Isaac Taylor (essay date 1894)

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SOURCE: An introduction to Thoughts on Religion and Philosophy, by Blaise Pascal, translated by Isaac Taylor, Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Adams, & Co., 1894, pp. iii-lx.

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[In the following excerpt, Taylor argues that the Pensées reveal Pascal to be an opponent of, rather than apologist for, Roman Catholicism.]

Those periodic agitations to which all social systems, whether civil or religious, are liable, carry with them a twofold and opposite influence; the one, and the most direct, tending to give rise to similar movements in neighbouring communities; and the other, operating with hardly less force, to preclude any such convulsions where else they probably would, or certainly must, have taken place. By the very same spectacle of public commotions, minds of a certain class are animated to action, and hurried into the midst of perils; while others are as effectively deterred from giving scope to their rising energies. In this way every revolution which history records may be reckoned at once to have caused, and to have prevented kindred changes.

In no instance has this sort of double influence made itself more apparent than in that of the religious revolution which shook the European system in the sixteenth century; and after having watched the progress of the ecclesiastical renovation of northern Europe, as it spread from land to land, an inquiry, fraught with instruction, might be instituted, concerning that reaction of jealousy, terror, and pious caution, which, affecting many of the eminent minds of southern Germany, Italy, Spain, and France, smothered those elements of faith and right reason, that, again and again, seemed to be indicating approaching and happy movements.

In Italy, in Austria, in Spain, in France, it was not merely that the dread of reform incited the ecclesiastical and secular authorities to a renewed vigilance, and induced them to have recourse to severities, such as might crush, at the instant, every beginning of change; but much more it was the vague dread of heresy, it was the horror inspired by the mere names of the Reformers, that broke the energy of the very men who, had they been left to the impulse of their own convictions, would, perhaps, themselves, have dared the vengeance of the church, and have led on a reformation….

The writings of Pascal, as well the Thoughts as the Provincial Letters, indicate, on almost every page, this latent and indirect influence of the horror of heresy, swaying his mind. The reader, as well in justice to the fame of this great man, as for his own satisfaction, needs to be reminded of the fact now adverted to: and if at any moment he be perplexed by the difficulty of reconciling Pascal's abject and superstitious Romanism with the vigour and clearness of his understanding, and with the simplicity of his piety, he may remember that, beside other causes, not necessary here to specify, this eminent man was well aware that, to give the least indulgence to the impulses of mere reason on certain points of his belief, would involve nothing less than his passing at a leap, or his being forced across the awful gulph that yawned between the paradise of the church, and the gehenna of heresy. A mind like that of Pascal, although it might, in any particular direction, forbid itself to think at all, could never have stayed its own course, midway, had it once started. [A solitary expression, pregnant with meaning, occurs among the Thoughts, which should be here pointed out, as indicating Pascal's latent dissatisfaction with the system which he thought it necessary to uphold. So little does the sentiment contained in this passage accord with the general strain of the author's writings, that one is almost inclined to suppose it must have been, as in some other instances is clearly the case, a mere memorandum of an opinion upon which he intended to animadvert.—Il faut avoir une...

(The entire section contains 56456 words.)

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