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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Pascal’s Skepticism
By Victor Cousin (1792–1867)
 
From ‘Les Pensées de Pascal’

PASCAL was skeptical of philosophy, not of religion. It is because he is skeptical in philosophical matters, and recognizes the powerlessness of reason and the destruction of natural truth among men, that he clings desperately to religion as the last resource of humanity.  1
  What is philosophical skepticism? It is a philosophical opinion which consists in rejecting philosophy as unfounded, on the ground that man of himself is incapable of reaching any truth, and still less those truths which constitute what philosophy terms natural morals and religion, such as free-will; the law of duty; the distinction between good and evil, the saint and the sinner; the holiness of virtue; the immateriality of the soul; and divine providence. Skepticism is not the enemy of any special school of philosophy, but of all.  2
  Pascal’s ‘Pensées’ are imbued with philosophical skepticism; Pascal is the enemy of all philosophy, which he rejected utterly. He does not admit the possibility of proving God’s existence; and to demonstrate the impotence of reason, he invented a desperate argument. We can ignore truth, but we cannot ignore our own interest, the interest of our eternal happiness. According to him, we must weigh the problem of divine Providence from this point of view. If God does not exist, it cannot hurt us to believe in him; but if by chance he should exist, and we do not believe in him, the consequences to us would be terrible.  3
  “Let us examine this point of view and say: God is, or he is not,” writes Pascal. “To which belief do we incline? Reason is powerless to solve the question for us. Chaos separates us from its solution. At the extreme end of this infinite distance, a game is being played in which heads or tails will turn up. What do we win in either case? Through the power of mere reason we can neither prove nor disprove God’s existence; through the power of reason we can defend neither proposition.”  4
  On this foundation, not of truth but of interest, Pascal founds the celebrated calculation to which he applies the law of chance. Here is the conclusion he reaches:—“In the eyes of Reason, to believe or not to believe in God (the for and against, or as I say, the game of ‘croix ou pile’) is equally without consequence; but in the eyes of interest the difference is infinite, because the Infinite is to be gained or lost thereby.”  5
  Pascal considers skepticism legitimate, because philosophy or natural reason is incapable of attaining to certitude; he affirms “the sole rôle of reason to be the renouncement of reason; that true philosophy consists in despising philosophy.”  6
  The God of Abraham, the God of Jacob, not the God of savants and philosophers, is the God of Pascal. He caught a gleam of light, and believed he had found peace in submission to Christ and his confessor. Doubt yielded to grace; but vanquished doubt carried reason and philosophy in its train.  7
 
 
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