Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662) was a prodigy and genius. His name is still in our every day vernacular. When someone recently did an ‘energy audit’ for our house, it involved lowering the pressure to a certain number of Pascals. Because Pascal invented a calculator for his tax collector father, often considered to be the first computer, an early computer language was named after him. He is recognized to this day for contributions he made to mathematics and geometry; his genius may have rivaled that of Sir Isaac Newton.
While he was in his 30s, not long before his untimely death, Pascal converted to a form of Roman Catholicism named Jansenism, which was a full embrace of Augustine. Pascal would give up his scientific pursuits in order to live a devout life. Some attribute this to things in his personal life — he had an ailment that left him in constant pain, many of the people around him were Jansenists, and he had a brush with death that apparently caused him to think deeply about life. In any event, Pascal confronted the full force of the age of reason that by his day was displacing the age of faith and, despite his vast intellect, chose faith.
To many, this seems odd. Of course, in the 17th century even men of reason such as Galileo and Newton remained devout; Deism and atheism were still a century away from being considered. But Pascal realized something that few at the time really comprehended: reason itself led to a path of meaningless. If this theme sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve blogged about it in my last two blog entries. I wasn’t going to continue along those lines, but Jeffrey Lees very intelligent and thoughtful comment to my last blog entry inspired me. Pascal, like his contemporary Pierre Bayle, were fidiests, meaning that they rejected the idea of faith and reason being united in religious belief in favor of faith alone. This is close to the kind of spiritualism espoused by Augustine, whose early work defined Christian theology.
For Augustine the purpose of life was to worship God, and see the symbolism of God in everything. For both Pascal and Bayle (whose momentous work “Critical and Historical Dictionary” was the most widely read work of the 17th and 18th centuries), man could and should not use reason to find God, but simply focus on faith. Bayle was even misunderstood by French enlightenment scholars for his writings that painted Christian traditions as irrational and contradictory. King David was an adulterer who even sent a man to the front to die so that he could sleep with his wife, yet God loved him? Yet Bayle’s point was not to argue against Christianity, but to say that reason can’t explain God’s ways, you simply had to have faith — trying to understand through reason would lead nowhere.
Pascal was tormented by the absurdity of the human condition. People were filled, he argued, with hatred of others and hatred of self. They secretly wanted friends to fail so they could look good by comparison. Murder was evil, yet one would be decorated for killing those “on the other side of the river” because they were different. People filled their lives with endless distractions to avoid confronting their own lives and life’s meaning. People feared that kind of self-reflection, and would instead live frenetic lives filled with efforts at short term pleasure or long term addictions, a kind of empty meaningless existence with a depth of absurdity that caused Pascal inner grief, as noted in his posthumous work Pensees, which was a serious of notes meant to be put together in a defense of fidiest Christianity. Pascal died at age 38, but the book became a best seller when it was published.
It should be clear why the comment by Jeffrey Lees would get me to think about Pascal. Jeffrey mentioned the innate need for meaning, and Pascal’s description of the emptiness of the diversions of 17th century France sound much like some of the critique of consumer society. It may not have been hyperconsumerism, but it was still a kind of quest for meaning or, at the very least, an absurd effort to distract oneself from the fact there is no meaning.
Pascal was right. You look at life and it really is absurd. Take a step back and look at what people worry about, the kinds of bizarre behavior we’re engaged in, and it looks trivial and transient. We all die, but we cling to life. We honor good deeds, but strive to get ahead of others. We justify killing in the name of politics, but hate politics. We spend more time worrying about whether an outfit will make us look fat or silly than about people starving across the globe. We get caught up in sports, reality TV, video games and other meaningless activities, all while saying we love life and want to live it to the fullest. We seek meaning, but few really take the time to try to find it. Even religion has become a kind of crutch for many — not defining how they live, but a routine that allows them to say they don’t need to think about meaning because they’ve chosen one.
People strive for money, even though after a certain level it doesn’t seem to add much. The absurdity that gripped Pascal and enthralled his readers is evident to everyone even today if we look at things with a kind of detachment. Even our burial customs and refusal to talk about things like death and religion is odd. We look at primitive tribes from Africa as strange and exotic, but our culture is in some ways more absurd, so distanced we are from nature.
Pascal decided the only way to make sense of this was through faith, and he describes Christianity as a way that suddenly gives meaning and coherence to life and this world. What appeared absurd is suddenly meaningful in the heart. The head cannot understand; with God the heart understands fully. No doubt Pascal felt this and believed it deeply. To the reasonable he offered Pascal’s wager — if there is a God and you believe you have eternal life, if you do not believe you may be punished forever. If there is no God and you believe, you’ve lost nothing. If there is no God and you don’t believe, you gain nothing. Isn’t it logical to choose to believe?
Obviously, Montesquieu and the next generation of Europeans would discover that the question is rendered more difficult by having to add “which God,” since other faiths offer similar dilemmas. But Pascal, in an odd way recognizing what the post-modernists now see as the fundamental flaw of enlightenment reason-based thinking, saw that cold, materialist reason had no power to explain the pain, absurdity, and emptiness of this world. He saw that it could not provide meaning, and thus contributed to the absurdity by driving humans to distractions and diversions — so afraid are they of confronting the true state of their being.
So I reconsider Pascal’s wager. Not from the stand point of Christianity, I’m too enlightenment shaped to be able to accept a set of myths as truth. Rather, from the stand point of whether to embrace a dogmatic materialism focused solely on reason and devoid of any consideration of something deeper, spiritual, or connected to sentiment. Should one let the head silence the heart? I think not. Thus in this post-enlightenment world where anything spiritual but not religious is dismissed as “new age,” and those who are firmly embedded in a kind of faith in materialism want to deride things that question that approach, I won’t go that route. I’ll embrace the notion that there is ‘another side of life.’ I don’t know what it is. I won’t be dogmatic about it. I’ll play with and listen to ideas. I’ll explore coincidences in life, wonder about deeper meanings of chance encounters or events or people that are in my life. I’ll reflect. I’ll think. I’ll not try to distract myself from really examining my life — and I’ll not let myself become comfortable with the absurdity of the world around me. As Pascal notes, “the heart has reasons that reason cannot understand.”