Blaise Pascal.

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_A Dutton Paperback_

New York

_This paperback edition of "Pascal's Pensées" Published 1958 by E. P.
Dutton & Co., Inc. All rights reserved. Printed in the U.S.A._

SBN 0-525-47018-2


It might seem that about Blaise Pascal, and about the two works on which
his fame is founded, everything that there is to say had been said. The
details of his life are as fully known as we can expect to know them;
his mathematical and physical discoveries have been treated many times;
his religious sentiment and his theological views have been discussed
again and again; and his prose style has been analysed by French critics
down to the finest particular. But Pascal is one of those writers who
will be and who must be studied afresh by men in every generation. It is
not he who changes, but we who change. It is not our knowledge of him
that increases, but our world that alters and our attitudes towards it.
The history of human opinions of Pascal and of men of his stature is a
part of the history of humanity. That indicates his permanent

The facts of Pascal's life, so far as they are necessary for this brief
introduction to the _Pensées_, are as follows. He was born at Clermont,
in Auvergne, in 1623. His family were people of substance of the upper
middle class. His father was a government official, who was able to
leave, when he died, a sufficient patrimony to his one son and his two
daughters. In 1631 the father moved to Paris, and a few years later took
up another government post at Rouen. Wherever he lived, the elder Pascal
seems to have mingled with some of the best society, and with men of
eminence in science and the arts. Blaise was educated entirely by his
father at home. He was exceedingly precocious, indeed excessively
precocious, for his application to studies in childhood and adolescence
impaired his health, and is held responsible for his death at
thirty-nine. Prodigious, though not incredible stories are preserved,
especially of his precocity in mathematics. His mind was active rather
than accumulative; he showed from his earliest years that disposition to
find things out for himself, which has characterised the infancy of
Clerk-Maxwell and other scientists. Of his later discoveries in physics
there is no need for mention here; it must only be remembered that he
counts as one of the greatest physicists and mathematicians of all time;
and that his discoveries were made during the years when most scientists
are still apprentices.

The elder Pascal, Étienne, was a sincere Christian. About 1646 he fell
in with some representatives of the religious revival within the Church
which has become known as Jansenism - after Jansenius, Bishop of Ypres,
whose theological work is taken as the origin of the movement. This
period is usually spoken of as the moment of Pascal's "first
conversion." The word "conversion," however, is too forcible to be
applied at this point to Blaise Pascal himself. The family had always
been devout, and the younger Pascal, though absorbed in his scientific
work, never seems to have been afflicted with infidelity. His attention
was then directed, certainly, to religious and theological matters; but
the term "conversion" can only be applied to his sisters - the elder,
already Madame Périer, and particularly the younger, Jacqueline, who at
that time conceived a vocation for the religious life. Pascal himself
was by no means disposed to renounce the world. After the death of the
father in 1650 Jacqueline, a young woman of remarkable strength and
beauty of character, wished to take her vows as a sister of Port-Royal,
and for some time her wish remained unfulfilled owing to the opposition
of her brother. His objection was on the purely worldly ground that she
wished to make over her patrimony to the Order; whereas while she lived
with him, their combined resources made it possible for him to live more
nearly on a scale of expense congenial to his tastes. He liked, in fact,
not only to mix with the best society, but to keep a coach and
horses - six horses is the number at one time attributed to his carriage.
Though he had no legal power to prevent his sister from disposing of her
property as she elected, the amiable Jacqueline shrank from doing so
without her brother's willing approval. The Mother Superior, Mère
Angélique - herself an eminent personage in the history of this religious
movement - finally persuaded the young novice to enter the order without
the satisfaction of bringing her patrimony with her; but Jacqueline
remained so distressed by this situation that her brother finally

So far as is known, the worldly life enjoyed by Pascal during this
period can hardly be qualified as "dissipation," and certainly not as
"debauchery." Even gambling may have appealed to him chiefly as
affording a study of mathematical probabilities. He appears to have led
such a life as any cultivated intellectual man of good position and
independent means might lead and consider himself a model of probity and
virtue. Not even a love-affair is laid at his door, though he is said to
have contemplated marriage. But Jansenism, as represented by the
religious society of Port-Royal, was morally a Puritan movement within
the Church, and its standards of conduct were at least as severe as
those of any Puritanism in England or America. The period of fashionable
society, in Pascal's life, is however, of great importance in his
development. It enlarged his knowledge of men and refined his tastes; he
became a man of the world and never lost what he had learnt; and when he
turned his thoughts wholly towards religion, his worldly knowledge was a
part of his composition which is essential to the value of his work.

Pascal's interest in society did not distract him from scientific
research; nor did this period occupy much space in what is a very short
and crowded life. Partly his natural dissatisfaction with such a life,
once he had learned all it had to teach him, partly the influence of his
saintly sister Jacqueline, partly increasing suffering as his health
declined, directed him more and more out of the world and to thoughts of
eternity. And in 1654 occurs what is called his "second conversion," but
which might be called his conversion simply.

He made a note of his mystical experience, which he kept always about
him, and which was found, after his death, sewn into the coat which he
was wearing. The experience occurred on 23 November, 1654, and there is
no reason to doubt its genuineness unless we choose to deny all mystical
experience. Now, Pascal was not a mystic, and his works are not to be
classified amongst mystical writings; but what can only be called
mystical experience happens to many men who do not become mystics. The
work which he undertook soon after, the _Lettres écrites à un
provincial_, is a masterpiece of religious controversy at the opposite
pole from mysticism. We know quite well that he was at the time when he
received his illumination from God in extremely poor health; but it is a
commonplace that some forms of illness are extremely favourable, not
only to religious illumination, but to artistic and literary
composition. A piece of writing meditated, apparently without progress,
for months or years, may suddenly take shape and word; and in this state
long passages may be produced which require little or no retouch. I have
no good word to say for the cultivation of automatic writing as the
model of literary composition; I doubt whether these moments _can_ be
cultivated by the writer; but he to whom this happens assuredly has the
sensation of being a vehicle rather than a maker. No masterpiece can be
produced whole by such means; but neither does even the higher form of
religious inspiration suffice for the religious life; even the most
exalted mystic must return to the world, and use his reason to employ
the results of his experience in daily life. You may call it communion
with the Divine, or you may call it a temporary crystallisation of the
mind. Until science can teach us to reproduce such phenomena at will,
science cannot claim to have explained them; and they can be judged only
by their fruits.

From that time until his death, Pascal was closely associated with the
society of Port-Royal which his sister Jacqueline, who predeceased him,
had joined as a _religieuse_; the society was then fighting for its life
against the Jesuits. Five propositions, judged by a committee of
cardinals and theologians at Rome to be heretical, were found to be put
forward in the work of Jansenius; and the society of Port-Royal, the
representative of Jansenism among devotional communities, suffered a
blow from which it never revived. It is not the place here to review the
bitter controversy and conflict; the best account, from the point of
view of a critic of genius who took no side, who was neither Jansenist
nor Jesuit, Christian nor infidel, is that in the great book of
Sainte-Beuve, _Port-Royal_. And in this book the parts devoted to Pascal
himself are among the most brilliant pages of criticism that
Sainte-Beuve ever wrote. It is sufficient to notice that the next
occupation of Pascal, after his conversion, was to write these eighteen
"Letters," which as prose are of capital importance in the foundation of
French classical style, and which as polemic are surpassed by none, not
by Demosthenes, or Cicero, or Swift. They have the limitation of all
polemic and forensic: they persuade, they seduce, they are unfair. But
it is also unfair to assert that, in these _Letters to a Provincial_,
Pascal was attacking the Society of Jesus in itself. He was attacking
rather a particular school of casuistry which relaxed the requirements
of the Confessional; a school which certainly flourished amongst the
Society of Jesus at that time, and of which the Spaniards Escobar and
Molina are the most eminent authorities. He undoubtedly abused the art
of quotation, as a polemical writer can hardly help but do; but there
were abuses for him to abuse; and he did the job thoroughly. His
_Letters_ must not be called theology. Academic theology was not a
department in which Pascal was versed; when necessary, the fathers of
Port-Royal came to his aid. The _Letters_ are the work of one of the
finest mathematical minds of any time, and of a man of the world who
addressed, not theologians, but the world in general - all of the
cultivated and many of the less cultivated of the French laity; and with
this public they made an astonishing success.

During this time Pascal never wholly abandoned his scientific interests.
Though in his religious writings he composed slowly and painfully, and
revised often, in matters of mathematics his mind seemed to move with
consummate natural ease and grace. Discoveries and inventions sprang
from his brain without effort; among the minor devices of this later
period, the first omnibus service in Paris is said to owe its origin to
his inventiveness. But rapidly failing health, and absorption in the
great work he had in mind, left him little time and energy during the
last two years of his life.

The plan of what we call the _Pensées_ formed itself about 1660. The
completed book was to have been a carefully constructed defence of
Christianity, a true Apology and a kind of Grammar of Assent, setting
forth the reasons which will convince the intellect. As I have indicated
before, Pascal was not a theologian, and on dogmatic theology had
recourse to his spiritual advisers. Nor was he indeed a systematic
philosopher. He was a man with an immense genius for science, and at the
same time a natural psychologist and moralist. As he was a great
literary artist, his book would have been also his own spiritual
autobiography; his style, free from all diminishing idiosyncrasies, was
yet very personal. Above all, he was a man of strong passions; and his
intellectual passion for truth was reinforced by his passionate
dissatisfaction with human life unless a spiritual explanation could be

We must regard the _Pensées_ as merely the first notes for a work which
he left far from completion; we have, in Sainte-Beuve's words, a tower
of which the stones have been laid on each other, but not cemented, and
the structure unfinished. In early years his memory had been amazingly
retentive of anything that he wished to remember; and had it not been
impaired by increasing illness and pain, he probably would not have been
obliged to set down these notes at all. But taking the book as it is
left to us, we still find that it occupies a unique place in the history
of French literature and in the history of religious meditation.

To understand the method which Pascal employs, the reader must be
prepared to follow the process of the mind of the intelligent believer.
The Christian thinker - and I mean the man who is trying consciously and
conscientiously to explain to himself the sequence which culminated in
faith, rather than the public apologist - proceeds by rejection and
elimination. He finds the world to be so and so; he finds its character
inexplicable by any non-religious theory; among religions he finds
Christianity, and Catholic Christianity, to account most satisfactorily
for the world and especially for the moral world within; and thus, by
what Newman calls "powerful and concurrent" reasons, he finds himself
inexorably committed to the dogma of the Incarnation. To the unbeliever,
this method seems disingenuous and perverse; for the unbeliever is, as a
rule, not so greatly troubled to explain the world to himself, nor so
greatly distressed by its disorder; nor is he generally concerned (in
modern terms) to "preserve values." He does not consider that if certain
emotional states, certain developments of character, and what in the
highest sense can be called "saintliness" are inherently and by
inspection known to be good, then the satisfactory explanation of the
world must be an explanation which will admit the "reality" of these
values. Nor does he consider such reasoning admissible; he would, so to
speak, trim his values according to his cloth, because to him such
values are of no great value. The unbeliever starts from the other end,
and as likely as not with the question: Is a case of human
parthenogenesis credible? and this he would call going straight to the
heart of the matter. Now Pascal's method is, on the whole, the method
natural and right for the Christian; and the opposite method is that
taken by Voltaire. It is worth while to remember that Voltaire, in his
attempt to refute Pascal, has given once and for all the type of such
refutation; and that later opponents of Pascal's Apology for the
Christian Faith have contributed little beyond psychological
irrelevancies. For Voltaire has presented, better than any one since,
what is the unbelieving point of view; and in the end we must all choose
for ourselves between one point of view and another.

I have said above that Pascal's method is "on the whole" that of the
typical Christian apologist; and this reservation was directed at
Pascal's belief in miracles, which plays a larger part in his
construction than it would in that, at least, of the modern liberal
Catholic. It would seem fantastic to accept Christianity because we
first believe the Gospel miracles to be true, and it would seem impious
to accept it primarily because we believe more recent miracles to be
true; we accept the miracles, or some miracles, to be true because we
believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ: we found our belief in the miracles
on the Gospel, not our belief in the Gospel on the miracles. But it must
be remembered that Pascal had been deeply impressed by a contemporary
miracle, known as the miracle of the Holy Thorn: a thorn reputed to have
been preserved from the Crown of Our Lord was pressed upon an ulcer
which quickly healed. Sainte-Beuve, who as a medical man felt himself on
solid ground, discusses fully the possible explanation of this apparent
miracle. It is true that the miracle happened at Port-Royal, and that it
arrived opportunely to revive the depressed spirits of the community in
its political afflictions; and it is likely that Pascal was the more
inclined to believe a miracle which was performed upon his beloved
sister. In any case, it probably led him to assign a place to miracles,
in his study of faith, which is not quite that which we should give to
them ourselves.

Now the great adversary against whom Pascal set himself, from the time
of his first conversations with M. de Saci at Port-Royal, was Montaigne.
One cannot destroy Pascal, certainly; but of all authors Montaigne is
one of the least destructible. You could as well dissipate a fog by
flinging hand-grenades into it. For Montaigne is a fog, a gas, a fluid,
insidious element. He does not reason, he insinuates, charms, and
influences; or if he reasons, you must be prepared for his having some
other design upon you than to convince you by his argument. It is
hardly too much to say that Montaigne is the most essential author to
know, if we would understand the course of French thought during the
last three hundred years. In every way, the influence of Montaigne was
repugnant to the men of Port-Royal. Pascal studied him with the
intention of demolishing him. Yet, in the _Pensées_, at the very end of
his life, we find passage after passage, and the slighter they are the
more significant, almost "lifted" out of Montaigne, down to a figure of
speech or a word. The parallels[A] are most often with the long essay of
Montaigne called _Apologie de Raymond Sébond_ - an astonishing piece of
writing upon which Shakespeare also probably drew in _Hamlet_. Indeed,
by the time a man knew Montaigne well enough to attack him, he would
already be thoroughly infected by him.

[A] Cf. the use of the simile of the _couvreur_. For comparing
parallel passages, the edition of the _Pensées_ by Henri Massis (_A
la cité des livres_) is better than the two-volume edition of
Jacques Chevalier (Gabalda). It seems just possible that in the
latter edition, and also in his biographical study (_Pascal_; by
Jacques Chevalier, English translation, published by Sheed & Ward),
M. Chevalier is a little over-zealous to demonstrate the perfect
orthodoxy of Pascal.

It would, however, be grossly unfair to Pascal, to Montaigne, and indeed
to French literature, to leave the matter at that. It is no diminution
of Pascal, but only an aggrandisement of Montaigne. Had Montaigne been
an ordinary life-sized sceptic, a small man like Anatole France, or even
a greater man like Renan, or even like the greatest sceptic of all,
Voltaire, this "influence" would be to the discredit of Pascal; but if
Montaigne had been no more than Voltaire, he could not have affected
Pascal at all. The picture of Montaigne which offers itself first to our
eyes, that of the original and independent solitary "personality,"
absorbed in amused analysis of himself, is deceptive. Montaigne's is no
_limited_ Pyrrhonism, like that of Voltaire, Renan, or France. He
exists, so to speak, on a plan of numerous concentric circles, the most
apparent of which is the small inmost circle, a personal puckish
scepticism which can be easily aped if not imitated. But what makes
Montaigne a very great figure is that he succeeded, God knows how - for
Montaigne very likely did not know that he had done it - it is not the
sort of thing that men _can_ observe about themselves, for it is
essentially bigger than the individual's consciousness - he succeeded in
giving expression to the scepticism of _every_ human being. For every
man who thinks and lives by thought must have his own scepticism, that
which stops at the question, that which ends in denial, or that which
leads to faith and which is somehow integrated into the faith which
transcends it. And Pascal, as the type of one kind of religious
believer, which is highly passionate and ardent, but passionate only
through a powerful and regulated intellect, is in the first sections of
his unfinished Apology for Christianity facing unflinchingly the demon
of doubt which is inseparable from the spirit of belief.

There is accordingly something quite different from an influence which
would prove Pascal's weakness; there is a real affinity between his
doubt and that of Montaigne; and through the common kinship with
Montaigne Pascal is related to the noble and distinguished line of
French moralists, from La Rochefoucauld down. In the honesty with which
they face the _données_ of the actual world this French tradition has a
unique quality in European literature, and in the seventeenth century
Hobbes is crude and uncivilised in comparison.

Pascal is a man of the world among ascetics, and an ascetic among men of
the world; he had the knowledge of worldliness and the passion of
asceticism, and in him the two are fused into an individual whole. The
majority of mankind is lazy-minded, incurious, absorbed in vanities, and
tepid in emotion, and is therefore incapable of either much doubt or
much faith; and when the ordinary man calls himself a sceptic or an
unbeliever, that is ordinarily a simple pose, cloaking a disinclination
to think anything out to a conclusion. Pascal's disillusioned analysis
of human bondage is sometimes interpreted to mean that Pascal was really
and finally an unbeliever, who, in his despair, was incapable of
enduring reality and enjoying the heroic satisfaction of the free man's
worship of nothing. His despair, his disillusion, are, however, no
illustration of personal weakness; they are perfectly objective, because
they are essential moments in the progress of the intellectual soul; and
for the type of Pascal they are the analogue of the drought, the dark
night, which is an essential stage in the progress of the Christian
mystic. A similar despair, when it is arrived at by a diseased character
or an impure soul, may issue in the most disastrous consequences though
with the most superb manifestations; and thus we get _Gulliver's
Travels_; but in Pascal we find no such distortion; his despair is in
itself more terrible than Swift's, because our heart tells us that it
corresponds exactly to the facts and cannot be dismissed as mental
disease; but it was also a despair which was a necessary prelude to, and
element in, the joy of faith.

I do not wish to enter any further than necessary upon the question of
the heterodoxy of Jansenism; and it is no concern of this essay, whether
the Five Propositions condemned at Rome were really maintained by
Jansenius in his book _Augustinus_; or whether we should deplore or
approve the consequent decay (indeed with some persecution) of
Port-Royal. It is impossible to discuss the matter without becoming
involved as a controversialist either for or against Rome. But in a man
of the type of Pascal - and the type always exists - there is, I think, an
ingredient of what may be called Jansenism of temperament, without
identifying it with the Jansenism of Jansenius and of other devout and
sincere, but not immensely gifted doctors.[B] It is accordingly needful
to state in brief what the dangerous doctrine of Jansenius was, without
advancing too far into theological refinements. It is recognised in
Christian theology - and indeed on a lower plane it is recognised by all
men in affairs of daily life - that freewill or the natural effort and
ability of the individual man, and also supernatural _grace_, a gift
accorded we know not quite how, are both required, in co-operation, for
salvation. Though numerous theologians have set their wits at the
problem, it ends in a mystery which we can perceive but not finally
decipher. At least, it is obvious that, like any doctrine, a slight
excess or deviation to one side or the other will precipitate a heresy.
The Pelagians, who were refuted by St. Augustine, emphasised the
efficacy of human effort and belittled the importance of supernatural
grace. The Calvinists emphasised the degradation of man through Original
Sin, and considered mankind so corrupt that the will was of no avail;
and thus fell into the doctrine of predestination. It was upon the
doctrine of grace according to St. Augustine that the Jansenists relied;
and the _Augustinus_ of Jansenius was presented as a sound exposition of
the Augustinian views.

[B] The great man of Port-Royal was of course Saint-Cyran, but any
one who is interested will certainly consult, first of all, the book
of Sainte-Beuve mentioned.

Such heresies are never antiquated, because they forever assume new

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