The Medieval Review 10.05.15

Conley, John J., S.J. Adoration and Annihilation: The Convent Philosophy of Port-Royal. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009. Pp. 336. $50.00 ISBN 978-0-268-02296-9. .

Reviewed by:

Nancy Warren
Florida State University

In Adoration and Annihilation John J. Conley presents a fascinating exploration of the writings of three seventeenth-century abbesses of Port-Royal, Mère Angélique Arnauld, Mère Agnès Arnauld, and Mère Angélique de Saint-Jean Arnauld d'Andilly. The book consists of an introduction, a chapter devoted individually to each abbess and her writings, a conclusion, and a series of three appendices comprising generous excerpts from the women's writings. These appendices are particularly welcome, since, as Conley points out, there is no complete, let alone critical, edition of these three women's work, and translations into languages other than French "are virtually nonexistent" (4). 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. As he observes, these women develop "their own neo-Augustinian philosophy, notable for its original treatment of the divine attributes, moral virtue, and personal freedom" (1).

Conley's substantial introduction in Chapter 1 does much more than provide the expected synopses of each chapter that follows. Centrally, the introduction outlines the ways in which the abbesses' writings meet criteria for consideration as part of the philosophical canon; throughout, Conley devotes significant attention to the Augustinian elements of the writings of the Port-Royal nuns. Conley explores the reasons behind the almost complete disappearance of these nuns and their writings from the study of philosophy. As he points out, the monastic genres of the texts in question, their theological content, and political factors all worked to make the abbesses' writing "an invisible canon" (3). Conley sets out a detailed history of the convent of Port-Royal; the political connections of the women professed there; the twists and turns of the community's involvement, beginning in the 1630s, with the Jansenist movement; and the persecutions the community experienced as a result of this involvement. A section of the introduction is also devoted to the history of the Arnauld family, which not only produced the three influential abbesses who are the subject of this book, but also "many other nuns and many of the solitaires renowned for their scholarly work as associates of the convent" (19). Furthermore, members of the Arnauld family featured prominently in the Jansenist movement; the movement's "foremost theologian" (19), for instance, was Antoine Arnauld.

In chapter 2, entitled "Mère Angélique Arnauld: Virtue and Grace," Conley turns to the first of the Arnauld women under consideration. Mère Angélique Arnauld (1591-1661) came from a prominent family of the noblesse de robe; her parents, the lawyer Antoine Arnauld and Catherine Marion Arnauld, designated her for the convent early in her life. Her mother used her political connections to have King Henri IV name her daughter as abbess in June of 1599, when the girl was only seven years old; her family falsified her age, engaging in an act of fraud that would cause considerable trouble for Mère Angélique later in her life. Though her education was rather unsophisticated, Mère Angélique developed into a prolific correspondent, an able monastic reformer, and a subtle philosophical writer. It was through Mère Angélique that Saint-Cyran, an important interpreter of the works of Cornelius Jansen, was introduced as spiritual director at Port-Royal, and his writings "became staples for personal devotion, the formation of young nuns, and the catechesis of laywomen in the convent's schools" (51). Her work as a reformer extended beyond the walls of Port-Royal to the abbey of Maubuisson, and in her reform efforts her commitment to "the personal freedom of vocation" emerges strongly (47), as does her commitment to the spiritual authority of women.

Mère Angélique did not write philosophical treatises; rather, she produced an autobiographical text called the Report Written by Mère Angélique Arnauld Concerning the Major Occurrences at Port-Royal, a massive corpus of correspondence, and a series of "spiritual conferences she delivered to the Port-Royal nuns" (55). As Conley observes, her writings are steeped in apophatic theology, and she "constructs a detailed Augustinian philosophy concerning God, and virtues, and freedom" (43). A good portion of the chapter is devoted to her correspondence, which was published in three volumes by Jansenist exiles in the 1740s. This body of epistolary material includes more than 1300 letters addressed to over 100 recipients, including other nuns, prominent laywomen and laymen, priests, and dignitaries both political and ecclesiastical. In her letters, as in her other writings, important themes are the incomprehensibility and inscrutability of God as well as the fundamental necessity of grace "for the exercise of all human virtues" (84). Indeed, her letters provide a strongly Augustinian perspective on virtue, and for Mère Angélique, the central virtue is piety that "focuses on the mystery of God" and "abolishes any trace of preoccupation with oneself or the world" (65).

Chapter 3, "Mère Agnès Arnauld: Adoration and Right," focuses on Mère Angélique's younger sister Mère Catherine-Agnès de Saint-Paul (1593-1671), popularly known as Mère Agnès. Conley seeks to reconsider the contrasts that commentators have typically drawn between the two sister abbesses: "Angélique the entrepreneur, Agnès the mystic; Angélique the intransigent, Agnès the indulgent; Angélique the rationalist, Agnès the emotivist" (113). In fact, Mère Agnès was a zealous supporter and defender of her sister's reform efforts and her pro-Jansenist commitments in the face of ecclesiastical opposition. Furthermore, commentators who have accepted these stereotypical assessments of the two abbesses have, Conley argues, erased the philosophical contributions of Mère Agnès's voluminous writings which exhibit a striking "militant theocentrism" (171).

Conley's third chapter systematically considers Mère Agnès's writings, beginning with her Private Chaplet of the Blessed Sacrament, an apophatic devotional treatise which outlines her understanding of God's distance from humanity. He analyzes her Image of a Perfect and an Imperfect Nun, which provides a detailed account concerning the performance of the virtues in a monastic context, and he addresses her Spirit of the Monastery of Port-Royal, which also focuses on the virtues, not in relation to the individual nun but rather in relation to the "convent's moral character" (113). He then discusses the Constitutions of the Monastery of Port-Royal of the Blessed Sacrament, of which Agnès is the principal author. The Constitutions not only "provides elaborate regulations for the officers, worship, and daily order of Port-Royal" (153) but is also a philosophically important work in that it develops a strong defense of women's spiritual freedom and authority. Conley finally turns to Mère Agnès's Counsels on the Conduct Nuns Should Maintain, which instructs nuns in the correct actions and attitudes to adopt in the face of violations of conscience imposed by political and ecclesiastical authorities. In this text too she "develops a gendered account of freedom and resistance" (169).

Chapter 4 is entitled "Mère Angélique de Saint-Jean Arnauld d'Andilly: Persecution and Resistance." Mère Angélique de Saint-Jean Arnauld d'Andilly (1624-1684) was the niece of Mères Angélique and Agnès; she entered the convent school at age 6 and remained enclosed there until her death during her abbacy. Unlike Mère Angélique, who had comparatively little formal education, Mère Angélique de Saint-Jean Arnauld d'Andilly was a renowned scholar with formidable abilities in Greek and Latin. She too was a prolific correspondent; approximately 900 of her letters are archived in the Bibliothèque de la Société de Port-Royal in Paris. In addition to numerous letters, she wrote treatises, works focusing on the history of the convent and its reforms, and a large body of spiritual conferences in which she engages in commentary on both the Benedictine Rule and her aunt's Constitutions for Port-Royal. In these writings, she "developed an elaborate theology of the monastic life" centering on "strict resistance to an allegedly oppressive church and state" (174). She is the most radical and most militant of the three abbesses whose works Conley treats, a stance that is not surprising since she had experienced exile from Port-Royal and even imprisonment for her refusal to compromise her Jansenist commitments and was, as Conley puts it, as abbess in the position of guiding "a doomed convent into its obscure future" (232). Of particular philosophical interest is her Reflections to Prepare the Nuns for Persecution. This text tackles the topic of the virtues that had so interested her predecessors, develops a philosophy of resistance, and revisits apophatic philosophy in the context of persecution that, she believes, serves to increase a sense of distance from God. Her On the Danger of Hesitation and Doubt Once We Know Our Duty also has great philosophical significance. This work explores the epistemology of resistance and the "moral perils posed by the exercise of doubt" (225). As Conley observes, this text "makes a signal contribution," since it delineates a radically different approach to methodic doubt than the one that had "acquired general philosophical prestige" thanks to Descartes (234).

The conclusion bears the title "A Nocturnal Philosophy," a phrase that aptly describes the rigorous, neo-Augustinian, apophatic thought characteristic of Port-Royal. In the conclusion, Conley makes a final case for the inclusion of the writings of the Arnauld abbesses in the philosophical canon, situating their ideas in relation to other philosophical schools and movements. For instance, he notes that the abbesses' apophaticism has "an affinity with the 'religious turn' that has characterized recent Continental phenomenology" (239), and he argues that "the virtue theory of the Port-Royal nuns bears certain resemblances to the sectarian moral philosophy proposed by Stanley Hauerwas and his associates" (243).

Conley does an admirable job of presenting complex philosophical material lucidly in Adoration and Annihilation, and indeed, the book does many things quite well. It provides an excellent history of the foundation and its embroilment in 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. Though the central arguments of Adoration and Annihilation concern philosophy, this book should be of interest to a much wider audience than philosophers alone. Scholars of early modern women's writing and of early modern religion will also find much to appreciate in Conley's book.