Silhon, Jean de
A French philosopher and politician of the seventeenth century. Among the founders, in 1634, of the Académie Française. The author of numerous essays in French noted for their refined style and lengthy exposition. He was Richelieu’s secretary and later Mazzarin’s Counsellor of State.
Born in Sos in Lot-et-Garonne in 1596. Died in Paris in 1667. Among the founders, in 1634, of the Académie Française. The author of numerous essays in French noted for their refined style and lengthy exposition. He was Richelieu’s secretary and later Mazzarin’s Counsellor of State. A Friend of Guez de Balzac and René Descartes.
Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition
Silhon’s philosophical output concerns two areas: political thought, with works like Le Ministre d’Etat, and metaphysics, notably with Les deux vérités in 1626 and L’immortalité de l’âme in 1634.
Silhon’s political thought (Thuau 1966) argues for mediation between divine and temporal power based on the idea of an overall balance between the two: natural reason has led people to build for their needs a hierarchy of power completely compatible with the moral principles handed down by God through revelation, which are safeguarded by the clergy. The two orders should therefore develop in parallel, without either hindering the other, so that the good minister will have to understand and constantly maintain consistency between the interests of the state and the dictates of conscience, which are essential prerequisites for the proper exercise of political power. Ideally, therefore, a minister should know how to combine civic and religious understanding. Here Silhon was explicitly referring to Richelieu, whose political actions he justified even in their most controversial aspects such as the war against the Huguenots (which he said was waged against their rebellion, not against their religious belief).
In his work De la certitude des connaissances humaines (Silhon 1661) in particular, Silhon takes a firm stand in favor of Catholic absolutism and state Catholicism, drastically curtailing the room for freedom of action of individuals in relation to the political power of the sovereign. Subjects, being quite unable to manage themselves and the good of society, are relegated to obeying the political authorities without question. As authority is rooted in the Christian religion, which teaches people to obey their sovereigns, good or bad, since all power is legitimized by God, obedience is both sacred and necessary. Authority ultimately derives from the Creator Himself, like a great machine set in motion by God.
Metaphysics and Christian Apologetics
Because his Christianity is so closely tied in with temporal power, the metaphysical and apologetic aspect of Silhon’s thought hardly takes us away from his political ideas, in which, especially in the essay De la certitude des connaissances humaines (Silhon 1661), the fight against skepticism becomes one of the fundamental starting points (Popkin 2003). Just as his friend Descartes would later do, Silhon sets out to refute atheism and skepticism and tries, in Les deux vérités (Silhon 1626), to prove the existence of God and the immortality of the soul (Popkin 2003). His later work would again be in defense of belief in immortality (Fowler 1999). Silhon held that all human certainty is based on the idea, which he took to be universally obvious since it is naturally imprinted in all human beings, that there is a divinity, an idea which he tried to prove in various ways (Popkin 2003). Thus the immortality of the soul must also, he argued, be proved by referring back to the source of all being, i.e., the existence of God, which is required for the existence of any kind of substance, including matter, which has no being in itself, and spiritual substances, which continue to exist after death because that is the will of their Creator (Fowler 1999). Moreover, Silhon seems to take up the doctrine of continuous creation, earlier proposed by Suárez, and later held by Descartes: God is the creator of all things, but He also constantly maintains them as they are, since nothing but God, in this theory of ontology, is really able to sustain its own existence. About the soul, Silhon, who denies that animals have an immortal soul, bases his proof of the immortality of the human soul on God’s goodness, which after creating it keeps it in existence. Silhon may be considered one of the philosophers whose theory of human nature showed a dualism rich in Platonistic elements but did not, as Descartes’ dualism would do, break with Aristotelian hylomorphism (Silhon 1634; Gilson 1930). Another interesting aspect of his thought is the distinction he makes between démonstrations physiques, which lead to certainties that are absolutely evident, and démonstrations morales, which lead to knowledge that though not absolutely certain is well supported. The latter type makes up most human belief (Popkin 2003).
- Silhon J (1626) Les deux vérités de Silhon. L’une de Dieu et de sa providence, l’autre de l’immortalité de l’Ame. Laurent Sonnius (new modern edition: Fayard. Paris 1991), ParisGoogle Scholar
- Silhon J (1629) Panégyrique à Mgr le cardinal de Richelieu, sur ce qui s’est passé aux derniers troubles de France. Toussaint Du Bray, ParisGoogle Scholar
- Silhon J (1634) De l’immortalité de l’âme. Billaine, ParisGoogle Scholar
- Silhon J (1642) Le Ministre d’Estat, avec le véritable usage de la politique moderne, 3e édition. J. Quesnel et Du Bray, ParisGoogle Scholar
- Silhon J (1651) Esclaircissement de quelques difficultez touchant l’administration du cardinal Mazarin. Janssonius van Waesberge, ParisGoogle Scholar
- Silhon J (1661) De la Certitude des connaissances humaines, où sont particulièrement expliquez les principes et les fondemens de la morale et de la politique, avec des observations sur la manière de raisonner par l’assemblage de plusieurs moyens. Imprimerie Royal (new modern edition: Paris, Fayard 2002), ParisGoogle Scholar
- Fowler C F (1999) Descartes on the human soul: philosophy and the demands of Christian doctrine. Kluwer Academic Publishers, DordrechtGoogle Scholar
- Gilson E (1930) Études sur le rôle de la pensée médiévale dans la formation du système cartésien. Vrin, ParisGoogle Scholar
- Popkin R (2003) History of Skepticism. From Savonarola to Bayle. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
- Thuau É (1966) Raison d’Etat et pensée politique à l’époque de Richelieu. Armand Colin, ParisGoogle Scholar