Pascal

Clifford Williams
Department of Philosophy
Trinity College
Deerfield, Illinois 60015

Cornerstone Festival
Bushnell, Illinois
July 3, 2005

 
Blaise Pascal lived in France from 1623 to 1662. His Pensées (Thoughts) consists of notes for a book on apologetics he was planning to write. Unfortunately, he died before he could write the book. The notes, however, are eminently worth reading. In fact, Pensées is considered by many to be a major Christian classic. In what follows I will go through some highlights from Pensées.
 
Evidential apologetics: the attempt to show that Christianity is true by presenting reasons for its truth. 

(1) Perpetuity: “The fact that this religion has always been preserved inflexibly shows that it is divine” (#280).*
 
(2) Prophecies: “If a single man had written a book foretelling the time and manner of Jesus’s coming and Jesus had come in conformity with these prophecies, this would carry infinite weight. But there is much more here. There is a succession of men over a period of 4,000 years, coming consistently and invariably one after the other, to foretell the same coming” (#332). 

(3) Testimony of the apostles: “The Apostles were either deceived or deceivers. Either  supposition is difficult, for it is not possible to imagine that a man has risen from the dead” (#322). 

(4) The divinity of Jesus: (a) Miracles: “Combination of miracles” (#302). “No man can do what Christ did” (#321). (b) Character: “Jesus without wealth or any outward show of knowledge has his own order of holiness” (#308).

(5) Falseness of other religions: (a) Knowledge of human nature: “For a religion to be true it must have known our nature; it must have known its greatness and smallness, and the reason for both. What other religion but Christianity has known this?” (#215). (b) Difference between Jesus and Mohammed: “Mohammed not foretold, Jesus foretold. Mohammed slew, Jesus caused his followers to be slain” (#209). 

(6) Correct description of human nature: “The true religion would have to teach greatness and wretchedness” (#450). “Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness” (#149).
 
Existential apologetics: the attempt to show that Christianity satisfies human need and that it does so better than other means, including other religions. 

(1) Christianity cures sin: “The Christian religion alone has been able to cure these twin vices [“pride or sloth, the twin sources of all vice”], not by using one to expel the other according to worldly wisdom, but by expelling both through the simplicity of the Gospel” (#208). “What religion, then, will teach us how to cure pride and concupiscence?” (#149). 

(2) God fills the infinite abyss: “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself” (#148). 

(3) Being a Christian brings true happiness: “No one is so happy as a true Christian, or so reasonable, virtuous, and lovable” (#357). 

(4) Being a Christian satisfactorily deals with death and despair, dispels diversion, resolves our contradictions, and undoes our indifference.
 
Death and despair:
 
“Imagine a number of people in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition” (#435).
 
Diversion:
 
“Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, people have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things” (#132). 

“The only thing that consoles us for our miseries is diversion. And yet it is the greatest of our miseries. For it is that above all which prevents us thinking about ourselves and leads us imperceptibly to destruction. But for this we should be bored, and boredom would drive us to seek some more solid means of escape, but diversion passes our time and brings us imperceptibly to our death” (#414). 

“All our life passes in this way: we seek rest by struggling against certain obstacles, and once they are overcome, rest proves intolerable because of the boredom it produces. We must get away from it and crave excitement” (#132).
 
Contradictions:
 
“What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe! Who will unravel such a tangle?” (#131).
 
Indifference:
 
“I can feel nothing but compassion for those who sincerely lament their doubt, who regard it as the ultimate misfortune, and who, sparing no effort to escape from it, make their search their principal and most serious business. But as for those who spend their lives without a thought for this final end of life . . . , I view them very differently. This negligence in a matter where they themselves, their eternity, their all are at stake, fills me more with irritation than pity; it astounds and appalls me” (#427).
 
The wager: A bet. 

The beginning assumption: “‘Either God is or he is not.’ But to which view shall we be inclined? Reason cannot decide this question. Infinite chaos separates us. At the far end of this infinite distance a coin is being spun which will come down heads or tails. How will you wager? Reason cannot make you choose either, reason cannot prove either wrong” (#418). 

The bet: “There is an equal chance of gain and loss” (#418). What we will gain by believing in God if God exists: “an eternity of life and happiness” (#418). What we will gain by not believing in God if God exists: “noxious pleasure, glory and good living” (#418), plus the loss of “an eternity of life and happiness.” What we will gain by believing in God if God does not exist: “You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, full of good works, a sincere, true friend” (#418), plus the loss of “noxious pleasure.” What we will gain by not believing in God if God does not exist: “noxious pleasure, glory and good living.” 

Conclusion: “Thus our argument carries infinite weight, when the stakes are finite in a game where there are even chances of winning and losing and an infinite prize to be won” (#418). “You must be renouncing reason if you hoard your life rather than risk it for an infinite gain” (#418).
 
Original sin:
 
“It is, however, an astounding thing that the mystery furthest from our ken, that of the transmission of sin, should be something without which we can have no knowledge of ourselves. . . . Certainly nothing jolts us more rudely than this doctrine, and yet, but for this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we remain incomprehensible to ourselves” (#131).
 
Reason and mystery:
 
“If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural. If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous” (#173). 
  
*All quotations are from Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (Penguin Books, 1966).