Last modified: February 2018
Any attempt to divide history into distinct periods is not just a challenging task but also an arbitrary one. Continuous forms have no caesurae: the parameters adopted to make different historical periods intelligible enable us to perceive discontinuities, which are in turn described by different labels. These interruptions are, therefore, manifestations of a lack of coherence between the parameters chosen to investigate the phenomenon and the phenomenon itself. On the one hand, the act of naming distorts the continuous nature of time, turning it into a series of discrete entities: the contrast between two linguistically constructed designations produces the idea of a partition of the phenomenon they both symbolize.1 On the other hand, the act of naming inevitably involves attributing values and expressing judgments, usually in an arbitrary and preconceived way.2 Consequently, every form of periodization has its own inherent dangers.
These risks are particularly apparent when dealing with history and historiography. In these disciplines, competing models of periodization, formed over the course of many centuries, have turned the labeling of the past into a major methodological problem. Defining or “recognizing” individual historical periods means arbitrarily—or at least subjectively—promoting one or another aspect to the focal and essential feature of a certain phenomenon. In turn, the discontinuity of that artificially extrapolated feature can give the impression that history itself is equally discontinuous.
Accordingly, the history of historiography is mainly a reflection on the parameters selected, in different epochs, to investigate distinct historical periods and the diachronic evolution of certain aspects that are used to connote these periods. This is the key to interpret Benedetto Croce’s (1866–1952) claim that “nothing exists but the Thought”: every perception of reality is always constructed by the human intellect.3 There cannot be changes and thus breaks in history, because the idea of history itself is the result of an act of the intellect; changes only occur in our interpretation of history, that is, in the philosophy of history and historiography.
Nonetheless, defining and labeling periods and events is a cognitive act that can contribute to a better understanding of certain phenomena and processes. In other words, being able to define periods helps us recognize and contextualize variations in a given, intellectually constructed phenomenon.
The partitioning and naming of Jesuit historiography is still a subject of debate. The multitude of conflicting interpretations—which are sometimes inconsistent with the unicity and coherence of the organization and activities of the Society of Jesus—reflects the variety of cognitive acts aimed at a better understanding of Jesuit historiography’s supposedly characteristic elements.
Hence Jesuit historiography has already been studied as a distinct subject. Its methodological consistency and principles of unity were guaranteed by adherence to the pragmatic credo of Ignatius of Loyola (c.1491–1556) and the guidelines first expounded by Antonio Possevino (1533–1611) in his Bibliotheca selecta (1593).4 Reproaching David Chytraeus (1530–1600) for having believed the False Beroso,5 Possevino stressed the importance of adopting a critical approach to historical accounts. According to Possevino’s precepts, the study of the past can bring major glory to God, provided that logically unsustainable legends are disregarded when writing history. Similarly, stories of unbelievable miracles must be removed from expositions of historical events, including hagiographies. Instead, history should be produced on the basis of a rigorous analytical method.6
Despite these programmatic declarations, twentieth-century researchers were almost unanimous in their criticism of the Jesuits’ literary production, which has been described as nothing more than “the empty rhetoric of humanists,” in which “nothing of Erasmus survives” because they reduced history-writing to a linguistic and oratorical exercise.7 Even Croce, despite his initially positive evaluation of Emanuele Tesauro’s (1592–1675) Cannocchiale Aristotelico (The Aristotelian telescope ), interpreted the rhetoric of the Jesuits—one of the most distinctive traits of their historiographical production—as a purposeless style and as little more than a form of medieval thought modeled after the manner of the humanists.8 The analysis of Eduard Fueter (1876–1928), another authority on the history of historiography, takes into account a wider variety of aspects in Jesuit historiography when compared with Croce’s investigation, including the similarities with the erudite method and humanist historiography.9 Nevertheless, Fueter was still a vocal critic of the Jesuits’ abuse of the ornate style. Despite this, he had to acknowledge that the historiographical skills of most Jesuits “allowed them to get closer to modern critical historiography than the Protestants did.”10 In more recent years, a geographical approach has dominated research on Jesuit historiography.11 In these studies, the recurring theme is the criticism of the Jesuits’ rhetorical approach to historiography in the period stretching from the eighteenth century to more recent times. As an example, writing about Jesuit historiography in Bohemia, Czech scholar Ivo Cerman argues that historian Franz Pubitschka (1722–1807) began his literary activity in a period when the rhetorical approach to historiography had already been seriously discredited in Bohemia. The main reason for this criticism was the interest in the new approach to the critical examination of sources promoted by the Piarist Gelasius Dobner (1709–90).12 Clearly, in Bohemia, rhetoric was already understood as an alternative to the “scientific” method by the second half of the eighteenth century.
The fallacy of these preconceptions—the idea that rhetoric is not an epistemological tool, but rather a matter of style—is particularly evident in Fueter’s Geschichte der neueren Historiographie (History of early modern historiography). Even if his decision to treat Jesuit historiography as an independent, unified entity is something to be welcomed, the efficacy of the parameters he uses to define this unity—the emergence of the rhetorical method and the reform of the historical method of the humanists—is certainly not beyond dispute. Indeed, Fueter is forced to co-locate almost half of the Jesuit historians in different sections of the book from those devoted to the Society of Jesus because their historical works cannot unquestionably be listed as models of empty rhetoric. Thus Jesuit historians Gabriel Daniel (1649–1728) and Juan de Mariana (1536–1624) are listed among the humanists; Louis Bourdaloue (1632–1704) and Pietro Sforza Pallavicino (1607–67) are described as representative of ecclesiastical (non-Jesuitical) historiography; Jacques Bénigne-Bossuet (1627–1704), on the other hand, is often mentioned as the perfect example of Jesuit historiography even though he was not even a member of the Society of Jesus; and Daniel Papebroch (1628–1714) is simply referred to as an erudite of the school of Flavio Biondo (1392–1463). This already long list of exceptions also includes several highly prominent Jesuit historians: Pedro Hurtado de Mendoza (1578–1641) and Jean Hardouin (1646–1729) are not mentioned despite their important contributions to the definition of history as a scientific discipline and their attempts to apply the Cartesian approach to the art of history (ars historica).
Since the late twentieth and early twenty-first century—dating from the two international conferences held at Boston College in 1997 and 2002—the debate over the Jesuits’ approach to knowledge and the sciences in general, together with history and historiography specifically, has changed considerably. In addition to the geographical approach mentioned above, a comparative perspective has begun to emerge in works that investigate Jesuit historiography as a subject; nonetheless, some of these works are collages of investigations on fragments—the titles are often just umbrella labels for research that does not deal with Jesuit historiography as a separate subject, but instead focuses on individual historians, genres, individual works, as well as geographic or administrative regions. However, the necessity to move, to use Erich Auerbach’s words, from the specific to the general is still perceivable in the programmatic announcements made at academic conferences and in the prefaces of monographs such as Claudio Ferlan’s I gesuiti (The Jesuits), published in 2015,13 or Robert Danieluk’s chapter “Some Remarks on Jesuit Historiography,” printed in the same year.14 These and other studies attempt to deal with the Society of Jesus and its historiography as an uninterrupted whole, sometimes including the period 1773–1814, that is, from the order’s suppression to its restoration.
This essay intends to build on the “panoramic,” diachronic, and transnational studies of Eugenio Garin (1909–2004), Benedetto Croce, and Eduard Fueter with the aim of discussing the criteria that can be used to define Jesuit historiography as a unified entity in the early modern period. The essay seeks to make a contribution to this subject by drawing a number of parallels between the Jesuits’ philosophy of language and their approach to historiography. Based on these parallels, the paper proposes a periodization or, more accurately, a tripartition of Jesuit history-writing.
This tripartition results from the reinterpretation of oratory and eloquence as focal and defining features of Jesuit history-writing. Accordingly, the essay begins by analyzing the Jesuits’ understanding of rhetoric in comparison with our modern conception of the art of eloquence. A comparative approach reveals the cognitive and pragmatic, rather than literary and aesthetic, functions of this oratorical art: rhetoric, as we will see, was a research method, not a literary exercise.
A hermeneutic reading of a number of historical and theoretical works reveals that the second two of the three historiographic stages mentioned above emerged, as we shall see, in response to certain challenges to the Jesuits’ cognitive (or narrative) frame. Generalizing, these challenges stemmed from the Pyrrhonism that developed from the Cartesian definition of sciences. The need for the Jesuits to react to seventeenth-century skepticism stemmed from the work of René Descartes (1596–1650) and his decision to treat history as unworthy of consideration because of its complex nature, as demonstrated by the research of Carlo Borghero.15 Consequently, the main historiographical aim of the Jesuits in the seventeenth century was to restore the role of faith in historical truth.
God’s Logos and the Language of Man: The Epistemological Function of Rhetoric
Rhetoric was a central and multifaceted tool in the Jesuits’ educational program (as formalized in the Ratio studiorum) and was the creative device used to convey their religious message. Rhetoric shaped the whole historiographical production of the Society of Jesus. In this specific branch of the letters, the art of rhetoric (ars rhetorica) sometimes seemed to be of more importance than the subject matter itself. This explains why Jesuit rhetoric has often been perceived as a formal veil that concealed the order’s adherence to the medieval ecclesiastic tradition under the guise of its attachment to the humanist literary canon.
However, to a certain extent, it is possible to argue that the contemporary criticism of the Jesuits’ rhetorical method results from a projection of the modern definition of the oratorical art on to its seventeenth-century equivalent. From the fourteenth to the late seventeenth century, rhetoric was understood, first of all, as an instrument to achieve absolute knowledge: the oratio was a manifestation of the ratio. Accordingly, in order to understand Jesuit historiography, it is important to understand the authentic meaning and function of the metaphor and, in turn, of rhetoric.16 This problem was recognized as early as the seventeenth century in the work of Emanuele Tesauro, who claimed that it was impossible to evaluate Jesuit historiography without recognizing its original epistemological function. In accordance with Tesauro’s precept, this essay argues that the idea that Jesuit historiography was simply an empty reflection of humanistic mannerism has resulted from the modern definition of rhetoric as an attribute of style—a technical aspect of the writing process.
Undoubtedly, humanists and Jesuits understood this art as being much more complex than just a literary practice. In his Livre dou Trésor, Brunetto Latini ([c.1220–94] master of rhetoric celebrated by Dante [1265–1321] in his Divine Comedy, Florence) expressed his intention to mold the “political man” by means of the art of oratory (ars dicendi). Like other intellectuals of that time, he understood rhetoric as the science of the rectors—the new bourgeois ruling class that sought to govern via the exercise of persuasion (resulting from an ability to organize and present their reasoning in a faultless way).17 Similarly, rhetoric was understood as an educational tool, rather than an embellishment of texts, by Giovanni Villani (chronicler born in Florence [c.1276–1348]). Villani asserted the importance of rhetorical education in refining the mind and the mental faculties: the ability to deliver a compelling speech reveals an orator’s ability to master and structure a logical reflection.18
Logic and rhetoric were at the fulcra of the epistemological debate that led to the Principles of a New Science, the title of Giambattista Vico’s (1668–1744) treatise on the philosophy of history. In 1624, Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) criticized formal logic because it was considered to be an end in itself: it was useless for the practical necessity of knowledge.19 The pragmatic attitude of the time is aptly summarized in Stefano Guazzo’s (1530–93) disapproval of “the silent and idle philosophy that, like faith, without the doing is dead.”20
Similarly, the empty discipline of logic drew fierce criticism from Mario Nizolio (sometimes spelled Nizzoli [1498–1576]) in 1533.21 This professor at the University of Parma asserted the need to reject all fictitious representations, since “knowledge passes through the purity of the linguistic expression, which is a spontaneous translation of the fundamental relationship between man and the world.”22 According to Nizolio, every form of knowledge has a practical orientation, which is guaranteed by language’s capacity to represent the real processes of the spirit’s impulses. Consequently, the study of grammar and rhetoric serves “to harmonize [rational thought] with the natural development of human interiority.”23 The same idea appears in Stefano Guazzo (1530–93), who claims that language is the pure manifestation of humanity, and “since nature did not give us the language to speak with ourselves, but with others […], this is the only instrument to transmit knowledge.”24
There are striking similarities between these sorts of definitions and the way in which Donald Rice and Peter Schofer, two contemporary specialists on literary text analysis, interpret rhetoric. In their opinion, rhetoric can be defined as a system of three oppositions: rhetoric as opposed to poetics; ornate style (rhetoric) versus natural style; and rhetoric versus hermeneutic. The third opposition is nothing more than a modern revision of the humanists’ definition.25 To make this analogy clearer, the third opposition can be viewed in the following way: rhetoric is the science of the generation of the text, as opposed to hermeneutics, which is the science of the comprehension of the text. However, neither the Renaissance nor the modern grammarians understood generation simply as a summation of technical rules for the construction of elegant and coherent sentences. Rather, generation was intended as an act of translation between two systems of representation of the world, that is, between conscience and language. This translation is, for the nature of the two systems themselves, indefinite and vague: the conscience is a continuous form of knowledge, while language is a discontinuous—or analogical—one. As a consequence, language can give only a partial representation of the conscience. However, it is for this reason that rhetoric is able to express a form of knowledge that transcends the limits of language. Thus, semantic tropes cannot be considered an external embellishment of speech; on the contrary, they are tools used to reproduce the mechanisms and structures of the world by means of a language that also encompasses an irrational (super-sensible) component.
The humanists consequently held that rhetoric was the meta-language between the language of the world and that of the written (or spoken) word. The function of rhetoric was to make expressions intelligible to the rational mind that were usually perceivable only to the spirit.
The Jesuits shared the humanists’ understanding of this art, at least at a theoretical level. The Jesuit definition of the function of a metaphor was formulated by Tesauro as “the highest summit of the Ingenious Figures […] and the greatest brainchild of human intellect.”26 In his theorization, the tropes that belong to the category of the “Ingenious Figures” not only constitute a system of translation but also a technique for the development of the conscience. In Tesauro, the metaphorical conscience is compared with the creative conscience and, consequently, it is equated with the divine act of creation—the supreme metaphor. As such, Tesauro criticized those scholars who defined figures of speech as artificial embellishments. According to him, these figures were mechanisms of creation and were fundamental to human thought, being “the most noble expression of the intellect because neither in the harmony of the sounds, nor in the pathetic forms, but in the ingenious signification they have their roots.”27 Accordingly, these figures are figures of thought rather than figures of speech.28 It is for this reason that the metaphor occupies the physical and ideological center of Tesauro’s treatise Il cannocchiale aristotelico: the metaphor “exceeds the limits of the nude word since it is an ingenious figure able to represent, betoken, and delight at the same time.”29
Hence Tesauro recognizes the metaphor as the universal principle of both the human and the divine conscience. Moreover, according to his conception, all the ingenious figures are means to translate “absolute knowledge,” because the main quality of rhetoric is its ability to render sensible (perceivable) the super-sensible. This is possible especially by means of the laconic phrase figure of speech that “makes understandable more than what it says.”30 In the pages of Tesauro, rhetoric assumes an epistemological importance.31 God’s creation is a rhetorical opus, and in the rhetoric of the speech the divine creation is reproduced and made intelligible. In this sense, it can be stated that the Jesuits’ rhetoric was almost ontological: it was a method that collocates the immediate term of rational cognition in its object—the idea. The trope, intended by Tesauro as the mechanism of semantic indeterminateness, is capable of rendering sensible the inexpressibility of the Truth.
Nevertheless, this ability to express the inexpressible is not intended as an attribute of artistic thought; it should not be compared to the capability of an artist to evoke emotions, memories, or sensations by means of inventive techniques. Using modern terminology, Tesauro’s view can be summarized in the following way: metaphor and metonymy are cognitive acts capable of reproducing and symbolically reformulating real-life processes in order to make them intelligible to the rational mind. In this sense, the figures of speech create representations of the world. Consequently, it is wrong to oppose rhetoric to science because the former is intrinsic to the scientific conscience, which, by means of postulates, aims to gain knowledge of the processes of creation. The consistency of the baroque aesthetic of the Jesuit Tesauro with the theorization of humanists like Nizolio, Guazzo, and Piccolomini is indisputable.
This homogeneity is even more evident in the works of the Spanish Jesuit Cyprian Soarez (1524–93), who bridges the two centuries between Nizolio’s appeal for a pragmatic philosophy and Tesauro’s proposal. The teacher of rhetoric, and rector of the prestigious Jesuit College of Coimbra, is the author of one De arte rhetorica (On the art of rhetoric), a popular textbook of rhetoric. Drawing on Aristotle’s Rhetorica (Rhetoric), Cicero’s De oratore (On the [profession of] the orator), and Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria (Institutes of oratory), Soarez prepared a summation of their principles in order to provide students with an introduction to classic rhetoric and a selection of (expurgated) readings.32 This work may have provided the basis for Tesauro’s definition of rhetoric.
The epistemological function of rhetoric is clearly enunciated in the proem of De arte rhetorica: “To speak is, as a matter of fact, to know.”33 With this sentence, Soarez expresses the hierarchical connection between the ratio and the oratio, stating that speech “is, in a sense, an image of the intellect” (quasi imago rationis quaedam).34 Speech, and particularly ornate speech, has the practical function of making sensible (perceivable and understandable) the verbum mentis (language of the mind) by means of an analogical translation. For this reason, rhetoric has to be understood as an art, but with the specific sense of the art of translation from the language of nature to the language of man. This is the key to understanding Soarez’s claim that nothing can be without art (hoc itaque maxime docetur, hoc nullus sine arte assequi potest).35 More precisely, and in accordance with the Christian Scholastic, the human intellect bases its processes of understanding on the transition from the res to the verbum. However, since the first element belongs to nature, it must be translated into impressed sensible species (essence); afterward, it can be translated into expressed sensible species (representations); then into impressed intelligible species (intelligible similitudes); and, finally, into expressed intelligible species (words).36 Metaphors and metonymies are tools that can be used to express in words the intelligible similitude that represents the true essence of nature. In Soarez, rhetoric, and particularly the phase of the elocutio, has a clear epistemological value. At the same time, inventio and dispositio are instruments that can be used to organize the results of this metaphysical investigation and thus make them objects of rational knowledge.37
Both Soarez and Tesauro consequently construe rhetoric as the supreme means of knowledge rather than a superfluous embellishment of speech. Eloquence renders passible, that is, susceptible of being perceived and known, the super-sensible,38 thus bringing out the pragmatic role of rhetoric in contrast with the abstractions of the formal logic of the nominalists.39
As a result, the rhetoric of the Jesuits should not be recorded among the silent and idle disciplines criticized by Guazzo precisely because it has a practical orientation, namely to educate, “to promptly know an object.”40 What actually differentiates the Jesuits’ literary production from that of the humanists is neither the use of rhetoric nor its function. It is an external element: the definition of the res—the starting point for the whole translation process. Whereas the res of the humanists, using Nizolio’s expression, is the “human interiority,” that of the Jesuits is the manifestation of God—the divine logos that reveals himself in history.
The Subject Matter: Jesuit Historiography as a Pedagogical Tool
The existence of a strong relationship between rhetoric and historiography was formulated by the Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracián (1601–58) in his Arte de ingenio or Agudeza y arte de ingenio (Sharpness or the art of brilliance), a textbook focusing on rhetoric and specifically on the acuity of wit.41 Since the publication of this work in 1642 (revised in 1648), the traditional Aristotelian contrast opposing poets and historians in matter of freedom of invention—with the former free to invent, while the virtue of the latter resides in their adherence to reality—disappears thanks to the idea that the exercise of acuity of wit or creative invention may educate to recognize and unveil the “secrets of state” and the “dissimulation” of the princes.42 In other words, on the one hand, rhetoric was defined as a methodological tool, while, on the other, history was reinterpreted as a pedagogical device to educate young noblemen or princes who would have to deal with their peers.43
From the foundation of the order to its suppression, rhetoric was considered a tool to understand and reformulate the divine logos. As a consequence, history-writing, and the rhetoric employed to recount the past, was defined as the narrative of the manifestation of that logos in history; it was a methodological and pedagogical tool in and of itself.
The idea that Jesuit historiography was not primarily focused on history was openly formulated by a number of chroniclers and historians of the Society of Jesus. The Polish–Lithuanian Jesuit Albert Wijuk-Kojałowicz (1609–77), for example, author of the first history of Lithuania, explained that he decided to write about the history of his country in Latin in order “to give young pupils the opportunity to feel and hear the Latin language while reading about the deeds of their ancestors.”44 Thus the Latin language, rather than Lithuanian history, was the principal motive for writing the treatise.
There are various reasons why the Jesuits’ works often sought to attain goals other than imparting historical information as an end in itself. First, for most of the early modern period, history was not recognized as an autonomous field of study; nor was it taught independently in colleges or universities. Second, it has been noted that the Jesuits took an indirect approach to pedagogy, especially in ethical and moral matters, whereby they would teach something through something else. This certainly applies to the Jesuits’ theater:
The inseparability of word and image […] was based on a rhetorical project created to serve man. […] The recourse to theatricalism in the didactic of the Jesuit colleges has to be understood as the creation of a psychological and cognitive space in which fantastic reinvention; activating memory, imagination, affections, and intelligence trained to observe the reality in an ordered, conscious, and oriented manner.45
In other words, thanks to rhetorical constructions, readers were educated to reflect on specific subjects and attribute pre-defined values to them even though these were not openly expressed. The idea of providing a moral education through rhetorically constructed reinventions (in what could be considered an example of the practical implementation of Gracián’s instructions) emerges in many of the Jesuits’ historical works. As an example, the pedagogical nature of history as a rhetorically constructed account is apparent in the history of Spain written by the Jesuit Mariana, as is also the case in the already mentioned history of Lithuania, which was published around the same time. The Jesuits’ approach to pedagogy is evident in a number of passages in which both authors curiously integrate the narratives of their main sources—Ambrosio de Morales’s (1513–91) historical works and Maciej Stryjkowski’s (c.1547–c.1593) Kronika polska, litewska, żmudzka i wszystkiej Rusi (Chronicle of Poland, Lithuania, Samogitia, and all of Ruthenia) respectively—including direct or indirect speeches that are obviously fictitious.
More attention has been paid to the use of this practice in Wijuk-Kojałowicz’s work than in Mariana’s. Lithuanian scholar Dalia Dilytė’s analysis of all instances of direct or indirect speeches in the Historiae Lituanae reveals that Wijuk-Kojałowicz uses fabricated dialogues 333 times in total. The History of Lithuania contains three kinds of speeches recognized by antique rhetoric: juridical, epideictic, and deliberative, with the last of these being the most abundant. According to Aristotle, the prevalence of deliberative oratory indicates the orientation of the text to future time, since its advice to do or not do something, given in deliberative speeches, is concerned with the future.46 The abundance of deliberative oratory in the History of Lithuania once again confirms that the focus of the author is on the future, rather than on the past; it is on the education of the future governing classes, rather than on the deeds of their ancestors.
Thus, the Jesuits’ historical accounts were rhetorically molded to educate the reader and orient their perception of reality in a diachronic perspective: the examples of the past serve to guide, in a Christian rather than classical manner, the future actions of the governing class. It is specifically in connection with the need to educate the successors of the European governing class that there was a sharp increase in the number of Jesuit historical works in this period. In the first fifty years since the papal approval of the order, the Jesuits’ historical production was limited to three fields: (1) biographies of Ignatius and other members of the Society (such as the works of Pedro de Ribadeneyra [1527–1611] and Giampietro Maffei [1533–1603]); (2) hagiographies (such as the collection published by the Polish Jesuit Piotr Skarga [1536–1612], the Żywoty świętych [Lives of the saints], published in 1579); and (3) histories of the Society of Jesus itself (such as those by Juan Alfonso de Polanco [1517–76], Niccolò Orlandini [1554–1606], and Famiano Strada [1572–1649]).
The sharp increase in the number of historical works coincides with the publication of pedagogical guidelines and, primarily, the Ratio studiorum (elaborated from 1581 until 1599). At the same time, colleges for the education of the population (or at least of the upper classes) were being founded in ever greater numbers. Since the publication in 1593 of Possevino’s Bibliotheca selecta—the subtitle of which specifically states that it “deals with the organization of historical […] studies” (que agitur de ratione studiorum in historia)—an increasing number of national chronicles, histories of the church, and narratives of specific events were published by Jesuit scholars.
It is important to note that almost all these works were dedicated to young sovereigns and that most of them were pedagogical treatises, focusing mainly on morality. It is, therefore, natural that there would be a surge in the number of historical works during this period given the need to provide a political education to increasing numbers of students. In turn, the need for political education emerged from the political–historical discourse outlined by Francesco Guicciardini (1483–1540), Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), and Giovanni della Casa (1503–1556). Morality, faith, and political education were indissolubly connected in Jesuit historiography, and the scholars of the order believed that young noblemen had to be educated to recognize the Will of God and the role of the church in history, rather than viewing it as a series of accidents.
The Jesuits’ historical accounts of the Bohemian insurrection of 1618 offer an illustrative example of this. The Flemish Martin Becan (1563–1624) and the Austrian Adam Tanner (1572–1632), both Jesuits, reported on the insurrection and were involved in the political–theological debate that sprang from the insurgence.47 Their works are remarkable for the criticism they direct toward both infidels (Turks and Calvinists) and the Catholic princes for their readiness to accept religious pluralism as the price for peace. Becan’s account condemns the moral decadence of the nobles, who have been transformed into libertine pseudo-politicians. Similarly, Tanner’s political thought also reflects a link between opposition to religious pluralism and the moral reform of politicians: “The Christian peace is twofold: one ecclesiastic that consists in the unity of faith and sacraments; the other is political and consists of justice and morality.”48 The message in these philosophical and historical works is clear: political authority cannot be reduced to the role of guaranteeing public order but should be based upon, and seek to impart, a strict sense of morality.
From Spain to Poland, the Jesuit narration of the past had a clear pedagogical function in educating the pupils to perceive the past in an ordered manner, that is, to recognize the role of morality and, thus, of the church, in the unfolding of history. The Jesuits’ pedagogical program was mainly aimed at the future governing class and was more focused on imparting a moral message than narrating a universal history, the history of Christianity, or the dark pagan times.
This is particularly apparent in the two works of the Polish Jesuit Piotr Skarga, namely the biographic–hagiographic Żywoty świętych (The lives of the saints ), and Kazania sejmowe (Sermons to the Sejm), which was published in 1597.49 Skarga’s hagiographic collection (more than twenty editions) reveals that the first rector of the University of Vilnius had elaborated criteria for the selection and investigation of his historical sources. Skarga exhibited a critical sense similar to that of Jean Bolland (1596–1665): logically or rationally unsustainable accounts were removed, unrealistic chronologies were emended, and the biographies of the saints were reworked.50 The Żywoty swiętych are particularly careful when it comes to matters of customs and morality. However, despite telling stories from the pagan past and Christian times, Skarga did not criticize the manners of the idolaters: the examples of Roman virgins who killed themselves to preserve their integrity in contrast with matrons like Lucretia are functional exempla, based on the contrast as a figure of speech to illustrate the advantages resulting from moral behavior (especially among the nobility, who are perceived as models for the nation). Jesuit hagiographies, intended as a historiographical genre, differ from other ecclesiastical traditions, as Jesuit writers generally focus on very subject and secular morality, that is, on ethical and charitable behaviors, rather than on miracles or transcendent events. Particularly relevant in this regard is a reference in Skarga’s sixth sermon to the Sejm of the legitimate killing of an immoral regent (tyrannicide); even Christian dogma can be reinterpreted in the Jesuits’ pedagogical program to illustrate the ruthlessness of history toward unprincipled rulers.
Indicative of these historical works’ target audience is their thematic and chronological structure. As an example, Wijuk-Kojałowicz’s history of Lithuania is structured around the succession of grand dukes—Lithuania during the kingdom of Mindaugas (c.1251–63), the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from Gediminas to Kęstutis (c.1315–1381), the Grand Duchy under Vytautas (1392–1430), and so on. Not only is the medieval ecclesiastical chronology abandoned but a political one is preferred with the clear intention of providing specific models of moral and correct government rather than generally edifying exempla.
Challenges to the Jesuit Cognitive Method: Pyrrhonism and the Cartesian Encyclopédie des sciences
God’s Will was acting in history before the advent of Christ. Based on this postulate, Jesuit historians were able to illustrate the history of the church of Christ by recounting events related to pagan times. Moreover, Christian history—and its Jesuitical interpretation—was not perceived as a series of repetitive events, as had been the case for the classical civilizations; instead, it was viewed as an unfolding path toward an announced future. The need to understand the past was therefore linked to the Christian need to decipher the testimony of the divine acting in human history.51
The incarnation of God in Christ represented the irruption of the transcendent in the immanent.52 Christ created a fracture in human history, in which the divine interfered with the secular, offering humanity a message of redemption. As a result, the Catholic Church viewed history as a defined object with a beginning (the creation) and an end (the last judgment). History thus became an integral part of the Christian message: it was the diachronic frame of the path toward redemption.
This ecclesiastical interpretation defined the role of the church as well. While the early church sought a detachment from the laic world in order to attain pure transcendence, the medieval church sought a much important function in the world, based on the new conception of history: if history is a process with a beginning and, most importantly, an end, then the church has a duty to guide humanity toward the certitude of redemption. In other words, the church became the connection between the transcendence of God and the immanence of God’s Will in human history. It had become the “rationality” of human progress toward redemption. The church built its temporal power and its spiritual role on these assumptions.
It should now be clear why the Jesuits, devoted to the preservation of the power of Roman church, were unable to ignore the gnoseological importance of history for the learned governing class. Accordingly, the super-abundant rhetoric typical of the Jesuits’ historiographical production, as discussed above, was the only tool able to make evident and intelligible the intervention of the divine in human events.
However, the entire picture became much more complex when the Cartesian opposition of reason and memory entered the historical debate.53 While such a debate has to be framed in terms of the seventeenth-century scientific reformation, the ultimate cause of the dispute over history should be understood in the context of the European diffusion of Cartesian thought in areas of knowledge where the analytical method was not supposed to be employed. There was, in fact, a close connection between the method elaborated by Descartes and his Encyclopedia of the Sciences—the list of subjects that can be known by the intellect: certitude, the aim of the Cartesian method, could only be reached by investigating “simple natures,”54 that is, objects known by means of the immediate intuition of the mind. Therefore, the certitude of knowledge was guaranteed by the rigor of the method and the simplicity of the objects to which it was applied.55 As a consequence, this excluded from the catalog of sciences all the disciplines that could be defined as complex. Moreover, this theoretical approach defined all subjects related to memory, which, by its nature, cannot arrive at rigorous certitude, as non-sciences. From this postulate originates, in Descartes, the dichotomy between reason and memory. This opposition influenced the historiographical debate and became the basis for every consideration about the possibility of knowing historical facts and the level of certitude that could be reached in the seventeenth century.
Educated Christians immediately perceived the danger in the spread of the Cartesian method, as revealed, for example, in the correspondence of Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704).56 In his letters, Bossuet criticized Nicolas Malebranche (1638–1715) for approving the application of analytical philosophy to subjects such as history and religion. Indeed, the pages of the Recherche de la verité (Searching the truth ) that deal with erudition, philology, history, and the study of dead languages made Malebranche the most intransigent supporter of Descartes’s opposition between reason and memory.57
A number of Christian scholars perceived a great danger in this opposition between reason and memory and the consequent condemnation of historical knowledge. Antoine Arnauld’s (1612–94) Objections to the Meditationes de prima philosophia (1641), for example, argue that methodical doubt could ultimately lead to the repudiation of everything that was unclear and indistinct, that is, in the rejection of contingent subjects and particularly of disciplines dealing with faith.58
At that time, academic culture was dominated by the Scholastics and Scholasticism, not only in the universities but also in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The Scholastics had provided the church with a philosophical framework that was in perfect harmony with Catholic dogma. The Cartesian opposition to Scholasticism, and particularly the Cartesian doctrine of the incertitude of historical knowledge, threatened to undermine the cultural language of the church and the conceptual framework in which the historical role of the church had been justified. Hence, during the first half of the seventeenth century, ecclesiastical historiography was unable to avoid confronting this philosophical doctrine.
Before Descartes, the spread of Renaissance Pyrrhonism—a kind of Cartesianism ante litteram59—was met by new definitions of the aims of history-writing in the works of the Jesuit Possevino both in his script against Chytraeus and in the Bibliotheca selecta. In the latter work, the Italian Jesuit chose history as the main category to organize and contextualize the whole of human knowledge. The list of suggested books is planned in a manner that suggests historical knowledge is an indispensable cognitive principle for framing every other form of knowledge.60
According to Borghero’s research on the seventeenth-century philosophy of history, the spread of the Cartesian doctrine and method in humanities was met by three different historiographic approaches.61 The first, which has been labeled “strong Cartesianism,” advocated the full implementation of the Cartesian method. In practice, this translated into an attempt to geometrize every form of knowledge, that is, to apply the principles of Euclidean geometry. With regard to the specific problem of historical knowledge, or the possibility of knowing history and the techniques needed to ascertain the truth of historical facts, this orientation is typical of authors who deal with the problem of the reliability of historical evidence and traditions by means of mathematical instruments and the theory of probability. This is the approach adopted by John Craig (1663–1731) and Jakob Bernoulli (1654–1705). Yet this practice was antithetical to the Jesuits’ approach and was only rarely implemented in their historiographical practice.
Borgero defines the second historiographic approach as an attempt to integrate the Cartesian doctrine into the already existing philosophical framework. The peculiarity of this approach is reflected in the effort to translate the Cartesian method into the terms of traditional Scholastic philosophy, as attempted, for example, by Johann Clauberg (1622–65), Jean de Raei (a friend of Descartes), and Antoine Arnauld, all of whom tried to apply Cartesian philosophy to subjects already defined by Aristotelian philosophy. The consequence of this approach in the field of historical research is evident in the works of Jean le Clerc (1657–1736), who adopted a less strict Cartesian method to gain knowledge of historical facts.62
Although the Jesuits condemned the use of this approach, it was nevertheless implemented on more than one occasion, an illustrative example being the chronology published by the French Jesuit Jean Hardouin (1646–1729). Asked to edit the Natural History of Pliny, Hardouin elaborated a method for historical research based both on auxiliary disciplines and analytical processes. The result was the controversial Chronologiae ex nummis antiquis restitutae (Chronologies retrieved out of ancient coins ), which, though intended as an example of absolute certitude in history, became a model for bizarre theories about the falsity of “universal history” as taught by ecclesiastic historiography.
A third historiographic answer to the problem of the relationship between the new philosophy and the humanities was to adopt an alternative to the Cartesian method. This approach, like the second mentioned above, insisted on the value of the moral certitude produced by historical knowledge while rejecting, at the same time, the reduction of everything to the mathematical approach. However, in opposition to the second approach, this one did not seek to elaborate a doctrine able to correct the “imperfection” of Cartesian philosophy in this field. In this perspective, in Borghero’s words, Cartesianism was reduced to a mere cultural background that informs the educated person that it is necessary to give the intelligence rules in order to exercise the critical activity that characterizes scientific thought.
It is this last approach that was adopted by most Jesuit historians. Since the late seventeenth century, the main trend among Jesuits with regard to the role of Cartesian philosophy in disciplines like history, politics, and morality, anticipated that of philosophers like Vico and Gottfried W. Leibniz (1646–1716), both of whom criticized the Cartesian logic supporting the recovering of Aristotelian subjects. However, this opposition was not understood as a radical departure from the claim of Descartes to give the intelligence strict rules to exercise the critics.63 More correctly, this critical approach introduced the logic of likelihood and probability as an integration of the precept to give reasoning a rigorous form: convinced that mathematical certitude is not achievable in historical studies, these scholars elaborated a rigorous probabilistic method capable of leading to “highly credible” notions.
A representative example of this approach can be found in the theories on the historical method of research put forward by Hurtado de Mendoza.64 This Jesuit of Salamanca expounded a sort of critical method intended as the foundation of a theory about historical certitude. In his Disputationes ad universam philosophiam (Dissertation on general philosophy ) and Commentarii in universam philosophiam (Annotations on general philosophy ), Hurtado de Mendoza elaborated a theory on the evidence of common sense with the aim of restoring faith in history as a means of knowledge. The Basque scholar intervened in the debate about the fides historica with clear anti-Cartesian aims.
Hurtado de Mendoza supported the idea of the certitude of historical knowledge in opposition to the reduction of knowledge to mere mathematical objects. It is through the notion of moral evidence that the analytical method is harmonized with Scholastic doctrine (Pierre Bayle [1647–1706] would later build on this Jesuit’s thesis in his own works). This theory affirms the reliability of a moral demonstration that has a high probability to be true.
However, certitude is something that is not mathematically evident; instead, it is something that is highly probable in terms of moral certitude. Nonetheless, moral certitude is not metaphysical: it is the conclusion of a syllogism based on premises that are necessarily true or highly probable. In Bayle and Hurtado de Mendoza, historical knowledge is reduced to the evidence of common sense.
Hurtado de Mendoza introduced the term demonstration (with an open reference to the mathematical or geometrical approach) to refer to this form of knowledge: the term is not intended as a metaphor but is used by the Jesuit in its proper sense. However, according to him, a moral demonstration does not consist, like geometrical demonstrations, of an indivisible point but is susceptible of “the plus and the minus” and shifts from a great probability to a highly elevated probability.65
A number of Jesuits’ historical works in the late seventeenth and the first half of the eighteenth century implemented these theories. The critical attitude and the adoption of the parameter of moral evidence is apparent in most of the histories of the Jesuits’ provinces from Diego de Rosales’s (1601–77) History of Chile to the reports about the history of China. Even a relatively conservative historian like Johann Eisenhart (1643–1707), in his efforts to restore faith in historical knowledge, had recourse to the theories of Hurtado de Mendoza. According to him, historical events could be demonstrated and not only supposed, and therefore history had to be recognized as a science in its proper sense. At the origin of historical certitude, there is the moral certitude that is not an act of faith but a scientific act based on human evidence. In turn, human moral evidence is based on the probability that large numbers of peoples have lied. As a consequence, history can be known, but the certitude of this knowledge is a probability based on the moral reliability of the sources.
Conclusion: Toward the Abandonment of a Chronological or Thematically Organized Periodization
This study has argued that the history of Jesuit historiography should be treated as a homogeneous and coherent entity: the scholars of the Society of Jesus perceived both history and the aims and functions of history-writing in a highly coordinated and standardized manner (as expected in a centralized order such as the Society of Jesus). Previous, failed attempts to deal with the Jesuits’ historiography as a unified entity (mainly Fueter’s) were invalidated by a pre-conceived definition of its defining features, and particularly the use of rhetoric.
The formal aspect of Jesuits’ historical works—rhetoric—was in accordance with the aims of their pedagogical program: history was intended as the manifestation of God in the secular life; rhetoric was defined as a method to make the divine Word and Will evident and intelligible. Rhetoric was intended as a means to translate the divine logos in a language understandable to man. Accordingly, history was understood as the manifestation of God’s will through time even before the advent of Christ. The subjects of the historical narrations were therefore chosen as exempla to provide a cognitive frame to evaluate the past (in a Catholic perspective) and understand the present in order to act morally. The subject matter of historical accounts was of marginal relevance.
The changes in the definition of the aims and methods of history-writing were the result of challenges to the Jesuits’ cognitive framing of history. Indicative, in this respect, is the fact that, in the first fifty years of activity of the Society, a proper historiographical canon was never elaborated.
A second period in the Jesuits’ historiographical production is defined by the parallelism with the formulation of a pedagogical program and the consequent elaboration of the Ratio studiorum. At that time, history-writing was intended as an answer to Machiavellianism in its broader sense. The large number of historical works published in this period testifies to the development of a pedagogical tool aimed at teaching students how to recognize the Will of God and the role of the church in history, rather than viewing it as a series of accidents.
Finally, it is possible to distinguish a third period in Jesuit historiography, which is defined by the reaction to the Cartesian criticism of memory and the sciences on which it was based. This triggered a debate over the possibility of coming to a certain degree of certitude when investigating history by integrating the Cartesianism into the Scholastic doctrine by adopting a probabilistic approach. Hurtado de Mendoza is a representative example of this approach. Consequently, the Jesuits’ main aim in historiography from the late seventeenth century onward was to restore faith in history as a necessary step to reaffirm faith in the historical role of the church, and it is this aim that should be used as an interpretative key when reading the histories of the provinces written until the suppression of the order.
^ Back to text4. Antonio Possevino, Bibliotheca selecta qua agitur de ratione studiorum in historia, in disciplinis, in salute omnium procuranda […] (Rome, 1593). The edition used in this paper was published in Cologne by Joannes Gymnicus in 1607.
^ Back to text5. The so-called False Beroso Chaldean is an apocryphal text that deals with the history of the world from its origin to the Deluge. See Daniel Benga, “David Chytraeus (1530–1600) als Erforscher und Wiederentdecker der Ostkirchen” (PhD diss., Nurnberg-Erlangen: VVB Laufersweiler, 2006).
^ Back to text6. Antonio Possevino, Aduersus Dauidis Chytraei haeretici imposturas, quas in oratione quadam inseruit, quam de statu ecclesiarum, hoc tempore in Graecia, Asia [...] (Ingolstadt: Wolfgang Eder, 1583).
^ Back to text9. Eduard Fueter, Geschichte der neueren Historiographie (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1925). I refer to the Italian translation of Altiero Spinelli, Storia della storiografia moderna (Milan: R. Ricciardi, 1970).
^ Back to text11. See, e.g., Festo Mkenda, “Jesuit Historiography in Africa,” Jesuit Historiography Online; http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/jesuit-historiography-online/*-COM_192529 (accessed January 31, 2018).
^ Back to text12. Ivo Cerman, “Jesuit Historiography in Bohemia,” Jesuit Historiography Online; http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/jesuit-historiography-online/*-COM_192532 (accessed January 31, 2018).
^ Back to text14. Robert Danieluk, S.J., “Some Remarks on Jesuit Historiography 1773–1814,” in Jesuit Survival and Restoration: A Global History, 1773–1900, ed. Robert Aleksander Maryks and Jonathan Wright (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 34–48.
^ Back to text15. Carlo Borghero, Conoscenza e metodo della storia da Cartesio a Voltaire (Turin: Loescher, 1990). See in particular 44–48. See Karl Löwith, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949).
^ Back to text18. Giulia Santagostino, “Istituzioni ecclesiastiche e vita religiosa nella prima meta del Trecento dalla Nuova Cronica di Giovanni Villani” (PhD diss., Università degli Studi di Milano, 1986).
^ Back to text21. Mario Nizolio, De veris principiis et vera ratione philosophandi contra pseudo-philosophos libri IV [...] (Parma: Settimo Viotti, 1553). The quotes are from the edition published in Rome by Fratelli Bocca in 1956.
^ Back to text25. Donald Rice and Peter Schofer, Rhetorical Poetics: Theory and Practice of Figural and Symbolic Reading in Modern French Literature (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983). See also Donald Rice, “Tropes and Figures: Symbolization and Figuration,” Semiotica 35 (1981): 93–124.
^ Back to text32. Cipriano Soarez, De arte rhetorica (Coimbra, 1568). See also Lawrence Flynn, “Sources and Influence of Soarez’s De arte rhetorica,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 43 (1957): 257–265, and Flynn, “The Arte rhetorica of Cyprian Soarez,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 42 (1956): 367–74.
^ Back to text41. I refer to the 1669 edition: Baltasar Gracián, Agudeza y arte de ingenio, en que se explican todos los modos y diferencias de concetos, con exemplares escogidos de todo lo mas bien dicho, así sacro, como humano […], published by Juan Baptista Verdussen (1659–1759).
^ Back to text44. Albert Wijuk-Kojałowicz, Historiae Litvanae: Pars prior [...], De rebvs Litvanorvm ante susceptam Christianam religionem, conjunctionemque Magni Litvaniae Ducatus cum Regno Poloniae, libri novem (Gdańsk: George Foster, 1650).
^ Back to text46. Dalytė Dalia, “Alberto Vijūkas-Kojalavičiaus Lietuvos istorijos kalbos,” in Albertas Vijūkas-Kojalavičius iš 400 metų perspektyvos, ed. Narbutas Sigitas (Vilnius: Lietuvių literatūros ir tautosakos institutas, 2009), 77–136, here 135.
^ Back to text47. Martin Becan, Manuale controversiarum huius temporis de fide ac religione (Wurzburg: Michael Dalij, 1623). Adam Tanner, Amuletum Castrense, sive antidotum adversus pernitiosos calumniarum afflatus, tristesque bellorum motus, ex Boemico tumultu enatos (Ingolstadt: Elisabeth Angermar, 1620).
^ Back to text53. On the influence of the Cartesian method on the philosophy of history in the seventeenth century and its evolution toward a sort of new Pyrrhonism, see the already mentioned research of Carlo Borghero, La certezza e la storia and Conoscenza e metodo della storia.
^ Back to text54. René Descartes, Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la vérité dans les sciences (Leiden, 1637). The edition being referred to is Lucia Urbani Ulivi, ed., Cartesio: Discorso sul metodo (Milan: Hoepli, 2002).
^ Back to text56. His most famous work is the Catéchisme de Meaux (1687). Particularly relevant are his studies in favor of the tradition, Défense de la tradition et des saints pères (1693), and the apology of history: Discours sur l’histoire universelle (1681). See Thérèse Goyet, Autour du discours sur l’histoire universelle: Études critiques; Textes inédits et documents photographiques (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1956).
^ Back to text57. References are to the Italian edition: Nicolas Malebranche, La ricerca della verità (Bari: Laterza, 1983). See, in particular, 39–40, 201–5, and 206–7 for specific reference to his philosophy of history.
^ Back to text58. Borghero, Conoscenza e metodo, 15. See also Antoine Arnauld and Nicole Pierre, La logique ou l’art de penser contenant outre les règles communes, plusieurs observations nouvelles, propres à former le jugement (Paris, 1683).
^ Back to text60. On the importance of history in this work, see Albano Biondi, “La Bibliotheca selecta di Antonio Possevino: Un progetto di egemonia culturale,” in La Ratio studiorum: Modelli culturali e pratiche educative dei gesuiti in Italia tra Cinque e Seicento (Rome: Bulzoni, 1981).
^ Back to text63. I am referring to Descartes’s Rules for the Direction of the Mind, which aimed to achieve mathematical certitude in all of the subjects, or sciences, defined by Descartes’s method and principles.
^ Back to text64. References are to the works Disputationes ad universam philosophiam (1617) and Commentarii in universam philosophiam (1621). See Caruso Ester, Pedro Hurtado de Mendoza e la rinascita del nominalismo nella scolastica del Seicento (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1979).