Category Archives: existentialism

In honor of Blaise Pascal’s birthday

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

Christian apologist Blaise Pascal had some good tips on writing

Paradoxes for Better Living, 5

The limits of knowledge

Fear of the Lord — and astonishment at his creation (Jurgen Moltmann)

As a man thinketh, so goes his health

Happy birthday, Blaise! And I have no idea how to pronounce your first name!

Paradoxes for Better Living, 6

Soren Kierkegaard studying“Perhaps someone…inclined to fix his attention upon the outstanding individual who suffered at the hands of the public, may be of the opinion that such an ordeal is a great misfortune. I cannot at all agree with such an opinion, for anyone who really wishes to be helped to attain the highest is in fact benefited by undergoing such a misfortune, and must rather desire it, even though people may be led to revolt.” — Soren Kierkegaard, in The Present Age

Appreciation for books and vinyl

Teaser and the Firecat

Teaser and the Firecat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why buy the URL and start a news and e-commerce site?

The following reasons:

Godspell — on vinyl.

A double live recording of Peter, Paul, and Mary in concert — on vinyl.

Cat StevensTeaser and the Firecat — on vinyl.

One of Johnny Cash‘s recordings — on vinyl.

The full soundrack, including dialogue, from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back — on vinyl.

And just before vinyl disappeared from the record stores in the late 1980s, a clandestine purchase of Invasion of Your Privacy by Ratt — on vinyl.

These were some of my parents’ and some of my own records — a word that hardly makes sense any more, unless you’re talking about the Olympics.

Like everyone else, I see images and memories from my growing up years when I recall songs (or lines from The Empire Strikes Back) from those albums.

But mostly, I bought cassettes in high school and college, and gradually bought compact discs.

I think one of my first CDs, oddly enough, was an album by Clint Black.

Music never became less important in my life, but the role of books in my life increased in college.

I was not a voracious reader in college. I was a slow reader with a thirsty-but-rarely-focused mind.

One book that seemed to capture and combine several threads from my college years was Notes from Underground by Dostoyevsky.

In Notes from Underground, I found a libertarian suspicion of rationalism in politics and social engineering, hints of a profound Christian existentialism, and a cranky narrator who declared, right away, “I am a sick man, a vile man.”

I can’t remember whether I read Notes from Underground first, or if I read the introductory chapter in Lev Shestov‘s Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy.

That introductory chapter was actually a reprinted lecture delivered by Shestov on Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard.

I’m not sure if Shestov influenced my reading of his fellow but earlier Russian, Dostoyevsky, or if Notes from Underground prepared me for Shestov’s point of view.

Something in me, during those college years, was afraid of knowledge. As much as I embraced literature and began quick, tentative dips into philosophy, I had also gained a fundamentalist fear of “worldliness” — and that word, as I had come to understand it, was defined almost to a gnostic extreme, almost to an anti-materialist and anti-embodiment radicalism.

In some sense, Plato would fit right in with that attitude toward “worldliness,” with his insistence that ultimate reality was unseen, and a matter of the soul, not the body. Maybe that’s why I felt safer with Plato’s Phaedrus dialogue, that or maybe the practical reason of it being assigned reading in a junior-level course on advanced composition and rhetoric (not scary philosophy), and it was supposed to hold keys insights into rhetorical arts (again, not scary philosophy). I remembered enjoying Phaedrus quite a bit, but I can’t remember now what I learned from it.

I didn’t read The Great Gatsby until graduate school, but during the earlier years of my long trek to a bachleors degree, I loved F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s short stories, particularly those in Babylon Revisited and Other Stories, and especially “Babylon Revisited,” “May Day,” and “The Ice Palace.” I don’t know why I didn’t read Gatsby, but having enjoyed Fitzgerald’s short stories so much, I also read This Side of Paradise.

A few books stick out in my memories of grade school and high school:

Hiroshima by John Hershey — the melting flesh of Japanese men and women after the atomic bomb.

The Red Pony by John Steinbeck — a young, lonely boy’s love for his pony, and the pony’s heartbreaking death.

The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, especially The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee — Scout’s sarcastic tone.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien — a story that glowed.

The Grange at High Force by Philip Turner — the ballista!

Sir Machinery by Tom McGowen — a robot in an underground war.

So, for these reasons, I bought, and I hope I can contribute some favorites and some memories to others.

In times of distress: pathological problems versus existential problems

“Pathological problems demand therapy to achieve a cure. Existential problems demand courage to reconstitute one’s self. There are ways of helping another ‘take courage’; they were for example the stock and trade of religious pastoral counseling before the clergy lost sight of the distinction we are discussing. Existential problems are problems of the human spirit, and so long as they are treated as ‘merely emotional’ the human spirit is denigrated.” — John Douglas Mullen, in Kierkegaard’s Philosophy: Self-Deception and Cowardice in the Present Age

Without Descartes, what would the West be?

What would the West be without Descartes? Hard to answer, but we can kind of tell by looking at Russian. Sort of.

Descartes is sometimes credited with (accused of) compartmentalizing the human being. “I think, therefore I am,” sometimes called “Cartesian reasoning,” ushered in a sharper distinction between mind and body — a distinction that might seem less integrated and, maybe, less human.

According to author Lesley Chamberlain, Russia didn’t quite go in this direction. Russia’s philosophical history portrays a “startling consistent rejection of Descartes.”

“It is startling because to reject Descartes is tantamount to rejecting modern philosophy and the modern (but not postmodern) West,” Chamberlain wrote in Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia.

“Russia lacks a tradition of Cartesian reason, and this to my mind is what helps to make the country and its culture something other than Western, although it is not Eastern,” Chamberlain said.

I tend to think that the Russian writers fit well with the European existentialists of the last century or so because in many cases those existentialists were trying to re-integrate the human being. In other words, they were trying to undo the damage caused by Cartesian philosophy’s compartmentalizing of parts of the human being, so they were trying to bring heart and mind and body back into a singular, spiritual whole. For this task, some Christians offer a vision of redemption restoring the individual to integrated wholeness, as least as much as possible in our epoch.

See a full 2007 interview with Chamberlain here.