Jansenisme - Jensenism

Catherine Maire


1Montesquieu did not like Jansenism and the French Jansenists felt the same about him. His attitude towards the partisans of St. Augustine is ambivalent. On the one hand, he mocks them: “The only pleasure the Jansenists allow us is to scratch” (“De tous les plaisirs, les jansénistes ne nous passent que celui de nous gratter”, Pensées, no. 852). He scorns their “baseness”, their “pettiness”, their “puerility” and their “idiom” (idiotisme, Pensées, nos. 166, 1226). He goes as far as to speak of “dying superstition” (Pensées, no. 2158, posterior to 1753). But on the other hand, he takes them very seriously and reads them closely. He very early felt the effects of the criticisms which Nouvelles ecclésiastiques, the organ of the Jansenist party, addressed to L’Esprit des lois, to the point of feeling a need to defend himself publicly. It is principally to them he is responding in his Defense of The Spirit of Law.

2Although he makes no claim to being a theologian, he had reflected on the problem of predestination and the compatibility of freedom and grace. On several occasions (Pensées, nos. 435, 437, 1945), he manifested a moderate but nonetheless firm anti-Augistinian sensitivity. “If God on occasion predestines, which can happen only rarely: for it only rarely happens that God takes away our freedom, he can never predestine us to anything but salvation. Those who are predestined are saved. But it does not follow that all those who are not predestined are damned” (“S’il arrive quelquefois que Dieu prédestine, ce qui ne peut arriver que rarement, car il n’arrive que rarement que Dieu nous ôte la liberté, il ne peut jamais nous prédestiner qu’au salut. Ceux qui sont prédestinés sont sauvés. Mais il ne s’ensuit pas que tous ceux qui ne sont pas prédestinés soient damnés”, Pensées, no. 1945). Nevertheless, he is not an unconditional defender of human freedom; he inclines for its reconciliation with divine omnipotence: “I act freely, I act effectively, but by grace, in other words by a cause that comes to me from the other world, for if I had had no knowledge of revealed truths, I would not have determined myself to do good” (“[…] j’agis librement, j’agis efficacement, mais par une grâce, c'est-à-dire par un motif qui me vient de l’autre monde, car si je n’avais eu aucune connaissance des vérités révélées, je ne me serais point déterminé à faire le bien”, Pensées, no. 435; the reflection is attributed to the cardinal de Polignac). Although he never opined on the Jansenism of the 17th century, he felt the need to snipe at Pascal: “The famous argument of M. Pascal [you gain everything in believing and nothing in not believing] is very good for making us fear, but not for giving us faith” (“Le célèbre argument de Pascal [Vous gagnez tout à croire et ne gagnez rien à ne pas croire] est bien bon pour nous donner de la crainte, non pas pour nous donner de la foi”, Pensées, no. 420; see also Spicilège, no. 374).

3His anti-Jansenism manifests itself in small jabs, first of all against the Jansenists of the Enlightenment. He has for example no admiration at all for the Oratorian Father Pasquier Quesnel, the new spiritual head who takes charge of the party after the great Arnauld: “I have never seen a book so below its reputation as Father Quesnel’s Moral Reflections, never so many base thoughts, never so many puerile ideas” (“Je n’ai jamais vu de livre si fort au-dessous de sa réputation que les Réflexions morales du père Quesnel, jamais tant de pensées basses, jamais tant d’idées puériles”, Pensées, no. 166). But it is especially the Jansenist party’s strategy of resistance that bothers him. He does not believe in the movement for appeal to the future council: “The bishops’ appeal to the future council on dogma is ridiculous, because it is to appeal to a body that does not exist and which will possibly never exist” (“L’appel des évêques au futur concile sur le dogme est ridicule, parce que c’est appeler à un corps qui n’existe point et qui peut-être n’existera jamais”, Spicilège, no. 286). Finally, he approved of the anti-Jansenist policy being successfully applied by Cardinal de Fleury (Pensées, no. 1226).

4But he did not underestimate the subversive power represented by the Jansenist movement, especially since their exile in Holland, in Utrecht. That is where they assumed, according to him, “the air of a sect like the one in the country they went to” (“un air de secte pareille à celle du pays qu’ils allaient chercher”, Voyages, OC, t. X, p. 474), which made it possible for the Pope “to declare and hold them to be schismatics” (“de les déclarer et tenir pour schismatiques”, ibid.). Montesquieu defends in the last analysis the primacy of St. Peter’s successor and judges “that it is dangerous for the Pope’s authority to be shaken some day by the Jansenists” (“qu’il est dangereux que l’autorité du pape ne soit quelque jour ébranlée par les jansénistes”, Pensées, no. 273, anterior to 1731). In this sense, Montesquieu is not a partisan of the conciliar theories.

5Finally, he had no sympathy for the parlementary Jansenists, for “the small minds who have become exalted about Jansenist trifles and idiosyncrasies in the Paris parlement” (“les petits esprits qui se sont laissé échauffer la cervelle des petitesses et des idiotismes jansénistes dans le parlement de Paris”, Pensées, no. 1226, transcribed between 1734 and 1739) and whom he wants to dissociate from the magistracy. During the exile of the leaders of the opposition to Bourges in 1753, at the moment of the crisis of the refusal of sacraments, he reproaches them for their partisan spirit and their “heat” in a letter to the president Durey de Meinières and in his Mémoire sur le silence à imposer sur la Constitution. Nevertheless, it was without hostility that he hoped to persuade them to recognize the royal declaration of 1730 that made of the Constitution Unigenitus a law of Church and State. Though not a zealous partisan of the Roman Constitution, and while taking care not to take a position on its dogmatic stakes, he defended it in the last analysis as “a sort of peace and rallying point between citizens” (“une espèce de repos et de point de ralliement entre les citoyens”, letter of 9 July 1753 to the president Durey de Meinières, OC, t. XXI, in preparation; see OC, t. IX, p. 527). Against the “fury” and intransigence of the Jansenists, he believed in the virtue of silence and forgetfulness and resolutely opted for the application of the law to the silence of 1754.

6Montesquieu takes great care not to put any passion into his anti-Jansenism. With respect to the great Arnaud, he credits himself with distinguishing between the man and the prejudices of his time: “It is indifferent to me that M. Arnauld was a Jansenist, if he reasoned well about Jansenism” (“Il m’est indifférent que M. Arnauld fût janséniste, s’il a bien raisonné sur le jansénisme”, Pensées, no. 764). Thus he does not fear to take inspiration from the demonstration of the Jansenist exegetes called “figurists”, with respect to the parallelism of the calling of the Gentiles and of the Jews in chapter 11 of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Like abbés Jacques-Joseph Duguet or Jean-Baptiste Le Sesne des Ménilles d’Etemare, he emphasizes that it is said to the Gentiles that “as God has chosen them after the Jews are rejected, they must fear lest God chose the Jews in turn” (“comme Dieu les a choisis après que les Juifs sont rejetés, ils doivent craindre que Dieu ne choisisse les Juifs à leur tour”, Pensées, no. 1945). As for the Témoignage de la vérité dans l’Église (‘Testimony to the truth of the Church’, 1714), a programmatic manifest of resistance to the bull Unigenitus by the Oratorian and Jansenist Father Vivien de La Borde, he does not hide his pleasure in reading ironic passages on the Jesuits (Spicilège, no. 579, Pensées, no. 320). If there is a meeting with Jansenism it is surely on the terrain of anti-Jesuitism. In Italy, moreover, Montesquieu counts excellent “Jansenist” friends, the Oratorian Father Gaspare Cerati and abbé Antonio Niccolini, but it is true that Italian Jansenism was more open to the spirit of the Enlightenment than French Jansenism.

7In France, on the other hand, the Jansenists unsparingly denounced the author of L’Esprit des lois to the censor as “impious”, “Spinozist”, and “deist” in their gazette, Nouvelles ecclésiastiques, beginning in April 1749 (OC, t. VII, p. 131-163). Through Montesquieu, it is as if they were for the first time becoming conscious of the acceleration of the spirit of irreligion in philosophy. Voltaire poured oil on the fire by addressing to them his Remerciement sincère à un homme charitable in which he proudly situates Montesquieu in the lineage of Pope, Bayle, and Locke.

8Montesquieu would find grace neither among the Jansenists said to be “enlightened”, like abbé Louis de Bonnaire, who tried to ridicule him in his Esprit des lois quintessencié (1751), nor among the “fanatic” Jansenists like abbé Jean-Baptiste Gaultier, who was to take very seriously and at face value everything Usbek thought on religious matters in his Lettres persanes convaincues d’impiété (‘Persian Letters convicted for impiety’, 1751).



Voyages, Jean Ehrard dir. (ed.), with the collaboration of Gilles Bertrand, OC, t. X, 2012.

Mémoire sur le silence à observer sur la Constitution, OC, t. IX, p. 519-536 (ed. Pierre Rétat and Catherine Maire).

Défense de L’Esprit des lois, OC, t. VII, Pierre Rétat ed.

Voltaire, Remerciement sincère à un homme charitable, Amsterdam: Le Vray, 1750.

Nouvelles ecclésiastiques ou Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire ecclésiastique [and later à l’histoire de la Constitution Unigenitus], 1728-1803, 9 and 16 October 1749 (OC, t. VII, p. 15-38).

Louis de Bonnaire, L’Esprit des lois quintessencié, par une suite de lettres analytiques, n.p., 1751. Vol. I: http://books.google.fr/books?id=vt5Hn5tEa04C ; vol. 2: http://books.google.fr/books?id=QmDEJ-1ZEvUC (copy of the Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon).

Jean-Baptiste Gaultier, Les Lettres persanes convaincues d'impiété, n.p., 1751. Extracts: http://lire-montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr/lecture-les-lettres-persanes-convaincues-d-impiete-106065.kjsp?RH=CRITIQUER


Augustin Gazier, “Une lettre inédite de Montesquieu”, Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France, 119 (1907), 14e année, p. 120-133.

Robert Shackleton, “La religion de Montesquieu”, Actes du congrès Montesquieu, Bordeaux: Delmas, 1956, p. 289-294.

Lucien Ceyssens, “Autour de la Bulle Unigenitus: Charles de Montesquieu (1689-1755)”, Jansenistica Lovaniensia 6 (1990), p. 1-2, 5-22.

Monique Cottret, Jansénisme et lumières:pour un autre XVIIIe siècle, Paris: Albin Michel, 1998, p. 51-75.

Catherine Maire, “L’entrée des Lumières à l’Index: le tournant de la double censure de l’Encyclopédie en 1759”, Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’Encyclopédie 42 (April 2007), p. 107-139.

Catherine Maire, “Le Paige et Montesquieu à l’épreuve des enragés de Bourges”, in Le Monde parlementaire au XVIIIe siècle. L’invention d’un discours politique, Alain Lemaître ed., Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2010, p. 169-191.