Lecture Supplement on Blaise Pascal’s Pensées [posthumous, 1670]

     Copyright © 2012 Bruce W. Hauptli

1. Introduction:

Thus far we have been discussing rationalists.  We will now examine the irrationalist's, or fideistic, orientation.  Here the appeal to a deity is much different from that which we find in Descartes (or any other rationalist)!  Since Aquinas, most religiously-minded thinkers believed that the truths of reason and the truths of religion could not be contrary to one another.1  This belief itself (eventually) helped to bring on the Renaissance (it encouraged individuals to engage in "purely rational" sorts of endeavors).  The rationalists like Descartes pursued a sort of intellectual perception—they sought truths of reason.  That is, they looked for knowable "necessary truths" which would provide an indisputable account of, and explanation for, the world. Pascal did not have this "faith in reason." 

     Pascal was an accomplished mathematician (he published his Essai sur les coniques ["Essay on Conic Sections"] at the age of 17 in 1640), and he invented an adding machine to assist his father in the assessment of taxes (while his father held a government post in Rouen).  He was also an accomplished scientist who wrote in detail on the character of the scientific method.  In the preface to his Tratie' du vide ["Treatise on the Vacuum"] [1647] he discusses the new science, and offers a discussion of the nature of scientific progress.  He claimed that in the study of nature respect for authority should not take precedence over reasoning or experience.  He summarized a variety of experiments with variously shaped and sized tubes, and set forth basic laws in regard to atmospheric pressure.  Pascal reasoned as to why there was a vacuum above the column of mercury; and replying to Father Noel (who claimed that there really was a substance there since nature abhors a vacuum), Pascal responded that a hypothesis which accorded with the facts was probable but that one which issued in false predictions was false (and he argued that there were false consequences in the Aristotelian hypothesis which Noel employed). 

     On November 23, 1654 Pascal underwent a profound religious experience, and he then devoted the rest of his life to religious activities.  A fragment in his Pensées entitled "Memorial" records his "mystical" experience.2  Pascal wrote this fragment on a piece of paper and had it sewn into the lining of his jacket.   Reading it provides one with an excellent introduction to Pascal's later thought.  It is also to be noted that a year and a half later, on March 24, 1656, Pascal's niece, Marguerite Perier, was "miraculously cured" (it was declared such by diocesan authorities on October 22, 1656) of an ulcerous lesion after her eye was touched with what was thought to be a sacred relic (supposedly a thorn from the crown of Jesus).3 

     This miracle had a profound impression upon Pascal who was at the time writing his Lettres provinciales which defended the Jansenist position against its critics (a Papal Bull condemning five Jansenist propositions had been signed in Rome on May 31, 1653, and Antoine Arnaud [1612-1694] was stripped of his doctorate by the Theology faculty of the Sorbonne on January 29, 1656 for his defense of Jansenism).  Jansenism was named after Cornelius Jansenius, Bishop of Ypres [1585-1638].  It was a puritanical version of Catholicism (which Jansenius claimed to have formulated from the writings of St. Augustine) which the Jesuits worked to bring down.  Jansenism emphasized that grace is irresistible and denied that Christ died for all.  It repudiated free will (that is, accepted predestination), and held that grace is important for salvation rather than good works.  Such disagreements amongst the Catholics were so fierce because of the ongoing disagreements at the time between the Catholics and the Protestants (see Appendix I below). 

     Pascal's Pensées  was compiled after his death and published posthumously in 1670.  Pascal had not prepared the work for publication, and may indeed have given up on his plan to publish a work based upon the collection of notes (or fragments) which he had compiled.  As Anthony Levi notes:

the Pensées , a pile of papers concerning religion, were originally written on mostly large sheets of paper, some of which were subsequently cut into individual passages, of which again only some were divided into twenty-seven bundles or laisse, 414 in all, or just under half of the total were then attached together by thread running through holes pierced in the top left corner and knotted after the title had been given to the group.4 
According to Pascal, the truths of the Christian faith (reached by revelation) solve the problems which arise out of the "human situation."  He contends that "skeptical doubts" are appropriate, and he maintains that we may overcome the skeptical allure only by recognizing that "first principles" must come to us through revelation.  In contrast to Descartes, then, Pascal believed that human reason was wholly unable to establish "first principles."5  Indeed, though this seems hard to believe, Pascal held that Descartes was too preoccupied with the material world, and too little concerned with the deity! As Frederick Copleston notes:
in a society impregnated by deistic humanism and by rationalist scepticism and free thought [Pascal] considered that it was above all the ideas of human corruption and of the necessity and power of divine grace which should be emphasized and that the highest Christian ideals should be maintained in their purity without any compromise or attempt to accommodate them to human weakness.6 
In his "Introduction" to a translation of Pascal's Pensées , T.S. Eliot maintains that:
to understand the method which Pascal employs, the reader must be prepared to follow the process of the mind of the intelligent believer.  The Christian thinker--and I mean the man who is trying consciously and conscientiously to explain to himself the sequence which culminated in faith, rather than the public apologist--proceeds by rejection and elimination.  He finds the world to be so and so; he finds its character inexplicable by any non-religious theory; among the religions he finds Christianity, and Catholic Christianity, to account most satisfactorily for the world and especially for the moral world within; and thus, by what Newman calls "powerful and concurrent" reasons, he finds himself inexorably committed to the dogma of the Incarnation.7 
     Pascal does not wish to do away with mathematics or with natural science however.  Instead, as Copleston notes, he merely maintains that:
...reason alone is unable to establish the science of man.  For without the light of the Christian religion man is incomprehensible to himself.  Reason has its own sphere, mathematics and the natural sciences or natural philosophy; but the truths which it is really important for man to know, his nature and his supernatural destiny, these cannot be discovered by the philosopher or the scientist.  `I had passed a long time in the study of the abstract sciences; and the scant communication which one can have in them (that is, the comparative fewness of the people with whom one shares these studies and with whom one can `communicate') had disgusted me.  When I began the study of man, I saw that these abstract sciences are not proper to man....' 8 
According to Pascal, philosophy fosters skepticism and we may find happiness only via the intuitive truths provided by Christian religion:
...Christian religion...properly consists in the mystery of the Redeemer, who, uniting in himself the two natures, human and divine, saved men from corruption and sin in order to reconcile them with God in his divine person. 

So it teaches men both these truths: that there is a God of whom we are capable, and that there is a corruption in nature which makes us unworthy of him.  It is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness, and to know his wickedness without knowing the Redeemer who can cure him of it.  Knowledge of only one of these points leads either to the arrogance of the philosophers, who have known God and not their wretchedness, or to the despair of the atheists, who know their wretchedness without knowing the redeemer.9 

Pascal could not settle for a deity who necessarily existed and simply started things going and preserved order.  Thus he contrasted "the personalistic deity of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" with the "deity of the philosophers and scholars."10  The latter was not known a priori but by the heart (intuition, revelation, and feeling). 

     Pascal's famous "wager argument" is not intended as a substitute for proofs of Christianity but, rather, as a preparation for faith for those who are in a state of suspended belief--those who were neither atheists nor Christians.  As Anthony Levi makes clear in his "Introduction," Pascal had planned to write a "Christian Apology."11  Levi contends, however, that:

it now seems clear that the project to write an apologetic was not abandoned for reasons of health, as is still often assumed, and even that, on Pascal's own premises, the intended apologetic could have served no purpose, but we have no clear indication from his pen of why he gave up.12 
Levi maintains that, for Pascal, an apologetic argument is pointless given that:
Pascal believed that without Christian belief and practice the individual's fate was certainly eternal damnation, but, if salvation was God's gratuitous gift13 to a minority of chosen souls, how could any moral act, and in particular any freely chosen commitment of belief or behavior, affect the individual's eternal destiny?  The alternatives were only hell or heaven, the never-ending and never-altering experience of either ecstasy or torment.14 
Given this "human condition," a "defense" becomes rather pointless--the majority of people are damned anyway, and one's virtuous acts provide no guarantee, or even positive prospect, of salvation.  While an "apologetic" may not be called for, however, the Pensées would still have an important role to play in motivating us to focus our attention upon the "infinite concerns" which are central to our being and our good. 

     Voltaire offers a philosophical and literary critique of Pascal's orientation which equals (or exceeds) Pascal's literary accomplishments.  In his "Voltaire," Norman Torrey maintains that:

Montaigne, in the turmoil of civil and religious wars, had sought refuge in meditative cultivation of individual man through self-knowledge.  Pascal, however, found value in the sufferings of man's terrestrial existence as a painful preparation for the glories of the life to come.  Voltaire wished to present a program of social action for the betterment of man's lot on earth, and in the 25th philosophical letter [of his Lettres philosophiques (1734)] he attacked Pascal as the giant across this path.  (The attack also served as a sop to the official censors of the Jesuit order, to which Pascal had been far from kind.)  Pascal, who was virtually obsessed with the misery of the human condition, believes that the doctrine of original sin was psychologically the most satisfactory interpretation of human nature that had ever been devised.  He explained human existence in terms of divine purpose through the theological doctrines of the Fall and the redemption, predestination, and grace.  In Voltaire's mind it was false and dangerous to reduce religion to metaphysics; he argued that Pascal was not a true philosopher, that he had neither an enlightened mind nor a humanitarian heart, and that his views encouraged fanaticism. "Inconceivable" man could be rendered no more conceivable through inconceivable doctrines.  Such doctrines can be accepted only as revealed truths, not as reasoned truths.  Voltaire's whole career was a devoted effort to emancipate man and reconcile him to his fate:

I dare take the side of humanity against this sublime misanthropist [Pascal] and affirm that we are neither so wicked nor so unhappy as he thinks....Why try to make us disgusted with life?....To look upon the universe as a prison cell and all men as criminals about to be executed is a fanatic's idea.  To believe that the world is a land of bliss...is the dream of a Sybarite.15  To think that earth, man, and animals are what they are created to be, is the opinion of a sage.16 

In his “The Hidden Lesson of Montaigne,” Mark Lilla maintains that:

by telling the story of one man, Augustine showed that no one is sufficient; to truly become ourselves we must, paradoxically, surrender ourselves.16a 

 For fifteen hundred years, Christian civilization had been built on the assumption that we can and must become other than we are.  The “Essays” propose the most sweeping revaluation of Western values since the Confessions, and succeeded because they meet Augustine on his own psychological terrain.  In essay after essay Montaigne uses Christian interiority against itself, entrancing us with what he finds within and getting us to laugh at our pretense of self-mastery.16b 

Pascal, Montaigne’s greatest reader and most formidable critic, took the full measure of his challenge to Christianity, and the Pensées are largely a maniac attempt to refute him.  The Church had early on devised ways to cope with Greek philosophy, first by rejecting it and later by domesticating it.  But how in the world could it respond to this shameless, slippery defender of amour sui?  Montaigne was different from his Renaissance predecessors, the philosophers who placed humans at the center of the cosmos, or the artists whose figures, all bulging muscles and twisting torsos, had a Promethean air.  He actually agreed with Augustine, and Pascal, that Prometheanism was the human problem.  But his chosen adversaries were the popes and Protestant divines who pretended to speak for God, and the scholastic theologians who pretended that their syllogisms could unlock metaphysical truths about Him and His creation.  These people were the source of our troubles, Montaigne thought, and especially of the religious wars, then tearing France apart.  The antidote to their fanaticism lay not in loathing and surrender of the self, or in humanistic self-perfection.  It lay in reconciliation with the imperfect selves we already are.  No one before Montaigne had dared to say that.16c 

2. Reading Assignment from Pascal's Pensées :17 [posthumous, 1670]

Fragments Pages

141-164             35-43

181                    51-52

199-225             60-64

230-240             66-75

680-682           152-166

688-690           168-173

"The Memorial" 178

3. Reason, First Principles, and the Heart:

141 Pascal contends that the effort to "define" basic notions renders them "more obscure."  While we assume others accept the same basic notions which we do, this assumption is not sustainable.  Pyrrhonists (skeptics) delight in the philosophers' problems here--Pyrrho of Elis [~360-275 B.C.E.] is the classical skeptic referred to here. 

142 "We know the truth not only by means of the reason but also by means of the heart.  It is through the heart that we know the first principles, and reason which has no part in this knowledge vainly tries to contest them.  The Pyrrhonists who have only reason as the object of their attack are working ineffectually.  We know that we are not dreaming, however powerless we are to prove it by reason.  This powerlessness proves only the weakness of our reason, not the uncertainty of our entire knowledge as they claim."  

-Note that he is clearly referring to Descartes here! 

-"The principles are felt, and the propositions are proved, both conclusively, although by different ways, and it is as useless and stupid for the heart to demand of reason a feeling of all the propositions it proves, before accepting them. 
  So this powerlessness ought to be used only to humble reason...." 

-"That is why those to whom God has granted faith through the heart are blessed and quite properly convinced of it.  But to those to whom it has not been granted we can only give it through reason, until God grants it through the heart.  Without that, faith is simply human, and worthless for salvation." 

-Thus, Pascal maintains that there are two "ways" to the truth--reason and the heart.  He holds, however, that these are not equivalent (unlike Aquinas). 

4. Human Wretchedness and Greatness:
146 "Man's greatness lies in his capacity to recognize his wretchedness. 

A tree does not recognize its wretchedness." 

-What sort of wretchedness does he have in mind here?  What is the cause of our wretchedness, is it one which affects us all?  Are we all (sufficiently) aware of it?  Why does he contend that we need to be aware of it? 

-149 "...[man's] nature now being like that of the animals, he has fallen from a better nature which previously was his. 

For who can be wretched at not being a king except a dethroned king?" 

-It is the wretchedness we inherit from Adam and Eve which he speaks of here!  What was their sin, how does it apply to the age in which Pascal wrote, and how does it apply in our own? 

-155 Pascal maintains that we are both wretched and great, and that we know that we are both.

-164 "The main strengths of the Pyrrhonists...are that we can be in no way sure of the truths of these principles, apart from faith and revelation, except that we feel them to be natural to us." 

-"I shall pause at the single strength of the dogmatists' argument, which is that, speaking in good faith and in all sincerity, we cannot doubt natural principles." 

5. The Human Condition:
164 (continues) "What a figment of the imagination human beings are!  What a novelty, what monsters!  Chaotic, contradictory, prodigious, judging everything, mindless worm of the earth, storehouse of truth, cesspool of uncertainty and error, glory and reject of the universe. 
  Who will unravel this tangle?  <It is certainly beyond dogmatism and Pyrrhonism and the whole of human philosophy.  Man is beyond man.  Let us allow the Pyrrhonists what they have so often claimed, that truth is neither within our grasp nor is it our target.  It does not reside on earth but belongs in heaven, in God's bosom, and we know it only as much as he is pleased to reveal.  Let us then learn our true nature from the uncreated and incarnate truth. 
  You cannot be a Pyrrhonist without stifling nature, nor a dogmatist without repudiating reason.>  Nature confounds Pyrrhonists and reason confounds dogmatists.  What will then become of you, men who are looking for your true condition through your natural reason?  You cannot avoid one of these sects nor survive in either. 
  Be aware then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourselves!  Humble yourself, powerless reason!  Be silent, foolish nature!  Learn that humanity infinitely transcends humanity and hear from your Master your true condition of which you are unaware. 
  Listen to God." 18 
-This passage needs careful consideration.  Note first that we need to understand what Pascal is attempting to tell his reader.  Clearly, he wants the reader to be neither a skeptic nor a dogmatist.  What is the alternative?  Does human faith, on its own guarantee salvation for him?  Note fragment 142 above: "that is why those to whom God has granted faith through the heart are blessed and quite properly convinced of it.  But to those to whom it has not been granted we can only give it through reason, until God grants it through the heart.  Without that, faith is simply human, and worthless for salvation."  Clearly, Pascal contends that our salvation is not within our control. 

-It is our "fallen" status which constitutes our plight!  "Because there can be no doubt that nothing shocks our reason more than to say that the sin of the first man made guilty those who, so far from that source, seem incapable of having taken part in it.  This contamination seems not only impossible to us, but also quite unjust....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." 

-"These basic truths, solidly based on the inviolable authority of religion, tell us that there are two equally and constant truths of faith: one is that man in the state of creation or of grace is on a level above all nature, as if godlike and participating in the divinity.  The other is that, corrupt and sinful, he has fallen from this state and been put on the level of the beasts." 

-As the final sentence of the fragment makes clear, grace is of fundamental importance for Pascal.  What is it, and is it within our control?   Is it something everyone has?  In his The Art of Persuasion, Pascal contends that he knows that God wanted the divine truths "...to enter from the heart into the mind, and not from the mind into the heart, in order to humiliate that proud power of reasoning which claims it ought to be the judge of what is chosen by the will...."19 

181 "That man without faith can know neither true good, nor justice." 

-"Man tries unsuccessfully to fill this void with everything that surrounds him, seeking in absent things the help he cannot find in those that are present, but all are incapable of it.  This infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite, immutable object, that is to say, God himself." 
6. On Submission:
199 In this section of fragments, Pascal speaks of the importance of submission:
-201"We must <have three qualities, Pyrrhonist, mathematician, Christian.  Submission.  Doubt.  They all interlink.> know where to doubt, where to affirm and where to submit when necessary.  Whoever does not do this does not understand the force of reason." 
--Does Descartes adhere to this dictum? 

-203 "The way of God...is to implant religion into our mind through reason and into our heart through grace.  But to want to implant it into our mind and hear with force and threats is to implant not religion, but terror...." 

-208 "Contradiction is not an indication of falsehood and the absence of contradiction is not a sign of truth." 

--Notice that anyone who accepts this (at least the first clause) can not be a “continental rationalist,” and, indeed, is surely close from deviating from the core views of Western philosophy as I have sketched them! 

---Explain carefully why the Western philosophical tradition abhors contradiction: “what is real is rational, and what is rational is real;” and a derivation of anything from a contradiction! 

7. The Importance of Christianity:
221 "We only know God through Jesus Christ....All those who claimed to know God and to prove him without Jesus Christ only had impotent proofs."  Note that this means that he clearly rejects the two other “religions of Abraham” (Judaism and Islam).  A reading of the passages indexed under “Jews” and “Muhammad” makes this clear (especially when contrasted with those passages indexed under “Jesus Christ”).   
-221-225 According to Pascal, it is the sin of pride to think that one can know God otherwise.  Knowing our wretchedness without knowing God, on the other hand, leads to despair

230-240 One of the things which Pascal wants to show his readers is that they focus on the wrong sorts of things--they attach extreme importance to the finite world which they only temporarily inhabit, and they ignore, often completely, the infinite world and concerns.  In fragment 230 he asks "What is man in infinity?"  He also maintains that:

-"...what is humanity in nature?  A nothingness compared to the infinite, everything compared to a nothingness, a mid-point between nothing and every-thing...." 

-"Our intelligence holds the same rank in the order of intelligible things as does our body in the whole vastness of nature.  Limited in every respect, this state in the mid-point...is apparent in all our faculties." 

-"So let us not look for certainty and stability.  Our reason is always disappointed by the inconstant nature of appearances; noting can fix the finite between the two infinites which both enclose and escape it." 

-Other religions, Pascal holds, are false; and without true religion, we are lost. 

-240 In this section Pascal points out the twin evils of pride and sloth.  As the footnote (on pp. 235-236) indicates, sloth [paresse] is "...the vice which results in unconcern about the state of original sin in which we are born, which makes it one of the sources of vice."   According to Pascal, "the Christian religion alone has been able to cure these two vices....it teaches the just, whom it exalts even to participation in the divinity, that in this sublime state they still carry the source of all corruption...and it cries out to the most ungodly that they are capable of receiving their Redeemer's grace.  Making those that it justifies tremble, and consoling those that it condemns, it tempers fear with hope so judiciously through this double potentiality for grace and sin, common to all, that it abases infinitely more than reason can do, but without despair, and raises up infinitely more than natural pride, but without excess, making it thereby obvious that, alone free form error and vice, the right to teach and correct men belongs only to the Christian religion." 

8. The Wager Argument: 20
680 "We know that there is an infinite, but do not know its nature...." 

"So we can clearly understand that there is a God without knowing what he is." 

"We therefore know the existence and nature of the finite, because we too are finite and have no extension. 
We know the existence of the infinite, and do not know its nature, because it has extent like us, but not the same limits as us. 
But we know neither the existence nor the nature of God, because he has neither extent nor limits. 
But we know of his existence through faith. In glory we will know his nature." 

"Let us now speak according to natural lights." 

"...God is, or is not.  But towards which side will we lean?  Reason cannot decide anything.  There is an infinite chaos separating us.  At the far end of this infinite distance a game is being played and the coin will come down hears or tails.  How will you wager?  Reason cannot make you choose one way or the other, reason cannot make you defend either of the two choices. 

So do not accuse those who have made a choice of being wrong.... 

Yes, but you have to wager.  It is not up to you, you are already committed.  Which then will you choose....You have two things to lose: the truth and the good, and two things to stake: your reason and will, your knowledge and beatitude; and your nature has two things to avoid: error and wretchedness....Let us weigh up the gain and the loss by calling heads that God exists....if you win, you win everything; if you lose, you lose nothing...." 

God exists  God does not exist
You believe  You may win very, very, very big (if you receive grade).  You lose the effort of believing and sacrifice whatever effort you made.  
You don't believe  You loose very, very, very big.  You win a little--you save the effort of believing. 
--"But there is an eternity of life and happiness.  And that being so, even though there were an infinite number of chances of which only one were in your favor, you would still be right to wager....there is an infinitely happy infinity of life to be won, one chance of winning against a finite number of chances of losing, and what you are staking is finite." 
"`...I am made in such a way that I cannot believe.  So what do you want me to do?'  `That is true. But at least you realize that your inability to believe, since reason urges you to do so and yet you cannot, arises from your passions.  You want to find faith and you do not know the way?  You want to cure yourself of unbelief and you ask for remedies? Learn from those who have been bound like you, and who now wager all they have.  They are people who know the road....take holy water, having masses said, etc." 

"But what harm will come to you from taking this course?  You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, doing good, a sincere and true friend." 

In his "Introduction," Jeff Jordan maintains that Pascal's wager is an "apologetic device:" "...not an argument for the claim that God exists.  That sort of argument, the appeal to evidence, whether empirical or conceptual, is the domain of the cosmological, the ontological, or other theistic arguments.   Pascal's wager is an argument for the claim that a belief in God is pragmatically rational, that inculcating a belief in God is the response dictated by prudence."21  

-a pragmatic argument is any argument which has premises which are prudentially directed rather than truth-directed.22 

-...a Pascalian wager is a decision situation in which the possible gain or benefit involved in one of the outcomes swamps all the others.23 

-Jordan notes that the three common criticisms of Pascal's wager involve the "betting partition" (that it is described too narrowly--many-gods or many-claimants); that the notion of infinite gain has problems (including, perhaps, the St. Petersburg paradox); and the claim that the wager may lead us too far away from evidential considerations to irrational considerations. 

"It is the heart that feels God, not reason: that is what faith is. God felt by the heart, not by reason. 

The heart has its reasons which reason itself does not know...." 24 

681 "The immortality of the soul is of such vital concern to us, which affects us so deeply, that we would have to have lost all feeling in order to be indifferent to the truth about it.  All our actions and thoughts must follow such different paths, according to whether there are eternal blessings to hope for or not, that it is impossible to take a step sensibly and discerningly except by determining it with this point in mind, which ought to be our ultimate aim."  

-He contends that it is wholly monstrous not to evince such a concern! It is "a supernatural sloth." 

-688-690 Pascal offers a further "discourse on corruption," and emphasizes Christianity's role in helping us deal with our corruption and wretchedness.  He emphasizes that the sort of religion he is speaking of here is a personalistic one (thus it is not the "god of the philosophers" which he is speaking of: "The God of Christians does not consist of a God who is simply the author of mathematical truths and the order of the elements: that is the job of the pagans and Epicureans.  He does not consist simply of a God who exerts his providence over the lives and property of people in order to grant a happy span of years to those who worship him: that is the allocation of the Jews.  But the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of the Christians is a God of love and consolation; he is a God who fills the souls and hearts of those he possesses; he is a God who makes them inwardly aware of their wretchedness and his infinite mercy, who unites with them in the depths of their soul, who makes them incapable of any other end but himself." 

9. "The Memorial:"
p. 178 This passage is Pascal's record of his "mystical experience" on November 23, 1654.  It also clarifies the "personalistic" characterization of the deity he appeals to, and of the need for "total submission." 
(end of selections)

Appendix: Historical Background Regarding Catholics and Protestants in France at the Time:

It is helpful to understand some of the historical background as we look at Pascal's religious writing. 

1561-1598: Wars of Religion in France precipitated by persecution of Huguenots and by struggles between monarchy and nobility.  Wars end when Edict of Nantes (1598) which gives Protestants the same civil and political rights as Catholics. 

1585-1638: Cornelius Jansenius, Bishop of Ypres--Jansenism was named after him. 

1603: Henri IV of France allows Jesuits to return to France and gives them some of his family property at La Fleche for their school.  It is at this school that Descartes is trained. Henri's heart is to be buried there upon his death (1610). 

May 31, 1653: a Papal Bull condemning five Jansenist propositions signed in Rome. 

January 29, 1656: Antoine Arnaud [1612-1694] was stripped of his doctorate by the Theology faculty of the Sorbonne on for his defense of Jansenism. 

In his Cosmopolis, Stephen Toulmin maintains that:

in the 16th century, Europe enjoyed a largely unbroken economic expansion, building up its capital holdings from the silver in the holds of the treasure ships from Spain's South American colonies; in the 17th century, the prosperity came to a grinding halt.  It was followed by years of alternating depression and uncertainty.....By 1600, the political dominance of Spain was ending, France was divided along religious lines, England was drifting into civil war.  In Central Europe, the fragmented states of Germany were tearing one another apart, the Catholic princes being kept in line by Austria, and the Protestants reinforced by Sweden.  Economic expansion was replaced by depression: there was a grave slump from 1619 to 1622.  International trade fell away and unemployment was general, so creating a pool of mercenaries available for hire in the Thirty Years' War [1618-1648], and all these misfortunes were aggravated by a worldwide worsening of the climate....25 

As Toulmin notes, the Thirty Years' War involved: "...a series of brutal and destructive military campaigns, [where] shifting alliances of outside powers used the territory of Germany and Bohemia as a gladiatorial ring in which to fight out their political rivalries and doctrinal disagreements, most often by proxy, and turned the Czech and German lands into a charnel house.26 

By the 1630s, no one could see an end to the warfare in Germany, and negotiations for peace threatened to be as protracted as the fighting itself....Failing any effective political way of getting the sectarians to stop killing each other, was there no other possible way ahead?....The eclipse of Montaigne's philosophical reputation, and the political consequences of Henri IV's murder, are linked by a common thread: the dissatisfaction with skepticism which led people, in turn, into an unwillingness to suspend the search for provable doctrines, an active distrust of disbelievers, and finally to belief in belief itself.27 

1695: Revocation of the Edict of Nantes--a massive exile of Huguenots from France (although there were by this point few strict Calvinist believers in predestination--even in Geneva). 

It is also helpful to have a bit more background regarding Jansenism. In his "Introduction," T.S. Eliot maintains that:

it is recognized in Christian theology...that free-will or the natural effort and ability of the individual man, and also supernatural grace, a gift accorded we know not quite how, are both required, in co-operation, for salvation.  Though numerous theologians have set their wits at the problem, it ends in a mystery which we can perceive but not finally decipher.  At least, it is obvious that, like any doctrine, a slight excess or deviation to one side or the other will precipitate a heresy.  The Pelagians, who were refuted by St. Augustine, emphasized the efficacy of human effort and belittled the importance of supernatural grace.  The Calvinists emphasized the degradation of man through Original Sin, and considered mankind so corrupt that the will was of no avail; and thus fell into the doctrine of predestination.  It was upon the doctrine of grace according to St. Augustine that the Jansenists relied; and the Augustinus of Jansenius was presented as a sound exposition of Augustine's views.28 


1 In his Summa Contra Gentiles [~1260] (I.7), Aquinas maintains that: "the natural dictates of reason must certainly be true; it is impossible to think of their being otherwise.  Nor again is it permissible to believe that the tenets of faith are false, being so evidently confirmed by God.  Since therefore falsehood alone is contrary to truth, it is impossible for the truth of faith to be contrary to the principles known by natural religion."   Back

2 Cf., the fragment of Pascal's Pensées  [1670, posthumously] entitled "The Memorial," in Blaise Pascal, Pensées  and Other Writings, trans. Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1995), p. 178.  Other translations or editions of the Pensées  will be discussed at some points below, but most of my remarks will make reference to this translation and edition, and unless specifically noted, further references will be to this translation and edition.  Back

3 In his "Introduction" [1908] to Pascal's Pensées , trans. W.F. Trotter [1908] (N.Y. Dutton, 1958), pp. vii-xix, cf. p. xiii] T.S. Eliot notes that while many contemporary religious individuals base their belief in miracles on biblical accounts, Pascal was impressed by a contemporary miracle.  Moreover, his own "luminous experience" surely helped to make it unnecessary for him to "base" his belief in miracles on biblical accounts of them.  Back

4 Anthony Levi, "Note on Text," in Blaise Pascal, Pensées  and Other Writings, trans. Honor Levi, op. cit., pp. xxxviii-xli, p. xxxviii.  Cf., also, his "Introduction," ibid., pp. vii-xxvii for a discussion of the status of the work.  Back

5 Cf., Pascal's Pensées , trans. Honor Levi, op. cit., fragment 142, pp. 35-36.  Back

6 Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy v. 4 (Garden City: Doubleday, 1963), p. 164.  Note, of course that Pascal would be even more concerned with our situation today—the humanism of today is secular, rather than deistic.  Back

7 T.S. Eliot, "Introduction," op. cit., p. xii.  Back

8 Frederick Copleston, A History of Western Philosophy, op. cit., pp. 170-171.  The citation to Pascal is to be found in his Pensées , Honor Levi (trans.), op. cit., fragment  566, p. 130.  Back

9 Pascal, Pensées , op. cit., fragment 690, pp. 170-171.  Back

10 Cf., Pascal, Pensées , op. cit., fragment 690, pp. 169--173.  Back

11 In this sense an "apology" is a defense—the use comes from Christian Apologetics.  Funk and Wagnalls New Practical Standard Dictionary [the Britannica World Language edition (N.Y.: Funk and Wagnalls, 1956), p. 67] defines `Apologetics' as: "argumentation; especially, that department of dogmatics which deals with the defensive facts and proofs of Christianity."  Back

12 Anthony Levi, "Introduction," op. cit., p. ix.  Back

13 That is, one which is given unearned and without recompense—unmerited divine assistance.  Back

14 Anthony Levi, "Introduction," op. cit., p. ix.  Back

15 A native of the ancient city of Sybaris—a people noted for their love of luxury—the name carries connotations of sensualism.  Back

16 Norman Torrey, "Voltaire," in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy v.8, ed. Paul Edwards (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 262-270, p.263.  Cf., Peter Gray, The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism (N.Y.: Norton, 1966), p. 389.  Back

16a Mark Lilla, “The Hidden Lesson of Montaigne,” The New York Review of Books v. 58 (03/24/2011), pp. 19-21, p. 20.  Back 

16b Ibid.  Back 

16c IbidBack  

17 Citations and references are to Blaise Pascal, Pensées  and Other Writings [posthumous, 1670], trans. Honor Levi, op. cit.  Marginal references are to this translation's fragment numbers.  Note that the asterisks in the text indicate that a note to the passage is included in the back of the book in Anthony Levi's "Explanatory Notes," pp. 227-247.  Passages enclosed by "<" and ">" are passages which were crossed out by Pascal.  I frequently add emphasis to the passages, but will not further indicate where this is the case.   Back

18 In his translation of the Pensées , W.F. Trotter [(N.Y.: Dutton, 1958), fragment 434, p. 121] translates this line as "Hear God."  I believe that his translation is preferable at this point as it gives a resonance to Pascal's plea here.  Back

19 Blaise Pascal, The Art of Persuasion, in Blaise Pascal, Pensées  and Other Writings, trans. Honor Levi, op. cit., section 3, p. 193.   Back

20 As Anthony Levi notes in his "Introduction" (op. cit., p. viii), this fragment (which is amongst the best known of them all): "...was written on four sides of a single folded sheet of paper and contains paragraphs crammed into the text, others written vertically up the margins, and even upside down at the top of the page.   There is no certainty that the added passages were ever intended to belong together, and some of them are at best either tangential to the original argument....No matter how the constitutive pieces are arranged, the four sides of manuscript cannot be made to yield a single coherent linear text...."  Back

21   Jeff Jordan, "Introduction," in Gambling On God: Essays on Pascal's Wager, ed. Jeff Jordan (Lanham: Rowman and Little field, 1994), pp. 1-10, p. 1.   Emphasis has been added to the passage.  Back

22  Ibid., p. 2.  Back

23  IbidBack

24  As Anthony Levi says in the "Explanatory Notes," in Pascal's Pensées  and Other Writings, trans. Honor Levi, op. cit., pp. 243-244): "...this most famous sentence of all is written upside-down at the top of the fourth side, as if Pascal despairingly refuses to abandon rationality in his quest for religiously valid and grace-inspired faith."  Emphasis has been added to the passage.  Back

25  Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1990), p. 17.  Back

26  Ibid., p. 53.  Back

27  Ibid., p. 55.  Back

28  T.S. Eliot, "Introduction," op. cit., p. xvi.  Back 

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Last revised on: 09/18/2012