- Pensées by Pascal


Blaise Pascal opposed both Descartes' rationalism and British empiricism as insufficient to determine the important truths. In religion he prized faith above reason.

He was attracted to Jansenism a branch of Protestantism that emphasized original sin, the depravity of humanity and the need for divine grace and predestination. He had a mystical religious vision in 1654 and his major work on religion Lettres Provinciales was published in the following years. He attacks Catholic casuistry, especially that of the Jesuits, who, according to him, justified moral laxity using complex reasoning. Louis XIV ordered the burning of the book and Pope Alexander VII condemned it.

His most influential theological writing was Pensées (published 1670), considered a masterpiece of the French language.
He used the contradictory philosophies of Montaigne's scepticism and stoicism to confuse believers into embracing God. This was confirmation that Pascal relied on revelation or faith for his religious beliefs, rather than reason and intellect. This linked him to vertical thinking grounded on authority rather than the contemporary Cartesian horizontal reflections based on reason.


When Pascal died a servant going through his clothes found a note and a parchment describing how the author had had a religious epiphany in November 1654 :

“From about half-past ten in the evening, until about half-past midnight. Fire. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. Not of the philosophers and intellectuals. Certitude, certitude, feeling, joy, peace. The God of Jesus Christ.
“O just Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you. Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy. This is eternal life, that they know you the one true God and J.C. whom you have sent. May I never be separated from him. One preserves oneself only by way of the lessons taught in the gospel. Renunciation total and sweet. Your God will be my God.”

As a consequence of his born again experience Pascal decided to write an apologetics text on Christianity: Pensées. It is a collection of sayings that form the draft for a text which was never completed. The structure of the final book is thought to have been outlined by Pascal before his death in 1662. The correct order of the book, published in 1670, is still a matter of dispute.

One section of the notes shows humanity without God's grace to be a mix of greatness and baseness, not capable of truth or the final goodness to which humans naturally aspire. Pascal thought that religion could explain these contradictory forces which philosophy couldn't and so it deserved to be written about. 

On the fundamental religious question of the existence of God the author argued that natural scepticism about belief in God could be conquered through Pascal's Wager : believe in God and if you succeed God will reward you after death, but if He does not exist you will not have lost anything.

Another section of his jottings is an exegetical application of the allegorical interpretation from Augustinian theory of biblical types. He also reviews rabbinical texts, notes the longevity of religion, comments on the works of Moses and the proofs about Christ's divinity, paints a picture of the primitive Church and discusses prophecies.

At the end of his notes he admits that his analysis does not exclude a certain philosophy of the absurd since the convergence of revelation and facts in his ideas appears extraordinarily providential.



Pascal's theological analysis is inspired by Jansenism and Augustine of Hippo's interpretations. This view of human nature is that it was corrupt after the Fall of Adam and Eve and that redemption could only come through the gift of God's grace. Receiving this grace depended on blind faith which enables Christians to accept the mysteries of their religion : “if one submits everything to reason, our religion will contain nothing that is mysterious or supernatural”. (Locke argued the opposite saying that religious beliefs must be comprehensible and that there were no unintelligible mysteries in Christianity - faith simply compensated for lack of evidence.) If Pascal's view on faith is applied to other religions you could argue that all faiths are equally true. However, he rejected this insisting that Catholicism held exclusive truth :

“I see several inconsistent religions, all of which except one are false. Each one wishes to be believed on the basis of its own authority and threatens unbelievers. I therefore do not believe them for that reason..." He asserted that outside of the Catholic Church "I am fully convinced there is no salvation.”

In contradiction with contemporaries like Descartes or Malebranche, Pascal did not accept the rational arguments in favour of God's existence. He maintained that metaphysical proofs have little value and even that belief in revealed truths could not depend on proving that there was a God. He argued that reasoning could not help humans to relate to a transcendent divinity. The only path was blind faith.

Living in the Cartesian Age of Reason Pascal was motivated to relate his deep belief in faith alone to the contemporary arguments in favour of reason alone. The nearest he came to connecting faith with reason came from his mathematical study of gambling. His 'wager' stipulated that we should live by the rational belief that God probably exists. If this is not true then it matters little but if it is true the believer will be welcomed into heaven. This thought experiment was not intended to convert the unbeliever to Christianity because faith and reason were not compatible in his view. It was simply a way to demonstrate to Christians not that their beliefs were reasonable but that neither were they unreasonable.

Grace was the centre of intense theological arguments in the 17th. century which inherited it from the Reformation. It generated the theological discussions on free will and predestination (religious arguments about predetermined salvation or not).

Calvin's view is clearly stated in his Institutes of the Christian Religion: 

"...we assert, that by an eternal and immutable counsel, God has once for all determined, both whom he would admit to salvation, and whom he would condemn to destruction."

On the other hand Luther preferred to avoid this double-predestination interpretation as an imposition of reason on faith

"A dispute about predestination should be avoided entirely... I forget everything about Christ and God when I come upon these thoughts and actually get to the point to imagining that God is a rogue. We must stay in the word, in which God is revealed to us and salvation is offered, if we believe him. But in thinking about predestination, we forget God . . However, in Christ are hid all the treasures (Col. 2:3); outside him all are locked up. Therefore, we should simply refuse to argue about election."

The Pelagian idea that humans could attain redemption by themselves was condemned as heresy. Other opinions which suggested they could contribute to salvation were also rejected as semi-Pelagian since they reduced the significance of the Incarnation. Jansenism relied on a theory of 'efficacious grace' to assist humans in their recovery from the Fall. Pascal argued that no human effort could contribute to salvation, even partially. God freely chooses to help undeserving humanity and his grace is uniquely efficacious. There us a hint of predestination in this argument.

Free Will

The question of the efficacy of God's grace also pervaded metaphysical discussion in the 17th. century, probably because it was linked to the concept of Grace. Malebranche argued for occasionalism which rejected human or natural causes of salvation. Pascal focused on the less mundane cases of free will such as choosing to act morally or not. Jansenism taught that God's grace made it possible for individuals to choose actions leading to salvation. Pascal adopted an Augustinian interpretation of grace which argued that free meant the human choice which is motivated by God's grace :

"Human beings, by their own nature, always have the power to sin and to resist grace, and since the time of their corruption they always have an unfortunate depth of concupiscence which infinitely increases this power of resistance. Nevertheless, when it pleases God to touch them with his mercy, He makes them do what he wants them to do and in the manner in which he wishes them to act, without this infallibility of God's operation destroying in any way the natural freedom of human beings … That is how God disposes the free will of human beings without imposing any necessity on them, and how free will, which can always resist grace but does not always wish to do so, directs itself both freely and infallibly towards God." (Provincial Letters: I, 800, 801)

This position also reinforced Pascal's interpretation of predestination. Some people resist divine assistance freely and decide not to be redeemed from Adam's sin. Freedom of choice in this sense means that the desire to be saved is communicated to those who are predestined by God.


“How do we learn the truth about facts? That will be from our eyes… which are the appropriate judges of fact, as reason is of natural and intelligible things, and the faith is of things that are supernatural and revealed.”

Faith is the principle source of knowledge for Pascal but he also allows experience and reason as means to know the natural world. He acclaims Montaigne for his refusal to believe that science provides unshakeable truths. However the author insists that factual matters can be proved authoritatively by using the senses and declares that even the Pope can be mistaken about this, though not about revealed truths. He applies this to Galileo's house arrest over the heliocentric dispute :

"That is not what will prove that the earth does not move; and if one had unchanging observations that proved that the earth revolves, all the men in the world could not stop it moving.” (Provincial Letters: I, 813).

Pascal conceded that to understand the secrets of Nature the experimenter needs hypotheses. He was ambivalent, however, as to the degree of certainty you could attribute to them and he based this on mathematics arguing that there are three types of hypotheses : 

- Denial of some hypotheses which results in absurd consequences indicates that they are true. 
-Affirming others which implies absurdity demonstrates that they are false. 
- If there are no absurd conclusions from either affirming or denying a hypothesis no valid conclusion can be drawn about its truth.

In short there can be no firm conclusions on truth. The author embraced a foundationalist view of scientific knowledge in which principles are established and certainty about other knowledge flows from them. In fact he adopted an optimistic perception of the natural sciences believing that observations could be done easily and interpreted quickly through the logical links between hypotheses and evidence. He failed, however, to take into account that scientific experiments use several related hypotheses to test rather than only one.

However, in contrast with knowledge which is sourced from experience and reason Pascal insisted that authority was the sole foundation of religious belief. Authority depends on historical memory which searches for what recognised experts have written. Pascal applies this especially to theology which he believes cannot be disputed since it is revealed in the Scriptures and canonical texts. Since he rejected rational arguments in theological thinking he ultimately had to rely on personal choice in a rather circular understanding of religious belief. His faith appears similar to the medieval acceptance of established Aristotelian principles from which philosophers can deduce truths. Descartes' contemporary rationalist approach rejected this starting point for knowledge by basing thinking on doubt.


Morality, for Pascal, was based on a commonsense natural law concept. This cannot be discovered by reason since he believed, with the Jansenists, that human nature was corrupt and so human reasoning was unreliable :

There are undoubtedly natural laws, but our fine corrupted reason has corrupted everything.” 

God provided moral direction to humans before the Fall and some dim remains of this are still present in fallen nature.

Following these surviving moral elements certain behaviours are naturally good or evil. Suicide is considered morally unacceptable and donating is virtuous :
“...we are obliged by justice to give alms from our surplus, to alleviate even the common necessities of the poor… those who are rich are merely stewards of their surplus, in order to give it to whomever they select from among those who are in need.

Pascal was highly critical of the contemporary idea of "probabilism" which decided morality based on that approved by what was least demanded by well-known authors. The author, on the other hand, argued that human behaviour has a moral character independent of good intentions and that actions cannot be deemed moral because the intentions are so.

In politics Pascal insisted that since the Fall human actions stemmed from the lust for power. One consequence of this is that we are forced into obeying the powerful and this may be a punishment for original sin. Luther and Calvin were of the same opinion on political power and its abuse. 

However, French revolutionary thinking was still a century away and for Pascal natural equality is in no way an excuse to oppose government, despite its tyranny. Legality is to be respected because it is the law :

“Justice is what is established; thus all our established laws will necessarily be accepted as just without being examined, because they are established.”

His reference for morality in political thought is the religious idea of the basic corruption of human nature after the Fall. The immediate goal is for the common good to avoid a civil war such as that which had raged in England a few years previously:

“The Church … has always taught her children not to render evil for evil … to obey magistrates and superiors, even those who are unjust, because we must always respect in them the power of God who has set them over us.”

This ambiguous obedience to superiors had a parallel in Parisian life where the civil powers demanded that Jansenists, such as  Pascal, had to sign a formula which condemned five propositions in Jansen's writings. Personal dissenting was tolerated while behavioural obedience to the law and public deference to political and ecclesiastical superiors was respected. 

Sic transit gloria mundi (Fame is fleeting)

Pascal used the causes of death of Cromwell, the victor in the English Civil War, as an example of the uncertainties in human existence :

“Cromwell would have ravaged the whole of Christendom; the royal family was lost, and his own family was about to become all-powerful, except for a little grain of sand that lodged in his bladder. Even Rome was about to tremble beneath him. Once this little piece of stone became lodged there, he died, his family was disgraced, peace was established all round, and the king was restored.”

Cromwell probably died of increasing bouts of malarial fever rather than stones in the bladder. However Pascal's lesson on the contingency of human life still stands. This vision of life was common among contemporary Calvinists and partly based on the era's belief in the infinity of the universe compared with the brevity of human existence. They were also founded on the theology of predestination by God of salvation for some:

“It is not in space that I should search for my dignity, but in the control of my thoughts … The universe comprehends me by space and engulfs me like a point; by means of thought, I comprehend it.”

Pascal denied the possibility of explaining human behaviour through naturalistic processes. He also carried a Jansenist anxiety about predestined redemption or damnation and a belief in the insignificance of human life and humanity's limited intellectual capabilities:

“The greatness of human beings consists in their ability to know their wretchedness.”  

However, he did not come to the conclusion that existence was absurd. He made sense of life by referring to a religious meaningfulness which transcended human thought. He also insisted, though, that religious faith was not merited by the believer but a gift of God. This is clearly an upward-looking interpretation of the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment