Between Religion and Philosophy:
The Case of Jeanne de Chantal
One of the challenges in defending the philosophical contributions of early modern women authors is that much of their work seems theological rather than philosophical in nature. In fact, journals and conferences will still dismiss such work as too religious and thus―by a rationalist logic―not truly philosophical. A recent article I published for Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Jeanne de Chantal (1572-1641) illustrates the challenge. Her work is indeed religious. It is narrowly tied to the monastic world. It consists of a series of letters and conferences addressed to the members of the Visitation order she founded and to their lay benefactors. The ascetical focus is on the practice of the vows and establishing the customs of the new order. At the interior of these spiritual exhortations, several moments of philosophical speculation emerge. De Chantal’s treatment of the virtues, for example, expounds a series of virtues quite different from the standard cardinal virtues. The initial virtue to be cultivated by the nun is humility, a moral posture which requires the epistemological skill and grace of self-knowledge. Other central conventual virtues are abnegation, simplicity, obedience, and abandonment to divine providence. Charity constitutes the summit of conventual virtue. In developing her theory of virtues appropriate to the nun, De Chantal actually attacks recourse to the cardinal virtue of temperance. “Human prudence does us much harm. As long as we nourish this false prudence, an all too worldly spirit will abide with us.” De Chantal makes a gendered adaptation of one of her philosophical sources, the Rule of Saint Augustine, which the Visitation order had adopted as the base of its constitution. Augustine’s vague exortation to fraternal love among community members becomes the occasion for De Chantal to discuss at length the difference between proper and improper expressions of affection among the women who have taken vows in the Visitation convent.
-Father John Conley SJ, SSWP Board Member
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