The Provincial Letters, by Blaise Pascal

Letter IV

Paris, February 25, 1656


Nothing can come up to the Jesuits. I have seen Jacobins, doctors, and all sorts of people in my day, but such an interview as I have just had was wanting to complete my knowledge of mankind. Other men are merely copies of them. As things are always found best at the fountainhead, I paid a visit to one of the ablest among them, in company with my trusty Jansenist — the same who accompanied me to the Dominicans. Being particularly anxious to learn something of a dispute which they have with the Jansenists about what they call actual grace, I said to the worthy father that I would be much obliged to him if he would instruct me on this point — that I did not even know what the term meant and would thank him to explain it. “With all my heart,” the Jesuit replied; “for I dearly love inquisitive people. Actual grace, according to our definition, ‘is an inspiration of God, whereby He makes us to know His will and excites within us a desire to perform it.’”

“And where,” said I, “lies your difference with the Jansenists on this subject?”

“The difference lies here,” he replied; “we hold that God bestows actual grace on all men in every case of temptation; for we maintain that unless a person have, whenever tempted, actual grace to keep him from sinning, his sin, whatever it may be, can never be imputed to him. The Jansenists, on the other hand, affirm that sins, though committed without actual grace, are, nevertheless, imputed; but they are a pack of fools.” I got a glimpse of his meaning; but, to obtain from him a fuller explanation, I observed: “My dear father, it is that phrase actual grace that puzzles me; I am quite a stranger to it, and if you would have the goodness to tell me the same thing over again, without employing that term, you would infinitely oblige me.”

“Very good,” returned the father; “that is to say, you want me to substitute the definition in place of the thing defined; that makes no alteration of the sense; I have no objections. We maintain it, then, as an undeniable principle, that an action cannot be imputed as a sin, unless God bestow on us, before committing it, the knowledge of the evil that is in the action, and an inspiration inciting us to avoid it. Do you understand me now?”

Astonished at such a declaration, according to which, no sins of surprise, nor any of those committed in entire forgetfulness of God, could be imputed, I turned round to my friend the Jansenist and easily discovered from his looks that he was of a different way of thinking. But as he did not utter a word, I said to the monk, “I would fain wish, my dear father, to think that what you have now said is true, and that you have good proofs for it.”

“Proofs, say you!” he instantly exclaimed: “I shall furnish you with these very soon, and the very best sort too; let me alone for that.”

So saying, he went in search of his books, and I took this opportunity of asking my friend if there was any other person who talked in this manner? “Is this so strange to you?” he replied. “You may depend upon it that neither the fathers, nor the popes, nor councils, nor Scripture, nor any book of devotion employ such language; but, if you wish casuists and modern schoolmen, he will bring you a goodly number of them on his side.” “O! but I care not a fig about these authors, if they are contrary to tradition,” I said. “You are right,” he replied.

As he spoke, the good father entered the room, laden with books; and presenting to me the first that came to hand. “Read that,” he said; “this is The Summary of Sins, by Father Bauny — the fifth edition too, you see, which shows that it is a good book.”

“It is a pity, however,” whispered the Jansenist in my ear, “that this same book has been condemned at Rome, and by the bishops of France.”

“Look at page 906,” said the father. I did so and read as follows: “In order to sin and become culpable in the sight of God, it is necessary to know that the thing we wish to do is not good, or at least to doubt that it is — to fear or to judge that God takes no pleasure in the action which we contemplate, but forbids it; and in spite of this, to commit the deed, leap the fence, and transgress.”

“This is a good commencement,” I remarked. “And yet,” said he, “mark how far envy will carry some people. It was on that very passage that M. Hallier, before he became one of our friends, bantered Father Bauny, by applying to him these words: Ecce qui tollit peccata mundi —‘Behold the man that taketh away the sins of the world!’”

“Certainly,” said I, “according to Father Bauny, we may be said to behold a redemption of an entirely new description.”

“Would you have a more authentic witness on the point?” added he. “Here is the book of Father Annat. It is the last that he wrote against M. Arnauld. Turn up to page 34, where there is a dog’s ear, and read the lines which I have marked with pencil — they ought to be written in letters of gold.” I then read these words: “He that has no thought of God, nor of his sins, nor any apprehension (that is, as he explained it, any knowledge) of his obligation to exercise the acts of love to God or contrition, has no actual grace for exercising those acts; but it is equally true that he is guilty of no sin in omitting them, and that, if he is damned, it will not be as a punishment for that omission.” And a few lines below, he adds: “The same thing may be said of a culpable commission.”

“You see,” said the monk, “how he speaks of sins of omission and of commission. Nothing escapes him. What say you to that?”

“Say!” I exclaimed. “I am delighted! What a charming train of consequences do I discover flowing from this doctrine! I can see the whole results already; and such mysteries present themselves before me! Why, I see more people, beyond all comparison, justified by this ignorance and forgetfulness of God, than by grace and the sacraments! But, my dear father, are you not inspiring me with a delusive joy? Are you sure there is nothing here like that sufficiency which suffices not? I am terribly afraid of the Distinguo; I was taken in with that once already! Are you quite in earnest?”

“How now!” cried the monk, beginning to get angry, “here is no matter for jesting. I assure you there is no such thing as equivocation here.”

“I am not making a jest of it, said I; “but that is what I really dread, from pure anxiety to find it true.”

“Well then,” he said, “to assure yourself still more of it, here are the writings of M. le Moine, who taught the doctrine in a full meeting of the Sorbonne. He learned it from us, to be sure; but he has the merit of having cleared it up most admirably. O how circumstantially he goes to work! He shows that, in order to make out action to be a sin, all these things must have passed through the mind. Read, and weigh every word.” I then read what I now give you in a translation from the original Latin: “1. On the one hand, God sheds abroad on the soul some measure of love, which gives it a bias toward the thing commanded; and on the other, a rebellious concupiscence solicits it in the opposite direction. 2. God inspires the soul with a knowledge of its own weakness. 3. God reveals the knowledge of the physician who can heal it. 4. God inspires it with a desire to be healed. 5. God inspires a desire to pray and solicit his assistance.”

“And unless all these things occur and pass through the soul,” added the monk, “the action is not properly a sin, and cannot be imputed, as M. le Moine shows in the same place and in what follows. Would you wish to have other authorities for this? Here they are.”

“All modern ones, however,” whispered my Jansenist friend.

“So I perceive,” said I to him aside; and then, turning to the monk: “O my dear sir,” cried I, “what a blessing this will be to some persons of my acquaintance! I must positively introduce them to you. You have never, perhaps, met with people who had fewer sins to account for all your life. For, in the first place, they never think of God at all; their vices have got the better of their reason; they have never known either their weakness or the physician who can cure it; they have never thought of ‘desiring the health of their soul,’ and still less of ‘praying to God to bestow it’; so that, according to M. le Moine, they are still in the state of baptismal innocence. They have ‘never had a thought of loving God or of being contrite for their sins’; so that, according to Father Annat, they have never committed sin through the want of charity and penitence. Their life is spent in a perpetual round of all sorts of pleasures, in the course of which they have not been interrupted by the slightest remorse. These excesses had led me to imagine that their perdition was inevitable; but you, father, inform me that these same excesses secure their salvation. Blessings on you, my good father, for this way of justifying people! Others prescribe painful austerities for healing the soul; but you show that souls which may be thought desperately distempered are in quite good health. What an excellent device for being happy both in this world and in the next! I had always supposed that the less a man thought of God, the more he sinned; but, from what I see now, if one could only succeed in bringing himself not to think upon God at all, everything would be pure with him in all time coming. Away with your half-and-half sinners, who retain some sneaking affection for virtue! They will be damned every one of them, these semi-sinners. But commend me to your arrant sinners — hardened, unalloyed, out-and-out, thorough-bred sinners. Hell is no place for them; they have cheated the devil, purely by virtue of their devotion to his service!”

The good father, who saw very well the connection between these consequences and his principle, dexterously evaded them; and, maintaining his temper, either from good nature or policy, he merely replied: “To let you understand how we avoid these inconveniences, you must know that, while we affirm that these reprobates to whom you refer would be without sin if they had no thoughts of conversion and no desires to devote themselves to God, we maintain that they all actually have such thoughts and desires, and that God never permitted a man to sin without giving him previously a view of the evil which he contemplated, and a desire, either to avoid the offence, or at all events to implore his aid to enable him to avoid it; and none but Jansenists will assert the contrary.”

“Strange! father,” returned I; “is this, then, the heresy of the Jansenists, to deny that every time a man commits a sin he is troubled with a remorse of conscience, in spite of which, he ‘leaps the fence and transgresses,’ as Father Bauny has it? It is rather too good a joke to be made a heretic for that. I can easily believe that a man may be damned for not having good thoughts; but it never would have entered my head to imagine that any man could be subjected to that doom for not believing that all mankind must have good thoughts! But, father, I hold myself bound in conscience to disabuse you and to inform you that there are thousands of people who have no such desires — who sin without regret — who sin with delight — who make a boast of sinning. And who ought to know better about these things than yourself.? You cannot have failed to have confessed some of those to whom I allude; for it is among persons of high rank that they are most generally to be met with. But mark, father, the dangerous consequences of your maxim. Do you not perceive what effect it may have on those libertines who like nothing better than to find out matter of doubt in religion? What a handle do you give them, when you assure them, as an article of faith, that, on every occasion when they commit a sin, they feel an inward presentiment of the evil and a desire to avoid it? Is it not obvious that, feeling convinced by their own experience of the falsity of your doctrine on this point, which you say is a matter of faith, they will extend the inference drawn from this to all the other points? They will argue that, since you are not trustworthy in one article, you are to be suspected in them all; and thus you shut them up to conclude either that religion is false or that you must know very little about it.”

Here my friend the Jansenist, following up my remarks, said to him: “You would do well, father, if you wish to preserve your doctrine, not to explain so precisely as you have done to us what you mean by actual grace. For, how could you, without forfeiting all credit in the estimation of men, openly declare that nobody sins without having previously the knowledge of his weakness, and of a physician, or the desire of a cure, and of asking it of God? Will it be believed, on your word, that those who are immersed in avarice, impurity, blasphemy, duelling, revenge, robbery and sacrilege, have really a desire to embrace chastity, humility, and the other Christian virtues? Can it be conceived that those philosophers who boasted so loudly of the powers of nature, knew its infirmity and its physician? Will you maintain that those who held it as a settled maxim that is not God that bestows virtue, and that no one ever asked it from him,’ would think of asking it for themselves? Who can believe that the Epicureans, who denied a divine providence, ever felt any inclination to pray to God? men who said that ‘it would be an insult to invoke the Deity in our necessities, as if he were capable of wasting a thought on beings like us?’ In a word, how can it be imagined that idolaters and atheists, every time they are tempted to the commission of sin, in other words, infinitely often during their lives, have a desire to pray to the true God, of whom they are ignorant, that he would bestow on them virtues of which they have no conception?”

“Yes,” said the worthy monk, in a resolute tone, “we will affirm it: and sooner than allow that any one sins without having the consciousness that he is doing evil, and the desire of the opposite virtue, we will maintain that the whole world, reprobates and infidels included, have these inspirations and desires in every case of temptation. You cannot show me, from the Scripture at least, that this is not the truth.”

On this remark I struck in, by exclaiming: “What! father, must we have recourse to the Scripture to demonstrate a thing so clear as this? This is not a point of faith, nor even of reason. It is a matter of fact: we see it — we know it — we feel it.”

But the Jansenist, keeping the monk to his own terms, addressed him as follows: “If you are willing, father, to stand or fall by Scripture, I am ready to meet you there; only you must promise to yield to its authority; and, since it is written that ‘God has not revealed his judgements to the Heathen, but left them to wander in their own ways,’ you must not say that God has enlightened those whom the Sacred Writings assure us ‘he has left in darkness and in the shadow of death.’ Is it not enough to show the erroneousness of your principle, to find that St. Paul calls himself ‘the chief of sinners,’ for a sin which he committed ‘ignorantly, and with zeal’? Is it not enough, to and from the Gospel, that those who crucified Jesus Christ had need of the pardon which he asked for them, although they knew not the malice of their action, and would never have committed it, according to St. Paul, if they had known it? Is it not enough that Jesus Christ apprises us that there will be persecutors of the Church, who, while making every effort to ruin her, will ‘think that they are doing God service’; teaching us that this sin, which in the judgement of the apostle, is the greatest of all sins, may be committed by persons who, so far from knowing that they were sinning, would think that they sinned by not committing it? In fine, it is not enough that Jesus Christ himself has taught us that there are two kinds of sinners, the one of whom sin with ‘knowledge of their Master’s will,’ and the other without knowledge; and that both of them will be ‘chastised,’ although, indeed, in a different manner?”

Sorely pressed by so many testimonies from Scripture, to which he had appealed, the worthy monk began to give way; and, leaving the wicked to sin without inspiration, he said: “You will not deny that good men, at least, never sin unless God give them”—“You are flinching,” said I, interrupting him; “you are flinching now, my good father; you abandon the general principle, and, finding that it will not hold good in regard to the wicked, you would compound the matter, by making it apply at least to the righteous. But in this point of view the application of it is, I conceive, so circumscribed that it will hardly apply to anybody, and it is scarcely worth while to dispute the point.”

My friend, however, who was so ready on the whole question, that I am inclined to think he had studied it all that very morning, replied: “This, father, is the last entrenchment to which those of your party who are willing to reason at all are sure to retreat; but you are far from being safe even here. The example of the saints is not a whit more in your favour. Who doubts that they often fall into sins of surprise, without being conscious of them? Do we not learn from the saints themselves how often concupiscence lays hidden snares for them; and how generally it happens, as St. Augustine complains of himself in his Confessions, that, with all their discretion, they ‘give to pleasure what they mean only to give to necessity’?

“How usual is it to see the more zealous friends of truth betrayed by the heat of controversy into sallies of bitter passion for their personal interests, while their consciences, at the time, bear them no other testimony than that they are acting in this manner purely for the interests of truth, and they do not discover their mistake till long afterwards!

“What, again, shall we say of those who, as we learn from examples in ecclesiastical history, eagerly involve themselves in affairs which are really bad, because they believe them to be really good; and yet this does not hinder the fathers from condemning such persons as having sinned on these occasions?

“And were this not the case, how could the saints have their secret faults? How could it be true that God alone knows the magnitude and the number of our offences; that no one knows whether he is worthy of hatred or love; and that the best of saints, though unconscious of any culpability, ought always, as St. Paul says of himself, to remain in ‘fear and trembling’?

“You perceive, then, father, that this knowledge of the evil and love of the opposite virtue, which you imagine to be essential to constitute sin, are equally disproved by the examples of the righteous and of the wicked. In the case of the wicked, their passion for vice sufficiently testifies that they have no desire for virtue; and in regard to the righteous, the love which they bear to virtue plainly shows that they are not always conscious of those sins which, as the Scripture teaches, they are daily committing.

“So true is it, indeed, that the righteous often sin through ignorance, that the greatest saints rarely sin otherwise. For how can it be supposed that souls so pure, who avoid with so much care and zeal the least things that can be displeasing to God as soon as they discover them, and who yet sin many times every day, could possibly have every time before they fell into sin, ‘the knowledge of their infirmity on that occasion, and of their physician, and the desire of their souls’ health, and of praying to God for assistance,’ and that, in spite of these inspirations, these devoted souls ‘nevertheless transgress,’ and commit the sin?

“You must conclude then, father, that neither sinners nor yet saints have always that knowledge, or those desires and inspirations, every time they offend; that is, to use your own terms, they have not always actual grace. Say no longer, with your modern authors, that it is impossible for those to sin who do not know righteousness; but rather join with St. Augustine and the ancient fathers in saying that it is impossible not to sin, when we do not know righteousness: Necesse est ut peccet, a quo ignoratur justilia.”

The good father, though thus driven from both of his positions, did not lose courage, but after ruminating a little, “Ha!” he exclaimed, “I shall convince you immediately.” And again taking up Father Bauny, he pointed to the same place he had before quoted, exclaiming, “Look now — see the ground on which he establishes his opinion! I was sure he would not be deficient in good proofs. Read what he quotes from Aristotle, and you will see that, after so express an authority, you must either burn the books of this prince of philosophers or adopt our opinion. Hear, then, the principles which support Father Bauny: Aristotle states first, ‘that an action cannot be imputed as blameworthy, if it be involuntary.’”

“I grant that,” said my friend.

“This is the first time you have agreed together,” said I. “Take my advice, father, and proceed no further.”

“That would be doing nothing,” he replied; “we must know what are the conditions necessary to constitute an action voluntary.”

“I am much afraid,” returned I, “that you will get at loggerheads on that point.”

“No fear of that,” said he; “this is sure ground — Aristotle is on my side. Hear now, what Father Bauny says: ‘In order that an action be voluntary, it must proceed from a man who perceives, knows, and comprehends what is good and what is evil in it. Voluntarium est — that is a voluntary action, as we commonly say with the philosopher’ (that is Aristotle, you know, said the monk, squeezing my hand); ‘quod fit a principio cognoscente singula in quibus est actio — which is done by a person knowing the particulars of the action; so that when the will is led inconsiderately, and without mature reflection, to embrace or reject, to do or omit to do anything, before the understanding has been able to see whether it would be right or wrong, such an action is neither good nor evil; because previous to this mental inquisition, view, and reflection on the good or bad qualities of the matter in question, the act by which it is done is not voluntary.’ Are you satisfied now?” said the father.

“It appears,” returned I, “that Aristotle agrees with Father Bauny; but that does not prevent me from feeling surprised at this statement. What, sir! is it not enough to make an action voluntary that the man knows what he is doing, and does it just because he chooses to do it? Must we suppose, besides this, that he ‘perceives, knows, and comprehends what is good and evil in the action’? Why, on this supposition there would be hardly such a thing in nature as voluntary actions, for no one scarcely thinks about all this. How many oaths in gambling, how many excesses in debauchery, how many riotous extravagances in the carnival, must, on this principle, be excluded from the list of voluntary actions, and consequently neither good nor bad, because not accompanied by those ‘mental reflections on the good and evil qualities’ of the action? But is it possible, father, that Aristotle held such a sentiment? I have always understood that he was a sensible man.”

“I shall soon convince you of that, said the Jansenist, and requesting a sight of Aristotle’s Ethics, he opened it at the beginning of the third book, from which Father Bauny had taken the passage quoted, and said to the monk: “I excuse you, my dear sir, for having believed, on the word of Father Bauny, that Aristotle held such a sentiment; but you would have changed your mind had you read him for yourself. It is true that he teaches, that ‘in order to make an action voluntary, we must know the particulars of that action’— singula in quibus est actio. But what else does he means by that, than the circumstances of the action? The examples which he adduces clearly show this to be his meaning, for they are exclusively confined to cases in which the persons were ignorant of some of the circumstances; such as that of ‘a person who, wishing to exhibit a machine, discharges a dart which wounds a bystander; and that of Merope, who killed her own son instead of her enemy,’ and such like.

“Thus you see what is the kind of ignorance that renders actions involuntary; namely, that of the particular circumstances, which is termed by divines, as you must know, ignorance of the fact. But with respect to ignorance of the right — ignorance of the good or evil in an action — which is the only point in question, let us see if Aristotle agrees with Father Bauny. Here are the words of the philosopher: ‘All wicked men are ignorant of what they ought to do, and what they ought to avoid; and it is this very ignorance which makes them wicked and vicious. Accordingly, a man cannot be said to act involuntarily merely because he is ignorant of what it is proper for him to do in order to fulfil his duty. This ignorance in the choice of good and evil does not make the action involuntary; it only makes it vicious. The same thing may be affirmed of the man who is ignorant generally of the rules of his duty; such ignorance is worthy of blame, not of excuse. And consequently, the ignorance which renders actions involuntary and excusable is simply that which relates to the fact and its particular circumstances. In this case the person is excused and forgiven, being considered as having acted contrary to his inclination.’

“After this, father, will you maintain that Aristotle is of your opinion? And who can help being astonished to find that a Pagan philosopher had more enlightened views than your doctors, in a matter so deeply affecting morals, and the direction of conscience, too, as the knowledge of those conditions which render actions voluntary or involuntary, and which, accordingly, charge or discharge them as sinful? Look for no more support, then, father, from the prince of philosophers, and no longer oppose yourselves to the prince of theologians, who has thus decided the point in the first book of his Retractations, chapter xv: ‘Those who sin through ignorance, though they sin without meaning to sin, commit the deed only because they will commit it. And, therefore, even this sin of ignorance cannot be committed except by the will of him who commits it, though by a will which incites him to the action merely, and not to the sin; and yet the action itself is nevertheless sinful, for it is enough to constitute it such that he has done what he was bound not to do.’”

The Jesuit seemed to be confounded more with the passage from Aristotle, I thought, than that from St. Augustine; but while he was thinking on what he could reply, a messenger came to inform him that Madame la Marechale of — and Madame the Marchioness of — requested his attendance. So, taking a hasty leave of us, he said: “I shall speak about it to our fathers. They will find an answer to it, I warrant you; we have got some long heads among us.”

We understood him perfectly well; and, on our being left alone, I expressed to my friend my astonishment at the subversion which this doctrine threatened to the whole system of morals. To this he replied that he was quite astonished at my astonishment. “Are you not yet aware,” he said, “that they have gone to far greater excess in morals than in any other matter?” He gave me some strange illustrations of this, promising me more at some future time. The information which I may receive on this point will, I hope, furnish the topic of my next communication. I am, &c.

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