Nicole, Pierre (1625–1695)

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Nicole Pierre was born in Chartres, the son of Jean Nicole, a member of the Parlement de Paris. In 1642 he began his studies in philosophy in Paris, where he received his Master of Arts in 1644. Subsequently, he studied theology with Alphonse Le Moine and Jacques Sainte-Beauve, and under the direction of the latter he started an intensive consideration of the theological writings of St. Augustine. During this time Nicole became involved in the activities of the reformist convent of Port-Royal des Champs through his aunt, Marie des Anges Suireau, who was for a short time the abbess there. Nicole taught in the petite écoles attached to Port-Royal, where one of his students was Jean Racine, the future poet. After receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1649, he withdrew to Port-Royal, becoming one of the solitaires associated with the convent.

During the 1650s Nicole went against the French theological and political establishment in defending the theological orthodoxy of the Augustinus of Cornelius Jansenius, the late theologian and bishop. He joined his fellow solitaire Antoine Arnauld and other Port-Royalists in protesting the papal bulls in the 1650s that attributed to this work four heretical propositions and one false proposition concerning sin, free will, and grace. The controversy that derived from this protest was such that when he returned to Paris in 1654, Nicole was forced to take the assumed name of M. de Rosny.

In 1658, during a tour in the German territories, he translated the Provinciales (16561657) into Latin, using the pseudonym Guillaume Wendrock. This work, written by the brilliant Port-Royalist Blaise Pascal, was a popular satirical critique of Jesuit moral theology. Nicole also defended both the Augustinus and Port-Royal throughout the 1660s, when Louis XIV exerted considerable pressure on the members of the convent to bring them into conformity with official church policy. During this time, in 1662, he published with Arnauld, under the pseudonym of Sieur le Bon, the first of what was to be six editions of the Logique ou l'art de penser. This work reflects the teaching at the petite écoles at Port-Royal before their disbandment by Louis XIV in 1660. This work combines an Augustinian distinction between a theology grounded in trust of authority and a philosophy grounded in trust of natural reason with René Descartes's rejection of radical Pyrrhonian skepticism and his metaphysical conclusion that mind as a thinking thing is a substance really distinct from body as an extended thing. Nonetheless, Nicole was never as enthusiastic about the new Cartesian philosophy as his coauthor, Arnauld, was. In several letters published in his four-volume Essais de morale (vol. 2, 1679) Nicole emphasized the weakness of human reason and the inability of the Cartesians to offer more than probable conclusions. This sort of emphasis was in line with the skepticism concerning the new philosophy reflected in the views of Port-Royal solitaires such as Le Maistre de Sacy and Louis-Paul du Vaucel. Such skepticism belies the claim of the Calvinist Pierre Jurieu that "the theologians of Port-Royal are as attached to Cartesianism as they are to Christianity" (La politique du clergé de France [Cologne, 1681], 107).

The Peace of the Church that Pope Clement IX established in 1669 with the help of Louis XIV brought about a decade-long cessation of hostilities against the Jansenists. During this period Arnauld and Nicole devoted themselves to their three-volume La perpétuité de la foy, in which they defended the Catholic doctrine that Christ is "physically present" in the Eucharist against the view of the Calvinist minister JeanClaude that Christ has a merely "spiritual presence" in this sacrament. Nicole and Arnauld also condemned the attempt of the French Benedictine Robert Desgabets to defend the view in Descartes's unpublished correspondence that the physical presence of Christ involves merely the union of His soul with the matter of the Eucharistic elements. The anonymous publication of this defense in the Conisdérations sur l'état present (1671) was one of the triggers of the official campaign against Cartesianism in France during the 1670s.

The Peace of the Church officially ended with Louis XIV's banishment of Nicole and Arnauld, along with other Port-Royalist sympathizers, to the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium) in 1679. In contrast to Arnauld and the other Port-Royalists, however, Nicole was eager to reconcile himself with the French authorities, and negotiations with the bishop of Paris, François de Harlay de Champvallon, allowed him to return to Paris in 1683. After this return, he further revised his Essais de morale and attacked in print the views of the Calvinists. Nicole also attempted (unsuccessfully) to moderate the tone of the increasing bitter philosophical and theological debate during the 1680s and early 1690s that pitted Arnauld against the French Cartesian Nicolas Malebranche.

In the 1690s Nicole also became embroiled in his own dispute with Arnauld over Nicole's view that God grants us a "general grace" that involves at least an implicit knowledge of moral truth. Appealing to the Cartesian doctrine of the transparency of the mind, Arnauld objected to any knowledge of moral truth that does not involve explicit awareness. The response to this line of objection in Nicole and his defenders, including the Louvain theologian Gommaire Huygens and the French Benedictine François Lamy, invoked the purported implication in Augustine that we see truths in God by means of divine illumination that we do not grasp completely. The case of this dispute serves to further illustrate the complexities of the relations between Augustinianism and Cartesianism during the seventeenth century.

During the 1690s, Nicole also found himself opposed to Lamy over the "quietist" doctrine of the French Cardinal François de Fénelon that we are to have a "pure love" of God that involves no concern for the self. Whereas Lamy defended Fénelon, Nicole joined the French Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet in arguing for the conclusion, which Rome later endorsed, that quietism is heretical. Soon after this dispute, Nicole suffered a stroke, and he died in Paris on November 16, 1695, a little over a year after Arnauld's death.

See also Arnauld, Antoine.


Arnauld, Antoine, and Pierre Nicole. Logic, or, The Art of Thinking, edited by Jill Vance Buroker. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

works by nicole

De l'éducation d'un prince [later, vol. 2 of Essais de morale ]. Paris: Savreaux, 1670.

Die Philosophie des 17.Jahrhunderts. Band 2, Frankreich und Niederlande. Basil: Schwabe, 1993.

Essais de morale, contenus en divers traitez sur plusieurs devoirs importans. 4 vols. Paris: Savreux (vol. 1) 1671, and Desprez (vol. 2) 1679; (vol. 3) 1675; (vol. 4) 1678.

Traité de la grâce générale. 2 vols. N.p.: n.p., 1715.

Oeuvres. 25 vols. Paris: n.p., 17651782.

works on nicole

James, Edward D. Pierre Nicole, Jansenist and Humanist: A Study of His Thought. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1972.

[Rodis-] Lewis, Geneviève. "Augustinianisme et cartésianisme à Port-Royal." In Descartes et le cartésianisme hollandaise, edited by E. J. Dijksterhuis et al., 131182. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1950.

Solère, Jean-Luc. "Arnauld versus Nicole: A Medieval Dispute." In Interpreting Arnauld, edited by Elmar J. Kremer, 127146. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Tad M. Schmaltz (2005)

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Nicole, Pierre (1625–1695)

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