“Man’s true nature, his true good and true virtue, and true religion cannot be known separately.” In other words, to admit the essential animality of human nature, right through to the soul, becomes for Pascal the beginning of rational wisdom.
Originally over in the PAGES section which I am now rewriting while redoing my old PAGES as posts. Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. This is a remarkable article on Pascal that was carried by First Things a few years back.
As a way of dividing up history into discrete, manageable wholes, the habit of clustering events according to centuries is probably no more (or less) superficial than any other. And surely it must be safer and more reliable than bandying about such descriptive monikers as “the Age of Faith,” “the Enlightenment,” “the Atomic Age,” and so on, for at least the century-unit is known to be arbitrary, stemming as it does from the decimal system of numbering, which itself probably arose from the happenstance of ten fingers on the pair of human hands.
Unfortunately, the broad-stroke descriptive label, like some post-it note that sticks to everything it touches, will often enough get applied to the century marker in any case-despite the objections of more fastidious historians, who rightly fear that this habit of nomenclature may seduce the unwary.
For such catch-all tags as “Age of Anxiety,” “Age of Chivalry,” etc. can be wildly inaccurate, or at least too sweeping. And no name for a century has been more misleading than that often used for the seventeenth: the Age of Reason. Not only did this century see the worst of the witch-hunting craze, but it also had to endure the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), at root a European civil war of religion — and, like all wars of religion, a clash of unbridled irrationality.
Yet just as centuries take on a certain inevitable identity from the very habit of invoking them so often (hence this Millennium Series), so too do these centuries soon come to assume the very descriptive characteristics by which they have so frequently been identified. Not for nothing has the seventeenth century, despite its infamous displays of irrationality, been known as the Age of Reason. Any century that began with René Descartes (1596-1650) as a five-year-old boy and concluded with Voltaire (1694-1778) as a seven-year-old, and during which Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) lived most of their lives and Baruch Spinoza all of his (1632-1677), is bound to strike later centuries as an eminently rational era.
However repellent and violent the wars of religion were or however vehement the waning years of the witch-burning craze undoubtedly must have been, we cannot help but see the seventeenth century in terms of what our civilization has embraced and what, on the basis of that embrace, it has abjured. Wars of religion and witch-burning appall. Reason is hailed as the splendor of our species (yes, even today, despite what the Nietzscheans and Heideggerians might claim). Thus the Age of Reason is celebrated for what we most value in it, and in ourselves. We condemn its horrors, but only on the basis of its glories.
Indeed, very few textbooks in the history of philosophy would deny to Descartes, that quintessential man of the seventeenth century, the title of Founding Father of modern philosophy — and precisely because of his systematic and methodical elevation of reason. His method for rational inquiry, based on consistently held doubt toward all doctrinaire assumptions of the human mind, is usually seen as modernity’s decisive break-out from the fettering chains of the medieval synthesis, which itself was formed from a prior fusion of reason and faith painstakingly soldered together over several centuries in the late Middle Ages.
Because of Descartes, reason now regards itself as a fully adult faculty, free at last of the tutelage of dogma and tradition. It is to Descartes, above all, that we owe the idea of rationality as an all-purpose acid through which every tenaciously held belief of the human mind must pass.
In that setting Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) emerges as the man who became, as I shall argue in the rest of this essay, “the first modern Christian.” I would even include in that judgment the deep reticence and privacy of his spiritual life, for Pascal rarely revealed the movements of his soul to any but his most trusted spiritual directors.
Modernity often regards religion as a private affair of the heart and looks askance at too public displays of religious emotion; and there too Pascal strikes a remarkably modern note. Except for a few passing references in his letters, he rarely mentioned even the most important biographical milestones that determined his career.
In fact, it is only because he sewed a parchment memorial of the event inside his coat pocket that history knows of the most important incident in his life-his “Night of Fire” on November 23, 1654, when for about two hours he was overwhelmed by tears of joy at the realization that the God of the philosophers was not the God of the Bible. No doubt he had always recognized what history has since come to acknowledge: that his legacy to us is due more to his thought than to his life.
He was born in the city of Clermont-Ferrard, in the south-central region of Auvergne, in 1623. His father was a government official, mostly in the royal court system, who at death (in 1651) left a comfortable sum to his one son and two daughters. In 1631 the father moved to Paris and later took up a post as tax assessor in Rouen, a tedious job that required long hours of dreary number-crunching. Seeing these grinding labors of his father, son Blaise struck upon the idea of building him a computer, the first ever invented and which is still on display in Paris at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers.
This remarkable achievement had already been foreshadowed by an event recounted by his older sister Gilberte. Blaise’s father had assumed the entire responsibility for his son’s education and had forbidden the boy to study or read geometry until he had first mastered Latin and Greek. But one day the father happened to come upon his precocious twelve-year-old, with charcoal and scrap paper on the floor, working out, totally untutored, Euclid’s geometry up to the thirty-second proposition.
Whether strictly true or merely bien trouvé (a reconciliation), the story points to Pascal’s universally acknowledged mathematical genius. In 1639, for example, at the age of sixteen, he wrote an essay on conic sections; and toward the end of his life he laid the foundations of the infinitesimal calculus, integral calculus, and the calculus of probabilities in a work that inspired Newton and Leibniz, more or less simultaneously and more or less independently of each other, to bring the development of calculus to where it is today. (Newton and Leibniz later got into a nasty dispute about who first discovered calculus, time that would have been better spent acknowledging their mutual debt to Pascal.)
The accidents of Pascal’s biography also illuminate, at least partly, his famous attack on those sworn enemies of Jansenist theology, the Jesuit moralists, who were not loath to point out how Jansenism bore certain affinities with French Huguenot Calvinism. Now the great center of Jansenist theology and spirituality at that time was the convent of Port-Royal, where Pascal’s younger sister Jacqueline had entered and which the Jesuits eventually prevailed upon an aging King Louis XIV to close once Popes Innocent X, Alexander VII, and Clement XI had successively declared Jansenism a heresy.
Although the convent only closed after Pascal’s death, persecution of anyone associated with Port-Royal had already begun in his lifetime. Needless to say, the primary victims of this highhanded example of ecclesiastical Machtpolitik were not the Jansenist theologians (all male) but a convent of pious women who cared little for the subtleties of tractates on grace but who knew their Jansenist spiritual directors to be holy men. Such considerations meant nothing to an absolutist king and his Jesuit confessors, however, and royal persecution of the convent remained relentless, a campaign that made Pascal an enemy of the Jesuits for the rest of his life.
An essay treating Pascal’s wider millennial significance cannot discuss in any detail the nature of his rather arcane dispute with the moral theologians of the Society of Jesus. But of his Provincial Letters, the collection of polemical tracts that had been provoked by the dispute, the last word should perhaps be given to the balanced judgment of T. S. Eliot: “He undoubtedly abused the art of quotation, as a polemical writer can hardly help but do; but there were abuses for him to abuse.”
Eliot is not excusing Pascal’s ferocity here, even in the act of admitting that his targets deserved criticism. Quite the contrary, Eliot gets exactly the right balance when he says that “as polemic [these letters] are surpassed by none, not by Demosthenes, or Cicero, or Swift. [But] they have the limitation of all polemic and forensic: they persuade, they seduce, they are unfair.”
Of course if this were all there was to Pascal, he would be merely the curiosity of the specialist, the fit subject of research for the historian of mathematics or the scholar of Counter-Reformation theology in France. But Pascal is more, much more. What makes him so utterly remarkable, indeed so remarkably modern, is the fact that he became the first Christian apologist both to absorb the Cartesian apotheosis of reason and to fight against its acidic effects, often using Descartes’ own principles.
In fact, so thoroughly did Pascal absorb the Cartesian outlook that from time to time one will find a philosophy textbook that classifies Pascal as the first and most influential member of the Cartesian school-a categorization which would certainly have come as a surprise to Pascal himself, most of whose references to Descartes in the jottings that make up the Pensées are derogatory. (Two examples: “Descartes useless and uncertain.” “Write against those who probe science too deeply. Descartes.”)
But perhaps there is a certain justice in this unhelpful pigeonholing of Pascal as a Cartesian, especially when one considers his essay “The Spirit of Geometry and the Art of Persuasion.” Here more than elsewhere he strikes the Cartesian note, as when he suggests that “logic has perhaps borrowed the rules of geometry without understanding their force.” As with Descartes, and Spinoza after him, the ideal rational method for Pascal is what he calls the “geometrical” method, using mathematical rules of inference from accepted or self-evident axioms.
Pascal means to set his purely mathematical form of inference over against the logical method of Aristotle, especially as it had been developed and extended by the medieval schoolmen. In this he is clearly presuming, as did Descartes, that medieval logic and “geometry” (in his sense) somehow conflict, to the detriment of all prior logic.
The two Frenchmen also share a noticeable dualism about the constitution of the human person, and here perhaps most of all we discover how much Descartes and Pascal have in common. Both men see human beings as a riddling composition of juxtaposed, antithetical essences (body and mind, flesh and spirit, extension and thinking), a dualism which in Pascal comes through most particularly in his famous definition of man as a “thinking reed.”
Both Descartes and Pascal, as true early moderns standing on the threshold of imminent discoveries of the universe’s immensity from ever-improving telescopes, suspect the vast extension of space; but as true dualists (dualists who, moreover, give precedence to the mind) they also know that mind or consciousness can somehow possess and encompass that space in the very act of knowing it.
Pascal differs from Descartes’ rather bloodless rationalism, however, in the explicitly theological implications he will try to draw from this anthropological dualism. He is alert, as Descartes rarely is, to the religious and ethical implications of this dualism of mind and body:
Thinking reed. It is not in space that I must look for my dignity, but in the organization of my thoughts. I shall have no advantage in owning estates. Through space the universe grasps and engulfs me like a pinpoint; but through thought I can grasp it. . . . All our dignity consists, therefore, of thought. It is from there that we must be lifted up and not from space and time, which we could never fill. So let us work on thinking well. That is the principle of morality.
No doubt this passage will strike most readers as a remarkable summary of Cartesian metaphysics, especially in its reliance on the famous distinction between the nonspatial “thinking thing” (mind) and the space-occupying “extended thing” (body). But even here we can pick up the characteristic tone of the Pascalian stress on morality: far from trying à la Descartes to take this initial dualism as the basis on which to build a rickety philosophical superstructure, Pascal wants to see in the baffling juxtaposition of these two irreconcilable substances the very pathos of human existence itself. “Man’s nature is entirely natural, wholly animal,” he concedes. “There is nothing that cannot be made natural.” But that is also why, he says, “there is nothing that cannot be lost.”
Nothing, then, is exempt from the death sentence of nature, not even knowledge, not even spirit-which is why, as Pascal says, “man’s true nature, his true good and true virtue, and true religion cannot be known separately.” In other words, to admit the essential animality of human nature, right through to the soul, becomes for Pascal the beginning of rational wisdom.
Indeed, morality begins with this admission: not in a flight from nature but in a recognition of its misery and corruption. (Note that Pascal’s first conclusion from his mind/body dualism is not epistemological, but moral: there is no point in owning vast “spatial” estates, he says above, precisely because the soul is nonspatial.)