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  • Le Souffle de la sagesse: sagesse biblique et littérature morale dans la seconde moitié du dix-septième siècle en France par Maxime Normand
  • Richard Parish
Le Souffle de la sagesse: sagesse biblique et littérature morale dans la seconde moitié du dix-septième siècle en France. Par Maxime Normand. Paris: Cerf, 2018. 344 pp.

Maxime Normand’s thesis juxtaposes five books of the Old Testament (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus) with four French writers of the later seventeenth century (La Bruyère, La Rochefoucauld, La Fontaine, and Pascal). The biblical scholarship (including the vexed issue of canonicity) is both impressive and accessible to a non-specialist, and the explanation of certain elements of Hebrew semantics and prosody are clear and precise. So both the entrée en matière and the passing elucidations carry full conviction. Normand then proceeds to trace the impact of the Wisdom literature [End Page 452] through classical and patristic authorities, before affording a full survey of its reception in early modern France by both Catholic and Reformed writers and exegetes, with Richard Simon as a terminus ad quem. The second part of the study turns to the quartet of moralistes, and begins with an examination of ‘Sagesses humaines’, contrasting optimistic and pessimistic world views, of which the latter are predictably the more easily supported by the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Vitally here, Normand stresses not only the variety of emphases in the Wisdom books, but the even greater range of uses to which they are put. Thus La Fontaine, for example, ‘procède à une laïcisation du contenu sapientiel’ (p. 81); or, for Pascal, ‘la vanité de l’être et du temps de l’Ecclésiaste est [.. .] radicalisée dans les Pensées’ (p. 118). We then pass, logically enough, to ‘La Sagesse divine’. Throughout these central, thematically organized chapters, the diversity of views both within the Wisdom books and between their heirs is examined and amply illustrated, and the judicious use of subtitles lends them additional clarity. Furthermore, Normand ranges refreshingly over a broad spectrum of writing by each writer, so that the Lettres provinciales of Pascal, for example, or the Réflexions diverses of La Rochefoucauld have their due treatment. At the same time, with the exception of Pascal, ‘la référence biblique semble marquer la pensée mais ne s’inscrit pas dans les textes’ (p. 156), as is exemplified by Normand in his use of verbs such as ‘cohabiter avec’ or ‘aller de pair avec’, or nouns such as ‘réminiscence’ or ‘homologie’. More disquieting is the relatively late attention given to the disparate origins of the ‘formes discontinues’ of the four writers and their addressees (or lack thereof), a delay that is not helped by frequent references to Pascal’s (technically non-existent) ‘Apologie’. The fourth part, ‘Rhétorique sapientielle’, on the other hand, is compelling. This is where the parallels between the two corpora are the most readily shown, in such features as brevity, density of utterance, discontinuity, or dialogue. Finally Normand turns to the treatment of imagination (dreams, fables, animals) and the sublime, before concluding persuasively that ‘les Livres Sapientiaux forment le premier [.. .] précédent, pour la culture occidentale, d’un discours moral “aphoristique”’ (p. 294). The annotation throughout is extensive and enlightening without distracting from the centrality of the text; and the book concludes with a tabulation of ‘l’intertextualité sapientiale’ in the four French writers.

Richard Parish
St Catherine’s College, Oxford


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pp. 452-453
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