Antoine Arnauld (1612-1694)

"Nothing is more to be esteemed than aptness in discerning the true from the false. Other qualities of mind are of limited use, but precision of thought is essential to every aspect and walk of life. To distinguish truth from error is difficult not only in the sciences but also in the everyday affairs men engage in and discuss. Men are everywhere confronted with alternative routes--some true and others false--and reason must choose between them. Who chooses well has a sound mind, who chooses ill a defective one. Capacity for discerning the truth is the most important measure of minds."
--Antoine Arnauld The Art of Thinking


France in the seventeenth century was wracked with interconnected political and religious conflict. In politics there was the conflict between the nobles and the rising central authority of the crown. In religion there was first of all the conflict between Protestants and Catholics, and in the Catholic fold between Jesuits and Jansenists. Antoine Arnauld played a significant role in both sets of religious controversies, though he is most notably one of the central theological and philosophical figures in the controversy in France between the Jesuits and the Jansenists and his name is connected indisoluably with the Abbey of Port Royal. Indeed, the Arnauld family was closely tied to the Abbey. Nine of the ten surviving children of Antoine père (his granfather was also named Antoine) were involved with the abbey in one way or another.

The Abbey of Port Royal des Champs, was founded in 1204 as a cloister and school for women. The abbey had the privilege of offering retreat to seculars, lay persons (including men) who could, without taking formal vows, live in solitude within the abbey. In 1626 a sisterhouse was established in Paris. In 1634, the charismatic spiritual leader of the Abbey was Jean du Vergier de Hauranne, Abbé de Saint Cyran (1581-1643) Saint Cyran steered the young Antoine Arnauld away from the law towards theology. While a student at the Sorbonne, Saint Cyran introduced him to the works of Saint Augustine, and he wrote his dissertation defending an Augustinian theory of grace. This thesis was widely admired except by the most important theologian at the Sorbonne, Lescot. Arnauld had not consulted Lescot because he disagreed with his views. Lescot was not only the Cannon of Notre Dame, but the confessor of Cardinal Richelieu, the powerful prime minister of Louis XIII. When Arnauld came to apply for admission to La Societe de la Sorbonne, his admission was delayed through the influence of Lescot. Richelieu at this time was holding Saint Cyran a prisoner in the fortress of Vincennes.

Saint Cyran was a schoolmate, correspondent and advocate of the views of Cornelieus Jansen, Bishop of Ypres (1585-1638) whose posthumously published book Augustinus attacked the doctrine of grace of the 16th century Spanish Jesuit Francisco de Molina (1535-1600). Jansen's book, published in 1640, was condemned by Rome in 1641, and linked with the condemnation of an earlier book by a Michael de Bay. Saint Cyran persuaded Arnauld to return to the issues of his earlier thesis and to show that Jansen's doctrine of grace essentially resembled that of Saint Augustine and not those of de Bay. Arnauld with equal boldness defended Jansen and attacked the Jesuits in , De la fréquente communion. On Arnauld's Augistinian view, (as James Dickoff and Patricia James put in their "Introduction" to The Art of Thinking: "it is the province of God to give not only grace but also to make use of the disposition to use grace; because goodness and worthiness are not within the capability of man's power alone, frequent Commnunion is presumptuous."

Arnauld's bold defense of Jansen and his attack on the Jesuits made him the center of intense controversy. In 1649 Nicolas Cornot, a former Jesuit who had joined the faculty of theology at Paris, produced a list of five heretical propositions about grace which he claimed to find in Jansen's Augustinus. These propositions were condemned by the faculty at Paris and by Pope Innocent X in 1653

In 1655 a friend of Port Royal, the Duc de Liancourt was refused the sacrament because of his connections with Port Royal. Arnauld wrote two long public letters defending Port Royal and protesting this abuse of ecclesiastical authority. Francois Annat, the Jesuit Provincal of Paris, claimed to find the first of the five condemned Jansenist theses in one of these letters, and on this basis Arnauld was removed from the faculty of and the society of the Sorbonne. At this time Blaise Pascal came to Port Royal des Champs for a two week retreat (his sister had become a nun a Port Royal in 1651) and on one of his subsequent visits to the two sisterhouses, met Arnauld. Pascal, perhaps with the help and collaboration of Arnauld, and Pierre Nicole, wrote the Provincial Letters defending Arnauld and satirizing his Jesuit opponents.

In 1656 a document, known as the Formulary, was drawn up by a group of French bishops led by Pierre de Marca, the Archbishop of Toulouse, who was a friend of Cardinal Mazarin, who had succeeded Richelieu as prime minister. The Formulary was an oath which condemned the five propositions which Cornot had claimed to find in Jansen's book Augustinus. The Formulary was rewritten several times more to include new papal condemnations of the five propositions. There were attempts to stigmatize those who refused to sign the Formulary as heretics.

Arnauld's response to the Formulary was to engage in vigorous phamplet writing in which he tried to persuade the faculty of the Sorbonne and Rome that the five condemned propositions were not to be found in Jansen's book, and that (as Dickoff and James put it) "...a man in good conscience could not swear to any matter of non-revealed fact which he disbelieved or of which he was ignorant." In particular, the question of whether particular propositions are found in a particular text, as opposed to whether such propositions are heretical wherever found, must be left to the decision of the individual knower.

Amongst those who refused to sign the Formulary were the religious of the Port Royal Abbey. This provoked the crown in 1661 to disperse the religious, students and retreants of Port Royal. The difficulties involved in the Formulary occupied Arnauld and Port Royal until 1669 when Pope Clement IX along with Louis XIV declared the peace of Clement IX to end the affair of the Formulary. Silence was imposed on an unresolved issue.

During the period from 1669 to 1679 during which the peace of Clement IX lasted, Arnauld was recognized as the foremost spokesman of the Catholic church in France against the Calvinists. Along with his collaborator Pierre Nicole, Arnauld engaged in polemics against French Calvinism. In 1679 with the death of Madam de Longueville, the cousin of Louis XIV, and the last of Port Royal's powerful friends at court, opposition to Port Royal once more became active. Arnauld went to the low countries in self-imposed exile. In 1709 Port Royal des Champs was razed by order of Louis XIV.


Arnauld collaborated with Pierre Nicole and Blaise Pascal. He also made important criticisms of the works of Descartes, Malebranche and Leibniz. In 1641 Arnauld was asked by Father Marin Mersenne to comment on Descartes Meditations de prima philosophia along with a number of other illustrious philosophers of the day, including Hobbes and Gassendi. Arnauld wrote the fourth set of objections which were published along with the Meditations. Arnauld raised for the first time, the problem of the Cartesian circle - that Descartes requires clear and distinct ideas as a criterion of certainty of any proof, thus the proof for the existence of God must involve clear and distinct ideas, but God is required to guarantee the certainty of clear and distinct ideas. The Cart esian circle represents one of the most significant challenges to Descartes' system posed by any of his critics.

The young Gottfried Leibniz visited Arnauld in Paris and later carried on an extensive correspondence with him concerning Leibniz' Discours de Metaphysique. In February 1686 Leibniz wrote a letter to the Langrave Ernst von Hessen Reinfels, saying: "being somewhere having nothing to do for a few days, I have lately composed a short discourse on metaphysics about which I would be very happyto have M. Arnauld's opinion. For questions on grace, God's concourse with c reatures, the nature of miracles, the cause of sin, the origin of evil, the immortallity of the soul, ideas, etc. are touched upon in a manner which seems to provide new openings capable of illuminating some very great difficulties." (G.W. Leibniz, Philosophical Essays, Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber, translators, Hackett Press, 1989. Pg. 35.) Arnauld wrote a letter criticizing section 13 of the Discours and this began the Leibniz Arnauld letters.

Arnauld engaged in a lengthy and sometimes bitter exchange with Nicholas Malebranche. Arnauld objected to Malebranche's theory of grace, but traced the errors in Malebranche's account of grace to errors in Malebranche's account of ideas. Arnauld objected to a central thesis contained in Malebranche's doctrine of seeing all things in God, namely that knowledge of objects requires objects that are independent of and distinct from the human mind and its perception. The issues have to do with the role of God in the world, particularly in our acts of perceiving and of moral choice. Debates over theology are related to the status of ideas because ideas play a central role in both perception and action. Arnauld was, in effect, objecting to an interpretation of the role of ideas in perception which Jonathan Bennett called "the veil of perception." In effect since we directly see ideas, and not the things which the ideas represent, the ideas veil our perception of the external world. Arnauld, by contrast, while believing in the representative character of ideas, is a direct realist about perception. Locke follows Arnauld in his criticism of Malebranche on this point. This criticism of Malebranche by Arnauld and Locke raises interesting and important philosophical problems about ideas and perception.

In the logic book L'Art de Penser (The Art of Thinking also known as the Port Royal Logic) which Arnauld wrote with Pierre Nicole, while admitting that Aristotle is the source of most formal logic, they clearly show that their sympathies are firmly with those who reject Aristotle and the Scholastic philosophy. Montaine's egoism and skepticism are also especially distatestful to them. William and Martha Kneel, in their book The Development of Logic, remark that while Arnauld and Nicole endorse Cartesianism and the new mechanical philosophy against Aristotlian science: "...they show no understanding of the role of experiment in the growth of natural science, and they mention induction only to say that it is unreliable." (Pg. 315) The Kneales go on to remark that Arnauld and Nicole "are followers of Descartes, but followers who are interested in his philosophy chiefly because they see it as a revival of Augustianin thought and therefore an ally of their own kind of the ology." (Pg. 316) The book also represents the "epistemological turn" caused by the rise of skepticism and the Cartesian response to it. The general conception of logic which they expounded in the Art of Thinking, that is in aiming at the development of clear thinking, and quite subordinating formal logic to this goal, was, as the Kneales remark: "...widely accepted and continued to dominate the treatment of logic for the next 200 years." (Pg. 320) While having little sympathy for the direction in which Arnauld and Nicole took logic, the Kenales concede that the book deserves its high reputation.

Arnauld Time Line

1612 February 6, born in Paris the twentieth child to Antoine, a lawyer, and his wife Catherine.
1637The Abbey of Port Royal asserts its ancient privilege of housing seculars, and some of these became teachers in the Parisian sisterhouse of Port Royal des Champs.
1638Abbé Saint Cyran (the spiritual head of the Abbey of Port Royal and Arnauld's mentor) arrested by order of Cardinal Richelieu.
1639Begins teaching philosophy at the College de Mans.
1641 Receives his doctorate in theology.
1643 Is admitted to the Sorbonne after the death of Richelieu who had previously barred his admittance because of his association with the Jansenists. Publication of his most important religious work, De la fréquente communion.
1644 Writes the Apologie de Monsieur Jansenius.
1655Writes Lettre à un Persone de condition and Second lettre à un duc et pair (the two now known collectively as Letters to a Duke and Peer). Pascal visits Port Royal des Champs for the first time. During several succeeding visits he meets Arnauld and writes the Provincial Letters in defense of Arnauld and satirizes the Jesuits.
1656After years of persecution for his religious beliefs he is excluded from the faculty of the Sorbonne.
1661Pascal writes his last Jansenist pamphlet urging the religious at Port Royal not to sign the Formulary.
1662Arnauld with the grammarian Claude Lancelot publish the Grammaire Génerale et Raísonée.
1669 Clement IX ends the persecution of the Jansenists with what became known as the "Peace of the Clement IX" as several concessions were made to the Jansenists as long as they did not discuss Jansenist issues. Works with Nicole on La Perpétuité de la foi catholique touchant l'eucharistie.
1679 Persecution against the Jansenists breaks out once more and Arnauld is compelled to flee with others to Netherlands and then settles in Brussels.
1680Malebranche's Traité de la Nature et de la Grace published.
1683 Dispute with Malebranche on the relation between theology and metaphysics he publishes Traité des Vraies et Fausses Idées. (Treatise concerning True and False Ideas)
1685Dispute with Malbranche renewed.
1694 August 8, dies in Liège.

Arnauld Time Line Sources


Much of Arnauld's works were in the form of pamphlets defending Jansenism or attacking its enemies as well as treatises on various philosophical and theological topics. The most important of his philosophical works include his "Objections to Descartes Meditations," and his correspondence with Leibniz and Malebranche. What follows is a brief list of Arnauld's main philosophical publications.

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