Blaise Pascal on the human experience: greatness and misery

What one of history's geniuses can teach us on the 359th anniversary of his death • Update on Civic Renaissance course • Join my conversations with VDH and Niall Ferguson on Saturday • A giveaway!

Gracious reader,

Thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance Community! Today we’ll explore:

  • What Blaise Pascal teaches us about what it means to be human—insights from one of history's best minds 359 years after his death

  • An exciting update on Civic Renaissance's first course

  • An invitation to join my conversations with VDH and Niall Ferguson this Saturday, Aug 21

  • An exciting giveaway! How to Think Like Shakespeare

Blaise Pascal on what it means to be human

Blaise Pascal was a theologian, mathematician, physicist, philosopher, and inventor. His accomplishments place him as one of the most important figures in scientific and philosophical history. His life, work, and legacy challenge us to think about the highest things—the most important questions in life, questions of origin, meaning, and purpose. As we have discussed here at Civic Renaissance, it only by encountering these question—and answering them for ourselves—and by reflecting on the highest things that a person can be said to be truly educated. This is why we spend so much time on these ideas here.

It is also why Pascal is one of my all-time favorite thinkers, and an especially important influence in my life. Today I hope to help you see how his work brims with insights into the human condition that we can all benefit from reflecting on today—and that can help us lead more meaningful and pursposeful lives.

Pascal was born in France on June 19, 1623. About 39 years later, he died an all-too-early death on this very day—August 19th—1662.

He was a mathematical genius. Here are just a few of his achievements:

  • At the age of 19, invented what some call the first calculator—or even the first computer—a machine that could add and subtract. It’s called the Pascaline, and four still exist today.

  • He developed Paris’s first omnibus and public transport system.

  • He discovered and developed the first vacuum technology.

  • There is even a unit of measurement by which we quantify pressure, called the “pascal,” named after him.

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Conversion to Christianity and extreme aceticism

Yes, Pascal was a remarkable mathematical and scientific mind—one of the greatest in history. Yet at age 31, he experienced a radical conversion to Christianity, and from then on he abandoned his many scientific pursuits. He locked himself in a room, where he wrote, read, and thought deeply for the remainder of his tragically short life.

Pascal suffered from constant ill health—he fought debilitating physical pain and spiritual depression virtually his entire life—which gave him a profound and ever-present sense of the precariousness of human life and existence. It seems he had a sense that he would not live a long life, and this sense lent him an urgency to use the short amount of time on earth as best as he could.

He also lived a rather extreme lifestyle for his remaining eight years, which certainly didn’t help his underlying health conditions. During this final era of his life, Pascal very rarely saw people, as he preferred to focus exclusively on God and the highest questions in life, with which he was absolutely consumed:

  • Questions of origin - Where did I come from? What does it mean to be human?

  • Questions of purpose - Why am I here? What is the point of life?

  • Questions of destiny - Where am I going? What happens when we die?

When he did see friends, he wore a jacket made of nails—and any time he found himself enjoying the company to others too much, he would jab himself with the pointed edge to re-focus his mind on God and the highest things.

A bit of an extreme lifestyle choice, I’d say—and one I would certainly not recommend.

As a Christian humanist, I believe that enjoying life on earth is part of cultivating the fullness of our humanity. Taking the conditions of our life here and now seriously—instead of focusing only on the world and life to come—is in fact a duty of being a Christian.

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But it was under these severe conditions that Pascal produced his best work.

Pascal’s important works: Provincial Letters and Pensées

During his final eight years Pascal produced two principal works on which his philosophical reputation rests.

First are his Provincial Letters, written at the Port Royal Abbey in Paris—a place that you can see firsthand in this CR video: In the footsteps of Blaise Pascal.

His Letters made waves during his day, as they were a defense of Jansenism—a Catholic fundamentalist sect to which his family subscribed.

Second, and best known today, are his Pensées—or “thoughts.”

After Pascal’s death, the executors of his estate entered his room and found the making of a book he was in the process of writing strewn about. The book was to be a defense of the Christian faith, but Pascal’s un-timely death prevented him from finishing it.

All we have today are his miscellaneous thoughts, or “pensées” in French—from which we get the title of the work—which were found handwritten on pieces of paper and scattered across his room. We don’t know how Pascal would have organized the work himself, and in the years since his death, different editors have assembled his Pensées differently, normally according to broad themes. However organized, the Pensées are powerful, explosive aphorisms—single and complete thoughts—about the highest things and questions in life, topics we know consumed Pascal.

While intended as a Christian apologetic, the principal preoccupation of the Pensées is the human condition. Pascal was convinced of both the greatness and the tragedy of humanity.

Humanity was, at its core, a profound paradox. Pascal wrote:

What a Chimera is man! What a novelty, a monster, a chaos, a contradiction, a prodigy! Judge of all things, an imbecile worm; depository of truth, and sewer of error and doubt; the glory and refuse of the universe.

In Greek mythology, a Chimera was an animal that was made up of different animal parts—for example, a creature with the head of a lion but with a goat’s head coming out of its back and a tail made of a snake’s head.

Pascal is saying that man, like a Chimera, has contradictory features, even contradictory wills. He is at cross purposes with him or herself, constantly. We are often an amalgamation of impulses and motivations that are inconsistent and nonsensical—even to ourselves.

The Apostle Paul made a similar observation in Romans 7:15: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

We are a contradiction, a jumble of greatness and misery, Pascal wrote.

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On the greatness of man, Pascal reflected:

Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this. [emphasis added]

Human life is incredibly fragile. But our rationality—our ability for reflection, self-awareness—separates us from other forms of life in the universe.

On man’s misery, Pascal wrote,

All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.

Here Pascal anticipates our modern era of anxiety, boredom and distraction. The ancients didn’t have word for these ideas, so Pascal ushered into use words such as anomie—the listlessness caused by social isolation and atomization—and ennui—a general malaise and dissatisfaction in life.

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Indeed, writing in the seventeenth century Pascal anticipated these perils of modern human life and our crisis of community and loneliness. Today, we’re consumed by anxiety, distraction, and despair.

Deaths of despair”—deaths related to loneliness, suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol—are at record highs in America.

Pascal understood that humanity’s propensity for such problems originated in our soul. These challenges emerged from part of the human personality that we all share—hence, they are endemic to the human condition. However, he was aware of the way in which social and cultural changes of his day could exacerbate them.

For example, it was for this reason that Pascal was skeptical of Rene Descartes and the Enlightenment Project’s promise of achieving perfection in human nature here and now. There is so much we don’t understand—and will never understand—about ourselves and the world around us. He writes in his Pensées that Descartes is “useless and uncertain” and—more famously—that “the heart has reasons that reason cannot understand.”

In an era of confidence in human progress and science, Pascal preached a message of humility. In an era that prized head knowledge, he saw the importance of the heart.

And Pascal was convinced that, amidst the misery of the human experience, our only hope was faith in Jesus Christ.

Here are some other provocative lines from Pascal’s Pensées that you might appreciate:

  • “There are only two kinds of men: the righteous who think they are sinners and the sinners who think they are righteous.”

  • “Happiness is neither without us nor within us. It is in God, both without us and within us.”

  • “Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.”

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Pascal’s Wager

Pascal is also famous for “Pascal’s Wager,” also found in Pensées.

The Wager is Pascal’s means of appealing to people’s minds to encourage them to believe in God—or at least to be open to the existence of God.

Pascal’s premise is that how we live our lives each day is, in essence, a “bet” that we each place on whether God exists—or not.

Pascal argues that a rational person should choose to live our lives as if God does exist.

If God doesn’t exist—and we’ve lived lives of virtue and Christian morality anyway—Pascal says that the most we have lost is a little pleasure or luxury.

But if God does exist, and we’ve lived as if he doesn’t—the consequences are eternal and permanent. Pascal writes:

If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing

Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. ... There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.

Whether or not you’re persuaded by the Wager, I hope you see that even though Pascal wrote and lived nearly 400 years ago, his life and insights have much to teach us today.

Some questions for you to consider:

  • What do you think about Pascal’s view of the human condition?

  • Do you think Pascal was correct in his assessment about the greatness and misery of man?

  • Do you think Pascal accurately gets to the root causes of our anxiety, despair, and boredom—that we know at heart the weaknesses in our own soul, and are therefore unable to sit quietly alone in a room?

  • How do you think learning more about Pascal’s ideas might change how you live your life?

I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to write to me at ah@alexandraohudson.com or leave a comment below this CR issue.

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Civic Renaissance course update!

I would LOVE to keep discussing Pascal and his Pensées with you!

Because of this, I’m delighted to share that I’ve decided to add the Pensées to the curriculum of the Civic Renaissance course, launching later this month.

I love the idea of learning more about Pascal’s ideas and insights and their relevance for us today. In my experience, the best teachers are the most curious learners—and that’s the disposition I plan to take in leading this course, too.

If you’re interested in being part of this, stay tuned for a special announcement about the Civic Renaissance course—coming next week!

A giveaway! How to Think Like Shakespeare

I’m giving away THREE copies of an exciting new book, forthcoming in paperback edition this month from Princeton Univeristy Press!

How to Think like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education, by Civic Renaissance subscriber Scott Newstok, is an absolute gem.

Do you want to study the books and cultivate the habits of mind that Shakespeare used to help him think deeply, write effectively, learn continually, and live joyfully?

If so, you’ll love this book!

Write to me at ah@alexandraohudson.com with the subject SHAKESPEARE, and tell me briefly why you’re excited in possibly receiving a copy of this this book.

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Join my conversations with Niall Ferguson and VDH at the Classical Wisdom Symposium!

I’d also love to invite you to join my conversations with Niall Ferguson and Victor Davis Hanson on Aug 24th!

I’m thrilled to be moderating discussions with these two prominent public intellectuals, Niall Ferguson and Victor Davis Hanson, in back-to-back conversations as part of Classical Wisdom’s Symposium this month. At Civic Renaissance, we care about engaging people and ideas even when we may disagree with them. This is because it’s often in these exchanges that we learn the most! After all, what is there to learn from people already agree with entirely?

I hope you feel the same way and consider joining us—even if you disagree with the ideas of these thinkers.


Thanks for being part of Civic Renaissance’s community of lifelong learners!