Feb 20, 2012

Some thoughts by Pascal

This Friday, I drove down to Buffalo to participate in a "non-denominational theological discussion." This month's topic was Pascal's Wager.

I'd first learned about Blaise Pascal in high school, in the context of his work in mathematics and physics. It was only in my early twenties that I discovered he'd also written some theological works.

In the last few years of his all-too-short life he began preparing notes for a work of Christian apologetics. He died before writing the book, but not before leaving several hundred "thoughts" on as many pieces of paper. He gave no indication of a sequence for these notes, but there have been several editions of his Pensées which have attempted to put them in order. The infamous wager is found in one of the longest of these notes, being several pages in length.

It has been about twenty years since I last read Pascal, so I dug out my copy of the Pensées and spent the last week renewing my acquaintance with this great mind. I shared some of Pascal's bon mots with the group Friday evening, but I decided he's too good not to share more. Here, then, are some of my favourite quotes from the Pensées. My hope is that anyone reading this note will find their interest piqued enough to read more. An English translation of the Pensées can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg.

* * * * * * *

Truth is often paradoxical. We must begin with that, otherwise we cannot understand anything, and everything then is theoretical. Even at the end of each truth that we may have attained, we have to add that we are bearing in mind the opposite truth.

Mankind suffers from two excesses: To exclude reason, and to live by nothing but reason.

Everything that is incomprehensible does not, however, cease to exist.

Man's condition is one of inconsistency, of ennui, and of angst.

Power rules the world, not opinion. But it is opinion that exploits power.

People are so inevitably crazy, that not to be crazy would be to give a mad twist to craziness.

Those who have known and spoken most effectively about man's misery are Solomon and Job. The one is the happiest of men, the other the most miserable. One knows by experience the vanity of pleasure, and the other knows the reality of suffering.

The last scene of the play is bloody, however fine the rest of it. They throw earth over your head, and it is finished forever.

The eternal silence of the infinite spaces fills me with angst.

Atheism does reveal strength of mind, but only to a certain extent.

Let us endeavour to think well; that is the basic principle of morality.

Generally speaking, we are more firmly convinced by reasons that we have discovered for ourselves, than by those which are given to us by others.

Whenever we want to be helpful in convincing someone that he is wrong, and so correct him, we also have to see things from his point of view. For perhaps he is right as he sees it, but he may also need to see things from a different point of view. Perhaps it is in the nature of things that we humans never can see things from every possible angle, and so we cannot see things completely. But this should not upset us, if we realize that this lies behind all wise correction. At the same time, from one's own point of view, sense perception can be valid.

How difficult it is to submit to someone else's opinion without being preoccupied about having to do so! It is natural for us to react contrarily; I think something is ugly when you think it is beautiful. That is to say, to think just the opposite of what you want me to think. Perhaps then, it is better to say nothing at all, so that someone else can think more objectively for himself and in the light of his own appropriate context. Then at least you have not interfered, unless your very silence can also be interpreted, or your very gesture, or tone of voice, can also be seen as a form of personal interference. How very difficult it is not to upset someone else's judgment; or to express this in another way, how rare it is for personal opinion to be seen firmly and consistently!

Aversion for the truth exists in differing degrees, but it may be said to exist in every one of us to some degree, for it is inseparable from self-love.

There are two sources of error: to take everything literally, and to take everything spiritually.

In brief, true faith seeks equally to maintain two positions. First, it claims that God has appointed visible evidence in the church so that he can be plainly seen by those who genuinely seek him. Second, it claims that God conceals the evidence in such a way that he will only be seen by those who seek him with all their heart.

We have to know when to doubt, when to affirm what is certain, and when to submit. Anyone who acts otherwise does not understand the force of reason. There are some who break all these three principles, either affirming that everything can be proved, because they know nothing about proofs, or doubting everything because they know nothing about when to submit, or always submitting because they do not know when they must use their judgment.

What a vast difference there is between the acknowledgement of, and the experience of, the love of God!

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Finally, here is the "Memorial" which was found sewn into Pascal's jacket after his death. It was hand-written on paper, hastily jotted down on the night of November 23, 1654. (There was also a second copy along with the first, written neatly on parchment with a few minor changes and corrections.) This experience came after he had already been making notes for the Pensées for two years, and eight years before his death on August 19, 1662 at the age of 39.

* * * * * * *


Year of Grace 1654

Monday 23 November, feast of St. Clement, Pope and Martyr, and of others in the Martyrology.

Eve of St. Crysogonus, martyr and others.

From about half past ten at night to about half an hour after midnight,

FIRE

"God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob," not of philosophers and scholars.  [Exodus 3:6]

Certitude, heartfelt joy, peace.

God of Jesus Christ.

God of Jesus Christ.

"My God and Your God." [John 20:17]

"Your God shall be my God." [Ruth 1:16]

The world forgotten, everything except God.

He can only be found by the ways that have been taught in the Gospels.

Greatness of the human soul.

"O righteous Father, the world has not know You, but I have known You." [John 17:25]

Joy, Joy, Joy, tears of joy.

I have separated myself from him.

"They have forsaken me, the spring of living water." [Jeremiah 2:13]

"My God, will you leave me?" [Matthew 27:46]

Let me not be cut off from him for ever!

"Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent." [John 17:3]

Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ.

I am separated from him; for I have shunned him, denied him, crucified him.

May I never be separated from him.

He can only be kept by the ways taught in the gospel.

Complete and sweet renunciation. And so forth.

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