Sunday, October 15, 2017

In Praise of Pascal

Many years ago I made a list of the top ten modern (since 1500) theologians and/or philosophers by whom my thinking had been most influenced. The first name on that chronological list was, and remains, Blaise Pascal. That French genius, who died 355 years ago in 1662, was a man whose ideas are certainly praiseworthy still.
Pascal’s Precocity 
There is no question that Pascal (b. 1623) was a precocious child. He reputedly discovered for himself the first 32 of Euclid’s propositions while still a boy, and as a teenager he invented the first calculating machine.
In his twenties, Pascal confirmed the existence of the vacuum and instigated the development of calculus. His expertise as a physicist is such that “pascal” became the name for “a unit of pressure in the meter-kilogram-second system equivalent to one newton per square meter.”
Later, “Pascal” became the name for “a structured computer programming language developed from Algol and designed to process both numerical and textual data.”
There is no question that Pascal from an early age excelled as a mathematician, physicist, and inventor. However, it is because of his deep religious experience and then because of his keen thinking as a Christian philosopher that I find him most worthy of praise.
Pascal’s Profundity 
Pascal’s great contribution as a Christian thinker came after a profound religious experience in November 1654, when he was 31 years old. At that time he wrote, and then carried with him until the time of his death, the following testimony of that mystic experience:
"God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob," not of philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ. . . .
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
Following that “night of fire,” Pascal abandoned his pursuit of science until just before his death and decided to write a book for the vindication of the Christian faith. But, alas, he died at the young age of 39 before the book was published and even before his copious notes were organized.   

By 1670, though, Pascal’s thoughts were published, without much organization, under the name Pensées—and the book is still published in various translations and editions, including more than one on Kindle. 
While some of Blaise’s thoughts may seem a little blasé, many are quite profound. Of particular import are these contentions:
The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing: . . . (423)
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. (424)
(Pascal’s quoted words are all from A.J. Krailsheimer’s 1966 translation of Pensées.) 
Pascal’s Paradoxicality  

It is particularly Pascal’s dual emphasis on opposites that I have found most helpful. For example, concerning reason: 
If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural. If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous. (273)
Pascal’s paradoxical view of human nature is of great significance. “Man is only a reed, but he is a thinking reed.” (200)
He repeatedly wrote about both the wretchedness and the greatness of humans.
Pascal also averred, “There are only two kinds of men: the righteous who think they are sinners and the sinners who think they are righteous.” (562)
Wikipedia interestingly, and correctly, summarizes Pascal’s paradoxicality in these words: “In the Pensées, Pascal surveys several philosophical paradoxes: infinity and nothing, faith and reason, soul and matter, death and life, meaning and vanity—seemingly arriving at no definitive conclusions besides humility, ignorance, and grace.”
Many of Pascal’s “thoughts” are praiseworthy and unquestionably worth thinking about—perhaps especially in the present day.


  1. Marilyn Peot, local Thinking Friend and a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, shares these comments:

    "Amazing! Over 60 years ago I was exposed to some of Pascal's teaching--by our Franciscan theology teacher. I was just a young thing moving through my initial formation in the convent. However, I never pursued him. Your blog introduces me for the first time to his short but amazing life.

    "He actually lived during the years our religious community was being formed in LePuy, France. In fact, today, October 15th, we celebrate 367 years of the founding of our community in 1650--we are now present in 55 countries!

    "Thank you for jogging my memory!"

    1. Marilyn, thanks for responding so early yesterday morning.

      For you, and other readers of this blog, I recommend taking a look at Boston College Professor Peter Kreeft's 1993 book "Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal's 'Pensees' Edited, Outlined, and Explained."

      Kreeft is quite conservative in some ways, but when I read that book back in the 1990s, I thought it was quite good.

  2. Early this afternoon Thinking Friend Michael Olmsted in south Missouri emailed me these comments:

    "I have come to the place where imagining God in a human form is beyond my spiritual sight. Long ago I realized that science, facts of this physical world, reveal the incredible otherness of God and remind me that God is not dependent on what I construct but on the incomparable way God has come to us in the person of his Son.

    "Moses witnessed a burning bush and the cloud of God's passing ... Israel saw the manifestation of God on the mountain and in their desert wandering ... the apostles saw the light of God's presence on the Mt. of Transfiguration ... and he is seen as incomparable light in John's vision we call Revelation. To reduce God to a Michelangelo image in the Sistine Chapel cannot compare to the GOD who is present in the elements and structure of an atom or in any reality of time measurement
    we calculate.

    "Alpha and Omega are more than beginning and end: they are ALL! I cannot live without GOD who miraculously loves us."

    1. Pascal was born just 59 years after Michelangelo died -- but there was a vast difference in their understanding of God!

  3. Thanks, Leroy. I don't know much about Pascal except he made this wonderfully paradoxical "wager" about the existence/non-existence of God. Where would you fit that (Pascal's wager) into his own post-illumination faith?

    1. Thanks, Milton, for your important question.

      Back in 2002 I wrote a nine-page essay titled "Reasons of the Heart: A Review Essay." Part of it dealt with books and essays about Pascal's wager argument--and as you might guess there were conflicting views.

      In brief, let me just say that Pascal developed that argument after his own "post-illumination faith," as you put it. But his own strong faith was certainly not the result of any wager argument.

      It perhaps is noteworthy that in Krailsheimer's translation (and arrangement), the wager argument is numbered 418, shortly before the important statements (included above) numbered 423 and 424.

      The wager argument is not as good as some Christians have tried to make it, but it certainly is not as bad as some philosophers have tried to argue.

      I don't know as much about it as I did 15 years ago, but it seems to me that it should be seen as an argument that Pascal perhaps devised to use with his old (former?) buddies in the drinking and gambling establishments. Many of them perhaps were not good, critical thinkers, but Pascal likely thought his wager argument was one they could understand--and maybe even move toward faith in God because of.

  4. Thanks. I had no knowledge of his writings and mostly associated the name with a computer language.

  5. Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago shares these comments:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your informative comments about Blaise Pascal.

    "Pascal became a Jansenist and waged a battle with the Jesuits over casuistry and the nature of divine grace, both of which are interesting issues. In the "Pensees," Pascal is critical of the Jesuits, Descartes, and Milton. Many of his statements strike me as puzzling.

    "Four not so puzzling quotes from the "Pensees":

    "The strength of man's virtue must not be measured by his efforts, but by his ordinary life." (Section VI, no. 352)

    "Man is neither angel nor brute, and the unfortunate thing is that he who would act the angel acts the brute." (Section VI, no. 358)

    "Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it." (Section XIV, no. 864)

    "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction." (Section XIV, no. 895)

    1. Thanks, Eric, for your comments and for posting some of Pascal's "pensées."

      I was glad you mentioned his criticism of the Jesuits, which was certainly true. That gives me a segue to the Aug. 17 article that appeared in "The Christian Century."

      The writer of that article pointed out that Pope Francis "announced his plan to request a formal study of Pascal’s cause for beatification--which is remarkable on the part of this Jesuit pope, considering the ferocity of Pascal’s anti-Jesuit writings."

    2. Eric responded to my comments with this response:

      The Jesuits have gone through a remarkable evolution since their order was founded in 1540 to staunchly defend the papacy and Roman Catholic doctrine. Today, Opus Dei is more or less the staunchest defender of Catholic doctrine while the Jesuits have become one of the most liberal Catholic orders.

      "Nonetheless, the plan of Pope Francis is remarkable since the Jesuits have not, as far as I know, embraced Jansenist theology, a theology with close affinities to Lutheran theology. Beatification is a long process, so Pascal will not, if it happens, be beatified overnight.

      I have a great respect for the Jesuits; I went to a Jesuit silent retreat for men in Minnesota for twelve straight years (2004 to 2015) and heard over 100 lectures by Jesuit priests. Although I did not always agree, I respected their emphasis on education, critical thinking (within a Christian and Catholic context), and the Ignatian spiritual exercises. It was a great experience and I may resume my attendance in future years."

    3. I, too, have a great deal of respect for contemporary Jesuits. I taught a theology course for 17 semesters at Rockhurst University, a Jesuit school in Kansas City (ending in Dec. 2014), and I had nothing but pleasant experiences, and conversations with, the (few) Jesuits I encountered there.

  6. [There was problem with the way I posted the second comment that I had received yesterday, so I am posting it again, correctly, now,]

    The second comment received this morning, about 7 a.m., was from local Thinking Friend Tim Laffoon, who gave me permission to post it here:

    "I knew that Pascal was one of several scientists who had a deep belief in Christ. His science and math were more of my study.

    "I do appreciate the concept of mystery, for we are creatures who will never be God. God IS His own – that which we will never understand – which scholasticism may never touch, either in theology, or science, or experience. Yet we try, and He smiles, allowing our minds a little insight and understanding."

  7. A few minutes ago Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky sent the following comments:

    "I agree with you about Pascal’s worthiness, Leroy. I included the Pensees among the classics of Christian devotion in "Seekers after Mature Faith." I think his Wager Argument helped me the most in my own thinking in a critical period of forming my faith. I still cite it often when speaking to people who are struggling to remain believers."

  8. Pascal disliked Descartes' purely rational philosophizing about God. Ironically, some say it was Descartes' compassionate visit to the ill 24-year-old Pascal that prompted Pascal to write: "The heart has reasons which reason knows nothing of."

    (Descartes' three-hour visit at Pascal's bedside, after they'd argued the day before, is well-attested; the source of the quote is conjecture.)

    1. Fred, thanks for your comments. I knew about Descartes visiting Pascal and knew that Pascal did not much like Descartes' "rational philosophizing," but I did not know (or had not remembered) that Pascal's famous words "the heart has reasons . . ." may have been written specifically in reference to that.

      Thanks for sharing that suggestion, which I find entirely plausible.

  9. I would be interested to know why Pascal was and remains in your “top ten” philosophers. Many take the “heart” vs “reason” oft used quotation as a vote in favor of sentiment over reason. When he says, “the heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of”, we might look further or deeper at what are the “reasons” that that the heart knows? What do you or others think that meant? Or what does that mean to you. How does that relate to his attractiveness then and now?
    I don’t know much about the life of Blaise Pascal. I don’t think he was a sceptic, but he knew that the reasons and proofs of mathematics did not work for all of reality. He experienced intuitive thinking. I don’t think he was an opportunist. His “wager” invitation seems more like it is not unreasonable to follow belief in God. As far as I know, he remained a believing, practicing Catholic. If he held that we cannot know what God is or if He is, does that make him an agnostic—or a mystic? Is he particularly helpful currently when we really can’t explain either God or the Big Bang?
    PS I had not read all the blogs when I first wrote -- didn't know Francis is recommending him as a saint/icon for our times!

  10. Thanks, Larry, for asking important questions about Pascal--and about why I like him so much.

    Christian apologetics has been a lifelong concern of mine. That involves using reason to combat anti-Christian ideas and to promote the reasonableness of the Christian faith. So I am a strong proponent of reason, logical arguments, and rational thinking.

    But with Pascal I also think that belief in God must be more than just agreeing with propositions about God.

    I understand Pascal's emphasis on the heart as being experiential "knowledge" of God, not just sentimental feelings. His statement about "the heart has its reasons" is rooted, I think, in his mystical experience in 1654. So, yes, he is (at least in some sense) a mystic.

    As Pascal, I think that authentic belief in God must be a matter of "head" and "heart" both. That is why I think his words in #273 above are so important.