The Provincial Letters, by Blaise Pascal

Letter V

Paris, March 20, 1656


According to my promise, I now send you the first outlines of the morals taught by those good fathers the Jesuits, “those men distinguished for learning and sagacity, who are all under the guidance of divine wisdom — a surer guide than all philosophy.” You imagine, perhaps, that I am in jest, but I am perfectly serious; or rather, they are so when they speak thus of themselves in their book entitied The Image of the First Century. I am only copying their own words, and may now give you the rest of the eulogy: “They are a society of men, or rather let us call them angels, predicted by Isaiah in these words, ‘Go, ye swift and ready angels.’” The prediction is as clear as day, is it not? “They have the spirit of eagles they are a flock of phoenixes (a late author having demonstrated that there are a great many of these birds); they have changed the face of Christendom!” Of course, we must believe all this, since they have said it; and in one sense you will find the account amply verified by the sequel of this communication, in which I propose to treat of their maxims.

Determined to obtain the best possible information, I did not trust to the representations of our friend the Jansenist, but sought an interview with some of themselves. I found however, that he told me nothing but the bare truth, and I am persuaded he is an honest man. Of this you may judge from the following account of these conferences.

In the conversation I had with the Jansenist, he told me so many strange things about these fathers that I could with difficulty believe them, till he pointed them out to me in their writings; after which he left me nothing more to say in their defence than that these might be the sentiments of some individuals only, which it was not fair to impute to the whole fraternity. And, indeed, I assured him that I knew some of them who were as severe as those whom he quoted to me were lax. This led him to explain to me the spirit of the Society, which is not known to every one; and you will perhaps have no objections to learning something about it.

“You imagine,” he began, “that it would tell considerably in their favour to show that some of their fathers are as friendly to Evangelical maxims as others are opposed to them; and you would conclude from that circumstance, that these loose opinions do not belong to the whole Society. That I grant you; for had such been the case, they would not have suffered persons among them holding sentiments so diametrically opposed to licentiousness. But, as it is equally true that there are among them those who hold these licentious doctrines, you are bound also to conclude that the holy Spirit of the Society is not that of Christian severity, for had such been the case, they would not have suffered persons among them holding sentiments so diametrically opposed to that severity.”

“And what, then,” I asked, “can be the design of the whole as a body? Perhaps they have no fixed principle, and every one is left to speak out at random whatever he thinks.”

“That cannot be,” returned my friend; “such an immense body could not subsist in such a haphazard sort of way, or without a soul to govern and regulate its movements; besides, it is one of their express regulations that none shall print a page without the approval of their superiors.”

“But,” said I, “how can these same superiors give their consent to maxims so contradictory?”

“That is what you have yet to learn,” he replied. “Know then that their object is not the corruption of manners — that is not their design. But as little is it their sole aim to reform them — that would be bad policy. Their idea is briefly this: They have such a good opinion of themselves as to believe that it is useful, and in some sort essentially necessary to the good of religion, that their influence should extend everywhere, and that they should govern all consciences. And the Evangelical or severe maxims being best fitted for managing some sorts of people, they avail themselves of these when they find them favourable to their purpose. But as these maxims do not suit the views of the great bulk of the people, they waive them in the case of such persons, in order to keep on good terms with all the world. Accordingly, having to deal with persons of all classes and of all different nations, they find it necessary to have casuists assorted to match this diversity.

“On this principle, you will easily see that, if they had none but the looser sort of casuists, they would defeat their main design, which is to embrace all; for those that are truly pious are fond of a stricter discipline. But as there are not many of that stamp, they do not require many severe directors to guide them. They have a few for the select few; while whole multitudes of lax casuists are provided for the multitudes that prefer laxity.

“It is in virtue of this ‘obliging and accommodating, conduct,’ as Father Petau calls it, that they may be said to stretch out a helping hand to all mankind. Should any person present himself before them, for example, fully resolved to make restitution of some ill-gotten gains, do not suppose that they would dissuade him from it. By no means; on the contrary, they would applaud and confirm him in such a holy resolution. But suppose another should come who wishes to be absolved without restitution, and it will be a particularly hard case indeed, if they cannot furnish him with means of evading the duty, of one kind or another, the lawfulness of which they will be ready to guarantee.

“By this policy they keep all their friends, and defend themselves against all their foes; for when charged with extreme laxity, they have nothing more to do than produce their austere directors, with some books which they have written on the severity of the Christian code of morals; and simple people, or those who never look below the surface of things, are quite satisfied with these proofs of the falsity of the accusation.

“Thus, are they prepared for all sorts of persons, and so ready are they to suit the supply to the demand that, when they happen to be in any part of the world where the doctrine of a crucified God is accounted foolishness, they suppress the offence of the cross and preach only a glorious and not a suffering Jesus Christ. This plan they followed in the Indies and in China, where they permitted Christians to practise idolatry itself, with the aid of the following ingenious contrivance: they made their converts conceal under their clothes an image of Jesus Christ, to which they taught them to transfer mentally those adorations which they rendered ostensibly to the idol of Cachinchoam and Keum-fucum. This charge is brought against them by Gravina, a Dominican, and is fully established by the Spanish memorial presented to Philip IV, king of Spain, by the Cordeliers of the Philippine Islands, quoted by Thomas Hurtado, in his Martyrdom of the Faith, page 427. To such a length did this practice go that the Congregation De Propaganda were obliged expressly to forbid the Jesuits, on pain of excommunication, to permit the worship of idols on any pretext whatever, or to conceal the mystery of the cross from their catechumens; strictly enjoining them to admit none to baptism who were not thus instructed, and ordering them to expose the image of the crucifix in their churches: all of which is amply detailed in the decree of that Congregation, dated the 9th of July, 1646, and signed by Cardinal Capponi.

“Such is the manner in which they have spread themselves over the whole earth, aided by the doctrine of probable opinions, which is at once the source and the basis of all this licentiousness. You must get some of themselves to explain this doctrine to you. They make no secret of it, any more than of what you have already learned; with this difference only, that they conceal their carnal and worldly policy under the garb of divine and Christian prudence; as if the faith, and tradition, its ally, were not always one and the same at all times and in all places; as if it were the part of the rule to bend in conformity to the subject which it was meant to regulate; and as if souls, to be purified from their pollutions, had only to corrupt the law of the Lord, in place of the law of the Lord, which is clean and pure, converting the soul which lieth in sin, and bringing it into conformity with its salutary lessons!

“Go and see some of these worthy fathers, I beseech you, and I am confident that you will soon discover, in the laxity of their moral system, the explanation of their doctrine about grace. You will then see the Christian virtues exhibited in such a strange aspect, so completely stripped of the charity which is the life and soul of them, you will see so many crimes palliated and irregularities tolerated that you will no longer be surprised at their maintaining that ‘all men have always enough of grace’ to lead a pious life, in the sense of which they understand piety. Their morality being entirely Pagan, nature is quite competent to its observance. When we maintain the necessity of efficacious grace, we assign it another sort of virtue for its object. Its office is not to cure one vice by means of another; it is not merely to induce men to practise the external duties of religion: it aims at a virtue higher than that propounded by Pharisees, or the greatest sages of Heathenism. The law and reason are ‘sufficient graces’ for these purposes. But to disenthral the soul from the love of the world — to tear it from what it holds most dear — to make it die to itself — to lift it up and bind it wholly, only, and forever, to God can be the work of none but an all-powerful hand. And it would be as absurd to affirm that we have the full power of achieving such objects, as it would be to allege that those virtues, devoid of the love of God, which these fathers confound with the virtues of Christianity, are beyond our power.”

Such was the strain of my friend’s discourse, which was delivered with much feeling; for he takes these sad disorders very much to heart. For my own part, I began to entertain a high admiration for these fathers, simply on account of the ingenuity of their policy; and, following his advice, I waited on a good casuist of the Society, one of my old acquaintances, with whom I now resolved purposely to renew my former intimacy. Having my instructions how to manage them, I had no great difficulty in getting him afloat. Retaining his old attachment, he received me immediately with a profusion of kindness; and, after talking over some indifferent matters, I took occasion from the present season to learn something from him about fasting and, thus, slip insensibly into the main subject. I told him, therefore, that I had difficulty in supporting the fast. He exhorted me to do violence to my inclinations; but, as I continued to murmur, he took pity on me and began to search out some ground for a dispensation. In fact he suggested a number of excuses for me, none of which happened to suit my case, till at length he bethought himself of asking me whether I did not find it difficult to sleep without taking supper. “Yes, my good father,” said I; “and for that reason I am obliged often to take a refreshment at mid-day and supper at night.”

“I am extremely happy,” he replied, “to have found out a way of relieving you without sin: go in peace — you are under no obligation to fast. However, I would not have you depend on my word: step this way to the library.”

On going thither with me he took up a book, exclaiming with great rapture, “Here is the authority for you: and, by my conscience, such an authority! It is Escobar!”

“Who is Escobar?” I inquired.

“What! not know Escobar! “ cried the monk; “the member of our Society who compiled this Moral Theology from twenty-four of our fathers, and on this founds an analogy, in his preface, between his book and ‘that in the Apocalypse which was sealed with seven seals,’ and states that ‘Jesus presents it thus sealed to the four living creatures, Suarez, Vasquez, Molina, and Valencia, in presence of the four-and-twenty Jesuits who represent the four-and-twenty elders.’”

He read me, in fact, the whole of that allegory, which he pronounced to be admirably appropriate, and which conveyed to my mind a sublime idea of the exellence of the work. At length, having sought out the passage of fasting, “Oh, here it is!” he said; “treatise I, example 13, no. 67: ‘If a man cannot sleep without taking supper, is he bound to fast? Answer: By no means!’ Will that not satisfy you?”

“Not exactly,” replied I; “for I might sustain the fast by taking my refreshment in the morning, and supping at night.”

“Listen, then, to what follows; they have provided for all that: ‘And what is to be said, if the person might make a shift with a refreshment in the morning and supping at night?’”

“That’s my case exactly.”

“’Answer: Still he is not obliged to fast; because no person is obliged to change the order of his meals.’”

“A most excellent reason!” I exclaimed.

“But tell me, pray,” continued the monk, “do you take much wine?”

“No, my dear father,” I answered; “I cannot endure it.”

“I merely put the question,” returned he, “to apprise you that you might, without breaking the fast, take a glass or so in the morning, or whenever you felt inclined for a drop; and that is always something in the way of supporting nature. Here is the decision at the same place, no. 57: ‘May one, without breaking the fast, drink wine at any hour he pleases, and even in a large quantity? Yes, he may: and a dram of hippocrass too.’ I had no recollection of the hippocrass,” said the monk; “I must take a note of that in my memorandum-book.”

“He must be a nice man, this Escobar,” observed I.

“Oh! everybody likes him,” rejoined the father; “he has such delightful questions! Only observe this one in the same place, no. 38: ‘If a man doubt whether he is twenty-one years old, is he obliged to fast? No. But suppose I were to be twenty-one to-night an hour after midnight, and to-morrow were the fast, would I be obliged to fast to-morrow? No; for you were at liberty to eat as much as you pleased for an hour after midnight, not being till then fully twenty-one; and therefore having a right to break the fast day, you are not obliged to keep it.’”

“Well, that is vastly entertaining!” cried I.

“Oh,” rejoined the father, “it is impossible to tear one’s self away from the book: I spend whole days and nights in reading it; in fact, I do nothing else.”

The worthy monk, perceiving that I was interested, was quite delighted, and went on with his quotations. “Now,” said he, “for a taste of Filiutius, one of the four-and-twenty Jesuits: ‘Is a man who has exhausted himself any way — by profligacy, for example — obliged to fast? By no means. But if he has exhausted himself expressly to procure a dispensation from fasting, will he be held obliged? He will not, even though he should have had that design.’ There now! would you have believed that?”

“Indeed, good father, I do not believe it yet,” said I. “What! is it no sin for a man not to fast when he has it in his power? And is it allowable to court occasions of committing sin, or rather, are we not bound to shun them? That would be easy enough, surely.”

“Not always so,” he replied; “that is just as it may happen.”

“Happen, how?” cried I.

“Oh!” rejoined the monk, “so you think that if a person experience some inconvenience in avoiding the occasions of sin, he is still bound to do so? Not so thinks Father Bauny. ‘Absolution,’ says he, ‘is not to be refused to such as continue in the proximate occasions of sin, if they are so situated that they cannot give them up without becoming the common talk of the world, or subjecting themselves to personal inconvenience.’”

“I am glad to hear it, father,” I remarked; “and now that we are not obliged to avoid the occasions of sin, nothing more remains but to say that we may deliberately court them.”

“Even that is occasionally permitted,” added he; “the celebrated casuist, Basil Ponce, has said so, and Father Bauny quotes his sentiment with approbation in his Treatise on Penance, as follows: ‘We may seek an occasion of sin directly and designedly — primo et per se — when our own or our neighbour’s spiritual or temporal advantage induces us to do so.’”

“Truly,” said I, “it appears to be all a dream to me, when I hear grave divines talking in this manner! Come now, my dear father, tell me conscientiously, do you hold such a sentiment as that?”

“No, indeed,” said he, “I do not.”

“You are speaking, then, against your conscience,” continued I.

“Not at all,” he replied; “I was speaking on that point not according to my own conscience, but according to that of Ponce and Father Bauny, and them you may follow with the utmost safety, for I assure you that they are able men.”

“What, father! because they have put down these three lines in their books, will it therefore become allowable to court the occasions of sin? I always thought that we were bound to take the Scripture and the tradition of the Church as our only rule, and not your cauists.”

“Goodness!” cried the monk, “I declare you put me in mind of these Jansenists. Think you that Father Bauny and Basil Ponce are not able to render their opinion probable?”

“Probable won’t do for me,” said I; “I must have certainty.”

“I can easily see,” replied the good father, “that you know nothing about our doctrine of probable opinions. If you did, you would speak in another strain. Ah! my dear sir, I must really give you some instructions on this point; without knowing this, positively you can understand nothing at all. It is the foundation — the very A, B, C, of our whole moral philosophy.”

Glad to see him come to the point to which I had been drawing him on, I expressed my satisfaction and requested him to explain what was meant by a probable opinion?

“That,” he replied, “our authors will answer better than I can do. The generality of them, and, among others, our four-and-twenty elders, describe it thus: ‘An opinion is called probable when it is founded upon reasons of some consideration. Hence it may sometimes happen that a single very grave doctor may render an opinion probable.’ The reason is added: ‘For a man particularly given to study would not adhere to an opinion unless he was drawn to it by a good and sufficient reason.’”

“So it would appear,” I observed, with a smile, “that a single doctor may turn consciences round about and upside down as he pleases, and yet always land them in a safe position.”

“You must not laugh at it, sir,” returned the monk; “nor need you attempt to combat the doctrine. The Jansenists tried this; but they might have saved themselves the trouble — it is too firmly established. Hear Sanchez, one of the most famous of our fathers: ‘You may doubt, perhaps, whether the authority of a single good and learned doctor renders an opinion probable. I answer that it does; and this is confirmed by Angelus, Sylvester, Navarre, Emanuel Sa, &c. It is proved thus: A probable opinion is one that has a considerable foundation. Now the authority of a learned and pious man is entitled to very great consideration; because (mark the reason), if the testimony of such a man has great influence in convincing us that such and such an event occurred, say at Rome, for example, why should it not have the same weight in the case of a question in morals?’”

“An odd comparison this,” interrupted I, “between the concerns of the world and those of conscience!”

“Have a little patience,” rejoined the monk; “Sanchez answers that in the very next sentence: ‘Nor can I assent to the qualification made here by some writers, namely, that the authority of such a doctor, though sufficient in matters of human right, is not so in those of divine right. It is of vast weight in both cases.’”

“Well, father,” said I, frankly, “I really cannot admire that rule. Who can assure me, considering the freedom your doctors claim to examine everything by reason, that what appears safe to one may seem so to all the rest? The diversity of judgements is so great”—

“You don’t understand it,” said he, interrupting me; “no doubt they are often of different sentiments, but what signifies that? Each renders his own opinion probable and safe. We all know well enough that they are far from being of the same mind; what is more, there is hardly an instance in which they ever agree. There are very few questions, indeed, in which you do not find the one saying yes and the other saying no. Still, in all these cases, each of the contrary opinions is probable. And hence Diana says on a certain subject: ‘Ponce and Sanchez hold opposite views of it; but, as they are both learned men, each renders his own opinion probable.’”

“But, father,” I remarked, “a person must be sadly embarrassed in choosing between them!” “Not at all,” he rejoined; “he has only to follow the opinion which suits him best.” “What! if the other is more probable?” “It does not signify,” “And if the other is the safer?” “It does not signify,” repeated the monk; “this is made quite plain by Emanuel Sa, of our Society, in his Aphorisms: ‘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.’”

“And if an opinion be at once the less probable and the less safe, it is allowable to follow it,” I asked, “even in the way of rejecting one which we believe to be more probable and safe?”

“Once more, I say yes,” replied the monk. “Hear what Filiutius, that great Jesuit of Rome, says: ‘It is allowable to follow the less probable opinion, even though it be the less safe one. That is the common judgement of modern authors.’ Is not that quite clear?”

“Well, reverend father,” said I, “you have given us elbowroom, at all events! Thanks to your probable opinions, we have got liberty of conscience with a witness! And are you casuists allowed the same latitude in giving your responses?”

“Oh, yes,” said he, “we answer just as we please; or rather, I should say, just as it may please those who ask our advice. Here are our rules, taken from Fathers Layman, Vasquez, Sanchez, and the four-and-twenty worthies, in the words of Layman: ‘A doctor, on being consulted, may give an advice, not only probable according to his own opinion, but contrary to his own opinion, provided this judgement happens to be more favourable or more agreeable to the person that consults him — si forte haec favorabilior seu exoptatior sit. Nay, I go further and say that there would be nothing unreasonable in his giving those who consult him a judgement held to be probable by some learned person, even though he should be satisfied in his own mind that it is absolutely false.’”

“Well, seriously, father,” I said, “your doctrine is a most uncommonly comfortable one! Only think of being allowed to answer yes or no, just as you please! It is impossible to prize such a privilege too highly. I see now the advantage of the contrary opinions of your doctors. One of them always serves your turn, and the other never gives you any annoyance. If you do not find your account on the one side, you fall back on the other and always land in perfect safety.”

“That is quite true,” he replied; “and, accordingly, we may always say with Diana, on his finding that Father Bauny was on his side, while Father Lugo was against him: Saepe premente deo, fert deus alter opem.”1

1 Ovid, Appendice, xiii. “If pressed by any god, we will be delivered by another.”

“I understand you,” resumed I; “but a practical difficulty has just occurred to me, which is this, that supposing a person to have consulted one of your doctors and obtained from him a pretty liberal opinion, there is some danger of his getting into a scrape by meeting a confessor who takes a different view of the matter and refuses him absolution unless he recant the sentiment of the casuist. Have you not provided for such a case as that, father?”

“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. ‘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.’”

“But he does not say it would be a mortal sin not to absolve him” said I.

“How hasty you are!” rejoined the monk; “listen to what follows; he has expressly decided that, ‘to refuse absolution to a penitent who acts according to a probable opinion is a sin which is in its nature mortal.’ And, to settle that point, he cites the most illustrious of our fathers — Suarez, Vasquez, and Sanchez.”

“My dear sir,” said I, “that is a most prudent regulation. I see nothing to fear now. No confessor can dare to be refractory after this. Indeed, I was not aware that you had the power of issuing your orders on pain of damnation. I thought that your skill had been confined to the taking away of sins; I had no idea that it extended to the introduction of new ones. But, from what I now see, you are omnipotent.”

“That is not a correct way of speaking,” rejoined the father. “We do not introduce sins; we only pay attention to them. I have had occasion to remark, two or three times during our conversation, that you are no great scholastic.”

“Be that as it may, father, you have at least answered my difficulty. But I have another to suggest. How do you manage when the Fathers of the Church happen to differ from any of your casuists?”

“You really know very little of the subject,” he replied. “The Fathers were good enough for the morality of their own times; but they lived too far back for that of the present age, which is no longer regulated by them, but by the modern casuists. On this Father Cellot, following the famous Reginald, remarks: ‘In questions of morals, the modern casuists are to be preferred to the ancient fathers, though those lived nearer to the times of the apostles.’ And following out this maxim, Diana thus decides: ‘Are beneficiaries bound to restore their revenue when guilty of mal-appropriation of it? The ancients would say yes, but the moderns say no; let us, therefore, adhere to the latter opinion, which relieves from the obligation of restitution.’”

“Delightful words these, and most comfortable they must be to a great many people!” I observed.

“We leave the 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. There is Diana, for instance, a most voluminous writer; he has prefixed to his works a list of his authorities, which amount to two hundred and ninety-six, and the most ancient of them is only about eighty years old.”

“It would appear, then,” I remarked, “that all these have come into the world since the date of your Society?”

“Thereabouts,” he replied.

“That is to say, dear father, on your advent, St. Augustine, St. Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, and all the rest, in so far as morals are concerned, disappeared from the stage. Would you be so kind as let me know the names, at least, of those modern authors who have succeeded them?”

“A most able and renowned class of men they are,” replied the monk. “Their names are: Villalobos, Conink, Llamas, Achokier, Dealkozer, Dellacruz, Veracruz, Ugolin, Tambourin, Fernandez, Martinez, Suarez, Henriquez, Vasquez, Lopez, Gomez, Sanchez, De Vechis, De Grassis, De Grassalis, De Pitigianis, De Graphaeis, Squilanti, Bizozeri, Barcola, De Bobadilla, Simanacha, Perez de Lara, Aldretta, Lorca, De Scarcia, Quaranta, Scophra, Pedrezza, Cabrezza, Bisbe, Dias, De Clavasio, Villagut, Adam a Manden, Iribarne, Binsfeld, Volfangi A Vorberg, Vosthery, Strevesdorf.”

“O my dear father!” cried I, quite alarmed, “were all these people Christians?”

“How! Christians!” returned the casuist; “did I not tell you that these are the only writers by whom we now govern Christendom?”

Deeply affected as I was by this announcement, I concealed my emotion from the monk and only asked him if all these authors were Jesuits?

“No,” said he; “but that is of little consequence; they have said a number of good things for all that. It is true the greater part of these same good things are extracted or copied from our authors, but we do not stand on ceremony with them on that score, more especially as they are in the constant habit of quoting our authors with applause. When Diana, for example, who does not belong to our Society, speaks of Vasquez, he calls him ‘that phoenix of genius’; and he declares more than once ‘that Vasquez alone is to him worth all the rest of men put together’— instar omnium. Accordingly, our fathers often make use of this good Diana; and, if you understand our doctrine of probability, you will see that this is no small help in its way. In fact, we are anxious that others besides the Jesuits would render their opinions probable, to prevent people from ascribing them all to us; for you will observe that, when any author, whoever he may be, advances a probable opinion, we are entitled, by the doctrine of probability, to adopt it if we please; and yet, if the author does not belong to our fraternity, we are not responsible for its soundness.”

“I understand all that,” said I. “It is easy to see that all are welcome that come your way, except the ancient fathers; you are masters of the field, and have only to walk the course. But I foresee three or four serious difficulties and powerful barriers which will oppose your career.”

“And what are these?” cried the monk, looking quite alarmed.

“They are the Holy Scriptures,” I replied, “the popes, and the councils, whom you cannot gainsay, and who are all in the way of the Gospel.”

“Is that all?” he exclaimed; “I declare you put me in a fright. Do you imagine that we would overlook such an obvious scruple as that, or that we have not provided against it? A good idea, forsooth, to suppose that we would contradict Scripture, popes, and councils! I must convince you of your mistake; for I should be sorry you should go away with an impression that we are deficient in our respect to these authorities. You have doubtless taken up this notion from some of the opinions of our fathers, which are apparently at variance with their decisions, though in reality they are not. But to illustrate the harmony between them would require more leisure than we have at present; and, as I would not like you to retain a bad impression of us, if you agree to meet with me to-morrow, I shall clear it all up then.”

Thus ended our interview, and thus shall end my present communication, which has been long enough, besides, for one letter. I am sure you will be satisfied with it, in the prospect of what is forthcoming. I am, &c.

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