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  • L'Absolu et le monde: études sur les écrits du Petit Concile, Bossuet, La Bruyère, Fénelon et leurs amis by François-Xavier Cuche
  • Michael Moriarty
L'Absolu et le monde: études sur les écrits du Petit Concile, Bossuet, La Bruyère, Fénelon et leurs amis. Par François-Xavier Cuche. (Lumière classique.) Paris: Honoré Champion, 2017. 712 pp.

This admirable collection is a welcome follow-up to François-Xavier Cuche's pathbreaking study, Une pensée sociale catholique: La Bruyère, Fleury, Fénelon (Paris: Le Cerf, 1991), also focused on the activity of the so-called Petit Concile. This group, centred on Bossuet, included La Bruyère, the church historian Claude Fleury, and, before he and Bossuet fell out over Quietism, Fénelon. Characteristic of it was the concern to explore, and, if possible, implement the social and political implications of Catholicism; this was a Christianity engaged in the world, very different from the Jansenist variety with its promotion of withdrawal. Cuche provides learned, penetrating, and judicious studies of a remarkably wide range of topics, often to surprising effect. Anyone who reads Télémaque will be aware of Fénelon's diagnoses of social and political ills, and of the remedies he advocates; but, without reading Cuche, one might easily overlook the extent to which similar themes crop up in Bossuet's Politique tirée des propres paroles de l'Écriture sainte. Nor might one realize what an interest the Petit Concile took in the physical aspects of education, with an eye to both the economic and the military benefits of a fit population. The first part of the volume is devoted to spirituality, philosophy, and ethical thought: there are remarkable studies of Fénelon's anti-Jansenist polemic and of his psychological and ethical thinking (for instance, his views on the relationship between remorse and guilt). Part Two deals with writing, and here there are excellent studies of La Bruyère (for instance, on the function of first-person forms in his text) and of literary aspects of the Télémaque. Part Three is focused chiefly on Fleury's ecclesiastical history; it is typical that Fleury's account of the original Christian community in Jerusalem, which presents it as a model of Christian morality, should pay attention to its economic dimension. Part Four deals specifically with politics, economics, and society; but one of the most powerful lessons of this volume is that the writers of the Petit Concile never supposed that social or economic issues could be considered independently of their moral and religious dimension. Particularly striking is their awareness that, although almsgiving remains a part of the individual Christian's life, it is a duty of charity to address the social causes of poverty. The paramount responsibility of kings to their subjects is unfailingly emphasized. Cuche writes throughout with a profound understanding of his authors, especially of the connections between different aspects of their thought, and a sympathetic awareness of the limitations, tensions and, it may be, contradictions in their thinking. Wholeheartedly committed to interpreting the contemporary world in Christian terms, in some ways they may have opened up a path to the secularism of the philosophes. This volume is a fitting tribute to a remarkable group of writers and thinkers.

Michael Moriarty
Peterhouse, Cambridge


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