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Bossuet, Jacques-Bénigne (1627–1704)


BOSSUET, JACQUES-BÉNIGNE (16271704), French cleric, preacher, political philosopher, theologian, and writer. Bossuet's father was a magistrate in the parlements of Burgundy and Metz. Born and raised in Dijon, France, Bossuet began his classical studies at the Jesuit College of Godrans in Dijon and completed his education at the College of Navarre in Paris, where St. Vincent de Paul served as his mentor, influencing his education and early career. Once Bossuet completed his doctorate and was ordained in 1652, he became a canon in the diocese of Metz.

Although he remained in Metz, Bossuet traveled to Paris often and came to the attention of the royal family. As a result of his growing reputation as an eloquent preacher, he was invited to give the Lenten sermons for the royal family in 1662. In subsequent years, his fame as an orator spread and he provided moving funeral sermons for many members of the royal family including Henrietta Marie, queen of England (in 1669), her daughter Henrietta Anne of England (1670), Maria Theresa, queen of France and King Louis XIV's wife (1683), and the Princess Palatine, Anne de Gonzague (1685). He also gave the funeral sermons for other prominent figures such as Chancellor Michel Le Tellier (1685) and the Great Condé (1686). These sermons were eventually published under the title Funeral Orations and remain an important literary legacy.

In 1669 Bossuet became the bishop of Condom, but he resigned soon after his consecration in 1670, when Louis XIV named him tutor to his eldest son, the dauphin. As a result of his duties as the primary educator for the heir to the throne, he eventually published a book on world history, Discourse on Universal History (1681), one among many texts he wrote for his student, and was elected to the French Academy. When the marriage of his young charge ended his duties as tutor in 1681, Bossuet became bishop of Meaux. He took an active part as the primary ecclesiastical supervisor for the region, making visits to local parishes and bringing recalcitrant communities, such as the Benedictine Abbey at Jouarre, fully under his authority. He remained in this position until his death.

Bossuet was a great defender of the unity of the Catholic Church and throughout his life worked to this end, both in his dealings with internal Catholic controversies and in his relations with Protestants and Protestant communities. While at his first post in Metz, he sought to convert Protestants using debates, sermons, and writings such as Refutation of the Catechism of Paul Ferry, which came out of his debates with Ferry, a local Protestant minister. He also reportedly played a role in the conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism of the celebrated war hero, the duke of Turenne.

From 1679 until 1694, Bossuet corresponded with the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716). Their epistolary debates were part of his effort to reunify Christendom. Leibniz, a Lutheran and under the patronage of the electors of Hanover, also hoped to see an end to infighting among Christian groups and a reunion of all churches, Protestant and Catholic alike. Their exchanges explored possible terms of a reunion between Protestant and Catholic factions, but arrived at no concrete resolutions because Bossuet rejected all compromises that entailed altering existing Catholic doctrine.

Bossuet was also an important mediator between King Louis XIV and papal authority. He defended papal authority and doctrinal unity, but, at the same time, played a major part in the emergence of Gallicanism, policies that allowed the French king more control over some aspects of church institutions in France and increased independence from Rome, especially in regard to secular issues. In the early 1680s Bossuet served as an important negotiator for Louis XIV and Pope Innocent XI when the king sought control over vacant dioceses and their revenues. In the Assembly of Clergy that met in 1682 to discuss the issue, Bossuet gave the opening sermon and also helped to draft the treatise of the four articles published by the assembly as their final ruling on the issue. The four articles contributed to Gallicanism by declaring the king's control over vacant sees and rejecting the pope's authority over secular issues.

The last decades of Bossuet's life, the late 1680s and 1690s, were dominated by the controversy over Quietism, a mystical and spiritual movement led by a French noblewoman, Madame Guyon. At the urging of King Louis XIV, a panel of French theologians that included Bossuet examined Madame Guyon's teachings and found them incompatible with orthodox Catholic doctrine and practice; they officially condemned her methods and writings in 1695. Bossuet's very public feud with fellow French cleric and theologian, François Fénelon (16511715), archbishop of Cambrai, followed on the heels of the initial Quietism controversy. Bossuet denounced Fénelon's writings that lauded some aspects of Quietism, such as the notion of "pure love." A papal brief issued in 1699 censured Fénelon's work and finally resolved their bitter public debate, which had been waged in books and pamphlets.

Today, Bossuet is best known for his work, Politics Drawn from the Holy Scripture (1709). In this treatise on political philosophy, he articulated the theory of divine-right kingship associated with King Louis XIV's reign, using passages from the Bible to support the theory of an absolute monarch and arguing that the king's political power came directly from God and was, therefore, sacred and indivisible. Under divine-right theory, Bossuet maintained that it was not only unlawful but also a sin to rebel against the king. At the same time, he urged the king to fulfill his duty to protect and care for his subjects in keeping with his godly charge.

See also Condé Family ; Divine Right Kingship ; Fénelon, François ; Gallicanism ; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm ; Louis XIV (France) ; Louvois, François Le Tellier, marquis de ; Maria Theresa (Holy Roman Empire) ; Quietism ; Vincent de Paul.


Primary Sources

Bossuet, Jacques-Bénigne. Discourse on Universal History. Translated by Elborg Forster. Edited by Orest Ranum. Chicago, 1976.

. Politics Drawn from the Very Words of Holy Scripture. Translated and edited by Patrick Riley. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1990.

. Selections from the Funeral Orations of Bossuet. Edited by F. M. Warren. Boston, 1907.

Secondary Sources

Meyer, Jean. Bossuet. Paris, 1993.

Reynolds, Ernest Edwin. Bossuet. Garden City, N.Y., 1963.

Sara Chapman

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Jacques Bénigne Bossuet

Jacques Bénigne Bossuet

The French prelate and writer Jacques Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704) is best known for his sermons and orations. His ecclesiastical career traversed the principal milieus and encompassed the major religious questions of his time.

Jacques Bossuet was born in Dijon on Sept. 27, 1627. He was raised by his uncle Claude, the mayor of Dijon. Bossuet was tonsured at the age of 10, a logical step for a seventh son in eventual need of a career. He distinguished himself at the Collège des Godrans in Dijon and later at the Collège de Navarre in Paris, where he received a doctorate of theology in 1652. Ordained that same year, he was a leading figure in Parisian theological circles and also frequented the fashionable salon of Madame de Rambouillet.

Bossuet might have pursued a worldly career had he not come under the influence of Vincent de Paul, whose apostolic ideal included charity to the poor, missionary zeal, and counterreformatory activity. Partially motivated by him, in 1653 Bossuet took up residence in Metz, a frontier city with a diverse religious population. Until 1659 he was immersed there in religious studies, Catholic-Protestant relations, the Jewish apostolate, and civil and ecclesiastical affairs. His Réfutation du catéchisme de Paul Ferry (1655; Refutation of the Catechism of Paul Ferry) exhibits the firm but nonpolemical spirit which he brought to Catholic-Protestant relations.

After his return to Paris in 1659, Bossuet devoted himself to preaching in convents and churches as well as at court. In 1662 and 1666 he preached before the King during Advent, but it was not until the Advent sermons of 1669 that this worldly milieu was completely receptive to him. Between 1655 and 1687 he pronounced his famous funeral orations; among these were the orations for Anne of Austria (1667), Henrietta of France (1669), Henrietta of England (1670), Maria Theresa (1683), and the Prince of Condé (1687).

In 1669 Louis XIV named Bossuet bishop of Condom and in 1670 tutor of the Dauphin. Bossuet strove to provide a practical education for his charge, composing such works as the Discours sur l'histoire universelle (Discourse on Universal History) and the Traité de la connaissance de Dieu et de soi-même (Treatise on the Knowledge of God and of Oneself) for the Dauphin's use. During this period he continued to address himself to the Protestant question, publishing L'Exposition de la doctrine catholique (1671; Exposition of Catholic Doctrine), and exercised a moderating moral influence at court. He was elected to the Académie Française in 1671.

Named bishop of Meaux in 1681, after the completion of his pedagogical task, Bossuet devoted himself to his pastoral duties with Vincentian zeal. He played a leading role in the Assembly of the Clergy (1681), which decreed the subordination of the national churches to the pope. The Histoire des variations des églises protestantes (1688; History of Variations of Protestant Churches) was Bossuet's last counterreformatory work. His Instruction sur les états d'oraison (Instruction in States of Prayer) and Relation sur le quiétisme (1698; Report on Quietism) were instrumental in the condemnation of the doctrine of quietism.

Chronic kidney stones gradually forced Bossuet to give up his pastoral duties, and he died at Meaux on April 12, 1704.

Further Reading

Translated selections from Bossuet's works are available in Bossuet: A Prose Anthology, edited by J. Standring (1962), and in Bossuet's Selections from Meditations on the Gospel, translated by Lucille Corinne Franchère (1962). A biography of Bossuet in English is Ernest Edwin Reynolds, Bossuet (1963). Background studies include Albert Léon Guérard, France in the Classical Age: The Life and Death of an Ideal (1965), and G. R. R. Treasure, Seventeenth Century France (1966), which discusses Bossuet at length.

Additional Sources

Lanson, Gustave, Bossuet, New York: Arno Press, 1979.

Meyer, Jean, Bossuet, Paris: Plon, 1993. □

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Bossuet, Jacques Bénigne

Jacques Bénigne Bossuet (zhäk bānē´nyə bôsüā´), 1627–1704, French prelate, one of the greatest orators in French history. At an early age he was made a canon at Metz; he became bishop of Condom and was (1670–81) tutor to the dauphin (father of Louis XV), for whom he wrote his great Discourse on Universal History (1681, tr. 1778, 1821), Politics Derived from Holy Writ (1709), and Treatise of the Knowledge of God and One's Self (1722). In 1681 he became bishop of Meaux. Unrivaled for his eloquence, he is celebrated for his Funeral Orations (1689), particularly those on Henrietta of England, on her daughter, and on Condé, which are masterpieces of their kind. He was also a great moralist, a magnificent stylist, and a powerful controversialist, brilliantly attacking Fénelon and the quietists, the Jesuits, and the Protestants.

See biography by E. E. Reynolds (1963); studies by A. Rabelliau (5th ed. 1900) and M. C. Gotaas (1953, repr. 1970).

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