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Phèdre and Thésée, by Léon Bakst, 1923

I believe I should write more on Jean Racine‘s Phèdre (1677)

In 1955, Jewish Romanian scholar Lucien Goldmann (1913, Romania – 1970, Paris) published a study of Pascal and Racine he entitled Le Dieu caché ; étude sur la vision tragique dans les Pensées de Pascal et dans le théâtre de Racine, Paris : Gallimard, 1955. The Hidden God; a study of the Tragic Vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s TheaterThe  notion of  a “hidden god” is an insightful description of Pascal’s Pensées and also constitutes a bold depiction of Racine’s Phèdre inability to help herself.

Phaedra is at the mercy of an unkind destiny and her depravity stems largely from her mother’s, Pasiphaë. Pasiphaë sinned by engaging in sexual intercourse with a bull.  Consequently, Phaedra and Ariadne are half sisters to the Minotaur, a zoomorphic monster, a monster combining human and animal characteristics. It is as though they were stained.

Yet Phèdre is the granddaughter of Helios, the Sun, the daughter of Minos, king of Crete and son of Zeus. So, despite her mother’s bestiality, one hopes that Phaedra will be redeemed by other and nobler ancestors, but her sense of guilt turns them into judges.

Jansenism & Port-royal-des-champs

Phèdre’s inability to fight destiny is linked with Jansenism. The theological doctrine of Jansenism is often associated with philosopher, theologian and scientist Blaise Pascal (19 June 1623 – 19 August 1662), the author of the masterful Lettres provinciales, eighteen letters written under the pseudonym Louis de Montalte. Pascal was motivated to write Les Provinciales (1656-1657) when fellow Jansenist and friend Antoine Arnauld, from Port-Royal-des-Champs, was condemned by the Sorbonne‘s Faculty of Theology for views that were considered heretical.

But, although Pascal, a Jansenist, wrote Les Provinciales, as explained below, we are looking at a seventeenth-century revival, by Cornelius Jansen, of a doctrine rooted in the theology of Augustine of Hippo and which had a location, the convent of Port-Royal-des-Champs, near Paris.

Jean Racine, by François de Troy

Racine at Port-Royal-des-Champs

Racine, the author of Phèdre, was educated at Port-Royal-des-Champs and had therefore been exposed to Jansenism. Jansenists believed in predestination and emphasized original sin, human depravity, the necessity of divine grace. (Jansenism, Wikipedia). So Phèdre is helpless. She says that “Le crime d’une mère est un pesant fardeau” (A mother’s crime is a heavy burden), a burden she fears her children will also bear (III, 3, 364) as one bears the original sin and as she bears her own mother’s depravity. Moreover, she is not rescued by divine grace (or efficacious grace). Phèdre’s god is a “hidden god.”

Augustine of Hippo and Cornelius Jansen

Jansenistic theology is rooted in the theology of St Augustine (354 – 386) or Augustine of Hippo. However, as indicated above, its “modern” father is Cornelius Jansen or Jansenius, (28 October 1585–6 May 1638), the Dutch Bishop of Ypres (Belgium). It did not spread beyond France and, to a very large extent, it was a reaction against Jesuit casuistry which, quite literally, allowed one to sin without sinning. (See Related Articles, at the foot of this post.

Pelagianism: a Heresy

The debate centered on the matter of grace and, by extension, on the topic of free will. An extreme and heretical view was that of Pelagius (c. 350 – c. 420). Pelagius believed that all Christians could be saved using their free will. This doctrine, called pelagianism, was condemned because it negated the need for divine grace and also negated the original sin.  It therefore had affinities with the laxity of seventeenth-century Jesuits.

Pelagius was opposed to Augustine of Hippo’s conviction that salvation was not possible without divine grace (called grâce efficace). Inextricably linked with Augustine’s teaching is the concept of predestination which limits a Christian’s ability to save himself. Jansenism took this view to an extreme replicating Augustine’s insistance that Christian salvation depends on divine grace.[i] 

I will go no further on the above, as the entire debate gets too complicated. Simply expressed and put in a nutshell, Jansenism conveys a very pessimistic view of a Christian’s ability to determine his or her fate, which is at the heart of Phèdre’s despair. She views herself as the worst of sinners in a universe filled with gods who are her ancestors and will not help her. Again, her god is a hidden god.

Jansenism was crushed by the bull Unigenitus, issued by Pope Clement XI in 1713.



[i] The best information I have gathered on the quarrel between Jansenists and the Jesuits is La Querelle entre les jansénistes et les jésuites, featured on the website of the Jesuits of France and written in French.
Henry Purcell (1659-95)
The Fairy Queen, Z.629 (1692)
“O let me weep” (The Plaint)
Philippe Jaroussky    


© Micheline Walker
8 March 2012
El Greco