Context

Blaise Pascal’s reflections on religion make up a large body of notes, written between 1654 and his death in 1662, intended to develop a work called “Apologie de la religion catholique.” Composed at different times after a moving mystical experience, the contents of Pensées appeared in print posthumously. These reflections reveal Pascal as belonging to the group of fervently Christian writers who reject the usual claims of natural theology in order the more sharply to separate faith from reason.

Jansenist Influence

Pascal’s thought expresses the influence of the Jansenists, a seventeenth century Catholic order indebted to the theological views of John Calvin, one of the Protestant reformers. A group in conflict with the Jesuits, the Jansenists lived at Port Royal, near Paris, where they taught several central beliefs: the total sinfulness of humanity, salvation through God’s predestination, grace as sole means to salvation, and the need of the faithful to hold to a Christian belief that can never be proved by reason.

Though never an official member of the Jansenist community, Pascal visited them frequently (his sister belonged) and wrote in their defense in a bitter controversy with the Jesuits. Pascal was a brilliant mathematician as well as a religious writer, aware of the significant mathematical developments of his day. Living an austerely self-disciplined life, he gave away his wealth in an effort to exclude all pleasure and vanity from his practices.

The Existence of God

Pensées expresses numerous reflections concerning a few central themes. The Christian religion as known by Pascal teaches two essential truths: “that there is a God, to whom men may attain, and that there is a corruption of nature which renders them unworthy of him.” Pascal insists that if people deny either of these truths, they must fall into atheism, end up with the philosophers’ god so popular among deistic thinkers of his time, or find themselves reduced to a complete pessimism. The Christian God worshiped by Pascal does not require a philosopher’s proof of existence, and he writes, “It is a wonderful thing that no canonical author has ever made use of nature in order to prove God.” Pascal argues that humanity’s miserable state does not justify total pessimism for the reason that the God worshiped by Christians, as by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is one of love and consolation.

Pascal claims that God becomes available to people only through the mediation of Jesus Christ. Although Pascal makes clear that a person is a “thinking reed,” one’s thinking capacity can nevertheless function religiously only to make clear one’s absolute finiteness, one’s total separation from God’s actual infinity. In writing about faith, Pascal stresses the utter uselessness of reason for religious purposes. “Faith is a gift of God,” he insists. “Believe not that we said it is a gift of reason.” Yet reason is never to be disparaged, since it performs its own important functions and provides the key to whatever dignity humanity may achieve.

The Wager Argument

Nevertheless, Pascal sometimes does come close to a kind of reasoning about God—as in his famous wager argument for belief in God’s existence (although this argument was intended primarily for skeptics who deny the importance of religious belief). In another place Pascal treats the relation of humanity’s miserable condition to its finitude in such a way that he gives something resembling an argument for the necessity of God’s existence. This latter argument rests on the awareness that the “I” of Pascal is really a thought. Had Pascal’s mother died before his birth, the “I” of Pascal would never have existed. The conclusion is that Pascal is clearly not a necessary being. Pascal sees also that he is neither eternal nor infinite. He asserts that “I see plainly that there is in nature one being who is necessary, eternal, and infinite.” This approximation to one of the classical demonstrations of God’s existence indicates that Pascal was more concerned to argue that proofs cannot induce one to accept the Christian faith than to claim that proofs are unqualifiedly impossible of formulation. Such proofs, even if possible, turn out to be religiously useless and unimportant.

Pascal contends that people know that there is a God without knowing what God is. (In this claim he is inconsistent; he also asserts in one place that people can never know God’s existence.) He insists that people also can know there is an infinite while remaining ignorant of its nature. Numbers cannot be brought to an end. This means simply that people can never mention a number that is the last one. Therefore, number must be infinite. Similarly, aware of the infinite’s existence and unable to know its nature, people fail to know God’s nature and existence because God lacks extension...

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Reason and the Will

To read Pascal as if he sought to debase the functions of human reason would be to read him wrongly. Because reason is incapable of knowing what God is does not alter the fact that humanity’s greatness is tied to reason. Pascal insists that thought is not derived from body. Thought is its own kind of entity. Reason alone permits people to know the misery that marks their condition, but this very knowledge accounts for their dignity: “To be miserable is to know one’s self to be so, but to know one’s self to be miserable is to be great.” Only humanity can possess this kind of knowledge, which is denied to the other elements in nature. What makes Christianity the solely adequate religion, in Pascal’s view, is that Christianity teaches the otherwise peculiar doctrine that human misery and greatness are inseparable. People need to come to terms with their miserable condition, though they cannot fundamentally alter it. This gives both people and religion something important to accomplish. The central religious problem is to learn to control the human will rather than to pile up theological knowledge by reasoning. To cure pride, lust, and ego-centered aggressiveness remains the fundamental task of the Christian religion.

Concern about human willfulness occurs in numerous passages in Pensées. Unlike the reasoning powers, the will operates according to the human perspective. People find themselves in bondage to their passions. For this...

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Knowledge vs. Judgment

Pascal makes a distinction between knowledge and judgment. For example, geometry is a matter of the mind, while subtlety is a function of intuition. People must judge things either literally or spiritually. Honoring reason, people should accept its limits, knowing what it can and cannot accomplish. Although there is criticism of the Pyrrhonists (skeptics) for some of their beliefs, Pascal shows that he was favorably disposed to a partial skepticism concerning the powers of reason. People can at most achieve a “learned ignorance.” Different from the natural ignorance of all people at birth, a learned ignorance is gained by a few “lofty souls who, having traversed all human knowledge, find that they know nothing. . . . This is...

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Atheism and Deism

Pascal mentions atheism and deism as the greatest competitors of a genuine Christian faith. He understands how atheism may be a mark of a strong intellect, though only up to a point. Atheists have blind spots when they come, say, to the notion of immortality. Pascal asks why atheists should deny dogmatically the possibility that a person might rise from the dead. He wants to know which is the more remarkable: that a living being should appear at all, or that a once-living being should be reborn. By custom, the atheist accepts the fact that there are living beings and then seems astounded by the religious notion of rebirth. Here the atheist puzzles Pascal. On the other hand, the deist seeks to know God without revelation, meaning...

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Original Sin

Affirmation of the original sin of all people is a necessity for Pascal. The evidence for this affirmation is that all people are born disposed to seek their own interests, a disposition that runs counter to the necessary conditions of order. Wars and revolutions arise from people’s pursuit of self-interest even when their reason tells them that they should attend to the needs of a commonwealth. People should usually seek the general as opposed to the particular interests of a community, but most often they do not. Facts like these Pascal takes as indicative of some basic flaw in human willing. The glory of the Christian religion stems from its insistence on people’s inherent sinfulness. “No religion but ours has taught that...

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Legacy of Faith

What makes Pascal’s Pensées an enduring work is the classical manner in which one aspect of the Christian tradition in theology receives forceful and passionate presentation. Its confessional and personal nature also makes it a work that can help individuals who, like Pascal, find themselves caught up in a struggle to make sense of Christian faith once they have abandoned belief that natural proofs of God’s existence are possible. One-sided in emphasis, Pascal’s work tries to show that Christian faith is reasonable on its own terms even though not susceptible of rational proofs divorced from reasons of the heart. No matter how extremely emphasized, Pascal’s views about the depravity of the will help to...

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Additional Reading

Adamson, Donald. Blaise Pascal: Mathematician, Physicist, and Thinker About God. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Explores how Pascal dealt with the insights and conflicts produced by his mathematical, scientific, and religious experiences.

Coleman, Francis X. J. Neither Angel Nor Beast: The Life and Work of Blaise Pascal. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986. An insightful overview of Pascal’s life and work, good at placing Pascal in the context of seventeenth century thought.

Davidson, Hugh M. Blaise Pascal. Boston: Twayne, 1983. This good first introduction to Pascal discusses his major philosophical and religious works.

Davidson, Hugh M. Pascal and...

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Bibliography

Sources for Further Study

Adamson, Donald. Blaise Pascal: Mathematician, Physicist, and Thinker About God. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Explores how Pascal dealt with the insights and conflicts produced by his mathematical, scientific, and religious experiences.

Coleman, Francis X. J. Neither Angel Nor Beast: The Life and Work of Blaise Pascal. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986. An insightful overview of Pascal’s life and work, good at placing Pascal in the context of seventeenth century thought.

Davidson, Hugh M. Blaise Pascal. Boston: Twayne, 1983. This good...

(The entire section is 763 words.)