A Primer on Religious Existentialism, Pt. 5: Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal initially seems a rather odd figure to label as a Christian existentialist–or even as a forerunner to the movement. Other than his famous “wager” (about which I will say quite a bit more later), he is perhaps best known for a major contribution to mathematics: Pascal’s Triangle. (It’s apparently quite significant, but don’t ask me to explain it to you.) He was the sort of polymath the Enlightenment excelled at producing, and, like the other renaissance men of the era–Franklin, Jefferson, Priestley, Bacon, Diderot, et al–he can be quite committed both to strictly logical thought and to the scientific method, neither of which mesh terribly well with the thought of what William Barrett calls “irrational man.” But the surface facts of his life mask an important truth about Blaise Pascal: Created though he was by the Enlightenment, any time he thought seriously about subjects outside of mathematics, he was forced to betray the Enlightenment–a betrayal that seems to have been quite difficult, perhaps even painful, for him. This is clear in his most famous work, the so-called Pensées, a book that strives for Enlightenment-style scientific certainty but ends up in the unexplainable darkness of Job or Ecclesiastes.

Pensées is not, properly speaking, a book–or at least it’s not the sort of cohesive work people often mean when they use that word. The academic term text is far more applicable in this case; Pensées is in fact a loose collection of notes, a stabbing toward a major work of apologetics. Some of Pascal’s “thoughts” are more or less fully formed, going on for ten or fifteen pages and making what amounts to a complete argument. Others are so brief and removed from context that they work as Modernist poetry. (The most famous of this category is number 507–“The motions of grace; the hardness of heart. External circumstances”–which John Updike used as the epigraph to Rabbit, Run.) Some are in Latin, making them inaccessible to the illiterate among us. The important thing, though, is that these are mere fragments of a never-completed book that would have presented a cohesive apologetic argument. It is in the nature of fragments, however, to lack cohesion, and the reader will likely be driven mad if she attempts to construct from these tessons de pensée the book that never was to be.

The real irony, of course, is that it is its fragmentary nature, its frustrating failure of coherence that constitutes a large part of the text’s appeal to the post-Waste Land reader. (One imagines Pascal’s Jansenist God, only a step below Calvin’s, planning it this way, killing our author off at the tender age of 39, merely to ensure that readers would continue to find God’s hand in the forever-unwritten book three and a half centuries later.) The modern mind–especially the modern mind of a literary rather than a scientific bent–is far less receptive to “metanarratives,” to use Jean-Francois Lyotard’s term, and far more open to the “stab in the dark” approach that fragments suggest.

The Pensées breaks down, essentially, into two sections. In the first (and more interesting, in my opinion), Pascal attempts to demonstrate that man’s life apart from God is a wretched thing that is not worth living. In the second, he posits that Christ, as Redeemer, is the solution to that alienation. This organization was, of course, neither new nor unique; St. Paul uses it in his epistle to the Romans (and many a teenage Christian in the 1980s and ’90s learned it as the so-called “Romans Road” of evangelism). Nor is it particularly existentialist as a bare organizational schematic–except that it begins not with revelation but with the conditions in which man finds himself. Existence precedes essence. It’s worth noting, however, that Pascal belongs to a line of scientists (stretching at least back to Aristotle) who also move from bottom to top, and so beginning with the human condition rather than with the eternal verities is not enough reason for us to class Pascal with the existentialists; it is more likely to be evidence of his commitment to the scientific.

And indeed, Pascal often seems to want to proceed scientifically, as when he talks about how to correct those who are in error:

When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. . . . [N]aturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true. (¶9)

Pascal here betrays a profound faith in empiricism, the foundation of the scientific method. Elsewhere, though he takes shots at Descartes throughout the text, he seems to buy into the Cartesian split–between the mind and the world–wholesale, and promotes the man-as-disembodied-head anthropology that existentialists would so vociferously criticize about the Cartesian Enlightenment. “Man is obviously made to think,” he says. “It is his whole dignity and his whole merit; and his whole duty is to think as he ought” (¶146). While later existentialist theologians, particularly those of a Neo-Orthodox bent–and I’m thinking especially of late-period Karl Barth here–would deny that the natural world (and with it, human reason) provides a route to real knowledge of God, Pascal is initially rather blithe about Calvin’s general revelation: “Those honour Nature well, who teach that she can speak on everything, even on theology” (¶29).

And yet, and yet. Throughout the text, Pascal seems to want to break out of the narrow strictures of Enlightenment empiricism, even as he occasionally bows to its philosophical language and assumptions. We see this as early as the first section, where he makes the distinction “between the mathematical and the intuitive mind” (¶1): namely, that the former uses logical but highly specialized principles, to the extent that the mathematician and the scientist are likely to miss out on obvious common-sense truths:

But the reason that mathematicians are not intuitive is that they do not see what is before them, and that, accustomed to the exact and plain principles of mathematics, and not reasoning till they have well inspected and arranged their principles, they are lost in matters of intuition where the principles do not allow of such arrangement. (¶1)

That Pascal not only posits the existence of a sphere of “intuitive truth” inaccessible to the “mathematical” mind but also suggests that it may be a higher form of truth indicates a major break with his Enlightenment peers–and an even larger one with the scientific-materialist philosophers who followed in their wake. And as the book continues, Pascal drills more and more holes in the predominant ideology of his day–until, by the end, he sounds far less like Kant than like Kierkegaard. Midway through, in fact, he’s ready to jettison the whole project:

The metaphysical proofs of God are so remote from the reasoning of men, and so complicated, that they make little impression; and if they should be of service to some, it would be only during the moment that they see such demonstration; but an hour afterwards they fear they have been mistaken. (¶542)

Eventually, he even comes around to what we can recognize as a Barthian position on natural theology. “Those in whom this light [of faith] is extinguished,” he says, “find only obscurity and darkness” in God’s work in the world (¶242). Presumably this includes the empiricists who examine the world so closely.

My explanation for the tectonic shift in the Pensées is that the project he had undertaken–to present a clear and coherent description and defense of Christianity–convinced Pascal of the existential truth that Christianity must be lived before it can truly make sense. Thus, he came up with his Wager–which I will deal with in detail next week in a post on existential apologetics.

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