AskDefine | Define quietist

Dictionary Definition

quietist n : a religious mystic who follows quietism

Extensive Definition

Quietism is a Christian philosophy that swept through France, Italy and Spain during the 17th century, but it had much earlier origins. The mystics known as Quietists insist with more or less emphasis on intellectual stillness and interior passivity as essential conditions of perfection; all have been officially proscribed as heresy in very explicit terms by the Roman Catholic Church.

Origins of Quietism

The state of imperturbable serenity or ataraxia was seen as a desirable state of mind by Epicurus and the Stoic philosophers alike, and by their Roman followers, such as the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Quietism has been compared to the Buddhist doctrine of Nirvana. The possibility of achieving a sinless state and union with the Christian Godhead are denied by the Roman Catholic Church.
Among the "errors" condemned by the Council of Vienne (1311-12) are the propositions that humankind in the present life can attain such a degree of perfection as to become utterly sinless; that the "perfect" have no need to fast or pray, but may freely grant the body whatsoever it craves (a tacit reference to the Cathars or Albigenses of southern France and Catalonia), and that they are not subject to any human authority or bound by the precepts of the Church. Similar assertions of individual autonomy on the part of the Fraticelli led to their condemnation by John XXII in 1317. The same pope in 1329 proscribed among the errors of Meister Eckhart the assertions that we are totally transformed into God just as in the sacrament the bread is changed into the body of Christ (see transubstantiation) and the value of internal actions, which are wrought by the Godhead abiding within us.
Quietism may have had some indirect effect on the mysticism of the great 16th century Spaniards, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, but there were clearly other influences. It should be made clear that both Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross were very active reformers and that both cautioned against a simple-minded "don't think anything" (no pensar nada) approach to meditation and contemplation; further, both remained firmly committed to the authority of the Catholic Church.
Quietism's primary orthodox Catholic defender was Miguel de Molinos, referred to by the Catholic Encyclopedia as the "founder" of Quietism. The apostle of the Quietist movement in 17th-century France was Molinos' correspondent, the prolific writer Mme Guyon, who won an influential convert at the court of Louis XIV in Madame de Maintenon and an ally within the Catholic hierarchy in Archbishop Fénelon.
Molinos and the doctrines of Quietism were finally condemned by Pope Innocent XI in the Bull Coelestis Pastor of 1687. A commission in France found most of Madame Guyon’s works intolerable and the government confined her, first in a convent, then in the Bastille. In 1699, after Fénelon’s spirited defense in a press war with Bossuet, Pope Innocent XII prohibited the circulation of Fénelon’s Maxims of the Saints, to which Fénelon submitted at once. The inquisition's proceedings against remaining Quietists in Italy lasted until the eighteenth century.


Quietism states that man's highest perfection consists of a self-annihilation, and subsequent absorption, of the soul into the Divine, even during the present life. In this way, the mind is withdrawn from worldly interests to passively and constantly contemplate God. Quietists would say that the Bible describes the man of God as a man of the tent and the altar only, having no part or interest in the multitudinous affairs, pursuits, and pleasures of the world system.
Whatever its theological implications, it is undeniable that the personal autonomy implied by Quietism had an undermining effect on Church unity, submission and discipline.
This is seen as pejorative from an ecclesiastical perspective, harking back to Montanism and other heresies and in conflict with Catholic doctrines of the Mystical Body of Christ. But from a post-ecclesiastical perspective that views religious hierarchies as inherently suspect, this autonomy is seen as an advance in human freedom.
The issue however, with Quietism is that with the relational understanding; Theologians claim it is heretical since it is not Trinitarian, with the view that God said that Adam was "lonely," and thus created Eve. Thus God intended people to be in community.


The philosopher Schopenhauer described Quietism as a form of denial of the will to live. According to him, this resignation and selflessness constitutes the last stage of intelligence and is the ultimate salvation or deliverance from the sufferings of the world. It is the last stage of intelligence because the mind comprehends the world, and therefore itself, as a continuous urge, similar to human desire or will, which results, as a consequence, in suffering and pain. Quietists turn away from the world and from selfishness.

Further reading

  • Dandelion, P., A Sociological Analysis of the Theology of Quakers: The Silent Revolution New York, Ontario & Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996.
quietist in Danish: Kvietisme
quietist in German: Quietismus
quietist in Spanish: Quietismo
quietist in Esperanto: Kvietismo
quietist in French: Quiétisme
quietist in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Quietismo
quietist in Italian: Quietismo
quietist in Japanese: キエティスム
quietist in Polish: Kwietyzm
quietist in Serbian: Квијетизам
quietist in Swedish: Kvietism
quietist in Chinese: 寂靜主義
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