Note to readers: You may choose to read this analysis of Blaise Pascal‘s Pensées here or listen to it on the audio file at the end of the article.
At first glance, there are many reasons why modern readers might decide not to read Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, the work he left unfinished at the time of his death at the age of 39 in 1662. Instead of simply listing the book’s virtues, I thought I would do a very Pascalian thing by considering the different sides to each argument and responding directly to some of the objections to reading the book.
1. What relevance would a defense of the Christian religion have to someone who does not share Pascal’s particular brand of faith?
It is true that Pascal was planning an apology for (or defense of) Christianity. He was a follower of what is now known as Jansenism, a small wing of the Catholic Church that placed the fall of mankind at the center of its belief system. It holds that God created humans in a state of absolute happiness and innocence but, ever since Adam and Eve tasted the forbidden apple, all mankind has been in a state of corruption and wretchedness. Knowing that, you would be forgiven for thinking that Pascal’s text is not going to be the most joyous of reading experiences as it reminds us of our fallen state.
And yet, even though all these elements play a part in the Pensées, reading his thoughts is fascinating and even exhilarating. Pascal was known first as a child mathematical prodigy, and he continued to produce stunningly original scientific writings on such subjects as probability and the existence of vacuums. In his 20s, he frequented the worldly circles of Paris, which included a number of fellow scientists but also many highly intelligent people (known as libertins) who were openly skeptical of unquestioning religious faith and who preferred to place the value of human reason at the forefront of their lives. These are the people Pascal had in mind when he started writing the Pensées: worldly nonbelievers or agnostics who, unlike hardened atheists, were still receptive to arguments about the existence of God.
Pascal is by no means the only 17th-century writer to attempt to convert skeptics, but, unlike most such authors, who try to batter their readers into submission by engaging in fire-and-brimstone rhetoric, Pascal attempts to understand the psychology of his readers and show them that he sees where they are coming from. Many fragments of the book do not discuss religion at all but simply comment upon characteristics of what he termed “the human condition.”
A number of passages with a religious message start not with religion but with simple observations, such as the difficulty of happily remaining in a room without distractions, or musings on the nature of persuasion in everyday life. Rather than simply quoting the writings of the Church Fathers or the Bible, Pascal also refers to the worldly writers who were most appreciated by the libertins of the day, most notably Michel de Montaigne and the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus.
He also uses a wide range of imagery that could be appreciated by a nonreligious reader. Some of his friends enjoyed leisure pursuits and gambling – Pascal had even written a mathematical treatise on the roulette wheel – and, rather than relying on uniquely pious models to support his arguments, Pascal draws on the language of gaming, sports (such as tennis and billiards) and other activities, including hunting, dancing, music and conversation.
Knowing the scientific interests of such readers, he also makes use of recent scientific discoveries, such as the invention of the microscope and the telescope. Perhaps the most famous passage from the Pensées, known as the Wager, appeals precisely to the mathematical interests of his libertin friends. He tries to weigh up the odds of what one stands to lose or gain by wagering for or against the existence of God.
Pascal certainly knows how to engage and keep the attention of his skeptical readers, in hopes of avoiding indifference, which he realizes to be the most difficult state to break through when trying to be persuasive. In the (exactly) 350 years since the Pensées was first published, the increasing questioning of what were previously seen as religious certainties means that Pascal’s writing still has a relevance that can be appreciated by believers and nonbelievers alike.
2. Given that Pascal died before completing his magnum opus, what is the point of reading a series of seemingly disconnected and disordered fragments that almost certainly bear little resemblance to what would have been the finished – and much more polished – version?
Certainly, it can be a little daunting to open the Pensées and find hundreds of separately numbered fragments, some several pages in length and others consisting of just a few words. My advice would be to dip into the text to find fragments that appeal to you and simply enjoy the freedom of this way of reading.
In the world of scholarship, there are two main schools of thought about the ordering of the fragments. Some researchers have looked at certain passages where Pascal seems to have sketched a plan for his work and have tried to construct or imagine a logical order, in some cases even putting different sections together to make a more cohesive whole. Other scholars – and I definitely place myself in this latter category – see the unfinished, fragmentary state of the manuscript as much closer to Pascal’s original intentions. He states openly that “I will write down my thoughts here without order but not in a random confusion.” The order is not random precisely because, as he goes on to mention, he is trying to show his reader that nothing in our fallen world can ever be perfect or whole and that even his writing reflects that lack of cohesion.
And, after all, what is a fragment? It is both something that is open-ended and a small part of something larger. If we tear up a piece of paper and then discover that it is a vital document that we need to keep, our immediate inclination will be to try and put the fragments together to make it into a comprehensible document. In the same way, by leaving the Pensées in a fragmentary state, he is forcing us to do the searching ourselves, to engage with ideas and concepts that relate to more profound issues. As he writes, “It is an indispensable duty to search.” Almost despite ourselves, we have become engaged on a quest that he hopes will lead us to greater self-knowledge and, just possibly, to an acknowledgment of the need for religion.
3. If I am going to read a work of French thought, what is the point of reading Pascal rather than someone like his near contemporary, Descartes, who is seen by most philosophers as the father of modern thought?
Descartes is certainly a major figure. Everybody knows his famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am,” and I wouldn’t want to discourage anybody from reading his work. But for me, Descartes does not share the beauty and variety of Pascal’s written style. Pascal says at one point that in his writing he wants to re-create “the ordinary conversations of life,” and his use of imagined dialogues and opposing viewpoints do have the vividness and even spontaneity of conversation.
It would be wrong, however, to describe his written style as just conversational, because some fragments have the beauty of prose poems, while others are memorable maxim-like statements, such as “The heart has its reasons that reason can never know.” He also has a keen sense of humor, especially in his depiction of the absurdities and incongruities of life. Those who do not enjoy sports will no doubt agree wholeheartedly with the amusing picture he paints of people who prefer pushing a billiard ball around a table or chasing after a hare that they could have bought at the market rather than contemplating deeper considerations of life.
Above all – and this of course was Pascal’s stated intention – it is impossible to remain indifferent to Pascal’s prose and thinking. He can be enticing as well as antagonizing, but he is never dull.
If you wish to read the Pensées, I would recommend any edition that follows the ordering of Philippe Sellier. A.J. Krailsheimer’s Penguin translation is still probably the best around, but there is also a good, if incomplete, translation by Honor Levi in the Oxford World’s Classics series.