- The Rise and Fall of Theological Enlightenment: Jean-Martin de Prades and Ideological Polarization in Eighteenth-Century France
The abbé Jean-Martin de Prades is well known to students of the French Enlightenment. He figures in all the standard accounts and works of reference, both as the author of a controversial entry in the Encyclopédie (Certitude) and as the victim in 1752 of a condemnation by the Sorbonne. After approving his doctoral thesis without dissent, the faculty suddenly reversed its position and stripped him of all his degrees. The Parlement of Paris then ordered his arrest, and he was forced to flee the country. Diderot and Voltaire took up his case, and thanks to Voltaire, he received a position at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin. There he flourished as a famous martyr to religious bigotry and intolerance, before the king began to suspect [End Page 824] him of spying for France. Never able to return home, he died in obscure exile in Prussia, thirty years after his brief moment of notoriety.
Jeffrey D. Burson argues that Prades deserves much more than a footnote or passing mention in the history of the Enlightenment. He sees the condemnation of 1752 as nothing less than a turning point in its whole evolution. He contends that, without the unpredictable set of contingencies that brought it about, rational religion and advanced free thought might have managed to coexist without the bitter antagonism that marked their relationship right down into the French Revolution. They had already coexisted, he argues, since the expulsion from the Sorbonne of Jansenist doctors under the impulsion of Fleury in 1729. Unencumbered by Augustinian intransigence, the Sorbonne over the next quarter of a century espoused a theology born of Jesuit attempts to integrate the arguments of Malebranche and Locke into Christian doctrine. Burson's term for it is theological Enlightenment, and he suggests that Prades's ambition was nothing less than to synthesize it into a form that the most modern thinkers might broadly accept. This was why Diderot invited him to contribute to the Encyclopédie. Several impressive chapters are devoted to the key elements of this modern theology. But Prades submitted his thesis at a bad moment, when Jansenist zeal was being rekindled by the provocative determination of a new archbishop to make the dying attest their orthodoxy in confession notes. This in turn stirred up Jansenist magistrates in the parlement, who saw an opportunity to avenge the exclusion of their fellow travelers while pursuing the sovereign court's old ambition to oversee the affairs of the proudly autonomous Sorbonne. To fend off such interference, the faculty felt constrained to flaunt its orthodoxy, encouraged to do so by the archbishop. The thesis of Prades offered the occasion, but not only he paid the price. Enlightenment theology was squeezed out. While freethinkers, disgusted by the vicious infighting among divines, turned increasingly toward an anticlerical atheism, believers began to close ranks against them. In these developments lay the seeds of the Jesuits' downfall in the next decade, not to mention the emergence an aggressive counter-Enlightenment so recently highlighted by Darrin McMahon. At the other extreme the radical Enlightenment broke into the intellectual mainstream for the first time.
Yet none of this, Burson insists, was inevitable. He reaches this conclusion through careful and exhaustive combing through all the evidence, including some fairly esoteric theology. In the process he resolves numerous side issues such as the role played by Diderot and others in Prades's writings to vindicate himself. To make the hapless abbé the catalyst of the entire later Enlightenment is to make him bear a huge burden, but no future students of the subject will be able to avoid engaging with Burson's very impressive scholarly achievement. [End Page 825]