DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA063-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 12, 2021, from

2. Intellectual life

Much has been said (by L. Goldmann, in particular) of the Parliamentary links of the Jansenists and this sociological characteristic has been interpreted in terms of a ‘tragic’ philosophy attributed to Pascal and to Racine. Objections have been formulated by J. Orcibal and J. Mesnard. Beyond the extreme fragility of Goldmann’s interpretation of ‘Jansenist’ authors, suffice it to say that all religious orders recruited their members from the Parliamentary milieu: Port-Royal was no exception. Furthermore, Port-Royal had many connections with the noblesse d’épée, as can be seen from the list of nuns, of girls at the boarding-school and pupils at the Petites Ecoles. A full sociological analysis of the world of Port-Royal has yet to be completed; the financial history of the abbey would also reveal many secrets. The Parisian group of friends cannot suffice to characterize the community, since a vast network of friends of Port-Royal was established throughout the country, concentrated in particular in the dioceses of sympathetic bishops at such as those at Angers, Alet, Beauvais, Rouen, Troyes, Châlons-sur-Marne, Montpellier and in Lorraine.

The intellectual history of the abbey is intricate. Many of the nuns themselves had considerable intellectual qualities and proved them in the archives which provided, in the following century, ample material for the historical defence of ‘Jansenism’. Moreover, for the first time in Catholic theology, the resistance of the nuns to the demand for condemnation of Jansenius in 1656 was founded on the definition of the rights of the individual conscience: a major step towards the formulation, in the following century (and following the writing of Pierre Bayle), of a doctrine of religious toleration.

Among the friends of Port-Royal, cultural activity was extremely important. Apart from the vast theological productions of Saint-Cyran and Antoine Arnauld, the pedagogical activity of the Petites Ecoles gave rise to a number of works by Claude Lancelot, as well as to the Grammaire générale et raisonnée (1660) and the Art de penser (or Logique de Port-Royal) (1662). Arnauld d’Andilly produced influential translations of Biblical history and Patristics; Isaac Le Maistre de Sacy produced an important translation of the Bible, which reflects the changing status of the layman in the Catholic church in the seventeenth century. Le Nain de Tillemont, a pupil of the Petites Ecoles, gained a great reputation as a historian. The influence of Jansenism on Racine, also a pupil at Port-Royal, has been much debated. Some critics discern an Augustinian influence in the works of Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, Nicole, Mme de La Fayette and Mme de Sévigné; La Fontaine was involved in the composition of a Recueil de poésies chrétiennes et diverses (1671), and the director of this volume, Brienne, was a close friend of Port-Royal and the probable author of the Discours sur les passions de l’amour. Augustinian moralism, which founded a portrait of human nature akin to that painted by Hobbes, was later to influence Bayle, Locke and Mandeville. Conversations of friends of Port-Royal have been recorded in the Recueil de choses diverses (1670–1). Outside literature, Philippe de Champaigne and his nephew (and adopted son) Jean-Baptiste were among the foremost painters of the day: Philippe de Champaigne’s portraits of the theologians and nuns of Port-Royal are outstanding.

In the field of philosophy, Port-Royal was first characterized by the intervention in 1626 of Saint-Cyran in defence of Charron, the disciple of Montaigne, against the attack of the Jesuit Garasse. This can be interpreted as an alliance of Augustinian theology with Christian Pyrrhonism, and heralded the subsequent quarrels between rationalists and Pyrrhonists after the publication of Descartes’ Discours de la méthode (1637) (see Descartes, R. §3; Pyrrhonism). The introduction of Cartesianism into Port-Royal opened a new era, sometimes called the ‘second Port-Royal’, strongly influenced by the authority of Antoine Arnauld, author of the fourth set of Objections to Descartes’ Meditations. Arnauld was indeed extremely favourable to the ‘new philosophy’ of Descartes, regarded as a much needed replacement for the Thomist Aristotelian defence of religious faith (see Medieval philosophy). Charles Wallon de Beaupuis, a former pupil of Arnauld, was the director of the Petites Ecoles at Port-Royal. The duke of Luynes, a neighbour of the abbey in his château of Vaumurier, first translated into French Descartes’ Meditations in 1647, the Objections being translated by Clerselier. Nicolas Fontaine gives an account of vivisection at Port-Royal, based on the Cartesian theory of animal-machines and, according to the testimony of his niece, Marguerite Périer, this was an aspect of Cartesian philosophy with which Pascal agreed. A manuscript of Louis Du Vaucel, published by G. Rodis-Lewis, testifies, however, that the adoption of Cartesianism was not unanimous at Port-Royal.

The publication of the Logique de Port-Royal (1662), with subsequent editions bringing a number of important additions, was a major event in the intellectual history of the seventeenth century. A first version was sent by Arnauld to Mme de Sablé in April 1660, and this copy may help to solve the vexed question of the role played by Nicole in the composition of the text. Furthermore, a note in the Recueil de choses diverses attributes a role in the composition to Le Bon, a teacher at the Petites Ecoles, who is supposed to have worked on notes by Descartes’ disciple Clerselier. The work constitutes an attempt to present a synthesis of Augustinian, Cartesian and Pascalian thought, and exerted a strong influence on Malebranche and his recalcitrant Benedictine disciple, Robert Desgabets and, indeed, on the whole context of debate around the ‘new philosophy’. This debate was particularly lively at the Oratoire, where André Martin composed, under the pseudonym of Ambrosius Victor, a systematic comparison of passages extracted from Augustine and Descartes (1667), and from which Bernard Lamy suffered exile after a series of Cartesian lectures (1675). It may be added that, whereas Arnauld remained faithful to Cartesianism throughout his life, strongly denouncing the sceptical work of Pierre-Daniel Huet, Nicole seems to have been lukewarm: he composed a stringent criticism of Desgabets’ attempts to provide a detailed Cartesian account of transubstantiation, and his sympathy for Descartes’ philosophy seems to have been limited to an adherence to the criterion of ‘évidence’.

The publication of Pascal’s Pensées (1670) was a new occasion for Cartesian thought to make itself felt in works emanating from Port-Royal. Recent critics interpret this edition as an attempt to disguise, by careful modifications of the text, a Gassendist critique of Descartes as Cartesian apologetics. Key terms in Pascal’s vocabulary are marked by the influence of Gassendi, and yet Arnauld, who directed the editorial committee, managed to produce an apology compatible with Cartesianism. The success of the work was immediate, and it exerted an influence on subsequent philosophers, in particular on Malebranche, Bayle, Locke and even Hume.

Antoine Arnauld’s philosophical controversies with Malebranche in themselves constituted an important chapter of intellectual life at Port-Royal. The controversies began in 1680 when Arnauld came across a manuscript version of Malebranche’s Traité de la nature et de la grâce: despite Arnauld’s last-minute attempt to discourage Malebranche, the treatise was printed and the Jansenist theologian promptly attacked the Oratorian’s so-called ‘Epicureanism’ (see Epicureanism). A debate on the nature of pleasure and happiness ensued, in which Pierre Bayle played an important role by publishing detailed analyses in the Nouvelles de la république des lettres and finally coming down strongly in favour of Malebranche. In 1683 Arnauld’s critique of Malebranche’s Recherche de la vérité appeared in Des Vraies et des fausses idées (1683), which was to involve the two philosophers in a long and intense debate on the nature of ideas. Originally regarded as friend of Port-Royal, Malebranche became a bitter enemy of the Port-Royal theologians, denouncing them in the ironic formula ‘personnes de piété’ (see Arnauld, A. §3).

The paradoxically parallel influence of Epicurus, Montaigne and Augustine in seventeenth-century France put Port-Royal at the centre of debates on theological, ecclesiastical, moral, philosophical and literary questions. The Port-Royal theologians and their friends were quick to appeal to public opinion, and thus played a major part in the transformation of these debates from obscure, technical quibblings to major events in social and intellectual history.

Citing this article:
McKenna, Antony. Intellectual life. Port-Royal, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA063-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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