Blaise Pascal’s argument in favor of Christianity was simple: Faith is so perceptible, even so palpable, to the intuition that man needs only to be in the world to realize that there must be more. Christianity has a direct connection to the heart; as Pascal said, “the heart has its reasons, which reason does not know”…
Matters of faith, philosophy, and theology were the center of intellectual debate at the beginning of the modern era. A previous age of traditions and institutions was being swallowed up by a wave of epistemological inquiry fueled by scientific discoveries and a rise in natural theology. These new pursuits put to question the relationship between faith and reason that Church Doctors like Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine had addressed ages ago. The Enlightenment and its token philosophers—Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot particularly come to mind—are often used as the exemplars of true reason: Their attempt to re-explain the world in knowable terms, through common phenomena to which all men could relate, directly and indirectly targeted religion as the enemy to this new-found reason. The obvious flaw in this narrative of the Enlightenment is that it falsely accused religion of lacking reason, and, more importantly, lacking the type of reason that was perceivable by the common man. One need not be a Christian theologian to feel his faith and know its truth—this is a fact that Blaise Pascal knew all too well. Pascal was unique among seventeenth-century thinkers: Not only was he adept in math and science and contributed greatly to the development of the philosophy of his age; he was also so outspokenly religious and self-aware of his faith as a proponent of mysticism, a believer of miracles, and a follower of Biblical hermeneutics.
Pascal took it upon himself to write about the relationship between faith and reason during the last years of his life in his Pensées, published in 1670. The first and one of the most famous editions of the work, the “Port-Royal” (1670), re-arranged the fragments thematically. As Pascal scholarship developed, the idea of imposing a thematic order on the Pensées became outdated because Pascal himself often wrote about one topic through several themes, which would have probably also been the case for this work. The Brunschvicg edition (1897) did away with thematic order and attempted to reconstruct the author’s original intention by closely following the cues of the fragments themselves. There is also another version by the French philosopher Victor Cousin (1842) that simply presented the fragments as they had been discovered after Pascal’s death. There is no need to go more in depth regarding the publication history of this unfinished work, but suffice it to say that there have been various debates regarding the intended order for what was meant to be Pascal’s apology for Christianity. The important thing to consider about the way in which Pascal executed his plan for his work is what it can tell us about his approach to his faith.
In an introduction to a 1958 edition of the Pensées, T.S. Eliot described Pascal as “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.” This apt description of Pascal turns him into a figure to whom we should look for guidance in our present age since the world in which we find ourselves is still interrogating the relationship between faith and reason. The cultural hostility we face as Christians pushes us to defend our faith through theological principles. Sometimes, we might even dabble our arguments in that same puddle of scientific reasoning that doubts us in the first place at an attempt to beat positivists at their own game, so to speak. We are, after all, children of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, so our reasoning reverts to this type of knowledge that is affirmed only by proving. Here, Pascal might enter our lives to remind us that there is, in fact, room for both faith and reason; more importantly, he’d also suggest that faith operates under an entirely different domain that requires no proof in the conventional sense of the word.
What’s unique about Pascal’s Pensées is the way it was executed; that is, writing out his thoughts in fragments rather than developing a systematic order for his book—hardly the approach we’d expect for an apology of Christianity. Pascal, however, was neither a professional philosopher nor a theologian. What he was instead is far more advantageous for the task of defending Christianity in the dawn of modernity: A devout Catholic and full believer of miracles. Eliot perceived the influence that Pascal’s faith had on his methodology. In his introduction to the Pensées, Eliot wrote:
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.
Pascal’s work might not make sense to “the unbeliever,” as Eliot calls him, because the method of rejection and elimination requires a full immersion in the world in order to see its pitfalls. (This similarity in worldly experience might also hint at Eliot’s personal connection to Pascal’s writing that moved him to write an introduction to the Pensées) The unbeliever, Eliot writes, “as a rule” is not 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.’ ” Eliot continues to explain the problem of the unbeliever that might make it impossible for him to understand and be moved by Pascal’s proofs of Christianity. A man without faith fails to connect two truths: If we believe it true that “…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,” we should also reason that “…the satisfactory explanation of the world must be an explanation which will admit the ‘reality of these values.’ ” Instead of starting with what he knows about the world, what it’s missing, and trusting that faith can fill these gaps of knowledge and meaning, the unbeliever would rather start “from the other end,” first questioning the possibility of miraculous, biblical stories that we’ve heard over the ages: “ ‘Is a case of human parthenogenesis credible?’ and this he would call going straight to the heart of the matter.” Eliot’s astute analysis of the psychology of the unbeliever demonstrates that he recognized the empirical flaws in his form of reasoning.
Pascal stands out as an apologist for his ability to understand the state of nature and the state of grace as epistemologically independent of one another, yet experientially connected. He explained that human knowledge derived from the senses should not be combined with the knowledge that we gather from our mind alone. Left to their own devices, reason and our senses are limited to what they can understand. The mind plays a crucial role in man’s acquisition of knowledge because it necessarily involves our reason, but no two minds are alike, and the ways in which men reason also differ from each other because our sensory experiences differ as well. The logical consequence of this fact would indicate that, by itself, reason could never grasp any form of truth, even if it is supplemented by the senses. Reason needs faith to fully evolve into its most complete form.
Man’s reason might be able to study and understand the universe, but it is incapable of finding meaning within our vast universe on its own. The closer we get to understanding the subdivisions and inner workings of biological, physical, and chemical life, the farther we get from understanding the significance of our own existence. Pascal warned that we should never set aside our faith for scientific inquiry, for only one can give us peace of mind, inculcate morality, and grant salvation: “Knowledge of physical science will not console me for ignorance of morality in time of affliction, but knowledge of morality will always console me for ignorance of physical science[*].” (23) Though many of the things we as Christians believe rely on faith, what is factually true is that the Word existed long before reason as an epistemological device became the default form of validation of knowledge.
Eliot called Pascal’s method of writing out in fragments what he believed to be the truth “natural and right for the Christian,” but admitted that such an approach to faith during the late seventeenth to the early eighteenth century was unfavored by most Enlightenment thinkers. The opposite method was taken by Voltaire, for example, who attempted to refute Pascal at the end of his Lettres Philosophiques (1734). Voltaire’s refutation of Pascal, Eliot noted, “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.” There’s something about Pascal that made all the philosophes of the Enlightenment consider him their arch nemesis since he did not follow the same form of “reason” that they preached. Most Enlightenment philosophers who refuted Christianity were trained to debate Christian theologians and Biblical scholars, for their arguments were all (relatively) similar. It was precisely Pascal’s lack of theological training in Christian apologetics that made his arguments unanticipated. Pascal wrote, and spoke, as a man of the world and as an all-around skeptic. Pascal’s pseudo-contradictory logic between his mathematical research and his personal faith as well as the power of his religious conviction created an intellectual force that haunted French Enlightenment thinkers throughout the eighteenth century.
Pascal’s argument in favor of Christianity was simple: Faith is so perceptible, even so palpable, to the intuition that man needs only to be in the world to realize that there must be more. In his Pensées, Pascal explored the concept of how man perceives the world by distinguishing between two notable types of minds, the mathematical and the intuitive. In his terms, the mind of géométrie and the mind of finesse had respective advantages and disadvantages that amounted to man’s inability to know truth on the sole account of his reason. In a mind that is mathematical, Pascal is pointing out a form of thinking that is discursive, systematic, and logical. An intuitive mind is more speculative and perceptive; seeing things at a glance. (Finesse was translated from the French into “intuition,” though it should be mentioned that the use of the word “finesse” in French connotes a level of natural skill and artful acuity in mental perception that the English word “intuition” lacks) Pascal recognizes that a mathematical mind has an affinity for principles, but the mathematical mind fails to see those principles within practical, ordinary use; the intuitive mind, on the other hand, easily finds these principles in common use but has a hard time discerning them.
Explaining how faith interacts with the intuitive and the mathematical mind is Pascal’s next step. Both types of minds are forms of reason that are insufficient on their own, which is why they require faith. Pascal wrote, “reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it. It is merely feeble if it does not go so far as to realize that.” (188) Moreover, ‘‘one must know when it is right to doubt, to affirm, to submit. Anyone who does otherwise does not understand the force of reason.” (170) Pascal asserted that faith is able to tell us things that go beyond our senses and our reason but that faith never acts contrary to our reason, just above it (185).
It is in this line of thinking that our reason and our faith, acting together and in different domains simultaneously, manages to turn us into ascetics among men of the world while keeping us grounded as men of the world among ascetics. Both clauses of Eliot’s antimetabole are important. As men living in post-modernity, a level of asceticism is important to preserve the permanent things that define our collective history and help us stay connected to those things that transcend our existence; religious belief and practice are integral parts of this task. But it is equally vital to live as men of the world, to experience secular life, and understand our realm of existence in all its ugliness and beauty; in this case, excessive asceticism can remove us from everyday life and make us out-of-touch with reality.
Achieving the right balance between asceticism and worldliness is a test to our will and our ability to see the best of both worlds. While the will is hardly involved in scientific methods of research, the will involves itself in the experiences of human life that we typically associate with our deepest desires, ambitions, joys, regrets, questions, and doubts over our lifetime. In scientific inquiry we might begin with small steps to lead us towards our goal of discovery. The will, however, begins with the greater picture and seeks states of being that have their roots in the very first principles of what it means to be a human: To seek happiness, love, fulfillment, etc. It is more difficult to use reason in matters where the will is involved because the paths to achieve that greater picture of happiness, or of love, are unknown and many. The test, in other words, is harder and the need for outside assistance greater. Here is where Pascal believed that faith was important and necessary, presenting itself as an aid to our will but only if we ask for it and open our hearts to it. Pascal believed that God intentionally instilled religion “into our minds with reasoned arguments and into our hearts with grace.” (172) Our minds alone do not allow us to encounter God; God wishes to move the will rather than the mind (234) because our reason is a human attribute while our will, when combined with God’s grace, becomes something more than human as it transcends reason and becomes faith.
Based on Pascal’s writings about his faith we might think that his reasons for being a believer were deduced from reasoned arguments and careful studies in theology, philosophy, and hermeneutics. But the Pensées were a project that he began only in his final years—despite his dying at the young age of 39. His religious conviction, instead, came from a personal experience that could only happen to a worldly ascetic. Pascal had his own mystical encounter one night at the age of thirty-one, which lasted about two hours. It is a wonderful story: After Pascal’s death in 1662, a servant, sorting through Pascal’s belongings, found a piece of parchment sewn into his coat, inside which was a small paper. On that small paper was a personal prayer and description of what he had felt that night. The paper had a small cross drawn at the top with the following words written below it:
In the year of the Lord 1654
Monday, November 23
From about half-past ten in the evening
until half-past twelve.
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob
Not of philosophers nor of the scholars.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy, Peace.
God of Jesus Christ,
My God and thy God.
“Thy God shall be my God.”
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except God.
He is to be found only by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Greatness of the soul of man.
“Righteous Father, the world hath not known thee,
but I have known thee.”
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have fallen away: I have fled from Him,
denied Him, crucified him.
May I not fall away forever.
We keep hold of him only by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Total submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on earth.
I will not forget Thy word. Amen.
This short recollection of a moving moment describes Pascal’s strongest argument in favor of Christianity: Its direct connection to the heart. Pascal explained the role that the heart plays as the appropriate channel for the mind since the heart has access to intuition that man cannot obtain by his reason alone. Pascal famously wrote, le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point, “the heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” This quote is often misinterpreted, taken to mean that the heart ought to be exalted over the head. Eliot corrected this faulty interpretation and offered the proper meaning of this phrase in his introduction: “The heart, in Pascal’s terminology, is itself truly rational if it is truly the heart.” When something falls so clearly into the heart’s domain, it is so intuitively rational that our minds can only but affirm it. Through our hearts we may apprehend pre-rational first principles about our personhood and about our existence on and beyond this world because it opens us to be receptive of emotional and aesthetic experiences that our mind, intuitive or mathematical, will never grasp unaided.
Eliot noted that reading any edited arrangement of the fragments will not illuminate the meaning of Pascal’s thoughts any more than reading them separately. The most poetic and wondrous thing about the Pensées as a whole, and how Pascal wrote them out in fragments, is that they conceptually and visually represent his views on faith and reason: We cannot understand any of the parts without understanding the whole. We need a large-picture type of conception of our existence, which faith provides, or we will never be able to understand the fragments of our lives. Fate had it so that Pascal never executed the task of doing the heavy work for us and explaining the need and the reasonableness of faith. Instead, we were left with his Pensées, fragments that we ourselves need to piece together and that (can) logically come together through the gift of faith, if only we are so humble as to ask for it.
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Pascal, Blaise, A.J. Krailsheimer (ed.). Pensées, (New York, 1995).
Simon Icard, “L’édition Sellier des Pensées de Pascal rééditée” , Acta fabula, vol. 11, n° 6, Editions, rééditions, traductions, Juin 2010. [05 janvier, 2019]
[*] All of the citations of Pascal’s Pensées are numbered according to A.J. Krailsheimer’s 1995 edition of the book and his choice of arrangement for the fragments.
Editor’s note: The featured image is a detail from a painting by Hans Holbein, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.