Reclaiming the heart in an era of the mind: lessons from Blaise Pascal's night of fire

A walk in Pascal's footsteps, How to Revive American Civic Life, and Diversifying the "Great Books" Canon

Gracious reader,

This Thanksgiving week, I am particularly grateful to each of you for being part of the Civic Renaissance Community!

In this special edition of CR, we’ll explore

  • The difference between “heart” knowledge and “head” knowledge - distinction especially worth observing on this anniversary of philosopher Blaise Pascal's night of fire, or his “second conversation” and spiritual awakening

  • FLASHBACK: Who was Blaise Pascal? A walk in his footsteps (VIDEO)

  • Join us! How to Revive American Civic Life, a conversation with Francis Fukuyama

  • Invitation: Should we diversify the Great Books canon?

  • GIVEAWAY: Living in the Constellation of the Canon: The Lived Experiences of African-American Students Reading Great Books Literature

Reflections on the duality of knowledge on the date of Blaise Pascal's spiritual awakening

We’ve explored the remarkable thought and legacy of Blaise Pascal in a past CR issue, but we are returning to him now because today, November 23rd, is an important day in the life of this extraordinary thinker—a man who is one of the most important philosophers and scientists in human history.

November 23, 1654—367 years ago today—marks Pascal’s spiritual awakening; it is the anniversary of what we might think of as Pascal’s second conversion experience.

Pascal was raised a Jansenist—a particularly fundamentalist strand of Catholicism—and had always affirmed the Christian faith. Yet this conversion marked an important shift in how he viewed the world.

In Pascal’s own view, this day marked a shift in his life from “head” knowledge to “heart” knowledge—from an unshakable confidence in scientific rationalism to a radically humble, supra-rational outlook on the world.

Pascal realized that science could help us answer questions about the natural world—but it could not offer us answers to life’s most important questions.

  • 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 will happens when I die?

Science claims to offer certainty, but Pascal realized that there was actually very little in life that we can know with certainty—especially when it comes to these questions.

His spiritual awakening caused Pascal to appreciate the limits of human knowledge, of science, and of rationality. He diverged from the spirit of his day—an Enlightenment era dominated by the thinking of Rene Descartes, with whom Pascal was a contemporary— which embraced those values as sacrosanct.

In our own day, it seems as if our world has only increasingly embraced rationality and science as paramount values—diminishing in turn the value of the unknown, the transcendent, and the sublime. After his conversion, however, Pascal came to recognize that embracing an overly-rationalist view of the world can exacerbate perils endemic to the human condition—in particular, the boredom, anxiety, and despair that we are each prone to.

Intellectual arrogance, in other words, risks aggravating the wretchedness of the human experience.

This makes Pascal an especially important thinker for us to learn from today.

A brief recap of Pascal’s life and achievement

Pascal was born in France on June 19, 1623. And he died about 39 years later, on August 19, 1662.

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

  • At the age of 19, he 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.

These impressive achievements show that Pascal was a remarkable mathematical and scientific mind—one of the greatest in history. Yet at age 31, on November 23, 1654. he experienced a radical spiritual awakening that changed everything about how he viewed himself, his purpose, and the world around him.

FIRE

Remarkably, we have Pascal’s own account of this powerful experience, written in his own words. He had the words below it sewn into his coat, carrying them with him wherever he went. Known as Pascal’s Memorial, this is Pascal’s account:

The year of grace 1654,

Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology.

Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others.

From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,

FIRE.

GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob

not of the philosophers and of the learned.

Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.

GOD of Jesus Christ.

My God and your God.

Your GOD will be my God.

Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.

He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel.

Grandeur of the human soul.

Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.

Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.

I have departed from him:

They have forsaken me, the fount of living water.

My God, will you leave me?

Let me not be separated from him forever.

This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and the one that you sent, Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ.

I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified.

Let me never be separated from him.

He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel:

Renunciation, total and sweet.

Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.

Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on the earth.

Not to forget your words. Amen.

If you’ve already begun reading the Pensées, this staccato style will be familiar. These partial thoughts of Pascal’s are incredibly poignant, and clearly reflect just a fraction of what’s going in his soul and in his head.

What is this “FIRE” Pascal is referring to?

We don’t really know.

It could be a vision, or a dream.

We do know, however, that there is tremendous symbolism in fire across history.

Fire destroys; it brings death and chaos.

But fire also purifies and renews. Like the phoenix from Greek mythology, new life can emerge from death, destruction and tumult. There are many varying opinions, but frustrating though it is, we’ll have to be content never knowing for certain—Pascal, we must presume, would approve.

We also have a small window into why, after this experience, he abandoned his many scientific and intellectual pursuits. Pascal renounced the “l’esprit géométrique”— or the “geometric spirit” of articulated, deductive reasoning—in favor of a radical humility, and an emphasis on the heart and soul over the mind and body. As he wrote,

GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob

Not of the philosophers and of the learned… Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD… Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my director. Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on the earth.

And that is exactly what Pascal did. He locked himself in a room, where he wrote, read, and thought, committing the rest of his life to contemplation of God alone.

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 existence.

His sister, Gilberte, wrote in a biography of him called La vie de M. Pascal, or “The Life of Mr. Pascal,” “from the age of eighteen, he never passed a day without pain… he continued to be so ill that, at the age of twenty-four, he could tolerate no food other than in liquid form, which his sisters or his nurse warmed and fed to him drop by drop.”

It seems Pascal 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 had, early in his life, found refuge from his suffering in life in math and science. But after his conversion, he realized that they were not enough. They couldn’t answer the biggest and most important questions of life and human existence, such as those we have focused on here at CR—Why are we here? What is the best way to live? What happens when we die? How can we find meaning in our suffering?

The rather extreme lifestyle he led for his remaining eight years 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.

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. This is, of course, a far cry from the high view of friendship that many a philosophers throughout history have held. For example, in Cicero’s work On Friendship, he told us that we need friendship to become fully human, and to fully live. Yet Pascal lived the later years of his life in relative isolation, choosing to focus only on God and his writing and ideas.

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 the Christian.

But it was under the severe conditions that he imposed upon himself that Pascal produced his masterwork—his Pensées—a work that still speaks to us today, hundreds of years after his untimely death.

The Pensées explores the fundamental problems of human life—problems Pascal came to appreciate with renewed passion following his encounter with the FLAME.

The core problems of the human condition, Pascal says, are wretchedness, anxiety vanity, alienation, despair.

He realized that we often turn to pseudo-solutions to these problems—diversion, distraction, and indifference, or ennui.

He appreciated that the true-solution was the way of the “heart” as opposed to the way of the “head.” As he put it, “le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point”—the heart has reasons that reason cannot know.

He concluded that the final destination of every human soul—the ultimate solution to the perils of the human condition— was relationship with Christ himself.

  • You may disagree with Pascal’s prescription, but what do you think of his description of the problems of the human condition—that our lives are predominately defined by suffering, despair, and wretchedness—and that we try and distract ourselves from this reality with diversion, distraction and difference?

  • What do you think of Pascal’s prescription for the perils of the human condition— that we should be skeptical of placing our faith and confidence in rationality and science, and that we should reclaim heart knowledge over head knowledge?

  • How might we exercise a little bit more humility—and a little less certainty—in our own lives, and in our interactions with others? How might we better embody the reality that there is so much about the world around us, and the human experience, that we will never fully understand or know for certain?

If you’re interested in learning more about Pascal, two books I’ve enjoyed on his life and work are:

Join us! How to Revive American Civic Life, a conversation with Francis Fukuyama

I’m thrilled to invite you to a conversation next month—brought to you in partnership with the Indiana University Lilly School of Philanthropy—with Francis Fukuyama as we explore how to revive American civic life.

Francis Fukuyama is one of the greatest minds and deepest thinkers of our day, so I’m grateful for the chance to facilitate this dialogue with him about a topic of great importance to the health of American democracy: America’s civic fabric.

Reserve your spot now!

In recent decades, scholars, policy makers, and pundits have lamented the decline of American civic life. Many have declared that this civic decline has—and will continue to—threaten the health and future of American democracy. But has this decline been monolithic? Are there any reasons to hope for the future of American civic culture—and for American democracy?

This conversation will reflect on the recent decades of research and public debate concerning American civic life, including recent threats to the health of America's social fabric, and will contemplate possible practical avenues of revival in the years to come.

I hope you’ll join us!

Invitation: Should we diversify the Great Books canon?

What would it look like to open up the “Great Books” canon? While Cornel West has suggested “blowing up the canon,” what might it look like to diversify it?

There are many important thinkers whom history has overlooked. “Great Book” lists and volumes, such as Mortimer Adler’s project at the University of Chicago—admirable as that and other such projects are—have too often excluded women and people from minority backgrounds.

Register now!

This is unfortunate, because it means that it is easy to miss out on some very important contributions to the Great Conversation and the broader humanistic tradition.

Join me as I discuss these ideas with Dr. Anika Prather of Howard University and Anya Leonard of Classical Wisdom, where we will explore how a “new canon” can ground us in the wisdom of the past while meeting the needs of the present.

Which historically overlooked authors should be included in such a “new canon”?

And how we can overcome some of the common, contemporary challenges to the idea of a canon of “Great Books” in the first place?

The conversation will take place Tuesday, Nov 23, 12-1 EST.

Please feel free to forward this invitation to anyone you think might be interested in joining us. A recording of the conversation will be made available to all who register.

I hope you’ll join us for this important dialogue!

GIVEAWAY: Living in the Constellation of the Canon: The Lived Experiences of African-American Students Reading Great Books Literature

To commemorate next week’s conversation about “opening up the canon,” I am giving away TWO copies of my friend Anika’s book, which explores how many prominent African-American leaders and intellectuals have read and benefited from “Great Books” literature.

In this book, learn how incredible thinkers, creators, and historical figures such as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Anna Julia Cooper, Gloria Ladson-Billings, James Baldwin and others were formed by, and benefited from, the Great Conversation.

To enter, write me a note at ah@alexandraohudson.com

(Also purchase a copy of your own here!)

Thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance Community! I am grateful you are here.