This is one in a series from Bossuet’s Elevations on the Mysteries. The previous post is here. More information on the Bossuet Project is here.
You will eat of all the fruits of heaven, but you will not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; for in the day you eat thereof you shall die of death. (Gen. 2:16, 17) Death will be inevitable for you. Eve was present at this commandment, although in anticipation it was reported before her production, or, at any rate, it was repeated in her presence, since she said to the serpent: The Lord has commanded us not to eat this fruit. Perhaps one would like to believe that she learned from Adam the prohibition of God, and that from that time it pleased God to teach us that it is the duty of women to question, as St. Paul says, at home and, in particular, their husbands and to expect from them the orders of God.
Be that as it may, God does two things by this commandment: he teaches man, first, his free will, and, secondly, his subjection.
Free will is one of the places of man where the image of God appears most advantageously. God is free to do or do not do anything external that pleases him, because he needs nothing and is superior to all his work: let him make a hundred thousand worlds; he is no greater. That he should do none, he is none the less. Outside, nothingness or being is equal to him, and he is master, to do nothing or whatever he pleases. That the rational soul can also make of herself or of the body united to her what pleases her, is certainly an admirable feature and an admirable participation of the divine being. I am nothing, but because it pleased God to make me in his image, and to imprint in my being a resemblance, though feeble, of his free will, I want my hand to rise, my arm to spread, my head, my body turns; I cease to want it and I want everything to turn in another direction: it is the same. All this is indifferent to me; I am on one side as well as on another. And of all this there is no reason but my will: that is, because I will; And I will, because I will. And this is one last reason, because God willed to give me this faculty. And yet there is some reason for determining me to one rather than the other, if this reason is not pressing, and it is for me only a matter of convenience more or less great, I can easily give it to myself or not. And I can either give myself or take away great conveniences, and if I wish, inconveniences and pains so grand. And all this, because I want it; and God has subjected this to my will, and I can even use my liberty, even to procure for myself great sufferings, to expose me to death, to give it to me, so much I am master of myself by this trait of divine resemblance which is called free will. And if I return within myself, I can apply my intelligence to an infinity of different objects or to one rather than the other, and to all successively, starting with where I want to go. And I can cease to desire it, and even to want the contrary, and of an infinite number of acts of my will, I can do either this or that, without there being any other reason, except that I want it. Or if there is any other reason, I am the master of this reason to use it or not to use it, as I desire. And by this principle of free will I am capable of virtue and merit; And it is imputed to me for the good I do, and glory belongs to me.
It is true that I can also turn away from evil, and my work is imputed to me. And I commit a sin of which I can either repent or not repent. And this repentance is a very different pain from others than I can suffer; For I may be sorry to have a fever, or be blind, but not repent of these evils when they come to me in spite of myself. But if I lie, if I am unjust or slandering, and I am sorry for it, this grief is repentance which I can have and have not: happy if I repent of evil, and that I voluntarily persevere in good.
There is in my freedom a defective trait, which is to be able to do evil. This trait does not come from God, but it comes to me from the nothingness from which I am drawn. In this defect I degenerate from God who has made me, for God can not want evil, and the Psalmist sings to him: “You are a God who does not want iniquity.” My God, this is the fault and character of the creature. I am not a perfect image and likeness of God; I am only made in the image, I have some features of it, but by what I am, I do not have everything, and I have been turned towards a likeness. But I am not a likeness, since I can sin at last. I fall into the defect in a thousand places: by imperfection, by multiplicity, by the variability of my actions. All this is not in God, and I degenerate through all these places. But the place where I degenerate the most, the weakness, and, so to speak, the shame of my nature, is that I can sin.
God in the beginning gave me a precept, for it was just that I felt that I was a subject. I am a creature to whom it is proper to be subdued. I was born free, God willed it, but my freedom is not an independence: it was necessary to have a subject liberty, or if you prefer to speak thus with a Father, a free servitude under a sovereign Lord: libera servitus. And that is why I needed a precept to make me feel that I had a master. O God, the easy precept that you first gave me! Among so many trees and fruits, was it so difficult to abstain from one? But you only wanted to make me feel, by an easy yoke and with a light hand, that I was under your dominion. O God, after having shaken the yoke, it is only right that I should undergo the work, penance, and death which you have imposed upon me. O God! You are my King; do me what you will with your justice; But do not forget your mercies.