziness which prevents me from correcting myself.”
It was on the 8th June, 1830 that he wrote this. The Revolution broke out a few days later. The correspondence was resumed on this new topic. Ozanam was indignant at the impious acts committed during those violent days. “A dissolute Press, trampling on the Cross, Government acts of retaliation widening the breach between the new regime and the Catholic Church.” Yet, it is through the Church alone that he expected a lasting peace for Society to return! About politics he is silent, until the tree of liberty be known by its fruits. This very young man knows how to bide his time: “While the young acclaim the glorious Revolution, I endeavour to make myself old; I watch and wait, and at the end of io years I shall say what I think Meantime, my dear friend, let us join in being good Christians. I am delighted to think that in this tempestuous crossing, we shall be a source of strength to one another, to this end, that we shall neither fail nor fall. Such a friendship must draw down the blessing of God. The day will come when, near the end of our careers, we shall exchange mutual congratulations on having entered on it hand in hand.”
There was much talk of war in those days of European unrest. “I am told,” wrote Ozanam on the 14th August, “that one of these fine mornings I may find myself, like my father, on another bridge of Arcole or Lodi, or on the road to Vienna, or even to London, with my knapsack on my back and my sword in my hand! Well be it so! Come what will, I shall none the less pursue my studies. Is it not good for a soldier to be able to speak German and Italian? Above all, ought not a military man be armed with faith grounded on the rock, by a thorough religious instruction?”
Ozanam could have cited the example of another soldier, of whom he wrote five months before his death,: “When he left the Hussar& my father had read the voluminous Bible of Don Calmet from end to end, and he knew Latin as even we Professors no longer do.”
Even while studying hard, Frederic learned to write for the public. Peres Noirot and Legeay, his masters, had founded in Lyons a little Review, The Bee, open to past students of the College. Ozanam contributed some brilliant articles. In addition to actual events and to trivialities in prose and verse, he treated of philosophy and history. He shared these subjects with another past student of the same school, Hippolyte Fortoul of Digne, a future Professor of the Faculty in Toulouse and a future Minister of Education and of Public Worship at the commencement of the Second Empire.
At this moment “Saint Simonism” invaded Lyons. Triumphant in Paris, accredited by the genius of some of its masters as well as of its students, backed by a leading paper like The Globe, popularised in Lyons by the Precurseur and the Organisateur, presented to the mob as the sublime revelation of future religion, the doctrine of Saint Simonism expected and awaited its final enthronement by the July Revolution. In Lyons, however, the person and the preachings of the Parisian emissaries, the strangeness of their bizarre costume, the extravagance of their promises of reform, had awakened in the people curiosity rather than sympathy. On the other hand, the prestige of their liberal theories of equality, the attraction of their promises of moral emancipation, the dawn of a golden age, which was to witness the return to the primitive Laws of Humanity, were not without exercising a most seductive influence, especially upon the mind of the educated youth. In addition to which, were there not even,—startling to relate,—truly religious minds for whom Saint Simonism represented a new and a better Christianity? Which title it indeed assumed.
It is truly astonishing to learn that a young man, then 17 or 18 years old, should have the hardihood to spring forward to attack this infatuation and seduction. His zeal for truth, his indignation at falsehood and evil, the sight of the danger to his brothers, the honour of God and of His Church, impelled him to write. His first effort consisted of two articles in the Precurseur refuting the doctrine.
The young writer offered as an excuse for his temerity, the sincerity of his convictions. He claimed the indulgence of his elders, whose place was, however, more properly, in the forefront of the attack:
“Deeply imbued with the great truths of Christianity, which contain for me consolation and hope, I find myself forced to express what my soul feels. I know that my voice is feeble and that my spirit is weak. It is not from a young man of 18 years of age that a masterpiece is to be expected. If, then, I have failed in parts, if I have made slips, let them be imputed, not to the cause I plead, but to my youth and to my inexperience. If, on the other hand, I seem to have in any way worthily upheld the cause in this first skirmish, deduce from that what the elders could accomplish for that same principle, on behalf of which their children fear not to enter the lists.”
The Precurseur, which inserted the articles, promised to answer them, and did nothing. The Globe, which had joined in the discussion, was likewise silent. But the articles had attracted much attention in Paris as well as in Lyons. Ozanam’s friends pressed him to publish them, developed and completed, in pamphlet form. That meant a second and much enlarged work, the fruit of more study, so that the subject matter travelled beyond the title. It was a complete examination, which ran to several chapters, of the doctrine of Saint Simonism in its two aspects, historical and critical, organic and dogmatic. I quote the conclusion, which is clear and decisive, from a singularly virile mind:-
“The doctrine of Saint Simonism was represented to us as founded upon the principle of human perfection, as resting upon an actual historical system established in harmony with the needs of humanity. It was announced as true in dogma, remote and holy in its origin, fruitful and beneficent in its effects. But history proved it false, conscience condemns it, common sense rejects it. Its primitive revelation is a fable, its novelty an illusion, its application immoral. Self-contradictory, it would be disastrous as well as impossible in its final development, it would impede human nature on its journey to perfection and civilisation.”
This appeared as a work of ioo pages in the spring of 1831, under the title of Reflections on the Doctrine of St. Simon. It was at once acclaimed, at least as a promise of still better work. “I have received,” he wrote, “a very flattering letter from M. de Lamartine, and a very favourable review from the Avenir” (Lamennais’ paper).
Lamartine wrote as follows: “Macon, August 1831.—I have just received and read with pleasure your work, which you have done me the honour to send me. When I consider your age, I am astonished and filled with admiration for your genius. Please accept my best thanks. I am proud to think, that a thought of mine, merely expressed, should have inspired you to write such a beautiful critique. Believe rather that the thought was not mine but yours; mine has been but the spark which fired your soul.”
“Your first effort guarantees one more combatant in the crusade of moral and religious philosophy against gross and material reaction. I, too, look forward to victory. We shall, perhaps, not see it, but the voice of conscience, that infallible prophet in the heart of a just man, promises it definitely for our children. Let us believe in that promise and let us live in the future.”
M. de Chateaubriand takes a higher ground with the doctrines of Saint Simon, which he disdains, and with Saint Simon himself, whom he despises. He writes on the 2nd August from Geneva to a friend: “I have glanced over the little work of M. Ozanam. I had already read something of it in the Precurseur. The work is excellently conceived and the closing passage is arresting. I am only sorry that the author should have squandered his time and his talent in refuting what was not worthy of his attention. We all know Saint Simon. He is, to say the least, a madman. Surely an extraordinary Christ! Please convey my best thanks to M. Ozanam.”
It must not be assumed that that first work of his 18th year was altogether free from the youthful exuberance for which he claimed indulgence. The tree may burst forth early into leaf and flower; but – the fruit needs time for maturity. Some of the phraseology is unduly rhetorical. Yet the man of letters and the scholar peeps out here and there. Jean Jacques Ampère notices that: “I find in that work the germ of qualities which developed late in Ozanam: a keen, though still immature, taste for knowledge, drawn from widely different sources: enthusiasm, loftiness of thought, great moderation in dealing with persons; above all, settled convictions, and a sincere and courageous sense of duty, which drove this young David alone to combat, armed with a sling and five polished stones taken from the bed of the stream.”
It is to young men, those young men to whom his works were to be devoted to the end, that Ozanam dedicated these first fruits of his pen. “Let them not refuse to hear the voice of a comrade, of a brother: Young men, the moral regeneration of our ancient land of France will be your own special work. You have felt the emptiness of material pleasures, you have felt the hunger for truth crying out within you; you have gone for light and comfort to the barren philosophy of modern apostles. You have not found food for your souls there. The religion of your forefathers appears before you to-day with full hands; do not turn away, for it is generous. It also, like you, is young. It does not grow old with the world. Ever renewing itself, it keeps pace with progress, and it alone can lead to perfection.”
But are the first feelings of vain-glory noticeable in the splendid reception which awaited the young author? It is but the beginning of temptation: he is conscious of it, and he rejects it. On the 19th April, 1831, he confesses to his friend, Materne, who had overwhelmed him with praise, that he is persecuted by a violent desire for publicity which tends to destroy his best efforts. “Yet, though I know that this glory is empty, it does not prevent me from seeking it . . . My dear friend, speaking in terms of philosophy and religion, the only rule by which to regulate our acts is the law of love: love of God and of our neighbour . . . . Oh! my dear friend, let this command of love be our law. Trampling under foot all vain glory, our hearts will be consumed with love for God, for men, and for true happiness. Then we shall be excellent Catholics, excellent Frenchmen; we shall be happy.”
The son of M. Ampère, who saw in that essay the germ of Ozanam’s talent, saw in it also the preface to his complete work of apologetics, and wrote later: “Ozanam opposed to this anti-Christian doctrine of modernity, the Gospel and antiquity, seeking with a hand, still youthful, but already firm, to follow link by link the chain of human tradition. It was the preface to the book at which he was to labour even to his last day.” Ozanam, himself, had some similar feeling when writing to his dear relative, Ernest Falconnet: “The reason why I like this little work is, that in it I have planted the seed of what is to occupy my life.”
We have here, then, a first effort of what was to be his life work: a work not only literary but holy and religious; a work of faith and of science, a work of apostleship, carried out with the single aim of winning souls from the sceptic spirit of the time. That work was to be as he conceived it La Demonstration de la Religion Catholique par l’antiquite’ et l’universalite des croissances et des traditions du genre humain. That perspective exalts him, and he who, but yesterday had “grasped the columns of the temple even were it to crush him in its fall,” is now able to write to the same friend as follows:—” To-day I find the same columns grounded on science, crowned with wisdom, and glory, and beauty. I find them again and embrace them with enthusiasm and love. I dwell near them. I shall point them out as a beacon of deliverance for those who are drifting on the sea of life.”
Some of his fellow pupils in Lyons had preceded Ozanam to the schools of Paris. One named Hippolyte Fortoul, has been already mentioned. He was two years Frederic’s senior. Happening to come to live in the great city immediately after the July Revolution, finding himself surrounded by a circle of young men, restless, turbulent, thirsting for novelty, drunken with liberty, blinded by illusion, at the mercy of every current of thought, and of every wave of political passion, Fortoul laid before Ozanam the formidable question of the present duty, and of the future of Society.
The reply was a long letter of ten pages, on the 15th January 1831, surely the most astonishing letter that has ever been written by an 18-year-old student. What one first remarks is the detachment of mind and heart from the tumult of current politics, and then the calm and serene contemplation, which was preparing him silently and seriously for a higher life. This life was to be devoted to the service of eternal truth, to a great work at once moral, social, and religious, in which he hoped for the co-operation of his friends.
“My dear comrades, at the moment of greatest moral and material unrest, my decision is taken, my life’s plan is mapped out, and as a friend, I ought to acquaint you with it. In the first place, tired of politics, wearied with systems of all kinds, watching the charade being played all round me and patiently waiting until the key-word be uttered, I have resolved to confine myself to my own sphere, to work out my own development, apart and detached from society, to study seriously in order that I may take my part in it later with more advantage to it and to myself. Such is the plan which I have formed, and which the Abbé Noirot has encouraged me to pursue. He assures me that I shall easily find many studious young men ready and willing to cooperate. At once I thought of you, my good friends… Let us then be stirring, and while the storm is overthrowing many of those in high places, let us develop in obscurity and in silence, to be full men when the period of transition shall have passed and we shall be needed.”
His scheme was to rebuild society on a religious basis, which would in turn be supported on a larger historical foundation. This religious reconstruction would necessitate seeking and finding the earliest conceptions of religious truth in the primitive traditions and sacred writings of every people. The preliminary work would consist in the study of Oriental languages, Hebrew, Sanscrit, Egyptian, “a round dozen languages,” as he said, so as to be able to consult at first hand original documents. In addition it was to comprise a knowledge of geology and astronomy in order to be able to discuss the cosmogony of peoples, and to fathom the histories of races and beliefs.
What would it not be necessary to know? One smiles at finding Ozanam “groping in tombs, exhuming myths, exploring the traditions of every age from the savages of Cook to the Indians of Wishnow and to the Scandanavians of Odin.” That youth surely has no fears!
Ozanam offers some apology for the grandiose character of his vocation: “I am amazed at my own daring; but what can one do? When an idea has taken possession of one for the last two years and grows and grows until it occupies the whole mind, how can one set limits to it? When a voice cries and cries and ever cries: Do this, I wish it; how can silence be imposed on it?”
Ozanam had then heard, even before the age of i8, voices from Heaven, from God, calling him to his vocation. It was the work of God and of God’s Church, in which the apostle was urging his comrades to co-operate. “Co-ordinating our efforts with those of others we shall create a new organisation. . . Then one may see Catholicism leading the age with every hope of a better future. My dear friends, I feel moved in addressing you, for the work is grand. It is true it is gigantic; but I am young. I have every hope that the time will come, when, having nourished, fortified, and developed my ideal, I shall be able to express it worthily.”
Six days later, on the 2rst January, in a second letter similarly addressed, it is the urgent needs of the time and its solemn nature that move him: “How great is the scene of action to which we are called! How beautiful it is for a young man to enter on his career in such a solemn hour! So far am I from being discouraged by the course of events, that I am glad to have been born at a time when, by dint of some real hard work, it will be given to me perhaps to do some good.”
The last lines are these speaking of his esteemed master: “What a great friend was the Abbé Noirot! He has my profound gratitude for ever! For you, comrade in arms, my friendship is ever-enduring and you shall never be forgotten.” It was a regular enlistment.
His last letter from Lyons, dated 4th September 1831, addressed to his cousin, Ernest Falconnet, breathes the same spirit. The young builder proceeds to lay out the plan of his future edifice which is to be a temple. One side will face the past: “What was the primitive religion of humanity?” Another will face the future: “What will be the religious future of this same humanity? “He continues: “by that time neither death nor old age shall have arrested our progress, the figure of Christianity will emerge in all its splendour.” He then salutes Christ, the Eternal King of all time.
The glory of that work was to be for God alone. Here the wise and saintly youth shows his true Christian humility. His friend Materne, having spoken of other glory, he replied: “No, my dear friend. We must not make glory an end; we are to receive it but as encouragement. True glory consists in recognition by posterity. But the just man places his hopes still higher. He awaits his reward and his glory from the hands of an infallible and incorruptible Judge, the Giver of all good gifts, to Whom he appeals from the ingratitude of men.”
We have just heard the future Sorbonne Professor express his hope for a great work of science and faith, in which, indeed, Ozanam was to be first, a worker, and subsequently, the master. A short time afterwards the future founder of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul was not less explicit as to the work of charity, which was to precede the former and to surpass it.
The two works were to have difficult beginnings No doubt, his encyclopedic scheme of study was somewhat far-fetched. The idea itself, the main idea that dwarfed all others, was to meet discouragement in his own immediate domestic circle. “We were frightened,” relates his brother, “at the dangers of the profound and difficult subject matter of the study which he was commencing. The thesis of progress through Christianity, did this not seem to challenge the immutability of our dogma? We therefore spoke often to him in our evening walks. He answered us with the approbation and the encouragement of the Abbé Noirot, without whose imprimatur he published nothing.” The brother adds these lines, which should be noted: “Frederic never printed any important work concerning religion, without first submitting it to the severe criticism of a learned and conscientious theologian. This docility to the Church was for him a matter of scruple. He would have abandoned his dearest opinions unhesitatingly, and torn to pieces his most eloquent writings, rather than that they should contain any propostion, even dangerous or suspect, not to say erroneous. He marched protected by the shield of orthodoxy. That was his rule during his whole life.”
His domestic circle was on good ground in arguing against the hopeless immensity of his plan of study. “It appeared to us to be too vast for the strength and life of one man. The spirit would exhaust all its energy in endless research, before it could possibly bear fruit.”
That was true. But, gaining wisdom and experience with time, the ardent i8-year-old conscript, the Defender of Christianity, would learn to circumscribe, where necessary, the illimitable field of studies which his flaming eyes swept with a glance. Instead of the ancient Orient and the cradle of the human race, it is the barbarism of Northern Europe, won over and subdued by the Gospel, that would yield to him the secret of the origin of Christian civilisation. “But if,” as wrote J. J. Ampère, “the student was forced to limit the extent of his study, the master idea ever remained the same, to demonstrate and glorify religion from history. Thus, at i8 years of age, the student of yesterday was already marching on the road to the great goal towards which the renowned Professor was, 20 years later, to take the last steps. Thus he was able to write, at the head of his first lecture in the Sorbonne: “Life is advancing, we must take advantage of the little youth that remains. It is full time to commence writing and to keep my i8-year-old promises to God.”
Such were the lofty ideals that preoccupied Frederic Ozanam as he followed the enforced avocation of a junior clerk in the chambers of M. Coulet, and during those eternal interviews with the chief clerk, from which he derived neither profit nor pleasure. Between times, his brother’s biography depicts a young man of modest appearance coming and going from his father’s house in the Rue Pisay, which was then standing, walking abstractedly and apparently absorbed by one thought, which made him insensible to all around him. At times he rapidly turned over the pages of a volume which he devoured, hastening his step, brushing against people and things in his path; then, with touching confusion, humbly apologising and excusing himself on the ground for his weak sight. His sight was, as a matter of fact, very short. For him, time was not silver, it was golden.
Such was the virile religious, intellectual and moral preparation of his early youth, which heralded the worker, fit for his great work, as it raised him well above the level of the youth of the world; above their frivolity and voluptuousness; above the ephemeral dust and the filthy mire. His conscience had been formed in purity and his heart in piety and charity. He was thus prepared for those first combats and those first conquests into which we shall follow him.