One of the most popular legends in Brittany is that relating to an imaginary town called Is, which is supposed to have been swallowed up by the sea at some unknown time. There are several places along the coast which are pointed out as the site of this imaginary city, and the fishermen have many strange tales to tell of it. According to them, the tips of the spires of the churches may be seen in the hollow of the waves when the sea is rough, while during a calm the music of their bells, ringing out the hymn appropriate to the day, rises above the waters. I often fancy that I have at the bottom of my heart a city of Is with its bells calling to prayer a recalcitrant congregation. At times I halt to listen to these gentle vibrations which seem as if they came from immeasurable depths, like voices from another world. Since old age began to steal over me, I have loved more especially during the repose which summer brings with it, to gather up these distant echoes of a vanished Atlantis.
This it is which has given birth to the six chapters which make up the present volume. The recollections of my childhood do not pretend to form a complete and continuous narrative. They are merely the images which arose before me and the reflections which suggested themselves to me while I was calling up a past fifty years old, written down in the order in which they came. Goethe selected as the title for his memoirs "Truth and Poetry," thereby signifying that a man cannot write his own biography in the same way that he would that of any one else. What one says of oneself is always poetical. To fancy that the small details of one's own life are worth recording is to be guilty of very petty vanity. A man writes such things in order to transmit to others the theory of the universe which he carries within himself. The form of the present work seemed to me a convenient one for expressing certain shades of thought which my previous writings did not convey. I had no desire to furnish information about myself for the future use of those who might wish to write essays or articles about me.
What in history is a recommendation would here have been a drawback; the whole of this small volume is true, but not true in the sense required-for a "Biographical Dictionary." I have said several things with the intent to raise a smile, and, if such a thing had been compatible with custom, I might have used the expression cum grano salis as a marginal note in many cases. I have been obliged to be very careful in what I wrote. Many of the persons to whom I refer may be still alive; and those who are not accustomed to find themselves in print have a sort of horror of publicity. I have, therefore, altered several proper names. In other cases, by means of a slight transposition of date and place, I have rendered identification impossible. The story of "the Flax-crusher" is absolutely true, with the exception that the name of the manor-house is a fictitious one. With regard to "Good Master Système," I have been furnished by M. Duportal du Godasmeur with further details which do not confirm certain ideas entertained by my mother as to the mystery in which this aged recluse enveloped his existence. I have, however, made no change in the body of the work, thinking that it would be better to leave M. Duportal to publish the true story, known only to himself, of this enigmatic character.
Ladies and Gentlemen,—I was proud and happy to receive from the curators of this noble institution an invitation to continue here an instruction inaugurated by my illustrious confrère and friend, Max Müller, the usefulness of which will be more and more appreciated. A broad and sincere thought always bears fruit. It is thirty years since the venerable Robert Hibbert made a legacy for the purpose of aiding the progress of enlightened Christianity, inseparable, according to his idea, from the progress of science and reason. Wisely carried out, this foundation has become, in the hands of intelligent administrators, the centre of conferences upon all the great chapters of the history of religion and humanity: the promoters of this reform have asked, with reason, why the method which has proved good in all departments of intellectual culture should not also be good in the domain of religion? why the pursuit of truth, without regard to consequences, should be dangerous in theology, when it is approved of in the entire domain of social and natural science? You believed the truth, gentlemen, and you were right. There is but one truth; and we are wanting in respect to its revelation, if we allow that the critic ought to soften his severe processes when he treats of it. No, gentlemen, the truth is able to dispense with compliments. I come gladly at your call; for I understand the duties towards the right exactly as you do. With you, I should believe that I injured a faith in admitting that it required to be treated with a certain softness. I believe with you that the worship due from man to the ideal consists in independent scientific research, without regard to results, and that the true manner of rendering homage to the truth is to pursue it without ceasing, with the firm resolution of sacrificing all to it. You desire that these conferences shall present a great historic ensemble of the efforts which the human race has made to resolve the problems which surround it, and affect its destiny. In the present state of the human mind, no one can hope to resolve these problems: we suspect all dogmatism simply because it is dogmatism. We grant willingly that a religious or philosophical system can, indeed, or that it ought to, enclose a certain portion of truth; but we deny to it, without examination, the possibility of enclosing the absolute truth. What we love is history. History well written is always good; for, even if it should prove that man in seeking to seize the infinite has pursued a chimera, the history of these attempts, more generous than successful, will always be useful. It proves, that, in reality, man goes beyond the circle of his limited life through his aspirations. It shows what energy he has expended for the sake of his love of the good and true; it teaches us to estimate him,—this poor disinherited one, who, in addition to the sufferings which nature imposes upon him, imposes still further upon himself the torture of the unknown, the torture of doubt, the severe resistances of virtue, the abstinences of austerity, the voluntary sufferings of the ascetic. Is all this a pure loss? Is this unceasing effort to attain the unattainable as vain as the course of the child who pursues the ever flying object of his desire? It pains me to believe it; and the faith which eludes me when I examine in detail each of the systems scattered throughout the world, I find, in a measure, when I reflect upon all these systems together. All religions may be defective and incomplete; religion in humanity is nothing less than divine, and a mark of superior destiny. No, they have not labored in vain—those grand founders, those reformers, those prophets of all ages—who have protested against the false evidences of gross materialism, who have beaten themselves against the wall of the apparent fatality that encloses us; who have employed their thought, given their life, for the accomplishment of a mission which the spirit of their age had imposed upon them. If the fact of the existence of the martyrs does not prove the exclusive truth of this or that sect (all sects can show a rich martyrology), this fact in general proves that religious zeal responds to something mysterious. All,—as many as we are,—we are sons of martyrs. Those who talk the most of scepticism are frequently the most satisfied and indifferent. Those who have founded among you religious and political liberty, those who have founded in all Europe liberty of thought and research, those who have labored for the amelioration of the fate of men, those who will doubtless find means for further amelioration, have suffered, or will suffer, for their good work; for no one is ever recompensed for what he does for the good of humanity. Nevertheless they will always have imitators. There will always be some to carry on the work of the incorrigibles; some, possessed of the divine spirit, who will sacrifice their personal interest to truth and justice. Be it so: they have chosen the better part. I know not what assures me that he who, without knowing why, through simple nobility of nature, has chosen for himself in this world the essentially unproductive lot of doing good, is the true sage, and has discovered the legitimate use of life with more sagacity than the selfish man.
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