Intros to European Philosophy: Pascal

BLAISE PASCAL (1623-1662)

Previously read: I have forgotten, so this was a welcome section of European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche (ed. Monroe Beardsley).

Key texts: Thoughts or Pensees.  Basically, these are scraps from his diary.

Overall impression: Most famous for his ‘wager’, he at least attempted a less rational argument for following God, but still one based in fear.  At least he did not try to defend rationality as grounds for a Christian defense.  Further, Pascal pointed to those who had chosen to submit their passions to God rather than the strength of an argument.

But Pascal is most interesting for me when he speaks of what we are as humans.  For instance, ‘we are something, and we are not everything’ (p. 103).  We are caught between the Infinite of the great and the Infinite of the little.


“77.  I cannot forgive Descartes.  In all his philosophy he would have been quite willing to dispense with God.  But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God. (p. 105)”

“397.  The greatness of man is great in that he knows himself to be miserable. (p. 129)”

“792.  The infinite distance between body and mind is a symbol of the infinitely more infinite distance between mind and charity; for charity is supernatural. (p. 132)” 

Yep, that last one stings; especially as I read pieces of these ‘thoughts’ on the subway – surrounded by the mystery of other people and least disposed to anything resembling charity.  My lasting impression of Pascal has little to do with the wager and yet I wonder if I have any more need of God in my works than Descartes.  So for me Pascal is a sobering voice, but I invite better readers of him to fill out the picture with better colours than I have managed here.

Notes to Explore: Pascal and al-Ghazali

Apologies, this is not a complete thought yet:

There are three sources of belief: reason, custom, inspiration.  The Christian religion, which alone has reason, does not acknowledge as her true children those who believe without inspiration.  It is not that she excludes reason and custom.  On the contrary, the mind must be opened to proofs, must be confirmed by custom, and offer itself in humbleness to inspirations, which alone can produce a true and saving effect.  Ne evacuetur crux Christi.

~Pascal in Pensees, translated in 1904 by W.F. Trotter and offered, abridged, in The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche (2002) by the Modern Library, NY: p. 121

I make mention of this because, it sounds distinctly Ghazalian (I should know better, I ‘ve just been reading Foucault’s Archaeology).  Particularly, this division of the sources of belief mirrors, I think so please correct me, al-Ghazali’s al-Munqidh min al-Dalal or Deliverance/Deliverer from Error.  Regardless, primacy is given to that knowledge which is revealed – inspiration.  It’s a thought I would wish to see borrowed more by those religious philosophies which claim that God has revealed Himself in the world.

Oh, and the other, which is perhaps more removed, is when Pascal comments that offering arguments to unbelievers is most likely to lead to contempt rather than belief, for they are likely to scorn your arguments as indicative of the weak strands holding your belief together.  Such an utterance would n’t sound out of place for al-Ghazali either, I should think, especially given the manner by which he defines theology – as first an internal defense and then an external one against unbelief.  Theology is not, in the function it serves, equipped to be particularly constructive.

Again, apologies for the incomplete nature of this piece, but I ‘m trying to catalogue major dialogue points with al-Ghazali and not only has this one interested me on prior occasion, but it jumps off the page when I hear Pascal echoing sentiments so near in tone.  I ‘m happy to be corrected in these matters.

Mis-Directed: Addressing Uses of Polemic in Religious Discourse

At one time I endeavoured, with some regularity, to engage in debates over God’s existence (at least, that ‘s what the facebook group was called). I was an eager young theology student who thought he had something to offer (oh the danger a little knowledge can cause), but found myself, at best, trying to clean up messes left by others’ methods.

That makes me sound pretty good – but while I ‘m less sure of the overall effect my de-muddling attempts had, I know these arguments or discussions or whatever they averaged out to proved a source of frustration for me.  Much of it, in fact, was the good sort of frustration; I would n’t have had any idea how my notions sounded to an unbeliever until, well, I saw someone try them out on an unbeliever.

This is what I ‘m reminded of as I ‘m perusing Pascal’s Thoughts or Pensées.  At first I heard of him, farther back in my almost-an-engineer days, in connection with one more set of measurements I had to memorize (and have since thoroughly forgotten), but was reintroduced to him in what is best known as Pascal’s Wager.  In essence, it says something like:

I would have far more fear of being mistaken, and of finding that the Christian religion was true, than of not being mistaken in believing it true.

~Pascal, Thoughts (abridged version as translated by W.F. Trotter in 1904 and offered in The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche (2002)) #241. Order as found on p. 119 of European Philosophers

The ‘wager’ is that should one bet against Christianity and be wrong, nothing was lost in the hereafter because there ‘s no hereafter so there is n’t a point.  But, if Christianity were true and you were wrong in choosing against it, the consequences are particularly awful (i.e. eternal damnation and suffering).  So, if reason is not enough of an aid to guide you to recognize the Creator’s hand, at least move away from the potential suffering that might just be true.

It was one of the few arguments expressly excluded from the ‘debate’.  It was dismissed as a false dichotomy, and to be honest, I did n’t like hearing it employed.  I do n’t like it because I do n’t like seeing anyone motivated by fear.  If Jesus had simply asked for converts, then fear should suffice, but instead he invited disciples to come and join him in his sufferings.  He even seems to have put up with some serious doubts amongst his core followers, so I ‘m thinking rational assent is n’t really the purpose (although I do n’t think religion or Christianity exists in direct opposition to the rational).

So, what ‘s interesting is that further on in the notes comprising Pascal’s Thoughts he points out the problems with those who address their pro-God arguments to infidels.  To present such proofs as are convincing to those already believing for the perusal of those who cannot find reason or willingness to believe is ultimately counterproductive.

[T]o tell them that they have only to look at the smallest things which surround them, and they will see God openly, to give them, as a complete proof of this great and important matter, the course of the moon and planets, and to claim to have colluded the proof with such an argument, is to give them ground for believing that the proofs of our religion are very weak.  And I see by reason and experience that nothing is more calculated to arouse their contempt.

~#242 on p. 120 of European Philosophers

My experience tells me the same.  It is so funny then that one who so readily invokes God’s hiddenness as a key aspect of Christian faith should also offer such an argument as found in the ‘wager’.  I would add that while my experience has taught me that such efforts often do lead to contempt for those most loudly clamoring for answers, those who truly seek are not asking for a rational explanation which removes all doubt.  Rather, they are seeking the One who will lead them and the community that will struggle with them.

An argument which can be disseminated over a few short lines on facebook or wherever is at best a tool for the faithful to employ amongst their own.  It is most likely to prove immensely counterproductive, even if the goal is simply to establish thoughts which might lead to conversion.  I do n’t mean to disparage those who have used such methods or those who have found faith through them, but I would ask such persons to examine what is at the core of their faith – and find that it is closer to faithfulness in being discipled rather than rational assent to a neat and tidy argument.

In clinging to the mis-placed use of such arguments we suggest that our religion is weak (for look at how porous its core proofs are) where that which keeps us in communion should neither look nor smell like fear of the hereafter nor agreement to some arbitrary terms leading to a desired conclusion.  Instead, efforts should be multiplied to increase the faith and practice of those truly seeking to follow better.  But then, that ‘s too artificial sounding and it ‘s easier to have a nice rant on social media – or at least it feels more self-satisfying.