PASCAL: Pensées [Numbers 194-195, 219, 229, 233-234, 242, 273, 277, 282, 289, 298, 303, 320, 323, 325, 330-331, 374, 385, 392, 395-397, 409, 412-413]

Pensées by Pascal

194 – Life After Death

  • Christianity does not claim that men have a clear view of God. It claims that men are estranged from God and are in darkness. Thus, it is not discrediting to Christianity to assert that there is nothing in this world which demonstrates the existence of God. God has created visible signs of His existence to make Himself known to those who seek Him, and He also has disguised these visible signs from those who turn away from Him.
  • Pascal asserts that one who makes a sincere attempt to find God will find Him. Those who do not find Him have not adequately searched for Him. These people often believe that after spending a few hours reading Scripture and questioning priests on matters of the faith that they have made a sincere and rigorous search, but they are mistaken. Furthermore, the questions of God’s existence and of the immortality of the soul are not trifles to be considered lightly; these questions are the most important.
  • All our thoughts and actions are regulated by the answers we give to the question of the immortality of the soul. Our ultimate end ought to be to determine whether the soul is immortal.
  • Pascal feels more anger than pity towards those who do not think about the ultimate end of life. He considers this type of life to be monstrous. This is similar to Socrates statement: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
  • There is no real and lasting satisfaction in this life. There is no good in this life but in the hope for another. We are happy in proportion as we draw near to the understanding that there is an eternal life awaiting us after death; those who have no insight into another life are miserable.
  • We can only find misery in the expectation of nothing. Those who take joy in the thought that we are in impenetrable darkness, or that we have nothing to hope for after death are silly and unreasonable creatures.
  • Despicable are the men who say that they are ignorant of their own natures and the fate that awaits them after death, yet spend all the days of their life without caring to inquire what may happen after death.
  • The Christian faith seeks to establish two truths: the corruption of nature and the redemption of men by Jesus Christ.
  • Nothing is as important to a man as himself. Thus it is natural that men should not be indifferent to the loss of their existence. However, some men are concerned only with mere trifles and take no care for the eternal questions. Men are sensible to trifles and insensible to the greatest objects.
  • Pascal finds it strange that some men boast of having “shaken off the yoke” of religion and belief in God. Pascal thinks that these men are deceiving themselves in seeking esteem among other men. Yet who would esteem a man who does not believe in God, who believes that the soul is only a wind or smoke that is annihilated upon death; and who would assert these things gaily and in a haughty self-satisfied tone. These sentiments ought to be expressed as the saddest thing in the world.
  • There are only two sorts of reasonable people: those who serve God because they know him, and those who seek God with all their heart because they do not know Him.

“They believe they have made great efforts for their instruction when they have spent a few hours in reading some book of Scripture and have questioned some priests on the truths of the faith. After that, they boast of having made vain search in books and among men. But, verily, I will tell them what I have often said, that this negligence is insufferable. We are not here concerned with the trifling interests of some stranger, that we should treat it in this fashion; the matter concerns ourselves and our all.”

“We do not require great education of the mind to understand that here is no real and lasting satisfaction; that our pleasures are only vanity; that our evils are infinite; and, lastly, that death, which threatens us every moment, must infallibly place us within a few years under the dreadful necessity of being for ever either annihilated or unhappy.

‑‑There is nothing more real than this, nothing more terrible. Be we as heroic as we like, that is the end which awaits the world. Let us reflect on this and then say whether it is not beyond doubt that there is no good in this life but in the hope of another; that we are happy only in proportion as we draw near it; and that, as there are no more woes for those who have complete assurance of eternity, so there is no more happiness for those who have no insight into it.”

“What joy can we find in the expectation of nothing but hopeless misery? What reason for boasting that we are in impenetrable darkness? And how can it happen that the following argument occurs to a reasonable man?”

“This same man who spends so many days and nights in rage and despair for the loss of office, or for some imaginary insult to his honour, is the very one who knows without anxiety and without emotion that he will lose all by death.”

“Let them give to reading this some of the hours which they otherwise employ so uselessly; whatever aversion they may bring to the task, they will perhaps gain something, and at least will not lose much.”

In thought number 194, Pascal makes some very powerful arguments for Christianity, the existence of God, and the immortality of the soul. He relies upon appeals to the passions and intuitions of men. Nothing is more important to a man than his own self; and therefore a man ought to be naturally concerned with his fate. If the soul of a man is like the wind or smoke, and is annihilated at the moment of death, then this is the most lamentable thing. A man who believes this ought to be miserable. Those, however, who revel in this opinion, are unreasonable and silly. There is nothing but misery to be found in the expectation of annihilation. There is no good in this life but in the expectation of another life after death.

Pascal also makes a judgment of the inquisitive life similar to the judgment made by Socrates in Plato’s Apology. Pascal writes that the men who are not concerned with their fate, but cheerfully go to their deaths without care and without concern are despicable. In the words of Socrates: “the unexamined life is not worth living.” In the words of Pascal, the men who are not curious about themselves and their destiny are worthless.

195 – Death

  • The duration of this life is but a moment; death is eternal. Thus, all our thoughts and actions are dictated by our opinion of that eternity.
  • We condemn men who think that they can annihilate eternity by turning their thoughts away from it, thinking only of making themselves happy for the moment.
  • Death threatens us every hour.
  • Those who rest in their own ignorance must be made to feel its extravagance and stupidity.

219 – Morality

  • “It is certain that the mortality or immortality of the soul must make an entire difference to morality. And yet philosophers have constructed their ethics independently of this: they discuss to pass an hour.”

229 – Nature

  • Everything in nature is a matter of doubt and uncertainty. There are signs of a God, yet there are also signs that God does not exist.

233 – Infinite and Nothing

  • The finite is annihilated in the presence of infinity; it becomes nothing. The finite becomes nothing. One more foot adds nothing to infinity.
  • We may know that there is a God without knowing what He is; as we know there is an infinity of numbers without knowing what infinity is – i.e. odd, even, etc.
  • We know the existence and nature of the finite because we are finite and have extension. We know the existence of the infinite but are ignorant of its nature because it has extension like us but not limits like us. We neither know the existence nor the nature of God because He has neither extension nor limits like us.
  • By faith we know God’s existence; in glory we shall know His nature.
  • We are incapable of knowing either what God is or if God exists because we have no affinity with him – i.e. He has neither extension nor limits – and therefore we cannot undertake this question according to our rational capabilities.
  • Christians do not claim to have proof of God’s existence or nature. Reason cannot determine the existence or nature of God because of the infinite chaos which separates us.
  • We must make a decision as to whether God exists or does not exist because we have embarked on the journey of life. If we wager that He exists, and he does, then we win all. If we ager that He exists, and he does not, then we lose nothing. If we wager that He does not exist, and he does, then we lose everything. If we wager that He does not exist, and He does not exist, then we lose nothing. Therefore, wager that He exists without hesitation.
  • For those who believe that they have been made to not believe in God – i.e. that they have no free will to choose to believe or no – they ought to convince themselves of His existence by suppressing their passions, not by increase of proofs. They ought to act as if they believe; for this habitual practice will naturally make them believe. Some would counter that this is what they are afraid of – i.e. deluding themselves into belief. Pascal asks what is lost by adopting such a practice.
  • One renounces nothing – i.e. the pleasures of this world – in exchange for something certain and infinite – i.e. eternal life after death.

In this thought, Pascal describes the supposed pleasures of the world – glory and luxury – as poisonous. Indeed, these pleasures instill an intense desire in people to acquire ever more of these pleasures. In that sense, it is a self-defeating cycle. One is never satisfied by pursuing glory and luxury. We ought therefore to find out some new pleasure that is wholly satisfying. Pascal believes this summum bonum is everlasting felicity in the presence of God after death. Is there any other summum bonum?

234 – Uncertainty

  • If we must act on certainty, then we must do nothing at all. Nothing is certain. We must therefore act upon chance.

242 – Of the Means of Belief

  • For the faithful, it is clear that all existence is the work of God. For those who do not believe this, any arguments relying upon the works of nature as proof of God’s existence are feeble and arouse their contempt.
  • Scripture does not state that nature reveals God. God is hidden. Those who seek God will find Him. Those who do not seek God will not find him. God’s nature is not akin to physical things in the world. We do not say that if you seek the light of the sun you will find it, or that if you seek the ocean you will find it.

273 – Reason

  • “If we submit everything to reason, our religion will have no mysterious and supernatural element. If we offend the principles of reason, our religion will be absurd and ridiculous.”

277 – Natural Inclinations

  • “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?”

282 – Truth

  • We know truth by reason and by the heart. We know first principles by the heart. We know that we do not dream when we are waking, despite the impossibility for us to prove it by reason. This only demonstrates the weakness of our reason.
  • Reason must trust the intuitions of the heart.

“We know that we do not dream, and, however impossible it is for us to prove it by reason, this inability demonstrates only the weakness of our reason, but not, as they affirm, the uncertainty of all our knowledge.”

“It is as useless and absurd for reason to demand from the heart proofs of her first principles, before admitting them, as it would be for the heart to demand from reason an intuition of all demonstrated propositions before accepting them.”

289 – Proof

  • Pascal proffers twelve proofs of the validity of Christianity:
    • Christianity was established strongly, gently, and contrary to nature.
    • The Christian soul is holy, dignified, and humble.
    • The miracles of the Holy Scripture
    • Jesus Christ
    • The Apostles
    • Moses and the prophets
    • The Jews
    • The prophecies
    • The perpetuity of the religion
    • The doctrine gives reason for everything
    • The sanctity of the doctrine
    • The course of the world

298 – Justice, Might

  • Justice and Might must be united; for justice without might is futile, and might without justice is tyrannical. We ought to make what is just strong, and what is strong just.
  • The nature of justice is debatable; the nature of might is recognized and not disputed. We cannot give justice to might because might has declared that it is might itself that is just. Being unable to give might to justice, we make what is strong just.

“Justice without might is helpless; might without justice is tyrannical.”

303 – Might, Opinion

  • “Might is the sovereign of the world, and not opinion. But opinion makes use of might. It is might that makes opinion. Gentleness is beautiful in our opinion. Why? Because he who will dance on a rope will be alone, and I will gather a stronger mob of people who will say that it is unbecoming.”

320 – Royal Succession

  • The most unreasonable things become reasonable because of the unruliness of men. Reason requires of us to elect the virtuous and most able, but we often cannot come to a consensus, and thus come to blows instead. Therefore, we renounce our judgments to something that is clear and indisputable – the king’s eldest son. It is unreasonable to choose a future king based solely upon birth, but Reason provides a worse alternative.

323 – Ego

  • “‑‑Suppose a man puts himself at a window to see those who pass by. If I pass by, can I say that he placed himself there to see me? No; for he does not think of me in particular. But does he who loves someone on account of beauty really love that person? No; for the small-pox, which will kill beauty without killing the person, will cause him to love her no more.
  • ‑‑And if one loves me for my judgment, memory, he does not love me, for I can lose these qualities without losing myself. Where, then, is this Ego, if it be neither in the body nor in the soul? And how love the body or the soul, except for these qualities which do not constitute me, since they are perishable? For it is impossible and would be unjust to love the soul of a person in the abstract and whatever qualities might be therein. We never, then, love a person, but only qualities.”

Thought number 323 is very interesting. Pascal inquires into the nature of self and discovers an ever changing chain of qualities. A person is not the physical body; for the body changes, yet we still identify the changed body as the same person of the past. A person is not the personality or beliefs because these can change while we still identify a changed person as the same. What is the Self?

325 – Custom

  • We know nothing of reason or justice, and therefore must follow custom because it is custom, not because custom is reasonable or just.

330 – Weakness and Folly

  • “The power of kings is founded on the reason and on the folly of the people, and especially on their folly. The greatest and most important thing in the world has weakness for its foundation, and this foundation is wonderfully sure; for there is nothing more sure than this, that the people will be weak. What is based on sound reason is very ill-founded as the estimate of wisdom.”

331 – Plato and Aristotle

  • “We can only think of Plato and Aristotle in grand academic robes. They were honest men, like others, laughing with their friends, and, when they diverted themselves with writing their Laws and the Politics, they did it as an amusement. That part of their life was the least philosophic and the least serious; the most philosophic was to live simply and quietly. If they wrote on politics, it was as if laying down rules for a lunatic asylum; and if they presented the appearance of speaking of a great matter, it was because they knew that the madmen, to whom they spoke, thought they were kings and emperors. They entered into their principles in order to make their madness as little harmful as possible.”

374 – Skepticism

  • Pascal is astonished that men are not astonished at their own weakness. Men believe that they are capable of knowing things, when in reality nothing is certain.

385 – Skepticism

  • Each thing is partly true and partly false. Nothing is purely true. Essential truth does not exist.
  • Is it good to kill? No because that destroys nature. Is it good not to kill? No because lawlessness would be horrible – the wicked would kill the good. Is it good to be chaste? No because the world would end. Is it good to have sex? No because continence is better.
  • All truth and all goodness are mingled with falsehood and evil.

392 – Against Skepticism

  • We often draw the same conclusions from different premises.

395 – Instinct, Reason

  • “We have an incapacity of proof, insurmountable by all dogmatism. We have an idea of truth, invincible to all scepticism.”

396 – Instinct, Experience

  • “Two things instruct man about his whole nature; instinct and experience.”

397 – Misery, Greatness

  • “The greatness of man is great in that he knows himself to be miserable. A tree does not know itself to be miserable. It is then being miserable to know oneself to be miserable; but it is also being great to know that one is miserable.”

In thought number 397, Pascal reiterates a common motif found in the history of literature – i.e. the existence of greatness amidst misery.

409 – The Greatness of Man

  • The greatness of mankind is proved by our assertion that a man is wretched when he is like an animal. He has fallen from a greater nature to that of an animal.
  • Only the deposed king is unhappy at not being king. Who is unhappy in having only one mouth? No one has mourned at not having three eyes.

412 – Reason, Passions

  • There is an internal war in man between Reason and the Passions. It is impossible to be at peace with one without being at war with the other. A man is always divided against and opposed to himself.

I do not entirely agree with this thought. There are moments in which the reason is in accord with the passions.

413 – Reason, Passions

  • “This internal war of reason against the passions has made a division of those who would have peace into two sects. The first would renounce their passions and become gods; the others would renounce reason and become brute beasts. But neither can do so, and reason still remains, to condemn the vileness and injustice of the passions and to trouble the repose of those who abandon themselves to them; and the passions keep always alive in those who would renounce them.”

In this thought, Pascal argues that the internal war in man between the Reason and the Passions is an interminable war. Men who wish to renounce the passions and become gods inevitably fail in their endeavor because the passions are an essential characteristic of men. These would-be ascetics can never entirely purify themselves of the passions until death.

Similarly, those who wish to renounce reason and become beasts fail too. Criminals who wish to fulfill their illicit desires must always battle their sense of reason which tries to persuade them of their injustice and of the detrimental consequences of their contemplated actions.

Pensées by Pascal

2 thoughts on “PASCAL: Pensées [Numbers 194-195, 219, 229, 233-234, 242, 273, 277, 282, 289, 298, 303, 320, 323, 325, 330-331, 374, 385, 392, 395-397, 409, 412-413]”

  1. Oh my goodness, how do you have time to write all of this? It’s so interesting. I love reading your summaries. I think this guy Pascal is a very wise man and I’m sure if he could talk to us now he would confirm that most his suppositions were right. We may not agree with every point, but the general gist makes sense to me. I won’t pretend to be able to understand it all. I’m glad you can help me out with your comments and thoughts.

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