15. Of The Pulpit
From Characters by Jean De La Bruyère (1688)

1. Christian oratory has become an entertainment. That evangelical gravity which is its essence is no longer to be seen; the lack of it is made good by the preacher's personal appearance, by the inflexions of his voice, by the studied elegance of his gesture, by the choice of diction and by lengthy enumerations. Hearing God's word is no longer a serious business: it has become a sort of pastime like countless others; it is a game, where the orators compete and the listeners Jay wagers.

2. Secular eloquence has shifted, so to speak, from the bar, where it reigned with Le Maitre, Pucelle and Fourcroy, and where it is no longer practised, to the pulpit, where it should not find a place.

Orators vie with one another on the very steps of the altar and in the presence of the holy mysteries. The listener sets himself up as judge of the preacher, to condemn or to applaud, and is no more converted by the sermon of which he approves than by the one which he dislikes. The orator pleases some and displeases others, and agrees with all of them on a single point, namely that just as he does not endeavour to make them better, they have no intention of becoming so.

An apprentice is docile, listens to his master, takes advantage of his lessons and becomes a master himself. An indocile man criticizes both the preacher's sermon and the philosopher's book, and acquires neither Christianity nor reason.

3. Until a man shall come back who, in a style steeped in the Holy Scriptures, shall explain God's word to the people in a simple and familiar fashion, orators and declamatory preachers will have their following.

4. Profane quotations, affected references, false pathos, antitheses, exaggerated metaphors have had their day; portraits will soon have had theirs, and will make way for a simple explanation of the Gospel, together with those outbursts of feeling which inspire conversion.

5. That man whom I longed for so ardently, and dared not hope for in our age, has come at last. The courtiers, thanks to their good taste and their appreciation of what is fitting, applauded him; unbelievably, they deserted the Royal Chapel to join the common people in listening to God's word preached by this apostolic man. The town did not share the Court's opinion: where he preached, the parishioners absented themselves, and even the churchwardens vanished; the parish priests stood firm, but their flocks dispersed, to swell the audience in neighbouring churches. I should have foreseen this, and not said that such a man had only to appear and he'd be followed, only to speak and he'd he listened to: did I not know the insuperable power of habit over men, in every sphere? For the past thirty years they have been listening to rhetoricians, declamatory orators, 'enumerators'; now they flock to hear those who paint portraits on the grand scale or in miniature. Not so long ago these preachers went in for ingenious endings or transitions, sometimes so witty and piquant that they might pass for epigrams: these have been toned down, I must admit, and now are merely madrigals. They invariably provide, according to an indispensable and geometrical rule, three subjects worthy of your attention: they will prove a certain thing in the first part of their speech, another in the second, and yet another in the third. Thus you will first be convinced of a certain truth, and that is their first point; of another truth, and that is their second point; and then of a third truth, and that is their third point; so that from the first reflection you will learn one of the most fundamental principles of your religion; from the second, another no less fundamental principle; and from the final reflection, a third and last principle, the most important of all, which however is postponed for lack of time to another occasion. Finally, to resume and abridge this division and establish a plan.... What, more, you say, and what preparations for a three-quarters-of-an-hour speech which they still have to make! The more they strive to arrange and clarify it, the more they confuse me. — I can well believe you, and this is the natural result of this accumulation of ideas, which all come down to the same, and with which they relentlessly burden their hearers' memories. From the way they persist in this habit, it would seem that the grace of conversion is inherent in this endless subdividing. And yet how is one to be converted by such apostles when one can scarcely distinguish their words, or follow them without losing sight of them? I should like to request them to pause from time to time in the midst of their headlong flight, to take breath and allow their listeners to breathe. Vain speeches, wasted words! The time for homilies is no more; St Basil and St Chrysostom themselves could not bring it back; people would move to other dioceses to be out of reach of their voices and their informal teaching. The majority of men like phrases and periods, admire what they do not understand, and assume that they have been instructed, when they merely have to decide between a first and a second point or between the last sermon and the last but one.

6. Less than a century ago, a French book consisted of a certain number of Latin pages among which could be discovered a few lines or a few words in our own tongue. The quotation of extracts, striking thoughts and phrases was carried even further: Ovid and Catullus were brought in to settle marriage contracts and wills, and came, along with the Pandects, to the rescue of widows and wards. The sacred and the profane were inseparable; they crept into the very pulpit together: St Cyrillus, Horace, St Cyprian and Lucretius spoke alternately; the poets confirmed the opinions of St Augustine and all the Fathers; Latin was spoken, for many years, in the presence of women and vestrymen; even at one time, Greek. A preacher needed a prodigious amount of learning to preach a very bad sermon. Other times, other customs: the text is still Latin, but the whole sermon is in French, and in excellent French; the Gospel is not even quoted. Today a preacher need know very little to preach a fine sermon.

7. Scholasticism has at last been banished from city pulpits, and relegated to small towns and villages, for the instruction and salvation of the ploughman and the vineyard-worker.

8. It takes talent to please the people in a sermon by a flowery style, a cheerful ethic, brilliant sallies and lively descriptions; but such a talent is inadequate. A better sort of talent neglects these extraneous ornaments, unworthy to be used in the service of the Gospel: such a preacher's sermon will be simple, strong and Christian.

9. The orator depicts certain forms of dissipation so attractively, includes such subtle details, ascribes so much wit, elegance and refinement to the sinner that even if I feel no desire to resemble his portraits I need, at any rate, to be shown by some apostle, speaking in a more Christian style, the shocking side of those vices of which I had been given so seductive a picture.

10. A fine sermon is a piece of oratory that follows all the rules, has been purged of all faults, conforms with the precepts of secular eloquence and is adorned with all the figures of rhetoric. Those who are subtle connoisseurs lose not the most trifling sally, not a single thought; they have no difficulty in following the orator through his long- drawn-out enumerations, or his high-flown transports: these are riddles only for the common people.

11. What a weighty and admirable sermon we have just heard! It put before us the most essential points of religious doctrine and the most urgent motives for conversion: what a powerful effect it must have had on the minds and souls of all those who heard it! They have surrendered: they have been impressed and stirred to such a pitch that they inwardly decide that this sermon of Theodore's is even finer than the one he preached last.

12. An easy-going and indulgent ethic is ineffective, and so is its preacher; it contains nothing to stimulate the curiosity of the man of the world, who dreads an austere doctrine less than one might suppose, and even enjoys hearing it from one whose duty it is to preach it. Thus the Church would seem to be divided between those whose part it is to speak the truth to its fullest extent, unreservedly and without disguise, and those who listen to it eagerly, with appreciation, admiration and praise, and yet behave neither worse nor better for it.

13. The heroic virtues of our great men may be held responsible for corrupting the eloquence, or at least for weakening the manner, of most preachers. Instead of simply uniting with their congregation to bless Heaven for its precious gifts, they have joined the company of authors and poets; their panegyrics have outdone those of dedicatory epistles, eulogistic stanzas and prologues; instead of God's holy word they offer a tissue of praises, which may indeed be deserved but are out of place, betray self-interest, and are neither expected of them nor befitting their character. We must be thankful if, while singing the praises of some hero in the very sanctuary, they speak a single word about God and the mysteries of religion, which they should be expounding. Some, indeed, who had made the preaching of the Gospel, which should be common to all, dependent on the presence of a single listener, were wholly disconcerted when some accident detained him elsewhere, and proved unable to pronounce before a group of Christians a Christian discourse that had not been composed for them; they had to be replaced by other orators, who barely had time to praise God in a hurried sermon.

14. Theodulus has had less success than certain of his listeners feared; so they are satisfied with him and with his speech; by failing to delight their minds and ears, he has allayed their jealousy.

15. The orator's profession is like the warrior's in one respect; there is more risk in it than elsewhere, but a more rapid rise to fortune.

16. If you are of a certain social standing, and feel yourself lacking in any talent other than that of making dull speeches, become a preacher, make your dull speeches: there is nothing worse for one's social Success than to be entirely unknown. Theodatus has been rewarded for his bad phrase-making and his tedious monotony.

17. Great bishoprics were once acquired by preachers whose eloquence would not win them, today, more than a mere prebend.

18. The name of a certain panegyrist seems to groan under the weight of the titles attached to it; the long list of these fills huge posters which are distributed in private houses or displayed in the streets, and whose monstrous lettering is as impossible to ignore as the market-place. When you put to the test the subject of such fine publicity, and give him a brief hearing, you realize that the enumeration of his qualities had left out that of being a bad preacher.

19. The idleness of women, and the habit men have of running after them wherever they forgather, brings renown to certain frigid orators, and maintains for a while those who are on the decline.

20. Should it be enough to have been great and powerful in this world to deserve praise, and to be eulogized and extolled at one's funeral in front of the holy altar by those whose office it is to speak the truth? Is there no other greatness than that which comes from authority and birth? Why is it not an established custom to make public panegyric of a man renowned during his lifetime. for kindness, equity, gentleness, loyalty and piety ? What we call a funeral oration is acceptable to most listeners today only in so far as it is remote from true Christian preaching, or, if you prefer it so, the nearer it comes to secular eulogy.

21. The orator seeks to gain a bishopric through his sermons: the apostle makes converts; he deserves to get what the other seeks.

22. We see certain clerics who, on returning from a brief visit to the provinces, proud of the conversions which they found already made and of those they failed to make, compare themselves to St Vincent and St Xavier, and consider themselves worthy followers of the Apostles; such great labours and such successful missions would, in their opinion, be inadequately rewarded by an abbacy.

23. So-and-so, all of a sudden, and without having thought of it the day before, picks up pen and paper and says to himself: 'I'm going to write a book', without any gift for writing beyond the need for fifty pistoles. In vain I adjure him:

'Take a saw, Dioscorus, or turn a lathe, make the felly of a wheel; you'll be paid for it.'

He has not learnt such crafts.

'Be a copyist then, or even a proof-corrector, but don't write.'

He wants to write and to get himself printed; and because you cannot send blank sheets of paper to the printer, he scribbles on them whatever he likes: he would willingly write that the Seine flows through Paris, that there are seven days in the week or that the weather looks like rain; and since such remarks offend neither religion nor the State, and will do the public no other harm than to spoil its taste and accustom it to tedious and insipid things, his book passes the censor, gets printed and, to the shame of our age and the mortification of good writers, reprinted. In the same way a man says in his heart: 'I shall preach', and he preaches; you find him in the pulpit, having neither talent nor vocation, merely the need for a benefice.

24. When a worldly or irreligious cleric goes up into the pulpit he utters mere rhetoric.

There are on the contrary certain holy men whose character alone is enough to convince their hearers; they have only to appear, for the whole congregation to be moved and almost convinced by their mere presence; the sermon they are going to preach will do the rest.

25. The — of Meaux and Fr. Bourdaloue remind me of Demosthenes and Cicero. Both of these, masters of pulpit eloquence, suffered the fate of all great models: one produced bad critics, the other bad imitators.

26. Pulpit eloquence, in so far as its human elements and the talent of the orator are concerned, has its secrets, known only to a few, and is hard to acquire; what art is needed, in this kind, to give pleasure while persuading! It means going over beaten paths, saying what has been said before and what one is expected to say. Its themes are great ones, but they are well-worn and familiar; its principles are sure, but their conclusions are immediately accessible. It deals with questions that are sublime: but who can treat of the sublime? There are mysteries to explain which are better explained by a teacher in a seminary than by an oratorical preacher. Even the ethical teaching of pulpit oratory, dealing with a subject as vast and various as human behaviour, turns on the same pivots, retraces the same images, and confines itself within bounds far narrower than those of satire; after the usual invective against honours, riches and pleasure, there is nothing left for the orator but to hurry to the end of his sermon and dismiss his congregation. If tears are sometimes shed, if hearts are moved, after taking into account the talent and character of those who have caused us to weep we may perhaps admit that the power of the preaching lies in its subject matter, and in our awareness of our own vital interests; that what has shaken us and aroused these emotions is not really eloquence, but rather the strong voice of the missionary. Moreover the preacher, unlike the lawyer, cannot have recourse to unfamiliar facts, different incidents, unprecedented adventures; he does not exercise his skill on doubtful questions, nor put forward bold conjectures and assumptions, all things which perfect a speaker's talent, strengthen and extend it, and which, far from restricting eloquence, give it force and direction. He must on the contrary fetch his speech from a source which is common to all; and if he strays from these familiar grounds he is no longer understood by ordinary people, he becomes abstract or declamatory, he ceases to preach the Gospel. He needs only a noble simplicity, but acquiring this is a rare talent, beyond the powers of most men: the greater their natural gifts, their imagination, learning and memory, the further they are, in many cases, from attaining it.

The lawyer's function is hard, laborious, and demands in him who practises it rich mental resources and great ability. He is not only expected, like the preacher, to make a certain number of orations prepared at leisure, recited from memory, authoritatively and without fear of contradiction, which moreover, with only slight alterations, can creditably serve him more than once; he delivers solemn speeches in front of judges who may impose silence on him, and opponents who interrupt him; he must be ready with his retort; he must Speak, in the course of the same day, on different matters in a number of courts. His home is not a place of rest and retreat for him, nor a refuge against litigants; it is open to all those who come to pester him with their questions and problems. He does not go to bed, nobody wipes his brow, nobody prepares refreshments for him; his room is not thronged with people of all ranks and both sexes come to congratulate him on the charm and elegance of his language, to reassure him about a certain point where he was in danger of drying up, or relieve the doubt that torments him in the night watches whether he has spoken with less than his usual vigour. His relaxation, after a lengthy speech, consists in even lengthier writings, he merely exchanges one wearisome task for another: I dare assert that he is, in his own profession, what the first apostolic preachers were in theirs.

When we have thus distinguished between legal eloquence and the lawyer's function, and pulpit eloquence from the preacher's ministry, we perceive that it is easier to preach than to plead, and harder to preach well than to plead well.

27. What advantages a spoken speech has over a written work! Men are taken in by gesture and voice and all the pomp of an auditorium. If they are at all predisposed in the speaker's favour they admire him first, and then try to understand him: before he has begun they exclaim that he is going to be good; they soon fall asleep, and when the speech is over they wake up again to say he was very good. An author arouses less excitement; his work is read in the leisured atmosphere of the country house, or in the quiet of one's study; there are no public gatherings arranged in his honour, still less any cabal to sacrifice his rivals to him and raise him to the prelacy. People read his book, excellent though it may be, with a mind to think it second-rate; they skim through it, they discuss it, they look for contradictions in it; here are not sounds that vanish into the air and are forgotten; what is printed remains printed. Sometimes they wait eagerly for several days before its publication, intending to disparage it, and the most delicate pleasure they get from it comes from their spiteful censure; they are vexed to find on every page passages that cannot fail to please, and often go so far as to dread being amused; they only put down the book because it is good. Not everyone fancies himself as an orator: fine phrases, figures of rhetoric, the gift of memory, the lawyer's robe or the preacher's vocation are not things that one always dares or chooses to assume. Everyone, on the other hand, believes that his own ideas are good, his expression of them even better; which makes him all the less favourable towards anyone who thinks and writes as well as himself. In a word, the 'sermonizer' will become a bishop faster than the soundest writer can acquire the status of a lay prior; and when favours are distributed there will always be new ones for the spcechmakcr, while the serious writer has to be grateful for what is left.

28. Should you be hated and persecuted by wicked men, the virtuous will advise you to humble yourself before God, lest you should feel proud of being an object of dislike to such people; so, if certain men who tend to go into raptures over the second-rate should criticize a book you have written, or a speech you have made, either at the bar, or in the pulpit, or elsewhere, humble yourself: you could not be exposed to a subtler or more immediate temptation to pride.

28. In my opinion, a preacher ought to choose, for every sermon, a single, capital truth, either awe-inspiring or instructive, and deal with it thoroughly and exhaustively; to abandon those endless elaborate, repetitive, hairsplitting divisions; not to assume something which is quite false, namely that high society knows its religion and its duty; and not to be afraid to teach these great intellects, these refined wits the elements of their faith; to devote all the time that is spent in composing a lengthy work on mastering his subject-matter so thoroughly that the style and expression spring up naturally and spontaneously as he speaks; after a certain preparation, to trust to his natural gifts and speak as his great theme inspires him: I feel that he could well spare himself those prodigious efforts of memory that suggest a wager rather than a serious undertaking, that spoil his gestures and distort his features; and seek rather, through his admirable enthusiasm, to convince his hearers' minds and strike terror into their hearts, arousing in them a very different fear than that of seeing him run short of words.

30. Let him who has not yet attained enough perfection to forget himself in preaching the holy word not be discouraged by the severe rules here laid down for him, as though they deprived him of the chance to display his wit and attain the dignities to which he aspires: what finer talent is there than an apostolic preacher's? or more deserving of a bishopric? Was Fénelon unworthy of that? could the Prince's choice fail to fall on him, unless it were to choose him for another honour?

« NEXT » « Characters » « Classics » « Library »