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Pascal's two masterpieces are the "Provinciales" and the "Pensées". The occasion of the "Provinciales" was an accident. The Duc of Liancourt, a friend of Port Royal, having been refused absolution by the curé of Saint Sulpice, Antoine* Arnauld wrote two letters which were censured by the Sorbonne. He wished to appeal to the public in a pamphlet which he submitted to his friends, but they found it too heavy and theological. He then said to Pascal: "You, who are young, must do something." The next day (23 Jan., 1656) Pascal brought the first "Provinciale". The "Petites lettres" followed to the number of nineteen, the last unfinished, from January, 1656, to March, 1657. Appearing under the pseudonym of Louis de Montalte, they were published at Cologne in 1657 as Les Provinciales, ou Lettres écrites par Louis de Montalte à un provincial de ses amis et au RR. PP. Jesuites sur le sujet de la morale et de la politique de ces pères". The first four treat the dogmatic question which forms the basis of Jansenism on the agreement between grace and human liberty. Pascal answers it by practically, if not theoretically, denying sufficient grace and liberty. The seventeenth and eighteenth letters take up the same questions, but with noteworthy qualifications. From the fourth to the sixteenth Pascal censures the Jesuit moral code, or rather the casuistry, first, by depicting a naîf Jesuit who, through silly vanity, reveals to him the pretended secrets of the Jesuit policy, and then by direct invective against the Jesuits themselves. The most famous are the fourth, on sins of ignorance, and the thirteenth, on homicide.
That Pascal intended this to be a useful work, his whole life bears witness, as do his deathbed declarations. His good faith cannot seriously be doubted, but some of his methods are more questionable. Without ever seriously altering his citations from the casuists, as he has sometimes been wrongfully accused of doing, he arranges them somewhat disingenously; he simplifies complicated questions excessively, and, in setting forth the solutions of the casuists sometimes lets his own bias interfere. But the gravest reproach against him is, first, that he unjustly blamed the Society of Jesus, attacking it exclusively, and attributing to it a desire to lower the Christian ideal and to soften down the moral code in the interest of its policy; then that he discredited casuistry itself by refusing to recognize its legitimacy or, in certain cases, its necessity, so that not only the Jesuits, but religion itself suffered by this strife, which contributed to hasten the condemnation of certain lax theories by the Church. And, without wishing or even knowing it, Pascal furnished weapons on the one hand to unbelievers and adversaries of the Church and on the other to the partisans of independent morality. As to their literary form, the "Provinciales" are, in point of time, the first prose masterpiece of the French language, in their satirical humour and passionate eloquence.
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