The members of France’s august Academie Française are called immortels, but they are as mortal as the rest of us. Death took one of them, Marc Fumaroli (1932–2020), on June 24. A scholar of vast learning, Fumaroli’s oeuvre of more than twenty books included everything from a recovery of the classical rhetorical tradition to significant works of art criticism. He was a rare figure: a Catholic intellectual who won the highest honors of European and American intellectual life while resisting its dominant trends. In a France bent on reenacting the revolution of 1789, he was a vessel of memory, who rediscovered and revived the spirit of the ancien régime. He is not well known in the United States, but he should be. As our society embraces iconoclasm and amnesia, thinkers like Fumaroli—those who know how to find wisdom and friendship in the thought of the past—should be our guides.
I met Fumaroli in the spring of 1999, when I was a student. Every year, the scholar visited the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. In 1999, he was teaching a seminar on the Essays of Michel de Montaigne, and although I had heard of neither Montaigne nor Fumaroli, I went—just to see what he would offer. I recall spotting the visitor in the hallway before class began: a smallish man in a three-piece suit with a shuffling, duck-like walk. He held his head back, the nose elevated and the eyes wide. I would later come to recognize that look as a sign of his tremendous receptivity, his ability to take in everything and remember it all.
Class assembled; Fumaroli began to speak. It was not easy to understand him. He used words from all the languages of the Old World, strung together in a syntax that split the difference between French and English. But as he warmed to his subject and engaged with those around the table, his enunciation grew clearer, his eloquence stronger, his wit sharper. At the end of the first hour, we all knew that we were in the presence of a powerful mind.
For Fumaroli, Montaigne represented the spiritual greatness of the ancien régime. All of antiquity lived in the pages of his Essays, which were written in an era of tyranny and civil war. They exemplified how conversation with the dead could allow the living to find freedom, joy, and laughter amid the world’s disasters and inanities. Fumaroli saw in Montaigne the true spirit of the French renaissance and the Catholic Reformation. He was the anchor of the party of antiquity in the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns that would mark the seventeenth century.
In his work as an art historian, Fumaroli showed how the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns unfolded in the seventeenth century’s visual arts. Here, the party of the ancients was led by Nicolas Poussin, the erudite “French Raphael” who steeped himself in the poetry and history of the classical world. Poussin “dipped [his] paintbrush in the colored alphabet which is the Bible,” as Benedict XVI has put it, to produce works whose skill is matched by their spiritual depth. The emblematic figures of the modern side of this quarrel, in Fumaroli’s view, were René Descartes in philosophy and Charles Perrault in the arts. Descartes rejected the learned traditions of Europe to begin the world anew from the Archimedean point of his own doubt. From there, he built a philosophic system that reduced God to a distant watchmaker and exalted man as nature’s overlord. Perrault, who oversaw the construction of Versailles, sought to ingratiate himself with Louis XIV by declaring that the arts of Louis’s France utterly surpassed everything produced by the ancients. In The Century of Louis the Great, a work of unabashed flattery, Perrault first deployed the word “progress” in its modern signification, as Fumaroli often noted. Voltaire would take the theme of progress from Perrault and make it into a modern religion.
Fumaroli saw this modern attitude—equal parts adoration of novelty and love of power—at work in the Marxism and existentialism that dominated the intellectual world of his beloved Paris. He saw it at work in Marcel Duchamp-inspired contemporary art. He called such art “an activity devoid of memory” that fetishizes the ugly and dominates our artistic academies, imposing its designs on our public buildings against the public will. He lived “in a situation of resistance” to these trends, and found friends among those, living and dead, who joined him in that spirit: Chateaubriand and Tocqueville in the nineteenth century; Raymond Aron, Leo Strauss, Allan Bloom, and Arnaldo Momigliano in the twentieth.
Friendships among those who shared a sense of being “born too late” had long animated the European “Republic of Letters,” the subject of Fumaroli’s last major work. The members of this republic found in classical and Christian antiquity the models they needed to raise themselves above cultural decadence. Fumaroli attacked such decadence in his own time in his searing critique of France’s stifling cultural bureaucracy, L’Etat Culturel, demonstrating that he had no fear of intellectual combat.
But Fumaroli was never dour, and had an extraordinary capacity for discovering and reanimating the learned spirits of the Republic of Letters, many of them forgotten. He drew particular attention to figures like the great French dramatist Pierre Corneille, who embodied a lively, creative, and distinctively Christian humanism. Immensely generous toward young people like me, Fumaroli brought the spirit of this joyful and courageous Christian humanism into the twenty-first century. We need that spirit today.
Benjamin Storey is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Furman University.
Photo by NYRB Classics via Creative Commons. Image cropped.
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