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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Petavius, Dionysius

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(also called DENIS PETAU), one of the most celebrated of French scholars, and iifluential in the councils of the Jesuits, to whose order he belonged, was born at Orleans Aug. 21, 1583. His father, who was a man of learning, seeing strong parts and a genius for letters in his son, took all possible means to improve them to the utmost. He used to tell his son that he ought to qualify himself so as to be able to attack and confound "the giant of the Allophylae;" meaning the redoubtable Joseph Scaliger, whose abilities and learning were supposed to have done such service to the Reformed. Young Petavius seems to have entered into his father's views; for he studied very intensely, and afterwards levelled much of his erudition against Scaliger. He joined the study of mathematics with that of belles- lettres; and then applied himself to a course in philosophy, which he began in the College of Orleans, and finished at Paris. After this he maintained theses in Greek and in Latin, which he is said to have understood as well as his native language, the French. In maturer years he had free access to the king's library, which he often visited in order to consult Latin and Greek manuscripts. Among other advantages which accompanied his literary pursuits was the friendship of Isaac Casaubon, whom Henry IV called to Paris in 1600. It was at his instigation that Petavius, young as he was, undertook an edition of The Works of Synesius; that is, to correct the Greek from the manuscripts, to translate that part which yet remained to be translated into Latin, and to write notes upon the whole. He was but nineteen when he was made professor of philosophy in the University of Bourges; and spent the two following years in studying the ancient philosophers and mathematicians. In 1604, when Morel, professor of Greek at Paris, published The Works of Chrysostom, some part of Petavius's labors on Synesius was added to them. (From the title of this work we learn that he then Latinized his name Poetus, which he afterwards changed into Petavius. His own edition of The Works of Syneius did not appear till 1612.) He entered the Society of the Jesuits in 1605, and did great honor to it afterwards by his vast and profound erudition. He became zealous for the Roman Catholic Church; and there was no way of serving it more agreeable to his humor than by criticising and abusing its adversaries. Scaliger was the person he was most bitter against; but he did not spare his friend Casaubon whenever he came in his way.

There is no occasion to enter into detail about a man whose whole life was spent in reading and writing books, and in performing the several offices of his order. The history of a learned man is the history of his works; and by far the greater part of Petavius's writings were to support popish doctrines and discipline. But it must be confessed that in order to perform his task well he made himself a universal scholar. He died at Paris December 11, 1652. In 1633 he published an excellent work entitled Rationale Temporum; it is an abridgment of universal history, from the earliest times down to 1632, digested in chronological order, and supported all the way by references to proper authorities. It went through several editions; many additions and improvements have been made to it, both by Petavius himself, and by Perizonius and others after his death; and Le Clerc published an abridgment of it as far down as to 800, under the title of Compendium Historiae Universalis, in 1697 (12mo). Petavius's chef-d'oeuvre is his "Opus de Theologicis Dogmatibus, nunc primum septem voluminibus comprehensum, in meliorem ordinem redactum, auctoris ipsius vita, ac libris quibusdam numquam in hoc opere editis locupletatum, Francisci Antonii Zachariae ex eadem Societate Jesu extensium principum Bibliothecae Praefecti dissertationibus, ac notis uberrimis illustratum" (Ven. 1757, 7 volumes, fol.). It is full of choice erudition, but unfortunately his death cut it short, and it lacks completeness. Besides other services, Petavius deserves to be acknowledged as the first theologian who brought into proper relations history and dogmatics. Muratori regards him as the restorer of dogmatic theology. In the opinion of Gassendus (Vit. Pereschii) Petavius was the most consummate scholar the Jesuits ever had; and indeed we cannot suppose him to have been inferior to the first scholars of any order, while we consider him waging war, as he did frequently with success, against Scaliger, Salmasius, and other like chiefs in the republic of letters. His judgnent, as may easily be conceived, was inferior to his learning; and his controversial writings are full of that sourness and spleen which appears so manifest in all the prints of his countenance. Bayle has observed that Petavius did the Socinians great service, though unawares and against his intentions. The Jesuit's original design, in the second volume of his Dogmata Theologica, was to represent ingenuously the doctrine of the first three centuries. Having no particular system to defend, he did not carefully state the opinions of the fathers, but only gave a general account of them. By this means he unawares led the public to believe that the fathers entertained false and absurd notions concerning the mystery of the Three Persons; and, against his intentions, furnished arguments and authorities to the Antitrinitarians. When made aware df this, and being willing to prevent the evil consequences which he had not foreseen, he wrote his Preface, in which he labored solely to assert the orthodoxy of the fathers, and thus was forced to contradict what he had advanced in the Dogmata. (Comp. Bull, On the Trinity.) See Werner, Geschichte der apologet. und polem. Literatur, volume 4; idem, Geschichte der katholischen Theologie (Munich, 1866); Dupin, Nouvelle Bibliotheque des Auteurs ecclesiastiques, s.v.; Simon, Hist. crit. des principaux Commentateurs; Alzog, Kirchengeschichte, 2:435; Christian Remembrancer, 55:484. (J.H.W.)


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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Petavius, Dionysius'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/p/petavius-dionysius.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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