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blaise pascal-aMy uncle made book for a living. That is, he took money from those who wagered on sporting events, presidential elections, anything whereby they thought they could make a fast and easy dollar. I suppose then it was inevitable that, as a young man, I felt a certain affinity for the thought of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Pascal, of course, gambled on stakes much higher than my uncle ever imagined. At the same time, my uncle knew something that Pascal never understood or, in any event, never admitted. You can’t beat the house.

Pascal’s mind was among the finest of the seventeenth century. He was a prodigy, perhaps a genius, who, at fifteen, published a distinguished essay on conic sections. He invented the first calculating machine, which he called La Pascaline, and his experiments with the vacuums that nature abhors led to the creation of the barometer.   Pascal was also a first-rate mathematician whose fascination with, and success at, the gaming table enabled him to contribute to the development of probability theory. To test his hypotheses, he devised the roulette wheel.

On November 23, 1654, at the age of thirty-one, Pascal underwent an emotional conversion that stirred him to abandon his worldly metier and to become an apologist for Christianity. He is best remembered today as a religious thinker, which he was, and a mystic, which he was not.   Like the nineteenth-century Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard, Pascal approached God with “fear and trembling.” A mystic seeks and expects union with God. Pascal, by contrast, despaired of ever finding Him. His conversion did not bring him clarity of vision. God remained distant and unfathomable; the will of God was inscrutable and His design for the cosmos mysterious. “For in fact,” Pascal asked, “what is man in nature?” He answered his question, writing:

A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he is made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up. [1]

Yet, alone and without God, humanity was lost, frightened, and miserable in vast and desolate universe.

To calm his anxiety that God was, at best, remote and, at worst, illusory, Pascal conceived his famous wager. He urged skeptics, atheists, and free-thinkers to live as if they believed in God. Critics then and since have denounced what seemed to be Pascal’s sneering disdain in urging people to affirm that God was real and existence meaningful. It was disingenuous, if not cynical, of Pascal to play the odds and to bet on the reality of God and eternal life when he suspected both were false. The critique, although carefully aimed, misses the target. It is no small irony given Pascal’s attacks on the Jesuits that, like Ignatius Loyola, he rejected predestination, convinced that men and women, through their own efforts, could earn God’s saving grace. Good habits and sincere piety, even in the absence of real belief, thus became indispensable to salvation. “Custom is our nature,” Pascal declared. “He who is accustomed to the faith believes it, can no longer fear hell, and believes in nothing else.”[2] As Augustine taught, the routine practice of faith might in time lead to genuine faith.

Hand-of-God_3Difficulties arise not from Pascal’s intentions but from his premises. Pascal argued that a man, perhaps in utter desperation, must speculate that God exists. If he wins, he wins big and for all eternity. If he loses, he loses almost nothing, since he will be in no worse condition than before. A prudent man thus has no alternative but to roll the dice or to turn over the next card. He’s gambling with house money. But in reality, in history, those who have denied God have often won glory, wealth, and power; according to scripture, they have gained the whole world. Satan took Jesus to a mountain and there “showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’”[3] (Matthew, 4:8-9) It is equally mistaken that a man loses nothing by hazarding that God is real. A man who worships God may sacrifice all he has, all he is, and all he loves in the vindication of his faith.   Consider Job.

Pascal’s tragedy originated in his embrace of Jansenism, which introduced Calvinist doctrines and attitudes into the Catholic world of seventeenth-century France and Western Europe.[4] The Jansenists had revived the Manichean dualism, which characterized humanity as divided between good and evil. For the Jansenists, every soul was a battleground, its fate determined by whichever conflicting impulse was strongest. The Jansenists insisted, therefore, that virtue must be imposed on rebellious and perverse human beings. Only an exacting and solemn authority could direct individuals toward rectitude and purity. The Jansenists also prescribed such discipline for the churches they controlled and the local governments in France over which they exercised some influence. The flesh must be compelled to yield to the spirit. It takes no great leap of historical imagination to see that the Jansenist admiration for order, management, restraint, bureaucracy, and surveillance could be made to attend the requirements of the totalitarian state. The Jansenists determined to administer the “greatness and misery of man,” (“grandeur et misère de l’homme”), which was the foremost theme of Pascal’s work, though compulsion.

Jansenism, asserted Friedrich Heer, endowed Pascal with “an enormous capacity for hatred and over-simplification.”[5]  Stressing the enthusiasm and certainty that governed the residents of Port Royal, the spiritual and theological capital of the Jansenist movement, Heer doubtless exaggerates the charges against Pascal. He ignores not the complexity of Pascal’s thought, but the complexity of the man himself.   Pascal was both austere and worldly, both rational and intuitive. When he partitioned the mind into l’esprit géométrique and l’esprit de finesse, he was mapping the course that a single mind—his own—could take. Pascal may have felt the zeal of a convert, but he never seems to have acquired the conviction that he possessed absolute truth or a sure method by which to attain it. For Pascal, God alone provided the antidote to the twin maladies of doubt and insecurity.

To alleviate his own misgivings, Pascal set out to compose a systematic defense of Christianity. The Pensées contain the remnants of the greater work that he never lived to complete.[6] If these fragments and aphorisms suggest the character of the volume that Pascal meant to write, then it seems the Pensées would have been less an apologia for Christianity than the spiritual autobiography of a thinker attempting to explain to his intellect how his faith was possible.

In the Pensées, Pascal intimated that skepticism may transcend reason, and the doubts that reason awakens, leading not to certainty but to affirmation. By acknowledging the limits of reason, the thoughtful man, he hoped, could accept the mystery of life without also yielding to its absurdity. “The last proceeding of reason,” he wrote, ”is to recognize that there is an infinity of things which are beyond it. It is but feeble if it does not see so far as to know this. But if natural things are beyond it, what will be said of supernatural?”[7] Yet, perhaps at this moment of vital insight, Pascal exhibited some of the odium that Friedrich Heer had detected in his thought and character. Like many intensely passionate and astute natures, Pascal disdained the society in which he lived—a disdain that reinforced his displeasure with his fellow human beings and, at times, with life itself. Most men, he assumed, were intellectually lazy and emotionally tepid. Desultory, incurious, and stupid, they were incapable of profound thought, searching doubt, or vibrant faith. The majority preferred not to bother about any subject, whether intellectual or theological, that would jolt them out of their passivity, lassitude, and indifference. Pascal’s disillusioned analysis of human nature may, as Heer suggests, have issued from the Jansenist view that human beings are both helpless and degraded. He could not avoid exposing the rancor, the insincerity, the conceit, the dishonesty, the self-deception, the cowardice, and the pettiness that circumscribed and disfigured the lives of most ordinary men, and made him despise them.

For Pascal, as for Kierkegaard and other, later existentialist philosophers and theologians, unending dread may well have been the cost of existence. “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me,” he proclaimed. [8] There is at times the echo of a terrible nihilism that reverberates though the otherwise silent spaces of Pascal’s infinite universe, as he gazed into the abyss. T. S. Eliot wrote that Pascal’s despair is “perfectly objective,” corresponding “exactly to the facts” and so “cannot be dismissed as mental disease.”[9] In the end, Pascal concluded, the rational proof of God’s existence, such as Descartes had tried to construct with the ontological argument, was useless and unconvincing to those disinclined to believe. Essential questions about the meaning and purpose of human existence could never be resolved through the application of reason or logic. In fact, for Pascal, they could not be resolved at all. They could only be felt in all of their contradiction and paradox. The experience of such utter confusion and despair alone made faith possible and necessary, but offered no assurance that it would come.

Voltaire judged Pascal to be restless soul and a sick mind. Pascal agreed, confirming Voltaire’s assessment long before he had rendered it. During his final illness, Pascal often refused the care of his physician, saying: “Sickness is the natural state of Christians.”[10] He believed that human beings had been created to suffer. Misery was the condition of life in this world. His was a hard doctrine.

But to what end did people suffer? What did their suffering accomplish? Did it exalt the spirit? Were they to suffer unto truth or, as was more likely, did they suffer because the flesh was evil and needed to be punished? Pascal had gambled for ultimate stakes. When he rolled the dice, it came up snake eyes, not once, not the last time, but every time. His tragedy, and potentially ours, is that he could discover no purpose in his encounters with creation, his fellow human beings, life itself. Philosophy, science, and reason offered no assurance of truth, and were of little comfort against anguish and hopelessness. Some could even use elaborate rational arguments to defy the will of God and to excuse sin, as had the Jesuits whom Pascal denounced in The Provincial Letters.

Love was equally vain and worthless. It prompted only deception and contempt for truth. Human beings are so flawed and imperfect that they are wretched and detestable. Loving themselves and desiring others to love them, they conceal their transgressions and deformities. Since no one is inviolate, no one deserves to be loved just as, were strict justice to prevail, no one deserves to be saved. Man, Pascal complained:

cannot prevent this object that he loves from being full of faults and wants. He wants to be great, and he sees himself as small. He wants to be happy, and he sees himself miserable. He wants to be perfect, and he sees himself full of imperfections. He wants to be the object of love and esteem among men, and he sees that his faults merit only their hatred and contempt. This embarrassment in which he finds himself produces in him the most unrighteous and criminal passion that can be imagined; for he conceives a mortal enmity against the truth which reproves him, and which convinces him of his faults. He would annihilate it, but, unable to destroy it in its essence, he destroys it as far as possible in his own knowledge and in that of others; that is to say, he devotes all his attention to hiding his faults both from others and from himself, and he cannot endure that others should point them out to him, or that they should see them.[11]

All “disguise, falsehood, and hypocrisy,” men are ignorant, brazen, and delusional. Preferring lies to truth, they should not be angry at others for pointing out their shortcomings. “It is but right that they should know us for what we are,” Pascal insisted, “and should despise us.”[12]

Gabriel Marcel

Gabriel Marcel

Elsewhere Pascal acclaimed the dignity of man. He was a reed, but “a thinking reed,” more noble than the insensible universe that would destroy him.[13] But the damage had been done. In the centuries to come, the same revulsion for humanity that Pascal had articulated, the same regimentation and tyranny that the Jansenists had endorsed, transformed life on earth into a living hell. In the early twentieth-century, the Roman Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel came face to face with the tragedy of the human condition. Shattered by his experiences in the Great War, during which he had served with the French Red Cross identifying the dead and accounting for the missing, Marcel sought an alternative to grief and desolation.

He contended that in the modern world a person was no longer a person, but “an agglomeration of functions.” According to this functional definition, human beings were valued solely for the work they did and the goods they produced. Death became “objectively and functionally, the scrapping of what has ceased to be of use and must be written off as a total loss.”[14] Such a vision of life deprived people of their spirituality and their faith, and robbed them of any joy that they might feel. Consumed by rancor, malice, and ingratitude, they suffered an “intolerable unease,” as they descended into the void that engulfed them.

Love was the answer. If people could overcome selfishness and egocentricity, if they could love one another, Marcel was confident that they could fulfill themselves as human beings. Such involvement with, and such fidelity to, others afforded a glimpse of the transcendent and was, in Marcel’s view, the most persuasive argument for the existence of God. Faith consoled and inspired the downtrodden, the persecuted, the oppressed, and the brokenhearted. It cultivated and enhanced all human relationships. For if people refused any longer to treat others merely as objects performing a function, if they came at last to recognize that all persons, however deficient, imperfect, errant, or sinful, mattered to God, then those persons were also more likely to matter to them.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensées Trans. by W. F. Trotter (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1958), 72: 17-18. The first number corresponds to the entry. The second gives the page reference.

[2] Ibid., 89:28.

[3] The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Ed. by Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 1174.

[4] Based on the teachings of Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), a professor of theology at the University of Louvain and the Bishop of Ypres, Jansenism, like Calvinism, emphasized the inability of sinful men and women to earn God’s grace and to win salvation through their own effort or merit. Jansen derived his views about original sin, irresistible grace, and human depravity from his interpretation of Augustine’s thought. Although Pascal never endorsed the doctrine of predestination that was implicit in Jansenism, he was drawn to Jansen’s insistence that salvation required an intimate personal relationship with God. Clement XI declared Jansenism heretical in the papal bull Unigenitus, issued in 1713.

[5] Friedrich Heer, The Intellectual History of Europe, Volume II: The Counter-Reformation to 1945  Trans. by Jonathan Steinberg (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books), 130-31

[6] The original title was Apologie de la religion Chrétienne, or Apology for the Christian Religion.

[7] Pensées, 267:77

[8] Ibid., 206:61.

[9] T. S. Eliot, “Introduction,” Ibid., vx-xvi.

[10] Quoted in Jane Muir, Of Men and Numbers (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1996), 104.

[11] Pensées, 100:30-31.

[12] Ibid., 100:33,31.

[13] Ibid., 347:97.

[14] Gabriel Marcel, “On the Ontological Mystery,” in The Philosophy of Existentialism, trans. by Manya Harari (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1980), 10.

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3 replies to this post
  1. In the early 21st century, our reflective life-giving Judeo-Christian engagement and response to the on-going fall-out scourages and discouragings of Jansenism is: 12th-13th century Dominican Meister Eckart’s biblically authentic creation-centered spirituality. Of course, Eckart’s church excommunicated him (for Listening) and this makes him all the more readable! Read Eckart’s “BREAKTHROUGH” commentaries and sermons (1980), his prophetic illuminations as to how delusional, disconnected and despairing humanity has been due to its severance from our originial blessing–with abdicating amnesia of our personal/collective sin roots. With the later, the hyper-angst fear-driven dictated them due to the awesome, brutal naturalness of the natural world itself which was out of their willful control, beginning with their own desires and terrors of them, these were the characters of fatalistic dualism naysayers: Augustine-Jansenism-Calvanism, etc). Their complete absence of the benefit of the doubt in all things human-divine, faith and reason…has religiously and rigidly ruled but not spiritually nurtured or consoled us for the past 800 years, and thus, paralyzed the higher orders and expectations of the human spirit. Eckharts spirituality invites us to un-earth, re-discover, and restore these creation-centered roots of returning to goodness, beauty, truth and blessing. Sape Vedere: knowing how to see! Listening itself…is a highest human order and most beautiful act…its root coming from ‘obiere,’ or to respond with obedience (truth) when it is heard. Listening offers one’s presence vs. one’s posittion, rather like great books and literature, soul-filling liturgy, the giving of one’s life and the fine arts. They are presencing rather than positioning.

  2. Boston Catholic Professor Peter Kreeft has a very, very different take on Blaise Pascal. His book “Christianity for Modern Pagans” based on Pascal’s “Pensees” states:

    1) Pascal was NOT a Jansenist (page 9)

    2) Pascal said “No religion except our own (i.e, Catholicism) has taught than man is sinful, no philosophical sect has said so, so none has told the truth.” Page 157

    3) Father Peter Stravinsky says: “Peter Kreeft believes that Blaise Pascal is the first post-medieval apologist. No writer in history, claims Kreeft, is a more effective Christian apologist and evangelist to today’s uprooted, confused, secularized pagans (inside and outside the Church) than Pascal.

    “Perhaps read Kreeft’s book and decide for yourself.

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