Twelve From Blaise Pascal
The following are twelve selections from Christianity For Modern Pagans, Pascal’s Pensées by Peter Kreeft. Peter John Kreeft is a Catholic apologist, professor of philosophy at Boston College and The King’s College, and author of over 45 books including Fundamentals of the Faith, Everything you Ever Wanted to Know about Heaven, and Back to Virtue. Some consider him the best Catholic philosopher currently residing in the United States. His ideas draw heavily from religious and philosophical tradition, especially Thomas Aquinas, Socrates, G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. Kreeft has writings on Socratic logic, the sea, Jesus Christ, the Summa Theologica, angels, Blaise Pascal, and Heaven, as well as his work on the Problem of Evil, for which he was interviewed by Lee Strobel in his bestseller, The Case for Faith.
The part in italics are quotes from Pascal’s Pensée. Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician, physicist, and religious philosopher. He was a child prodigy who was educated by his father, a civil servant. Pascal’s earliest work was in the natural and applied sciences where he made important contributions to the construction of mechanical calculators, the study of fluids, and clarified the concepts of pressure and vacuum by generalizing the work of Evangelista Torricelli. Pascal also wrote in defense of the scientific method.
Pascal was a mathematician of the first order. He helped create two major new areas of research. He wrote a significant treatise on the subject of projective geometry at the age of sixteen, and later corresponded with Pierre de Fermat on probability theory, strongly influencing the development of modern economics and social science. Following Galileo and Torricelli, in 1646 he refuted Aristotle’s followers who insisted that nature abhors a vacuum. His results caused many disputes before being accepted.
In 1646, he and his sister Jacqueline identified with the religious movement within Catholicism know by its detractors as Jansenism. His father died in 1651. Following a mystical experience in late 1654, he had his “second conversion”, abandoned his scientific work, and devoted himself to philosophy and theology. His two most famous works date from this period: the Lettres provinciales and the Pensées the former set in the conflict between Jansenists and Jesuits. In this year, he also wrote an important treatise on the arithmetic of triangles. Between 1658 and 1659 he wrote on the cycloid and its use in calculating the volume of solids.
The first part of each numbered item (in italics) are quotations from the Pensées, the commentary is by Peter Kreeft.
1. The Essential Strategy And Structure In All Orthodox Christian Apologetics
Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness.
It must also account for such amazing contradictions.
To make man happy it must show that (1) God exists who we are bound to love; that our only true bliss is to be in him and our sole ill is to be cut off from him. It must acknowledge (2) that we are full of darkness which prevents us from knowing and loving him, and so, with our duty obliging us to love God and our concupiscence leading us astray, we are full of unrighteousness. It must account to us for the way in which we thus go against God and for our own good. It must teach us (3) the cure for our helplessness and the means of obtaining this cure….’Men’ says God’s wisdom, ‘do not expect either truth or consolation from men. It is I who have made you and I alone can teach you what you are. But you are no longer in the state that I made you. I created man holy, innocent, perfect, I filled him with light and understanding, I showed him my glory and my wondrous works…but he could not bear such great glory without falling into presumption…He withdrew from my rule, setting himself up as my equal in his desire to find happiness in himself, and I abandoned him to himself. The creatures who were subject to him I incited to revolt and made his enemies, so that today man has become like the beast and he is so far apart from me that a barely glimmering idea of his author alone remains of all his dead or flickering knowledge’…Men retain some feeble instinct from the happiness of their first nature, and are plunged into the wretchedness of their blindness and concupiscence, which has become their second nature…..If you are united to God is by grace, and not by nature.’….If you are humbled it is by penitence, not by nature…
(In the essential truths listed here) we find the same essential strategy and structure in all orthodox Christian apologetics from Sts. Peter and Paul in the sermons in Acts to C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity …The key to all anthropology, for Christianity, is the sentence: “You are no longer in the state in which I made you.” The primal original sin was (and is) pride, that is playing God, willing ourselves as our own ends, trying to find our happiness and fulfillment in ourselves – in other words being good little yuppie disciples of pop psychology, “being our own best friends.” …Today’s idealists (looking only at greatness) are New Age Pantheists, and today’s cynics (looking only at the wretchedness) are scientific materialists. “You are united to God by grace and not by nature = the deep truth and deep error of the Oriental religions….” If you are humbled it is by penitence, not by nature.” = the deep truth and error of Western scientific materialism. We are humbled but not by our essence but we should be humbled by our penitence and our repentance, for we have sinned against our all-good Father. We are metaphysically better and morally worse than we dream.
2. Desiring Truth And Happiness
We desire truth and find in ourselves nothing but uncertainty. We seek happiness and find only wretchedness and death. We are incapable of not desiring truth and happiness and incapable of either certainty or happiness.
Since no one can change human nature, no one can make us stop desiring truth and happiness; and no mere human being can gives us truth or happiness. We can mediate these two things (and get them in crumbs and droplets while wishing for great loaves and waves), but we cannot create them; we are aqueducts not fountains. (C.S. Lewis: “Human beings can’t make each other happy for very long.”)
…It is instructive to compare Job and Ecclesiastes. For this is the comparison between ancient and modern man. Ecclesiastes, like modern man, has everything and yet has nothing because it is only “vanity”. Job, like ancient man, has nothing but has everything because he has God.
3. We Were Not Born To Be Free
Let man now judge his own worth, let him love himself, for there is within him a nature capable of good; but that is no reason for him to love the vileness within himself. Let him despise himself because this capacity remains unfilled; but that is no reason for him to despise this natural capacity. Let him both love and hate himself; he has within him the capacity for knowing truth and being happy, but he possesses no truth which is either abiding or satisfactory.
G.K. Chesterton says that no one can love his own soul too much or hate his own self too much. Pascal makes the same distinction…We are to despise ourselves, because we have chosen not to fulfill our capacity for good; but we are not to despise our souls, which have that capacity. …Modern paganism tells us exactly the opposite: it tells us to despise our souls and love ourselves, our “rights,” demands, desires and passions. Its euphemism for passion is “freedom”. That is it identifies freedom with what is really enslavement. It would be horrible offended by C.S. Lewis’ statement: “I was not born to be free. I was born to adore and obey.” How scandalously Christ-like! .…We are merely trousered apes; and not morally very bad at all because there is no divine law to judge us as very bad. There is only man-made societal law, that is our own pagan society’s expectations, and these are quite low, negotiable and revisable. “Here kid, take a condom. We know you are incapable of free choice and self-control. We expect you to play Russian roulette with AIDS, so we’re giving you a gun with twelve chambers instead of six.”
4. If There Is No God, Everything Is Permissible
Those who lead disorderly lives tell those who are normal that it is they who deviate from nature, and think they are following nature themselves; just as those who are on board ship think that the people on shore are moving away. Language is the same everywhere; we need a fixed point to judge it. The harbor is the judge of those aboard ship, but where are we going to find a harbor in morals?
Where but in God can we find this harbor in morals? Thus we return to Dostoevsky’s terrifying little truism: “If there is no God, everything is permissible.”
The very things that lead many away from God, the problems of evil, injustice, ignorance and relativity – are what Pascal uses to drive us in desperation to his arms. The atheist argues: “If there were a God, how could there be injustice?” To which Pascal replies: “If there is injustice, there must be true justice for it to be relative to and a defect of; and this true justice is not found on Earth or in Man, therefore it must exist in Heaven and God. Either there or nowhere; and if nowhere, then “Everything is permissible.” But not everything is permissible. Therefore there must be a God. Pascal does not use this argument as an argument but as a prod.
5. The Discovery Of Truth Depends On The Heart And Will
Truth is so obscured nowadays and lies [are] so well established that unless we love the truth we shall never recognize it…
This is why the discovery of truth depends on the heart and will, not just the head and mind. This is why the prime requirement for finding any great truth (like God, or the meaning of life or death, or who we are and what we ought to do, or even finding the right mate and the right career is love , passion, questing and questioning. Once we pursue a question with our whole being, as Socrates pursued “Know thyself”, we will find answers. Answers are not as hard to come by as we think; and questions, real questioning, is a lot more real and precious than we think. Finding is not the problem, seeking is. For truth is hidden… If we do not love the truth, we will not seek it. If we do not seek it, we will not find it. If we do not find it, we will not know it. If we do not know it, we have failed our fundamental task in time, and quite likely eternity.
6. Life Offers Only One Tragedy
Knowledge of physical science will not console me for ignorance of morality in times of affliction, but knowledge of morality will always console me for ignorance of physical science…
In the end, life offers only one tragedy: not to have been a saint (attributed to Charles Peguy).
7. The Foolishness Of Believing The Greater Miracle And Not The Lesser One
How I hate such foolishness as not believing in the Eucharist, etc. If the Gospel is true, if Jesus Christ is God, where is the difficulty?
How irrational to swallow a camel and strain at a gnat! To believe the greater miracle, the oneness of the man Christ with God, and not the lesser one, the oneness of bread with his body. If God can leap the infinite gap into man, he can surely leap into the appearances of bread and wine.
8. A Faith That Cannot Be Disproved
If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural.
Faith certainly tells us what the senses do not, but not the contrary of what they see; it is above not against them.
Some of the tenets of Christian faith (for example, the Trinity) cannot be discovered, adequately understood, or proved by human reason, but are “mysterious and supernatural”; others, like monotheism, can; and all of them at least do not “offend the principles of reason” (Aquinas). Not all of Christianity can be proved, but some of it can, and none of it can be disproved. If it could, faith would be absurd and ridiculous
9. The Extent Of Reason
Reason’s last step is to realize that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it. It is merely feeble if it doesn’t go as far as to realize that. If natural things are beyond it, what are we to say about supernatural things?
The most rational theologians, St Thomas Aquinas, says that “it is impossible for any created intellect to see the essence of God by its own natural power”; that “the divine essence cannot be known through the nature of material things”; and that “no name is universally predicated of God and of creatures.” Reason itself tells us that God transcends reason. How irrational to think that the being that did not transcend our reason’s ability to know it deserved the name of God! How irrational to claim to know that there is no more than your reason knows!
10. Faith Is Distinctive, Reason Is Not
Philosophers and all the religions and sects in the world have taken natural reason for their guide. Christians alone have been obliged to take their rules from outside themselves and to acquaint themselves with those which Christ left for us with those of old, to be handed down again to the faithful. Such constraint irks the good Fathers (dissenting theologians). They want to be as free as other people to follow the imagination of their hearts. In vain we cry out to them as the prophets of old said to the Jews: ‘Go into the midst of the Church, ask for the old paths and walk therein.’ They have answered like the Jews: ‘We will not walk therein, but will walk after the devices of our own hearts.’ And they said: ‘We also shall be like all the nations.’ [1 Samuel 8:20]
The special gift God gave to the Jews and Christians was supernatural revelation, and the gift of faith to believe it. Yet modernity is embarrassed by this special gift – at its specialness more than its supernaturalness – and longs to be “just like everyone else” – which thus means dependent on common human reason alone. The desire “to be like all the other nations,” with which the Chosen People grieved God in the Old Testament, the love of equality and the fear of “elitism,” is one of the Devil’s most effective deterrents to faith today. Many Christian theologians lean over backwards to “nuance” Christianity’s distinctive dogmas, such as miracles, and emphasize its non-distinctive ones, like peace and justice. They fear being right where “the nations” are wrong more than they fear being wrong where “the nations” are wrong; they fear nonconformity to the world more than nonconformity to God.
11. Greatness And Wretchedness; Spirit And Flesh
Man’s greatness is so obvious that it can even be deduced from his wretchedness, for what is nature in animals we call wretchedness in man, thus recognizing that, if his nature is today like that of the animals, he must have fallen from some better state which was once his own.
Who indeed would think himself unhappy not to be king except one who had been dispossessed?…Who would think himself unhappy if he had only one mouth and who would if he had only one eye? It has probably never occurred to anyone to be distressed at not having three eyes, but those who have none are inconsolable.
Pascal’s distinction between greatness and wretchedness is part of St. Paul’s distinction between spirit and flesh. Wretchedness is of the flesh; but it is more a matter of the soul and consciousness and feeling than a matter of body and molecules….For instance, animals accept death as natural, like good Stoics or pop psychologists, while man does not. Animals struggle against death, of course, but they are not scandalized or outraged by it. But man is – if he still has a heart that pumps blood rather than psychobabble, and if he listens to this inner prophet rather than to his outer prophets, social propaganda from secular ideologies. His outer prophets tell him to “Make friends with the necessity of dying.” (Freud); but his inner prophets tell him “Do not go gentle into that good night./Rage, rage against the dying of the light (Dylan Thomas). The same applies to sin and suffering as to death.
12. Just Enough Light
If God had wished to overcome the obstinacy of the most hardened he could have done so by revealing himself to them so plainly that they could not doubt the truth of his essence, as he will appear on the last day with such thunder and lightening and such convulsions of nature that the dead will rise up and the blindest will see him. This is not the way he wished to appear when he came in mildness, because so many men had shown themselves unworthy of his clemency, that he wished to deprive them of the good they did not desire. It was therefore not right that he should appear in a manner manifestly divine and absolutely capable of convincing all men, but neither was it right that his coming should be so hidden that he could not be recognized by those who sincerely sought him. He wished to make himself perfectly recognizable to them. Thus wishing to appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart and hidden from those who shun him with all their heart he has qualified our knowledge of him by giving signs which can be seen by those who seek him and not by those who do not. ‘There is enough light for those who desire only to see and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.”
If he gave more light, the righteous would not learn humility, for they would know too much. If he gave less light, the wicked would not be responsible for their wickedness, for they would know too little. There are three answers to why God is not more obvious:
- He wants to give us time to repent. Scripture says this in [Genesis 15:16]; Isaiah 48:9]; Luke 13:7-9]; [Romans 2:4]
- He wants to effect a true relationship with us, not one merely of intellectual belief but of personal faith, hope, love and trust. The propositions of lovers are different from the propositions of syllogisms.
- God is both love and justice; if he manifests himself truly it cannot be without love or without justice. His love led Him to save all who will have Him, and his justice led him to punish those who will not have him. Thus he respects our free choice. He deprives the damned only of the good they do not desire.