I recently finished a book review of Thomas M. Lennon’s Sacrifice and Self-Interest in Seventeenth-Century France: Quietism, Jansenism, and Cartesianism (Brill, 2019) and have been thinking about it in relation to an article in the Boston Globe Magazine. My mother brought me an edition of this magazine (23 February 2020) right before the stay-at-home orders of the pandemic started* because it was a parenting issue. I was struck in part by the very first article: “The Problem with Trying So Hard to Make Kids Happy” by Richard Weissbourd and Alison Cashin (p. 6–7).
The article discusses an increasing focus that the authors see—especially in affluent communities—on obsessing over their children’s happiness. In this obsessing, they seek to avoid conflict, failure, and adversity for their children. One concern they raise over this is that children are not developing necessary coping strategies. Another is that “these parenting behaviors can also make children hyper-focused on their own needs and less likely to develop the concern for others and the common good that is vital to healthy communities and a just society” (6). Their research involves surveying young people about what they deem most important: achievement, happiness, or care for others. Consistently, care for others is coming in last place and the view of young people is—in a disturbing quote they include from one survey respondent—“If you are not happy, life is nothing. After that, you want to do well. And after that, expend any excess energy on others” (7).
I read that quote and just felt sad about how far we’ve gone into accepting self-centeredness as the norm. In Lennon’s book, he points out, in contrast, how widespread the assumption was in seventeenth-century France that lack of self-interest should be the fundamental goal. (This is, of course, similar to some characteristics of Jansenism, which is my area of research, and is especially related to the debates on attrition vs. contrition for the sacrament of penance.)
When I think of the controversy over Quietism, the first thing that comes to mind is what is termed the Impossible Supposition, a test of one’s pure love for God. The idea is that love for God should be the core motivation for everything and there was a widespread concern, as I note in the previous paragraph, that love for God should not be tainted by self-interest. Lennon quotes François Fénelon’s (1651–1715) description of this test:
One can love God with a love that is pure charity, and with no mixture of any motive of self-interest. At this stage of love, one loves God amidst ills such that one’s love would be no greater were He to full the soul with consolation. Neither the fear of punishment nor the desire for recompense have any part in the love. One no longer loves God for merit, nor for perfection, nor for the happiness to be found in loving Him. One would love Him as much, even on the Impossible Supposition that He were perforce ignorant of that love, or that He willed to make eternally unhappy those who might love Him.(as quoted on 2–3)
So, the idea is that one’s love of God should be so pure that it doesn’t matter if you get anything in return for it. One should love God even if God would, in the end, condemn you in spite of it. Wanting to receive a reward for loving God—like an expectation of salvation—, in this argument, represents self-interest. And, yes, Quietism was condemned, so this is clearly not a view held by the mainstream Catholic tradition today.
That said, this concern over self-interest and pure love was not restricted to those accused of Quietism. As Lennon explains, authors in the period distinguished “two kinds of love of self, one good, allowing sacrifice, and one bad, based entirely on self-interest. The literature in the period was inconsistent but tended to label the former amour propre, the latter amour de soi. There is no convenient English translation for this distinction, the same terms being appropriate for both” (171). This distinction seems relevant to me. We should have some self-interest because being too selfless might also be sinful—especially given that Jesus instructs us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:34–40). An important idea that Nicolas Malebranche (1638–1715) discussed in his writings on the controversy is that our desire for happiness should be rooted in God. Namely, because God created us with a desire for happiness, we should look to God for how to fulfill that happiness. Thus, we can have some concern for our own happiness, as long as we are ultimately not looking to our own means of fulfilling it but looking instead to God. Although Lennon doesn’t mention this in his book, Pascal’s Pensées include similar notes on this idea:
We desire truth and find in ourselves nothing but uncertainty.Fr. 401
We seek happiness and find only wretchedness and death.
We are incapable of not desiring truth and happiness and incapable of either certainty or happiness.
I think an important takeaway from all this is the idea that we should not be looking to ourselves for happiness, but ultimately to God’s purposes for human life. To be completely honest, I initially was going to write here to look outside of ourselves, but I just discussed Pascal’s Pensées on diversion with my honors class and he asserts there that true happiness can be found in oneself, not in the things that we use to divert ourselves. We need to be comfortable with the difficulties of life, Pascal would argue, especially being alone with ourselves. In terms of raising children, that in part means letting them understand and face difficulties and discomfort, not just external happiness and forms of diversion.
Now, in Lennon’s book, he notes the difficulty in thinking about the idea of pure love of God in today’s world. He writes, “By now, and here, things are very different. Pride, which once had pride of place, generally listed first among the capital sins, so-called as the sins whence all others follow, has for us become a virtue, the term for it one of approbation. Self-sacrifice is an irrational aberration that would undermine economic theory. Self-assertion trumps self-denial. Me is the name of a whole generation” (271). This shows the effect of our shifts in perspectives not only on ourselves but on the world. When we are all focused only on ourselves and our own happiness, the sense of care for the whole community, for all of creation, breaks down. We no longer worry enough about our neighbors and their well-being; none of that matters if we ourselves are—or appear to be—happy.
To return to the article by Weissbourd and Cashin, they are not—of course—taking a religious perspective on this, though a major concern of theirs is the strength of the community and the common good. Both of these are also key concerns in the tradition of Catholic social teaching. As we get closer and closer to the election, it seems that this lack of concern for others and a lack of concern for the common good has become rampant as well. I am very concerned that most people are making their decisions about who to vote for by thinking more about what they personally want, not what would be the best choice for our community—that is, the whole country.
Now, I am not, of course, about to suggest that we need to take on the Quietist perspective on pure love. But maybe, just maybe, recovering some of the ideas from the controversy could help us to reframe our thinking today. Maybe, just maybe, we can start to be more concerned about when our pursuit of our individual happiness might shift from amour propre to a sinful form of amour de soi.
* This whole post is actually due in part to the pandemic because one of the things that I did in the spring in order to keep up some semblance of routine was to wake up and walk on my treadmill for about 30 minutes every morning. I would read magazines while I did this, which allowed me to get through an old copy of Conversations in Jesuit Higher Education that moved with me from Los Angeles and gave me some ideas about how to frame discussions of netiquette for my online classes. I also started reading the issue of the Globe Magazine that I discuss in this post. I would likely have gotten to this eventually, but not having to commute to work actually allowed me to get on the treadmill every morning, not just a few days a week, and thus to finish reading the magazine much sooner than I might have otherwise.