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Blaise Pascal: The Grandeur and Misery of Man

Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), in addition to being among the widely acknowledged geniuses of the human race, was one of the most eminent modern apologists for the Christian faith. In an era such as ours that denigrates both rationality, man’s distinctive trait, and belief in God, man’s highest dignity in this life, we have much to learn from him.

Despite his poor health, Pascal was a prodigy in mathematics and science from his earliest youth. He performed groundbreaking experiments with water and air pressure, invented a calculating machine, and made striking advances in theoretical mathematics, especially probability theory.

More and more, however, he came to see that burgeoning empirical-mathematical knowledge could not satisfy man’s hunger to know the meaning of existence, nor would its technological applications deliver the earthly paradise they promised. Through his keen observations of people and their self-deceiving efforts to escape the unhappiness that lingers beneath the glitter of distracting pleasures, he became acutely aware of man’s radical need for God and the meaninglessness of life without faith.

On November 23, 1654, Pascal underwent an intense spiritual experience, during which he wrote down some phrases on a piece of paper he later sewed into his jacket and always wore about with him:

God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars. God of Jesus Christ. He can only be found in the ways taught in the Gospel. Joy, joy, joy and tears of joy. This is life eternal, that they might know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ. I have cut myself off from him. I have fled from him, denied him, crucified him. Let me never be cut off from him. He can only be kept by the ways taught in the Gospel. [i]

After receiving this tremendous grace, he retired into seclusion, placed himself under the direction of spiritual advisers at the Port-Royal monastery, and turned his attention to the practice of religion and the composition of apologetic works.

The greatest of these is entitled Pensées, a collection of notes for a massive apologetic that Pascal did not live to complete. The notes he preserved, ranging in length from a few words to a few pages, contain some of the most profound insights into the heart of man ever written, and they deserve to be pondered time and time again.

In the Pensées, Pascal sketches arguments for the truth of the Christian faith and the divine authority of the Catholic Church from a variety of angles: the experience of sin and error in the world, the futility of life without a final purpose, the inability of man to save himself from suffering and death, the incongruity between ideals and facts, proofs of natural reason, the correspondence of Old Testament prophecies to the Messiah who fulfills them, the compelling beauty of Jesus and his Covenant, and the miracles performed by Christ and the saints throughout the ages. Warring against the rationalism that was starting to conquer European culture, Pascal emphasizes the primacy of the heart in search for God — that is, the centrality of will, conviction, submission — over cold intellectual arguments. “Reason’s last step is to recognize that there is an infinite number of things which surpass it. It is simply feeble if it does not go as far as realizing that.” “Reason would never submit unless it perceived that there are occasions when it should submit. It is right, therefore, that it should submit when it perceives that it ought to submit” [ii].

No apologist has so powerfully insisted on the truth of original sin and, in the face of it, the need for a Redeemer:

If man had never been corrupted, he would enjoy in his innocent state both truth and happiness with confidence. And if man had never been other than corrupted, he would have no notion of either truth or happiness. But in the wretched state in which we are . . . we have an idea of happiness and we cannot achieve it, we feel an image of truth and we possess only untruth. We are incapable both of total ignorance and certain knowledge, so obvious is it that we were once in a state of perfection from which we have unhappily fallen. [iii]

And again:

Certainly nothing shocks us more deeply than this doctrine [of original sin]. Never­the­less without this most incomprehensible of all mysteries we are incomprehensible to ourselves. Within this gnarled chasm lie the twists and turns of our condition. So, humanity is more inconceivable without this mystery than this mystery is conceivable to humanity. [iv]

Like all great Christian spiritual writers, Pascal has a way of sounding simultaneously modern and timeless. Like many of today’s “new movements,” he takes a resolutely psychological and personal approach to faith that grapples with the challenges of agnosticism and atheism, while managing to avoid the subjectivism and sentimentalism that sometimes mar the apologetics of our times. “Not only is it through Jesus Christ alone that we know God,” Pascal writes, “but it is only through Jesus Christ that we know ourselves. We know life and death only through Jesus Christ. Without Jesus Christ we do not know what our life, nor our death, nor God, nor ourselves really are.”[v] In the end, one who wants to be honest with himself must either believe in and submit to God, accepting the Messiah whom the Father sent to redeem mankind, or be an atheist in despair, abandoning the search for truth and happiness, substituting in its place a routine of shallow diversions to mask the emptiness of a life poised for immanent death. “It is good to be weary and tired from the useless search for the true good, in order to stretch one’s arms out to the Redeemer” [vi].

The most famous argument in the Pensées has been called “Pascal’s Wager.” If God exists and the Christian religion is true, then those who believe gain eternal life and those who do not believe earn eternal damnation. Since eternity is infinitely greater than the meager span of one’s life, one ought to wager on the truth of Christianity and embrace it. If it proves to be true, one gains everlasting life. If it proves to be false, then one has merely lost a short life that one had to lose anyhow. But if the religion is true, and one did not embrace it, one has lost infinitely more — one has lost everything, endlessly. How could an infinitesimal fraction of time have any value in comparison with even the possibility of an eternity of bliss or woe?

Here we see Pascal ingeniously using probability theory against the agnosticism generated by the modern scientific mentality. This argument, like many others in Pascal, was intended to startle and provoke, so that an inquirer after religious truth would search all the more earnestly; it was not intended to be sufficient or to supplant other classical arguments leading in the same direction. Alas, Pascal’s Wager might have a hard time gaining traction among people today because, thanks to liberal Protestantism and Vatican II fluffiness, very few would still accept the premise that it is blameworthy for any man not to believe in God if God has revealed Himself, or that any man is culpable before God for refusing to seek and find the truth.

One of the attractive features of the Pensées for a twenty-first-century audience is that it consists entirely of aphorisms ranging from one sentence to about a page in length. This makes it easy to read a little bit at a time, in the morning, or on the train or subway or bus, on one’s coffee break, or at night before bed. This might be a small part of the reason why aphoristic authors continue to be popular in an age of Kindles.

The choices for an English Pensées are numerous, and I can claim no expertise in recommending the best edition. Since Pascal’s original text is, in fact, a huge assembly of scattered notes, disputes about how best to arrange and present the material have occupied Pascal scholars for centuries now, and each edition is laid out differently. I have always found the Penguin edition by Krailsheimer serviceable; the language is appropriately eloquent for a master controversialist like Pascal, and the content well organized. The Hackett edition also has its fans.

In the later part of his life, Pascal became heatedly involved in political and ecclesiastical controversies surrounding the theology of Cornelius Jansen (1585–1638), bishop of Ypres, whose interpretation of Saint Augustine’s doctrine of predestination, grace, and free will formed the basis of a heresy — or at least a heretical tendency — subsequently known as Jansenism.

Although Pascal fiercely attacked the Jesuits of his time as traitors to Christianity (not unreasonably, one might add) and may have held questionable theological positions associated with the Port-Royal school, by the end of his life, he had withdrawn from public controversy to spend his time in prayer, meditation, and works of charity. In the six-month period of his final prolonged sickness, Pascal sold off his carriage, his horses, his tapestries, his furniture, his silver, and most of his books, giving the money to the poor. In spite of his own physical sufferings, he earnestly requested those nursing him to go out and find a poor man who might be sheltered under the same roof with him.

He died in peace of soul on August 19, 1662, shortly after receiving the last sacraments.

[i] From Pascal’s “Memorial” of the event.

[ii] Nos. 220 and 205 in the Penguin edition.

[iii] No. 164.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] No. 36.

[vi] No. 524.

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