Blaise Pascal by Bill Tsamis

Blaise Pascal

by Bill Tsamis


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There is sufficient light for those who desire to see, and there is sufficient darkness for those of a contrary disposition.

Pensees 149

At the dawn of the seventeenth century, the Western world was experiencing one of the most profound paradigm shifts in scientific and philosophic intellectual history. With the overthrow of the ancient Ptolemaic geocentric cosmology, Copernicus and Galileo had prevailed in the arena of astronomy by demonstrating the theory of heliocentrism, Francis Bacon had laid the groundwork for a new scientific epistemology (i.e., the scientific method), and Rene Descartes, impressed by strict mathematical deductive logic, rejected the a priori assumptions of the medieval Scholastic philosophers and instead set forth a new methodological process of arriving at philosophic truth. Essentially, Descartes' method emphasized a subjective approach, beginning with his classic dictum, "Cogito, ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am"), thus rejecting the presuppositional acceptance of certain objective theistic assertions.

So clearly, although theism had not yet been denied, this new shift in epistemological methodology would clearly predict the ascent of reason, which, of course, would culminate during the era of the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, in the eighteenth century. Thus, it was at the threshold of this new era, marked by the Copernican revolution and Cartesian epistemology that the spirit of skepticism and freethinking would be born - the sword had been unsheathed, and a fire had been kindled which would eventually explode into a war of worldviews, a war that we even witness today, i.e., the war between theism (revelation and reason) and philosophical naturalism (reason alone).

Blaise Pascal was born in Clermont, France in 1623, Clermont being the city from where Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade in 1095. In addition to the intellectual changes which were occurring in Pascal's world, Europe was experiencing profound religious transformation as well as political chaos. This was the era of the post-Reformation when the religious unity of medieval Christendom had been shattered, and the violence of the Thirty Years War (1618-48) would leave the old Holy Roman Empire in utter desolation, with many cities and villages, once prosperous in agriculture and industry, now razed to the ground, their memory smoldering in the ashes of their remains. So whereas the intellectual spirit of man was thriving and going through marked evolutive change, the essential nature of man still appeared unchanged, arrested by its innate tendency toward divisiveness and destruction, imprisoned in the dungeon of its own depravity.

Now although the societal context in which Pascal lived was one of heightened volatility, the young Blaise was reared in a very stable, upper-class environment, his father Etienne being a principal financial magistrate who once contended with the infamous Cardinal Richelieu, the chief prime minister of Louis XIII. Tragically, however, the young Pascal's mother died when he was only three, and his years of infancy would be plagued by illness, something that would haunt him throughout his entire life. Nevertheless, Etienne Pascal was a capable father who, with the help of his daughters, Gilberte and Jacqueline, would sustain the young Blaise and then impel him into a career of intellectual magnificence. Essentially, Etienne Pascal was an ingenious man who was not only an able financial magistrate, but he was well versed in mathematics, ancient languages, Greek literature, and the art of poetry. Yet as a freethinker, he was critical of contemporary pedagogical methods, so he decided to take the matter of his son's education into his own hands, and true to his commitment. Etienne did not fail.

Beginning at a very early age, the young Pascal began to display extraordinary signs of intellectual prowess. Whether or not the story is true, that the twelve-year-old Blaise discovered complex geometrical principles on his own, it is certain that the young Pascal was a child prodigy and savant who excelled in the disciplines of mathematics and physics. At age sixteen he wrote a treatise on conic sections - i.e., circles, ellipses, and parabolas which are formed when a cone is intersected by a plane - his essay would be published in the following year. Shortly thereafter, Pascal would invent a digital calculating machine which would aid his father in the assessment of taxes, and in subsequent years, his experiments on atmospheric pressure and the possibility of a vacuum (something that Descartes claimed could not exist) would astonish the scientific intelligentsia. In addition to these achievements, Pascal would continue to make important contributions in the fields of mathematics and physics, especially with regard to probability theory and hydrodynamics (a branch of physics that deals with the forces produced by water and other fluids). Needless to say, Pascal would be universally acclaimed for his innumerable and timeless contributions to the disciplines of mathematics and science.

In the year 1646, however, Pascal would begin a spiritual journey that would possess his mind and occupy his soul until his tragic death at the young age of thirty-nine in 1662. And during this period in his life, "Pascal the mathematician and physicist" would become "Pascal the apologist and philosopher." Though he never abandoned his scientific experiments, he nevertheless consecrated his work to the glory of God and began to focus his penetrating mind on philosophical and theological pursuits.

It was in January of 1646 when his father had severely injured his leg that two profoundly religious men came to care for the ailing Etienne - thus, Blaise would be deeply impressed by the degree of Christian charity and spirituality that these two men evoked. Since these men were Jansenists, a movement within Roman Catholicism that was based on the teachings of Cornelius Jansenius (1585-1638), bishop of Ypres and author of the controversial work Augustinus, it seemed natural for Pascal to be drawn initially toward the Jansenist school of thought. Essentially, Jansenism resurrected the ancient Pelagian Controversy, a theological debate in the ancient church (ca. 400) between Augustine and Pelagius over the issues of grace, free will, and original sin. In contrast to the Jesuit teaching that grace is effective when the recipient assents and cooperates with God through free will, Jansenius taught that grace is wholly unmerited and therefore granted to the recipient by God through predestination. Thus, the ideas proposed by Jansenius were in the tradition of Augustinian thought, and not unlike those of John Calvin. Nevertheless, his central propositions were declared heretical by Pope Innocent X in 1653, but the firestorm of controversy would continue to rage on for some time. And in the midst of this theological conflict, Blaise Pascal would enter the arena as a philosophical thinker and polemicist par excellence.

On Monday, November 23, 1654, the Feast of St. Clement, Pascal experienced a profound spiritual awakening and conversion that he described in terms of mystical illumination. Prior to that fateful night of the 23rd, Pascal had taken the Roman Catholic ritual quite seriously, especially since he experienced the profound religiosity of the two Jansenist brethren who cared for his father in 1646; nevertheless, Pascal was plagued by spiritual distress and despair - he still felt as if he hadn't yet experienced true communion with God. So at the height of his struggle, while he was yearning and hungering for a deep interpersonal relationship with the God who seemed to evade him, or the "hidden God" as he later referred to the Supreme Being[1], Pascal's spirit was filled with immense grace and glory, as the "hidden God" determined to reveal Himself to the earnest seeker through a profound spiritual experience. Later, Pascal would relate his mystical experience with the following words:

"From about half past ten in the evening until about half past twelve, FIRE - God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars. Certitude, certitude. Heartfelt joy, peace. God of Jesus Christ. My God and thy God. Thy God shall be my God" (This text is from what is called the Memorial, a piece of parchment which was sewn into the lining of Pascal's coat).

It was at this point, then, that Pascal dedicated himself entirely to God and sought to serve the Divine Master with austerity and rigor. With the same degree of penetrating ingenuity that he had applied to his mathematic and scientific pursuits, Pascal now immersed himself in the study of Scripture and the Church Fathers, and it was not uncommon for him to turn to Protestant and rabbinical sources as well.

During the years 1655-57, Pascal, who sympathized with the Jansenist cause, articulated a powerful defense of certain Jansenist ideas and articulated a powerful polemic against the Jesuits in what has come to be known as the Lettres Provinciales. Writing anonymously in order to avoid imprisonment, Pascal essentially attacked the contemporary moral theology of the Jesuits. As the Jesuit scholar and historian of philosophy, Frederick Copleston indicates, "Pascal regarded the casuistry (the application of moral principles to particular cases) of the moral theologians as evidence of moral laxity and as an unjustifiable attempt to make Christianity easier for the more or less worldly-minded." [2] In this regard, Pascal greatly respected and identified with the seriousness of Jansenist Christianity, although he never fully identified himself with any sect, so it would be an error to speak of Pascal as a committed Jansenist.[3] Nevertheless, Pascal's polemical pen flagellated the Jesuits and caused them considerable aggravation.

As the great thinker was unwittingly entering into the final phase of his life (1657-62), he took it upon himself to prepare An Apology for the Christian Religion, a work which would be written with the intent of converting skeptics and freethinkers. With his years of intimate experience among the intelligentsia of his time, and with his penetrative ingenuity, Pascal was certainly proven for such a monumental work - however, fate would have it that the great Pascal would be cut down in his prime at the young age of thirty-nine, and the world would be left with about a thousand of his maxims, aphorisms, philosophical insights, and notes, later to be compiled into a work called Pensees (lit. "Thoughts"). Although the philosophical world would have been much richer with a systematic apologetic work by Pascal, scholars have nevertheless been able to glean from his writings his essential philosophical and theological position, a rather unique apologetic approach from which contemporary Christian thinkers can learn volumes,

Part 2

So, now let us approach the question regarding Pascal's philosophical contribution. Why was his thought so unique, and why has his perspective transcended the centuries? Ironically, Pascal's philosophic insight differed greatly from the thinkers of his time. For instance, whereas Descartes, who was also a mathematician of great repute, reasoned that mathematical principles could serve as the paradigm for inferring philosophic knowledge [4], Pascal regarded Descartes' exaltation of mathematical sovereignty as overly ambitious and useless with regard to philosophical and theological applications. And here lies the wonder of Pascal. In contrast to his contemporaries who had elevated science and mathematics to an ascendant level, the philosophical genius of Pascal was that throughout his career as a mathematician and physicist, he had plunged the very depths of reason to such a degree that only a handful of thinkers in the course of human civilization could be ranked with him. And because he deeply penetrated the very depths of reason to a point which was beyond the common reach of man, he therefore recognized the limitations of reason. He had journeyed to its very perimeter, and he thus perceived that there was no traversing beyond that point. Before him stood an unsurpassable chasm; and though he realized that the truth regarding ultimate reality awaited on the other side, he knew that not he, nor anyone else, could pass over the unsurpassable chasm. Thus, he dismissed the omnicompetence of reason and instead recognized the finitude of man's potential intellect. In one of his famous quotes from his Pensees, he humbly concedes the finitude of his own reason - and ironically it is reason herself, which he has met face to face, who instructs him as to her limitations. In one of his honest encounters with uncertainty, he wrote:

I do not know who put me into the world, nor what the world is, nor what I am myself I am terribly ignorant about everything I don't know what my body is, or my senses, or my soul, or even that part of me which thinks what I am saying, which reflects about everything and about itself, and does not know itself any better than it knows anything else. I see the terrifying spaces of the universe hemming me in, and I find myself attached to one corner of this vast expanse without knowing why I have been put in this place rather than that . . . All I know is that I must soon die, but what I know least about is this very death which I cannot evade. Just as I do not know whence I come, so I do not know whither I am going All I can know is that when I leave this world I shall fall forever into nothingness or into the hands of a wrathful God, but I do not know which of these two states is to be my eternal lot." (emphasis mine) Pensees 427

This spirit of uncertainty regarding the omnicompetence of reason, contrary to modern positivistic and naturalistic notions, is actually indicative of the humility of other great thinkers such as Socrates[5], who has served as the paradigmatic thinker for intellectual modesty and careful epistemology ever since the Greek classical era (ca. 400 BC). Thus, echoing Socrates, Pascal recognized his own limitations (despite his magnificent academic achievements which were based on reason alone), and in so doing, he anticipated the thought of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55). Kierkegaard, too, was reluctant to build an ambitious rationalistic system, and like Pascal, he perfectly understood the apparent ambiguity of God, and the importance of faith in the Christian life: "I contemplate the order of nature in finding God, and I see omnipotence and wisdom; but I also see much else that disturbs my mind and excites anxiety. The sum of all this is an objective uncertainty." (emphasis mine).[6] Nevertheless, despite these realizations of the ambiguity of God, both Pascal and Kierkegaard, rather that seeing uncertainty as a weak link in an apologetic system, perceived such ambiguities as "that which must be," especially if we stand by the assertion that God is wholly transcendent and unfathomable (Rom 11:33 // Isa 55:8-9), apart from his own determined self-revelation.

Notwithstanding our discussion of Pascal's concept of God's ambiguity, the great thinker did in fact integrate an undeniable existential principle into his system which was, at the same time, both similar and dissimilar to the assertion of Descartes. Simply whereas Descartes argued that self-existence ("Cogito, ergo sum") was the key pillar upon which man must erect all subsequent knowledge, Pascal argued that it was in fact "the end of self-existence" (i.e., death) with which man must concern himself primarily and ultimately. For Pascal, knowledge and acclaim in life were future if man disregarded this essential existential problem:

"Nothing is so important to man as his state: nothing more fearful than eternity. Thus the fact that there exist men who are indifferent to the loss of their being and peril of an eternity of wretchedness is against nature. With everything else they are quite different. they fear the most trifling things, foresee and feel them; and the same man who spends so many days and nights in fury and despair at losing some office or at some-imaginary affront to his honor is the very one who knows that he is going to lose everything through death but feels neither anxiety nor emotion. It is a monstrous thing to see one and the same heart once so sensitive to minor things and so strangely insensitive to the greatest. An inevitable death, which threatens us at every moment, must infallibly in a few years face us with the inescapable and appalling alternative of being annihilated or wretched for all eternity." Pensees 427, 432

For Pascal, then, the shadow of death loomed large, and the idea of facing eternity without knowing one's destiny was simply a burden to wearisome to bear -- the stakes were simply too high. Thus, Pascal articulated his famous Wager-argument, which essentially set forth the idea that the Christian has nothing to lose (even if he is mistaken), while the atheist has everything to lose (if he is mistaken). The most reasonable position, then, would be for one to place his wager on the existence of God, since there is nothing to lose one way or the other. And the sensual pleasures he might sacrifice in his devotion to God, would simply be reciprocated by the peace of mind, joy, and harmonious living which would be the product of his devotional life. Interestingly, Pascal did not offer his Wager-argument as a conventional proof of the existence of God, but rather as a challenge to those skeptics and atheists who were unconvinced by the traditional arguments and thus remained comfortably in a state of "suspended judgment."[7] As for Pascal, he placed his wager on the existence of God, and he found his perfect hope in the person of Jesus Christ.

At one o'clock in the morning, on the 19th of August 1662, Blaise Pascal breathed his last, his final words being, "May God never abandon me." Throughout his life he had struggled with chronic ill-health, yet as he approached the bitter end, his condition worsened to the point that he suffered terribly and tragically. There was nothing heroic about the death of Pascal - no glory or martyrdom by which he would be remembered. Nothing but a slow, progressively, gruesome disease which would consume his life at a time when the great thinker, in the eyes of man, should have been soaring through the heavens with the intellectual gifts that God had granted him. Yet perhaps this is part of the enigma of Pascal - the profound mystery. For, why would God bestow upon a young child such gifts of extraordinary magnitude, and then at the prime age of thirty nine precisely at a point when the young man would be writing a powerful systematic defense of the Christian faith - why would God snatch away his very soul? Why? Well, perhaps if Pascal could speak to us today, he would simply say that it was all part of the ambiguity of God . . . part of the uncertainty which God has purposed in His creation in order that men might come to Him through "faith," rather than simply through intellectual assent, for as the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews teaches us, "without faith it is impossible to please Him" (Heb 11:6). Thus, it was in the realm of such faith that the great Pascal attained his communion with God . . . Transcending the idea of reason alone, the great philosopher recognized that God had purposed a degree of ambiguity in His creation in order that He might discover the faithfulness of the heart, rather than the certitude of the mind.

"Acknowledge the truth of religion in its very obscurity . . . for it is not true that everything reveals God, and it is not true that everything conceals God. But it is true at once that he hides from those who tempt Him and that He reveals Himself to those who seek Him." Pensees 439, 444