This post draws heavily from Paul Bénichou's Morales du Grand siècle (1948).
Seventeenth-century France contains a great story about how not to be a dissident.
Recall this was the time when the central State crushed feudal and Protestant internal competitors, and gained the geopolitical upper hand in Europe chiefly by stoking the fires of the religious wars that ravaged Germany. Think Richelieu, du Tremblay, and The Three Musketeers.
The catholic metapolitical landscape comprised three main players: the jesuits, the jansenists, and the orthodox mainstream embodied by Bossuet. The jesuits had been brought in by Richelieu. They manned the confessionals of the aristocracy where they’d exonerate the mighty of their sins in exchange for political leverage in the interest of the papacy. This did not go down well with the two other groups.
Jansenism recruited its followers mainly in the upper bourgeoisie. Its center was the abbey of Port-Royal. Its doctrine was based on Cornelius Jansen’s reading of St. Augustine, adopting a concept of divine grace fairly similar to the one propounded in Reformed circles.
The upper bourgeoisie was shut out from positions of power. Power belonged to the State, the thymos of the old aristocracy a mere tool in its hand now, otherwise impotent, yet above the bourgeoisie by virtue of its sublime and chivalrous origin.
Jansenists make the case that human nature excludes the possibility of sublimity and chivalry. They were not by any means the only ones dissecting the human soul: this period was full of moralistes deconstructing the mechanisms of virtue signalling. The metapolitical winds were favorable.
But, just like the prideful jocks, the rancorous nerds of jansenism ended up as political losers.
Port-Royal’s dream was to replace the roman monarchy of the Church with an aristocracy guided by the local bishops. However, jansenists refused to break with the Church. They proclaimed submission to the State and to the Church, despite a strong belief in their own freedom of conscience. The endless theological debates they engaged in marked them out as rebels, and the State repeatedly humiliated them for being the half-arsed Protestants they were. Jansenists believed no reason could ever justify rising up against the Prince, while at the same time he forced them to live in hiding or exile, and while they themselves contravened the royal will by their gatherings, their plans, their clandestine publications. A process that culminated in the demolition of the abbey of Port-Royal in 1710. The jansenists had thus earned all the disadvantages of appearing to conspire against public authority, without any of the benefits the reality of such conspiring may have procured them.
The greatest jansenist was Blaise Pascal, who had this to say about justice:
Justice, Might.—It is right that what is just should be obeyed; it is necessary that what is strongest should be obeyed. Justice without might is helpless; might without justice is tyrannical. Justice without might is gainsaid, because there are always offenders; might without justice is condemned. We must then combine justice and might, and for this end make what is just strong, or what is strong just.
Justice is subject to dispute; might is easily recognized and is not disputed. So we cannot give might to justice, because might has gainsaid justice, and has declared that it is she herself who is just. And thus being unable to make what is just strong, we have made what is strong just.
Pascal cannot admit the possibility of actual just institutions. In the variety of laws and customs across the world, in their incompatibility with reason and natural law, in their dependency on chance and whim, Pascal sees a single unifying factor: the use of force. Justice merely masks the naked brutality of force, in the same way that virtue masks the naked appetites. At most, Pascal concedes that imagination and opinion add their effects to that of force. But force also produces opinion, so this nuance only separates fragile orders based on opinion from solid ones based on force.
The nihilism behind the jansenist’s self-defeating, self-annihilating dissidence reveals itself in this fragment. There is no justice, only might, because broken or fallen beings are incapable of justice. Being incapable of justice, it would be vain for them to revolt against injustice. The belief that the political order can be changed in any kind of positive way is illusory, the mark of lesser thinkers. This is how jansenists consider themselves “loyal”. They submit to the political order, they are not rabble-rousers, but for inherently subversive reasons.
Naturally the State did not make the mistake to think you could trust them.
The appeal of jansenism was very specific, very limited. It principally derived from the self-justification it provided to the frustrated upper bourgeoisie. Once virtue has been entirely reduced to virtue signalling, the obstructive warrior aristocracy becomes entirely contemptible. Driven by resentment, the bourgeois nerd’s sole focus is his symbolic vengeance on the archaic brutes an unjust world has placed above him. God’s grace has touched his conscience so that he may stand unshakeable in his radical and dissident belief that the warrior-aristocrats should be his social inferiors, but that at the same time he should never actually attempt to fight for this belief, like the traitorous and vain Protestants did. The only thing that isn’t vain is to write endless letters and treatises against the theological errors of the enemies of jansenism.