It was on this day, June 19th in 1623, that Blaise Pascal was born in France, south of Paris in Clermont-Auvergne. A mathematician, philosopher, and general man of letters, he is best known for his last work, published posthumously as the Pensees (French for “Thoughts”) mostly in aphoristic form. He bridged the late Reformation (having lived through the 30 Years War in France) and the Enlightenment (having battled a new kind of Rationalism and political violence with the Fronde, a series of Civil Wars between 1648 and 1653).
Pascal lived in a tumultuous Europe and also lost his mother at the age of 3; both experiences which set him on a path of melancholy and doubt. Yet rather than cause him to question the goodness of God’s creation, his misfortunes and life-long illnesses instead cemented his belief in Original Sin: an increasingly unpopular opinion on the eve of the Enlightenment. The visible chaos and the seeming absence of God during his lifetime (at least contra the mystics and their direct revelation) did not diminish his faith but helped him make sense of the world. From a starting point of the fallenness and fallibility of humankind, he began to construct an argument for the historic Christian faith that took into account of the atrocities of war and the general brutality of the century. Instead of seeing these things as arguments against a benevolent deity, Pascal saw them as consistent with the doctrine of sin and the veil of tears of the 17th century.
The visible chaos and the seeming absence of God during his lifetime did not diminish his faith but helped him make sense of the world.
Apologetics, as we understand it today, did not exist in the 17th century, in part because doubt and skepticism were taboo in so-called “Christendom.” Philosophical and theological reflections about uncertainty were not completely unheard of in Medieval and Early Modern Europe but were usually handled from a safe distance amongst the philosophers.
However, as the Reformation loosed the bonds of orthodoxy, religious diversity increased and critical methods of examining the Bible began to flourish in places such as the Netherlands (see Baruch Spinoza) and in the Jansenist stronghold of Port-Royal-des-Champs Abbey following the tradition of Cornelius Jansen. Jansen, although not the founder of the movement that took his name, was instrumental in forming the theology of the rebel stronghold that would attract the likes of the playwright Jean Racine and Pascal. Blending Catholic mysticism and a pessimistic view of human nature as taught by St. Augustine, Jansenism attracted those shunned for their eclectic spirituality and acceptance of doubt.
Pascal avoided the two extremes of a newly budding rationalism or fideism (faith disconnected from reason) most famously with the oft-quoted: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” While this looks like a screaming endorsement for fideism, he finished the sentence with, “We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.” Here we see not an extremist, but a man straddling the age of faith and the Age of Reason.
Perhaps best known for his “wager,” Pascal is often associated with this curious argument for the existence of God and eternal blessedness. The wager goes like this: either God exists, and believing in him brings you eternal blessedness, or there is no God, and your believing in him seems foolish. But, Pascal adds, if you believe in God, you are covered either way, but if you don’t, you are risking damnation. Thus, isn’t it safer to believe than not to?
For Pascal’s particular enlightenment audience, the Libertines, an argument using the language of gambling might have been very persuasive, but the argument has since had varying degrees of success. The first critique of this apologetic is that it prioritizes rationality over faith. Is saving faith analogous to a wager? Is the only downside of belief, if Christianity is false, a mere inconvenience?
Paul writes that if Christ has not been raised, we are to be pitied the most (1 Cor. 15:22). Pascal could be accused of minimizing the “Cross-bearing” so central for followers of Jesus. But in the context of his Pensees, this thought experiment was an entrance to a discussion that would include the full spectrum of Christian thought. To divorce the “wager” from the rest of his thought betrays his larger argument for an active faith that avoided the ditches of cold rationalism as well as fideism based on unverifiable experiences. Pascal believed that the heart and the head were both essential components of the life of the Christian.
To divorce the “wager” from the rest of his thought betrays his larger argument for an active faith that avoided the ditches of cold rationalism as well as fideism based on unverifiable experiences.
Pascal died in 1662, just as Newton began working in England and Descartes was establishing himself as the French enlightenment philosopher par excellence before Voltaire. Despite the massive disagreements Descartes and Voltaire would have had, they agreed on something: Pascal was the brightest mind France ever produced.
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