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Notes and Questions for Pascal (1623-1662)
Pensees (1670)

Robert Harris
January 18, 1999


Overview

The Pensees is a collection of hundreds of notes made by Pascal, many of them intended for a book which would be a rational defense of Christianity. Pascal managed to organize and classify some notes before he died, but others remain unsorted, and the book he intended was never written. What we do have in this volume, however, is a collection of powerfully insightful thoughts (the translation of the French word pensees) which lead us more deeply into contemplation of human nature and the strivings of the heart and mind. (Page numbers below refer to Blaise Pascal, Pensees. Tr. A. J. Krailsheimer. New York: Penguin, 1966.)

Things to Think About as You Read

1. Since many of the Pensees are still in note form, Pascal is often aphoristic, jotting down his ideas in brief, quotable form. See #21, for example. For the same reason, a few of the short Pensees are unclear because they were probably just reminders to Pascal of some idea which he didn't flesh out.

2. Pascal shows a lot of original thought, displaying an especially trenchant insight into human nature that may even startle us. See #12, #26 for example. And he is always stimulating and thought provoking. See #57, #61, #97.

3. Brilliant mathematician that he was, Pascal is keenly analytical. See #98 for example.

4. He is often very modern in his observations and conclusions. See #23 for example.

5. A theme running throughout the Pensees is that of the duality of man: he is both noble and corrupt. The terms "greatness" and "wretchedness" are often used in conjunction with each other to describe man, who is "the glory and the scum of the world," capable of God but unworthy of God.

Notes and Questions

SECTION I

II. VANITY

36. Page 38. Samuel Johnson once remarked that there is something wrong with someone who can't stand his own company. See also #136.

44. Pages 38-42. The weakness of reason in the face of the power of imagination. This is why imagination was often distrusted (rather than valued as a source of creativity).

Page 41. "Imagination decides everything" Compare Samuel Johnson, "Were it not for imagination, Sir, a man would be as happy in the arms of a chambermaid as of a Duchess."

47. Page 43. We seldom enjoy the present because we are always thinking about the past or future. As the saying is, "Life is what happens while you're making other plans."

III. WRETCHEDNESS

60. Pages 45-46. Comment on Pascal's discussion of the relativism of justice. And compare #61, page 47.

68. Page 48. This might be considered an example of "pre-evangelism," where unbelievers are made to think about issues that will eventually make them care about God.

72. Page 49. Notice that the ancient classical dictum of "Know Yourself" provides a common theme in many of our authors.

76. Pages 49-50. Pascal's point here is that reason by itself cannot discover or establish the most important truths. In other words, Descartes was wrong. See also #'s 167-188, pages 83-85.

V. CAUSES AND EFFECTS

98-100. Page 55. Note that feelings play a role in the reasoning enterprise and in rational conviction.

VI. GREATNESS

109. Page 57. When we use the same word as another person, how do we really know what the other person means? When two people say they "love" each other, do they communicate anything intelligible? What about "need," "wrong," "good," etc.?

110. Page 58. Every philosophy or world view is based on certain a priori assumptions not provable or testable by experiment. This is true not just for religious philosophies like Christianity but for not-religious ones like materialism and its relatives like pragmatism. This pensee might be considered another example of pre-evangelism.

117. Page 59. Our feelings of wretchedness, desire, and want show that we have fallen from a higher state. Compare page 65, paragraph 2.

VII. CONTRADICTIONS

This section (#'s 119-131, pp. 60-66) adumbrates the complex, paradoxical nature of man. Man is not definable by simple judgments or sweeping generalizations.

131. Page 62. On the need for a priori propositions. You cannot prove you're not dreaming now. Or maybe your brain is in a jar somewhere, connected to wires that cause the simulated (imaginary) experiences you are now having. EEK!

131. Page 64. "What sort of freak then is man." Compare the Martin Turnell translation: "What sort of a monster then is man? What a novelty, what a portent, what a chaos, what a mass of contradictions, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, a ridiculous earthworm who is the repository of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the glory and the scum of the world."

VIII. DIVERSION

136. Pages 67-68. Chasing girls and rabbits is popular only because it keeps men from thinking about their own inevitable death. Comments? What purpose(s) do diversions serve?

Page 70. Do you agree that vanity if the propelling motive behind such activities as those discussed here?

X. THE SOVEREIGN GOOD

148. Pages 74-75. This key pensee explains a lot about human nature and human action. For example, those who take drugs or become prostitutes do so from the same motives as those who become artists or ministers. And what's more, the motive is a spiritual striving!

XIII. SUBMISSION AND THE USE OF REASON

167-188. Pages 83-85. Note Pascal's careful concern that both reason and submission (trust, faith) should be allowed their appropriate extensions in Christian belief.

190. Page 86. It is not necessary for or incumbent upon the Christian to engage in proofs for the existence of God. God's existence can be posited as an a priori requisite for a rational universe consonant with human experience.

XVI. FALSENESS OF OTHER RELIGIONS

219. Page 99. Christianity blends the experiential and the intellectual (rationally objective) in a way that no other religion does.

XVIII. FOUNDATIONS

230. Page 101. Compare the Martin Turnell translation: "Not everything that is incomprehensible is non-existent."

XIX. FIGURATIVE LAW

255. Page 105. The heart "calls good that which it loves." That's why people who love bad things cease to call them bad. Here we find an early statement of the psychological concept of cognitive dissonance.

269. Page 110. Note that Pascal says that he will show God only to those who are seeking and prepared. "I will not show him to others." People must be pre-evangelized before they can be evangelized. Sometimes God does this by bringing difficulty to people, sometimes people do this to themselves by coming to the end of the road they are pursuing to find happiness, and sometimes we can do this for others by showing them truth about themselves, getting them interested in the things of God.

XXIII. PROOFS OF JESUS CHRIST

308. Page 124. "Saints have their power" and "Archimedes in obscurity" What kinds of "greatness" are people recognized for today by the world and what other kinds of unrecognized greatness are there? (Think of some necessity you enjoy and ask yourself, "Who invented this?")

XXVI. CHRISTIAN MORALITY

360-374. Pages 134-137. How does Pascal's idea of "members of the body" compare to the ideas of American individualism? Compare #421, Pages 153-154, especially paragraph 3.

XXVII. CONCLUSION

380-382. Pages 138-139. Note that there are several paths to Christ, through the heart, through the mind, through a crisis of despair, through the exaltation of happiness, direct from God, through the word, by the example of other believers, and so on. Each is a strand strong enough to pull an honest and inquiring heart; different strands appeal to different people; after conversion other strands join with the original strand to form an unbreakable cord.

SECTION II

SERIES I

387. Page 143. This pensee belongs with The Wager, #418ff, pp. 149ff.

SERIES II

418. Pages 149-153. This famous pensee is known as The Wager, where Pascal argues that it makes sense to bet on the existence of God and the truth of Christianity simply on the basis of what is at stake. If you believe and are right, you win infinite everything. If you believe and are wrong, you lose nothing. If you disbelieve and are right, you gain nothing. If you disbelieve and are wrong, you lose infinite everything.

Page 152. "if you are unable to believe, it is because of your passions" Note here that Pascal ascribes unbelief not to intellectual objections but to the blocks of passion. Control your ego and your lusts and objections to faith will cease. Pascal would thus say that those who pretend that Christianity is unreasonable are merely posturing to protect their true objections.

423-424. Page 154. See #110, page 58.

SERIES III

427. Pages 155-161. This is a powerful and important section of the book; please read it carefully. Here Pascal notes that indifference toward the question of eternity (or agnosticism) is the greatest folly.

SERIES V

436-450. Pages 165-170. What are the two truths of Christianity Pascal discusses?

SERIES XI

470. Page 180. "And those who most despise men" It has been noted that those who argue that life has no meaning or purpose still live as if it did.

482. Page 181. A summary of the arguments for the truth of Christianity.

SERIES XIX

502. Page 206. "Anything which frustrates us . . ." By this definition, can you name some of your enemies?

SERIES XXIII

534. Page 217. Are all correct or good judgments, whether moral, esthetic, or otherwise, made by the use of rules? This means that judgments not based on some rules are either foolish or subjective. In light of this idea, what might you say about art criticism today?

554. Page 220. The proverb, "Opinion rules the world," has been common since at least the 17th century and has appeared regularly in many writers. Pascal is here responding to that proverb.

577. Pages 224-225. There is risk in every action, every decision, every belief. And here Americans want to live in a risk-free society.

634. Page 237. Are you allowing "chance" to decide what you will do for the rest of your life? How are you going about the task of planning or facing your future? Are you being reactive or proactive?

687. Pages 244-245. "it is better for him [man] not to know himself if he wants to be happy." Comment?

688. Page 245. If what Pascal says here is true, love is always contingent. Are his comments about love correct? What is love?

697. Page 247. It is common to judge the world by reference to ourselves. We unconsciously establish ourselves, our behavior, our values, and our experiences as the norm, the measure, the right. This is true for most people. Anyone more strict than ourselves we call prude or reactionary; anyone less strict we call loose or ultra-liberal. As another example, a person whose parents were 30 when they married will see people marrying at 20 as ridiculously young. If the person's parents married at 16, that person will see people marrying at 30 as antiquated.

722. Page 250. The sense here seems to be that since we act and must act on the basis of probabilities (rather than certainties) every day, we should apply the same to seeking God. If someone says that we cannot be sure that God certainly exists, we can reply that we be sure that some food will not poison us, but we eat it anyway. We trust the cook--we must trust people and things a thousand times a day.

SERIES XXVI

734-735. Pages 254-255. Note how Pascal uses the existence of false miracles and many faiths as arguments for true miracles and the true faith.

SERIES XXVII

771. Page 261. "Variety is the spice of life," according to the proverb.

781. Pages 263-264. Pascal is opposed to using the argument from nature as an evangelical tool.

SERIES XXVIII

792. Page 266. Do you agree with this idea about friendship? If it is true, why? Are we so vain that we could not be friends with anyone who recognized or commented on our weaknesses? Do we consider it a betrayal? What if we could read each other's thoughts?

SERIES XXIX

814. Page 272. Do you think about this when you choose your friends?

SECTION III

In this section, Pascal discusses the importance that miracles play in establishing and validating the Christian faith. He sees miracles as a central mode of evidence.

SERIES XXXIV

895. Page 302. Christianity must be available and satisfying to all sorts of people: from the intellectual to the simple, from the analytic to the emotional, from the excited to the calm, from the happy to the sad. That's why there is so much richness to it, so many elements in it, so many approaches to it.

SECTION IV

916. Page 311. "Silence is the worst form of persecution." When someone acknowledges or responds to an argument (or book or position), the argument gains legitimacy as something worth discussion. If, on the other hand, the argument is ignored, it has no opportunity to enter the marketplace of ideas. Pascal's statement here has important applications to the modern world where the major media have the power to repress ideas simply by not reporting on them. In some sense, an idea that isn't shared doesn't exist.

930. Page 320. "Why has God instituted prayer?" Why do you think prayer exists, especially petitionary prayer. God already knows what we need and what others need, so why prayer? Can you think of several reasons?

948. Page 325. What does it mean for God to will something, or not to will something? "Anything that God does not will is forbidden." What do you think Pascal means here? Is he right?

974. Page 346. Note that Pascal subscribes to the "just war" theory.

978. Pages 347-350. This is a slashing, humbling, but largely true dissertation on the natural tendency of our too-human egos.


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Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com