Statue of Pascal in the Louvre
Monday, August 24, 2009


Pascal’s Pensees resembles Nietzsche’s oeuvre in that it there are short aphorisms mixed in with longer, more formal essays. References will be given by aphorism number to facilitate lookup across various translations.

The first series of thoughts are on mind and on style. In number 2 we learn that “There are different kinds of right understanding; some have right understanding in a certain order of things, and not in others, where they go astray. Some draw conclusions well from a few premises, and this displays an acute judgment.”

What Pascal seems to be getting at here is that some are more intuitive than others, or that some can make correct conclusions based on apparently insufficient evidence.

There is a streak of unpleasant puritanism, of the kind that Mencken referred to when he described it as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Pascal describes the most fearful danger to the Christian life: “All great amusements are dangerous to the Christian life; but among all those which the world has invented there is none more to be feared than the theatre. It is a representation of the passions so natural and so delicate that it excites them and gives birth to them in our hearts, and, above all, to that of love, principally when it is represented as very chaste and virtuous” (11). Pascal’s argument is that the representation of passion on the stage inspires the emulation of that passion in real life. Shaw made a similar argument in the preface to Mrs. Warren’s Profession, when he argued that the presentation of vice in plays such as The Second Mrs. Tanqueray or La Dame aux Camélias, were more likely to inspire vice because a young girl would be able to see that the suicide in one and the tuberculosis in the other were avoidable. Shaw regarded the theater as a pulpit from which to preach his particular gospel. Pascal regards the theater as anti-gospel.

He seems to advocate what Heinlein called the encyclopedic generalist “Since we cannot be universal and know all that is to be known of everything, we ought to know a little about everything. For it is far better to know something about everythingthan to know all about one thing. This universality is the best. If we can have both, still better; but if we must choose, we ought to choose the former. And the world feels this and does so; for the world is often a good judge” (37).

Section II is devoted to an examination of the misery of man without God.

Pascal is quick to condemn imagination, and I think in a quite wrong-headed fashion. “Imagination.—It is that deceitful part in man, that mistress of error and falsity, the more deceptive that she is not always so; for she would be an infallible rule of truth, if she were an infallible rule of falsehood. But being most generally false, she gives no sign of her nature, impressing the same character on the true and the false” (82). Pascal seems to be assuming that there is a binary opposition here. Now in binary oppositions, for those not up on this kind of thing, you postulate that there is X and not-X. So if something is true, then whatever opposes it is false. However, things are not always so simple. To say that X is false of a proposition does not mean that the opposite statement is true. There could be an infinite number of wrong statements about X, and the simple negation could be false as well. For example, I regard every editorial that appears in the Washington Post, as being wrong. That does not mean that I can merely believe the opposite of what the WaPo says, I still have to work out the correct position. Pascal’s objection though is that imagination is not always wrong, so you cannot use her as an infallible source.

He is not a great fan of painting either: “How useless is painting, which attracts admiration by the resemblance of things, the originals of which we do not admire!” (134). I assume that here he is talking about portrait painting. For example, in Michel Sittow’s portrait of Diego de Guevara, shown on the left, we should, according to Pascal, admire the painting because of its close resemblance to the subject, The subject, a Spanish nobleman of the 16th century, does not seem to have been particularly admirable.
More is known about Giuliano de Medici, the subject of Botticelli’s portrait to the right. In either case, the question is whether we are to admire the painting because of its resemblance to the subject, who may be of dubious morality, or are we to admire the painting because of other qualities that are inherent in the painting as painting, and that have nothing to do with the morality of the subject matter. If we accept that we judge the quality of a painting on purely aesthetic grounds does this mean that we evaluate images, even the pornographic, on aesthetic grounds without reference to the content of the image?
In Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, on the left, we have a picture that was denounced as immoral. The subjects, the young girls, were inmates of a brothel. Do we admire the painting because the figures resemble those of the harlots, or because of other qualities, the composition of the painting, the influence of primitive art, shown in the masks worn by two of the girls, and other things? Do the masks, which look vaguely simian, suggest carnality? Do the masks link the painting to allegorical representations of lust in painting and literature?
As painting moved from the figurative towards the more purely abstract, as exemplified by Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist, shown on the right, the aesthetics of the painting became divorced from the subject matter. Just what is the subject of Lavender Mist? Is it a mist, or is it something else? If it is, for instance, the emotion of the artist, in what sense is that true? Does Pascal’s comment really hold up for art that is not figurative?

Pascal at 162 gives us the famous dictum, “Cleopatra’s nose: had it been shorter, the whole aspect of the world would have been altered.” This assumes that Antony fell in love, to the extent he loved Cleopatra, because of Cleopatra’s beauty. Now while a modern author like Colleen McCullough goes great pains to emphasize that Cleopatra was no raving beauty, it was generally accepted by Shakespeare, Dryden, and Pascal that she was beautiful.

The coin on the right shows an image that is rather ordinary. She seems to have been a somewhat naughty Greek girl, maybe not quite what you’d take home to mother, not exactly a raving beauty, but not as ugly as McCullough makes out. Cleopatra’s charms, such as they were, laid not in the beauty of her person, but in the fact that she controlled Egypt, a fertile area that was capable of feeding much of the Empire. Egypt was to the Romans as Iowa or Kansas would be to N. Korea. So Pascal’s witty judgement here was wrong.

Result Value
Heaven 1
Nothing/Non-existence 0
Hell -1

Wager God Exists God Does Not Exist
God Exists 1 0
God Does Not Exist -1 0
233 is Pascal’s Wager. He has demonstrated, to his own satisfaction, the inability of reason to arrive at a proof of God. He therefore postulates that there are two propositions, that God exists, and that God does not exist. If God does not exist, it does not matter how we live our lives. Here he anticipates Dostoevsky’s declaration that if God does not exist, everything is permitted. So it makes no difference if we live immoral lives. If God exists, then our reward will be eternal happiness. He therefore determines that we should wager that God exists. The tables to the left show the possible payoffs: Heaven, Hell, and non-existence, and the wagers with their payoffs. I think a game theorist would argue that, as presented, the bet that God does not exist is a dominated strategy. Pascal did not phrase his reasoning as a game theorist would, but the argument is essentially that betting that God exists is the best strategy, because it yields the best outcome if right, and the least bad outcome if wrong. There is a lot that is wrong with this.

First, God could exist, but He could be in an eternal process of becoming. He could be like the Life Force of Shaw and Samuel Butler, or the élan vital of Bergson. Second, He could be malevolent or indifferent. Third, belief in God does not equate to belief in Christianity. Fourth, even if you assume that belief in God leads immediately to Christianity, since Christianity was, even in Pascal’s time, broken into multiple branches, it doesn’t get you to any particular belief system within Christianity.

Belief in God can only be a starting point, and Pascal does not appear to go beyond this.

In 242 he comments on philosophers and theologians who have argued for the existence of God based on design:

“I admire the boldness with which these persons undertake to speak of God. In addressing their argument to infidels, their first chapter is to prove Divinity from the works of nature. I should not be astonished at their enterprise, if they were addressing their argument to the faithful; for it is certain that those who have the living faith in their heart see at once that all existence is none other than the work of the God whom they adore. But for those in whom this light is extinguished, and in whom we purpose to rekindle it, persons destitute of faith and grace, who, seeking with all their light whatever they see in nature that can bring them to this knowledge, find only obscurity and darkness; to tell them that they have only to look at the smallest things which surround them, and they will see God openly, to give them, as a complete proof of this great and important matter, the course of the moon and planets, and to claim to have concluded the proof with such an argument, is to give them ground for believing that the proofs of our religion are very weak. And I see by reason and experience that nothing is more calculated to arouse their contempt.”

Kant, a century later, in The Critique of Pure Reason, would subject the proofs of God’s existence, including the argument from design, to some fairly rough handling. Pascal here argues that nature is not in itself adequate to the task of proving God, and persuading us to believe in either God or Christianity.

In 251 he asserts that Christianity is suited for both the educated and the uneducated, and that of no other religion is this true.

277 is as famous as the statement about Cleopatra’s nose:

“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. I say that the heart naturally loves the Universal Being, and also itself naturally, according as it gives itself to them; and it hardens itself against one or the other at its will. You have rejected the one, and kept the other. Is it by reason that you love yourself?”

Does the heart naturally seek God? I rather think that this is a gift, a grace. I’ve known people who have never shown an interest in seeking God. That their lives are inadequate, and that they are miserable never seems to have occurred to them. Their failure is masked by money, or illusions.

When Pascal moves on to discuss justice, as he does in 294, he gives a rather nice quote from Tacitus, “Ut olim vitiis, sic nunc legibus laboramus.” (“Once we suffered from our vices; today we suffer from our laws.”)

He links justice and might in 298:

“It is right that what is just should be obeyed; it is necessary that what is strongest should be obeyed. Justice without might is helpless; might without justice is tyrannical. Justice without might is gainsaid, because there are always offenders; might without justice is condemned. We must then combine justice and might, and for this end make what is just strong, or what is strong just.”

This does seem to me to have some wisdom and some applicability, particularly in politics. It is not enough to make nice resolutions and condemn or deplore this or that abuse, it takes force to carry out the correction. All of the laments and protests of the Boston Brahmins could not end slavery, it took a drunk and a madman to end the peculiar institution in the American South. (Both of those characterizations are deliberately unfair to Grant and Sherman. The rhetorical impulse got the better of me.)

At 438 Pascal asks, “If man is not made for God, why is he only happy in God? If man is made for God, why is he so opposed to God.”

In the first question we have the spirit, if not the letter, of the Sanjuanist doctrine that all goods that are not God are to be rejected. Of course, as we’ve seen before, notably in our discussion of Pseudo-Dionysius, this is the hallmark of negative theology. to reject everything that is said of God, and everything that is not God, as inadequate.

The answer to the second question, I think, has to be found in original sin. The fall is commonly understood to bring about a predisposition, or an inclination, to evil, i.e., opposition to God. Of course, this is not sufficient to explain the original sin of Adam and Eve.

Pascal reflects on happiness at 465, and concludes, “Happiness in neither without us nor within us. It is in God, both without us and within us.” Here Pascal expresses in different form the thought that we saw in 438.

At 499 we have a relection that refers to St. Teresa of Avila. “External works.—There is nothing so perilous as what pleases God and man. For those states, which please God and man, have one property which pleases God, and another which pleases men; as the greatness of Saint Teresa. What pleased God was her deep humility in the midst of her revelations; what pleased men was her light. And so we torment ourselves to imitate her discourses, thinking to imitate her conditions, and not so much to love what God loves, and to put ourselves in the state which God loves.”

At 526 he says “Misery induces despair, pride induces presumption. The Incarnation shows man the greatness of his misery by the greatness of the remedy which he required.” In the video meditation on the Our Father, I said that Blake condemned the view that God laid out the world according to mathematical principles, i.e., the God of Newton, who designs a well functioning machine that needs a little adjustment from time to time. Pascal affirms a view that is similar to Blake’s in 556: “The God ofChristians is not a God who is simply the author of mathematical truths, or of the order of the elements; that is the view of heathens and Epicureans.” He follows this up a bit later, in 563, by giving the fate of the rationalists of his day, “It will be one of the confusions of the damned to see that they are condemned by their own reason, by which they claimed to condemn the Christian religion.” So take that Christopher Hitchens!

At 576 we have the first in a series of reflections in which Pascal talks about the Jews. I’m not quite sure how to respond on these points. As a 21st century Christian philo-semite I accept the idea, voiced in Romans, that God has not withdrawn his election from the Jews. Pascal also seems to accept the notion that the Jews killed Christ. That view is not accepted by the Church now. Now the first 18-19 years of my life were spent in the Church in the pre-Vatican II days, and if I remember correctly the Gospel for the Palm Sunday Mass was a performance in which the congregation took the part of the people, and cried “Crucify Him.” Arguably this liturgical practice instantiated the belief that the whole people, Gentiles and Jews, were responsible for the Crucifixion. This view, that all of us were responsible for the crucifixion, was made explicit at Vatican II. Some of Pascal’s other remarks about the Jews also seem problematic, and would probably make someone a good paper topic, if it hasn’t already been done to death. It should be noted that in 798 Pascal praises the Gospel writers for not hurling invective at at Judas, Pilate, or the Jews. Pascal’s remarks about Muslims and Mahomet (Mohammed) are not so troublesome to me. As I’ve said before my tolerance for Islam went into a steep decline after 9/11, and I await basic reforms before I can accord it the same respect and tolerance I do other religions. In 599 he lays out the differences between Islam and Christianity. Mahomet not foretold; Christ foretold. Mahomet slew; Christ caused his disciples to be slown. (Some Islamists understand “martyrdom operations” to be blowing yourself up in a pizza parlor, and killing people who may be sinning through gluttony, which is not usually a crime. Christians and Jews understand martyrdom as being a witness who suffers for the faith.) “Mahomet forbade reading; the Apostles ordered reading.” There’s a story that the library of Alexandria was destroyed because a Muslim warlord said that if the books contradicted the Koran they were heretical and should be destroyed; if they agreed with the Koran they were useless and should be destroyed. A look at the literacy tables for Muslim countries shows low levels of literacy, especially among women.

At 607 he makes a distinction between those of the Jewish and Christian religions who subscribe to “carnal” versions of each religion, and implicitly the non-carnal members of each: “The Messiah, according to the carnal Jews, was to be a great temporal prince. Jesus Christ, according to carnal Christians, has come to dispense us from the love of God, and to give us sacraments which shall do everything without our help. Such is not the Christian religion, nor the Jewish. True Jews and true Christians have always expected a Messiah who should make them love God, and by that love triumph over their enemies.”

At 619 he identifies the Mosaic law as the first law of the world. He makes a similar comment in 741. Pascal’s remarks on the antiquity of the Hebrew Bible pre-date the discoveries of Sumer, and other ancient cities. Throughout the Pensees he constantly refers to the antiquity of the Bible, now I’ve argued that if your faith is contingent upon things like the Mosaic authorship of the Bible, or the historicity of the Genesis account of creation, then once contradictory evidence appears your faith will be shaken. There’s a literary example of this in Samuel Butler’s novel The Way of All Flesh. The interested reader will find discussions of this topic in the dissertation and Anti-Darwin scribblings that are linked to on the first page. 628 mentions that some books create a people. Is this true? In a sense. Books such as the Bible, the Iliad, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, and a few others record an experience that has been lived out, and the recording of that experience shapes the future of that people. I just watched the 1927 silent version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and while there are considerable differences from the book, it is arguable that the book shaped the way many saw slavery. Even those who reacted against the book in some way had their response shaped by the book. Because the North won, and its ideology dominates the reading and writing and teaching of history, we view slavery through the eyes of the readers of that book, and our view of the Civil War is shaped by it. So we think of slavery as a brutal institution, and reject the romantic view of the ante-bellum South embodied in Gone With the Wind. Pascal in 648 identifies two errors, taking everything literally, and taking everything spiritually. I’ve argued that while what I call the accomodationist position, that God made an accommodation to the scientific development of a nomadic people, that the position runs the risk of accommodating away all belief. In order to have the fullness of faith, one has to hold both the literal and the non-literal readings in a state of constant tension.

In 803 he refers to “the proof which the true miracles give of the truth, which is the chief end of the miracles.” Shaw, in St. Joan, would define a miracle as an event that creates or confirms faith. To some extent he is echoing Pascal when he says that. In 816 he remarks that “Unbelievers the most credulous. They believe the miracles of Vespasian in order not to believe those of Moses.” Substitute Darwin for Vespasian, and you’ve got a neat condemnation of today’s crop of atheists.

Update: September 26, 2009—I mentioned game theorists when talking about Pascal’s Wager. I’ve been watching a course on game theory from Yale, and I’m not altogether sure whether Pascal’s Wager qualifies as a game in the context of game theory. That discipline seems to consider games with two or more players. I don’t think it has anything to say about single player games. I don’t think you can say that God is a player in the game, because the wager is about His existence. Having said all that, I think the tables given are correct in terms of payoff, and so on. Next up is Hobbes, Leviathan.