I remember in high school and college reading his most famous argument, “the wager,” in which he proposes that it is most reasonable to follow God, even if we can’t know if he exists. It’s an interesting argument, and one that’s always worth discussing, but mostly because of what it leads to in the end.
Speaking of the existence of God and its potential uncertainty he says,
“Thus our chief interest and chief duty is to seek enlightenment on this subject, on which all our conduct depends. And that is why, amongst those who are not convinced, I make an absolute distinction between those who strive with all their might to learn, and those who live without troubling themselves or thinking about it.”
Through the wager and other arguments, Pascal comes to the conclusion that it sort of doesn’t matter whether or not you think God exists—because it matters so much that no one should rely on their own opinion. This is not, as I have commonly heard it criticized, a condemnation of reason, but rather an acknowledgement of man’s true condition. And this is where it gets really important.
We humans are masters of distraction. Pascal writes, “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.” Instead, we rely on diversion, on entertainment. Our love for the trivial, for playing games, watching races, and hunting (Pascal’s examples), shows our unwillingness to just be with ourselves. It is too hard to face our true condition, one in which we alone have the distinction of both being a speck in a universe and a mortal thing in infinity while being aware of it.
Unlike our fellow animals, man knows his limitations and can see glimpses of the vast something beyond himself. And it’s terrifying. “It is easier,” Pascal claims, “to bear death when one is not thinking about it than the idea of death when there is no danger.”
It is very hard to think about death, God, and eternity, and very easy to entertain ourselves instead. And perhaps never more so than now. And so Pascal wants to convince us of why we must think about the deep things of life, even in the face of pain, difficulty, and uncertainty.
He argues that because the state of man is so fragile, so temporary, our only hope is that there is a God that promises a new life after death. Nothing matters if this is not the case, and so one must “bet” that it is. One must, no matter one’s personal questions or doubts, pursue this God to the very best of one’s ability, seeking understanding as the sole worthwhile goal of a well-spent life. In light of the incredibly fragility of this life, it is, in fact, so eminently reasonable to seek God and follow him, that one must acknowledge that any reason one may have for ignoring this pursuit is based in passions and preference, not in informed choice or logical decision.
“There are only two classes of persons who can be called reasonable: those who serve God with all their heart because they know him, and those who seek him with all their heart because they do not know him. As for those who live without either knowing or seeking him, they consider it so little worth while to take trouble over themselves…[that] it takes all the charity of that religion they despise not to despise them to the point of abandoning them to their folly.”
Over the last few years, my students have found this line of reasoning shocking. Even students with strong backgrounds in the church are so inundated with the language of a relativistic and pluralistic society that Pascal’s boldness here is disconcerting. I often get asked the same question: “But wait, what if I just don’t want to devote myself to religion? Or what if I just like spending my time on something else?” The answer from Pascal is clear. Then you are a fool. You are someone who is willing to give so little thought to his ultimate good that you would risk your eternal destiny for the sake of momentary pleasure and distraction.
The stark clarity of this conclusion often leaves a class in silence, but a silence that—I hope—leads to much further discussion. In a world calling our students to distraction, Pascal is willing to shout at them about what is at stake. How might you avoid being a fool? Start by thinking about the hard things, then seek understanding with everything you’ve got.
The world can be divided by those who will and those who won’t, and according to Pascal, it’s the most important distinction of your life.
Republished with gracious permission from The Saint Constantine School (Oct, 2018).
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “Laughing Fool” (c. 1500), possibly by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.