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Type of work: Philosophical reflections

Author: Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

First published: 1670

Blaise Pascal, scientist and mathematician, became an active member of the society of Port Royal after his conversion as the result of a mystical experience in 1654. He was actively involved in the bitter debate between the Jansenists, with whom he allied himself, and the Jesuits, and the series of polemical letters titled Provinciales (1656-1657) is the result of that great quarrel. Wanting to write a defense of Catholic Christianity which would appeal to men of reason and sensibility, Pascal, about 1660, began to prepare his defense of the Catholic faith.

Like many other great thinkers whose concern was more with the subject of their compositions than with the external order and completeness of the presentation, he failed to complete a continuous and unified apology. When he died at thirty-nine he left little more than his notes for the projected work, a series of philosophical fragments reflecting his religious meditations. These form the Pensees as we know it. Despite its fragmentary character, the book is a classic of French literature, charming and effective in its style, powerful and sincere in its philosophic and religious protestations.

Philosophers distinguish themselves either by the insight of their claims or by the power of their justification. Paradoxically, Pascal distinguishes himself in his defense by the power of his claims. This quality is partly a matter of style and partly a matter of conviction. It was Pascal, in the Pensees, who wrote, "The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know," by which he meant not that emotion is superior to reason, but that in being compelled by a moving experience one submits to a superior kind of reasons. Pascal also wrote that "all our reasoning reduces itself to yielding to feeling," but he admitted that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between feeling and fancy; nevertheless, he believed that the way to truth is by the heart, the feeling, and that the intuitive way of knowledge is the most important, not only because it is of the most important matters but also because it is essential to all reasoning, providing the first principles of thought. Much of the value of the Pensees results from the clarity with which Pascal presented his intuitive thoughts.

A considerable portion of the Pensees is taken up with a discussion of philosophical method, particularly in relation to religious reflection. The book begins with an analysis of the difference between mathematical and intuitive thinking and continues the discussion, in later sections, by considering the value of skepticism, of contradictions, of feeling, memory, and imagination. A number of passages remind the reader of the fact that a proposition which seems true from one perspective may seem false from another, but Pascal insists that "essential" truth is "altogether pure and altogether true." The power of skepticism and the use of contradictions in reasoning both depend upon a conception of human thinking which ignores the importance of perspective in determining a man's belief. Thus, from the skeptic's point of view nothing is known because we can be sure of nothing; but the skeptic forgets that "it is good to be tired and wearied by the vain search after the true good, that we may stretch out our arms to the Redeemer." Contradiction, according to Pascal, "is a bad sign of truth" since there are some things certain which have been contradicted and some false ideas which have not. Yet contradiction has its use: "All these contradictions, which seem most to keep me from the knowledge of religion, have led me most quickly to the true one."

Pascal had the gift of responding critically in a way that added value to both his own discourse and that of his opponent. Criticizing Montaigne's skepticism, he came to recognize the truth--a partial truth, to be sure--of much that Montaigne wrote. His acknowledgment of this is grudging; he writes that "it is not in Montaigne, but in myself, that I find all that I see in him," and also "What good there is in Montaigne can only have been acquired with difficulty." Yet, as T. S. Eliot has pointed out in an introduction to the Pensees, Pascal uses many of Montaigne's ideas, phrases, and terms, paralleling several parts of Montaigne's "Apology for Raimond Sebond."

Perhaps the most controversial part of the Pensees is Pascal's section on miracles. He quotes Saint Augustine as saying that he would not have been a Christian but for the miracles, and he argues that there are three marks of religion: perpetuity, a good life, and miracles. He writes, "If the cooling of love leaves the Church almost without believers, miracles will rouse them," and, "Miracles are more important than you think. They have served for the foundation, and will serve for the continuation of the Church till Antichrist, till the end." Although there are other passages which assert the importance of faith which is in no way dependent upon miracles, as, for example, "That we must love one God only is a thing so evident, that it does not require miracles to prove it," Pascal does seem unambiguously to assert that miracles are a way to faith. This idea is opposed by those who insist that belief in miracles presupposes a belief in God and the Gospels. Pascal had been profoundly affected by a miracle at Port Royal, but his defense of the importance of miracles goes beyond that immediate reference with appeals to reason and authority as well as to feeling.

Pascal's "Proof of Jesus Christ" is interesting not because it pretends to offer demonstrations which would appeal to unbelievers, but because it uses persuasive references which throw a new light on the question of Jesus' status. He argues that because of unbelievers at the time of Christ we now have witnesses to Him. If Jesus had made His nature so evident that none could mistake it, the proof of His nature and existence would not have been as convincing as it is when reported by unbelievers. Pascal emphasizes the function of the Jews as unbelievers when he writes: "The Jews, in slaying Him in order not to receive Him as the Messiah, have given Him the final proof of being the Messiah. And in continuing not to recognize Him, they made themselves irreproachable witnesses."

Pascal's famous wager is presented in the Pensees. He makes an appeal to "natural lights"--ordinary human intelligence and good sense. God either exists or He does not. How shall you decide? This is a game with infinitely serious consequences. You must wager, but how shall you wager? Reason is of no use here. Suppose you decide to wager that God is. "If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing." Pascal concludes that there is everything to be said in favor of committing oneself to a belief in God and strong reasons against denying God. To the objection that a man cannot come to believe simply by recognizing that he will be extremely fortunate if he is right and no worse off if he is wrong, Pascal replies by saying that if an unbeliever will act as if he believes, and if he wants to believe, belief will come to him. This wager later inspired William James's The Will to Believe, in which the American pragmatist argued that Pascal's method is essentially pragmatic. James's objection to Pascal's wager is that the wager alone presents no momentous issue; unless one can relate the particular issue being considered to a man's concerns, the appeal of the wager is empty. If such proof would work for Pascal's God, it would work for any god whatsoever. However, James's use of the wager to justify passional decisions is much like Pascal's.

In a section titled "The Fundamentals of the Christian Religion," Pascal wrote that the Christian religion teaches two truths: that there is a God whom men can know and that by virtue of their corruption men are unworthy of Him. Pascal rejected cold conceptions of God which reduced Him to the author of mathematical truths or of the order of the elements. For Pascal the God of salvation had to be conceived as He is known through Jesus Christ. The Christian God can be known, according to Pascal, but since men are corrupt they do not always know God. Nature assists God to hide Himself from corrupt men, although it also contains perfections to show that Nature is the image of God.

In considering "The Philosophers," Pascal emphasizes thought as distinguishing men from brutes and making the greatness of man possible. "Man is neither angel nor brute," he writes, "and the unfortunate thing is that he who would act the angel acts the brute."

Thus in Pascal we find a man who is on the one hand eager to defend the Christian faith, on the other determined to indicate the shortcomings of men. He is remorselessly critical in his attacks on skeptics, atheists, and other critics of the Church, not simply because they err, but because they do so in disorder and without respect for the possibilities of man or the values of religion. In regard to skepticism he wrote that his thoughts were intentionally without order, because only thus could he be true to the disorderly character of his subject.

But it is not Pascal the bitter critic who prevails in the Pensees; it is, rather, the impassioned and inspired defender of the faith. Even those who do not share his convictions admire his style and the ingenuity of his thought, and much that is true of all mankind has never been better said than in the Pensees.
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Publication:Masterpieces of World Literature
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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