- What Has Cartesianism To Do with Jansenism?
My title is modeled on the famous query of the third-century theologian, Tertullian: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Tertullian’s question asks what pagan Greek learning has to do with the theology of the early Church. By comparison my question asks what philosophical Cartesianism has to do with theological Jansenism, and more specifically what these movements had to do with each other in the France of Louis XIV. To anticipate, the answer is: not much and plenty. I say not much, in the sense that there are profound differences in the approaches and interests of the namesakes of these two movements: in the case of Cartesianism, the French critic of scholastic natural philosophy, René Descartes, and in the case of Jansenism, the Louvain critic of Jesuit theology, Cornelius Jansen (Jansenius). Yet I also say plenty, in the sense that there was in the second half of the seventeenth century a fairly widespread belief in France of an intimate link between the two movements that the work of Descartes and Jansen inspired. What we need here is a story that shows how despite the differences between these two thinkers, their French followers were commonly associated with each other.
In order to tell such a story I need to consider some basic difficulties in pinning down the nature of the movements themselves. There are of course familiar problems with the appeal to generic “isms” in the history of ideas, but I also want to consider special concerns pertaining to the definition of French Jansenism and French Cartesianism. In the course of this consideration I suggest that since both movements are to some extent constructs that emerged from intellectual battles in late-seventeenth-century France, they must be understood in light of the political, theological, and philosophical goals of the polemicists involved in these battles.
Perhaps the most obvious reason for the connection between the Jansenist and Cartesian movements is that one of the most prominent of the Jansenist theologians, the Port-Royalist Antoine Arnauld, was also an enthusiastic defender [End Page 37] of Descartes’s metaphysical system. But while Arnauld undoubtedly played an important role in the emergence of this link, I think that the full story of its emergence must include a consideration of the different role played by a somewhat neglected figure in the history of early modern Cartesianism, namely, the Lorraine Benedictine Robert Desgabets (1610–78). Desgabets was more deeply involved than Arnauld in the 1671 “Eucharist affair,” which was important for the polemical linkage of Jansenism to Cartesianism in France. Whereas Arnauld attempted to separate Jansenist theology from Cartesian philosophy, Desgabets tried to provide Cartesian foundations for a theology with strong Jansenist overtones. It was Desgabets more than Arnauld, then, who was concerned to apply Cartesian principles to issues of importance for the Jansenist theologian.
What Has Descartes To Do with Jansen?
A primary trigger for the bitter “Jansenist controversies” in France during the seventeenth century was the posthumous publication in 1640 of the Augustinus of Jansen, the late Bishop of Ypres in the Spanish Netherlands. This technical three-volume work attempts to draw from Augustine responses to Pelagian and semi-Pelagian views concerning the prelapsarian state of innocence, the fall from this state, and the grace required to overcome that fall. Jansen’s emphasis is on the pervasive corruption of original sin and on the impossibility of meritorious action that does not derive from God’s grace to the elect. The Jesuits in Louvain saw the work as a throwback to the theses of Michel du Bay (Baius) that Pope Paul V had condemned in 1567 due to pressure exerted by their order, and they made an unsuccessful attempt to stop the publication of the book. 1 After its publication this text drew the suspicion of Cardinal Richelieu, who (correctly) believed Jansen to be the author of Mars Gallicus, an anonymous pamphlet protesting Richelieu’s anti-Habsburg policies. Richelieu chose a theologian of Notre-Dame-de-Paris, Isaac Habert, to launch an attack against the Augustinus. In a series of sermons starting in 1642 Habert criticized Jansen’s assertion of the necessity of contrition...