Jeffrey D. Burson
Foreword by Dale Van Kley
In The Rise and Fall of Theological Enlightenment, Jeffrey D. Burson analyzes the history of the French Enlightenment and its relationship to the French Revolution by casting it as a diverse constellation of Theological Enlightenment discourses, compromised between about 1730 and 1762 by high-stakes cultural and political controversies involving the royal court, the government, and the Catholic Church.
Burson places the Abbé Jean-Martin de Prades at the center of the storm. In 1749, Prades was working on his doctorate in theology at the University of Paris. An ambitious young theologian, Prades, like his teachers at the Sorbonne and like many lay and clerical apologists in mid-eighteenth-century France, had been deeply inspired by the spirit of the Enlightenment. Burson reinterprets the Jesuit Enlightenment and its influence on French society, arguing that Jesuits had pioneered ways of synthesizing Locke, Malebranche, and Newton in light of the expansion of the public sphere. Hoping to defend Catholic theology against the Radical Enlightenment by adapting these Jesuit Enlightenment discourses with natural history and Enlightenment theological debates, Prades inadvertently sparked a public scandal that galvanized members of the royal court and the Parlement of Paris, Jansenists, Jesuits, and philosophes, alike—all of whom refashioned the person and work of Prades to suit their own ends. Ultimately, the controversy polarized the cultural politics of pre-Revolutionary France into two camps, that of a self-consciously secular Enlightenment and that of a staunchly opposed Counter-Enlightenment.
Prades’s history provides Burson with a lens through which to reevaluate the intersections of theology and Enlightenment philosophy, of French politics and the French Catholic church, and of conservatives, moderates, and radicals on all sides in order to provide us with a newly-capacious Enlightenment historiography.
“This is a rich and detailed analysis, based on impressive archival research, that represents the first close study of a key episode in the evolution of the French Enlightenment, one that has not been granted attention for almost fifty years. Through close reading of Prades’ doctoral thesis in light of patterns in Catholic apologetics of the first part of the eighteenth century, Burson is able to show that Prades’ work represented a synthesis of Locke and Malebranche that was characteristic of Sorbonne apologetics and not a departure from it. His is an exemplary work that provides a newly nuanced perspective on eighteenth-century France and beyond.” — Susan Rosa, Northeastern Illinois University
“Jeffrey Burson’s The Rise and Fall of Theological Enlightenment helps to restore, with erudition and meticulous scholarship, the mid-eighteenth century to its rightful place as a pivotal moment in the history of the French Enlightenment. Revisiting the often-invoked but imperfectly understood affaire of the abbé de Prades, Burson provides the most thorough analysis of the controversy to date, using it as a lens to explore much wider developments: the contingencies of the opposition between religion and Enlightenment, the origins of the Counter-Enlightenment, and the reasons for the polarization of French intellectual life in the second half of the eighteenth century. Thoroughly conversant in recent historiography and contemporary scholarly debates, Burson makes an important contribution to our understanding of this vital period.” — Darrin M. McMahon, Florida State University
“Imagine what might have happened to Roman Catholicism if, in the course of the eighteenth century, the pro-Enlightenment clerics at the Sorbonne had escaped censure and come to dominate the Church’s thinking. Burson does a superb job in reminding us about contingency, about the path that might have been taken, and might thereby have avoided the Church’s ongoing quarrel with modernity.” — Margaret C. Jacob, University of California, Los Angeles
“Burson’s elegantly written book is to date the most definitive account of a tremendously important theological battle that occurred in Enlightenment Europe, and it evokes thought-provoking reflections on more recent events. He clearly presents the ecclesiastical setting of 18th-century France, guides us safely through complex and highly intricate theological quarrels, and shows their connection to wider trends in the scholarship of the transitional Enlightenment, the radicalization of Enlightenment, the Catholic Enlightenment, and the history of pre-Revolutionary France. This book is a must read for historians and theologians alike.” — Theological Studies
“The intellectual, political, and religious upheavals of eighteenth-century France swept up individuals into maelstroms that carried them to fame or destroyed their lives. Such was the case with an otherwise little known theology student named Jean-Martin de Prades. Jeffrey Burson explores the controversy and political intrigue surrounding Prades’ thesis, presented to the Sorbonne, as a telling event in the battle for the Gallican Church during the Enlightenment. This volume would serve well as a secondary or recommended text in a graduate level course.” — Teaching History
“Far from being the monolithic and supremely secular phenomenon described by such scholars [Ernst Cassirer, Paul Hazard, Peter Gay], the Enlightenment is emerging as a multifaceted movement that was not even uniquely secular. Indeed it is a French, Catholic Enlightenment that Jeffrey D. Burson addresses in this rich study that is the product of wide research.” — Journal of Church and State
“Jeffrey Burson gives us a detailed account of how France’s extreme polarization—pitting the Enlightenment against the church—emerged in regard to the so-called de Prades affair, the Sorbonne’s theological faculty’s condemnation of the abbé de Prades’s thesis in 1751–52. By recovering the historical contingency and multiplicity of factors at work in the de Prades affair, Burson forcefully reminds us that a polarized culture and radical Enlightenment were not foreordained.” — The Journal of Modern History
“Jeffrey D. Burson argues that Prades deserves much more than a footnote or passing mention in the history of the Enlightenment. He sees the condemnation of 1752 as nothing less than a turning point in its whole evolution. . . . To make the hapless abbé the catalyst of the entire later Enlightenment is to make him bear a huge burden, but no future students of the subject will be able to avoid engaging with Burson’s very impressive scholarly achievement.” — The Catholic Historical Review
“Jeffrey Burson’s rigorous study of the intellectual, institutional, and, in the end, cultural and political history of ‘the Prades affair’. . . is an important contribution to the history of the French Catholic Church, of the Enlightenment of the philosophes, and of the ancien régime. . . . Burson’s compelling scrutiny of those institutions and intellectual currents, and the light he sheds on their intersection with the tensions and divisions of the Church, and the ancien regime, make this a work of essential value.” — H-France Review
“Burson uses the censure of the Abbé de Prades’s thesis by the Sorbonne in 1751 as the impetus to explore the interaction between Catholic theology and the materialism of the radical Enlightenment. . . . Pursuing the facts of the case with a doggedness worthy of Baker Street, Burson is hardly content to let this scandal stand on the merits of its narrative interest.” — New Perspectives on the Eighteenth Century