Faith and Reason in France



THE dictionary of the French Academy in 1694 defined philosopher as

one who devotes himself to research work in connection with the various sciences, and who seeks from their effects to trace their causes and principles. A name [also] applied to one who lives a quiet and secluded life remote from the stir and troubles of the world. It is occasionally used to denote someone of undisciplined mind who regards himself as above the responsibilities and duties of civil life. 1

From the first part of this definition it is clear that philosophy and science were not yet distinguished; science, as “natural philosophy,” would remain a branch of philosophy till the nineteenth century. From the final portion of the definition we gather that the Forty Immortals, under Louis XIV, sniffed a revolutionary odor in the philosophic air, as if the harbingers of the Enlightenment had already spoken their prologue.

Between three horns of the definition the intellectual legacy of René Descartes meandered through renown to repudiation. The legacy itself had three horns: one sounded the trumpet of doubt as the prelude to all philosophy; another announced the universal mechanism of the external world; the third played the welcome tunes of the traditional creed, and drew God, free will, and immortality out of the vortices of the world. Descartes had begun with doubt and ended with piety; and his heirs could take him at either end. The ladies of the early salons—the femmes savantes satirized by Molière in 1672—found some exciting respite from the rosary in the whirlpools of the new cosmology. Mme. de Sévigné reported the Cartesian philosophy as an after-dinner topic in her circle; she and Mmes. de Grignan, de Sablé, and de La Fayette were all cartésiennes. Fragrant women attended the lectures given in Paris by followers of Descartes. 2 Great nobles took up the philosophic mode; Cartesian discourses were pronounced each week in the château of the Duc de Luynes, and in the Paris palace of the Prince de Condé, and in “the most magnificent hôtels of the capital.” 3 Religious orders—Oratorians, Benedictines, Augustinians—taught the new philosophy in their schools. It became the fashion to praise reason in science and human affairs, while carefully subordinating it, in religion, to divine revelation as interpreted by the Catholic Church. The Jansenists and Port-Royal accepted Cartesianism as an elegant reconciliation of religion and philosophy.

But their most brilliant convert, Blaise Pascal, denounced Cartesianism as the vestibule of atheism. “I cannot pardon Descartes,” he said; “he would have been glad, in all his philosophy, to dispense with God; but he could not avoid allowing him a fillip [a snap of the finger released from the thumb] to put the world in motion; after that he had no use for God.” 4 On this point the Jesuits agreed with Pascal; after 1650 they rejected Cartesianism as a subtle, even if unintended, corrosive of religious faith. The Sorbonne wished to proscribe Descartes; Boileau defended him; Ninon de Lenclos and others persuaded Molière to write a satire on the Sorbonne; the Sorbonne deferred its censure. 5 The learned Huet, after long accepting Cartesianism, turned against it as blowing hot and cold for and against Christianity. Theologians were increasingly alarmed by the difficulty of reconciling transubstantiation with Descartes’ view of matter as pure extension. In 1665 Louis XIV forbade the teaching of the ambivalent philosophy in the Collège Royal, and in 1671 he extended the prohibition to the University of Paris. In 1687 Bossuet joined in the attack.

These condemnations revived interest in Cartesianism, and drew attention to its skeptical overture, the Discours de la méthode; the initial doubt of that essay spread subterraneanly; its orthodox appendages withered away; in the eighteenth century hardly anything remained of the once victorious system except its attempt to reduce the external world to a mechanism obeying the laws of physics and chemistry. Every new discovery of science seemed to support this Cartesian mechanism and to discredit the Cartesian theology. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob found no place in Descartes’ picture of the cosmos; nor was Christ there; all that remained was a dieu fainéant who gave the world an initial push and then retired from the scene except as a guarantor of Descartes’ intuitions. This was not the majestic and awful God of the Old Testament, nor the merciful Father of the New; he was the God of deism, impersonal, functionless, negligible, subject to invariable laws; who would think of praying to such an Epicurean futility? Already in 1669 and 1678 the books of Guillaume Lamy, professor on the medical faculty at the University of Paris, expounded a completely mechanistic psychology anticipating Condillac’s Traité des sensations (1754), and a materialistic philosophy anticipating La Mettrie’s L’Homme machine (1748). And amid the fracas Cyrano de Bergerac made his scandalous voyages to the moon and the sun.

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