Underrated Philosophers III: Blaise Pascal

This here is the absolute high point of anything I will ever write about underrated philosophers. Sure, there are others like Ramon Llull who are less known, some who get misinterpreted (Wittgenstein, anyone?), some who are so stunningly original that nobody quite realized the significance of what they were saying at the time (Dante), but none who are a combination of all the above like Pascal.

I’ve wanted to write about Pascal since I started this silly blog.* Okay, probably since before then. Pascal is my favorite philosopher by far, which is hard to explain to people; he’s also the one who’s most criminally ignored, which is hard for those of us who love him to explain.

Pascal’s an odd figure in the history of philosophy. He belongs to no school—too religious for the continentals, too dismissive of natural theology for the Thomists, too mystical and non-rational for the analytics—and so, he gets ignored. Sure, you see plenty of papers on the logical strategy of the Wager, and whether or not it actually presents a coherent argument in favor of believing in God, but that’s only one very small part of Pascal, and a part that can only really be understood against the backdrop of everything else he’s written.** Plus, the Wager’s not even the most interesting thing he wrote, nor even the most insightful—which is a big claim, really.

No, that honor goes to his writings on distraction and the two infinites. The latter is very good for when you want to feel very, very insignificant indeed:

Let man thus contemplate the entirety of nature in its high and full majesty, let him elevate his gaze above the low objects of his environment, then let him consider what he is compared to that which is, that he may regard himself as lost in this roundabout district of nature, and from this little prison where he finds himself lodged—I mean the universe—may he learn to esteem the earth, its realms, its cities, and himself, at their proper value.

What is a man in the infinite?

But now, I want to make him look into a new abyss, I want to make him see not only the visible universe, but the immensity that he can little conceive—the nature enclosed in this shrunken atom.  Let him see there an infinity of universes, each having its firmament, its planets, and its earth, in the same proportion as the visible world. For who will not wonder that our bodies, which were in no way perceptible in the imperceptible universe, are now present as a colossus, a world, or rather an everything, compared to the nothingness where one can never arrive?

For, in the end, what is man in nature?  A nothing with respect to the infinite, an everything with respect to the nothing, a middle between nothing and all, infinitely distant from understanding the extremes; the end of things and their principles are for him invincibly hidden in an impenetrable secret (as he might thus conceive it).  He is equally incapable of seeing the nothing from which he is pulled as he is the infinite that engulfs him.

Yeah, that’s some pretty heady stuff right there. And sure, Douglas Adams ripped this passage off something hardcore for his Total Perspective Vortex, but that’s just how it goes. Still doesn’t make it any less scary.

And sure, there are lots of reasons dealing with his writings that might explain some of the Pascalneglect. The Pensées are very obviously in an incomplete state, notes found in a shoebox and arranged by later editors in ways that may or may not make sense. Some of the fragments really don’t make much sense until you come across a parallel passage later repeating the same words, but this time in a context where they actually fit in with something. And, of course, there’s all that Biblical commentary that everybody skips over.

But that still doesn’t explain why some things—the esprit géométrique/esprit de finesse distinction, the thesis/antithesis/synthesis paralogisms, the recognition of the tensions behind Cartesian rationalism and its presumption to know things as they truly are—get ignored. Indeed, that last point is especially important, and probably hacks off both the rationalists and the dogmatists, albeit for different reasons. The dogmatists want a foundation for natural theology, a nature that can be known with certainty, giving principles and premises on which to construct arguments about God. The rationalists want a natural science capable of describing the entirety of nature, one that will reveal all of the mechanisms of the world—and, when known with certainty, will allow these mechanisms to be manipulated. One side seeks to know the world to move beyond it, the other to control it.

Pascal confounds both parties. Nature is infinite in every way, both in its expanse and in its complexity. Even your conception of the infinitude of nature is still bounded by the finitude of your puny human mind; why, pray tell, do you think you can ever know enough of the world to either understand or become its Master and Possessor? Your machines and devices are mere toys for distracting you from the true state of your life, and, like you, can be wiped out in an instant; the untamed God of Abraham and Isaac, not the rationalistic and comprehensible one of the philosophers, still rules the cosmos. Why do you think you can understand the one truly infinite Being from His creations, puny human? Everything in nature says both that God is, and also that He need not be, that the world cannot exist without Him, and that it has ways of continuing on its own. Nothing in this world can help you decide one way or another. So here you are, unable to use reason to either control the world or transcend it, caught in the awkward middle between the two infinites, not content to merely stay home quietly in your room, and unable to find any meaning or dignity for your life from any worldly endeavor.

Well if that isn’t just a happy thought, I don’t know what is.

The only way forward is to reject the tyranny of rationalism, to show that another way has to be embraced. One has to respect that which goes beyond reason, the “heart” or nous that hides behind every logical inference, the pre-rational and transrational hunches and impulses that lead to understanding and investigation. “I think, therefore I am” may be the most basic proposition for Descartes—but how do you know you think? It’s something you grasp, that you understand, that is so basic that it can’t be demonstrated, but, yet, it’s known. This is the space in which Pascal plays and tries to point us. Where reason fails, where it is limited, something else must continue.

“It is the heart that knows God, and not reason; God is sensible to the heart, but not to reason. This is what faith is. The heart has its reasons that reason cannot understand.” This kind of moving beyond reason, of taking leaps of faith, isn’t something good rationalist philosophy takes too kindly to all that often. Having to admit defeat in the face of unreason isn’t something we do that well. Sure, Pascal may be arguing for nothing more radical nor unreasonable than a sort of intellectual humility, a Kantlike demarcation of boundaries for pure reason, but when you’ve got a tradition of reasoned arguments eternally going back and forth at length debating the nature of God, well, the fact that it’s an ultimately pointless debate that can’t possibly be settle by mere mortals isn’t going to stop us! We may understand only the nature of finite things, but that’s not going to stop us from thinking we can understand the nature of the Infinite with our puny little human minds. Better to keep our intellectual pretensions and belief that we can settle this by yet another 500-page tract.

So, in the end, Pascal gets ignored, an odd little dead end in the history of thought, of interest to a few odd whackjobs like me with more interest in borderline mysticism than sense. Except that there are those passages in Hume’s Essay about “philosophical melancholy and delirium” that need addressing—you know, the strange thoughts you have about what it all means whenever you aren’t sufficiently distracted. Or how my old grad school seemed to think Nietzsche showed the failure of the “modernist project” (whatever that is), ignoring the person who got censored by the modernist project for not being enough of a Cartesian rationalist.*** Or how about making your reader uncomfortably and painfully aware of their profound existential despair, a despair you painstakingly analyze, a despair whose only relief is a leap of faith, a faith in an incomprehensible God? Why does this sound a lot like Kierkegaard? Oh, right, because they’re both unfairly neglected post-Augustinians/Christian existentialists—okay, Kierkegaard’s less neglected, but he might have had a marginally better agent (and connections to the Lutherans, rather than a spot on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum). Or that whole “being-in-itself-for-itself” that Sartre keeps banging on about as being the impossible solution to humanity’s essential existential anxt. Oh, and the beginning of the Wager (“finitude is annihilated in the presence of the infinite and before a pure nothingness”) sounds like a rather familiar theme—what’s that book some Frenchman wrote, something about negation, being, and nothingness? So many problems, so much overlooked Pascal.

Maybe, in the end, he’s less of a footnote than he seems. These same problems and themes keep popping up again and again, and people keep trying the same old rationalistic or dogmatic solutions that keep avoiding the anxt, despair, and essential finitude that lies at the heart of the problem. Not to make bold claims or anything, but there are a few people who seem to do a better job of figuring this problem out—and not to make a bolder one, but most of ’em are in the Augustine-Pascal-Kierkegaard-Sartre-Camus-etc. existentialist tradition. Even if Pascal only gets cited by these folks, his ideas keep coming back to get ignored by those who want something that better fits their preconceptions of the human intellect. For everyone else, there’s the Pensées.

*Or, really, write at length about him. I’m pretty sure he’s the most namedropped philosopher around here, along with Marsilius and David K. Lewis.
**Oh, you’re writing yet another summary of why the Wager doesn’t work and all the unfounded assumptions it makes? I’m absolutely astounded that you thought of those. What did you do, read ten pages further into the book where Pascal raises those objections himself?
***You know that really famous (and horribly misinterpreted) quote about the heart having its reasons? Of course you do, I just quoted it! Anyway, it got cut from the first edition by Pascal’s Port-Royal School colleagues, along with about a third of the book.

3 thoughts on “Underrated Philosophers III: Blaise Pascal

  1. YES. Thank you so much for writing about Pascal. As someone fascinated by “the modern project” I’m in awe of Pascal’s prophetic ability to get at the heart of it so long before anyone else. His writings on boredom and diversion are solid gold.

    And I just about choked laughing at your second footnote.

  2. Pingback: Guerrilla Christianity | The Erstwhile Philistine

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