Summer Fridays with Pascal: On Intention

Today’s post on Pascal reproduces a fragment from his “Letters to a Provincial”

The Jesuit Scholar Antonio Escobar y Mendoza

The Jesuit Scholar Antonio Escobar y Mendoza

(sometimes called “Provincial Letters”), a wonderful work of political and religious polemic in the defense of Jansenism and against a particular kind of casuistry in Jesuit thinking (the letters’ more immediate aim was to defend Antoine Arnauld, Pascal’s fellow Jansenist, who was threatened with censure by the theological faculty at the Sorbonne for certain writings). The complete letters may be found here.

Many of the letters are in the form of a dialogue between Pascal and a “monk,” a Jesuit priest whose verbal artifice and rhetorical obfuscation is made the object of ridicule. In the 6th and 7th letters, Pascal takes aim at what is sometimes called the “doctrine of double effect”–the general idea that one may be morally permitted to perform a wicked or evil action if one does not have a culpable state of mind in performing that action. The doctrine is, of course, the root of many of our contemporary ideas of mens rea in criminal law (particularly the sort of mens rea governing inchoate crimes like conspiracy and complicity). It should come as little surprise that the Jansenist position on original sin would stand in some tension with the doctrine of double effect. Here is a portion of the dialogue in the 7th Letter (the monk begins the exchange):

“Know then, that this marvellous principle is our grand method of directing the intention- the importance of which, in our moral system, is such that I might almost venture to compare it with the doctrine of probability. You have had some glimpses of it in passing, from certain maxims which I mentioned to you. For example, when I was showing you how servants might execute certain troublesome jobs with a safe conscience, did you not remark that it was simply by diverting their intention from the evil to which they were accessary to the profit which they might reap from the transaction? Now that is what we call directing the intention. You saw, too, that, were it not for a similar divergence of the mind, those who give money for benefices might be downright simoniacs. But I will now show you this grand method in all its glory, as it applies to the subject of homicide- a crime which it justifies in a thousand instances; in order that, from this startling result, you may form an idea of all that it is calculated to effect.”

“I foresee already,” said I, “that, according to this mode, everything will be permitted; it will stick at nothing.”

“You always fly from the one extreme to the other,” replied the monk: “prithee avoid that habit. For, just to show you that we are far from permitting everything, let me tell you that we never suffer such a thing as a formal intention to sin, with the sole design of sinning; and if any person whatever should persist in having no other end but evil in the evil that he does, we break with him at once: such conduct is diabolical. This holds true, without exception of age, sex, or rank. But when the person is not of such a wretched disposition as this, we try to put in practice our method of directing the intention, which simply consists in his proposing to himself, as the end of his actions, some allowable object. Not that we do not endeavour, as far as we can, to dissuade men from doing things forbidden; but when we cannot prevent the action, we at least purify the motive, and thus correct the viciousness of the means by the goodness of the end. Such is the way in which our fathers have contrived to permit those acts of violence to which men usually resort in vindication of their honour. They have no more to do than to turn off their intention from the desire of vengeance, which is criminal, and direct it to a desire to defend their honour, which, according to us, is quite warrantable. And in this way our doctors discharge all their duty towards God and towards man. By permitting the action, they gratify the world; and by purifying the intention, they give satisfaction to the Gospel. This is a secret, sir, which was entirely unknown to the ancients; the world is indebted for the discovery entirely to our doctors. You understand it now, I hope?”

“Perfectly well,” was my reply. “To men you grant the outward material effect of the action; and to God you give the inward and spiritual movement of the intention; and by this equitable partition, you form an alliance between the laws of God and the laws of men. But, my dear sir, to be frank with you, I can hardly trust your premisses, and I suspect that your authors will tell another tale.”

“You do me injustice, rejoined the monk; “I advance nothing but what I am ready to prove, and that by such a rich array of passages that altogether their number, their authority, and their reasonings, will fill you with admiration. To show you, for example, the alliance which our fathers have formed between the maxims of the Gospel and those of the world, by thus regulating the intention, let me refer you to Reginald: ‘Private persons are forbidden to avenge themselves; for St. Paul says to the Romans (12), “Recompense to no man evil for evil”; and Ecclesiasticus says (28), “He that taketh vengeance shall draw on himself the vengeance of God, and his sins will not be forgotten.” Besides all that is said in the Gospel about forgiving offences, as in chapters 6 and 18 of St. Matthew.'”

“Well, father, if after that he says anything contrary to the Scripture, it will not be from lack of scriptural knowledge, at any rate. Pray, how does he conclude?”

“You shall hear,” he said. “From all this it appears that a military man may demand satisfaction on the spot from the person who has injured him- not, indeed, with the intention of rendering evil for evil, but with that of preserving his honour- ‘non ut malum pro malo reddat, sed ut conservet honorem.’ See you how carefully they guard against the intention of rendering evil for evil, because the Scripture condemns it? This is what they will tolerate on no account. Thus Lessius observes, that ‘if a man has received a blow on the face, he must on no account have an intention to avenge himself; but he may lawfully have an intention to avert infamy, and may, with that view, repel the insult immediately, even at the point of the sword- etiam cum gladio!’ So far are we from permitting any one to cherish the design of taking vengeance on his enemies that our fathers will not allow any even to wish their death- by a movement of hatred. ‘If your enemy is disposed to injure you,’ says Escobar, ‘you have no right to wish his death, by a movement of hatred; though you may, with a view to save yourself from harm.’ So legitimate, indeed, is this wish, with such an intention, that our great Hurtado de Mendoza says that ‘we may pray God to visit with speedy death those who are bent on persecuting us, if there is no other way of escaping from it.'”

“May it please your reverence,” said I, “the Church has forgotten to insert a petition to that effect among her prayers.”

“They have not put in everything into the prayers that one may lawfully ask of God,” answered the monk. “Besides, in the present case, the thing was impossible, for this same opinion is of more recent standing than the Breviary. You are not a good chronologist, friend. But, not to wander from the point, let me request your attention to the following passage, cited by Diana from Gaspar Hurtado, one of Escobar’s four-and-twenty fathers: ‘An incumbent may, without any mortal sin, desire the decease of a life-renter on his benefice, and a son that of his father, and rejoice when it happens; provided always it is for the sake of the profit that is to accrue from the event, and not from personal aversion.'”

“Good!” cried I. “That is certainly a very happy hit; and I can easily see that the doctrine admits of a wide application. But yet there are certain cases, the solution of which, though of great importance for gentlemen, might present still greater difficulties.”

“Propose them, if you please, that we may see,” said the monk.

“Show me, with all your directing of the intention,” returned I, “that it is allowable to fight a duel.”

“Our great Hurtado de Mendoza,” said the father, “will satisfy you on that point in a twinkling. ‘If a gentleman,’ says he, in a passage cited by Diana, ‘who is challenged to fight a duel, is well known to have no religion, and if the vices to which he is openly and unscrupulously addicted are such as would lead people to conclude, in the event of his refusing to fight, that he is actuated, not by the fear of God, but by cowardice, and induce them to say of him that he was a hen, and not a man, gallina, et non vir; in that case he may, to save his honour, appear at the appointed spot- not, indeed, with the express intention of fighting a duel, but merely with that of defending himself, should the person who challenged him come there unjustly to attack him. His action in this case, viewed by itself, will be perfectly indifferent; for what moral evil is there in one stepping into a field, taking a stroll in expectation of meeting a person, and defending one’s self in the event of being attacked? And thus the gentleman is guilty of no sin whatever; for in fact it cannot be called accepting a challenge at all, his intention being directed to other circumstances, and the acceptance of a challenge consisting in an express intention to fight, which we are supposing the gentleman never had.'”

“You have not kept your word with me, sir,” said I. “This is not, properly speaking, to permit duelling; on the contrary, the casuist is so persuaded that this practice is forbidden that, in licensing the action in question, he carefully avoids calling it a duel.”

“Ah!” cried the monk, “you begin to get knowing on my hand, I am glad to see. I might reply that the author I have quoted grants all that duellists are disposed to ask. But since you must have a categorical answer, I shall allow our Father Layman to give it for me. He permits duelling in so many words, provided that, in accepting the challenge, the person directs his intention solely to the preservation of his honour or his property: ‘If a soldier or a courtier is in such a predicament that he must lose either his honour or his fortune unless he accepts a challenge, I see nothing to hinder him from doing so in self-defence.’ The same thing is said by Peter Hurtado, as quoted by our famous Escobar; his words are: ‘One may fight a duel even to defend one’s property, should that be necessary; because every man has a right to defend his property, though at the expense of his enemy’s life!'”

I was struck, on hearing these passages, with the reflection that, while the piety of the king appears in his exerting all his power to prohibit and abolish the practice of duelling in the State, the piety of the Jesuits is shown in their employing all their ingenuity to tolerate and sanction it in the Church. But the good father was in such an excellent key for talking that it would have been cruel to have interrupted him; so he went on with his discourse.

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