Antoine Baudry de Saint-Gilles d’Asson is not a household name. And although he became a “solitaire” of the Port-Royal abbey in the late 1640s, he does not figure among the brightest stars of that galaxy. He embraced Jansenism, and admired the philosophical theology of Antoine Arnauld, but his writings are not of the order of Arnauld, Nicole, Pascal, Racine, et al. For this reason, historians of Port-Royal, or of Jansenism in general, are prone to passing him by. But they shouldn’t be. Saint-Gilles kept a journal, a good deal of which is extant, re-edited and reprinted in the text here being reviewed. Journal d’un solitaire … (henceforward Journal) is not a work of theology or philosophy, but it is an important document in its own right. Whether the author is recording the persecution of Arnauld, the perfidy of Jesuits, or the tempestuous turmoil of his time and place, his accounts are clear and thorough. The editors rightly note that he offers something that surpasses his thorough and even-handed documentation of events: insight into the human condition. Though not a philosopher or theologian in his own right, Saint-Gilles understood both disciplines and could detect authenticity or fraud whenever he ran across them. A good example, memorable for its humour, as well as its clarity, is his description of a meeting to discuss a thesis propounded by a certain Dominican priest by the name of Fr. Jean Nicolaï. The speaker was also the moderator of the meeting. Saint-Gilles writes: The Journal entries of 1655 and 1656 document massive persecution of the Port-Royal community and uncertainty within. Lucid and arresting accounts bring to life events ranging from brutal to providential. They are the content of the book I am reviewing here. Editors Lesaulnier and Plazenet have done a meticulous job of editing, annotating, and republishing the Journal. It will enlarge and elevate our current understanding of Port-Royal. Though there is much romance and adventure in the story of Port-Royal, the Journal focusses on the facts. It deals with gritty institutional struggles, hostile religious and ideological conflicts, and threats and provocations aimed at the leaders of Port-Royal. Momentous events of 1655 include Pope Alexander VII’s denunciation of five unorthodox propositions, said to be found in Cornelius Jansen’s Augustinus. Port-Royal’s celebrated theologian, Antoine Arnauld, fans the flames of controversy by writing two open letters (the second two hundred pages in length) in defence of Augustinus. These events are well-covered and contextualized by Saint-Gilles. Early in 1656, Blaise Pascal jumps into the fight by releasing his brilliant Provincial Letters into the libraries of the reading public, and at the same time teaching ordinary readers to recognize erroneous Jesuitical claims when they see them, and laugh dismissively as the rustic narrator of the Provinciales roasts Jesuit authorities. At this time, philosophy and theology are locked in heated disputes about how to reconcile freedom with nature and grace. Some are bent on reconciling these gifts of God, others to proving reconciliation impossible. It is not surprising, therefore, that Saint-Gilles describes his journal as “heated” in its coverage of “two terrible years, endured by the friends of Port-Royal.” He reported a “fratricidal war” of words, punctuated by “ferocious, base, and tortuous attacks on Arnauld.” Not to mention pitiless censure from the Jesuits. Not all was negative in those years, however. One of Port-Royal’s most celebrated victories is the miraculous healing of Pascal’s niece, Marguerite Périer, from a serious infection in one eye. Her condition was diagnosed in the jargon of that time as a fistula lachrymosa. Marguerite was a young pupil in residence in one of …
Antoine Baudry de Saint-Gilles d’Asson, Journal d’un Solitaire de Port-Royal 1655-1656 (Univers de Port-Royal), Pol Ernst et Jean Lesaulnier (éd.). Paris, Éditions Garnier, 2021, 12,4 × 19 cm, 395 pages, ISBN 978-2-406-11334-8
Research Professor, Faculty of Philosophy, Dominican University College, Ottawa
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