Pensées by Blaise Pascal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pascal seems to have been born for greatness. At a young age he displayed an intense talent for mathematics, apparently deducing a few propositions of Euclid by himself; and he matured into one of the great mathematical minds of Europe, making fundamental contributions to the science of probability. While he was at it, he invented an adding machine: the beginning of our adventures in computing.

Later on in his short life, after narrowly escaping a carriage accident, the young man had an intense conversion experience; and he devoted the rest of his energies to religion. A committed Jansenist (a sect of Catholics deeply influenced by Calvinism), he set out to defend his community from the hostile Jesuits. This resulted in his Provincial Letters, a series of polemical epistles now considered a model and a monument of French prose. This was not all. His most ambitious project was a massive apology for the Christian faith. But disease struck him down before he could bring his book to term; and now all we are left with are fragments—scattered bits of thought.

Strangely, it is this unfinished book—not his polished prose, not his contributions to mathematics—which has become Pascal’s most lasting work. It is a piece of extraordinary passion and riveting eloquence. Yet it is also disorganized, tortured, incomplete, uneven, abrupt—at times laconic to the point of inscrutability, at times rambling, diffuse, and obscure. How are we to judge such a book?

Pascal alternates between two fundamental moods in the text: the tortured doubter, and the zealous convert. Inevitably I found the former sections to be far more compelling. Pascal was an avid reader of Montaigne, and seems to have taken that French sage’s skepticism to heart. Yet Pascal could never simulate Montaigne’s easy acceptance of his own ignorance; the mathematician wanted certainty, and was driven to despair by Montaigne’s gnawing doubt. Thus, though Pascal often echoes Montaigne’s thoughts, the tone is completely different: anguish rather than acceptance.

Montaigne’s influence runs very deep in Pascal. Harold Bloom famously called the Pensées “a bad case indigestion in regard to Montaigne,” and notes the many passages of Pascal which directly echo Montaigne’s words. Will Durant goes even further, writing that Pascal was driven nearly to madness by Montaigne’s skepticism. There is, indeed, a shadow of mania and mental imbalance that falls over this work. Pascal gives the impression of one who is profoundly unhappy; and this despair both propels him to his heights and drags him to his depths.

At his best, Pascal strikes one as a kind of depressed charismatic genius, writing in the mood of a Hamlet. Cynicism at times overwhelms him, as he notes how our vanity leads us to choose our professions and our habits just to receive praise from other people. He can also be a pessimist—noting, like Schopenhauer, that all earthly pleasures are unsatisfactory and vain. Pascal had a morbid streak, too.

Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.

We also have the misanthrope, in which mood he most nearly approached the Danish prince:

What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe!

But I think even more moving that these moods is Pascal’s metaphysical despair. He wants certainty with every inch of his soul, and yet the universe only inspires doubt and anguish: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.” As a scientist during the age of Galileo, Pascal is painfully aware of humanity’s smallness in relation to the vast void of the universe. He struggles to establish our dignity: “Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.” Yet his existential desperation continually reasserts itself, no matter how often he defends himself against it:

This is what I see and what troubles me. I look around in every direction and all I see is darkness. Nature has nothing to offer me that does not give rise to doubt and anxiety. If I saw no sign there of a Divinity I should decide on a negative solution: if I saw signs of a Creator everywhere I should peacefully settle down in the faith.

He finds neither negative nor positive confirmation, however, and so must resort to a frenzied effort. Perhaps this is where the famous idea of the wager arose. Pascal’s Wager is simple: if you choose to be religious you have very much to gain and comparatively little to lose, so it is an intelligent bet. Of course there are many problems with this line of thinking. For one, would not an omniscient God know that you are choosing religion for calculated self-interest? Pascal’s solution is that, if you force yourself to undergo the rituals of religion—fasting, confession, mass, and the rest—the belief will gradually become genuine.

Perhaps. Yet there are many other problems with the wager. Most noticeable, nowadays, is Pascal’s treatment of the religious problem as a binary choice—belief or unbelief—whereas now we have hundreds of options to choose from as regards religions. Further, Pascal’s insistence that we have everything to gain and nothing to lose is difficult to accept. For we do have something to lose: our life. Living a strictly religious life is no easy thing, after all. Also, his insistence that the finite existence of our life is nothing compared to the potential infinity of heavenly life leaves out one crucial thing: If there is no afterlife, than our finite existence is infinitely more valuable than the nothingness that awaits. So the wager does not clarify anything.

In any case, it is unclear what use Pascal wished to make of his wager. The rest of this book does not make any mention of this kind of strategic belief. Indeed, at times Pascal seems to directly contradict this idea of an intellectually driven faith, particularly in his emphasis on the role of emotion: “It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.” Or, more pithily: “The heart has its reasons of which the reason knows nothing.”

This, for me, summarizes the more enjoyable sections of the book. But there is a great deal to criticize. Many of the arguments that Pascal makes for belief are frankly bad. He notes, for example, that Christianity has been around since the beginning of the world—something that only a convinced young-earther could believe nowadays. There are many passages about the Jews, most of which are difficult to read. One of his most consistent themes is that God hardened the hearts of the Jews against Christ, in order that they be unwilling “witnesses” to future generations. But what kind of divine justice is it to sacrifice a whole people, intentionally blinding them to the truth?

Indeed, virtually every statement Pascal makes about other religions reveals both an ignorance and a hostility greatly unbecoming of the man. And his explanation of the existence of other religions, as a kind of specious temptation, is both absurd and disrespectful: “If God had permitted only one religion, it would have been too easily recognizable. But, if we look closely, it is easy to distinguish the true religion amidst all this confusion.”

I suppose this is one of the great paradoxes of any kind of religious faith: Why did God allow so many to go astray? But conceiving of other religions as snares deliberately placed by God seems extremely cruel on God’s part (as well as wholly dismissive of other faiths). In any case, it is just one example of Pascal’s pitiless piety. He himself warns of the danger of the moral sense armed with certainty: “We never do evil so fully and cheerfully as when we do it out of conscience.” And yet his own religious convictions can seem cruel, at least psychologically: dwelling obsessively on the need to hate oneself, and insisting that “I am culpable if I make anyone love me.”

Pascal also has a habit of dwelling on prophesy, repeatedly noting that the Old Testament prefigured the coming and the life of Jesus—which is clear if we interpret the text in the “right” way. Of course, this is open to the obvious objection that any text can predict anything if it is interpreted in the “right” way. Pascal’s response to this is that God is intentionally mysterious, and it would have been too obvious to have literally predicted Jesus and his works. The ability to see the prophesy differentiates those to whom God sheds light, and those whom God blinds. Once again, therefore, we have this strangely cruel conception of God, as a Being which arbitrarily prevents His creatures from seeing the truth.

As I think is clear from the frantic tone, and the many different and contradictory ways that Pascal tries to justify belief, he himself was not fully convinced by any of them. His final desperate intellectual move is to abandon the principle of logical consistency altogether. As he says: “A hundred contradictions might be true.” Or elsewhere he tells us: “All their principles are true, skeptics, stoics, atheists, etc. … but their conclusions are false, because the contrary principles are also true.” Yet if he had taken this idea seriously, he would have seen that it completely erodes the possibility of justifying any belief. All we have left is to go where the “heart” guides us; but what if my heart guides me towards Chinese ancestor worship?

Another reviewer on this site noted Pascal’s power to convince religious skeptics. But, as you can see, I found the opposite to be true. Pascal’s morbid unhappiness, his frantic doubt, his shoddy reasoning, do not inspire any wish to join him. To the contrary, one regrets that such a fine mind was driven to such a self-destructive fixation. Still, this book deserves its canonical status. Though at times nearly unreadable, in its finest passages the Pensées is as sublime as anything in literature. And, though Pascal falls short of Montaigne in many respects, he is able to capture the one element of experience forbidden to the benign essayist: an all-consuming despair.

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