The term "quietism" describes both a particular religious movement prominent in 17th century France, Spain, and Italy, and a more general attitude towards spirituality and the world. Based on the ideas of Miguel de Molinos, Madame Guyon, and others, Quietism was a form of Christian mysticism, in which practitioners attempted to adopt a passive attitude towards things corporeal, seeking union with God through meditation and prayer. Quietism was a challenge for the Roman Catholic church because it rejected Rome's authority in favour of personal spirituality and the possibility of union with God in this lifetime; for the Quietist, the essense of religion lay not in the church's rites or moral behaviour, but in prayer and devotion.
Uncapitalised, "quietism" is also used to mean simply withdrawal from the world, to refer to positions ranging from political isolationism to any number of forms of anti-rational mysticism. The first part of this article outlines the history of Catholic Quietism in the 17th century; part two takes a more speculative line to describe some other ideologies touching on quietism; and part three provides a critical assessment of the basic ideas of quietism from both a Christian and a secular perspective.
The word "quietism" comes via the French quietisme from the Latin noun quies, meaning "a state of rest", "peacefulness", and the Latin adjective quietus, meaning "at rest", "calm", "quiet".
1. A Catholic Heresy
The Quietists were a 17th-century Roman Catholic sect, founded by a troublesome Spanish priest
, Miguel de Molinos
(1640-96). He drew on the Catholic mystical tradition and attempted to set out a way by which devout Christians could remove their own selfcentredness and reach contact with God; his method was to aim for extinction of consciousness and desires through prayer and devotion.
The movement spread to France, where it achieved greater property with its leading proponents including Antoinette Bourignon (1616-80), Jeanne-Marie Guyon, known as Madam Guyon (1648-1717), François Malaval (1627-1719), and the distinguished churchman François Fénelon (1651-1715). Other prominent figures in Europe included Matteo Petrucci (1636-1701), who was Bishop of Jesi from 1681, and Joseph Beccarelli of Milan.
There was a long history of mysticism in medieval Catholicism, which could trace its origins back at least to the start of the first millennium AD, to the non-Christian monotheism of the Neoplatonists
. Neoplatonists sought direct union of the soul with God, under the influence of ecstatic
religions and Plato
metaphysics; their ideas greatly influenced Saint Augustine
and some others in the early Church. Similar currents were found in the blend of Christianity
and other religions that made up the mystical tradition of gnosticism
Among explicitly Christian sects, the Euchites, Messalians and Bogomils believed that prayer, rather than sacraments and penitential works, were the key to salvation. Such doctrines were condemned by the early Church; this was part of a general clampdown on those who believed salvation could be achieved by personal effort apart from the structures of organised religion (see also the condemnation of Pelagianism, for example). The Roman church also objected to the notion that perfection was attainable in this life.
A number of sects appeared in the late medieval period with ideologies close to Quietism. These included the Beguines and Beghards (13th and 14th centuries) and followers of the great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1328). Eckhart was probably the most significant medieval theologian to adopt what could be called a quietist position. He believed that the highest goal of religion was unity of the human soul with God, whilst paradoxically calling God non-existent, in the sense that he has none of the properties of finite existence. Eckhart also believed that all things that existed exist in God. He believed not in a flight from the world, but escape from the self.
The Quietist Miguel de Molinos may have been influenced by the Alumbrados (Illuminati), an extreme sect in 16th century Spain. Like the more famous Brethren and Sisters of the Free Spirit (13th to 15th centuries), they believed that they were already guaranteed salvation and totally absorbed into God, and therefore they could commit no sin. Such ideas, which seemed to licence any immorality, were forcefully attacked by the Inquisition.
More mainstream Catholic influences on Quietism included Juan Falconi (d. 1632), and 16th-century Spanish figures Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591). Saint Teresa's preaching had some elements of Quietism but it was tempered by love of an active life and of the church. Saint John of the Cross is one of the most important figures in Catholic mysticism and believed in mortification, the contemplative life and emptying the soul of worldly things in order to receive God. He wrote:
He that loves a creature becomes as low as that creature and in some ways, lower; for love not only makes the lover equal to the object of his love, but even subjects him to it. Hence in the same way it comes to pass that the soul that loves anything else [except God] becomes incapable of pure union with God and transformation in him ... Therefore, it is supreme ignorance for the soul to think that it will be able to pass to this high estate of union with God unless it first rids itself of the desire for all things, natural and supernatural, which may be a hindrance to it.1
Miguel de Molinos
A young priest of wayward ideas, Miguel de Molinos is generally recognised as the founder of Quietism. He was born in Muniesa
, on December 21, 1640, but moved to Rome
in 1662. Even in his youth he seems to have been an intellectual trouble-maker, falling out with the Jesuit
s whilst still in Spain and also being accused of erroneous teachings by the Dominican
s; however thanks to his intellect and skill at debating, he was able to keep the Inquisition
at bay for many years.
He expressed his ideas most completely in La Guia espiritual (Spiritual Guide, 1675). Central to his thinking was the concept of the inward way (via interna), the idea that salvation could only be found inside oneself, not in the structures of religion or in outward behaviour. Molinos believed it was essential to stop thinking about doing good or worrying about doing evil: you should not think of rewards or punishment, or about your own condition or your progress to salvation, and should not pray to God or thank him. No external churches or altars are required for devotion, and nor should you make a conscious effort to worship anything, particularly not physical entities like the Virgin Mary or the human side of Jesus. You should accept no external authority, nor should you strive to act in a moral or devout fashion.
Instead, perfection lies in utter passivity and surrender to God, through extinction of the will, rejection of effort and desire, cessation of self-consciousness, and abandonment of self, aiming ultimately for absorption into God through spiritual self-annihilation. For Molinos, inward prayer is the way to salvation; as you surrender your own will you start to follow the will of God. And for Molinos, as for the Adumbrados, if you surrender yourself to God, no action you perform is sinful.
Molinos built up a sizeable following, despite allegations that he committed lascivious acts and excused similar transgressions by penitents. However, after much investigation his doctrines were finally condemned as heretical by Pope Innocent XI in 1687 in a Papal Bull, Coelestis Pastor. Molinos was arrested the same year and jailed until his death in 1696; following his imprisonment all his works were banned and two hundred of his followers were investigated by the church.
Molinos's theories inspired a more moderate movement called Semiquietism
, which was to become popular in late 17th century France through writers such as Madame Guyon and François Fénelon. They rejected some of the extremes of Molinos's mysticism: importantly, Semiquietists believed that one should exercise one's will to resist temptation
rather than giving oneself up to sinful actions. However, in common with Molinos, the French Semiquietists sought self-annihilation and union with God and believed that righteous acts come from pure love, from charity
, not the desire for reward or the fear of punishment. They also formulated a sophisticated doctrine on the nature of prayer.
Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte-Guyon, the most important French Semiquietist, came from Montargis in the Orléanais; she was born prematuredly on April 13, 1648 and was a sickly child. Because of this and her mother's neglect her education was very limited, although her father saw that she was well-instructed in religion. She married at 16, after a brief desire to become a nun, and was widowed at 28; following this she devoted herself to religious studies. Guyon travelled widely in France, Italy and Switzerland, and was very influenced by Francois Lacombe (1643-1715), a Barnabite friar, whom she met in Savoy in 1681. Père Lacombe led her through mystical experiences; she described in her autobiography, Vie de Madam Guyon, her spiritual journey and how after years of pain and doubt she suddenly awoke in the grace of God and set about missionary work.
Her brief book Moyen court et facile de faire oraison (Short and Easy Method of Prayer, 1685) sets out the principles of Semiquietism. It begins by differentiating three types of prayer: (i) meditation or contemplation, (ii) the prayer of simplicity, which is silence in the presence of God, (iii) a state where the soul gives itself up to God, willing nothing, under God's guidance in a state of pure love. This last is the highest:
Here we must begin to abandon and give up our whole existence to God, from the strong and positive conviction, that the occurrences of every moment result from His immediate will and permission, and are just such as our state requires. This conviction will make us content with everything; and cause us to regard all that happens, not from the side of the creature, but from that of God. (Ch VI, para 1)
She also set out her view of temptation, which should not be yielded to, nor yet violently resisted:
A direct struggle with distractions and temptations rather serves to augment them, and withdraws the soul from that adherence to God, which should ever be its sole occupation. We should simply turn away from the evil, and draw yet nearer to God. (Ch XIX, para 1)
And she explains the central role of prayer in achieving union with God:
Prayer is a certain warmth of love, melting, dissolving, and sublimating the soul, and causing it to ascend unto God, and, as the soul is melted, odors rise from it; and these sweet exhalations proceed from the consuming fire of love within. ... Thus does the soul ascend to God, by giving up self to the destroying and annihilating power of divine love. (Ch XX, para 2-3)
Her ideas proved very popular, and she had many friends in French high society, including Madame de Maintenon
, the second wife of Louis XIV
Principal among Guyon's critics was Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704), Bishop of Meaux; he served on an ecclesiastical commission at Issy, which passed harsh judgement on Guyon's teachings and reiterated the church's position on prayer. As a result, Madame Guyon was imprisoned from 1695 to 1703, latterly in the Bastille, but accepted the church's condemnation of her beliefs and retracted them in 1696. After 1703 she retired to Blois to live with her son, although she was visited by many distinguished figures; she died in 1717, still insisting on her loyalty to Rome.
Madame Guyon's greatest defender was François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon
, a distinguished clergyman who was to face near-ruin thanks to his involvement with Quietism. Born in Périgord (Dordogne), on August 6, 1651, Fénelon was from a poor but noble family, and like Guyon he had a sickly childhood. However, he received an excellent education, and showed an early aptitude for theology, preaching a public sermon aged just 15. Before becoming involved with Quietist ideas, he had worked as a missionary instructing French heretics, and written on topics ranging from philosophy to the proper education of girls.
In the 1680s he had attacked quietistic elements in the thought of the great French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche, but he was greatly impressed by Guyon's piety and spirituality when he met her in Paris in 1696; he sought to defend her when her unorthodox beliefs were attacked by senior figures in the Catholic church. After Madame Guyon's arrest, Fénelon continued to disagree with mainstream opinion; he wrote Explication des maximes des saints sur la vie interieure (Explanation of Maxims of the Saints concerning the Inner Life, or Maxims of the Saints for short) in 1697, which preached indifference, detachment, passiveness, and self-abandonment, towards the goal of pure love of God without any self-interest. He asserted that as the love of God grows greater and people become more and more involved in holiness, they become indifferent to themselves, and also indifferent to both the rituals of religion and the question of whether God loves them.
Bossuet and Fénelon disputed at length: Fénelon's writings on Quietism fill six volumes and 646 letters. Fénelon was at the time acting as tutor to the Duke of Burgundy, the eldest grandson of Louis XIV, and the king too objected to Fénelon's unorthodox ideas. The Church's investigation into Fénelon took two years, but in 1699 Fénelon's Maxims of the Saints was banned by Rome, with 23 of its 45 articles being censured. It is said that Fenelon received the Pope's decision as he was about to mount the pulpit, and he immediately preached a sermon commending submission to one's superiors and beseeching his congregation not to read his book or defend the views therein; however other sources suggest Fénelon was less sincere in his recantation. Louis XIV restricted Fénelon's movement, prohibiting him from leaving his diocese, the See of Cambrai; Fénelon devoted the succeeding years to pastoral duties, touring his diocese even while the War of the Spanish Succession was fought through the middle of it. Despite his transgression in the matter of Madame Guyon he was to be remembered as an estimable bishop, whose writings on religion and politics were in the main highly praised.
The church had acted decisively to crush the heresies of Quietism and Semiquietism, and they faded rapidly in Catholic Europe. However Guyon was to become something of a cult in Protestant lands, including England, where she was widely published and written about in the 18th and 19th centuries. But Quietism as a branch of Catholicism was dead: the spread of Enlightenment ideals of science and rationalism and the need of the Roman church to fight other battles, together with the harsh judgments meted out on Molinos, Fénelon, and Guyon, meant that there was little scope for the mystical in the Roman faith.
2. The Wider History of Quietism
Although the capitalised term Quietism is used to describe the teachings of Molinos, Guyon and related figures, many forms of religious faith have placed emphasis on personal devotion
, and withdrawal from the world
. As already outlined above, such ideas were common in ancient, medieval and early modern Europe.
Many of the world's major religious have had either quietistic mystical sects or strands in their ideology. Both Buddhism and Hinduism have a strong mystical component, with the doctrine that the physical world is illusory. Meditation and abnegation of the self are particularly important in Buddhism, although many Buddhists place emphasis on good works in this world as a precondition for eventually attaining nirvana. The stoics in ancient Greece also believed in becoming free from all desire. Such beliefs went on to be common in the early Christian era, running through medieval Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity.
seemed to incorporate some aspects of quietism, principally its rejection of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and sacrament
s, the doctrine of salvation through grace
, and the idea that people can interpret religious truths and contact God directly without relying on a priesthood. Less mainstream ideas were a keystone of the Antinomian
sect formed by Martin Luther
's friend John Agricola
in the 1530s, who believed the faithful were permitted to ignore moral law
; this doctrine was picked up by other Protestant sects such as the Ranters
in 17th century England. However, most forms of Protestantism emphasised the active, practical life. The rejection of mysticism in Kierkegaard
is typical of this; he emphasises the importance of living historically
through our decisions and actions, and not rejecting the gift of temporality
that we received from God.
Nonetheless, Quietist ideas, particularly the Semiquietism of Madame Guyon, were popular with 18th and 19th century Protestants. Some modern Protestant sects seem to hold on to elements resembling Semiquietist beliefs: the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) worship in silence, reject sacraments, a priesthood, and dogmatic belief; however unlike the Quietists many liberal Quakers are very involved in social action and good works. But despite occasional interests, Protestantism has remained far less mystical than other forms of Christianity, and has never promoted the contemplative life of monasticism.
In recent years there appear to be many secular versions of quietism, each calling for passivity with various levels of mysticism. Perhaps it is the perceived failure of rational progress which has led to the belief that inaction is now our best hope. The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement
exhibits an extreme version of green or environmentalist
thought in calling for the human race to entirely remove itself from the planet:
When every human chooses to stop breeding, Earth's biosphere will be allowed to return to its former glory, and all remaining creatures will be free to live, die, evolve (if they believe in evolution), and will perhaps pass away, as so many of Mother Nature's "experiments" have done throughout the eons. Good health will be restored to the Earth's ecology.2
Their ideas are reflected a little less extremely in much "dark green
" or radical environmental thought, which believes that human beings have to entirely stop affecting the planet. Here passivity is intended to achieve union not with God but with nature.
Quietism is often found as a term in contemporary politics, generally as a term of abuse. Some varieties of anarchism and libertarianism truly approach quietism, with an insistence that force should never be used against another human being. There is an element of quietism in the trancendentalist philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. In contrast liberal and social democratic doctrines (and a fortiori fascism) allow greater impositions by people and against people and are far more concerned with building a better world here. However, in politics the term quietism is applied to anyone who refuses to take action on a given issue for whatever reason; however this usage is so vague as to be almost meaningless, since true quietism implies a total withdrawal from worldly affairs not a case by case decision on which policy area requires intervention.
Quietism also emerges in a very different way from some postmodern thought, as a consequence of moral relativism and epistemological doubt. This is the latest manifestation of the connection between skepticism and quietism. Extreme or Pyrrhonian skepticism, from the ancient Greeks onwards, seems to disincline anyone to action. If you cannot be certain that you know anything, and you cannot decide what is the correct course of action, then inaction might seem a logical source of action. This is quite distinct from the other forms of quietism above, which generally embrace inaction as a positive good.
Perhaps the closest thing to quietism in modern thought is the near-religion of aestheticism: the idea that an artwork, which exists for its own sake, should be viewed in disinterested contemplation. Art and viewing art have no purpose except to stir up some aesthetic sense in the viewer; from here the fall into reasonless mysticism is a short one. The movement, whose members ranged from artist Aubrey Beardsley to philosopher Monroe Beardsley, has had a powerful influence on art, philosophy, and modern thought in general. An early theoretical justification for this can be gained from Arthur Schopenhauer, who believed the universe was in the grips of neverending, irrational motion, governed by a force that he called "will", and art offered one of the best prospects of finding peace.
If quietism as a secular behaviour is still a powerful idea, the mystical element has not been lost either. In the developed world, there seems to be increased interest in irrational forms of religion, such as the various pantheistic and mystical ideas gathered under the banner of New Age, as well as the pursuit of personal spiritual development through forms of meditative practice. While the Catholic church clamped down on Quietism and for a long time was hostile to mystical ideas, it has softened it stance on mysticism following Vatican II and now recognises that personal religious experience has an important role to play in the church.
3. For and Against Quietism
We can find a number of reasons that have led people to take up a quietist position. However, rational argument
is not the primary method of persuasion towards quietism, so perhaps the logical arguments are not compelling; this section may appear rather one-sided. Spiritual yearnings, emotional pleading, and unformed religious feelings seem more important when it comes to adopting quietist beliefs. Deep piety
is a powerful and sometimes valuable thing which should be respected, but this does not prove that the actions of quietistic devotion are beneficial to the individual or to society.
In the late medieval and Renaissance period, quietist ideas arose partly as a response to the institutional power and corruption within the Roman Catholic church; Martin Luther's Protestantism was a different reaction based on similar circumstances. However, while Protestantism seeks a return to basics through rationality, personal responsibility, and study of the Bible, quietism offers the prospect of holiness through nothing more than prayer and self-denial. For those seeking a more personal religion, quietism allows an individual to come into direct contact with God, and thus appeals to those with a deeply spiritual and unworldly personality.
Despite its irrationalism, quietism has also shown an ability to fit in with an increasingly skeptical and scientific world, perhaps better than Catholicism's emphasis on tradition and papal authority. The ineffability of God naturally leads to a faith which rejects any attempt to understand the his will and instead surrenders to God or fate or natural law. In the late 17th century, Nicolas Malebranche attempted to combine the determinism of Newtonian physics with a Christianity heavily influenced by Neoplatonism and Saint Augustine of Hippo; the result, which severely limited the role of free will, was judged and condemned as quietism, and while this was not entirely Malebranche's intention, his attempts at a synthesis exemplify how scientific determinism forces religion's withdrawal from the practical sphere into the mystical.
Forms of mysticism have a certain bizarre kinship with skepticism, at least in their rejection of rationally-argued theology. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion the atheist David Hume portrayed a rational theist called Cleanthes as wracked between the two more consistent standpoints of the skeptic Philo and the mystic Demea; the latter two often seem to be teaming up against attempts to rationalize religion. As mentioned above, many people have found themselves driven by skepticism to adopt an atheistic quietism, whether out of postmodern relativism or a suspension of belief awaiting further evidence. In recent years mystical and unsystematic New Age religions have also gained increasing popularity. It seems that if you are unable or uninterested to rationally justify your religious beliefs, there is a natural tendency towards mysticism, of which quietism is one of the most common forms.
There have been a number of arguments advanced against quietism, both by church authorities and by others. On theological grounds, quietism was strenuously opposed by the Catholic church because of its tendency towards pantheism and its rejection of the boundary between the human and divine. Furthermore, like most forms of mysticism, quietism entails a rejection of reason, social consensus, and public laws. It is therefore uncertain how any quietist can validate their religious experiences and deduce whether they are honest or the result of demonic deception. Certain quietists, such as the Brethren of the Free Spirit, rejected all social restrictions, posing an obvious threat to society and even to human life. Quietists may justified in rejecting the teachings and structures of a corrupt church, but they can also reject the basic principles necessary for the functioning of society (this is less true of semiquietists like Guyon and Fénelon).
However, while frantically-sinning antinomians offer an active version of the danger of quietism, another more insidious danger can be found in those who purely devote themselves to meditation. Quietism can lead not only to a neglect of the self but to a refusal to help those in suffering, which is contrary both to the teachings of Jesus and to much of secular morality. Finally, central to many Christian criticisms of quietism is the idea that it denies much of what makes us essentially human. We are beings in the world, who (arguably) have free will, who experience time and history, who act and construct our own lives. Quietism means to reject all this, and replace it with something else, something which we cannot know or understand. Whilst surrender to the divine may appear attractive, it also appears to be both fraught with dangers and fraught with limitations.
1 St. John of the Cross, Ascent, Book I, Ch 5, quoted in Jordan Aumann, Asceticism and the Christian Life, http://www.op.org/domcentral/study/aumann/ascetcsm.htm (accessed February 23, 2004)
2 Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. "About the Movement". VHEMT website. http://www.vhemt.org/aboutvhemt.htm#vhemt (accessed February 24, 2004)
James Arraj. Christianity in the Crucible of East-West Dialogue: A Critical Look at Catholic Participation.
http://www.innerexplorations.com/catew/christia.htm (accessed February 23, 2004)
Jordan Aumann. Asceticism and the Christian Life. http://www.op.org/domcentral/study/aumann/ascetcsm.htm (accessed February 23, 2004)
Peter Birrell. "The Doctrine of Holy Abandonment". Caroline Chisholm Library. http://www.cclibrary.org.au/LT_Holy_Aban.html (accessed February 23, 2004)
Catholic Encyclopedia. 1914. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12608c.htm (accessed February 23, 2004)
R G Clouse. "Quietism". BELIEVE website. http://mb-soft.com/believe/txn/quietism.htm (accessed February 23, 2004)
Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2004. Online at Encyclopedia.com. http://www.encyclopedia.com/html/q1/quietism.asp (accessed February 23, 2004)
Jeanne-Marie Guyon. Autobiography of Madame Guyon (c. 1700).
Online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College.
http://www.ccel.org/g/guyon/auto/autobi.htm (accessed February 24, 2004)
Jeanne-Marie Guyon. A Short and Very Easy Method of Prayer (1685). Translation unknown. Online at Pass the Word.
http://www.passtheword.org/DIALOGS-FROM-THE-PAST/methodofprayer.htm (accessed February 24, 2004)
Luke Hind. "A Short Account of the Life and Writings of the Lady Guyon". Christian Heritage Library's Past Words. http://www.gospelcom.net/chi/HERITAGF/Issuenos/chl118.shtml (accessed February 23, 2004)
David Hume. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). Ed. Martin Bell and J.M. Bell. Penguin Classics. 1990.
"Meister Eckhart". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2001. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/eckhart.htm (accessed February 23, 2004)
Søren Kierkegaard. Either/Or (Enten-Eller). 1843.
James MacCaffrey. History of the Catholic Church. Vol I, Ch VII. http://catholicity.elcore.net/MacCaffrey/HCCRFR1_Chapter07d.html (accessed February 23, 2004)
Voluntary Human Extinction Movement website. http://www.vhemt.org/ (accessed February 23, 2004)