This short paper looks at Pascal’s Pensées and discovers it to be an impressive example of devotional apologetics. By this I mean that Pascal’s desire to draw his readers away from atheism towards belief in God is done not through argumentativeness but through a gentle appeal that is grounded on his own ongoing experience of God. The paper is structured in three parts that hope to draw attention to the multifaceted depth of the Pensées for today.
The last thing one settles in writing a book is what one should put in first. (19)
One cannot help but be wary of emphasising biographical details of Blaise Pascal’s illustrious life after Kreeft’s strong words against such an approach. Nevertheless it is fundamentally important to note that Pascal (1623-1662) rejected Cartesian rationalism. This is significant because Descartes’ rational optimism was founded on the assumption that certainty was possible in matters of faith through reason. For Pascal, faith was always above reason and knowledge of God was dependent on grace not deduction.
Interestingly, in seeming contrast, he was immersed in the sciences. Rogers points to the fact that Pascal was especially scientific in the modern sense as he advocated the use of “senses and reason,” rather than appeal to “ancient antiquity,” to resolve scientific disputes. Pascal made significant contributions in the study of conic sections (physics), probability theory and calculus (mathematics), along with laying the ground for modern hydraulics and computers.
However, the most spiritually profound work of his life happened in the latter part of his life, between the periods 1655-1659. His work reflects the view that God is not an object to be studied, but God himself grants the faith to understand him.
The Pensées, which are collections of fragments that were intended to be a book on Apologetics, are perhaps the most spiritually rich and devotionally inspiring of his work.
So why did Pascal plan a book on apologetics? One way to answer this would be to say that Pascal was a strongly confrontational man, often publically arguing for what he perceived was the ‘right’ view; for instance in his scientific debates about the vacuum and his Provincial Letters that defended Port-Royal against the Jesuits. Evidently, Pascal was not content to be individually right; truth needed to be made public and believed by all.
Nonetheless, to say only this would be simplistic because one must not ignore 1654, when Pascal had a significant conversion experience which is recorded in the Memorial. Here was a man who had been affected so deeply by a relationship with Christ that it was a huge loss that anyone would not take this Christ seriously, especially his friends with whom he associated so much prior to that. In this Memorial also lies the famous differentiation between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abhraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is a strong polemic against rationalistic religion with an affirmation of revealed religion.
Rogers is of the opinion that the thought of writing Pensées was influenced by the miraculous healing of his niece in 1656 in Port-Royal. Hence he wanted to provide a defence of miracles but then broadened his aim to converting his open-minded and worldly friends (and the like) to Christianity. It is important to note that these writings were not to prove that Christianity was true, like a typical Apology, for Pascal strongly believed that the Christian truth must be believed through the heart and not simply observed through the mind. The writings affirm that while doubt has its place, one can overcome the “sceptical allure” and arrive at the truth of the Christian faith by belief in revelation.
II. PRECIS OF THE PENSÉES
Words differently arranged have a different meaning, and meanings differently arranged have different effects. (23)
It is important to heed Pascal’s warning that words in different orders can mean different things because his text was written in fragments which have been arranged by various scholars. However it is possible to cautiously gauge a general emphasis of the Pensées.
First part: Misery of man without God. Second part: Happiness of man with God. Or, First part: That nature is corrupt. Proved by nature itself. Second part: That there is a Redeemer. Proved by Scripture. (60)
Pascal’s foremost assertion is that man without God is unhappy, miserable and lost (at sea). The assertion that follows and which forms the impetus of the work is that there hope for this lost man, and it lies in God; especially in the God of the Bible and in his son Jesus Christ the redeemer. Pascal spends considerable time establishing the wretchedness of mankind. The wretchedness, or unhappiness, is envisaged as a metaphysical state where humanity is controlled by passions and people engage in a morally corrupt lifestyle of vanity.
To avoid this empty self, man seeks diversion, which is ceaseless activity “as not to see himself as he really is.” Herein lies his wretchedness.
It is death, says Pascal, that brings the human back to reality; it is the inevitability of death that is the waking bell. In fact, Pascal envisages the human condition to be the act of waiting without hope for the inevitable fate of death. Interestingly, it is when confronted with death that the greatness of humanity is revealed. Humanity is able to comprehend that it is wretched. Sadly, this recognition is also the recognition of alienation.
There is a way out; and it is evident that if there was not then Pascal would find no need to write the Pensées. Kreeft explains Pascal’s position that our true end is God, our true duty and morality is to love God, yet our situation is that of sin and alienation from God which leads us to pride. The only cure to this is Jesus and the only way to get this cure is through faith.
The path to recovery is first through the humility of the person. Next, there is the reliance on the highest order of knowledge, the heart, over and against the body and the mind (faith above reason). This heart knowledge leads to the passionate seeking of truth, especially since there is a “long way between knowing God and loving him! (377)”
Pascal establishes that hope is through scripture and in the Christian religion (there is even a purpose for the Jews). This is expressed through his explanation on “why God hides”, which is to humble us and to encourage us to seek God earnestly.
Ultimately, the central point in Pascal’s Apology is Jesus Christ; the redeemer and the only hope for a fallen humanity. There is no knowledge of God, and no salvation, without a knowledge and experience of Christ. Even as Kreeft concludes his book with the account of Pascal’s own experience of Christ, the point is clear that Jesus “took on this unhappy condition [of humanity], so that he could be in every person and a model for every condition of men.”
III. PASCAL’S METHODOLOGY
People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others. (10)
Through the Pensées, Pascal seems to be blessed with the ability to see both sides, and this has led to what has been characterised as the maieutic approach. Two things show this; firstly, there is an attack from behind. Kreeft notes that Pascal calls Christians to be like spies, where “one must have deeper motives and judge everything accordingly, but go on talking like an ordinary person. (91)” Secondly, and more importantly, this indirect communication is geared to helping the person to discover the truth for themselves. So Pascal says,
When we want to correct someone usefully and show him he is wrong, we must see from what point of view he is approaching the matter, for it is usually right from that point of view, and we must admit this, but show him the point of view from which it is wrong. This will please him, because he will see that he was not wrong but merely failed to see every aspect of the question. (701)
This method is possibly Pensées’ most important success. Pascal is aware that the “root of atheism is not argument but attitude, not intellection but feeling, not the love of truth but the fear of truth.” Hence he strives to gently draw his opponents to the truth, firstly by inspiring respect, then admiration and finally veneration.
Dubois believes that while Pensées is addressed to the “the intelligent agnostic,” it is imbued with the view that “reason alone cannot prove the existence of God.” As a result, Hauptli adds, Pascal’s famous Wager is not intended to be a proof of Christianity but rather is “a preparation for faith for those who are in a state of suspended belief–those who were neither atheists nor Christians.” Much has been said for and against the wager, but it is important to note that while Kreeft may give importance to the Wager in terms of placing it just before an experience of Christ, for Pascal there is no such authority or importance given to the argument. It is in fact an example of the maieutic method Pascal adopts through his writing to help the reader see the truth for himself and make up his own mind.
Pascal also relies on the scriptures. While some critics feel that his biblical hermeneutics it is not developed in a viable way, Pascal’s work is certainly grounded in the belief that his message was commensurate with the scriptures.
Notably, Pascal’s method is typified in devotion; his intercession. This is displayed in the end of the Wager where Pascal’s expresses the belief that it is not his argumentation that can win a person to the faith, but God himself.
If this discourse pleases you and seems impressive, know that it is made by a man who has knelt, both before and after it, in prayer to that Being, infinite and without parts, before whom he lays all he has, for you also to lay before Him all you have for your own good and for His glory, that so strength may be given to lowliness. (233)
In India, a majority would possibly accept the existence of God. However Pascal is still relevant because of his devotional methodology. In today’s Indian context, his attempt to reach out to the person out of respect, in humility and yet with a no-compromise attitude is challenging for communication with people outside the Church. Most importantly, his own faith in Christ, and his prayer, point to a method that is inspiring.
Kreeft, Peter. Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined and Explained. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993.
(This text has Krailsheimer Numbers)
Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. Trotter, W.F. (Trans.). Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2002.
(This text has Brunschvicg Numbers)
Books and Articles
Dubois, Elfrieda. “Pascal.” In Jones, C., Wainwright, G. and Yarnold, E. (Eds.). The Study of Spirituality. London: SPCK, 1986. Pp. 406-408.
Rogers, Ben. “Pascal’s Life and Times.” In Hammond, Nicholas (Ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Pascal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. 4-19.
Lataste, J. “Pascal” In The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 11. Knight, K. Online Edition, 2003.
Lee, Archie and Archie, John G. “‘The Wager’ by Blaise Pascal.” In Reading for Philosophical Inquiry: Introduction to Philosophical Thinking. An Open Source Reader. Ver. 0.21. 2004.
West, Cornel. Book Notes on Pascal’s Wager: A Study of Practical Reasoning in Philosophical Theology by Nicholas Rescher. Theology Today 43/2 (July 1986) 302-303.
Adams, Evyn. Lecture Notes. SAIACS: Bangalore, February 2004.
Harris, Robert. Notes and Questions for Pascal’s Pensées. Virtual Salt. January 18, 1999. http://www.virtualsalt.com/lit/pascal.htm
Hauptli, Bruce W. Lecture Supplement on Blaise Pascal’s Pensées. PHH, 2003.
Webber, J.M. “Pascal’s Wager.” Philosophy of Religion. Sheffield: 2003. http://www.shef.ac.uk/~phil/courses/207/20-Wager.pdf