Truth Tellers: Henri Amiel’s Ardent Invitation to Converse With God

July 12, 2021 Updated: July 13, 2021

How far can words reach? While celebrities like Victor Hugo, Henry James, George Meredith, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky were firing their volleys of prose at the world, an obscure Swiss professor, Henri Amiel (1821–1881), sat in his quiet room and wrote: “In the important questions of life we are always alone. Our deepest inner thoughts cannot be understood by others. The best part of the drama that goes on deep in our souls is a monologue, or, better to say, a very sincere conversation between God, our conscience, and ourselves.”

This very sincere, very beautiful conversation, approaching the outermost frontiers of word and reason, is made available to us by way of his work “Amiel’s Journal: The Journal Intime of Henri Frédéric Amiel,” which was not intended for the eyes of the world. It documents the writer’s development as a human being from his 26th year until his death at 59.

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This volume stunned Europe’s highest circles when it became public.

An abridged version, numbering 600 and some pages, garnered from a stunning 17,000 pages of manuscript, was published by close friends shortly after his passing. The work initially took Europe by storm and was celebrated in the highest intellectual circles, translated into the major languages, talked about, written about, argued about, until it abruptly fell out of fashion and into virtual oblivion some decades later.

Its first lines contain a confession: “I am not free! I lack the strength to carry out my will.” His will, in this case, was to chronicle and order his thoughts. Discipline might have been difficult, as there are sometimes extended lapses between entries, but Amiel certainly did not fail in persistence. Slowly, patiently, he describes the outer world in which he moved, and reveals as well a marvelous inner world, full of wonder, compassion, love of truth, and, most of all, an ardent love of that great mystery to whom he prayed, and whom he called God.

The World Without

Traditional European society in Amiel’s time was, as it had been for centuries, a scene of strife, class struggle, and injustice, despite its façade of prosperity and order. The earlier writers he most admired condemned it. Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) railed against it in “Pensees.” He asked us to “Look around. What do the world’s people think about it? They think about wealth and power; but they do not think at all about what it is to be human.” Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) asked, “How can people be happy if they are not educated to have high morals?”

Amiel thought that only one thing was needed: “to be what we ought to be, to accomplish our mission and our work. We have in ourselves an oracle which is always waiting, conscience, which is nothing else than God in us.” The truth of this observation is perhaps something we can hold fast to today. Surely the only good any of us can bring about comes from our own minds and hearts, our knowing ourselves. Whether it might influence a few people or a multitude is none of our affair.

The World Within

Amiel was gentler than Pascal and Kant, choosing to hope for better things through future generations, notably from children—“fresh additions of innocence and purity, which fight against the end of mankind and against our spoiled nature, and against our complete immersion into sin.” There is hope as well, and perhaps even consolation, in our passing on the collected wisdom of the great seers and, more importantly, by being an example, by living a just and kind life.

To combat the spoiled nature and the lies of our own time, we have a certain recourse: telling the truth ourselves, especially to ourselves. “Let us be truthful,” Amiel wrote. “This is the mystery of rhetoric and virtue, this is the greatest mystery, this is the highest achievement in art, and the major law of life.”

Our modest Swiss professor challenged the immorality of his world by trying, as best he could, to live a moral life himself. “Civilization is first of all a moral thing. Without truth, respect for duty, love of neighbor, virtue, everything is destroyed. The morality of a society is alone the basis of a civilization.”

He resisted the rampant materialism and vanity around him by living a spiritual life. Throughout the journal, he cites both the wisdom of the East and the wisdom the West. Holy men of all nations, of all ages, all agree that the Kingdom of God is within. Amiel wrote: “I feel intensely that man, in everything he does, or is able to do that is beautiful, great, good, is only the organ and vehicle of something or someone higher than himself. This feeling is religion. The religious man observes with a thrill of sacred joy the phenomena of which he is the intermediary, without being the origin of them.”

A scene from the Book of Revelation on a dome fresco, 1733, by Paul Troger. Abbey church, Altenburg, Lower Austria. (Wolfgang Sauber/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Birth of a Soul

It is the single soul—not government, not society—that brings humankind to a better place. It is the work within that imperceptibly changes the world without. Amiel says: “The process of life should be the birth of a soul. This is the highest alchemy, and this justifies our presence on earth. This is our calling and our virtue.” When the soul matures, it bears its own miraculous harvest, the ability “to see all things in God, to make one’s own life a voyage toward the ideal, to live with composure and gratitude, sweetness and courage.”

Such a way of life has been the quiet, humble work of the great and the small that has gladly, patiently, been carried out over centuries. It is the living out of the prayer said in so many ways, in so many tongues, by all people of all faiths, “Thy kingdom come.” It will be answered in God’s time.

Raymond Beegle has performed as a collaborative pianist in the major concert halls of the United States, Europe, and South America; has written for The Opera Quarterly, Classical Voice, Fanfare Magazine, Classic Record Collector (UK), and The New York Observer. Beegle has served on the faculty of the State University of New York–Stony Brook, the Music Academy of the West, and the American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria. He has taught in the chamber music division of the Manhattan School of Music for the past 28 years.