The Reading Room
Blaise Pascal Bets It All on God
In some ways, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) is a curious figure to include in this series on the Age of Enlightenment. He lived in the seventeenth century, the Age of Science, and so joins Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, and Thomas Hobbes who lived and worked well before the eighteenth century, but pioneered dominant ideas, especially methodologies, of the Enlightenment and decisively shaped Enlightenment thinking.
But what is truly curious is that Pascal, a brilliant mathematician and physicist early in his short life, turned to writing philosophy focused entirely on the advocacy of religious faith—that knowledge of God comes only by grace and through Christ.
Reason and an almost brutal logical consistency were Pascal’s method, but he used them to demonstrate that neither makes possible the knowledge needed to attain the only worthwhile goals of life: the peace of mind that comes with comprehending the world from the perspective of a belief in God and salvation. His exposition of these views persuades many historians to rank him second only to Descartes among French philosophers.
Thus, the seventeenth century challenged the overwhelming monopoly on philosophy and education held by the Catholic Church’s Christianized Aristotelianism (Scholasticism) both from the point of view of reason and science (e.g., Descartes, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes) and of “pure” religious faith.
When used to deny the reliability of reason, humble it, and assert that we must rely upon faith, the latter point of view is called “fideism.” (Two fideists loom largest in the seventeenth century: Blaise Pascal and Pierre Bayle.) It is to fideism that Pascal, after a scintillating early career in mathematics and natural science, devoted his writing and enthusiastic public advocacy (“apologetics”) until his death. He said: “The last proceeding of reason is to recognize that there is an infinity of things which are beyond it. There is nothing so conformable to reason as this disavowal of reason.”
Born into a Catholic family in Clermont-Ferrand, Auvergne, in the heart of France (roughly midway between Lyon to the east and Bordeaux to the west), Blaise and his two sisters—all three unmistakably child prodigies--were educated entirely by their father, Etienne Pascal, a local judge who was part of the minor French nobility and himself interested in science and mathematics.
Pascal’s mother died when he was three and not long afterward his father moved the family to Paris. Soon Pascal was demonstrating his brilliance beyond the home classroom. At age 16, he wrote a significant treatise on geometry. He worked subsequently on conic sections, cycloid curves, barometrics, fluid dynamics, and much else—making contributions in each area. He clarified the concepts of pressure and the vacuum. And he corresponded with the great mathematician, Pierre Fermat, about probability theory. Taken together, their work still shapes economic theory and social sciences today. Moreover, in an era and country where gambling was epidemic, Pascal’s work on wagering brought him popular acclaim.
In 1642, still a teenager, he set out to support his father’s work by inventing a calculator. It turned out to be pioneering work on calculating machines (the first digital calculator because it operated by counting integers) of which he is considered one of the two inventors. Only eight of Pascal’s calculators (later “Pascalines”) have survived and now are in museums. Pascal had a “miniaturizing” problem, however; the machines were cumbersome, operated by gears and levers—and extremely expensive. They came to be merely a status symbol of the rich. Pascal did continue to improve them, but fewer than 50 in total were ever produced. That has not prevented Pascal from enjoying, 400 years later, acknowledgment as co-inventor of the mechanical calculator. A foremost programming language still in use today is called “Pascal” in his honor.
Then, at 23, a sequence of events of genuinely low “probability” led Pascal to give it all up. The events began in winter 1646, when his father, then 58, slipped on the icy streets of Rouen and broke his hip—a serious accident today but far more so back then. By chance, two of France’s finest bonesetters practiced in Rouen; Etienne Pascal would let no one else treat him. That seemed to pay off, he recovered in full, although only after months of treatment and rehabilitation. During that time, the two physicians visited continually, and Pascal engaged them in conversation. They were Catholic, but also devotees of a new breakaway group from Catholicism known (to its detractors) as Jansenism. It was a relatively small sect but making impressive inroads into the French Catholic community.
In contrast to the Scholastics, devoted to the triumphant synthesis of Aristotle and Christianity by Thomas Aquinas, Jansenists adhered to the earlier philosophy of Augustine. The latter centered on the catastrophe for the human will of the Fall. For the Fallen, faith alone held out hope for salvation, possible only by the grace of God. In short, the Jansenists were devoted to fideism.
Pascal experienced an initial conversion based on lengthy discussions with the two physicians and books of Jansenist they lent him. He began to write about theology. But within a year, he had disengaged from religion and, in fact, for the next five years entered what some biographers designate his “worldly period.” He later reflected in Pensées that “Men often take their imagination for their heart; and they believe they are converted as soon as they think of being converted.”
His sister, Jacqueline, who also converted to Jansenism, did not disengage. She soon declared she would become a postulant of Jansenism at a convent in the movement’s stronghold in Port-Royal. Pascal expostulated with her, warned that she would leave behind her inheritance (their father had died in 1651, leaving his legacy to Blaise and his sisters), and threatened her. She was adamant. In truth, Pascal was in a panic because with increasingly ill health he depended upon Jacqueline’s daily care. (Especially after age 18, Pascal’s always frail health had worsened steadily. It never became clear, even upon autopsy, exactly what ailed him. One possibility is tuberculosis.) They ended up striking a deal, including a financial settlement (the other sister had received her share of the inheritance as a dowry) and Jacqueline departed for Port-Royal. The two settlements left Pascal in genteel poverty. It took some time for him to reconcile even to visiting her.
The turning point came on the night of November 23, 1654. It was an intense religious experience. Pascal was fully awake and recorded the time as 10:30 to 12:30. He also seized his pen and wrote a brief memo to himself. It began: “Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars...” And he appended a quote from Psalm 119:16: “I will not forget thy word. Amen.”
To say that the thought stayed with him the rest of his life is simply a statement of fact, though he elaborated his ideas, built them into a philosophy, expressed them in works that became classics of literature, and dramatized their relevance to the peace on earth and salvation in heaven of every human being. He did so in a way that almost at once captured the imagination of France and Europe. Literally, too, he kept the thought for the rest of his life, sewing the document into his coat, always transferring it when he changed clothes. (A servant by chance discovered it after Pascal’s death.)
First, he visited the older of the two Port-Royal convents for a two-week retreat (winter 1655). He began to virtually commute between Paris and Port-Royal. He then made a compete conversion, took up residence, and wrote both of his great works there. (He wrote only at the convents' request and never published under his own name.) He began with a literary work on religion, Provincial Letters. Its proximate motivation was defense of Antoine Arnauld, an opponent of the Jesuits and a defender of Jansenism who was on trial before the faculty of theology in Paris for his controversial religious works.
Pascal’s commitment was total. And his brilliance shone as brightly in Jansenism as it had in science. Published in 1656-67 under a pseudonym, the 18-letter series known as Provincial Letters attacked the casuist method of argument for which the Jesuits were known. Employing humor, mockery, and bitter satire to make its arguments, the book became a popular literary work, devoured by the public. It was brief, taut, and precise, arguably launching modern French prose, and influenced the style of later French writers including Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And, incidentally, it contained a remark, still well-known today, when Pascal apologized that he had written a long letter as he had not had time to write a shorter one.
The work enraged King Louis XIV, who ordered it shredded and burned. At the same time, the Jesuits set out to identify the author and track him down. They failed. It was a time (1661) when Jansenism already was under attack, its school at Port-Royal condemned and closed, and those involved were forced to renounce Jansenism as heretical. The final letter in Pascal’s book had defied the pope himself, who, publicly opposed the letters, privately admitted that he was persuaded by Pascal’s arguments.
Pascal’s greatest contribution to philosophy, Pensées, remained unfinished at his death. In fact, it had to be assembled from the scattered notes and papers Pascal left behind. Nonetheless, published in 1669, seven years after Pascal’s death, it rapidly became a classic. Pascal intended it as a full, coherent examination and defense of Christian faith (the original title had been “Defense of the Christian Religion”). Its title on publication was Thoughts of M. Pascal on Religion, and on Some Other Subjects.
In the face of the seventeenth century’s rising optimism and confidence in reason and science, Pascal dwelt on the misery of man and the pathetic absurdity of life without God. Knowledge of God gained through intellect simply was insufficient to life without knowledge of Christ, grace, and faith. Logical as always, Pascal believed that the seemingly incoherent world and its many self-contradictions were reconciled in the light of faith. It was just a matter of the right perspective. Seen from the secure place of faith, everything fell into place. This was the age-old clash between piety and natural knowledge, and Pascal no longer had any doubt which side he took.
Pensées shocked Pascal’s generation and generations to come. It arrested readers by highlighting the individual’s inherent and inescapable misery and failure to face the only truly important questions in life: Who am I, and what is my fate?
Hatred and war, political power, glittering wealth and grinding poverty, were the European reality, said Pascal, (easily believed after the seeming endless slaughter of the religious wars on the sixteenth century) and this was the truth of human life without faith. Evidently, many readers saw things Pascal’s way. In a century that celebrated rising human intellectual command, the achievements of science, and the conquest of nature for man’s betterment, Pascal made real to readers the insoluble contradictions of genius versus ignorance, science silent on morality, reason’s clash with authority and custom: all a brave new world hurtling forward with new energy but no authentic purpose. Instead, the weak human intellect was buffeted by passions (as Hobbes insisted), swayed by self-interested and self-deceiving logic (as Descartes insisted) and helpless in the presence of the infinitely large.
In view of the world and condition of man Pascal had dramatized, given that our eternal fate is at stake, should we not yearn for deep, eternal, true answers? But that knowledge is unattainable without personal familiarity with Christ. Consider the position of Descartes, Pascal expostulated. Does his abstract philosophical proof of a “perfect being”—a first mover or first cause—make understandable to you, the reader, your own hatred and self-hatred? Does it make the existence of evil and its role in human nature comprehensible to you?
Among the famous quotations from Pascal is “an infinite distance [lies] between knowledge of God and love of God.” No philosophical proof will lead you to love God. You may “know” God, but you are left with the baffling world of human depravity and human suffering. You are left with your unhappiness. Only the heart can believe in God and only with His grace. With faith through Christ, all slips into place. The only true goals of life, inner peace and salvation, are real at last.
Pascal’s famous “wager”—more intriguing because of his reputation with gamblers for works on probability--has no other goal than igniting in his readers' belief in God. Pascal makes four arguments of this form, only one called a “wager.” Subsequent analysis has brought out the enormous complexity implicit in this seemingly simple argument. Also, “...there are certain exegetical problems in presenting these arguments. Pascal never finished the Pensées, but rather left them in the form of notes of assorted sizes pinned together.”
The wager emphatically and explicitly is not a proof of God’s existence. Pascal, as we have seen, rejected absolutely and out of hand the notion of proving God’s existence. That would concede that man’s intellect could achieve true knowledge of God—a premise Pascal rejected in all he wrote. No, there are no proofs of God’s existence. That is forever out of reach of man’s weak reason.
You are faced with the need to make a bet, to gamble. You can bet on God’s existence or bet on His non-existence. Which do you want to be true?
If you wager on God’s existence and you are wrong, you lose nothing, not a chip. If you wager against God’s existence and you are wrong, you lose infinitely.
If you wager that there is a God and are right, what is the prize? Infinitely everything. What bet do you want to make?
Pascal argued for the incompatibility of faith and reason in what is justly known as the Age of Reason. He did so with a power that seems to have made him immortal.
When Louis XIV suppressed Jansenism in Port-Royal, Pascal wrote one of his final works, “Writ on the Signing of the Form” (by which Jansenists agreed Jansenism was heretical). Pascal exhorted Jansenists not to sign.
That year, Jacqueline died. Pascal ceased to pen his polemics on Jansenism. His mind did not stop working, though. His last major innovation was to inaugurate what may have been the world’s first bus line, moving passengers within Paris in a many-seated coach. Pascal laid down operating principles later widely used to plan public transportation (e.g., a fixed routes, a schedule kept with or without passengers). It is considered the concept of public transportation well in advance of its reality (the lines were not commercially successful).
In 1662, Pascal’s long festering illness became violent and, with his sister’s death, so did his emotional condition. He sought to enter a hospital but was deemed too at-risk to be carried there. He is said to have suffered terrible pain, most immediately probably from carcerous meningitis following a malignant ulcer of his stomach. In Paris, on August 18, Pascal went into convulsions, received extreme unction, and died the next morning. His last words were “May God never abandon me.”
He lies in the cemetery of Saint-Etienne-due-Mont, a church near the Pantheon, where Jean Racine and Jean-Paul Marat also lie. During the French Revolution, it was renamed the Temple Piety and damaged and robbed. Its name and Catholic worship were restored in 1803.
Pope Paul VI, in his famous modern encyclical Populorum progressio (March 1967) includes a paragraph that quotes from Pensées:
“True humanism points the way toward God and acknowledges the task to which we are called, the task which offers us the real meaning of human life. Man is not the ultimate measure of man. Man becomes truly man only by passing beyond himself. In the words of Pascal: ‘Man infinitely surpasses man.’”