Deep in Peru, late in the sixteenth century, a Jesuit missionary wrote of his experiences during an expedition to the Chunchos. As he surveyed the jungles of the Amazon from a mountain-top, he felt that he could see as far as the Caribbean. His greatest desire was to visit the unknown peoples between, supported only by the hand of God and a companion, and bring them to Christianity. Clearly, he thought that a faithful Jesuit could penetrate any society, however strange. At the same time, at another border of the Christian world, another Jesuit was in fact moving steadily toward the heart of the greatest of all gentile kingdoms. Dressed in Chinese silks and reading the Chinese classics, Matteo Ricci would soon be the first Christian mandarin. His legendary mastery of Western cartography and written and spoken Chinese would win him imperial favor, enabling him to spend his last years in Peking itself. There he explored the rich and virtuous classics of Chinese philosophy and tried with occasional success to convince literati that the Christianity he taught represented not a rejection but the completion of their grand tradition.1
At the margins of the expanding Christian universe, in other words, some Jesuits showed a startling openness to other peoples and forms of society and belief. True, their passionate interest in Andean religion was motivated by a crusading zeal to stamp out its vestiges, and they rejected Buddhism as forcefully as they embraced Confucianism. But their undeniable faith in the unique value of a single Western message should not obscure their equally undeniable intellectual courage. They underwent transformations and felt their way over distances then unknown and now probably unimaginable.
Other Jesuits inhabited the center rather than the peripheries of the Catholic world, and dreamed less of finding common ground with the best pagans than of cleansing the earth of the worst heretics, inside and outside Europe. The influential Jesuit Antonio Possevino was almost as cosmopolitan as Ricci; his career as a diplomat and polemicist took him as far from Italy as the Russia of Ivan Grozny and the Poland of Stephan Bathory, between whom he tried to make peace. Though his efforts as an ambassador failed, he became one of the first Westerners to describe Muscovite Russia from first-hand knowledge. But he saw the new worlds that Europeans had discovered in 1492 and after as a haunt of devils and their worshipers.
Even worse, they had become a source of corruption for Christendom. True, the conquistadors had destroyed the natives’ temples and codices, and missionaries now preached the word of God in new lands. But Satan had responded by attacking Christian worship in its European home. One of his chief tools took the form of high Renaissance scholarship and art. The tempting nude bodies portrayed by the pagan sculptors whose works were recovered and collected in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and, worse still, by the Christian painters who imitated them defiled the walls of the churches they decorated. The new Italian idolatry of white skin and straining limbs had to be rooted out as brutally as the old American idolatry of monstrous beings who demanded human flesh. Cooperation and extermination, respect and revulsion—Jesuits felt and showed every reaction human beings can muster for the victims and beneficiaries of their preaching and polemics.2
The diversity of Jesuit thought and action was only natural, for the order was as cosmopolitan as the new European colonial empires that it both served and resisted. By 1600, only sixty years after the official foundation of the Society of Jesus, Jesuits and their institutions could be found everywhere from Prague to the Philippines. They wrote long theological polemics and short scatological pamphlets; gave exquisitely sensitive counseling to troubled spirits and provoked Catholic crowds to massacre Protestants; walked a knife edge between orthodoxy and heterodoxy and helped impose censorship on publishers and philosophers. They hid in the country houses of the English Catholic gentry and educated (and converted) the children of Protestant squires in grand schools in Austria and Bohemia. They ran schools and set up printing presses, staged plays and held revivals, taught Latin rhetoric and demonstrated the rules of ballistics.
By the end of the eighteenth century, when the Society of Jesus was suppressed by papal decree, it controlled a worldwide network of more than eight hundred colleges and seminaries. Some of its members were engaged participants in the philosophical controversies of the late Enlightenment. Others had only recently been forced to give up their role as the priests and patrons of the famous Utopian “reductions,” or agricultural communes, in regions that now belong to Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. Jesuits, in short, were everywhere—especially under the beds of zealous Calvinists and skeptical philosophers. They were pervasively feared and loathed as no single group of priests and thinkers had ever been before—and as none would be again until the Bolshevik Commissars of the 1920s.
Readers’ long-established curiosity about the magnificence and malevolence of the order has not, as yet, been gratified by the production of a full-scale history worthy of the subject. No counterpart to David Knowles’s magnificent study of the monastic orders of medieval England traces the development of the Society of Jesus from its formal foundation in 1540 to the present. The plentiful monographs naturally do not offer universal coverage of uniform quality. Hence the order itself is to this day misrepresented and misunderstood—as often, perhaps, by historians as by lay readers.
This sad situation has many causes. The Jesuits themselves have published profusely about their past. More than 125 volumes of primary sources, a long-running and excellent historical journal, biographies, and bibliographies attest to their industry and devotion. But from the late Renaissance to the mid-twentieth century, much of their work adopted the method and tone of a traditional genre of Catholic scholarship: ecclesiastical history. Writers in this vein meant to edify as well as inform and tended to be saccharine rather than analytical. Vast blocks of quotation from contemporary letters and pious biographies, interspersed with criticism of all opponents and adorned with the imprimi potest and imprimatur, marked their books as suitable only for Catholic consumption.
In the last few decades, admittedly, Jesuit archivists, historians, and archaeologists have explored the history of the predecessors with insight, sophistication, and objectivity in addition to their traditional craftsmanship and erudition. They have become increasingly open to new questions and frank about old problems. Many of them—like François de Dainville and Walter Ong, who revolutionized the study of education in early modern Europe—rank with the most distinguished humanistic scholars anywhere. An imaginative exhibit held in the Vatican Library in 1990 summed up some of the results of this work for a larger public, setting Jesuit architecture and spirituality back into the streets where they were formed.3
But the path these scholars followed has not always been very straight. Even as the old political correctness of the Index faded away in Rome, a new one of liberal right-mindedness arose to replace it. When the seventeenth-century chapel containing the tomb of Ignatius Loyola was restored and opened to the public, the bold black inscriptions showing that some of the sculptures found there were intended to condemn paganism and heresy seemed embarrassing. On orders, they were discreetly filled in with white wax, in the hope that gullible visitors would fail to notice that early Jesuits did not always share the ecumenism of their modern counterparts. (Since then Jesuit and secular scholars have done their best, by discreet fingernail scraping, to restore the inscriptions to visibility.)
In American universities, moreover, the results of Jesuit scholarship—and even the periods they studied—long remained accessible mostly to professional scholars. Historians of art and music naturally introduced their pupils to Mannerism and the Baroque as well as the Renaissance. But most introductory history courses have skipped blithely from Renaissance to Reformation to absolutism and the Scientific Revolution, and literature courses have rarely paused to consider Catholic classics like the moral writings of Gracián or the autobiographies of saints Teresa and John of the Cross. The Catholic Reformation never established the right to a place in the curriculum like the one long enjoyed by the Protestant one.
In America, after all, Jesuits—like postmedieval Catholicism itself—have rarely if ever seemed a proper object of study for scholars in elite universities. The small proportion of time and energy undergraduates devote to studying has often gone to the colorful, remote, and elevating history and literature of the (Catholic) Middle Ages. By contrast modern Catholic culture—like most Catholics—was usually disdained, as the province of lesser breeds fit only for the legendary parochial schools where nuns told their charges never to order ravioli on a date, lest their boy friends be reminded of pillows. Stereotypes and prejudices of this kind, as nasty as anything fastened upon Jews, persisted in American universities until an uncomfortably recent date.
In the 1970s and 1980s, scholars both in the United States and in Europe turned with new interest to the study of past forms of religious life. But they concentrated, for the most part, on the popular rather than the official: in the lost forms of thought and feeling of the anonymous many who built the great schools and churches rather than the well-preserved views and emotions of the established few who lived and preached in them. Even those who examined the experience of the Jesuits tended to treat it in a schematic way. They provided one more clear example of the pervasive effort to establish social and cultural discipline that characterized sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Europe—the same social discipline which confined beggars in the name of virtue and madmen in the name of sanity, and put an end to traditional carnivals and forms of conjuring in the name of uniformity and orthodoxy. The gloomy, hierarchical religion that the Jesuits brought to city slums and country villages restricted—and largely replaced—the creatively anarchical religious forms of the Middle Ages. The schools and churches, the revival meetings and missions of the Jesuits mattered—but only as part of an effort to impose the hegemony of the written over the oral, the disciplined over the spontaneous, and the modern over the archaic.
More recently still, however, the Jesuits have at last begun to attract historians’ attention without being reduced to mere symptoms. Many students of the history of Christianity have begun to insist on taking Catholic devotion and spiritual counseling seriously—as part of a coherent enterprise to change the feelings of individuals, not simply a repressive plot. Historians of science and of the expansion of the West have come to realize just how tenaciously and originally Jesuit intellectuals grappled with the philosophical and anthropological discoveries of their time. Brilliant monographs in these fields—like Pietro Redondi’s wrong-headed but wonderfully stimulating study of Galileo’s trial and the complementary (and in part contradictory) books of Jacques Gernet and Jonathan Spence on Ricci and the Jesuit China mission—have dramatized the interest of Jesuit history for a large public. The need for an up-to-date and openminded synthesis has become almost palpable.
John O’Malley—a Jesuit and a historian—has now produced a masterly account of the first generation—the period in which nine disheveled and somewhat disreputable men, some of them already middle-aged and none of them famous or powerful, transformed themselves into the core of an organization that spanned the world and helped to save the Roman church from the frightening challenge of the Protestant Reformation. O’Malley begins with the documents, which are staggeringly rich. He carefully reviews the basic texts of the order, including Ignatius’s Constitutions and the Spiritual Exercises, that became the basis of their discipline and their great success as spiritual counselors; the twelve volumes of Ignatius’s letters; and the vast spiderwebs of official correspondence and memoranda, the bulk of them still unpublished, that maintained communication in this society of strongminded individuals living thousands of miles apart.
Like the so-called New Monarchies, the newly powerful states built by the rulers of sixteenth-century Spain and England, the Society of Jesus decided early that control of the files meant control of the organization. Large numbers of documents were regularly summarized and circulated for digestion by the Society as a whole and tenaciously docketed and preserved at its Roman core. Accordingly, historians find themselves confronted not only by old prejudices but by mountain ranges of new material. Like the vast documentary echo chambers of the Stasi archives now being opened by German researchers, the sheer volume of this material challenges any normal scholar to muster the necessary patience to work through it—not to mention some even rarer qualities, like the insight to see what the documents do not make explicit and the objectivity to set them in context.
All these arduous jobs O’Malley carries out, with an economy and insight that compel admiration. He begins, naturally, with Ignatius himself: the thirteenth son of a minor noble family from the Basque country, who chose a military career rather than an ecclesiastical or naval one, only to be forced to reconsider when a French cannonball smashed his legs at the battle of Pamplona in 1522. Ignatius found himself laid up for a long time and subjected more than once to the brutal surgery of the time. With nothing to read but medieval saints’ lives and a vast fourteenth-century series of meditations on the life of Christ, he began to explore his own mental and devotional history. Gradually he discovered that thoughts of a military and chivalrous career left him feeling desolate and dry. By contrast religious thoughts and aspirations gave him “consolation,” a combination of feelings, hard to describe but easy to identify, that lay, as O’Malley shows, at the center of the Jesuit experience and enterprise.
Ignatius’s subsequent life combined religious growth with romantic adventure. A trip to the Holy Land confirmed his aspirations but left him without a clear career to follow; a long period of retreat and contemplation brought him vivid spiritual experiences. Eventually, he went back to school, first in Spain, at Barcelona and Alcalà, and then to the University of Paris, where he lived for a time at the Collège de Montaigu, a famous establishment whose austere living standards and rotten eggs had almost killed off the famous scholar Desiderius Erasmus a few decades before. O’Malley, an expert in Renaissance intellectual history, calls back to life the lost Left Bank of the medieval colleges, a crowded city of bell towers and cloisters that resembled Oxford rather than the Paris of today. He reconstructs Ignatius’s theological education in as much detail as possible, and carefully traces Ignatius’s spiritual development: his increasing prestige and attraction as a religious counselor, his personal austerity, his emergence as the central figure in a close group of spiritual athletes in Paris.
In the second half of the 1530s the scene changes. O’Malley moves with Ignatius and his first friends to Italy, which would become their permanent home. Their efforts to go abroad as missionaries failed. Eventually, however, thanks in part to influential friends, they gained permission to organize themselves as a formal order, the Company of Jesus. A papal bull of 1540 ratified their status. O’Malley shows insight and objectivity as he describes Ignatius’s visions, the growth of his support group, the papal deaths and elections that promised help or menaced destruction. The bulk of the book treats the Jesuit story as that of the collaborative efforts of a group rather than the exemplary achievement of a single hero, and emphasizes the wider context.
As O’Malley shows, in the 1520s and 1530s Italy underwent a political and a religious crisis, which continually intersected with and reinforced each other but were not identical. Imperial and French armies, far larger than any Italian ones, battled repeatedly for control of the major cities. Prophets and reformers walked the streets and piazzas, predicting the end of the world, urging women to burn their cosmetics, or calling for a more personal and less mechanical kind of Christianity—or doing all three at once. New and radical ideas were stimulated by the printed Bibles and devotional literature, radical pamphlets and apocalyptic images that welled up from the printing presses into an irresistible flood. Radicals of new kinds—from rich urban illuminati to poor rural Anabaptists—challenged the existing order in society and church. Sometimes they were flanked by the remaining adherents of medieval heresies, and often they were identified by the authorities with the practitioners of forgotten rural cults or the Protestant creators of a revolutionary new theology. The ?? cities saw many experiments with new forms of Christian life, individual and collective, carried out by women as well as men. All ran risks; many failed.
It is one of the many strengths of O’Malley’s book that he keeps this background in the foreground. He shows that the first Jesuits were far less militant—and far less bent on change within the Church or combat outside it—than traditional accounts suggest. The Jesuit rhetoric of organization, for example, was monastic rather than military. The often cited fact that a “general” headed the order, for example, reflected Ignatius’s status as “praepositus generalis,” “superior general,” rather than an effort to organize an army of priests to combat Luther. True, the Jesuits’ general had fewer powerful subordinates to deal with than his counterparts in other orders. But he remained firmly under the control of the “general congregation” of the order as a whole. Similarly, the order’s intentions were far less radical than some of Ignatius’s own language suggests—at least when taken out of context, as it often is. When Ignatius advised Jesuit spiritual directors, in a famous passage, that one should believe that black is white if the hierarchy of the church so instructed, he was not summoning Catholics to believe something new and unheard of. Any sixteenth-century Catholic accepted that what appeared to be the bread and wine of the Sacraments were really the body and blood of Jesus, whatever they might look like. (True, in relying exclusively on the authority of the Church, as opposed to that of the Scripture, Ignatius reacted against the claims of Catholic humanists as well as Protestant reformers that Church doctrines needed biblical verification.)
The Jesuits were not only less militant than has been thought; they were also far less clear about the direction in which they were marching. In their early years, O’Malley shows, they mostly improvised. Many will be surprised that the first Jesuits—like many of their confreres in the 1960s and after—took their stand among the urban poor. Their Roman habitat lay in what is still the heart of the city, near the ghetto, where they were tormented by noisy neighbors who wanted to use their property to raise chickens. Much of their time went to helping people at the margins of urban society, or wholly outside it. They tried to help prisoners. They tried to convince prostitutes—including the notoriously intractable Roman ones—to adopt better lives as servants, wives, or members of a monastery of Conversae, and founded innovative halfway houses where such women could stay for a time while deciding which course of action they should follow. They addressed themselves to ordinary crafts-people, to whom they became expert at preaching.
At the core of their enterprise lay the simple belief that Catholics should confess and take the sacraments more often. And much of their zeal expressed itself in negation rather than in action of any sort. They refused to yield to the temptations of property, power, and benefices, which, they thought, might corrupt their vocations and their enterprise. They also fought to avoid limiting their freedom of action—for example, by refusing to spend several hours singing the liturgical hours together every day in church, as the members of other religious orders did. But they hardly knew, for certain, why they so valued what they soon saw as their own peculiar ways.
The early Jesuits, in short, were not the brilliant deceptive polemicists and spies of legend, but spiritual entrepreneurs who wanted to break open new markets. And they never went in for some forms of the spiritual hard sell that earlier orders had practiced. Even when the Society became attractive, it remained selective. It was always hard to join, still harder to attain full membership. At Ignatius’s death in 1556 there were more than a thousand Jesuits, worldwide. Only forty-three had taken the final vow of willingness to go as missionaries at a moment’s notice on papal command.
Gradually, the central enterprises of the order crystallized. Ignatius tried, at the start of his career, to live in the Holy Land, and he and his early followers hoped to preach Christianity in Muslim territory. At this they failed. But by 1542 one of his first followers, Francis Xavier, had established himself in Portuguese Goa, and the drama of the Jesuit missions had begun. By Ignatius’s death Jesuit schools and churches, manuals of confession, and treatises on theology had spread from Japan to Africa. Experiments were being made—rarely with full success—to bring non-Europeans into the order and train them. At the same time, Jesuit missionaries to the lands of northern and eastern Europe that had turned Protestant in the last half-century were beginning their long, lonely efforts, often at deadly personal risk, to out-preach the Calvinists in Europe’s cities and to minister to Catholic aristocrats.
Both inside and outside Europe, moreover, the Jesuits were becoming masters of a particular intellectual trade: that of the schoolmaster. Ignatius and his friends had studied in Paris; they had a deep if not always a precisely defined belief in the value of learning, and almost immediately began to set up small institutions near Catholic universities, where their novices could study theology more efficiently and safely. But it was another kind of education to which they really dedicated themselves.
The fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries witnessed an extraordinary spread, especially in Italy, of two kinds of school: the vernacular or “abacus” school, where boys learned to read and count, gaining the basic skills for life in a mercantile society, and the Latin or grammar schools where a smaller number learned to read and imitate the classic texts of Roman antiquity.4 Schools of the first sort were obviously practical; but those of the second were fashionable. The taste for the classics spread rapidly; Renaissance rulers gave preferment to scholars, amassed spectacular libraries, even sat through debates about the textual criticism of Roman historians.
Moreover, classicism turned out to have its uses. The classically educated soon proved that their training in the arts of speech and writing made them effective and articulate. The Jesuits greatly valued skill in preaching. The sermon and the lecture on Biblical texts, after all, were their basic medium for reaching the masses in city and country and their only weapon for debating with Protestants. They also, as O’Malley shows in some of his most interesting pages, seem to have felt a special affinity for the classical art of rhetoric. At the heart of classical rhetoric lay the precept that an effective speaker tailors every utterance, to its immediate context, taking account of listeners’ needs and desires. The Jesuits, who expertly “accommodated” their clothing, their diet, and their language to new circumstances, took naturally to a discipline that gave them systematic training in sizing up occasions and audiences.
Ignatius soon committed himself to providing classical literary training as well as theology for young Jesuits. Drawing on their experience in Paris, the Jesuits designed a curriculum based on small classes, carefully regulated progress through increasingly difficult subjects, and meticulously expurgated classical readings. Their efficiency won customers in astonishing numbers. After 1548, when a first experiment took place in Messina, cities and rulers across Catholic Europe asked the Jesuits to establish free Catholic colleges where the young, rich and poor alike, could learn to be articulate Latinists of the fashionable type. Jesuit education proved attractive: a heavy emphasis on writing and staging plays, normally in Latin, sometimes six hours long, and often visually spiced with collapsing idols and flying saints, gave their schools a special flair. It also proved flexible. When the Jesuits saw that young aristocrats needed practical as well as classical instruction to make their way as professional soldiers, they added fencing, drill, and artillery practice to their literary offerings. They thus established a Catholic military tradition which would still exist centuries later, during World War I. More to the point, the Jesuit humanists won a clientele that included many Protestant noble families—whose children learned Catholic theology as well as Ciceronian Latin. The splendid symmetrical colleges that the Jesuits reared in Austria, Bavaria, and Bohemia probably did more than anything else to win the nobility of much of Eastern Europe back to the Church.
Finally, the Jesuits rapidly made a specialty of spiritual direction. Ignatius codified his own development in a vivid text, the Spiritual Exercises, which he intended not for the person who needed help but for the spiritual director who would give it. By disciplining his life, working to eradicate his besetting sins, and undergoing a carefully staged series of vivid, concretely described meditations and visitations, loosely keyed to the life of Christ, the practitioner of the exercises could find out what task God meant him to carry out in life. A delicate tool for self-analysis and a sophisticated manual for spiritual improvement, the Exercises guided Jesuits into the order; the fantastically precise questionnaires with which the Jesuits interrogated themselves about their lives and methods show how effective a guide it was, and well-kept records show how low a rate of failure it permitted. But the Exercises did more. Almost from the start, as O’Malley shows, powerful clerics and laymen also asked to make the exercises with Ignatius or another Jesuit.
Members of the order became modern Europe’s first experts in guiding the spiritual and emotional lives of individuals. They began to study—and then to teach—the best ways of counseling individuals on how to reconcile inclination with duty, on how to bridge—and how to judge—the gap that separated the humdrum details of everyday life and the inevitable humiliations of sin and the flesh from the unremitting commands of Christian morality. They devised the retreat—the pause from everyday life for systematic prayer and contemplation. And they did not invent, but became master practitioners of, the branch of theology that dealt with sin and confession. Casuistry—the meticulous examination of problems in conduct—became a prime subject of Jesuit writing and a central area of Jesuit teaching. Within a generation the Jesuits had established themselves as specialists in confession and absolution. Lectures, using a case system, made their results available in every Jesuit college. For centuries to come their position as the spiritual advisers of preference for Catholic kings would do much to promote the order’s reputation for intrigue, worldliness, and hidden political power.
Jesuit casuistry, as O’Malley shows, has lost in recent years much of its old reputation as a holy sham—a reputation that it owed largely to the brilliant, but unfair, attack launched against it by Pascal in his Provincial Letters. Jesuits in danger of their lives in Protestant countries stretched the possibilities of spiritual counseling to their limits, sometimes by taking refuge in the notorious doctrine of the mental reservation that could make an apparently false statement true. In one famous case, a Jesuit who had denied being a priest under interrogation later explained that he had meant “a priest of Apollo.” Such conduct was little better than ammunition for Calvinist guns. But it was hardly the norm. O’Malley affords impressive evidence of the Jesuits’ central commitment to bringing common sense to bear on the basic problems of the Catholic life. To hear Ignatius’s old friend, the troublesome but forthright Father Bobadilla, insisting that one should not entertain paranoid fears of taking communion after ejaculation if one confessed the sin frankly is to come into contact with a humane sensibility from which many later authorities in Catholic moral philosophy could have learned a great deal. “The reasons of the heart”—as O’Malley says in a slightly different connection—“have primacy.”5
Naturally, O’Malley’s book does not fill every need. On the immediate historical setting, for example, he is immensely informative but necessarily incomplete. The Jesuits knew many rival innovators personally or by writing, and the extent to which they learned from them remains an open question. Ignatius’s brand of Catholicism, with its insistence on the needs of each person, often reminds modern readers of the spirituality of the Dutch humanist Erasmus. But the relation between the two men is unclear. Though Erasmus’s excellent textbooks established themselves in Jesuit schools, Ignatius expressed only distaste for his religious writing. In this case—as in that, even more delicate, case of the sources of the Spiritual Exercises—O’Malley offers judicious comment and well-chosen references, but not a definitive treatment.6
Another book on the early Jesuits, W.W. Meissner’s Ignatius of Loyola: The Psychology of a Saint, promises some help here. Both a Jesuit and a distinguished psychoanalyst, Meissner brings to his topic an erudition that psychohistorians have sometimes lacked, a commitment to the value of Ignatius’s spirituality, and a welcome insistence that secular science should be able to elucidate the life of a saint. Unfortunately, his results are disappointing. The Spiritual Exercises are a fascinating and unusual text, rich with concrete instructions on how to visualize scenes from the life of Christ, from Hell and the Holy Land, and then to draw spiritual profit from them. They have obvious connections to the popular devotional literature of the later Middle Ages, which offered similar exercises in visualization to a large and unlearned public. But they also draw on the learned art of artificial memory—the art, used by Matteo Ricci to such brilliant effect in China, which enabled the orators of Renaissance Europe to master and retain the details of Cicero’s Latin. And they hark back to medieval and patristic works on spiritual counseling and authority.7
The Exercises’ sumptuous and lurid images and crisp techniques of analysis probably require the attentions of a professional student of the human mind—but of one who is willing to begin by isolating what was peculiar to Ignatius. For no earlier text seems to have come close to rivaling Ignatius’s in psychological effectiveness and insight. Meissner, however, largely ignores the richly worked surface of the text—to say nothing of its earlier and contemporary sources. Instead he correlates a number of Ignatius’s images and preoccupations with an externally derived model of human development. But the norms from which Ignatius’s experience is shown to deviate are those of the twentieth, not the sixteenth, century. For all the rich material he quotes and all the striking analytical suggestions that crop up along the way, Meissner leaves the richest Ignatian soil untilled.
O’Malley’s book also leaves the reader wanting to know more about later periods. The independent, entrepreneurial Jesuits he concentrates on are the early ones, the creators of something new rather than its mere inheritors. Yet as he points out more than once, the order continued to evolve and respond to circumstances for centuries to come. Some of the artistic forms with which one nowadays tends to associate the Jesuits—like elaborate church music and lavish, triumphalist art—were adopted only in the seventeenth century. But changes affected more than the expression of theological views: they also affected their content.
During the last third of the sixteenth century, many Jesuits hardened. Novices ate in refectories decorated with scenes from the martyrdoms of early Christians as they prepared to seek martyrdom themselves in Japan or England. Jesuit theology became less experimental, Jesuit scholarship more one-sided. The Society had lost the openness to conversos and other non-Christian recruits that Ignatius had displayed and defended. The worst of the Jesuit Black Legend developed—and found its real, if partial, justifications—in this later age.
O’Malley’s full awareness of—and considerable discomfort with—this later history is obvious on many pages of his excellent book. But the chronological limitations he quite reasonably imposed on himself prevent him from confronting them in detail. It would be wonderful if he could bring himself to take the story further, with another volume at least.
In the meantime, readers who wish to follow the general contours of the Jesuit adventure between Ignatius’s death and the ordeal of Pedro Arrupe, the general who oversaw the order’s turn to a particular program of reform and renewal in the third world and elsewhere, will find pleasure and profit in the work of the great French journalist Jean Lacouture. His two readable, vivacious volumes on the Jesuits do not go into great depth or detail about spirituality or casuistry. As the book progresses, moreover, it narrows in scope, becoming more a history of the Jesuits in France than of the order as a whole. But it is the work of a man who has known the Jesuits since his boyhood (much of which he spent in a provincial Jesuit collège, described here in a chapter that wonderfully blends irony and nostalgia); also of one who has spent his career in learning about many of the areas where the Jesuits have had the greatest impact, from China and Vietnam to Brazil and Paraguay.
Lacouture’s mastery of color and detail, an immensely readable prose, and his gift for quotation bring the range of the Jesuit achievement vividly alive. And on one central, complex question—that of the relation between Western Jesuits and non-Western races—Lacouture avoids the simplicities that have marred so many earlier statements (including, perhaps, one or two of his own). He makes clear that some Jesuits took an active part in Europe’s long marches toward political and cultural authority in South America and Asia; but others resisted or moderated imperialism abroad and racism at home, and a few insisted on the right of non-European peoples to have their own customs and beliefs. His moving chapter on Alexandre de Rhodes, the deft missionary and philologist who completed the transcription of the Vietnamese language into Roman characters shows in detail, nicely mixing empathy and irony, just how this foreigner established Christianity as a vital constituent element of Vietnamese culture—and just how hard it is to make that complicated transaction fit any Procrustean interpretive bed.
The Jesuits’ archives and churches, their writing and their action, will not cease to invite exploration. It would perhaps take another Marrou or Braudel to tell their whole story—someone who combined O’Malley’s splendid historical craftsmanship with Lacouture’s gifts of evocation and Meissner’s analytical daring. Consider, for example, one moment in Jesuit history: the middle of the seventeenth century. A history of the Jesuits that took 1650 as its fulcrum would have to include the Jesuit missions to the south of Italy, “the European Indies.” The fathers who came to Eboli, where, as Carlo Levi showed three centuries later, Christ stopped, interrogated started shepherds about the Holy Trinity. They laughed unkindly at the confused replies the men offered, as each shepherd tried to win favor by guessing that there were more gods than the last one had said. But they then held processions and preached, built bonfires and marched flagellants through the mountain roads, until they had brought a simple version of Christian doctrine to the Italian countryside—which became, for the first time, not the haunt of pre-Christian beliefs and practices but the faithful core of Catholic Christianity.
As Carlo Ginzburg showed long ago, the historian of the Jesuits should ideally be a habitué of the remote countryside, where they were often the first to bring a recognizably Christian theology and set of practices.8 But this same imaginary ideal historian would also have to deal with the cosmopolitan—like the Jesuit mission in China, one member of which, Adam Schall von Bell, brought news of Galileo’s telescope to the Far East and actually worked in the astronomical division of the imperial civil service.
Finally, he or she would have to leave ample room for the intellectual and religious life of the order in its European heart—the great, skyline-dominating buildings of the Collegio Romano and the Gesù. There the German Jesuit intellectual Athanasius Kircher, who took as deep an interest in the mountains of Italy and the mechanics of volcanoes as he did in the culture of China, interpreted the books of nature and the books of men to large and fascinated audiences. Kircher’s thick folios full of speculations about the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, which he regarded as the special language of a caste of ancient sages, now seem more quaint than scholarly. But they rested on new evidence as well as old Neo-platonic ideas, and won extensive support from other scholars. Moreover, they helped to inspire one of baroque Rome’s most memorable sculptures. Bernini’s fountain in the Piazza Navona bears—and invites the on-looker to admire—an Egyptian obelisk that Kircher excavated and interpreted.9 The future historian of the Jesuits and their world could do worse than to start work in this spectacular public space, where the crowds in the Roman street present their ongoing play before yellow and orange façades, and a Jesuit’s profoundly Western effort to appreciate a non-Western tradition changes shape and color with the ambient light.
March 3, 1994
The Peruvian document comes from Antonio de Egaña, S.J., editor, Monumenta Peruana II (1576–1580) (Rome: Monumenta Historica Soc. Iesu, 1958), p. 250; see more generally the masterly study by Sabine MacCormack, Religion in the Andes: Vision and Imagination in Early Colonial Peru (Princeton University Press, 1992). On Ricci see Jonathan Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (Viking Penguin, 1984) and Jacques Gernet, China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures, translated by Janet Lloyd (Cambridge University Press, 1985), as well as the essays and bibliography collected in Charles E. Ronan, S.J. and Bonnie B.C. Oh, editors, East Meets West: The Jesuits in China, 1582–1773 (Loyola University Press, 1988). ↩
Albano Biondi, “La Bibliotheca selecta di Antonio Possevino. Un progetto di egemonia culturale,” in Gian Paolo Brizzi, editor, La ‘Ratio studiorum’: Modelli culturali e pratiche educative dei Gesuiti in Italia tra Cinque e Seicento (Rome: Bulzoni, 1981). ↩
The catalog is very informative: Thomas M. Lucas, S.J., editor, Saint, Site and Sacred Strategy: Ignatius, Rome and Jesuit Urbanism (Rome: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1990). ↩
For the background see the excellent book by Paul Grendler, Schooling in Renaissance Italy: Literacy and Learning, 1300–1600 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989). ↩
For some perspectives on casuistry see Albert R. Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin, The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning (University of California Press, 1988) and Edmund Leites, editor, Conscience and Casuistry in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge University Press/Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 1988). ↩
See Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle, “Angels Black and White: Loyola’s Spiritual Discernment in Historical Perspective,” in Theological Studies, No. 44 (1983). ↩
See Carlo Ginzburg, “Folklore, magia, religione,” in Storia d’Italia, Vol. I: I caratteri originali (Turin: Einaudi, 1972), pp. 631–633; and R. Taylor, “Ermetismo e architettura mistica nella Compagnia di Gesù,” in Rudolf Wittkower and Irma B. Jaffe, editors, Architettura e arte dei gesuiti, translated by Massimo Parizzi (Milan: Electa, 1992). ↩
See Ginzburg, “Folklore, magia, religione,” pp. 656–661. ↩
Kircher awaits a full study, but several excellent (and complementary) books illuminate central areas of his thought. See among others Erik Iversen, Obelisks in Exile, Vol. 1: The Obelisks of Rome (Copenhagen: Gad, 1968); R.J.W. Evans, The Making of the Habsburg Monarchy, 1550 to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 1979); David Mungello, Curious Land: Jesuit Accommodation and the Origins of Sinology (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1985); and Thomas Leinkauf, Mundus combinatus: Studien zur Struktur der barocken Universalwissenschaft am Beispiel Athanasius Kirchers SJ (1602–1680) (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1993) (with helpful bibliography). ↩