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Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal

In 1656-1657, Blaise Pascal (Louis de Montalte) wrote his eighteen Provincial Letters in defense of the Jansenists of the abbey of Port-Royal-des-Champs, located near Paris, and Port-Royal abbey in Paris. Jansenism had been brought to France by Jean Duvergier de Hauranne (1581 – 1643), afterwards the abbot of Saint-Cyran-en-Brenne. Duvergier had studied theology in Leuven /Louvain where he met and befriended Cornelius Jansen (28 October 1585 – 6 May 1638), the father of Jansenism. During his stay in Louvain, Duvergier and Jansen opposed the Jesuits to protect Belgian theologian Michael Baius or Michel de Bay (1513 – 16 September 1589) whom Jesuits suspected had been influenced by Calvinism.

The Jesuits or Society of Jesus was founded in 1540. Jesuits were therefore a new order that could have helped curb the spread of Protestantism. (See « La Querelle entre jansénistes et jésuites », Jésuites de la province de France. FR) Changes were needed, but not to the point of using moral irresponsibility to benefit Roman Catholicism. Extremes are extremes.  

In 1653, Pope Innocent X issued the bull Cum Occasionum condemning as heretical five propositions contained in Cornelius Jansen’s Augustinus. The Augustinus, a long work that is considered the Jansenists’ “book,” was published posthumously in 1640. It should be noted, however, that the Augustinus was the work of Cornelius Jansen and that it was published several years after he and Jean Duvergier de Hauranne were students in Leuven, Holland. In fact, by 1640, the two friends had long been separated. Cornelius Jansen had spent a few years in France after he and Jean Duvergier graduated with a degree in theology from the University of Leuven. Moreover, as noted above, the book was published two years after Cornelius Jansen’s death. Cornelius Jansen died in an epidemic.

It should also be noted that, after serving as abbot of Saint-Cyran-en-Brenne, Jean Duvergier, known as Saint-Cyran, had settled at the abbey of Port-Royal-des-champs, Cistercian abbey. The Cistercian order was established in 1204 and its rule was more severe than the Rule of Benedict, precepts observed by Benedictine monks. In 1623, he had become the spiritual director of the nuns living and working at Port-Royal-des-champs, one of whom was the abbess Angélique Arnauld (8 September 1591 in Paris – 6 August 1661) who had also introduced certain reforms in her community. The Cistercians also owned the Port-Royal Abbey in Paris.

Les Petites Écoles de Port-Royal (1637 -1660)

Pascal as student and Educator

From 1637 until 1660, Cistercians operated a school at Port-Royal-des-Champs. Pascal had been a student at the Petites Écoles de Port-Royal, excellent schools because of the intellectual calibre of its teachers, messieurs, and its small classes. Jean Racine, the author of Phèdre (1778), had also studied at the Petites Écoles de Port-Royal. Later, Pascal himself would be an educator. He wrote a new method of teaching children to read.

As a former pupil of Port-Royal-des-Champs, Pascal, who sympathized with the Jansenists, defended the Port-Royal abbeys threatened by the bull Cum Occasionum. However, his motivation was, to a large extent, loyalty to his former teachers, the nuns of Port-Royal and to its messieurs or solitaires, teachers and men who retreated to one of the Port-Royal abbeys. More importantly, however, Pascal attacked the moral laxity of Jesuit casuistry.

However, in his Provincial Letters, Pascal did discuss the matter of grace, albeit briefly. According to the Jansenists, humans could not ensure their salvation. Jansenists believed in predestination. It had been and remains a Roman Catholic’s perception, that although humans are born stained with the original sin, baptism and grâce suffisante FR make it possible for them to be saved through good deeds, which is what I was taught. Jansenists differed. In order to be saved, humans had to be granted grâce efficace FR or efficacious grace and God chose those on whom he would bestow efficacious grace.

Saint Augustine and Pelagius

I suspect that initially St. Augustine, or Augustine or Hippo (13 November 354 – 28 August 430), believed humans could expiate the original sin, if granted grâce suffisante. French 17th-century Jansenists maintained, however, that grâce efficace or efficacious grace, was required to be saved. This was cause for despair as it negated free will.

The quarrel between Jansenists and Jesuits therefore echoed an earlier quarrel between St. Augustine and Pelagius (fl. c. 390 – 418). Pelagius had opposed predestination. In fact, according to Wikipedia’s entry on the Church Fathers, “early Church Fathers consistently [upheld] the freedom of human choice. They consistently upheld the freedom of human choice.” Initially, Augustine of Hippo may have  understood predestination as no more than foreknowledge. God as God knew how humans would live. This is what I was taught as a child. However, St. Augustine would grow to support predestination as a denial of free will, hence the title of Cornelius Jansen’s Augustinus, the Jansenists’ book.

Pascal’s Target: Casuistry

The Lettres provinciales did support the doctrines of Jansenism, but Pascal’s main target was the moral irresponsibility advocated by the Jesuits, or casuistry. Pascal also emphasized the Jesuit’s rejection of the teachings of the Church Fathers which, by extension, was a rejection of Roman Catholicism in its totality. This was not the intention of the Jesuits.

After speaking with a Jesuit, our naïve character, visits a neighbour who is known as an opponent of Jansenism, but who turns out to share the Jansenist’s view of grace and predestination.

“To ascertain the matter with certainty, I repaired to my neighbor, M. N-, doctor of Navarre, who, as you are aware, is one of the keenest opponents of the Jansenists, and, my curiosity having made me almost as keen as himself, I asked him if they would not formally decide at once that ‘grace is given to all men,’ and thus set the question at rest. But he gave me a sore rebuff and told me that that was not the point; that there were some of his party who held that grace was not given to all; that the examiners themselves had declared, in a full assembly of the Sorbonne, that that opinion was problematical; and that he himself held the same sentiment, which he confirmed by quoting to me what he called that celebrated passage of St. Augustine: ‘We know that grace is not given to all men.’” (Letter I/1)


In my post on Pascal’s Provincial Letters, I wrote that we would take a closer look at the methods used by Jesuit casuistry. We will. A few examples are needed, but what I would like to bring to the fore are:

  • the Jesuits’ rejection of the doctrines of the Church Fathers,
  • the fact that Jesuits tolerated duels and homicides, and
  • other precepts.
Conversion of Saint Augustine Fra Angelico (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Augustine of Hippo wrote that original sin is transmitted by concupiscence and enfeebles freedom of the will without destroying it. Sandro Botticelli (Caption and photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rejection of the Teachings of the Church Fathers

Provincial Letters pdf (complete text)

“We leave the fathers [Church Fathers],” resumed the monk, “to those who deal with positive divinity. As for us, who are the directors of conscience, we read very little of them and quote only the modern casuists.” (p. 40) (Letter VI/6)

“For example, three popes have decided that monks who are bound by a particular vow to a Lenten life cannot be absolved from it even though they should become bishops. And yet Diana avers that notwithstanding this decision they are absolved. ‘And how does he reconcile that?’ said I. By the most subtle of all the modern methods, and by the nicest possible application of probability,” replied the monk. (p. 44) (Letter VI/6)

Here the monk being interviewed by a naïve character invokes “probability” and lists modern authorities. The new authorities and proponents of casuistry are Luis de Molina, Antonio Escobar y Mendoza, Gabriel Vasquez and Leonardus Lessius. Also linked to casuistry were Étienne Bauny of France and Antonino Diana, an Italian. Numerous “authorities” are also named as one reads the 18 letters. (See Casuistry, Wikipedia.)

However, if our narrator or candid character refers to an authority, he is trivialized and disapproves:

“When Diana [Antonino Diana] quotes with approbation the sentiments of Vasquez, when he finds them probable, and ‘very convenient for rich people,’ as he says in the same place, he is no slanderer, no falsifier, and we hear no complaints of misrepresenting his author; whereas, when I cite the same sentiments of Vasquez, though without holding him up as a phoenix, I am a slanderer, a fabricator, a corrupter of his maxims.” (p. 109) (Letter XII/12)

More on Probabilisme

‘A person may do what he considers allowable according to a probable opinion, though the contrary may be the safer one. The opinion of a single grave doctor is all that is requisite.’ (p. 39) (Letter VI/6)

“Can you doubt it?” he replied, ‘We have bound them, sir, to absolve their penitents who act according to probable opinions, under the pain of mortal sin, to secure their compliance ‘under the pain of mortal sin’”

‘When the penitent, says Father Bauny,’ follows a probable opinion, the confessor is bound to absolve him, though his opinion should differ from that of his penitent.’” (p. 40) (Letter VI/6)


The justification of homicide is particularly surprising.

(naïve character, italics)

Be this as it may, however, it seems that, according to Sanchez, a man may freely slay (I do not say treacherously, but only insidiously and behind his back) a calumniator, for example, who prosecutes us at law?” (p. 56) (Letter VII/7)

 “Certainly he may,” returned the monk, “always, however, in the way of giving a right direction to the intention: you constantly forget the main point. Molina supports the same doctrine; and what is more, our learned brother Reginald maintains that we may despatch the false witnesses whom he summons against us. And, to crown the whole, according to our great and famous fathers Tanner and Emanuel Sa, it is lawful to kill both the false witnesses and the judge himself, if he has had any collusion with them. Here are Tanner’s very words: ‘Sotus and Lessius think that it is not lawful to kill the false witnesses and the magistrate who conspire together to put an innocent person to death; but Emanuel Sa and other authors with good reason impugn that sentiment, at least so far as the conscience is concerned.’ And he goes on to show that it is quite lawful to kill both the witnesses and the judge.” (p. 56) (Letter VII/7)

“And, in point of fact, is it not certain that the man who has received a buffet on the ear is held to be under disgrace, until he has wiped off the insult with the blood of his enemy?” (p. 56) (Letter VII/7)

“Nay,” he continued, “it is allowable to prevent a buffet, by killing him that meant to give it, if there be no other way to escape the insult. This opinion is quite common with our fathers. (p. 56) (Letter VII/7)

“But, father, may not one be allowed to kill for something still less? Might not a person so direct his intention as lawfully to kill another for telling a lie, for example?” (p. 58) (Letter VII/7)

“He may,” returned the monk; “and according to Father Baldelle, quoted by Escobar, ‘you may lawfully take the life of another for saying, “You have told a lie”; if there is no other way of shutting his mouth.’ The same thing may be done in the case of slanders. (p. 58) (Letter VII/7) 


(naïve character, italics)

“Lessius, among others, maintains that ‘it is lawful to steal, not only in a case of extreme necessity, but even where the necessity is grave, though not extreme.’”  (Letter VIII/8)

“For after all, now, is it not a violation of the law of charity, and of our duty to our neighbour, to deprive a man of his property in order to turn it to our own advantage? Such, at least, is the way I have been taught to think hitherto.” (Letter VIII/8)

“That will not always hold true,” replied the monk; “for our great Molina has taught us that ‘the rule of charity does not bind us to deprive ourselves of a profit, in order thereby to save our neighbour from a corresponding loss.’” (Letter VIII/8)

Homicide, again

In his letter XIII, Pascal repeats much of what he wrote in Letter VII/7. He fully realizes that he is repeating. As an educator, he emphasized the need to repeat, a need that is consistent with the modern theory of information. It is part of his “art de persuader,” the art of persuasion. One has to read Pascal’s Pensées, published posthumously, to grasp Pascal’s art de persuader.


There is so much to discuss, but a post is a post. However the book, Les Provinciales, is easy to read and short. The fate of Jansénisme resembles the fate of the Huguenots in France. Jansénisme was not a religion; it was a mere movement. But it was condemned by the papal bull Unigenitus, issued by Clement XI on 8 September 1713. Absolutism meant: one king, one language and one religion.

Pascal discusses numerous subjects, such as duels and usury, in his examination of the moral laxity of 17th-century French Jesuits.

In closing, I would like to point out that the quarrel between Jansenists and Jesuits in 17th-century France is one episode, just one, in the history of the Jesuits and that both Jesuit casuistry and Jansenism were condemned.

My best regards to all of you.


 Sources and Resources

Philippe Jaroussky, countertenor, sings “Ombra mai fu” (Serse) G. F. Händel

imagesE7I9M79Y© Micheline Walker
2 April 2015

Pascal, Jean Domat
French sanguine