Pierre Nicole (1625 - November 16, 1695) was one of the most distinguished of the French Jansenists. He affiliated himself with the Jansenists while studying theology in Paris, and collaborated with Antoine Arnauld in the production of several Jansenist works. He was a distinguished writer, and together with Blaise Pascal, influenced the formation of French prose. No other Jansenist writer, not even Pascal, was so successful in putting the position of Port Royal before the world. Nicole's most popular production was the fourteen volumes of his Essais de morale, a series of short discussions on practical Christianity. The first volume was published in 1671.
Nicole was a serious theological scholar and sought admission to Holy orders, but was denied and remained a "clerk in minor orders." Like other Jansenists, who based their ideas on the teachings of Augustine of Hippo, he believed that man was born sinful and could never be redeemed without God’s help; salvation required a life of piety and moral rectitude, and only a portion of the elect were destined for salvation. The Catholic Church regarded Jansenists as heretical, and a number of controversies arose surrounding their teachings. Nicole himself was obliged to flee France for Belgium in 1679, returning to France after receiving a pardon in 1683.
Pierre Nicole was born in Chartres, France, in 1625, the son of a provincial barrister. Sent to Paris in 1642 to study, he became Master of Arts in 1644, and followed courses in theology, from 1645 to 1646. He studied St. Augustine and St. Thomas under Sainte-Beuve, and soon entered into relations with the Jansenist community at Port-Royal through his aunt, Marie des Anges Suireau, who was for a short time abbess of the convent. In 1649 he received the degree of Bachelor of Theology, then went to Port-Royal des Champs. For some years he was a master in the "little school" for boys established at Port Royal, and taught Greek to young Jean Racine, the future poet. His chief duty was to act, in collaboration with Antoine Arnauld, as general editor of the controversial literature put forth by the Jansenists.
In 1654 he returned to Paris under the assumed name of M. de Rosny. He had a large share in collecting the materials for Pascal's Provincial Letters (1656). In 1658 he translated the Letters into Latin, and published it with his own comments under the pseudonym of Nicholas Wendrock. In 1662 he coauthored the very successful Port-Royal Logic with Antoine Arnauld, based on a Cartesian reading of Aristotelian logic. In 1664 he himself began a series of letters, Les Imaginaires, intended to show that the heretical opinions commonly ascribed to the Jansenists really existed only in the imagination of the Jesuits. His letters were violently attacked by Desmaretz de Saint-Sorlin, an erratic minor poet who professed great devotion to the Jesuits, and Nicole replied to him in another series of letters, Les Visionnaires (1666). In the course of these he observed that poets and dramatists were no better than "public poisoners." This remark stung Racine to the quick; he turned not only on his old master, but on all Port Royal, in a scathing reply, which, he was told by Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, “did more honor to his head than to his heart.”
About the same time Nicole became involved in a controversy about "transubstantiation" with the Huguenot Claude; out of this grew a massive work, La Perpétuité de la foi de l'église catholique touchant l'eucharistie (1669), the joint effort of Nicole and Antoine Arnauld. Nicole's most popular production was his Essais de morale, a series of short discussions on practical Christianity. The first volume was published in 1671, and was followed at irregular intervals by others—altogether the series numbers fourteen volumes.
In 1676 he sought admission to Holy orders, but was refused by the Bishop of Chartres and never got beyond tonsure. He remained throughout life a "clerk in minor orders," although a profound theological scholar.
A letter which he wrote in 1677 to Pope Innocent XI in support of the Bishops of Saint-Pons and Arras, involved him in difficulties that obliged him to quit the capital when the persecution of the Jansenists was renewed. In 1679, Nicole was forced to fly to Belgium in company with Arnauld. The two visited Brussels, Liège, and other cities but soon parted; Nicole, elderly and in poor health did not enjoy the life of a fugitive, and he complained that he wanted rest. "Rest," answered Arnauld, "when you have eternity to rest in!" In 1683, Nicole made a rather ambiguous peace with the authorities, and de Harlay, Archbishop of Paris authorized Nicole to return to Chartres, then to Paris. There he participated in two religious controversies, one in which he upheld Bossuet's views against Quietism (a stoic movement which emphasized intellectual detachment as necessary for salvation), the other relating to monastic studies in which he sided with Mabillon against the Abbé de Rancey. Burdened by painful infirmities, he continued his literary labors up to the last; he was writing a refutation of the new heresy of the Quietists, when death overtook him, after a series of apoplectic attacks, on November 16, 1695.
Pierre Nicole was a serious theologian, a distinguished writer, a vigorous controversialist and, together with Blaise Pascal, had a considerable influence on the formation of French prose. Niceron (Mèmoires, XXIX, Paris, 1783) lists eighty-eight works by Nicole, several of which, however, were very short. Many of his works were written in defense of Jansenism or attacking Protestantism: Les imaginaires et les visionnaires or Lettres sur l'hérésie imaginaire, (Liège, 1667); La perpétuité de la foi catholique touchant l'Eucharistie, published under Arnauld's name, but the first three volumes of which (Paris, 1669-76) are by Nicole, the fourth and fifth (Paris, 1711-13) by the Abbé Renaudot; Préjugés légitimes contre les Calvinistes (Paris, 1671); La défense de l'Eglise (Cologne, 1689), being a reply to the Défense de la Réformation written by the minister, Jean Claude, against the Préjugés légitimes; Essais de morale (Paris, 1671-78); Les prétendus Réformés convaincus de schisme (Paris, 1684); De l'unité de l'Eglise or Réfutation du nouveau système de M. Jurieu (paris, 1687), a condensed and decisive criticism of the theory of the "fundamental articles"; Réfutation des principales erreurs des Quiétistes (Paris, 1695); Instructions théologiques et morales sur les sacrements (Paris, 1706), sur le Symbole (Paris, 1706), sur l'Oraison dominicale, la Salutation angélique, la Sainte Messe et les autres prières de l'Eglise (Paris, 1706), sur le premier commandement du Décalogue (Paris, 1709); Traité de la grâce générale (Paris, 1715), containing all that Nicole had written at different times on grace; Traité de l'usure (Paris, 1720).
The Jansenists, a branch of Catholicism who based their ideas on the teachings of Augustine of Hippo, believed that man was born sinful and could never be redeemed without God’s help; salvation required a life of piety and moral rectitude, and only a portion of the elect were destined for salvation. Furthermore, no one could be assured of his or her salvation. The Catholic Church regarded Jansenists as heretical, and Popes Innocent X, Alexander VII, and Clement XI all issued papal bulls condemning it. Jansenism was officially outlawed in 1712, and the convent at Port Royal was destroyed in 1710 after the last nuns had been removed by force. Nicole was one of the most attractive figures of Port Royal. Many stories are told of his quaint absent-mindedness and awkwardness in conversation. His books are distinguished by exactly opposite qualities—they are neat and orderly to excess and were therefore exceedingly popular with Mme de Sevigné and readers of her class. No other Jansenist writer, not even Pascal, was so successful in putting the position of Port Royal before the world. Although a modern reader quails before fourteen volumes on morality, the Essais de morale contains much practical knowledge of human nature. Several abridgments of the work exist, notably a Choix des essais de morale de Nicole, ed. Silvestre de Saci (Paris, 1857). Nicole's life is told at length in the fourth volume of Sainte-Beuve's Port-Royal.
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