The Provincial Letters, by Blaise Pascal

Letter IX

Paris, July 3, 1656

SIR,

I shall use as little ceremony with you as the worthy monk did with me when I saw him last. The moment he perceived me, he came forward, with his eyes fixed on a book which he held in his hand, and accosted me thus: “’Would you not be infinitely obliged to any one who should open to you the gates of paradise? Would you not give millions of gold to have a key by which you might gain admittance whenever you thought proper? You need not be at such expense; here is one — here are a hundred for much less money.’”

At first I was at a loss to know whether the good father was reading, or talking to me, but he soon put the matter beyond doubt by adding:

“These, sir, are the opening words of a fine book, written by Father Barry of our Society; for I never give you anything of my own.”

“What book is it?” asked I.

“Here is its title,” he replied: “Paradise opened to Philagio, in a Hundred Devotions to the Mother of God, easily practised.”

“Indeed, father! and is each of these easy devotions a sufficient passport to heaven?”

“It is,” returned he. “Listen to what follows: ‘The devotions to the Mother of God, which you will find in this book, are so many celestial keys, which will open wide to you the gates of paradise, provided you practise them’; and, accordingly, he says at the conclusion, ‘that he is satisfied if you practise only one of them.’”

“Pray, then, father, do teach me one of the easiest of them.”

“They are all easy,” he replied, “for example —‘Saluting the Holy Virgin when you happen to meet her image — saying the little chaplet of the pleasures of the Virgin — fervently pronouncing the name of Mary — commissioning the angels to bow to her for us — wishing to build her as many churches as all the monarchs on earth have done — bidding her good morrow every morning, and good night in the evening — saying the Ave Maria every day, in honour of the heart of Mary’— which last devotion, he says, possesses the additional virtue of securing us the heart of the Virgin.”

“But, father,” said I, “only provided we give her our own in return, I presume?”

“That,” he replied, “is not absolutely necessary, when a person is too much attached to the world. Hear Father Barry: ‘Heart for heart would, no doubt, be highly proper; but yours is rather too much attached to the world, too much bound up in the creature, so that I dare not advise you to offer, at present, that poor little slave which you call your heart.’ And so he contents himself with the Ave Maria which he had prescribed.”

“Why, this is extremely easy work,” said I, “and I should really think that nobody will be damned after that.”

“Alas!” said the monk, “I see you have no idea of the hardness of some people’s hearts. There are some, sir, who would never engage to repeat, every day, even these simple words, Good day, Good evening, just because such a practice would require some exertion of memory. And, accordingly, it became necessary for Father Barry to furnish them with expedients still easier, such as wearing a chaplet night and day on the arm, in the form of a bracelet, or carrying about one’s person a rosary, or an image of the Virgin. ‘And, tell me now,’ as Father Barry says, ‘if I have not provided you with easy devotions to obtain the good graces of Mary?’”

“Extremely easy indeed, father,” I observed.

“Yes,” he said, “it is as much as could possibly be done, and I think should be quite satisfactory. For he must be a wretched creature indeed, who would not spare a single moment in all his lifetime to put a chaplet on his arm, or a rosary in his pocket, and thus secure his salvation; and that, too, with so much certainty that none who have tried the experiment have ever found it to fail, in whatever way they may have lived; though, let me add, we exhort people not to omit holy living. Let me refer you to the example of this, given at p. 34; it is that of a female who, while she practised daily the devotion of saluting the images of the Virgin, spent all her days in mortal sin, and yet was saved after all, by the merit of that single devotion.”

“And how so?” cried I.

“Our Saviour,” he replied, “raised her up again, for the very purpose of showing it. So certain it is that none can perish who practise any one of these devotions.”

“My dear sir,” I observed, “I am fully aware that the devotions to the Virgin are a powerful means of salvation, and that the least of them, if flowing from the exercise of faith and charity, as in the case of the saints who have practised them, are of great merit; but to make persons believe that, by practising these without reforming their wicked lives, they will be converted by them at the hour of death, or that God will raise them up again, does appear calculated rather to keep sinners going on in their evil courses, by deluding them with false peace and foolhardy confidence, than to draw them off from sin by that genuine conversion which grace alone can effect.”

“What does it matter,” replied the monk, “by what road we enter paradise, provided we do enter it? as our famous Father Binet, formerly our Provincial, remarks on a similar subject, in his excellent book, On the Mark of Predestination. ‘Be it by hook or by crook,’ as he says, ‘what need we care, if we reach at last the celestial city.’”

“Granted,” said I; “but the great question is if we will get there at all.”

“The Virgin will be answerable for that,” returned he; “so says Father Barry in the concluding lines of his book: ‘If at the hour of death, the enemy should happen to put in some claim upon you, and occasion disturbance in the little commonwealth of your thoughts, you have only to say that Mary will answer for you, and that he must make his application to her.’”

“But, father, it might be possible to puzzle you, were one disposed to push the question a little further. Who, for example, has assured us that the Virgin will be answerable in this case?”

“Father Barry will be answerable for her,” he replied. “’As for the profit and happiness to be derived from these devotions,’ he says, ‘I will be answerable for that; I will stand bail for the good Mother.’”

“But, father, who is to be answerable for Father Barry?”

“How!” cried the monk; “for Father Barry? is he not a member of our Society; and do you need to be told that our Society is answerable for all the books of its members? It is highly necessary and important for you to know about this. There is an order in our Society, by which all booksellers are prohibited from printing any work of our fathers without the approbation of our divines and the permission of our superiors. This regulation was passed by Henry III, 10th May 1583, and confirmed by Henry IV, 20th December 1603, and by Louis XIII, 14th February 1612; so that the whole of our body stands responsible for the publications of each of the brethren. This is a feature quite peculiar to our community. And, in consequence of this, not a single work emanates from us which does not breathe the spirit of the Society. That, sir, is a piece of information quite apropos.”

“My good father,” said I, “you oblige me very much, and I only regret that I did not know this sooner, as it will induce me to pay considerably more attention to your authors.”

“I would have told you sooner,” he replied, “had an opportunity offered; I hope, however, you will profit by the information in future, and, in the meantime, let us prosecute our subject. The methods of securing salvation which I have mentioned are, in my opinion, very easy, very sure, and sufficiently numerous; but it was the anxious wish of our doctors that people should not stop short at this first step, where they only do what is absolutely necessary for salvation and nothing more. Aspiring, as they do without ceasing, after the greater glory of God, they sought to elevate men to a higher pitch of piety; and, as men of the world are generally deterred from devotion by the strange ideas they have been led to form of it by some people, we have deemed it of the highest importance to remove this obstacle which meets us at the threshold. In this department Father Le Moine has acquired much fame, by his work entitled Devotion Made Easy, composed for this very purpose. The picture which he draws of devotion in this work is perfectly charming. None ever understood the subject before him. Only hear what he says in the beginning of his work: ‘Virtue has never as yet been seen aright; no portrait of her hitherto produced, has borne the least verisimilitude. It is by no means surprising that so few have attempted to scale her rocky eminence. She has been held up as a cross-tempered dame, whose only delight is in solitude; she has been associated with toil and sorrow; and, in short, represented as the foe of sports and diversions, which are, in fact, the flowers of joy and the seasoning of life.’”

“But, father, I am sure, I have heard, at least, that there have been great saints who led extremely austere lives.”

“No doubt of that,” he replied; “but still, to use the language of the doctor, ‘there have always been a number of genteel saints, and well-bred devotees’; and this difference in their manners, mark you, arises entirely from a difference of humours. ‘I am far from denying,’ says my author, ‘that there are devout persons to be met with, pale and melancholy in their temperament, fond of silence and retirement, with phlegm instead of blood in their veins, and with faces of clay; but there are many others of a happier complexion, and who possess that sweet and warm humour, that genial and rectified blood, which is the true stuff that joy is made of.’

“You see,” resumed the monk, “that the love of silence and retirement is not common to all devout people; and that, as I was saying, this is the effect rather of their complexion than their piety. Those austere manners to which you refer are, in fact, properly the character of a savage and barbarian, and, accordingly, you will find them ranked by Father Le Moine among the ridiculous and brutal manners of a moping idiot. The following is the description he has drawn of one of these in the seventh book of his Moral Pictures. ‘He has no eyes for the beauties of art or nature. Were he to indulge in anything that gave him pleasure, he would consider himself oppressed with a grievous load. On festival days, he retires to hold fellowship with the dead. He delights in a grotto rather than a palace, and prefers the stump of a tree to a throne. As to injuries and affronts, he is as insensible to them as if he had the eyes and ears of a statue. Honour and glory are idols with whom he has no acquaintance, and to whom he has no incense to offer. To him a beautiful woman is no better than a spectre; and those imperial and commanding looks — those charming tyrants who hold so many slaves in willing and chainless servitude — have no more influence over his optics than the sun over those of owls,’ &c.”

“Reverend sir,” said I, “had you not told me that Father Le Moine was the author of that description, I declare I would have guessed it to be the production of some profane fellow who had drawn it expressly with the view of turning the saints into ridicule. For if that is not the picture of a man entirely denied to those feelings which the Gospel obliges us to renounce, I confess that I know nothing of the matter.”

“You may now perceive, then, the extent of your ignorance,” he replied; “for these are the features of a feeble, uncultivated mind, ‘destitute of those virtuous and natural affections which it ought to possess,’ as Father Le Moine says at the close of that description. Such is his way of teaching ‘Christian virtue and philosophy,’ as he announces in his advertisement; and, in truth, it cannot be denied that this method of treating devotion is much more agreeable to the taste of the world than the old way in which they went to work before our times.”

“There can be no comparison between them,” was my reply, “and I now begin to hope that you will be as good as your word.”

“You will see that better by-and-by,” returned the monk. “Hitherto I have only spoken of piety in general, but, just to show you more in detail how our fathers have disencumbered it of its toils and troubles, would it not be most consoling to the ambitious to learn that they may maintain genuine devotion along with an inordinate love of greatness?”

“What, father! even though they should run to the utmost excess of ambition?”

“Yes,” he replied; “for this would be only a venial sin, unless they sought after greatness in order to offend God and injure the State more effectually. Now venial sins do not preclude a man from being devout, as the greatest saints are not exempt from them. ‘Ambition,’ says Escobar, ‘which consists in an inordinate appetite for place and power, is of itself a venial sin; but when such dignities are coveted for the purpose of hurting the commonwealth, or having more opportunity to offend God, these adventitious circumstances render it mortal.’”

“Very savoury doctrine, indeed, father.”

“And is it not still more savoury,” continued the monk, “for misers to be told, by the same authority, ‘that the rich are not guilty of mortal sin by refusing to give alms out of their superfluity to the poor in the hour of their greatest need? — scio in gravi pauperum necessitate divites non dando superflua, non peccare mortaliter.’”

“Why truly,” said I, “if that be the case, I give up all pretension to skill in the science of sins.”

“To make you still more sensible of this,” returned he, “you have been accustomed to think, I suppose, that a good opinion of one’s self, and a complacency in one’s own works, is a most dangerous sin? Now, will you not be surprised if I can show you that such a good opinion, even though there should be no foundation for it, is so far from being a sin that it is, on the contrary, the gift of God?”

“Is it possible, father?”

“That it is,” said the monk; “and our good Father Garasse shows it in his French work, entitled Summary of the Capital Truths of Religion: ‘It is a result of commutative justice that all honest labour should find its recompense either in praise or in self-satisfaction. When men of good talents publish some excellent work, they are justly remunerated by public applause. But when a man of weak parts has wrought hard at some worthless production, and fails to obtain the praise of the public, in order that his labour may not go without its reward, God imparts to him a personal satisfaction, which it would be worse than barbarous injustice to envy him. It is thus that God, who is infinitely just, has given even to frogs a certain complacency in their own croaking.’”

“Very fine decisions in favour of vanity, ambition, and avarice!” cried I; “and envy, father, will it be more difficult to find an excuse for it?”

“That is a delicate point,” he replied. “We require to make use here of Father Bauny’s distinction, which he lays down in his Summary of Sins. —‘Envy of the spiritual good of our neighbour is mortal but envy of his temporal good is only venial.’”

“And why so, father?”

“You shall hear, said he. “’For the good that consists in temporal things is so slender, and so insignificant in relation to heaven, that it is of no consideration in the eyes of God and His saints.’”

“But, father, if temporal good is so slender, and of so little consideration, how do you come to permit men’s lives to be taken away in order to preserve it?”

“You mistake the matter entirely,” returned the monk; “you were told that temporal good was of no consideration in the eyes of God, but not in the eyes of men.”

“That idea never occurred to me,” I replied; “and now, it is to be hoped that, in virtue of these same distinctions, the world will get rid of mortal sins altogether.”

“Do not flatter yourself with that,” said the father; “there are still such things as mortal sins — there is sloth, for example.”

“Nay, then, father dear!” I exclaimed, “after that, farewell to all ‘the joys of life!’”

“Stay,” said the monk, “when you have heard Escobar’s definition of that vice, you will perhaps change your tone: ‘Sloth,’ he observes, ‘lies in grieving that spiritual things are spiritual, as if one should lament that the sacraments are the sources of grace; which would be a mortal sin.’”

“O my dear sir!” cried I, “I don’t think that anybody ever took it into his head to be slothful in that way.”

“And accordingly,” he replied, “Escobar afterwards remarks: ‘I must confess that it is very rarely that a person falls into the sin of sloth.’ You see now how important it is to define things properly?”

“Yes, father, and this brings to my mind your other definitions about assassinations, ambuscades, and superfluities. But why have you not extended your method to all cases, and given definitions of all vices in your way, so that people may no longer sin in gratifying themselves?”

“It is not always essential,” he replied, “to accomplish that purpose by changing the definitions of things. I may illustrate this by referring to the subject of good cheer, which is accounted one of the greatest pleasures of life, and which Escobar thus sanctions in his Practice according to our Society: ‘Is it allowable for a person to eat and drink to repletion, unnecessarily, and solely for pleasure? Certainly he may, according to Sanchez, provided he does not thereby injure his health; because the natural appetite may be permitted to enjoy its proper functions.’”

“Well, father, that is certainly the most complete passage, and the most finished maxim in the whole of your moral system! What comfortable inferences may be drawn from it! Why, and is gluttony, then, not even a venial sin?”

“Not in the shape I have just referred to,” he replied; “but, according to the same author, it would be a venial sin ‘were a person to gorge himself, unnecessarily, with eating and drinking, to such a degree as to produce vomiting.’ So much for that point. I would now say a little about the facilities we have invented for avoiding sin in worldly conversations and intrigues. One of the most embarrassing of these cases is how to avoid telling lies, particularly when one is anxious to induce a belief in what is false. In such cases, our doctrine of equivocations has been found of admirable service, according to which, as Sanchez has it, ‘it is permitted to use ambiguous terms, leading people to understand them in another sense from that in which we understand them ourselves.’”

“I know that already, father,” said I.

“We have published it so often,” continued he, “that at length, it seems, everybody knows of it. But do you know what is to be done when no equivocal words can be got?”

“No, father.”

“I thought as much, said the Jesuit; “this is something new, sir: I mean the doctrine of mental reservations. ‘A man may swear,’ as Sanchez says in the same place, ‘that he never did such a thing (though he actually did it), meaning within himself that he did not do so on a certain day, or before he was born, or understanding any other such circumstance, while the words which he employs have no such sense as would discover his meaning. And this is very convenient in many cases, and quite innocent, when necessary or conducive to one’s health, honour, or advantage.’”

“Indeed, father! is that not a lie, and perjury to boot?”

“No,” said the father; “Sanchez and Filiutius prove that it is not; for, says the latter, ‘it is the intention that determines the quality of the action.’ And he suggests a still surer method for avoiding falsehood, which is this: After saying aloud, ‘I swear that I have not done that,’ to add, in a low voice, ‘to-day’; or after saying aloud, ‘I swear,’ to interpose in a whisper, ‘that I say,’ and then continue aloud, ‘that I have done that.’ This, you perceive, is telling the truth.”

“I grant it,” said I; “it might possibly, however, be found to be telling the truth in a low key, and falsehood in a loud one; besides, I should be afraid that many people might not have sufficient presence of mind to avail themselves of these methods.”

“Our doctors,” replied the Jesuit, “have taught, in the same passage, for the benefit of such as might not be expert in the use of these reservations, that no more is required of them, to avoid lying, than simply to say that ‘they have not done’ what they have done, provided ‘they have, in general, the intention of giving to their language the sense which an able man would give to it.’ Be candid, now, and confess if you have not often felt yourself embarrassed, in consequence of not knowing this?”

“Sometimes,” said I.

“And will you not also acknowledge,” continued he, “that it would often prove very convenient to be absolved in conscience from keeping certain engagements one may have made?”

“The most convenient thing in the world!” I replied.

“Listen, then, to the general rule laid down by Escobar: ‘Promises are not binding, when the person in making them had no intention to bind himself. Now, it seldom happens that any have such an intention, unless when they confirm their promises by an oath or contract; so that when one simply says, “I will do it,” he means that he will do it if he does not change his mind; for he does not wish, by saying that, to deprive himself of his liberty.’ He gives other rules in the same strain, which you may consult for yourself, and tells us, in conclusion, ‘that all this is taken from Molina and our other authors, and is therefore settled beyond all doubt.’”

“My dear father,” I observed, “I had no idea that the direction of the intention possessed the power of rendering promises null and void.”

“You must perceive,” returned he, “what facility this affords for prosecuting the business of life. But what has given us the most trouble has been to regulate the commerce between the sexes; our fathers being more chary in the matter of chastity. Not but that they have discussed questions of a very curious and very indulgent character, particularly in reference to married and betrothed persons.”

At this stage of the conversation I was made acquainted with the most extraordinary questions you can well imagine. He gave me enough of them to fill many letters; but, as you show my communications to all sorts of persons, and as I do not choose to be the vehicle of such reading to those who would make it the subject of diversion, I must decline even giving the quotations.

The only thing to which I can venture to allude, out of all the books which he showed me, and these in French, too, is a passage which you will find in Father Bauny’s Summary, p. 165, relating to certain little familiarities, which, provided the intention is well directed, he explains “as passing for gallant”; and you will be surprised to find, on p. 148 a principle of morals, as to the power which daughters have to dispose of their persons without the leave of their relatives, couched in these terms: “When that is done with the consent of the daughter, although the father may have reason to complain, it does not follow that she, or the person to whom she has sacrificed her honour, has done him any wrong, or violated the rules of justice in regard to him; for the daughter has possession of her honour, as well as of her body, and can do what she pleases with them, bating death or mutilation of her members.” Judge, from that specimen, of the rest. It brings to my recollection a passage from a heathen poet, a much better casuist, it would appear, than these reverend doctors; for he says, “that the person of a daughter does not belong wholly to herself, but partly to her father and partly to her mother, without whom she cannot dispose of it, even in marriage.” And I am much mistaken if there is a single judge in the land who would not lay down as law the very reverse of this maxim of Father Bauny.

This is all I dare tell you of this part of our conversation, which lasted so long that I was obliged to beseech the monk to change the subject. He did so and proceeded to entertain me with their regulations about female attire.

“We shall not speak,” he said, “of those who are actuated by impure intentions; but, as to others, Escobar remarks that ‘if the woman adorn herself without any evil intention, but merely to gratify a natural inclination to vanity — ob naturalem fastus inclinationem — this is only a venial sin, or rather no sin at all.’ And Father Bauny maintains, that ‘even though the woman knows the bad effect which her care in adorning her person may have upon the virtue of those who may behold her, all decked out in rich and precious attire, she would not sin in so dressing.’ And, among others, he cites our Father Sanchez as being of the same mind.”

“But, father, what do your authors say to those passages of Scripture which so strongly denounce everything of that sort?”

“Lessius has well met that objection,” said the monk, “by observing, ‘that these passages of Scripture have the force of precepts only in regard to the women of that period, who were expected to exhibit, by their modest demeanour, an example of edification to the Pagans.’”

“And where did he find that, father”?

“It does not matter where he found it,” replied he; “it is enough to know that the sentiments of these great men are always probable of themselves. It deserves to be noticed, however, that Father Le Moine has qualified this general permission; for he will on no account allow it to be extended to the old ladies. ‘Youth,’ he observes, ‘is naturally entitled to adorn itself, nor can the use of ornament be condemned at an age which is the flower and verdure of life. But there it should be allowed to remain: it would be strangely out of season to seek for roses on the snow. The stars alone have a right to be always dancing, for they have the gift of perpetual youth. The wisest course in this matter, therefore, for old women, would be to consult good sense and a good mirror, to yield to decency and necessity, and to retire at the first approach of the shades of night.’”

“A most judicious advice,” I observed.

“But,” continued the monk, “just to show you how careful our fathers are about everything you can think of, I may mention that, after granting the ladies permission to gamble, and foreseeing that, in many cases, this license would be of little avail unless they had something to gamble with, they have established another maxim in their favour, which will be found in Escobar’s chapter on larceny, no. 13: ‘A wife,’ says he, ‘may gamble, and for this purpose may pilfer money from her husband.’”

“Well, father, that is capital!

“There are many other good things besides that,” said the father; “but we must waive them and say a little about those more important maxims, which facilitate the practice of holy things — the manner of attending mass, for example. On this subject, our great divines, Gaspard Hurtado and Coninck, have taught ‘that it is quite sufficient to be present at mass in body, though we may be absent in spirit, provided we maintain an outwardly respectful deportment.’ Vasquez goes a step further, maintaining ‘that one fulfils the precept of hearing mass, even though one should go with no such intention at all.’ All this is repeatedly laid down by Escobar, who, in one passage, illustrates the point by the example of those who are dragged to mass by force, and who put on a fixed resolution not to listen to it.”

“Truly, sir,” said I, “had any other person told me that, I would not have believed it.”

“In good sooth,” he replied, “it requires all the support which the authority of these great names can lend it; and so does the following maxim by the same Escobar, ‘that even a wicked intention, such as that of ogling the women, joined to that of hearing mass rightly, does not hinder a man from fulfilling the service.’ But another very convenient device, suggested by our learned brother Turrian, is that ‘one may hear the half of a mass from one priest, and the other half from another; and that it makes no difference though he should hear first the conclusion of the one, and then the commencement of the other.’ I might also mention that it has been decided by several of our doctors to be lawful ‘to hear the two halves of a mass at the same time, from the lips of two different priests, one of whom is commencing the mass, while the other is at the elevation; it being quite possible to attend to both parties at once, and two halves of a mass making a whole — duae medietates unam missam constituunt.’ ‘From all which,’ says Escobar, ‘I conclude, that you may hear mass in a very short period of time; if, for example, you should happen to hear four masses going on at the same time, so arranged that when the first is at the commencement, the second is at the gospel, the third at the consecration, and the last at the communion.’”

“Certainly, father, according to that plan, one may hear mass any day at Notre Dame in a twinkling.”

“Well,” replied he, “that just shows how admirably we have succeeded in facilitating the hearing of mass. But I am anxious now to show you how we have softened the use of the sacraments, and particularly that of penance. It is here that the benignity of our fathers shines in its truest splendour; and you will be really astonished to find that devotion, a thing which the world is so much afraid of, should have been treated by our doctors with such consummate skill that, to use the words of Father Le Moine, in his Devotion Made Easy, demolishing the bugbear which the devil had placed at its threshold, they have rendered it easier than vice and more agreeable than pleasure; so that, in fact, simply to live is incomparably more irksome than to live well. Is that not a marvellous change, now?”

“Indeed, father, I cannot help telling you a bit of my mind: I am sadly afraid that you have overshot the mark, and that this indulgence of yours will shock more people than it will attract. The mass, for example, is a thing so grand and so holy that, in the eyes of a great many, it would be enough to blast the credit of your doctors forever to show them how you have spoken of it.”

“With a certain class,” replied the monk, “I allow that may be the case; but do you not know that we accommodate ourselves to all sorts of persons? You seem to have lost all recollection of what I have repeatedly told you on this point. The first time you are at leisure, therefore, I propose that we make this the theme of our conversation, deferring till then the lenitives we have introduced into the confessional. I promise to make you understand it so well that you will never forget it.”

With these words we parted, so that our next conversation, I presume, will turn on the policy of the Society. I am, &c.

P.S. Since writing the above, I have seen Paradise Opened by a Hundred Devotions Easily Practised, by Father Barry; and also the Mark of Predestination, by Father Binet; both of them pieces well worth the seeing.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/p/pascal/blaise/p27pr/part10.html

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:10