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  Lectures on the Harvard Classics.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
V. Pascal
By Professor C. H. C. Wright
THE NAME of Blaise Pascal not only belongs to the list of great French seventeenth-century writers, he is also to be included among the greatest authors of modern literature. He affected radically the thought of countless religious men of his own and later times; he was, even though in part unconsciously, one of the masters of style in the chief age of French literature. Men of science, also, consider him one of the most important of their number as a mathematician and a physicist.  1

  Pascal’s name is inseparably connected with the history of Jansenism, and though varying phases of his intellectual development have caused him to receive all kinds of descriptive epithets ranging from skeptic to fideist, yet his temperament and his bodily condition reflect the austere and gloomy theories of the Jansenist Augustinians.
  Born of a high-strung stock in a bleak part of the volcanic region of Auvergne, under the very shadow of the gloomy cathedral, built of Volvic lava, at Clermont-Ferrand, the child Pascal was from the beginning over-intellectualized. If we are to believe the accounts of a perhaps partial sister, this “terrifying genius” as Chateaubriand calls him, taught himself geometry and worked out problems in Euclid, while he still called lines and circles “bars” and “rounds.” His intellect developed by leaps and bounds, and by the end of a life of recurring illnesses and of suffering, cut short at less than two score years, he had encompassed the field of knowledge, verified hypotheses of physics, descried unexplored realms of mathematics, and projected his thought into the vast chaos of conjecture concerning the relations of God and the world, of God and of created man.  3
  Pascal’s adherence to religion was not immediate, and he went through successive stages of hesitation and of partial retrogression. A man of the world, he consorted with brilliant talkers, entered into scientific discussions against the Jesuits, or argued on philosophy with other thinkers. But the real interest of his life for our purpose begins with his conversion to the doctrines of Jansenius.  4
  Bishop Jansen of Ypres in Belgium had devoted his life to the study of Saint Augustine and to the elucidation of the doctrines of that great father of the church. Saint Augustine is the spiritual forefather of those who in religious thought are believers in determinism, in religious fatalism, with all the consequences which it involves, such as predestination and the doctrine of primitive sin which man is apparently endeavoring in vain to expiate. The theories of Jansen were propagated in France through the teachings of his friend the Abbé de Saint Cyran, a man of rigid and unbending principles, and the spiritual director of the convent of Port Royal. Port Royal was at the time dominated by members of the great Arnauld family, one of whom had in earlier days offended the strong and ambitious order of Jesuits. The Jesuits were by principle and temperament unfavorable to the theories of Jansen. A doctrine of self-concentration and of introspection, akin in almost every respect to Calvinism, which awoke in a human being a thousand cares and anxious doubts as to the why and wherefore of man’s existence on earth—such a doctrine was diametrically opposed to the urbane teachings of the Jesuits, eager rather to acquire new converts by methods of amenity than to frighten them away by visions of dread. Therefore, with the Arnaulds and Jansenists all linked together at Port Royal, the convent became the storm center of religious discussion.  5

  In the course of the controversy, Pascal was invited by one of the Arnaulds to help the cause of Jansenism. This he did by his “Provincial Letters,” most of them purporting to be a narrative of the condition of religious affairs at Paris by a certain Louis de Montalte to a friend in the provinces. In these letters, which are considered masterpieces of sarcastic polemic, Pascal did the Jesuits untold harm. By methods which may seem sometimes technically unfair, but which are after all employed by every controversial writer, he attacked the doctrines of certain Jesuit writers upon religious dogma, such as questions of Grace, and upon moral theories of casuistry, the science dealing with the solution of dilemmas of conscience and the exculpation of apparent offenses against righteousness. In the long and violent contest which raged in the seventeenth century, and of which the publication of the “Provincial Letters” was an incident, the Jesuits succeeded in having the Jansenists considered heretics, and they managed to encompass the destruction of Port Royal. But, whether rightly or wrongly (and here antagonists will remain unreconciled), Pascal dealt them severe blows from which, in France at least, they have never fully recovered.

  The “Letters Provinciales” are, however, in some respects, ephemeral literature as compared with the “Pensées” or “Thoughts.” 1 In the “Thoughts” we have the sum and substance of Pascal’s religious views as well as one of the masterpieces of French literary style. Pascal had long planned a work on religion in which he intended to set forth the defense of Christianity. This work never got beyond the stage of disconnected and fragmentary notes and “Thoughts,” from which it is difficult, if not impossible, to extract the definite plan of the whole work. But, none the less, what we have deserves the deepest consideration.
  Pascal was by temperament a pessimist, and therefore he agreed the more easily with the gloomy Augustinian determinism of the Jansenists and their ideas of the sinfulness of man and of the necessity of grace. He was no less convinced of the impotence of man’s reason to deal with the problems of the unknowable and of the hereafter. Pascal had fed on the jesting skepticism of Montaigne and realized how logically unanswerable it was in spite of its inconclusiveness. This realization made him feel that there was only one egress from the impasse, it was to reject all the help and conclusions of reason for or against, and to throw himself blindly into the arms of God, an act symbolized by his acceptance of faith and the influence of grace upon him. It is for these reasons that Pascal is sometimes given such varying designations as “skeptic,” “mystic,” or “fideist”; that, moreover, his religious feeling is called by some the expression of diseased hallucinations, by others visions of a seer into the other world.  8
  The underlying idea of the fragmentary “Thoughts” is the despair of man, his weakness and powerlessness. But there remains something in man’s own nature which protests against this despair. We have a certainty that all is not as bad as it seems. Let us accept the truths of the Christian religion and we then have the consolation that our suffering is not without cause, that we are expiating the original and primitive sin of mankind. This will at least make us understand our condition. Thus we shall, in a way, be proving Christianity and even God himself, beginning with man.  9
  The fragmentary state of the “Thoughts” makes it impossible, however, for the reader to work out the stages of this argument. He will find it more profitable to take them as they stand, and he will then be fully satisfied by words of imagination and of true poetry. The language is permeated with lyrical inspiration: the poet is a thinker who sees the abysses of immensity, spatial and temporal, the infinitely vast and the infinitely small. He brings back from the contemplation of them a feeling of terror and yet of self-confidence. For though man be a prey to brutal outer nature, though he may be but a frail reed beaten before the blast, yet he feels that one thing lifts him above it all, the consciousness that he is a thinking reed. The work is full of the vagueness of love for the divine; consequently, in spite of Pascal’s mathematical brain, it is no geometrical proof for the persuasion of reason, but rather a way to take hold of the feeling. Pascal is the intuitionalist of French classicism as Descartes, 2 his philosophical rival, is its great rationalist.  10
  The influence of Pascal upon French thought has been tremendous. In his own day he helped to free French prose and its content from the stilted rhetoric of certain self-conscious Latinists like Guez de Balzac. He helped some of the men of letters of his age to acquire a new gentleness of feeling without the sacrifice of stoical self-control. He familiarized writers who were taken up by considerations of a petty nationalism with visions of the boundless immensity which enwraps this little earth. He helped to make the French prose of his day more clear and a mirror of the soul. And all this he accomplished by a work of which we have only disconnected fragments, and by a life tragic in its brevity, in its physical suffering, extraordinary by its mental torture and intellectual vigor, the life of an all-embracing genius such as the world produces scarcely once in many centuries.  11
Note 1. Harvard Classics, vol. xlviii. [back]
Note 2. See pamphlet on Philosophy in this series, Lecture III. [back]


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