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Solitude and life in the world in the letters of Antoine Arnauld

AbstractThis article features the correspondence of Antoine Arnauld, who lived close to the Port-Royal monastery, as a case study for the perception of solitude in the spiritual literature of the 17th century. For Arnauld the world is corrupt, as a man in it is prone to an excess of temptation. A truly virtuous life means retirement from the world, not monasticism, but a refusal to comply with a world ruled by passions since the original sin. In his letters, Arnauld speaks of seclusion not only from the world but also from human nature with its sinful inclinations. Denouncing the world and its temptations Arnauld sees it as a battlefield for truth and his own mission in the protection of the latter from profanation. Despite seeing the solitary life as the most dignified, he compares the life of a virtuous married woman to a nun’s. Thus, he does not exclude the chance of salvation for those who lead a virtuous secular life. By 1660s his views become more lenient; in one of the letters Arnauld comes up with an apology for the existing social order and its characteristic luxury, seeing it as a manifestation of God’s will. The heterogeneity of Arnauld’s views could be explained by the nature of our source, the letters, as his ideas there are in the process of development of which each letter only registers stages.

Summary (1 min read)

Introduction

  • France was not excluded from this movement.
  • Many early modern theologians were looking back at that epoch in search of examples of strict, authentic devotion.
  • 1 Pillorget R., Pillorget S. France baroque.

The world as a place of sin

  • The term “the world” (le monde) in 17th century French was polysemous, with more than 10 entries in Furetière’s dictionary.
  • 17th century French moralists acquired this theory via Cornelius Jansen’s Augustinus, whose adepts were numerous among the PortRoyal group.
  • After the original sin, man—created to serve God—loses the ability to fulfil his duty.

The world as a place of salvation

  • Arnauld does not condemn the world definitively.
  • François de Sales, writing at the beginning of the “Introduction to the Devout Life,” states that before him, theologians speculated about devotion which leads to hermitage, whereas he is going to consider how to be a Christian living in the world, with all of its vicissitudes.
  • 62 Therefore, the women making lace are not in a condition of sin either, because they need to avoid “idleness, and not fall into extreme poverty, as that could lead them to engage in very unfortunate actions, while making an honest and easy living”.
  • This polyphony is due to the nature of the source in question, as Arnauld’s views changed with time, and his letters fix the points of change.

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Elizaveta A. Al-Faradzh
SOLITUDE AND LIFE IN THE
WORLD IN THE LETTERS OF
ANTOINE ARNAULD
BASIC RESEARCH PROGRAM
WORKING PAPERS
SERIES: LITERARY STUDIES
WP BRP 09/LS/2015
This Working Paper is an output of a research project implemented at the National Research University Higher
School of Economics (HSE). Any opinions or claims contained in this Working Paper do not necessarily reflect the
views of HSE

Elizaveta A. Al-Faradzh
1
SOLITUDE AND LIFE IN THE WORLD
IN THE LETTERS OF ANTOINE ARNAULD
This article features the correspondence of Antoine Arnauld, who lived close to the Port-Royal
monastery, as a case study for the perception of solitude in the spiritual literature of the 17th
century. For Arnauld the world is corrupt, as a man in it is prone to an excess of temptation. A
truly virtuous life means retirement from the world, not monasticism, but a refusal to comply
with a world ruled by passions since the original sin. In his letters, Arnauld speaks of seclusion
not only from the world but also from human nature with its sinful inclinations. Denouncing the
world and its temptations Arnauld sees it as a battlefield for truth and his own mission in the
protection of the latter from profanation. Despite seeing the solitary life as the most dignified, he
compares the life of a virtuous married woman to a nun’s. Thus, he does not exclude the chance
of salvation for those who lead a virtuous secular life. By 1660s his views become more lenient;
in one of the letters Arnauld comes up with an apology for the existing social order and its
characteristic luxury, seeing it as a manifestation of God’s will. The heterogeneity of Arnauld’s
views could be explained by the nature of our source, the letters, as his ideas there are in the
process of development of which each letter only registers stages.
Keywords: Port-Royal, theology, early modern period, seclusion, Anthropology of religion,
Counter-Reformation, correspondence, post-Trident Catholicism, secular virtue
JEL: Z
1
National Research University Higher School of Economics. Department of Foreign Languages.
Faculty of Philology. Assistant Professor. E-mail: ealfaradzh@hse.ru.

3
Introduction
The 17th century was a period of reflection on the experience of the preceding epoch, one
marked by a religious crisis which had divided all of Europe into two antagonistic camps, and by
a comprehension of the new vision of the world and its “infinite spaces,” whose silence so
frightened Pascal. It was a time of intensive religious inquiry in the domain of institutional rules
and monastic life, including the everyday life of those faithful who chose to live in society.
France was not excluded from this movement. In the 17th century, the country became a
field of great spiritual renewal.
1
This is demonstrated by the volume of canonical books,
sanctified by the Council of Trent and published during this period, and French translations of
spiritual literature
2
meant to guide people who wanted to conform their everyday experience to
Christian precepts.
3
An important element of this Counter-Reformation movement, often called the “Catholic
Reformation”,
4
was interest in the first centuries of Christianity. Many early modern theologians
were looking back at that epoch in search of examples of strict, authentic devotion. It was not
incidental that those theologians had great reverence for the Fathers of the Church and for the
Desert Fathers, especially for their ascetic practices. The theme of solitude became of interest to
many of the 17th century French authors both secular and religious.
5
This interest resulted from
the crisis of the Thomistic conception of social life where the man was a political animal who
can realise moral perfection only in relations with others.
6
This paper examines 17th century views on solitude and life in society, through the
letters of Antoine Arnauld, a great theologian of the time, tied to Port-Royal by family and
spiritual matters. The analysis is based on Arnauld’s correspondence, starting with the first letter
written in 1637 through the letters of 1669, the year when the Peace of the Church (Paix de
l’Eglise) was proclaimed, closing the era of debates on the Jansenist question. Although
Arnauld’s letters ended with his death in 1694, this period is central in his life: in 1637 he was
studying theology at the Sorbonne, the following three decades were marked by intensive
debates in which Arnauld matured as a thinker and polemist. This period is also significant for
the cultural history of the 17th century: critics call the 16501660s as the apogee
7
of the century,
as many crucial texts were published during that decade.
1
Pillorget R., Pillorget S. France baroque. France classique. Paris, 1995. P. 351.
2
For example, “The Imitation of Christ” was published about 810 during the century and was the second book, after Bible, by
the number of editions. See: Un succès de librairie européen l’Imitatio Christi (1470-1850) / M. Delaveau et Y. Sordet, dir. Paris,
2012. P. 21.
3
For statistics see: Martin H.-J. Livre, pouvoirs et société à Paris au XVII
e
siècle. Genève, 1999. T. 2. P. 1067-1070.
4
For example: Chanut C.-P. Réforme catholique // Dictionnaire du Grand Siècle / F. Bluche, dir. Paris, 1990. P. 1305-1309.
5
Vigouroux M. Le thème de la retraite et de la solitude chez quelques épistoliers du XVII
e
siècle. Paris, 1972. P. 113-124.
6
Guion B. Pierre Nicole moraliste. Paris, 2002. P. 316.
7
Adam A. Histoire de la littérature française au XVII
e
siècle. Paris, 1997. T.2. P. 407-824.

4
Arnauld and his letters
Arnauld, considered by contemporaries as one of the most influential intellectuals of his era,
today remains in shade of his contemporary authors and adversaries: he is known as the author of
philosophical texts marked by Cartesianism, as an opponent of Malebranche, and for providing,
with Pierre Nicole, arguments for Pascal’s Provinciales. In his time, Arnauld was also known as
a pedagogue, a translator, an editor, a spiritual director. “A wide-ranging genius, profound
theologian, a philosopher as Christian as he is enlightened, a sublime metaphysician and even a
geometer, and a man of letters, and possessed of all these to a distinguished degree”,
8
is the way
he was characterized by his editor in the 1700s.
Arnauld's letters have never been studied by scholars. Correspondence reveals different
aspects of its author’s life. This is especially true for Arnauld, whose letters provide information
about facets of his personality and legacy that are missing from existing scholarship. In his
letters, Arnauld appears as a moralist, using vocabulary and normative imagery that allow him to
be placed in the same reflexive framework as Pierre Nicole and François de La Rochefoucauld.
He also appears as a spiritual director of great authority, due to which he occupies a principal
place in the movement of spiritual renewal centred on Port-Royal where his sister, Angelic
Arnauld (15991661) was an abbess. In 1609 she conducted a reform of the convent, introducing
strict rules that gave Port-Royal an aura of sanctity that attracted a lot of people searching for
authentic devotion: nuns from other convents, aristocratic ladies who built homes near the
convent grounds,
9
and people who refused to live in the society but, at the same time, had no
desire to enter the orders. For example, the great epistolary author of the century, Madame de
Sévigné, wrote about Port-Royal:
Port-Royal is a Thebaïd; it is a paradise; it is a desert where all the devotion of
Christianity is to be found; a sanctity is spread from the place for a league round.
[...] Everything connected with the placetheir ploughmen, their shepherds, their
workmeneverything has an air of simplicity. I assure you that I was charmed
with the sight of this divine solitude of which I had heard so much.
10
8
“Génie vaste, profond Théologien, Philosophe aussi chrétien qu’éclairé, sublime Métaphysucuen Géometre même, & homme
de Lettres, il avoit réuni tous les talens, & les a possedés tous dans un degré distingué...”Arnauld A. Œuvres de Messire Antoine
Arnauld. Paris, Lausanne, 1775. T. 1. P. VI.
9
Pillorget R., Pillorget S. Op. cit. P. 435.
10
Madame de Sévigné, letter from January 26, 1674. As cited in: Grant A.J. The French Monarchy 1483-1789. Cambridge
university press, 2013. Vol. 1. P. 302.

5
This group of hermits began with the reclusion in 1638 of Antoine Le Maistre (1608
1658), Arnauld's nephew. Announcing his decision to his father, he wrote about his resolution to
change from “the glorious position of an orator and state advisor to that of a simple servant of
Jesus Christ”.
11
At the same time, Antoine Le Maistre emphasized that he did not want to
exchange one “ambition” for another, but rather wanted to live without caring about such notions
as honours or privileges, whether in the world or under the aegis of the church, to “follow the
purest precepts of the Church and the practice of centuries”.
12
Although Antoine Le Maistre,
while renouncing society, did not intend to become a monk or priest, his actions prove that for
himas for many ecclesiastics of his contemporariesliving in the world and reclusion were
not equal in regard to devotion.
Post-Tridentine teaching on solitude
The 1630s, when the first fruits of the Council of Trent became evident, were Arnauld’s
formative period. The clergy of generations past, avaricious, not prepared for their duty, and
acidly criticised by Luther and the Reformation, were succeeded by a new generation of priests,
well educated and prepared to uphold the dignity of their profession.
An example of this new clergy was Jean du Vergier de Hauranne (1581-1643), the abbot
of Saint-Cyran, one of the French Counter-Reformation leaders and the inspiration behind the
reforms at Port-Royal. Young Arnauld chose him as his spiritual director. One of the first letters
from his Collected Works, published at the end of the 18th century, is addressed to Saint-Cyran,
in which he says it is as if the birth of a “new heart”
13
coincided with the desire to express
himself in written correspondence. The letters addressed to Saint-Cyran testify to a major change
in his life, when, after a short period of hesitation, the young theologian decides to dedicate his
life to serving God. Arnauld calls his life before his conversion “lethargy”, and compares it to St.
Augustin’s youth of errors.
14
On that occasion Saint-Cyran pronounced two general rules: the
young Arnauld should spend his time alone and he should follow Christ in poverty. Arnauld
follows his master’s advice without hesitation: he gives his inheritance to Port-Royal, leaving
himself only a modest allowance to the end of his days, and he lives a very closed life while
studying at the Sorbonne, at the end of which he decides to move to Port-Royal-des-Champs
because his “home at the Sorbonne is absolutely unsuitable to the life of a priest, but Port-Royal
11
“…ces belles qualités d’orateur et de conseiller d’État en celle de simple serviteur de Jésus-Christ.Delforge F. Solitaires de
Port-Royal // Dictionnaire de Port-Royal / J. Lesaulnier et A. McKena, dir. Paris, 2004. P. 940.
12
“...suivre les règles les plus pures de l’Église et la pratique de tant de siècles.” Ibid.
13
Ibid. P. 12.
14
Ibid. P. 2.

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This paper examined 17th century views on solitude and life in society, through the letters of Antoine Arnauld, a great theologian of the time, tied to Port-Royal by family and spiritual matters.