Les Provinciales ou lettres escrites par Louis de Montalte à un provincial de ses amis et aux RR. PP. Jésuites: Sur le sujet de la Morale, & de la Politique de ces Pères. Cologne [i.e., Paris]: Pierre de la Vallée, [1656-]1657. [Bound with:] PROUST DE CHAMBOURG, Aymond. Nobilissimi Scutarii Blasii Pascalis tumulus. [1662] [and with:] PIROT, Georges. L’Apologie pour les casuistes contre les calomnies des jansenistes: par un theologien & Professeur en droit Canon. Condamnée par nosseigneurs les prelats, & par la Faculté de Theologie de Paris.

Cologne [Paris]: Pierre de la Vallée, [1656-]1657; 1659.

First edition, and a beautiful copy, of Pascal’s 18 Provincial letters, bound with two extremely rare works relating to Pascal. “The Lettres Provinciales, as they are called, are the first example of French prose as we know it today, perfectly finished in form, varied in style, and on a subject of universal importance… [Pascal] was an infant prodigy, whose work in mathematics and natural science attracted considerable attention before he was sixteen... [But he] will always be chiefly remembered as a moralist, more especially as the great apologist for Jansenism, the seventeenth-century French ascetic movement of reform inside the Roman Catholic Church... At the end of 1655, the movement had been much under attack from the Jesuits, and Pascal was persuaded to write a rejoinder... [his] counter-attack took the form of a brilliant exposure of the casuistical methods of argument employed by the Jesuits... Pascal’s weapon was irony, and the freshness with which the gravity of the subject contrasts with the lightness of the manner is an enduring triumph. The vividness and distinction of his style recalls Milton at its best.” (PMM 140). The style of the letters meant that, quite apart from their religious influence, the Provincial Letters were popular as a literary work. Adding to that popularity was Pascal’s use of humor, mockery, and satire in his arguments. The letters also influenced the prose of later French writers like Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Provenance: Inscription to title ‘Ex libris Congregationis domus Missionis Trecensis’, repeated on the 8th letter; Edmund Ernst Leopold Schlesinger Benzon (1819-73), philanthropist and patron of the arts (engraved armorial book plate on front paste-down); Catalogue des livres rares et précieux: manuscrits et imprimés provenant de la Bibliothèque de Feu M. Benzon, 1875, lot 42 (pp. 46-47 – “Magnifique exemplaire”).

“Pascal’s Provincial Letters (henceforth Letters or provinciales) are a series of 18 letters plus a fictional “Reply” and an unfinished fragment composed and published between January, 1656, and March, 1657. Their aim was to defend the Jansenist community of Port-Royal and its principal spokesman and spiritual leader Antoine Arnauld from defamation and accusations of heresy while at the same time leading a counter-offensive against the accusers (mainly the Jesuits). Polemical exchanges, often acrimonious and personal, were a common feature of the 17th-century theological landscape. Pascal ventured into this particular fray with a unique set of weapons – a mind honed by mathematical exercise and scientific debate, a pointed wit, and sharp-edged literary and dramatic skills.

“In the background of the letters stand two notable events: (1) In May of 1653, Pope Innocent X in a bull entitled Cum Occasione declared five propositions supposedly contained in Cornelius Jansen’s Augustinus to be heretical. (2) In January of 1656, after a long and heated trial, Arnauld, who had repeatedly denied that the five propositions were in Jansen’s text, was officially censured and expelled from the Sorbonne.

“The five propositions can be stated as follows:

  1. Even the just, no matter how hard they may strive, lack the power and grace to keep all the commandments.
  2. In our fallen condition it is impossible for us to resist interior grace.
  3. In order to deserve merit or condemnation we must be free from external compulsion though not from internal necessity.
  4. It is heresy to say that we can either accept grace or resist it.
  5. Christ did not die for everyone, but only for the elect.

“Two separate questions were at stake: (1) Are the propositions actually in Jansen, if not explicitly and verbatim, then implicitly in meaning or intention? This was the so-called question of fact (de fait). (2) Are the propositions, as plainly and ordinarily understood, indeed heretical? This was the question of right or law (de droit). The Port-Royal position was yes in the case of the second question, no in the case of the first. Arnauld claimed that the propositions do not occur, verbatim or otherwise, anywhere in Jansen’s text, but he acknowledged that if they did occur there (or for that matter anywhere), they were indeed heretical. Despite the fact that he disavowed any support for the five propositions, he and the Port-Royal community as a whole stood under suspicion of secretly approving, if not openly embracing them.

“Such was the situation that Pascal found himself in when he sat down to compose the first provinciale. What he produced was something utterly new in the annals of religious controversy. In place of the usual fury and technical quibbling, he adopts a tone of easy-going candor and colloquial simplicity. He presents himself as a modest, ordinary, private citizen (originally anonymous, but later identified in the collected letters by the pseudonym Louis de Montalte) who is writing from Paris to a “provincial friend.” “Montalte’s” purpose is to pass along his personal observations, insights, and commentary on the learned and mighty disputes that recently took place at the Sorbonne. In essence, via his fictional persona, Pascal provides an account of l’affaire Arnauld and the case against Jansenism as viewed by a coolly observant, playful outsider.

“In the course of the letter, Pascal/Montalte introduces a series of fictional interlocutors who explain or advocate for the Jansenist, Jesuit, and Thomistic views on a range of theological issues, most notably the doctrines of sufficient grace vis-à-vis efficacious grace and the notion of proximate power. These happen to be exactly the sort of deeply esoteric, highly technical, theological matters that “Montalte” and his “provincial friend” (and thus, by extension and more importantly, his target audience of plain-spoken, commonsense, fellow citizens) were likely to find strained, incomprehensible, and somewhat silly. Through devices of interview and dialogue Montalte manages to present these issues in relatively clear, understandable terms and persuade the reader that the Jansenist and Thomist views on each are virtually identical and perfectly orthodox. He goes on to show that any apparent discrepancy between the two positions – and in fact the whole attack on Jansenism and Arnauld – is based not on doctrine, but is entirely political and personal, a product of Jesuit calumny and conspiracy. In effect, a complicated theological conflict is presented in the form of a simple human drama. Irony and stinging satire are delivered with the suave aplomb of a Horatian epistle.

“Not all of the provinciales deal with the same issues and concerns as the first. Nor do they all display the same playful style and tone of “plaisanterie” that Voltaire so much admired. In fact some of the later letters, far from being breezy and affable, are passionate and achieve sublime eloquence; others are downright vicious and blistering in their attack. Letters 1-3 offer a defense of Arnauld, challenging his trial and censure. Letter 4, pitting a Jesuit against a Jansenist, serves as a bridge between provinciales 1-3 and 5-10. Letters 5-10 attack Jesuit casuistry and doctrine; in them Montalte accuses the Society of hypocrisy and moral laxity and of placing ease of conscience and the glory of the Order above true Christian duty and love of God. Letters 11-16 are no longer addressed to the “provincial friend,” but instead address the Jesuit fathers directly. Letter 14 includes an extended discussion of both natural and divine law and makes an important ethical distinction between homicide, capital punishment, and suicide. Letter 16 ends with Pascal’s famous apology for prolixity: “The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter.”) Letters 17 and 18 are addressed to Father Annat, SJ, confessor to the King, and are direct and personal. Here Pascal virtually abandons the artifice of “Montalte” and seems almost to come forward in his own person. In Letter 17, a virtual reprise and summation of the case of the five propositions, he repeats once again that he writes purely as a private citizen and denies that he is a member of Port Royal. Since Pascal was neither a monk nor a solitaire within the community, the claim is technically accurate, though it arguably leaves him open to the same charges of truth-bending and casuistry that he levels against the Jesuits.

“Although the Letters gained a wide readership and enjoyed a period of popular success, they failed to achieve their strategic goal of preserving Port-Royal and Jansenist doctrine from external attack. They also had a few unfortunate, unintended consequences. They were blamed, for instance, for stirring up cynicism, disrespect, and even contempt for the clergy in the minds of ordinary citizens. Quickly translated into English and Latin, they also became popular with Protestant readers happy to extend Pascal’s wounding attack on Jesuit morality into a satirical broadside against Catholicism as a whole. After the publication of the provinciales, the term Jesuitical would become synonymous with crafty and subtle and the words casuistry and casuistical would never again be entirely free from a connotation of sophistry and excuse-making. Banned by order of Louis XIV in 1660 and placed on the Index and burned by the Inquisition, the provinciales nevertheless lived on underground and abroad with their popularity undimmed.

“Today, the provinciales retain documentary value both as relics of Jansenism and as surviving specimens of 17th-century religious polemic, but modern readers prize them mainly for their literary excellence. They represent the original model not only for the genre of satirical non-fiction, but for classic French prose style in all other genres as well. Rabelais and Montaigne were basically inimitable and far too quirky and idiosyncratic to serve as a style model for later writers. Pascal’s combination of brisk clarity and concise elegance set a pattern for French authors from La Rochefoucauld, Voltaire, and Diderot to Anatole France. Even Paul Valéry, arguably Pascal’s most severe critic, excoriated his predecessor in a prose style heavily indebted to him. Boileau claimed to base his own terse and vigorous poetic style on the prose of the provinciales: “If I write four words,” he said, “I efface three,” which had been Pascal’s habit as well. Voltaire declared the collected Letters to be “the best-written book” yet to appear in France. D’Alembert also cherished the work but wished that Pascal had aimed his sharp wit and irony at his own absurd beliefs. He argued that Jansenism is every bit as “shocking,” and as deserving of scorn and ridicule, as the doctrines of Molina and the Jesuits. Of Pascal’s modern readers only the arch conservative Joseph de Maistre, spearhead of the counter-Enlightenment, utterly scorned the work, calling Jansenism a “vile” and “unblushing” heresy and finding the style of the Letters rancorous and bitter.

“It is unfortunate that the principal debate in the provinciales was theological rather than philosophical, for it would have been useful and interesting to have Pascal’s candid discussion of free will vs. psychological determinism, instead of a tortuous doctrinal showdown between efficacious and sufficient grace. Jansen’s own formula – that “man irresistibly, although voluntarily, does either good or evil, according as he is dominated by grace or by concupiscence” – is paradoxical and tries to have it both ways. (Can an act be both voluntary and irresistible?) Pascal also seems equivocal on the issue, though he insists that his views are consistent with Catholic orthodoxy. He wrestled with the problem of grace and free will not only in the Letters, but also in portions of the Pensées and especially in his Écrits sur la grâce (1657-58), where he offers an extensive commentary on Augustine and compares the Calvinist, Jansenist, and Jesuit views. However, even there his account is abstruse and theological rather than blunt and philosophical and is thus of interest mainly to specialists rather than general readers” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

The letters were first printed separately and clandestinely before being united under one title. “Les variantes de texte et de tirage sont donc innombrables, as Tchemerzine notes. This copy is complete with the 8-page ‘Refutation de la Réponse de la Douzième Lettre’, not always present; and the 17th letter is in first issue with 8 pages (the second issue has 12).

The two appended tracts are both extremely rare. The first, Nobilissimi Scutarii Blasii Pascalis tumulus, is the epitaph composed by Pascal’s friend Aymond Proust de Chambourg. The second work, L’Apologie pour les casuistes contre les calomnies des jansenistes, is anonymous but is generally ascribed to the Jesuit Georges Pirot (1599-1659), professor of theology at the Collège de Clermont. He repeats several recurring accusations against Port-Royal and the Jansenists, and disputes some of the interpretations made by Pascal in the Provinciales of the moral maxims of the casuists and turns against the Jansenists the accusations of moral laxity. The Apology for the Casuists, supported by the Jesuits, caused a great stir in the ecclesiastical world, and not only among those who were favourable to the Jansenists. The parish priests of Paris condemned the work, while the Jesuits hesitated between defend it and distancing themselves from it. The work was finally put on the Index in 1659. The Apology undoubtedly contributed to the condemnation by Rome in 1679 of laxity in the clergy (which was particularly instigated by the theologians of the University of Louvain, long a bastion of Jansenism). COPAC lists one copy of Nobilissimi … and none of L’Apologie …

PMM 140; Guigard I, 263; Tchemerzine, V, p. 62-63; En Français dans le texte, no 96.

Three works bound in one vol., 4to (230 x 172 mm). Provinciales: pp, [i-xiii: title and Notice (in first state)]; 1-8 (1st letter); 1-8 (2nd letter); 1-8 (answer from the Provincial and 3rd letter); 1-8 (4th letter); 1-8 (5th letter); 1-8 (6th letter); 1-8 (7th letter); 1-8 (8th letter); 1-8 (9th letter); 1-8 (10th letter); 1-8 (11th letter); 1-8 (12th letter); 1-8 (Refutation to response of 12th letter); 1-8 (13th letter); 1-8 (14th letter); 1-8 (15th letter); 1-12 (16th letter); 1-8 (17th letter, 23 January 1657); 1-12 (18th letter). Nobilissimi: pp. [1-2], 3-4. L’Apologie: pp. [iv], 191, [1, blank]. Bound in 1865 by Chambolle-Duru in red morocco with raised bands, gilt spine lettering, all edges gilt, marbled endpapers, elaborately gilt blind-tooled inner boarders. A very fine copy.

Item #3426

Price: $10,500.00