Jacques Maritain Center

Pascal's "Provincial Letters."{1}

by Hilaire Belloc.

PASCAL'S "Provincial Letters" have been in the past unceasingly used, and are even still used, as a weapon against the Catholic Church.

They are imagined to have exposed Jesuits as teachers of bad morals, and therefore to have exposed the Catholic Church herself as a teacher of bad morals.

The attack has been variously met; but I do not think there has yet appeared a short and convenient analysis of the specific accusations made. My object in what follows is to present the reader with such an analysis. It is a cold way of meeting such excellent writing, so much wit and fervour; but it is a decisive one.

I leave on one side all that is not evidence in the advocate's presentation of his case -- all his rhetoric, all his indignation, all his wit. I confine myself to an exact examination of his witnesses.

There are eighteen of these "Provincial Letters" each shorter than this paper. Though they are eighteen in number, six alone concern the Catholic in controversy with his opponent. In these six are to be discovered all the points which have left in the non-Catholic world vague but strong traditions of a successful attack conducted by Pascal against the practical morals of the Catholic Church. These six letters are numbers v. to x. (inclusively).

The first four Letters deal with the long-dead discussion upon "Sufficient Grace." It is with the fifth that the Letters suddenly change and begin their attack upon the Jesuit Order by detailed quotations from Jesuit pronouncements. This attack is continued through Letters vi., vii., viii., ix., x., in each of which excerpts are given from various Jesuit publications, usually accompanied by exact references. In these six alone, does the advocate marshal his evidence. The remaining Letters (xi-xviii) are of another kind, and stand apart from the controversy as much as do the first four.

The first thing we have to note in connection with this evidence is that it is entirely concerned with Casuistry.

Casuistry is in morals exactly what case precedent and case law are in our legal system: it is the application of law to particular examples. When you are reading a Casuist decision, you are reading an answer to questions framed thus: -- "Can there be circumstances in which such and such an action, word or thought was morally permissible?" Or again, you are reading an answer to the question "Could such and such an act in such and such circumstances possibly be, though still wrong, not gravely and damnably wrong?" Or again: "Is it certain that, under such and such circumstances, such and such an act must be morally wrong, in spite of all that may, exceptionally, be said in its favour?"

There are here three points to be carefully marked

1. Casuistry is a necessary part of morals and, granted the Sacrament of Penance, it must become a vast, complex, and, at the same time, essential branch of study for those concerned with the administration of that Sacrament.

2. A Casuist decision is not binding unless it has the authority of the Church. It is only of greater or less weight according to the weight of him that gives it, or the numbers of those authorities that give it.

3. Our judgement of any particular Casuist must be based upon his whole work and not upon a few examples; since, from the very nature of so wide a study, it is impossible that inaccurate and even contradictory decisions should not appear.

Now let us proceed to an exact examination:

The total number of citations from Casuists (all of the Society of Jesus) appearing in Pascal's evidence against them, is 132.{2} This, in connection with its subject, is a grotesquely inadequate "sampling" of the whole. It is not one per cent., nor one-half per cent., nor one-tenth per cent. of the whole mass of Casuist decisions. It is a quite insignificant fraction (not one per cent.) of Jesuit Casuist decisions alone. But even these few citations are inflated. No less than forty-three of them are repetitions. The real number falls from 132 to 89.

Next we note that of these 89 citations a considerable number are frivolously chosen. They are either frivolous because they deal with points so slight as to be comic, points which no one would seriously use against any grave body of doctrine, or they are frivolous because they deal with decisions obviously just and only dragged in by Pascal to swell his list. To prove this I will quote all those which fall under this category. They are 17 in number.

Pascal is shocked (1) to hear that you may take the goods of another in a grave necessity, as, for instance, that a starving man may take food; (2) that we are not bound in charity to give up profit lest another should suffer loss (for instance if a man sells me a bit of land for less than he gave for it, and if afterwards the value of land rises, I am not bound to give him back the difference). (3) He is scandalised to hear that a bankrupt (under the conditions of modern commerce) may be left enough of his fortune to live decently; (4) that you may defend your property with a lethal weapon, against a robber; and this (5) whether you are a layman or not (which has nothing to do with the question of morals); (6) that there are conditions under which to envy another's temporal goods and to wish to goodness one had his luck, need not be a very grave sin; (7) that one may eat and drink things palatable because one likes them, and not merely to sustain life; (8) that very often a promise given lightly is not binding; (9) that a young woman, having made a free choice of her future husband, need not necessarily and under all circumstances give up her choice at her father's command. Is not all this frivolous?

(10) He bravely protests against a young woman being allowed to dress well, even if (11) by doing so she makes herself attractive; and he is indignant at (12) the idea that a married woman, taking small change from her husband's table to pay what she has lost at cards, need not imperil her immortal soul. He cannot (13) understand that a man is not guilty of abduction if his companion be a willing partner to the flight they both undertake. He is (14) offended at hearing that we obey the command to love God if we keep His Commandments. He even (15) quarrels against a counsel to an old lady not to overdress, because (he says) it is inconsistent with allowing young ladies to dress as they will. He fulminates (16) against the jocular remark of Garasse that God at least gives bad writers this consolation, that they like their own work; and is (17) severe against the statement that a young lady's father is not her owner.

So much for the insignificant, because frivolous, accusations, 17 in number. We are left with 72.

Next comes another category, 7 in number, where the points are of more importance, but will clearly be decided by any man of commonsense against Pascal and with the Jesuits. (1) That ecclesiastical laws, like all other laws, lose their force when they fall into desuetude. That has nothing to do with moral laws (which cannot fall into desuetude), but only with special -- sometimes local -- regulations of the Church. If a particular Church custom which has the force of law becomes disused and is forgotten, clearly, as in the case of any civil law, its effect is gone. Again (2), it is commonsense that a religious who has been forcibly turned out of his monastery is not bound to return to it. And few would quarrel with the decision that (3) in some circumstances you have a right to hope for the death (though not, of course, out of hatred) of a person who is threatening you with great danger. It would be ridiculous to say that a person who, from the deck of a ship, saw a German submarine training a torpedo on him during the late war was committing a grave sin if he fervently wished the enemy at the bottom of the sea. And the same (4) applies to particular cases of extreme persecution. It is also reasonable to conclude that (5) not all arguments drawn from a text of Scripture can apply to modern conditions. And it is commonsense to say (6) that we cannot call a circumstance an occasion of sin if it is only very rarely an occasion of sin: we cannot say that a man who has got drunk twice in his life is going into an occasion of sin because he goes where he knows that wine will be offered him. It is equally commonsense (7) that, in judging what is and what is not an occasion of sin to be sincerely avoided, we must allow for incommodity. For instance, a man may be so weak as to be tempted to drunkenness whenever wine is offered him, but it does not follow that he commits a grievous sin unless he rushes out of his host's house whenever wine is upon the table.

In all these seven cases the "Provincial Letters" are clearly in the wrong at the tribunal of commonsense.

Next we have a couple of points where the Casuist decision is unjustly presented as an enormity because exact definition is omitted in a matter where exact definition makes all the difference.

Thus (1) if you say that a servant ought to help his master to do wrong you are obviously saying something immoral -- and Pascal pretends that this was said. Nothing of the kind was said. The Casuist said that often the servant may be an innocent party to a wrong. There are many cases where the servant must carry out his contract of service to his master although the master may be doing wrong (and that is what Pascal quarrels with). A servant in a country house posts the letters that are given to him without looking into the handwriting. From what he knows of the relations between the people concerned, one particular letter may well enough be an invitation to some politician to dip his dirty hand into the public purse. But that is not the servant's business: his duty is to post the letters. For Pascal this is an infamy; but the sense of mankind will support the Casuist.

Again (2), when the Casuist says (as does Escobar) that the technical term traditio (that is, "treason" in killing) only applies to the killing of an unsuspecting person and not an armed opponent, the point cannot be taken unless one admits that a technical term is involved. The Casuist is not saying that only the killing of an unsuspecting person is wrong (which would be nonsense,) but that such killing alone corresponds to the particular technical term traditio.

We are left with 63 points.

We next find no Jess than eleven points which are of no value in argument save through a trick. In these eleven points the Casuist decision is put forward by Pascal in such a form that its strict reasonableness is masked either by a confusion between the particular and the general application, or by the suppression of a material point, or by the venerable subterfuge of confusing the technical with the conversational use of a word. When these eleven points are quoted in detail, the trick becomes apparent.

Thus (1) Escobar's decision in the obsolete point of sanctuary is held up to odium. Gregory XIV. denied the right of sanctuary to "assassins." Escobar pointed out with perfect justice that "assassin" was here a technical term meaning "a hired murderer," and that the Pope's Bull did not deny sanctuary to all murderers. The citation is a good example of the trick whereby the Casuist point is made to look grotesque, the technical word "assassin" having substituted for it a conversational use. So have I heard excellent fun made of the technical legal term "Infant," used in English law for a lusty young man of 20: but such a play on words talk is not serious argument.

Again, we have the confusion of a particular with a general meaning, as in Pascal's attack on (2) the decision that in particular cases there is no obligation to give away superfluous wealth. This is a confusion of the particular with the general use of the word "obligation." The decision can only be made to look wrong by forgetting the prime quality of every Casuist decision, that it only applies to one particular case. The decision is not a general doctrine that the rich should not give alms, which would be a crude denial of Christian doctrine: it is a decision that there may be cases in which, even out of an apparent superfluity, there may not be a strict obligation to give alms. There are many cases where a man with a large income and many duties and dependents may be embarrassed while his neighbour, with a much smaller income but less claims on it may be much freer to give alms. And that is the whole point of this decision, the precise terms of which Pascal either did not know or conceals from his reader.

Again (3), religious who abandoned their habit were subject to excommunication. But there is no reason why we should be offended, as Pascal asks us to be, at the necessarily numerous exceptions. If you say that a man is not excommunicated who has put on lay dress when he was occupied in some evil work, you are not approving the evil work, nor his disguise. What you are saying is that it does not fall into the particular category of that open renunciation of the habit which was envisaged in the decree of excommunication. So a soldier may be shot for desertion: if you say that mutiny is not desertion, you are not, therefore, excusing mutiny.

It is (4) not usury to accept a gift given you out of gratitude for a loan, if no profit was intended when the loan was granted. The decision is commonsense. But by a trick it may be made to look ridiculous. The critic says: "Ah, yes! You do not call it profit, but you know very well you were expecting it as a profit!" But the definition is rigid. If you "knew very well that you were expecting a gift," then it was usury. It is only in the particular case where a man does give you out of gratitude what you were not expecting that you are excused.

A very good instance of this kind of trick in Pascal is his play with a number of Casuist decisions (7 in all) on the duty of restoring ill-gotten goods. We are bound in justice to restore that which was not justly due to us: that which we have stolen or swindled other people out of; or that which we got by violence. But we are not bound to restore that which we were given voluntarily and as a matter of contract, although the contract were in itself immoral.

The logical point is so obvious that it has only to be stated to be agreed with. But it is one in which it is singularly easy to muddy the waters and to create confusion in the reader's mind between the justice of the payment and the morality of the contract, and that is exactly what is done in the "Provincial Letters" in -- as I have said -- no less than seven quotations from Casuist decisions.

So much for the eleven quotations where the "Provincial Letters" rely, in order to provoke indignation, upon what I have called "a trick." We are left with 52 points.

There are three points among these in which the "Provincial Letters" actually misquote. Of errors in detail more than 200 have been tabulated in them by scholars, of suppression of context 100 more, but these are three examples of palpable textual error.

He says (1) that the Casuists repudiate the authority of the Fathers of the Church, The original text only affirms That a modern and recent Casuist decision is usually to be preferred not to any patristic teaching but to an old Casuist decision, because the circumstances to which it applies will probably have changed in the interval -- an obvious rule. Thus the fathers denounce luxury. A Casuist will properly decide that some particular habit which was a mark of luxury in the 16th century has become a common social custom in the 19th, or vice versa.

In the second case (2) Pascal misquotes a particular passage in the Casuist writer, Laymann. Laymann said that though in pure theory a confessor may give a "probability"{3} he himself disagrees with, in practice he must not do so. Pascal falsely quotes it as a practical rule.

(3) In the third case he quotes a supposed decision of Palaus on the supposed right of a religious to disobey his superior, which, in the original, does not apply to a religious at all, but to ordinary relations of superior and inferior not bound by any vow of obedience.

We are are left with 49 points. Now, of these remaining 49, no less than 35 deal with purely domestic Catholic matters: questions which cannot conceivably enter into the case made out from Pascal by non-Catholics against the Church.

On these 35 points Pascal may have been right or wrong. Sometimes, as in (1), (2), and (3), his view of "Attrition" and "Contrition" in the Sacrament of Penance, Catholics must disagree with him because he has been condemned. In other cases (as in (4), his denial of the doctrine ascribed to the Jesuits of Clermont that "Attrition" in confession need not be supernatural), we know that he was right and that they were wrong, for their proposition has been condemned.

It really does not concern the non-Catholic, and still less the anti-Catholic, one way or another whether (5, 6) a triple papal decision (in favour of the continuity of abstinence from flesh meat in certain religious after their promotion to a bishopric) admitted exceptions or not. In what precise conditions (7, 8) a priest might take a full honorarium for a Mass or not is an equally domestic question. So is (9 and 10) the advisability or the inadvisability of a general rule of daily Mass. Nor can it concern anyone but a Catholic to debate (11) the definition of sloth in sacramental affairs; or to discover (12. 13, 14) the degree in which distractions interfere with the hearing of Mass; or the proportion of a Mass that must be heard; or (16) the number of confessors that a man should have; or (17) when a confessor should enquire as to habits; or (18-25) what questions he should put in the confessional; or (26-27-28) under what conditions he must accept the penitent's statement; or what (29-30) exactly constitutes an ecclesiastical fast; whether (31) it is an exaggeration to say that the special value of the Sacrament of Penance is seen in the sufficiency of Attrition; or (32) what "intervals" in the love of God are to be noted; or (33) that some forms of envy may be venial; or that (34) a general confession may be advisable rather than a particular one in such and such circumstances; or (35) whether a confessor is bound to absolve on a "probability."

In all this long list of 35 points which Pascal makes against certain Jesuit decisions there is nothing that concerns the quarrel between the Church and her opponents. Usually, as in the more general cases, Pascal shows in these details that curious blindness to common sense which warps his genius. Occasionally he supports what later proved the orthodox position. But all this set of purely Catholic questions is out of our field. They do not concern the use of the "Provincial Letters" as an instrument against the Catholic Church.

There remain exactly fourteen points of consequence.

One concerns simony, one theft; no less than eight are mixed up with the then vexed question of the duel and justifiable risk of homicide; one deals with the corruption of a judge; two with the virtue of truth -- that is with the practice of equivocation -- and one with usury.

These fourteen points alone, out of the original 132, are of any real consequence in the controversy. I therefore propose to examine them with especial care and I begin with those relating to the duel.

Certain of the 16th and 17th century Casuists so favoured the social habit of their time as to decide in favour of the duel (and other justifiable risk of homicide) under very special circumstances: (1) to save honour or fortune when there was no other way; or (2) so as not to live dishonoured. Or again (3), you have the interesting definition that a man who is not known to be refusing to fight through piety, and who would be accused of cowardice, may at least go to the rendezvous and defend his life; or (4) to avoid a blow; (5) or being given the lie; or (6) on immediate provocation in the heat of a struggle; (7) or to prevent false witness; or (8) a false judgment -- all this (except (6)) when no other means whatsoever were available.

But all these eight propositions have been condemned. And though Pascal was perfectly right in bringing them forward, he was quite wrong in presenting them as normal decisions, generally given, or as applying to ordinary circumstances.

Of the remaining six decisions, one special case of "occult compensation" and two upon equivocation are falsely put. They are put out of their context so as to give a general impression of their being what, as a fact, they are not: hence the very prevalent conception to-day that they have been condemned at Rome.

The one as to theft was a very small technical point in connection with the doctrine of "occult compensation." This doctrine of "occult compensation" deserves exact definition.

It is commonsense that if you have an absolute right to a thing it is yours; and if you are wholly debarred from recovering it by any means whatever except secret means, then you have a right to use secret means. If a man is unjustly keeping your watch which he has stolen, and you cannot get it from him by a legal process or by repeated demands, or even by violence, then you clearly have a right to go and take it from him in whatever way you can. It is not his, it is yours: your recovering it, even secretly, when all other means fail, cannot be a theft.

But the application of this fundamental principle to particular cases is exceedingly perilous, for the simple reason that the cases must be very rare (and at the same time very doubtful) where the right to the property is thus clear. It is still rarer to find the opportunity of legal or other redress completely absent.

The most perilous cases arise in the matter of insufficient payment. If it is absolutely certain that an insufficient payment has left a balance just as clearly your property as would be an object stolen from your person, then there must be conceivable special cases in which an underpaid man can obtain, even secretly, the balance due to him. In one decision, among all the thousands of Casuist decisions, the view was taken that a servant, certainly defrauded of his just wage through lack of freedom in his contract, could secretly take his master's goods to make up the difference. That proposition may still be maintained and is maintained with justice. There was later condemned at Rome another very different proposition (which Pascal by his criticism suggests but which was not made and which, therefore, he can not quote), that a servant could judge for himself, in general, whether his wages were sufficient or no, and compensate himself secretly if he judged them inadequate.

Far more famous, and affecting, especially in England, the reputation of the Jesuits, was the doctrine of equivocation. And here the "Provincial Letters" fall into a glaring case of that suppressio veri which is the worst form of lying. To read what Pascal says upon this doctrine one might imagine that the decisions on equivocation were decisions which allowed men to lie at random! Their real character was, of course -- as anyone should know who deals with the matter at all, and as anyone pretending to any historical knowledge must be aware -- of a totally different kind.

It was this: -- A general rule of Catholic morals is that one must always tell the truth. But other general rules of Catholic morals also are that one must defend human life and the integrity of one's country; that one must be loyal to an oath, or even to a solemn promise; that a priest must preserve the secret of the confessional; that a father must preserve his children's inheritance; that any man must, if he can, prevent a great public evil, such as famine or plague, etc., etc. Sometimes those two grave duties -- of truth-telling on the one side, and of keeping faith, or patriotism, or saving life, etc., on the other -- come into conflict. There are occasions when, if you tell the truth in answer to a direct question, you imperil your country and cause it to be invaded, or when your answer may lead to the loss of human life, even that of a relative or parent, or when to tell the full and exact truth would be the betrayal of loyalty, or the breaking of an oath, or of a solemn promise.

Now we all know in practice how men, and perfectly good men too, solve the difficulty. They lie freely. Does any man defending his country furnish the enemy with exact details simply because he is asked for them?

But so strict are the morals of the Catholic Church that she will condemn so easy a solution. Her rule stands that a lie is always a lie, and always wrong.

How, then, is the difficulty to be solved? How was a confessor, for instance, put to the torture by Cecil in the reign of Elizabeth, to avoid telling a lie on the one hand and betraying the secret of the confessional on the other?

Since the Church had solemnly declared that a direct lie was always wrong, an effort was made to solve the difficulty by the use of forms which might, taken in the right sense, give a true answer, but which might also be taken in the wrong sense, and left at that. This was called "equivocatio," that is, "the use of equivalent words." It was no full solution of the problem, because a falsehood consists not in the falsity of the impression you give, but in the falsity of the impression you desire to give. The ultimate decision of Rome forbade equivocation{4} when it involved a private reservation of meaning.

This specifically condemned form of equivocation, moreover, was not particularly Jesuit. It had been debated at length, and favourably, long before the Jesuit Society came into existence, and within the great Casuist authorities of that Society there were wide differences of opinion upon it -- Azor, for instance, condemns instances which Sanchez allows. Of all this conflict Pascal allows you to hear nothing.

There remain of his citations exactly three, and three only, which are grave in matter yet undecided, and therefore afford some ground for the use of the "Provincial Letters" as a weapon against the Church: exactly three, and three only, out of the original 132, which an opponent of the Catholic Church might bring forward and say: "Some of your priests -- The Jesuits -- decided thus and thus. Pascal exposed them; your Church has not condemned them. What have you to reply?"

Though these three points alone remain out of the whole list when that list has been submitted to an exact examination, yet, unlike the rest, they are really grave. I will, therefore, deal with them yet more fully. That is clearly not Simony. But if you go so far as to say that the essential of Simony is the fixing of a set price and the making of that price the whole motive of the transaction, that opens the door to abuses.

II. -- The second case deals with the passing of money or advantage between a judge and his client. Here Pascal quotes one decision (from Molina) to the effect that the judge may without sin, and lawfully, accept advantage from one of the parties to the suit in three special cases: -- (1) from Friendship (2) from Gratitude for justice done (3) for Promptitude.

(1) On the first case there would hardly be disagreement. It would be unwise and it would savour of the dishonourable for a judge to accept, within reasonable time of a suit, a present from a friend who happened also to be a suitor in his court. But it would be silly to say that Mr. Justice So-and-So must not accept a gift from some friend with whom he has often exchanged gifts in the past simply because that friend may in the remote future be a suitor, or has in the remote past been a suitor in his court.

It would be a question, as far as honour and wisdom are concerned, of the proximity of the suit and of the size of the present; but it must be clear that the present had for its motive friendship alone -- there must be on neither side any other motive. Otherwise it, would not fall under the decision.

(2) Gratitude for justice done is much nearer the wind. There is, of course, no question about an advantage given, even in gratitude, for a judgement other than just: doubtful, for instance, or actually unjust -- that is always wrong. A just judgement is alone concerned. No doubt in pure theory a motive of gratitude may be present, and would not, in that case, especially if it were a rare occasion, be a breach of justice. But the tendency to be certain of one's own case, and the tendency of such gifts to become custom, are both too strong for the decision to pass unchallenged.

(3) The third case, that of promptitude, is on a different footing. It "has been threshed out by casuists until it is threadbare. You have those who say that, since no unjust advantage is conferred upon a man by his case being accelerated, a judge may, without actually sinning, receive payment, or its equivalent, for bringing on the case as early as possible. Others say that, on the contrary, you are thus distinctly doing a favour qua judge in distinguishing between suitors, to whom, if justice is to be done, the judge must be absolutely indifferent in all things, and that therefore the action is wrong.

A modern example will illustrate the difference between these two clauses.

A politician is very anxious to get a case, in which he is a witness or a suitor, settled before a particular date, when he has business of an important nature which will take him from town. A politician, of course, can make all the difference to a judge's career and to that of the judge's children and relatives. The politician meets the judge (whom he probably knows in private life, for most of our judges are also minor politicians), and says: "Look here! They tell me that such and such a case which you are trying may last over to-morrow, in which case my business will not come on until Friday. I should have to stop in town for it, and that would throw out all my public plans. So-and-So, who is pleading before you, is very long-winded. Do you think you could give him a hint to cut it short and try and wind up the case so that mine may come up on Thursday?"

One, school says that there is no harm done. That is the school of Molina, and that is the school which Pascal denounces with such vigour. The other school says that the judge must rebuke the politician, and suffer the social consequences which will naturally follow from such exact probity.

Remember, we are not talking about honour or decent conduct, or wisdom or unwisdom: we are talking of strict moral definitions -- absolute right and wrong. Everyone will agree that practices of this kind are near the line. The whole business of Casuistry is an attempt to decide on which side of the line they lie; and this second of the only three significant cases in all the "Provincial Letters" is what is called a "laxist" decision, that is, a decision in favour of the laxer rather than the more rigorous practice;

III. -- The third is the point of Usury. There is indeed something comic in a modern enemy of the Catholic Church making a long face about a Casuist decision which sails rather near the wind in the matter of usury. For usury is taken for granted nowadays everywhere, save in the old strict Catholic definition, and even that is confused by the processes of modern commerce.

However, as the point is a point in general morals, it is worth going into. These Casuist cases on usury are two in number. (1) The first is easily decided by commonsense. Bauny, the Jesuit Casuist, decided, and decided quite rightly, that you are perfectly free to lend money to a man who is about to use it in business, taking part of the risk with him, profit if there is profit, and loss if there is loss. You may even (according to Bauny) say to the man: "I will take a much smaller percentage of the profits, on condition that you relieve me of the risk of loss." There must be a confusion in the mind of anyone who mixes that sort of thing up with usury. Usury is the exacting of interest upon an admittedly unproductive loan. That has nothing to do with a commercial venture.

(2) Escobar quotes the decision (in his compendium of Casuist decisions) that the contract called Mohatra was morally justified if the prices paid were just, and this excites the anger of Pascal. Pascal was probably right, and Escobar was probably wrong; but it is a more subtle point than people may imagine who use the "Provincial Letters" so familiarly in argument. I doubt if there is any man living in England to-day -- of all those glibly quoting the name of Pascal against the Church -- who could tell you what the Mohatra Contract was: I will explain it.

Jewish usurers in Spain tried to get out of the laws against usury by a fictitious "sale or repurchase" conducted in the following manner:

The usurer went to the needy man and said: "Would you like to buy such and such an article off me (a piece of plate, for instance)? If so, I will give you credit and fix a credit price for it. You need not pay for it till six months hence, and the price at that date will be 120." The needy man, whom the usurer was tempting, would say: "Very well" and sign the contract, promising to pay 120 for the plate six months after. The next step was for the usurer to say: "I am sorry I sold you that piece of plate. I want it back. Will you sell it to me for £100 down in cash now The needy man agrees, and receives 100. But as he did not originally pay for the article which has been taken back from him, he will still be owing 120, and at the end of the six months will have to pay. In effect the needy man has borrowed 100 at 40 per cent. The sale of plate was a fiction. But if the usurer were had up in the courts (and in Catholic times the offence of usury was punished severely), he was able to say: "I did no wrong! I sold this gentleman plate at my own risk." (To "sell or purchase at a risk" is the meaning of the word Mohatra). "If I wanted to purchase it back, that was my own affair. I had special reasons."

Innocent XI. condemned the action as usurious, and the Courts of Justice in many times and places punished the offender severely when they caught him playing this trick. Escobar says, however, that in pure theory it is permissible (though not necessarily advisable or to be supported by the civil law) on condition that the price fixed was just in the one case for long credit, and in the other for cash payment. He says that it is an offence against charity if the person borrowing the money is really indigent, but not an offence against justice -- which is, of course, the whole point of usury. He was very probably wrong but I think the point has not been decided.

There, then, you have the "Provincial Letters" boiled down as they ought to be boiled down by anyone who treats them not as rhetoric or wit or as a literary exercise which may persuade unthinking people, but strictly as a presentation of evidence.

Let me summarise my analysis by way of conclusion.

Of the innumerable Casuist decisions arrived at by a vast number of professors, regular and secular, through several centuries, Pascal chooses to speak only of the Jesuit decisions, as though theirs were the only ones, or at any rate the only blameworthy ones. Of the many thousand Jesuit decisions he selects what are, in appearance even, only 132, and in real numbers----if we exclude repetitions -- only 89.

Of these 89, three are wrongly quoted (because Pascal was badly briefed). 17 are merely frivolous, are protests against commonsense decisions with which all the world now agrees, 2 are put so that they suggest what the Casuist never said, 11 are verbal tricks, deceiving the reader by the suppression of an essential in his opponent's position -- as when one should say that Lord So-and-So had failed to vote against divorce, suppressing the fact that Lord So-and-So was a child in arms. 35 are purely domestic controversy upon points of Catholic practice (most of them petty) which cannot concern our opponents and in which they cannot pretend an active interest on Pascal's side or on the other.

There remain, when the whole list has been gone through, fourteen points -- only fourteen -- out of all the 132 which merit consideration. But of these, eight were, at one time or another, finally condemned at Rome, and, therefore, cannot be brought up in accusation against the moral system: of the Catholic Church; and three though not condemned can be and are, by Pascal's advocates' trick in the way he brings them in, capable of confusion with condemned propositions. Eleven of the fourteen are thus out of court.

A just analysis leaves, therefore, of the whole 132 exactly three points remaining as worthy of attention -- one on Simony, one on the action of judges for a benefit, and one on Usury -- all three of which are doubtful. This conclusion is dry and without savour. But it is exact.


{1} Reprinted from Studies, with additions by the Author.

{2} 7 in Letter v., 16 in Letter vi., 19 in Letter vii., 28 in Letter viii., 26 in Letter ix., 38 in Letter x.

{3} A "probability" is the technical word for an opinion which argument can support for the relaxation of law.

{4} Here again we must of course distinguish between the modern English conversational use of the word "equivocation" -- which means a shuffling lie -- and the technical word, which means the telling of the truth without the obligation of emphasis. This form is the common and necessary practice of all honest men and they use it all day long. We use it every time we say "I dare say" or "very possibly" to a man with whom we disagree but do not care to dispute. Thus one attempting to make you condemn a friend, whose guilt you suspect but have no full proof of, presses you and you reply "I have no sufficient knowledge in the matter." That is technical equivocation. You are stating a truth and leaving him to form his own conclusions. You do not feel bound to give a full exposition of your mind in the matter. But if you make a material mental reservation you are in effect, lying, and that has therefore been condemned.