One of the premises of this blog is a quotation from Blaise Pascal: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
He has been proven right again and again.
But I’ve made that point enough — at least until the next example hits the news.
Pascal (1623-1662) was a French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher. Some might also consider him a Christian theologian, considering much of his philosophical writing dealt with religious questions.
While Pascal is considered a Christian apologist, he is also considered a forerunner of existentialist thinkers, and in his written work, he frequently sounds like “intuitive psychologists” Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, to use William Barrett’s phrase.
In honor of Pascal’s 392nd birthday, I offer some of my favorite excerpts from his unfinished book, probably his notes for a book, posthumously collected and published as Penseés (or Thoughts).
Greatest Hits by Pascal
“Cleopatra’s noes: had it been shorter, the whole aspect of the world would have been altered.”
“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. I say that the heart naturally loves the Universal Being, and also itself naturally, according as it gives itself to them; and it hardens itself against one or the other at its will. You have rejected the one and kept the other. Is it by reason that you love yourself?”
“Reason’s last steps is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it. It is merely feeble if it does not go as far as to realize that.”
“Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but his is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantages which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.”
“It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.”
“Man finds nothing so intolerable as to be in a state of complete rest, without passions, without occupation, without diversion, without effort. Then he faces is nullity, loneliness, inadequacy, dependence, helplessness, emptiness. And at once there wells up from the depths of his soul boredom, gloom, depression, chagrin, resentment, despair.”
“Not to care for philosophy is to be a true philosopher.”
“We are not satisfied with the life we have in ourselves and in our own being. We want to lead an imaginary life in the eyes of others, and so we try to make an impression. We strive constantly to embellish and preserve our imaginary being, and neglect the real one. And if we are calm, or generous or loyal, we are anxious to have it known so that we can attach these virtues to our other existence; we prefer to detach them from our real self so as to unite them with the other. We would cheerfully be cowards if it would acquire us a reputation for bravery. How clear a sign of the nullity of our own being that we are not satisfied with one without the other and often exchange one for the other!”
“The more intelligence one has the more people one finds original. Commonplace people see no difference between men.”
“Cromwell would have ravaged the whole of Christendom; the royal family was lost, and his own family was about to become all-powerful, except for a little grain of sand that lodged in his bladder. Even Rome was about to tremble beneath him. Once this little piece of stone became lodged there, he died, his family was disgraced, peace was established all round, and the king was restored.” (Desmond Clarke includes this quotation in a discussion of Pascal’s proto-existentialist mentality. Clarke also says, “Many of Pascal’s intuitions about the contingency of human existence were a commonplace in the period, especially among Calvinist theologians.”)
Random Pascal Publishing Notes
- Nobel-prize winning poet T.S. Eliot wrote an introduction to a 1931 edition of Penseés.
- The 1952 set of Britannica Great Books includes a volume devoted to Pascal, including The Provincial Letters, Penseés, and Scientific Treatises.
- In his classic 1958 study of existentialism, Irrational Man, William Barrett included Pascal as one of the forerunners of existentialism.
- In 1966, Leicester University Press in England published The Rhetoric of Pascal: A Study of His Art of Persuasion in the Provinciales and the Penseés by Patricia Topliss.
Previous Posts about Pascal
Happy birthday, Blaise! And I have no idea how to pronounce your first name!