Pascalian Mockery as Love of Enemy

Consider a now-familiar tableau: a respected and accomplished academic publicly defends a view which a few years before would have seemed anodyne, but which now falls outside the bounds of an increasingly calcified and inscrutable public orthodoxy; in consequence, he is defenestrated by the institution to which he had given most of his professional life, and ultimately exiled from polite society. The case I have in mind is not that of Kathleen Stock, Larry Summers, or other contemporary victims of “cancellation,” but rather Antoine Arnauld (1612-1694), a French lawyer, professor of theology at the Sorbonne, and advocate for Cornelius Jansen’s rigorous interpretation of the late Augustine’s dour writings on grace.

Arnauld’s rigorism, particularly in the area of sacramental theology, brought him and his fellow travelers into increasingly bitter conflict with the ascendant Jesuit order, which he regarded (with some reason, as we will see below) as encouraging loose morals among Christians through novel theories of grace, guilt, and penitence. In the face of Arnauld’s increasingly public attacks on their moral and sacramental theology, the Jesuits successfully lobbied for their opponents’ views as expressed in Jansen’s Augustinus to be anathematized by Pope Innocent I (Cum occasione, 1653). This condemnation, backed as it was by the threat of civil as well as ecclesial penalties, eventually forced Arnauld’s grudging acquiescence for a season, although his recalcitrance ultimately resulted in his voluntary exile to the more tolerant Netherlands in 1674, where he lived out his remaining twenty years. 

Sordid and unedifying as the Arnauld Affair was, it was nonetheless something of a felix culpa, a felicitous fault, producing as it did perhaps the greatest work of theological satire ever penned, in the form of Blaise Pascal’s Provincial Letters.[1] Pascal, made famous by early adulthood for his genius as a mathematician and inventor, had experienced a profound religious conversion at age 30his celebrated “night of fire”which led him into the Jansenist circle gathered around Arnauld’s sister at the convent of Port Royal. As Arnauld was tried for heresy by the theological faculty of the Sorbonne in 1656, Pascal intervened by publishing a series of anonymous letters, written as missives to a friend in the provinces to apprise him of the madness in the capital.

In the Provincials, Pascal lampoons the ruthlessness and indifference to truth of Arnauld’s persecutors (principally Jesuits), the fecklessness of those (principally Dominicans) who abetted them out of political expedience, and the general impossibility of reasoned discourse in a world in which the powerful could redefine the terms of the debate as they liked.[2] The letters are unsparing, bitter, outraged—but they are also extremely funny, frequently employing his opponents own words to underscore the absurdity of their positions.

I have found myself thinking of the Arnauld Affair, and particularly the Provincials, a great deal in the last several weeks, as I have followed the brouhaha caused within the Christian Right by James Wood’s essay, “How I Evolved on Tim Keller.” This piece consists principally in a call for Christians in public life to care less about “winsomeness” as a standard for political engagement, particularly with the culturally ascendant Left. Faithful witness on questions of great moment (e.g., “What is a woman?”), Wood insists, will increasingly and unavoidably be sharp-tongued, satirical, or otherwise offensive to members of polite society; eschewing that style of engagement in favor of resolute winsomeness invites a public square in which, as Yeats unforgettably warned, “the best lack all conviction,” even as “the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Wood’s essay launched a thousand think-pieces, with the fiercest criticism coming from self-described “classical liberals,” notably the Evangelical lawyer and influential columnist David French, himself among the most prominent advocates today for enemy-love as a pathway to greater tolerance and pluralism in American public life.[3] He chided Wood, insisting, 

The biblical call to Christians to love your enemies, to bless those who curse you, and to exhibit the fruit of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—does not represent a set of tactics to be abandoned when times are tough but rather a set of eternal moral principles to be applied even in the face of extreme adversity.

Wood, unsurprisingly stung by the accusation that he had rejected Christ’s command to enemy-love (he had not), insisted in a follow-up piece, “Christians are called at all times and in all places to love their neighbors, even their enemies; no shift in context repeals these imperatives.” And French, for his part, has insisted that his calls for “civility” in no way amount to “surrender on matters of deep conviction,” or imply an “aversion to conflict and a timidity in the face of opposition.”

Is this then perhaps merely a debate over words rather than things? I think not; indeed, the deep underlying agreement between Wood and French as two Christians on the American Right is what makes a genuine and interesting debate between them possible in this case. That disagreement is neither over the obligation to love one’s enemy nor the legitimacy of resisting the enemy’s malice with all one’s wit and skill, but rather over whether a certain style of public engagement—pugilistic rather than irenic, and harsh or mocking rather than patient and winsome—is ever consistent with enemy-love. 

To my mind, the clearest recent defense of resolute winsomeness as the standard of enemy love was given by Arthur Brooks in his Love Your Enemies, in which he argues, “We don’t have an anger problem in American politics. We have a contempt problem.” By “contempt,” Brooks means “anger mixed with disgust,” or “an enduring attitude of complete disdain.”[4] He notes that there is good evidence that contempt is far more damaging than anger to close relationships such as marriages and friendships.[5] Even heated arguments are not strongly predictive of divorce, but “sarcasm, sneering, hostile humor and—worst of all—eye-rolling” definitely are.[6] Just as a healthy marriage will make room for vigorous disagreement but exclude all signs of contempt, so too our public debates, Brooks proposes, ought to be heated but high-minded, free of eye-rolling, mocking humor, or other signals of disrespect.

In fairness to Brooks, his principal concern in the book seems to be with day-to-day interactions among partisan rivals, and in that domain, his advice, and the analogies from marriage and friendship which fund it, seem amply justified. A conversation about transgender rights or the “stolen” 2020 presidential election across your neighbor’s fence is not going to be helped at all by sneering or satire, and Brooks is surely wise to emphasize communicating good-will and emphasizing shared concerns above all.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that finer distinctions are called for than resolute winsomeness allows, and few works bring them into view with greater clarity than Pascal’s Provincials. Pascal was not arguing with a cousin or neighbor, but with politically and culturally powerful rivals who had repeatedly demonstrated his indifference to fact and logic alike; as Pascal argued at length in the eleventh Provincial, to which we will return below, the only reasonable strategy in this situation is one of satirical mockery aimed at rousing the shame of the opponent and the indignation of the otherwise indifferent masses (let us call this Pascalian mockery).

This is not the place to survey the Provincials in full—they beg to be read in full and at leisure, preferably in a room where your periodic snorts of laughter will not be too disruptive to others—but a few anecdotes drawn from them will suffice to give a sense of the absurdity of the situation which Pascal confronted. Consider the debate over “sufficient grace,” which both Jesuits and Dominicans claimed, against the Jansenists, was given to all men (375-78).

As Pascal relates in the first two letters, which were written prior to Arnauld’s condemnation, the Jesuits’ understanding of the expression is straightforward: sufficient grace is that gift of God which enables one to obey the commandments; this, they believe, is fully possible for every person. The predestinarian Jansenists, of course, insist that sufficient grace is given only to those on whom God inscrutably wills to bestow his mercy. Pascal’s Dominicans, however, took the odd approach of affirming that all men receive sufficient grace, but then insisting that God must additionally give them “efficacious grace” in order for them to obey the commandments (375). But, as Pascal wryly observes, this merely amounts to affirming that sufficient grace does not suffice.

In this case, the Dominicans occupy the curious position of agreeing with the Jesuits as to terms, but with the Jansenists as to sense, even as they use their terminological agreement with the Jesuits as a pretext for persecuting the Jansenists (376)! What can explain this odd outcome? In the second Provincial, a Dominican laments to Pascal that they had only given up their former opposition to Molinism because the Society had become too powerful an ecclesial player to be ignored. The only tenable strategy, they had concluded, was to forge a public alliance with them, but to privately maintain their own more classically Augustinian teachings on grace. The Jansenists, of course, serve as convenient scapegoats—it is better that one community should die than that the whole Church should perish.

In Provincials 4-6, Pascal turns from Arnauld to consider the field of Jesuit moral theology broadly, where he discovers an interpretive slipperiness to match the political subtlety the Jesuits had shown during the trial. Pascal and his Jansenist friend visit a Jesuit, who gravely informs them—following Étienne Bauny’s Summa of Sins (Somme des Péchés, 1630)—that sins committed in ignorance, or without any conscious thought of God cannot be imputed to the sinner (382b).

Pascal praises Bauny as “he who takes away the sins of the world,” and marvels: “Oh, my Father, what a great good this is for people of my acquaintance . . . I bet you’ve never seen any who had so few sins, for they never think about God” (383b). This theory provides an admirable strategy for saving souls—keep them in invincible ignorance of God and the good, and they will never be guilty of anything! It’s far worse, Pascal suggests, for “those halfway sinners, who have some love for virtue; they will all be damned!” (384a). Only the truly committed sinners will prove to “have tricked the Devil by virtue of abandoning themselves to him” (384a).

Pascal’s complaints about the Jesuits’ treatment of Arnauld and their own native alternatives to his rigorism are all united in their apparent indifference to language as a vehicle of truth. The Jesuit-Dominican compromise as to the use of “sufficient grace,” he insists, merely amounts to an agreement as to a noise, and not at all as to meaning (377a); it is certainly full of sound, and not a little fury, but it signifies nothing. But that seems to be just fine with Pascal’s Jesuits, for whom “the world runs on words: things hardly make a difference” (375a).

When Pascal wonders about the point of censuring Arnauld, since the condemnation is so easily shown to be aimed at a straw man, his Jansenist friend explains that Arnauld’s enemies simply needed it to be cried up and down that the Jansenists were condemned. After all, how many would actually take the time to read the text of the condemnation, much less compare it with the condemned man’s own words (381a)? For Pascal’s Jesuits, language serves principally, not as a vehicle of meaning, but as a mechanism of inclusion and exclusion, a tool for isolating the Jansenists at any cost, or for assuaging the conscience of even the most lurid sinners, no matter the logical or semantic absurdities committed in the process.

Indifference to meaning does not, of course, betoken indifference to language as such. As at the fords of Jordan, saying “Shibboleth” can be a matter of life and death among these ecclesiastical power brokers. When Pascal suggests in frustration that everyone simply stop using the term “proximate power,” his Jesuit interlocutor offers a dark rejoinder: “You will say it, or you will be a heretic, and Mr. Arnauld as well” (375a). Those who say “proximate power” do so not to affirm any particular proposition, but to signal their allegiance. They are in much the same position as Václav Havel’s Soviet green-grocer, dutifully displaying in his storefront the government-issued placard declaring, “Workers of the World, Unite!”: what matters in both cases is the subtext, which eloquently announces, “I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.”[7]

It is no surprise, given that situation, that Pascal’s prose brims with irony and bitter satire. Pascal’s identification of Père Bauny as John the Baptist’s Lamb of God, “who takes away the sins of the world” (383b) is not an argument against the Bauny’s position, but a laugh directed in his face, aimed at persuading the masses not to countenance evident absurdities, even when uttered by the highly placed and influential, and also at making their advocates feel ridiculous, and so be shamed into more meaningful debate or even repentance.

Pascal offers his most extended reflection on and defense of the satirical genre of the Provincials in the eleventh letter, which marks a major stylistic shift within the work. This letter is the first not addressed to “the Provincial,” but rather to the Jesuit fathers themselves, responding to their responses to his earlier letters. In this letter and the following, Pascal offers his clearest statement yet as to what he is doing in these texts; they are no longer reflections on Jesuit moral theology so much as his reflection on his reflection on Jesuit moral theology.

The Jesuits’ principal criticism of the Provincial Letters is that Pascal did not take their maxims seriously enough, but instead “has turned holy things into mockery” (419a). Pascal brushes aside the ascription of sanctity to the fantastical casuistry he reviewed in the prior ten letters. Indeed, he observes that he has not even properly argued against the Jesuits; he has simply displayed their characteristic claims and strategies clearly and unambiguously, which “shows the wounds which one could inflict on them” (420b). The Jesuits, in Pascal’s view, satirize themselves; all he has done is translate their teachings into the vernacular, the better to reach a wide audience! 

He gives more serious attention to the allegation that it is “a thing unworthy of a Christian to mock errors” (419b). He insists that this practice is common in Scripture and among the Church Fathers. As an instance of Scripture’s mockery of error, Pascal cites the scene after the Fall of man in Genesis 3, in which God speaks to humanity with “piquant irony” (419b), referring to God’s observation, “Behold, Adam has become like one of us” (cf. Gen 3:22), which Chrysostom called “a gruesome irony (une ironie sanglante),” and Hugh of St. Victor read as “a kind of raillery (espèce de raillerie)” (420a). God is not mocked, but he mocks us.

Moreover, Pascal urges, patristic polemics are full of mockery and satire: Jerome mocks Jovinian; Augustine, the Manichees; Irenaeus, the Valentinians; and Tertullian, absolutely everyone. Pascal quotes Tertullian on the subject: “There are many things which deserved to be mocked and played with in that manner, from fear of granting them too much weight in combatting them seriously” (420b).

Finally, Pascal insists that “you can laugh at something without wounding charity (on en peut rire sans blesser la charité)”; indeed, as Augustine himself argued, it is sometimes an act of charity to laugh at another’s errors, so that he might come to see them as laughable and flee them (421a).[8] And, as Augustine further notes, truth and falsehood will hardly meet on equal terms if falsehood is free to be fiery and funny, and truth can only “write with a cold style, and put its readers to sleep” (421a).

Pascal recognizes that the mockery and charity are strange bedfellows, however, and so he concludes the eleventh Provincial by outlining four distinctive notes of mockery disciplined by love. First, charity speaks only truths; the lie is out of bounds as a rhetorical strategy (421a-422a). Second, charity does not speak every truth, but only what discretion permits. In particular, Pascal notes that he deliberately refused to highlight his opponents’ personal faults or failings; he mocked ideas rather than men (422a). Third, charity mocks only what is evil, never what is good; Pascal was fully sensible of the fact that mockery and satire are artifacts of the Fall, and can only ever be justified as a lamentable necessity in the face of some pressing evil. And fourth, Pascal insists that charity always desires the salvation (wills the good) of those it mocks. Charity’s mockery is never malicious, even if it might seem cruel to those who are subject to it.

To these four express conditions for the exercise of charitable mockery, we can add a fifth and sixth which are arguably implicit in Pascal’s practice: mockery is to be used only in conditions of conflict with those who are both powerful and unreasonable. Pascalian mockery, that is, is never a form of bullying or “punching down,” but a means of making ridiculous those who are abusing their authority. And neither is Pascalian mockery a means of prematurely ending a good-faith conversation, but an attempt to confront a dangerous foe with his own irresponsible folly. Indeed, if faced with someone who wills your evil, has coercive power over you, and is unresponsive to reason but perhaps capable of being shamed, Pascalian mockery might help prevent conflict from escalating to outright violence.

These six proposed criteria define an approach to public satire and mockery which is deliberately shaped by love for one’s enemy; it might perhaps serve as a means of clarifying or even narrowing the differences between the defenders and detractors of resolute winsomeness. This framework has the virtue of being (so far as I can tell) neutral as to its application: right-liberals might see themselves as justified by it in satirizing the Trumpian “new Right,” or progressives in mocking the latest libertarian cruelty. Of course, whether any given attempt at Pascalian mockery in fact succeeds is an empirical question, and given that our motives are mixed in the best of cases, every such attempt is likely to be only a partial success.

All such efforts have their limits, though, and Pascal was amply clear about them as well. In the twelfth Provincial, he proposed that the Jesuits’ campaign against him was the “attempt of violence to vanquish truth” (429b). Ultimately, he insisted, violence was doomed in this contest, for “truth endures forever and eventually triumphs over its enemies, being eternal and almighty as God himself” (429b). In the near-term, however, he maintained that “violence and truth can make no impression upon one another” (429b), in the double sense that violence can at most dissemble the truth but never alter it, while the truth can expose violence’s pretensions, it cannot typically dethrone it, at least near-term.

Pascal did not expect his rhetorical assaults to dash the swords from his enemies’ hands—with good reason, as it proved. In 1661, the year before he died, Pascal was in a state of profound agitation if not anguish as the Church hierarchy tightened the noose around supporters of Jansen and Arnauld, producing ever more detailed denunciations for their supporters to endorse as a condition for remaining in full communion with the Church. It is not fully clear whether Pascal submitted to denouncing Jansen in the end, although—as Paul Griffiths details in his recent book on Pascal—the balance of evidence seems to indicate that he did.[9]

Contemporary practitioners of Pascalian mockery should be clearsighted about its limits—it is ripe for abuse by those who have not cultivated a spirit of charity, and works only if its targets are still capable of shame, or if it finds other hearers still willing to laugh at their rulers’ folly. It will not stop a regime’s tanks or a terrorist’s bomb. Nonetheless, governed as we are by men and women whose chief distinction seems increasingly to be a resolute detachment from reality, what could be more salutary, what a greater discharge of patriotic duty and spiritual discipline, than our willingness to stand up and point out with a chuckle that the emperor has no clothes?

[1] Quotations of the Provincial Letters throughout are my translation from Blaise Pascal, Oeuvres Complètes (ed. Louis Lafuma; Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1963). In-line citations are page numbers from this edition. An English translation of the Provincials can be found here.

[2] Even when I do not use the full expressions below, my references to “the Jesuits” and to “the Dominicans” are always short for “the Jesuits or Dominicans as they appeared to Pascal in Paris”; his representation of both is largely accurate, so far as I can tell, particularly in his copious quotations from Jesuit works, but if it seems otherwise to you, you might still think of the Provincials as an engaging thought experiment, a kind of Kantian als ob. And of course Pascal’s views about the seventeenth century have no direct bearing on the culture or membership of either Order today.

[3] See his Divided We Fall (St. Martin’s, 2020).

[4] Love Your Enemies (Broadside, 2018), 17-18.

[5] Ibid., 30.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Cf. Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless.”

[8] Pascal here quotes from Augustine’s Contra Parmenianum 3.4.

[9] Paul Griffiths, Why Read Pascal? (CUA Press, 2021), 178-94.

Featured Image: Photo by Emilia Guźnik, "Współczesny Stańczyk" zdjęcie wykonane podczas akcji Miejskiej Biblioteki Publicznej im. Zofii Urbanowskiej w Koninie "Bibliotekarze jak dzieła sztuki", w kwietniu 2020 roku; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Brendan Case

Brendan Case is Associate Director for Research in The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University.

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