Was Pascal, it was asked, truly orthodox and a good Catholic?
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A sincere believer and supporter of the powers of the Pope and the priesthood and the efficacious intervention of the Saints? Did he reject the Jansenist heresy on his deathbed and accept a more moderate and forgiving theology? His works have fared better, having received, during the three and a half centuries since his death, first-rate editorial attention, a number of superb translations, and an abundance of expert scholarly commentary. Their aim was to defend the Jansenist community of Port-Royal and its principal spokesman and spiritual leader Antoine Arnauld from defamation and accusations of heresy while at the same time leading a counter-offensive against the accusers mainly the Jesuits.
Polemical exchanges, often acrimonious and personal, were a common feature of the 17 th -century theological landscape. Pascal ventured into this particular fray with a unique set of weapons — a mind honed by mathematical exercise and scientific debate, a pointed wit, and sharp-edged literary and dramatic skills. Even the just, no matter how hard they may strive, lack the power and grace to keep all the commandments.
In our fallen condition it is impossible for us to resist interior grace. In order to deserve merit or condemnation we must be free from external compulsion though not from internal necessity. Two separate questions were at stake: 1 Are the propositions actually in Jansen, if not explicitly and verbatim , then implicitly in meaning or intention? This was the so-called question of fact de fait.
Julian F Thompson
This was the question of right or law de droit. The Port-Royal position was yes in the case of the second question, no in the case of the first. Despite the fact that he disavowed any support for the five propositions, he and the Port-Royal community as a whole stood under suspicion of secretly approving, if not openly embracing them. Such was the situation that Pascal found himself in when he sat down to compose the first provinciale. What he produced was something utterly new in the annals of religious controversy.
In place of the usual fury and technical quibbling, he adopts a tone of easy-going candor and colloquial simplicity. Through devices of interview and dialogue Montalte manages to present these issues in relatively clear, understandable terms and persuade the reader that the Jansenist and Thomist views on each are virtually identical and perfectly orthodox. He goes on to show that any apparent discrepancy between the two positions — and in fact the whole attack on Jansenism and Arnauld — is based not on doctrine, but is entirely political and personal, a product of Jesuit calumny and conspiracy.
In effect, a complicated theological conflict is presented in the form of a simple human drama. Irony and stinging satire are delivered with the suave aplomb of a Horatian epistle. Not all of the provinciales deal with the same issues and concerns as the first. In fact some of the later letters, far from being breezy and affable, are passionate and achieve sublime eloquence; others are downright vicious and blistering in their attack.
Letters offer a defense of Arnauld, challenging his trial and censure. Letter 4, pitting a Jesuit against a Jansenist, serves as a bridge between provinciales and Letters attack Jesuit casuistry and doctrine; in them Montalte accuses the Society of hypocrisy and moral laxity and of placing ease of conscience and the glory of the Order above true Christian duty and love of God. Letter 14 includes an extended discussion of both natural and divine law and makes an important ethical distinction between homicide, capital punishment, and suicide.
In Letter 17, a virtual reprise and summation of the case of the five propositions, he repeats once again that he writes purely as a private citizen and denies that he is a member of Port Royal. Since Pascal was neither a monk nor a solitaire within the community, the claim is technically accurate, though it arguably leaves him open to the same charges of truth-bending and casuistry that he levels against the Jesuits. Although the Letters gained a wide readership and enjoyed a period of popular success, they failed to achieve their strategic goal of preserving Port-Royal and Jansenist doctrine from external attack.
They also had a few unfortunate, unintended consequences. They were blamed, for instance, for stirring up cynicism, disrespect, and even contempt for the clergy in the minds of ordinary citizens. After the publication of the provinciales , the term Jesuitical would become synonymous with crafty and subtle and the words casuistry and casuistical would never again be entirely free from a connotation of sophistry and excuse-making.
Banned by order of Louis XIV in and placed on the Index and burned by the Inquisition, the provinciales nevertheless lived on underground and abroad with their popularity undimmed. Today, the provinciales retain documentary value both as relics of Jansenism and as surviving specimens of 17 th -century religious polemic, but modern readers prize them mainly for their literary excellence.
They represent the original model not only for the genre of satirical non-fiction, but for classic French prose style in all other genres as well. Rabelais and Montaigne were basically inimitable and far too quirky and idiosyncratic to serve as a style model for later writers. Can an act be both voluntary and irresistible? Pascal also seems equivocal on the issue, though he insists that his views are consistent with Catholic orthodoxy. However, even there his account is abstruse and theological rather than blunt and philosophical and is thus of interest mainly to specialists rather than general readers.
Sainte-Beuve compared the work to a tower in which the stones have been piled up but not cemented. Inspired by the force and certainty of his own conversion and by the late excitement of the Holy Thorn, Pascal was further encouraged by the recent success of the provinciales. Confident in his powers of argument and persuasion, both logical and literary, he felt called upon to undertake a bold new project. The new work was to be nothing less than a definitive affirmation and justification of Christianity against its detractors and critics. It would also be an exercise in spiritual outreach and proselytization — an earnest appeal, addressed to both the reason and the heart, inviting scoffers, doubters, the undecided, and the lost to join the Catholic communion.
In the spring of , he presented a detailed outline of his project, explaining its scope and goals, to an audience of friends and members of Port-Royal. The work would be unified, but layered and textured, with multiple sections and two main parts:. Second part : That there is a Redeemer. Proved by Scripture.
The project was designed as an example of what is today termed immanent apologetics. He will instead appeal to the unfolding history of the Christian faith from its roots in Old Testament prophecy through its early development to the modern Church.
In essence, Pascal will leave it to readers to decide whether his account of the human condition and his descriptions of their social and physical worlds not as they might wish them to be, but as they actually experience them in our daily lives are credible and persuasive. If the reader accepts his accounts, Pascal will be halfway to his goal. It will remain for him to further convince readers that the solution to our wretchedness, to the disorder and unfairness of life, is acceptance of Jesus Christ.
To support this claim, he will offer historical evidence in its favor from the authority of Scripture and ancient witnesses, and also in the form of miracles, prophecies, and figural typological hermeneutics.
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However, he admits that this evidence will not be conclusive — for Christianity can never be proved by reason or authority alone. Such in essence was the plan. Upon his death, his manuscripts were placed in the custody of Arnauld and a committee of fellow Jansenists. While transcribing the manuscripts, the committee produced two variant copies. Several new editions, with different arrangements of the material, appeared over the next century.
Yet even with its multiple subject headings and wide range of topics, the work can still be read as the deep exploration of a single great theme: the Human Condition, viewed under its two opposing yet interrelated aspects — our wretchedness without God, and our greatness with Him. Pascal argues that without God our spiritual condition is essentially a state of misery characterized by anxiety, alienation, loneliness, and ennui. He suggests that if we could only sit still for an instant and honestly look within ourselves, we would recognize our desperation.
However, we spend most of our time blocking out or concealing our true condition from ourselves via forms of self-deception and amour-propre.
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Like Augustine before him, Pascal accurately describes mechanisms of denial and ego-defense long before they were clinically and technically defined by Sigmund Freud. They may even consist of pastimes that are basically innocent, but which are nevertheless vain, trivial, or unedifying, for example, sports like tennis and fencing. So are all the luxuries, consumer goods, and worldly delights with which we proudly surround ourselves. According to Pascal, we use these goods and activities not, as we self-flatteringly suppose, to certify our achievements or add a touch of bonheur to our inner life.
On the contrary, we use them mainly as a way of concealing our bleak inner reality from ourselves and from one another. They are a means of denying our own mortality and hollowness. In effect diversions prevent us from acknowledging our essential misery.
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They create a false sense of security that hides the abyss or vacuum within. On the other hand, wretchedness and insecurity are only part of our nature. We are one part misery and one part grandeur; and alongside our feelings of isolation and destitution we also have a profound sense of our intrinsic dignity and worth. For thought, he argues, is the whole basis of our dignity, the attribute of our nature that elevates and separates us from the rest of the material universe.
But the title is appropriate, since the work as a whole could well be described as an extended meditation on human consciousness, on what it means to think. The first, which could be called the conventional or historical approach, is the one favored by most literary scholars and historians of religion, including most notably Philippe Sellier, David Wetsel, and Jean Mesnard. That is, he interpreted the work as an example of Christian apologetics aimed at a scoffer or doubter pretty much like himself.
To the claim that the human condition is one of anxiety and wretchedness, he responds that we are neither as wicked nor as miserable as Pascal says. He even suggests that Christianity would be better off without such strained and overwrought apologetics, which he compared to trying to prop up an oak tree by surrounding it with reeds. The poet and critic T.
That is, it presents a cri de coeur or cri de triomphe that provides a direct look into the heart and soul of a penitent former sinner who, after a long and agonizing struggle, finds Christ and renounces the world. They also offer different interpretations of the audience or addressee of the work. A private confession addressed to God? A dialog between Pascal and the reader? Between Pascal and himself? Or are they meant also as a meditative exercise and inspiration for active Christians, a spiritual tool to help guide believers and strengthen their faith?
Or perhaps Pascal, in the manner of St.
Paul, is trying to be all things to all people and thus to a certain extent trying to do some or all of the above at the same time? Pascal was proclaimed a heretic and a Calvinist during his lifetime and has been called everything from a skeptic to a nihilist by modern readers. New Testament antitype; reason vs. Those polarities are homologous with and paralleled by the larger historical oppositions of the period: the new science vs.
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