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Robert Aleksander Maryks: Saint Cicero and the Jesuits. The Influence of the Liberal Arts on the Adoption of Moral Probabilism (= Catholic Christendom, 1300-1700), Aldershot: Ashgate 2008, xiii + 168 S., ISBN 978-0-7546-6293-8, GBP 55,00
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Rezension von:
Nicole Reinhardt
Université de Lyon 2
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Schnettger
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Nicole Reinhardt: Rezension von: Robert Aleksander Maryks: Saint Cicero and the Jesuits. The Influence of the Liberal Arts on the Adoption of Moral Probabilism, Aldershot: Ashgate 2008, in: sehepunkte 9 (2009), Nr. 3 [15.03.2009], URL:

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Robert Aleksander Maryks: Saint Cicero and the Jesuits

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This book, based on a Fordham University PhD Thesis defended in 2006, raises a compelling question. How and why was adoption of probabilism by Jesuit confessional manuals so comprehensive that "Jesuitism" and "probabilism" became almost interchangeable notions for the (early) modern public? Probabilism constituted indeed the Copernican Revolution of moral theology but it was not invented by Jesuits, even if they adopted it quickly. The Dominican Bartolomé de Medina (in 1577) was initially responsible for it but his order came to reject it as a method of examining and solving moral problems. Maryks argues that the adoption of probabilism was due largely to the reclamation of Cicero's rhetorical teachings for the "Ratio Studiorum". He is right to point out that Jesuit interest in confession preceded the order's interest in education, and that the shift in orientation and preoccupations of its members, particularly in the second half of the 16th century, had repercussions on the ministry of confession (78).

Maryks is not the first to analyse confessional manuals and casuistry. The originality of his study lies in his focus on the Jesuit role. It is a short text of 147 pages and a good amount of it is composed of extensive citations from the manuals themselves and some not entirely convincing tables. The reader is left with a feeling that something more is needed to explore a very complex question. So many issues are raised but not pursued to the end, that one wonders why they were taken up in the first place. For example, he dedicates a few pages to the special attention paid by Jesuits to female penitents in his first chapter, whose main concern is to trace the importance of confession within early Jesuit ministries. This special attention has been remarked before and is certainly true, but it is never clear why it is important to the central argument of Maryks's book. It is clear that confession conceived as a mean of consolation was Loyola's central preoccupation from the beginning, and so it was for his order's mission. The first Jesuit confessional manual was only published in 1554 by Polanco. Thus, it is evident that for at least some time Jesuits relied on earlier confessional manuals which, unsurprisingly, were still deeply rooted in "tutiorism". It might have been interesting to examine the pre-existing confessional manuals more thoroughly, and especially the importance of Martin de Azpilcueta's. First published in 1552, its widespread influence and use has long been recognised, as well as its likely prefiguring of probabilism. In this context, it is also incomprehensible why Lavenia's contributions [1] on Azpilcueta were not taken into account. In fact, one could also argue that Azpilcueta's importance is as substantial as that of Cicero in forging probabilistic confessional approaches. Maryks seems to have missed this entirely. He provides a roster of Jesuit penitential literature. There are 39 authors of 58 different works, resulting in a total of 763 editions. He stresses over and again that this is the "first census of Jesuit penitential literature". His list is in alphabetical order and is therefore not of great help if you want any sense of chronological developments. More important, his "census" ranges from matter-of-fact practical manuals and handbooks to very complex works by Lugo and Suárez. The latter certainly addressed a different public and is very different in character from the first. If Maryks's aim is a comprehensive list of all Jesuit writings on confession, then doubts are more than in order. His list also includes many works which are not properly described as confessional manuals, so the reader is at a loss when it comes to the criteria for his census. He indicates in a vague footnote (page 32) that it does not contain commentaries on Aquinas' teachings on penance. But this raises a host of questions. Just what are we looking for?

Nonetheless, some interesting tendencies can be discerned in this "census." For example, Lyon turns out to be the most important publishing place for this sort of literature despite the fact that the majority of its authors are Iberians. Chapter 2 of Maryks's book concentrates on Jesuit ethics before the adoption of probabilism, and especially on the development of Polanco's directory for confessors. Maryk argues convincingly that this manual was most likely not written by Polanco himself but by a group of authors from the "Jesuit headquarters" (56). He underlines its conservative and tutioristic outlook and sources. An examination of other pre-probabilistic Jesuit manuals confirms this analysis.

Chapter 3 finally presents Maryks's main argument. Briefly, the probabilistic orientation of the Jesuits' mindset was due to their adoption of Ciceronian rhetoric, which can be traced through the "Ratio Studiorum" in its different versions (1586-1599). He shows that a probable opinion could be conceived either as "intrinsic" (following Cicero) or "extrinsic" (following the medievals). Maryks highlights Cicero's importance in Jesuit teaching. Jesuit students spent more time reading his works than any other author, or even the Bible. Cicero was the backbone of Jesuit humanism and its "rhetorical turn". Probability as a means of rhetorical persuasion is indeed a very important feature in Cicero's idea of the convincing orator, and Maryks also points to Jesuit Pedro Perpiñan's role in transmitting these Ciceronian notions. Yet, one wonders why Maryks pays relatively little attention to the man who was ultimately responsible for the Ciceronian turn: the Jesuit general secretary Antonio Possevino. Possevino, as Marc Fumaroli has shown, introduced a certain confessional combat spirit to the order. He was the driving force behind the "Ratio Studiorum". Possevino's "Bibliotheca Selecta", absent from Maryks's cited sources, required closer study at this crucial point in his argument. Connecting the adoption of probabilism with Ciceronianism is very suggestive and seductive, but it does not answer the question why Cicero became the outstanding authority in the first place.

Chapter 4 explores the adoption of probabilism by Jesuit authors, especially Vázquez and Suárez. Maryks also analyses Juan Azor's "Institutiones" which represented a major Jesuit contribution to moral theology. He produces another list (108-111) of the authorities cited by Azor, grouped into different classes of theologians, jurists and authors of Summae. The names of the authors are accompanied by dates, but it is not clear to what these dates refer. Are they birth dates, death dates or publication dates? It is impossible to know. Other aspects of the authors are often enigmatic as well. Martinus Navarrus, dated 1560, is listed as "4th class of canon jurisprudents" and then another Navarrus, dated the same year, is under "4th class authors of Summae". We may presume that the reference in both cases is to Martín de Azpilcueta, also known as doctor Navarro, but the dating leaves the reader completely confused. Navarro was born in 1492 and died in 1586. His confessional manual went through so many editions that it is difficult to give a single date for it, apart from the first in 1552.

Finally, the last chapter gives a very hasty sketch of the decline and denunciation of probabilism, and the role played by Pascal's witty "Lettres Provinciales." It has often been noted that Pascal deliberately distorted and misunderstood probabilism. Laurence Brockliss's fine article [2] on this topic is oddly absent from Maryks's bibliography, but it is much more enlightening than what is written in this book. Pascal's simplifications and distortions, however, transformed difficult and specious theological discussions into public polemics deployed deftly by Jansenists against Jesuits. As a consequence, probabilistic reasoning was, in the second half of the 17th century, increasingly criticised and condemned within the Jesuit order itself.

In the end, we have an unconvincing book that poses an engaging question, suggests an interesting hypothesis, and uses some valuable sources. Its structure and argument lack sufficient coherence and the book is filled with puzzling flaws that ought to have caught the eye of an editor at a prestigious publisher, not to mention that of the eminent jury members. How does an author on this subject misdate Pascal's "Lettres Provincales"? (He writes 1556-1557 instead of 1656-1657: on page 127, twice on page 128, and once on page 129). One is also perplexed if not confused by Maryks's insistence on the fact that many of his authors were "conversos". "Converso" is mentioned with such irritating frequency, that one suspects this attribute to be an important element of the author's argument, as if he wants to insinuate an intrinsic link between probabilism and "conversos". The author also has a webpage on "Jesuits with Jewish ancestry," although he explains that some of those on his list are "still under investigation." This only adds to the perplexing impressions left by this book.


[1] See Vincenzo Lavenia: Martín de Azpilcueta (1492-1586). Un profilo, in: Archivio Italiano per la storia della pietà 16 (2003), 15-148, and id.: L'infamia e il perdono. Tributi, pene e confessione nella teologia morale della prima età moderna, Bologna 2004.

[2] See Laurence Brockliss: The Lettres Provinciales as a Jansenist calumny. Pascal and moral theology in mid-seventeenth century France, in: Seventeenth Century French Studies 8 (1986), 5-22.

Nicole Reinhardt