Pascal

August 19th was the anniversary of the death of Blaise Pascal, mathematician, scientist, and Christian apologist, most famous for his Penseés, his intended defense of the Christian faith.  This will be the 346th year since the death of the man who, though he is not a saint, is an important figure in Christianity, whom the theologian Edward T. Oakes once called “the first modern Christian.”  And in honor of the man, I offer up a few meditations upon on his life and work.

Pascal was born in Clermont in 1623, son of a government official named Etienne Pascal.  His mother died when he was only three years old, and his father raised him and his two sisters Gilberte and Jacqueline on his own, moving the familly to Paris in 1631.  Etienne educated Blaise himself, which kept the boy, who was know to be intellectually precocious from a young age (according to one story, he had discovered Euclid’s thirty two propositions on his own by the time he was twelve), isolated from the society of other boys, but also afforded him some freedom from physical discomfort, as he was a sickly child, and plagued by poor health all his life (he died when he was only 39).  When he was 14, he began attending weekly meetings in the cell of Father Mersenne in Paris, which included such luminaries as Pierre Gassendi and Rene Descartes.  His father became tax collector for Rouen in 1639, and between 1642 and 45, Pascal developed a calculating machine to help his father with the crushing amount of calculations needed for his task (the tax records in Rouen were in chaos at the time because of uprisings) called the Pascaline, which was the first or second mechanical calculating machine ever built (depending on whom you ask).  Pascal’s contributions to mathematics included, among other things, the development of a mathematical theory of probability which laid the groundwork for Leibniz’s & Newton’s work on the calculus.  When he was 16, he produced a work on conic sections (Essai pour les coniques) which is known today as Pascal’s theorem.  When it was shown to Descartes, he refused to believe it was by the younger Pascal; after Mersenne had assured him that indeed the son and not the father had written the manuscript, he dismissed it with his characteristic touchiness, saying that “I do not find it strange that he has offered demonstrations about conics more appropriate than those of the ancients,” adding, “but other matters related to this subject can be proposed that would scarcely occur to a sixteen-year-old child.”

A turning point occurred in Pascal’s life in 1646 when his father broke his hip and was laid up for several months.  The injury was potentially fatal, given the state of medicine at the time, and it was by the care of a couple of the finest physicians in Rouen that his father recovere.  Both of these men were also followers of Jansenism, the Catholic party in France formed around the teachings of the Dutch bishop Jansenius, who espoused a very severe form of Augustinian piety.  Their presence affected the first great shift in his attitude, though it was short lived.  After a couple of years later his father died, and his sister Jacqueline entered Port Royal as a nun, to his great distress and disappointment, and they wrangled over their inheritance for several years as well, further deepening his distress (in addition to his poor health).  He went through what is sometimes called a “worldly period” in his life from 1648-1654, mainly because he pursued marriage at one point and evidently reveled in his now international fame as a scientist.

All of this changed one night, on November 23 1654, which we know because Pascal recorded the events he experienced on a piece of paper and sewed it into the lining of his clothing, changing it whenever he changed his clothes.  Sometimes called “la nuit de feu” because of what Pascal wrote, the evidence of his experience was discovered only upon his death (which was evidently unknown even to his closest associates until then).  It contained a parchment together with a piece of paper with almost identical writing.  It reads thus:

L’an de grâce 1654
        Lundi, 23 Novembre, jour de saint Clement, pape et
martyr, et autres au Marytrologe.
        Veille de saint Chrysogonus, martyr et autres.
Depuis environ dix heures et demie du soirs jusques environ
minuit et demie.
                                       Feu
‘Dieu d’Abraham, Dieu d’Isaac, Dieu de Jacob’  non des
philosophes et des savants.
Certitude, certitude, sentiment, joie, paix.
Dieu de Jesus Christ.
Deum meum et Deum vestrum.
Ton Dieu sera mon Dieu.
Oubli de monde et de tout, hormis Dieu.
Il ne se trouve que par les voies enseignees dans l’Evangile.
                    Grandeur de l’ame humaine.
Pere juste, le monde ne t’a point connu, mais je t’ai connu.
                    Joie, joie, joie, pleurs de joie.
Je mon suis séparé.
Dereliquerunt me fontem aquae vivae.
Mon Dieu, me quitterez-vous?
Que je n’en sois pas séparé eternellement.
  Cette est la vie eternelle, qu’ils te connaissent seul vrai
Dieu et celui que tu as envoyé, Jesus Christ.
                      Jesus Christ.
                          Jesus Christ.
Je m’en suis séparé.  Je lai fui, renoncé, crucifié.
Que je n’en sois pas separé.
Il ne se conserve que par les voies enseignées dans l’Évangiles.
                         Renonciation totale et douce.
Soumission totale à Jesus Christ et à mon directeur.
Eternellement en joie pour un jour d’exercice sur la terre.
Non obliviscar sermones tuos. Amen.
(The year of grace 1654
Monday, November 23, feast of St. Clement Pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology.
Eve of St. Chrysogonus, martyr and others.
From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight.
Fire. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars.
Certitude, certitude, heartfelt, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
God of Jesus Christ.
My God and your  God.
Your God shall be my God.
The world forgotten, and all except God.
He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels.
Greatness of the human soul.
O righteous Father, the world had not known thee, but I have known thee.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have cut myself off from him.
They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters.
My God, why have you forsaken me?
Let me not be cut off from him for ever.
And this is eternal life, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I have cut my self off from him. I have shunned him, renounced him, crucified him.
Let me never be cut off from him.
He can only be preserved by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Sweet and total renunciation.
Eternally in joy for one day’s effort on earth.
I will not forget thy words. Amen.)

The implication of the “night of fire” were profound:  Pascal virtually ceased to produce new experiments, new works, and dedicated his life to religion, in particular the rigorous Jansenism that his sister had first imbibed, and that he now wholeheartedly embraced. It is out of this change that he would eventually lunge into the theological fray with the Jesuits, most famously in his Provincial Letters, his masterly polemic which did so much damage to the reputation of that order.  The Letters were a literary masterpiece, and I believe none other than Voltaire himself said they were the greatest works in French literature (not coincidentally, his brother was a Jansenist, one of the “convulisonaries” he was normally so contemptuous of).  Some scholars have suggested that his poor health is behind his conversion, hinting, I think, that he may not have been mentally stable because of it.  I’m not sure if he originated the idea, but surely the most famous accusation of this kind came naturally from the pen of Nieztsche, for in Pascal he found the apotheosis of everything he despised about Christianity:  its pusillanimity and exaltation of human weakness, its invention of a purely “interior” realm of spirituality, superior to the realm of the senses, its otherwordliness, its rootedness (as he saw it) in the sickness and physiological deformity of human kind, in other words its “life denying” characteristics—all this he saw epitomized in the great mathematician.  “And history is in fact rich in such anti-artists, in such starvelings of life, who necessarily have to take things to themselves, impoverish them, make them leaner.  This is, for example, the case with the genuine Christian, with Pascal for example…” (Twilight of the Idols, “Expeditions of an Untimely Man,” 9)   Some of this is ironic, given the fact that Nietzsche himself was a rather sickly person, but the sharpness with which he dispatches Pascal is due to a wish to distance himself from someone who’s influence he thought he had outgrown.  I’ll likely return to this topic at a later date, but for now I can only recommend to the reader Eric Voeglin’s essay “Nietzsche and Pascal,” which discusses his debt to Pascal at length. 

At any rate, it it his Pensées for which he is most famous, his apology for Christianity which he did not live to see finished but for which he collected a series of his thoughts, which he arranged into 27 headings (apparently intended as chapters) and began to write down his pensées or fragments.  The first section that Pascal arranged he titled “Order,” and I linger over it for a moment it for a couple of reasons.   One is historical: order was one of the great obsessions of the age in which Pascal lived, as the thought of so many great thinkers, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Grotius, to name a few, was concerned with bringing to order the edifice of human thought in one shape or another to a simplified or more simplified form.  As was another, specifically the obsession with mathematics and in particular geometry as basis for knowledge, so conspicuous in Descartes, Galileo, and Hobbes, is something that influences Pascal’s thought, it being deliberately non-linear, non-scholastic in its orientation.  Pascal’s efforts in this respect can be seen in just such a light, particularly when you think about his devastation of Jesuit casuistry, with all of its complicated justifications for what Pascal took as degradations of the faith.  The other reason I think “Order” is so important has to do with his scientific endeavors.  Here is the first “pensee” of the first section: 

Les psaumes chanté par tout la terre.
Qui rend témoignage de Mahoment? Lui-même.
Jesus Christ veut que son témoignage de soit rien.
La qualité de témoins fait qu’il faut qu’ils soient toujours
et partout et misérables. Il est seul.
(The psalms chanted throughout the world.
Who witnesses to Mahomet? Himself.
Jesus Christ wants his witness to be nothing.
The quality of witnesses is such that they must be always
and everywhere miserable.  He is alone.)

Now the editor of my penguin edition of the Pensées explains this passage purely in reference to the Jews, which is admittedly the immediate context for the passage, but it seems kind of odd that it would be about them since it also explicitly says Jesus “wants his witness to be nothing,” and that “he is alone.”  Part of the problem with interpreting Pascal’s aphorisms is that they are, of course, dislocated from the larger context of his argument; this also explains the attraction of Pascal’s work, in that it abounds in such rich obscurities that an inventive interpreter can make much out of.  The issue which comes to mind on re-reading the Pénsees is the whole question of social credit and the reliability of witnesses in scientific experiments and their reporting in the 17th century, especially the work of Steve Shapin and Simon Schaeffer, whose work showed how social credit (how trustworthy one thought the witnesses of an experiment were) was important if not determinative in how certain scientific disputes were settled in the 17th century (Pascal’s among them, of course).  The question is important, because it raises the whole problem of objectivity, which was a concept just then being born.  Can we in fact have “objective” knowledge of a thing, wholly independent of a human subjectivity, without the mediation of human witnesses?  Pascal seems to say yes and no in the passage; Jesus is “alone” and wants “nothing” to be his witness, while Muhammad is his own witness.  It appears that Pascal wants to say that Jesus alone needs no witnesses, and yet the Jews still remain to be witnesses, proclaiming a messiah whom they will or cannot recognize.  (This would have been a good metaphor for most people in Pascal’s eyes, I imagine, as he thought most people could not or would not recognize the Messiah.)  Or perhaps we should say Pascal thought Jesus needed no witnesses, but that we most certainly need them.  In any case, the paradoxical quality of the Pensées is evident in this opening salvo of Pascal’s, who like other thinkers of his age is desperate for epistemological certainty, but Pascal was more attuned than most to the ironies and complexities involved in such a search.

The main outlines of what Pascal was attempting are clear, however, despite pregnant ambiguity of individual passages:  to raise doubts in the mind of the skeptical, to show the limits of skepticism, then draw them into the reasons for belief in Christian revelation.  It is probably the former which is more widely admired today than the latter, but Pascal’s own summation of what he was attempting might be in “Order,” where he states the intention of his work:

First Part: Wretchedness of man without God.
Second Part: Happiness of man with God.
               otherwise
First Part: Nature is corrupt, proved by nature itself
Second Part: There is a Redeemer, proved by Scripture.

It is worth pointing out here that he doesn’t mean “nature” here to be the natural world; rather he is talking about the nature of man in its corruption, as Jansenism did.  (How far his thought his equatable to Jansenism as whole is debatable, but on this point most Christians at the time still agreed that human nature is corrupt).  Pascal’s first goal then is to prove to those who are satisfied with their lives, content with they take to be happiness, that they do not really possess happiness at all, but are rather mired in the wretchedness of an existence completely ignorant of their own nature, which he expresses as “Condition de l’homme: inconstance, ennui, inquietude” (Man’s condition: inconstancy, boredom, anxiety).   Pascal does this, for example, by pointing out the role of custom, or opinion over human affairs, sometimes with comic poignancy:

Heel of a shoe. “How well made that is! What a skillfull workman! What a brave solider!” This is where our inclinations come from and our choice of careers. “What a lot that man drinks!  How little that man drinks!” That is what makes people temperate or drunkards, soldiers, cowards, etc. (Vanity)

In attempting to show people their wretchedness, Pascal repeats the charge of the contemplative against the great mass of humanity:  namely that they are immersed in activity, and therefore incapable of discerning the hard truth that they are wretched: 

Anyone who does not see the vanity of the world is vain himself.  So who does not see it, apart from the young people whose lives are all noise, diversions, and thought for the future?
            But take away their diversion and you will see them bored to extinction.  Then they feel their nullity without recognizing it, for nothing could be more wretched thant to be intolerably depressed as soon as one is reduced to introspection with no means of diversion. 

Pascal’s great innovation on this theme, one that Leszek Kolakowski picked up on in his book God Owes Us Nothing (the greatest title I think I’ve ever heard, though I have problems with the book), namely that of boredom.  It’s one of the things about the Pensées which make them seem so modern, contemporary society being immersed in the kind of non-stop diversions that Pascal could only dream of (or have nightmares about), all in the service of keeping people perpetually agitated and occupied.  Thus Pascal, according to Kolakowski, stands as the progenitor in a small but fairly distinguished line of thinkers on boredom, notably Kirkegaard and Heidegger.  As A.J. Krailsheimer, translator of the Penguin edition of the Pensées, points out, Pascals’ method for puncturing what Heidegger called “das Gerede” or empty chatter, is not a linear one:  he does not proceed in scholastic fashion (indeed, he helped destroy scholastic education as well as scholastic science) by syllogisms, but by observations about human experience, proceeding in a sort of geometric fashion from several differing points all convering on the same center, namely faith in Jesus Christ.  (Pascal actually draws on several mathematical concepts in his Pensees, most famously in his “Wager,” which is an extension of his work on the theory of probability.) 

Along the way, Pascal takes aim not only at the insufficiency of custom and ordinary experience as guides to ultimate reality about the human condition, but also at reason.  As Edward Oakes has pointed out about Pascal, he was one of the first Christian thinkers to fully absorb the new science of the 17th century, and its potential consequences for Christian belief.  This should be pointed out because, though some thinkers like to distinguish between the rationality of the scholastics and the rationality of more “Enlightenment” type thinkers such as Descartes, Pascal at least in the Pensées, does not make such distinctions.  He thinks of reason in quite universal terms.  Thus when he says that there are times when reason should submit, I do not think one can make him into an historicist and say that he means merely “Enlightenment reason”; he means reason as such.  I point this out because Pascal in the Pénsees is restating what is a Christian commonplace, namely the insufficiency of reason to bring us to the fullness of divine, eternal truth;  but there is a marked tendency in Jansenism toward separating faith and reason so firmly that it winds up lapsing into something like fideism, and I’m not sure that Pascal is altogether free of this tendency, even in his unfinished thoughts. Kolakowski seemed to think so, and in the last pages of his book seems simultaneously to attribute to Pascal the idea that “faith” is something that exists in the human heart only, and that it cannot be communicated at all to other people, and therefore never known as absolutely true or not, without the possibility of solipsism. (God Owes Us Nothing, 197)  There doubtless was an extradordinary internality to Pascal’s life and thought, but I must confess I don’t find this sentiment anywhere in the Pensées.  Such an idea may accurately reflect the outlook of other Jansenists, Nicole or Arnauld perhaps, but I think Kolakowski may be projecting his own doubts about dogmatic Christianity onto Pascal here, doubts of a much more “modern” sort than even Pascal could countenance.  There was one thinker in the 17th century who articulated such an idea rather explicitly, but it was not Pascal: it was John Locke, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, I believe in his chapter on faith and reason, in which he says in effect that even if God could reveal something to us over and above what we could naturally discover with our reason, we could never communicate it to other people.  But Pascal I don’t think quite went that far, though perhaps he does in other writings beyond the Pensées.

He certainly thought men should begin with evidence of man’s fallen nature, however, and identifies evidence in abundance for it, adeptly recasting traditional Christian commonplaces in brilliant aphorisms designed, as he says in one pensee, to “make religion attractive.”  On the relation of faith and reason, he says in one place that “La foi dit biens ce que les sens ne disent pas, mais non pas le contraire de ce qu’ils voient. Elle est au-dessus, et non pas contre” (faith tells us well what the senses do not, but not to the contrary of what they see. It is above, and not against them.)   And against the vanity of materialist philosophers, he has this to say:  “Immatérialité de l’âme. Les philosophes qui ont dompté leurs passions, quelle matière l’a pu faire?”  (Immateriality of the soul.  When the philosophers have quieted their passions, what matieral substance has done this?)  But Pascal does not want to stop at merely doubting the doubters, or quieting the “dogmatists” as he calls them, with their soul killing absurdities.  He thinks this knowledge of man’s corruption, of his limitations, can be liberating, since it can bring them to a knowledge of God, and of man’s original greatness.  One passage in particular has always stayed with me, at least in the English translation from which I first read it, in the section entitled “Grandeur” or Greatness:  “Toutes ces miséres-la même prouvent sa grandeur.  Ce sont misères de grand seigneur, misères d’un roi déposédé.”  (All these examples of his wretchedness prove his greatness.  It is the wretchedness of a great lord, the wretchedness of a dispossessed king)  According to the editor of my French of edition of the Pensées, Pascal was haunted by images of kings in describing humanity, and quotes a passage from a letter he wrote to his sister Charlotte, where he talks about the saints being enthroned in heaven with Jesus.  Maybe it is the fact that there are basically no more kings left in Western Civilization, but I have always found it a striking and haunting image for the human condition.  (I think Emerson said somewhere that man is a god in ruins, which, though he was a crank, seems to partake of the same sentiment.)  Pascal it seems needed to see human beings as the foulest abyss imaginable, in order to see them as in any way capable of the highest good.  Or more accurately, to be able to see the highest good (that is, God,) they had to be made to see the abyss which separated them from this God.  Hence in Pascal there is almost a sort of “baroque” dualism, spanning the whole of human experience.  For him, the complete wretchedness and banality of humanity points to the summits of its greatness, like a baroque painting in which a figure points to something outside of its own frame, to where humanity was intended to partake of the divine nature.  For him these are the twin poles of human existence:  not body and spirit, as Descartes would have it, nor reason and emotion, as his Romantic descendents might interpret him (there is room for this though, with all his talk of knowing things with the “heart”), but rather between man’s wretchedness and his greatness.  “S’il se vante, je l’abaisse/S’il s’abaisse, je le vante/Et le contredis toujours/Jusques à ce qu’il comprenne/Qu’il est an monstre incompréhensible.”  (If he exalts himself, I humble him, if he humbles himself, I exalt him, and I go on contradicting him Till he understands That he is a monster that passes all understanding)  There is no way of knowing, but it would be nice to think that he would have included his “Mystery of Jesus,” one of his later fragments that is not catalogued, in with the rest of the Pensées, as a way of crowning his much more obvious achievement of casting doubt on the skeptical, though A. J. Krailsheimer says it was merely a private meditation.  It well captures the essence of what he was trying to convey to his intended audience:

I see the abyss of my pride, my curiosity, my concuspiscence.  There is no link between me and God or Jesus Christ the Righteous. But he was made sin for me:  all your scourges fell upon him.  He is more abominable than me, and far from abhorring me, feels honored that I go to him and help him.  But he healed himself and will heal me all the more surely.  I must add my wounds to his, and join myself to him, and he will save me in saving himself.
Do small things as if they were great, because of the majesty of Christ, who does them in us and lives our life, and great things as if they were small and easy, because of his almighty power.

One can see in the last paragraph quoted above something of his “modernity” in theological terms, sounding a bit like the “Little Flower,” St. Therese of Liseux, who in her private meditations also urged herself to do “little things” as if they were great for God as well.  Here we see Pascal at his most practical, but also his most vulnerable, and therefore most impressive.  It makes me wish he lived just a little longer, to see what his rhetorical genius could have done with time to prepare for something more than a merely negative defense of the faith, as he had done in the Provincial Letters.

Nevertheless, it is significant that these were his “private” thoughts, and not ones he intended to publish in his planned apology.  As Edward Oakes has pointed out, he is perhaps most quintessentially modern in that this profound piety of his was an almost wholly private, internal matter, known only to himself and a few confederates at Port Royal.  This is exactly the sort of religious person that a secularized world tends hold up as the ideal religious person, because it does not impinge on anyone very much.  This tendecy to privatize one’s faith, internalize it, is perhaps, along with both its rigor and the often melancholic introversion which so often seemed to accompany it, is what made Kolakowski end his book by condemning Pascal’s religion as one which “was a religion for unhappy people and designed to make them more unhappy,” despite all of Pascal’s “protestations about the happiness of those who have “found God.””  (God Owes Us Nothing, 197)  Though I am inclined to agree with him about the excessive rigor of the sect, I think Kolakowski has missed the mark somewhat; again, as his crack about the happiness of those who have “found God” hints that he may be thinking of religious believers more close at hand than the Jansenists (modern day evangelicals?  Hard line Polish Catholic Nationalists?), who were after all not condemned by the Pope for their rigidity but for their intellectual errors—primarily for denying free will to mankind in the quest for salvation.  Pascal himself can perhaps bear the charge of excessive asceticism and morbidity, but not his religion, if one means his piety and his beliefs.  (It should be noted that he did submit to the Pope formally before he died, realizing, as Krailsheimer has noted, that he could not continue as a Catholic otherwise.)  They are pretty much just standard Augustinianism, however morbid Pascal himself may have been.  And as Kolakowski points out, this view of the world has the great advantage of seeing clearly and honestly a rather uncomfortable fact about God in the Christian tradition:  as he puts it, God “simply owes nothing to anybody”; God cannot be bound by any human rules about justice, and we cannot make moral claims on him the same way we can on other human beings.  This may sound banal, but it is the converse of that modern theological trope which theologians of all stripes like to invoke, the “theology of the gift”:  if all life, all creation is gift, then nothing is owed to us, not our friends, not our health, not even our lives.  There is in that sense no “right to life” at all; we are simply, always, in the hands of the God who is, as Pascal never fails to repeat, difficult to understand and know.  (Deus absconditus, as Pascal quotes it in one of his fragments.) This is not normally a pleasant thought, unless you are extraordinarily convinced that God exists and wants to help you.  Otherwise, you will probably run from this God as fast as you can—modernity in a nutshell.  There is of course more, a whole other side to this in the Christian tradition about this problem: the genuine hope and love of God, coming gratuitously from the God of love, being returned by him, is usually combined with a moralism that emphasizes helping others in most contemporary Christian settings, and constitutes the very essence of modern presentations of the Christian faith (not to much effect, it seems); but it’s not the reality of love that is the problem.  The problem comes when knowing that it comes from God and experiencing it with a feeling of absolute certainty is made paramount, and if one is going to treat Pascal’s thought at the level of epistemology only (à la Descartes) then yes, it will seem as if his religion was “not tailored to the needs of an ordinary, decent Christian.”  But I think this is to confuse who Pascal was with what he thought; and what was he?  Almost certainly a melancholic with a tendency to morbid introspection, someone who needed, as we all do, the loving grace and mercy of the God made man, but also better physical health and maybe some pyschological healing, as well as spiritual healing.  Pascal loved God more than any sort of certainty he could attain about God, and that indeed is something that is hard for most people to understand, but it made life worth living for him; he may indeed have been “unhappy” at some level, but he was free, because even in the midst of pain and suffering he could still experience the love of God.  It may not be the most attractive kind of faith, but it was genuine, and therefore I do not think he merits the condemnation that Kolakowski places upon him.

Certainly, Pascal is not for everyone, and as I hinted before, there are some aspects of his thought which ought rightly to be avoided.   Those who are secure in their faith, who do experience that joy without having to be reminded constantly of their wretchedness (though they are aware of it), needn’t bother themselves with the Pensées (though the Provincial Letters might be good reading for those who are convinced they aren’t wretched at all; the modern Jesuits, perhaps?).  Nor should they be indulged in too much by those recovering from doubt or apathy, or those who are like Pascal so intensely melancholic.  That is in fact my own predilection, and it has been a long time since I have allowed myself the indulgence of reading the Pensées, and you can see from what I have written that I have not read them all for the purposes of this assay.  Pascal was, along with Dostoevsky, Augustine, and a few others, once providentially placed in may path to lead me out of painful and wrenching doubt, but I do not like to indulge my temperament too much, even though reading him again is like visiting an old friend who has moved away, and finding him much the same.  But still, Pascal is best suited for those in the grip of doubt, for those who experience the world too intensely, and see in it only the terror and boredom of an indifferent, hostile void.  He is for those who have yet to learn how to doubt their doubt, to put into question all those overwhelming and enervating passions which lead them into either despairing inactivity or entropic fantasy, and yet can “only find peace through a satisfaction of the whole being,” as T.S. Eliot once put it.  The world being what it is, I’m convinced there will always be those in need of Pascal.  I believe they should probably look elsewhere for their ultimate satisfaction, as I myself have, but until they begin to find it, they can start their search in no better place than in the thoughts of M. Pascal, to whose brief life and profound works I can give no better encomium, than to quote this passage from A.J. Krailsheimer’s introduction:

To return to the point de départ, the wretchedness of man without God is the result of making himself his own centre, the happiness of man with God is the result of making Christ his centre, of trying to conform his life to that of a perfect man.  The creator of the universe must remain a hidden God for finite creatures, but in God made man the model is plain for all to follow who are not blinded by self love and self interest.  In these terms one can see how the nuit de feu underlies and explains what followed.  The Pensées, like the Provinciale Letters, are as much a denunciation of the false god of the self as an apology for Christianity.  Such private texts as the Mystery of Jesus show that Pascal’s meditations brought him closer not only to God but to his fellow men, with whom he shared both the guilt and the redemption.  When insecurity and aniexty neuroses, arrogant intellecutalism and unthinking materialism, selfishness and agression have faded from the background of daily living, Pascal may have fewer readers.  In the meantime the Pensées will continue to attract and even inspire countless men and women seeking to escape from a condition of “inconstancy, boredom, anxiety” of which they are only too well aware. 

Blaise Pascal, requiescat in pace.

Memorial of St. Pius X

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~ by Alypius on August 21, 2008.

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