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Adoration and Annihilation: The Convent Philosphy of Port-Royal

Adoration and Annihilation: The Convent Philosphy of Port-Royal

by John J. Conley S.J.

In seventeenth-century France, southwest of Paris, the Port-Royal convent became the center of the Jansenist movement and of its adherents’ resistance to church and throne. Three abbesses from the Arnauld family spearheaded this resistance: Mère Angélique Arnauld (1591-1661), Mère Agnès Arnauld (1593-1671), and Mère


In seventeenth-century France, southwest of Paris, the Port-Royal convent became the center of the Jansenist movement and of its adherents’ resistance to church and throne. Three abbesses from the Arnauld family spearheaded this resistance: Mère Angélique Arnauld (1591-1661), Mère Agnès Arnauld (1593-1671), and Mère Angélique de Saint-Jean Arnauld d'Andilly (1624-1684). Although many books have been written about the tragic lives of the Port-Royal nuns, John J. Conley provides the first study of the radical Augustinian philosophy developed by these remarkable abbesses during decades of persecution by Louis XIV and his ecclesiastical allies.

Openly declaring themselves “disciples of Saint Augustine,” the Arnauld abbesses forged a philosophy notable for its original treatment of the attributes that stressed divine otherness; a moral philosophy of virtue rooted in grace; and a politics that supported the right of women to resist abuses of religious and civil authority. Although their philosophy was clearly influenced by their male Jansenist mentors, the nuns’ radical Augustinianism maintains its own gendered originality: their philosophy of virtue is closely tied to practices valued in a contemplative convent setting; their defense of freedom of conscience is linked to their defense of women’s right to exercise religious authority; and their negative theology, focused on divine incomprehensibility, depicts a God beyond sexual difference. A fascinating account that includes translations ranging from abbatial conferences to private letters, Adoration and Annihilation is an important chronicle of the doctrinal battles of early modern Catholicism.
“From Sainte-Beuve’s history of Port-Royal to more recent accounts of the events leading to the destruction of Port-Royal des Champs, examinations of the lives and fortunes of seventeenth-century Jansenist men and women are not new. Nor are detailed studies of the philosophical views of Jansenist men, such as that of Blaise Pascal. Adoration and Annihilation, however, presents us with something new and important. In this original and long-overdue contribution to intellectual history, we are given a painstaking analysis of documents that provides a portrait of the philosophically and theologically inspired thought of three of the women of Port Royal. Conley not only gives evidence of the women’s commitment to a negative theology and an Augustinian theory of grace and human free will, he uses gender as a lens through which to reconstruct the women’s emerging virtue ethics—an ethics whose central virtues are the mainstays of early modern female monastic life.” —Eileen O'Neill, University of Massachusetts
“John J. Conley, S.J., brings to life, in amazing technicolor, the complex personalities of the long-overlooked and complicated Port-Royal Arnaud women philosophers. Steeped in historical, religious, and philosophical significance, Conley’s lively account highlights the intricacies of the historical setting of the Port-Royal Convent—the political intrigues, the economic power plays, and the often desperate condition of the women who are the main characters. This is an exciting and useful contribution for those teaching philosophy, religion, women’s studies, French literary studies, and history.” —Mary Ellen Waithe, Cleveland State University
“John J. Conley provides a fascinating analysis of the neo-Augustinian theological and ethical thought of the nuns of Port-Royal that makes a convincing case for their inclusion in an expanded canon of philosophy. Conley's writing is erudite and his arguments are meticulously researched and supported, making Adoration and Annihilation accessible even for the reader with little background in Augustinian thought. The richness of historical detail and the insight with which he treats these women philosophers and their writings means that Conley does more than render their work visible, he also brings these philosophers themselves to life.” —Catherine Villanueva Gardner, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Conley’s treatment of this most complex philosophical/theological corpus is masterful, and his final estimation of her ethics of resistance appears apt . . . Conley argues convincingly for the relevance of the philosophy developed in the writings of the Arnauld nuns. He has made a valuable contribution to the recognition of the intellectual and spiritual treasures to be minded in convent literature.” —The Catholic Historical Review

“As the book’s subtitle suggests, much of the focus is on Port-Royal’s convent philosophy. This book is well worth the attention of a broad range of scholars and students. Conley shows clearly how the Arnauld abbesses were rather modern in their promotion of female autonomy and conscience, even as they defended a philosophy and a theology that saw but sin in human nature, and drew heavily on the most pessimistic theses of Augustine and various disciples of his.” —The Journal of Church History

“. . . [A] fascinating exploration of the writings of three seventeenth-century abbesses of Port-Royal. . . Not only does Conley introduce readers to a little studied corpus of early modern women’s writing, but he also builds a convincing case that this corpus makes important contributions to early modern philosophy. . . [The book] provides an excellent history of . . . a very important early modern religious controversy. It introduces readers to the extraordinarily rich, and radically understudied, field of early modern convent writing. Additionally, it makes a compelling case for the expansion of the philosophical canon through the inclusion of religious works by women, a move that medievalists interested in women’s religious texts ought to consider emulating. . .”. —The Medieval Review

Product Details

University of Notre Dame Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

Meet the Author

John L. Conley, S. J., is Bernard P. Knott Chair of Philosophy and Theology at Loyola College in Maryland.

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