Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527
Pascal's Pensées is not a story, so there are no characters in the conventional sense of the term. Nevertheless, one could say that Pascal himself is a very important character in this collection of some of his most profound and enduring thoughts. Throughout the book, we are treated to a...
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Pascal's Pensées is not a story, so there are no characters in the conventional sense of the term. Nevertheless, one could say that Pascal himself is a very important character in this collection of some of his most profound and enduring thoughts. Throughout the book, we are treated to a privileged glimpse of the inner workings of his soul through the often paradoxical opinions he expresses on a wide variety of subjects. Reading the Pensées, we gain a profound insight, not just into Pascal's character, but into the very nature of the human condition itself. Once we've closed this most remarkable of books, we feel that Pascal has laid bare his very soul to us, and in doing so, has told us many things about ourselves that we'd otherwise never have grasped.
Much of the Pensées is devoted to Pascal's relationship with God. In that sense, one could say that God appears as a character in the book. Pascal is a devout Catholic, and religion is clearly everything to him. At the same time, Pascal is a mathematician of genius, an innovator in the field of natural science, and a man of reason. And it's as a man of reason that Pascal wishes to convince others of a similar level of education of religion's intrinsic rationality.
To that end, Pascal posits his famous Wager, an argument designed to convince the learned skeptic that he really has nothing to lose by believing in God. At the same time, Pascal is at pains to point out that knowledge of God's existence is not amenable to rational proof or argument; it's purely a matter of faith. Though the existence of God cannot be proved by reason, belief in God does indeed have a rational basis according to Pascal, and this is the point that he tries to make using his famous Wager argument.
One could say that the learned skeptic is himself a character in the book. Although most people in Pascal's day were quite devout, there were some among the upper echelons of society who adopted a fashionable skepticism when it came to religious matters. The 17th century was the beginning of the Age of Reason, when the rapid development of science threatened many of the old religious orthodoxies, forcing educated believers to revise their understanding of the universe and how it operates.
As a scientist and mathematician, Pascal understands where the educated skeptic is coming from, even if he cannot accept his conclusions. His position as an érudit, a man of learning, allows him to speak the same language as his skeptical interlocutors, using the power of reason they so highly prize to convince them of the fundamental rationality of religious belief. Pascal is not attempting to convert any skeptics to the kind of orthodox faith which he himself holds; only an individual leap of faith can do that. But what he is trying to do is to invite the educated skeptic to at least consider the possibility that religion is perfectly reasonable. If they can do this, then—who knows?— they might well go on to experience some kind of full-blown conversion for themselves.