PASCAL: The Provincial Letters

The Provincial Letters are 18 letters written by Blaise Pascal during the years 1656 and 1657. The Letters are primarily concerned with the formulary controversy. The formulary controversy revolved around the Jansenists’ defiance of the Pope’s declaration that Jansenist beliefs concerning the nature of man and grace were heretical.

Pascal uses a combination of wit and humor to ridicule the Pope’s declaration of heresy. Pascal proves that the Jesuits, who opposed the Jansenists, were either in agreement with Jansenists, or moral hypocrites. For example, Pascal quotes many Jesuits who provide ways for men to lie, commit usury, and commit murder.

The Provincial Letters demonstrate that grave controversies can arise over trivial words and that different men can interpret the same text in different ways, leading to dangerous and violent conflicts. Ideas are important. Some ideas are worth dying for.


‘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.”

Usury, according to our fathers, consists in little more than the intention of taking the interest as usurious. Escobar, accordingly, shows you how you may avoid usury by a simple shift of the intention.

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