Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

The Port-Royal Society.

Every lover of letters has heard of this learned society, which contributed so greatly to establish in France a taste for just reasoning, simplicity of style, and philosophical method. Their “Logic, or the Art of Thinking,” for its lucid, accurate, and diversified matter, is still an admirable work; notwithstanding the writers had to emancipate themselves from the barbarism of the scholastic logic. It was the conjoint labour of Arnauld and Nicolle. Europe has benefited by the labours of these learned men: but not many have attended to the origin and dissolution of this literary society.

In the year 1637, Le Maitre, a celebrated advocate, resigned the bar, and the honour of being Conseiller d’Etat, which his uncommon merit had obtained him, though then only twenty-eight years of age. His brother, De Sericourt, who had followed the military profession, quitted it at the same time. Consecrating themselves to the service of religion, they retired into a small house near the Port-Royal of Paris, where they were joined by their brothers De Sacy, De St. Elme, and De Valmont. Arnauld, one of their most illustrious associates, was induced to enter into the Jansenist controversy, and then it was that they encountered the powerful persecution of the Jesuits. Constrained to remove from that spot, they fixed their residence at a few leagues from Paris, and called it Port-Royal des Champs.1

These illustrious recluses were joined by many distinguished persons who gave up their parks and houses to be appropriated to their schools; and this community was called the Society of Port-Royal.

Here were no rules, no vows, no constitution, and no cells formed. Prayer and study, and manual labour, were their only occupations. They applied themselves to the education of youth, and raised up little academies in the neighbourhood, where the members of Port-Royal, the most illustrious names of literary France, presided. None considered his birth entitled him to any exemption from their public offices, relieving the poor and attending on the sick, and employing themselves in their farms and gardens; they were carpenters, ploughmen, gardeners, and vine-dressers, as if they had practised nothing else; they studied physic, and surgery, and law; in truth, it seems that, from religious motives, these learned men attempted to form a community of primitive Christianity.

The Duchess of Longueville, once a political chief, sacrificed her ambition on the altar of Port-Royal, enlarged the monastic inclosure with spacious gardens and orchards, built a noble house, and often retreated to its seclusion. The learned D’Andilly, the translator of Josephus, after his studious hours, resorted to the cultivation of fruit-trees; and the fruit of Port-Royal became celebrated for its size and flavour. Presents were sent to the Queen-Mother of France, Anne of Austria, and Cardinal Mazarin, who used to call it “fruit béni.” It appears that “families of rank, affluence, and piety, who did not wish entirely to give up their avocations in the world, built themselves country-houses in the valley of Port-Royal, in order to enjoy the society of its religious and literary inhabitants.”

In the solitudes of Port-Royal Racine received his education; and, on his death-bed, desired to be buried in its cemetery, at the feet of his master Hamon. Arnauld, persecuted, and dying in a foreign country, still cast his lingering looks on this beloved retreat, and left the society his heart, which was there inurned.

The Duchess of Longueville, a princess of the blood-royal, was, during her life, the powerful patroness of these solitary and religious men: but her death, in 1679, was the fatal stroke which dispersed them for ever.

The envy and the fears of the Jesuits, and their rancour against Arnauld, who with such ability had exposed their designs, occasioned the destruction of the Port-Royal Society. Exinanite, exinanite usque ad fundamentum in ea! —“Annihilate it, annihilate it, to its very foundations!” Such are the terms of the Jesuitic decree. The Jesuits had long called the little schools of Port-Royal the hot-beds of heresy. The Jesuits obtained by their intrigues an order from government to dissolve that virtuous society. They razed the buildings, and ploughed up the very foundation; they exhausted their hatred even on the stones, and profaned even the sanctuary of the dead; the corpses were torn out of their graves, and dogs were suffered to contend for the rags of their shrouds. The memory of that asylum of innocence and learning was still kept alive by those who collected the engravings representing the place by Mademoiselle Hortemels. The police, under Jesuitic influence, at length seized on the plates in the cabinet of the fair artist. — Caustic was the retort courteous which Arnauld gave the Jesuits —“I do not fear your pen, but its knife.

These were men whom the love of retirement had united to cultivate literature, in the midst of solitude, of peace, and of piety. Alike occupied on sacred, as on profane writers, their writings fixed the French language. The example of these solitaries shows how retirement is favourable to penetrate into the sanctuary of the Muses.

An interesting anecdote is related of Arnauld on the occasion of the dissolution of this society. The dispersion of these great men, and their young scholars, was lamented by every one but their enemies. Many persons of the highest rank participated in their sorrows. The excellent Arnauld, in that moment, was as closely pursued as if he had been a felon.

It was then the Duchess of Longueville concealed Arnauld in an obscure lodging, who assumed the dress of a layman, wearing a sword and full-bottomed wig. Arnauld was attacked by a fever, and in the course of conversation with his physician, he inquired after news. “They talk of a new book of the Port-Royal,” replied the doctor, “ascribed to Arnauld or to Sacy; but I do not believe it comes from Sacy; he does not write so well."—“How, sir!” exclaimed the philosopher, forgetting his sword and wig; “believe me, my nephew writes better than I do."— The physician eyed his patient with amazement — he hastened to the duchess, and told her, “The malady of the gentleman you sent me to is not very serious, provided you do not suffer him to see any one, and insist on his holding his tongue.” The duchess, alarmed, immediately had Arnauld conveyed to her palace. She concealed him in an apartment, and persisted to attend him herself. —“Ask,” she said, “what you want of the servant, but it shall be myself who shall bring it to you.”

How honourable is it to the female character, that, in many similar occurrences, their fortitude has proved to be equal to their sensibility! But the Duchess of Longueville contemplated in Arnauld a model of human fortitude which martyrs never excelled. His remarkable reply to Nicolle, when they were hunted from place to place, should never be forgotten: Arnauld wished Nicolle to assist him in a new work, when the latter observed, “We are now old, is it not time to rest?” “Rest!” returned Arnauld, “have we not all Eternity to rest in?” The whole of the Arnauld family were the most extraordinary instance of that hereditary character, which is continued through certain families: here it was a sublime, and, perhaps, singular union of learning with religion. The Arnaulds, Sacy, Pascal, Tillemont, with other illustrious names, to whom literary Europe will owe perpetual obligations, combined the life of the monastery with that of the library.

1 The early history of the house is not given quite clearly and correctly in the text. The old foundation of Cistercians, named Port-Royal des Champs, was situated in the valley of Chevreuse, near Versailles, and founded in 1204 by Bishop Eudes, of Paris. It was in the reign of Louis XIII. that Madame Arnauld, the mother of the then Abbess, hearing that the sisterhood suffered from the damp situation of their convent and its confined space, purchased a house as an infirmary for its sick members in the Fauxbourg St. Jacques, and called it the Port-Royal de Paris, to distinguish it from the older foundation.

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37