THE PROVINCIAL LETTERS
by Blaise Pascal
translated by Thomas M'Crie
Paris, January 23, 1656
We were entirely mistaken. It was only yesterday that I was
undeceived. Until that time I had laboured under the impression that
the disputes in the Sorbonne were vastly important, and deeply
affected the interests of religion. The frequent convocations of an
assembly so illustrious as that of the Theological Faculty of Paris,
attended by so many extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances, led
one to form such high expectations that it was impossible to help
coming to the conclusion that the subject was most extraordinary.
You will be greatly surprised, however, when you learn from the
following account the issue of this grand demonstration, which, having
made myself perfectly master of the subject, I shall be able to tell
you in very few words.
Two questions, then, were brought under examination; the one a
question of fact, the other a question of right.
The question of fact consisted in ascertaining whether M.
Arnauld was guilty of presumption, for having asserted in his second
letter that he had carefully perused the book of Jansenius, and that
he had not discovered the propositions condemned by the late pope; but
that, nevertheless, as he condemned these propositions wherever they
might occur, he condemned them in Jansenius, if they were really
contained in that work.
The question here was, if he could, without presumption, entertain
a doubt that these propositions were in Jansenius, after the bishops
had declared that they were.
The matter having been brought before the Sorbonne, seventy-one
doctors undertook his defence, maintaining that the only reply he
could possibly give to the demands made upon him in so many
publications, calling on him to say if he held that these propositions
were in that book, was that he had not been able to find them, but
that if they were in the book, he condemned them in the book.
Some even went a step farther and protested that, after all the
search they had made into the book, they had never stumbled upon these
propositions, and that they had, on the contrary, found sentiments
entirely at variance with them. They then earnestly begged that, if
any doctor present had discovered them, he would have the goodness
to point them out; adding that what was so easy could not reasonably
be refused, as this would be the surest way to silence the whole of
them, M. Arnauld included; but this proposal has been uniformly
declined. So much for the one side.
On the other side are eighty secular doctors and some forty
mendicant friars, who have condemned M. Arnauld's proposition, without
choosing to examine whether he has spoken truly or falsely- who, in
fact, have declared that they have nothing to do with the veracity
of his proposition, but simply with its temerity.
Besides these, there were fifteen who were not in favor of the
censure, and who are called Neutrals.
Such was the issue of the question of fact, regarding which, I
must say, I give myself very little concern. It does not affect my
conscience in the least whether M. Arnauld is presumptuous or the
reverse; and should I be tempted, from curiosity, to ascertain whether
these propositions are contained in Jansenius, his book is neither
so very rare nor so very large as to hinder me from reading it over
from beginning to end, for my own satisfaction, without consulting the
Sorbonne on the matter.
Were it not, however, for the dread of being presumptuous
myself, I really think that I would be disposed to adopt the opinion
which has been formed by the most of my acquaintances, who, though
they have believed hitherto on common report that the propositions
were in Jansenius, begin now to suspect the contrary, owing to this
strange refusal to point them out- a refusal the more extraordinary to
me as I have not yet met with a single individual who can say that
he has discovered them in that work. I am afraid, therefore, that this
censure will do more harm than good, and that the impression which
it will leave on the minds of all who know its history will be just
the reverse of the conclusion that has been come to. The truth is
the world has become sceptical of late and will not believe things
till it sees them. But, as I said before, this point is of very little
moment, as it has no concern with religion.
The question of right, from its affecting the faith, appears
much more important, and, accordingly, I took particular pains in
examining it. You will be relieved, however, to find that it is of
as little consequence as the former.
The point of dispute here was an assertion of M. Arnauld's in
the same letter, to the effect "that the grace, without which we can
do nothing, was wanting to St. Peter at his fall." You and I