Pascal in Passing

“Thought constitutes the greatness of man,” said Blaise Pascal. Yet when defective, this intellectual activity could also become “ridiculous” and “vile.” Pascal was fascinated by other thinkers and their ideas, like the Skepticism of the French essayist Montaigne or the Stoicism of the Greek teacher Epictetus. Thus he says

I find in Epictetus an incomparable art for troubling the repose of those who seek it in external things, and for forcing them to acknowledge that they are veritable slaves and miserable blind men; that it is impossible that they should find any thing else than the error and pain which they fly, unless they give themselves without reserve to God alone. Montaigne is incomparable for confounding the pride of those who, outside of faith, pique themselves in a genuine justice; for disabusing those who cling to their opinions, and who think to find in the sciences impregnable truths…. But if Epictetus combats indolence, he leads to pride, so that he may be very injurious to those who are not persuaded of the corruption of the most perfect justice which is not from faith. And Montaigne is absolutely pernicious to those who have any leaning to impiety or vice. For this reason these readings should be regulated with much care, discretion, and regard to the condition and disposition of those to whom they are counselled.

This is the subject of an interesting dialogue between Pascal and a Monsieur de Saci. It takes place at Port Royal, the stronghold of the Jansenist rigorists. In M. de Saci we see the narrow and humorless zealot typical of the sect that Pascal had the misfortune to get caught up with. At times, Pascal’s polemics overstepped their proper bounds. The writer Francois Mauriac, who was outspoken in his admiration for Pascal, could never quite forgive his unkind treatment of the Jesuits in the Provincial Letters. (It is said that Pascal had not even bothered to read the works of his opponents that he satirized.) How Pascal got caught up with the philistine Jansenist creed is something of a mystery, unless we see in it an outlet for his own conceit. Such is often the case with personal enthusiasms. At any rate, the eloquent brilliance of his famous Pensées has been admired by orthodox thinkers ever since his death in 1662.

Finally, I have some notes from Alban Krailsheimer’s monograph on Pascal (in the Past Masters series).  He nicely sums up the Frenchman’s thought:

Pascal was neither a sociologist nor a political philosopher. To him the most pressing human problems were spiritual ones, capable only of a spiritual solution, or short-term practical ones, like the relief of a neighbour’s poverty. To offer a political remedy for the human condition was, he thought, as futile as to attempt to prescribe laws for the inhabitants of a madhouse.

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