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Fur and Feathers Flew over Jansenism

Published Apr 28, 2010
Fur and Feathers Flew over Jansenism

How wrong we were! I only had my eyes opened yesterday." With those words opens one of Christianity's best-known religious satires--the Provincial Letters. The first of the letters appeared on this day in Paris on this day, January 23, 1656. But who wrote it? No one was saying.

And with good reason. There was danger in speaking up. You could be labeled as a heretic and excommunicated. Imprisonment and torture were distinct possibilities. Years later, the author became known. It was the brilliant French mathematician, Blaise Pascal.

Until then, it had seemed that Pascal's genius lay in science. At sixteen he published a groundbreaking work on the geometry of cones; at nineteen he invented a primitive calculator. Next he proved that, since atmosphere has weight, its pressure varies according to altitude and he showed that vacuum is possible. He proved that pressure on the surface of a fluid is transmitted equally to every point in a fluid. Thanks to Pascal, we have syringes and the hydraulic lift. He also helped create probability theory.

But Pascal was also a Christian. While he rode in his carriage in 1654, his horses broke their traces and plunged off a bridge to their deaths. Pascal was shaken up by this narrow escape and interpreted it as a warning from God to set his mind on spiritual things.

His interest in probability theory led him to invent an argument that is known as Pascal's Wager. The stakes are so high, he said, that we should gamble on God's existence. We have nothing to lose if it turns out that God does not exist, but everything to gain or lose if he does exist. Pascal would have preferred certainty over probability in matters of faith, but came to the conclusion that it can't be had. We can know truths that we can't prove-- or, in Pascal's words, "The heart has its reasons which reason does not know at all."

Attracted to the Jansenists because he loved the ones he knew (his own sister was a Jansenist) and because he admired their puritanical lifestyle, Pascal became their defender. The Provincial Letters were the result. What was the fuss about?

With the coming of the Protestant Reformation, many Frenchmen became Calvinists. Their theology emphasized man's corruption, his inability to save himself from sin, and his need of God's grace at every stage of conversion. In opposing the Calvinists, the Jesuits took a more cheerful view of man's interaction with God, and put heavy emphasis on human works and free will. They used a system called casuistry to decide right from wrong.

Cornelius Jansen, the Catholic Bishop of Ypres, Belgium (then part of France) felt that the Jesuits went too easy on sin while neglecting grace. He made his point in a book about St. Augustine of Hippo, the church's top authority on grace. The pope condemned Jansen's book. After Jansen's death, one of his admirers, Antoine Arnauld, defended the Jansenists but was tactless and made enemies. He argued that, while the pope could not err in matters of faith, he could err in matters of fact. The Sorbonne, France's top theological school, took up the issue. Fur and feathers flew as the theologians fought.

It was soon clear that Arnauld would be disgraced. At that point, Pascal's Provincial Letters appeared, taking sides with the embattled Jansenists. Pascal invented a character who wrote as if he were a perplexed bystander searching for truth in the quarrel. To make this character seem real, Pascal wrote French the way common people spoke it. No French writer had done this so well before and the letters gave French prose new power. Pascal's imaginary letter-writer exposed the double standards and clever word play of many theologians. By digging up absurd examples of Jesuit casuistry he unfairly made it appear that all Jesuits winked at sin. Pascal was not able to save Arnauld from disgrace, but his letters won sympathy for the Jansenists and changed French literature.


  1. Bell, Eric Temple. Men of Mathematics. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1937.
  2. Cailliet, John A. The Clue to Pascal. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat, 1943.
  3. Coleman, Robert E. "Blaise Pascal." In Chosen Vessels: Portraits of Outstanding Christian Men. Ann Arbor, Mich. : Vine Books, 1985.
  4. D'Souza, Dinesh. The Catholic Classics. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1986.
  5. Jameson, Anna. Legends of the Monastic Orders. London: Longman, Green and Co., 1872. Source of the image.
  6. Pascal, Blaise. Pensées de M. Pascal sur la religion et sur quelques autres sujets 1670 (The Pensees; many English versions).
  7. Pascal, Blaise. Provincial Letters. Various editions.
  8. "Pascal, Blaise." Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Editor Charles Coulston Gillispie. New York: Scribner's, 1970.
  9. Rosenberg, Jerry M. The Computer Prophets. London: Collier-Macmillan, 1969.
  10. "Pascal, Blaise." Edwards, Paul, editor. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York, Macmillan, 1967.
  11. Runes, Dagobert D. A Treasury of Philosophy. New York: Philosophical Library, 1945.
  12. Wolff. Breakthroughs in Physics, p. 130.

Last updated May, 2007.


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