I was rummaging through some old boxes in the garage when I discovered one of my favorite books from my childhood, Blaise Pascal’s rational and reflective masterwork Pensées. I first read this amazing defense when I was 11 and have been enthralled by its scholarly precision and sanity ever since. I often enjoy reading Pensées back-to-back with Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza’s (1632-1677) equally amazing Tractatus-Theologica-Politicus.
To the detractors of these men, all I have to say is: Mercy couldn’t reach you with thunder.
To its opponents, Pensées is better abandoned that attacked. Skeptics wish it didn’t exist, and tire themselves endlessly trying to find its seams. It is a rock upon which they are dashed.
Pascal is one of those men, geniuses (actually, not hyperbole: Pascal was a mathematics prodigy) of a bygone age, whose words resonate even today and guide those men and women brave enough to open this hearts and minds to his warm counsel.
What other enlightening treasures would the world have at its fingertips had this brilliant Frenchman lived beyond his 39th birthday?
When reading Pascal, I am simultaneously inspired, ashamed and exceeded.
A voice for all ages.
Excerpts from Pensées…
“I confess it, I admit it. But, still, is there no means of seeing the faces of the cards?” Yes, Scripture and the rest, etc. “Yes, but I have my hands tied and my mouth closed; I am forced to wager, and am not free. I am not released, and am so made that I cannot believe. What, then, would you have me do?”
True. But at least learn your inability to believe, since reason brings you to this, and yet you cannot believe. Endeavour, then, to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness. “But this is what I am afraid of.” And why? What have you to lose?
But to show you that this leads you there, it is this which will lessen the passions, which are your stumbling-blocks.
The end of this discourse. Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.
“Ah! This discourse transports me, charms me,” etc.
If this discourse pleases you and seems impressive, know that it is made by a man who has knelt, both before and after it, in prayer to that Being, infinite and without parts, before whom he lays all he has, for you also to lay before Him all you have for your own good and for His glory, that so strength may be given to lowliness.
According to the doctrine of chance, you ought to put yourself to the trouble of searching for the truth; for if you die without worshipping the True Cause, you are lost. “But,” say you, “if He had wished me to worship Him, He would have left me signs of His will.” He has done so; but you neglect them. Seek them, therefore; it is well worth it.
What astonishes me most is to see that all the world is not astonished at its own weakness. Men act seriously, and each follows his own mode of life, not because it is in fact good to follow since it is the custom, but as if each man knew certainly where reason and justice are. They find themselves continually deceived, and, by a comical humility, think it is their own fault and not that of the art which they claim always to possess. But it is well there are so many such people in the world, who are not sceptics for the glory of scepticism, in order to show that man is quite capable of the most extravagant opinions, since he is capable of believing that he is not in a state of natural and inevitable weakness, but, on the contrary, of natural wisdom.
Nothing fortifies scepticism more than that there are some who are not sceptics; if all were so, they would be wrong.
I have passed a great part of my life believing that there was justice, and in this I was not mistaken; for there is justice according as God has willed to reveal it to us. But I did not take it so, and this is where I made a mistake; for I believed that our justice was essentially just, and that I had that whereby to know and judge of it. But I have so often found my right judgement at fault, that at last I have come to distrust myself and then others. I have seen changes in all nations and men, and thus, after many changes of judgement regarding true justice, I have recognised that our nature was but in continual change, and I have not changed since; and if I changed, I would confirm my opinion.
Men are so necessarily mad that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness.