Crucible of the Suppression: The Janus-Faced Jesuit Enlightenment

Document Type


Presentation Date

January 2016

Abstract or Description

French Jesuits variously participated in global networks of intellectual exchange during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As such, the Jesuits served more than is commonly understood as participants and agents for the popularization of Enlightenment thought. This contribution to the Enlightenment stood in stark and often jarring and hitherto inexplicable contrast to the Order’s role as determined adversaries of the encyclopédistes and more radical Enlightenment writers in the years leading up to their suppression in France. My paper will highlight case studies of such ambivalence and ambiguities characterizing the French Jesuit participation in the enlightenment and its reception within the Enlightenment public, in order to suggest connections with the rising tide of popular anti-Jesuit critique in the years before the Suppression of the Jesuits in France by 1762-1764. This paper argues that the Jesuits’ self-fashioned role as scholar-apostles ultimately threatened their political influence at court, in the learned public, and over French education. Contradictory impulses—their role as both savants and antiphilosophes—drastically intensified in the middle third of the eighteenth century, thereby creating an anti-Jesuit climate of opinion easily mobilized by Jansenists and many philosophes during the run-up to the suppression of the Society of Jesus in France. My work builds upon the importance of the increasingly global networks in which the Jesuits participated, and their participation in the construction of discursive fields of Enlightenment – including new perspectives on comparative religious study and theology recently studied by Florence C. Hsia, David Allen Harvey, and Guy Stroumsa among others. Withal, this paper will also underscore Jesuit agency in promoting ideas and debates that paradoxically contributed to the widening of the breach between their power within state and society and their relatively innovative position within French Enlightenment Catholicism.


American Historical Association Annual Meeting

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