If you are looking for a guide to help you negotiate the challenges of modernity, you can hardly do better than turn to Blaise Pascal and the collection of his scribblings known simply as the Pensées (Thoughts). Pascal saw at modernity’s dawn what others would come to understand only much later in the day: that the modern quest for certainty by way of reason alone was not going to turn out well. The project was neither sound nor reasonable. Pascal knew that it would lead not to the certainty for which it aspired but to the doubt with which it began. Pascal also knew that the modern project would undermine faith in God, not for good reasons but because doubt was hidden in the premises of the quest.
When Friedrich Nietzsche announced at the end of the nineteenth century, then, that God was dead, and that we moderns had done the deed ourselves, Pascal would not have been surprised. He would also have pointed out that the God we moderns killed was a God we had created ourselves— an abstraction, a necessity of a philosophical system, a means by which we had hoped to gain mastery over reality. The God who died at the hands of modern reason, Pascal understood, was an idol. He was the God “of the philosophers,” not “the God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,” not the God who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, who is “a God of love and consolation.”
Pascal, however, was not only a critic of the modern quest for certainty; he also offered an alternative way forward. He offered a more reasonable view of reason that recognizes the limits of reason but also seeks to make the most of our ability to think. He was not naïve about the frailty of human reason or about the myriad ways we deceive ourselves. He reflected deeply and commented often on the power of the will and imagination, of fancy and feeling, and of custom and habit in shaping our thinking. He understood as well that “the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing,” and that it is reasonable ultimately to submit to the voice of God, but he does call us to think. He also urges us to let the shared experiences of life itself generate the questions worth asking.
Pascal especially wants to draw our attention to the experience of the “contradiction” between what is profoundly wonderful about human beings and what is sadly and tragically wrong. “Greatness and wretchedness,” Pascal writes. “One has followed the other in an endless circle, for it is certain that as man’s insight increases so he finds both wretchedness and greatness within himself. In a word man knows he is wretched. Thus he is wretched because he is so, but he is truly great because he knows it.” Again he remarks, “All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions. However different the means they may employ, they all strive towards this goal.” “Yet,” Pascal laments, “All men complain.” He concludes famously: “What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe!”
How shall we understand our contradictory selves? In ways that echo Saint Augustine and anticipate Flannery O’Connor, Pascal roots the glory of humanity in the image of God and our wretchedness in our resistance to him. “It is the wretchedness of a great lord,” Pascal observes, “the wretchedness of a dispossessed monarch.” Created to know God as both the source and object of our affections, we look elsewhere in vain, “seeking in things that are not there the help [we] cannot find in those that are.” But the glory of the monarch remains. It cannot be eradicated, and so Pascal encourages us to “observe all the impulses of greatness and of glory which the experience of so many miseries cannot stifle.” The image of God may be confused, but it does not go away, nor do our deepest longings for him.
At point after point, Pascal speaks to us as if he were our contemporary, a thoughtful critic of our tendency to distract ourselves. “We never keep to the present,” he laments. “We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is.” Sadly, then, “we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to become happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.”
Pascal can also make us smile. As the critic Alain de Botton acknowledges, his “work is consoling, heartwarming and even, at times, hilarious.” “We always picture Plato and Aristotle wearing long academic gowns,” Pascal says, but “they were ordinary decent people like anyone else, who enjoyed a laugh with their friends, and when they amused themselves by composing their Laws and Politics they did it for fun. It was the least philosophical and least serious part of their lives: the most philosophical part was living simply and without fuss. If they wrote about politics,” he concludes, “it was as if to lay down rules for a madhouse.”
I return to the Pensées of this ancient friend regularly, and they reward me every time I do. They are, on the one hand, an inviting read. A master of the aphorism, Pascal’s thoughts are typically brief, pithy, and provocative. You can read a few lines or a few pages at a time. They are, on the other hand, demanding, always unfinished and inexhaustible. Pascal’s thoughts will surprise you, trouble you, leave you scratching your head. They will remind you of truths you had forgotten. They will introduce you to truths you have never imagined. They will remind you who you are. “Man transcends man,” Pascal concludes. “Man infinitely transcends man”—a welcome, countercultural insight for those of us who continue to negotiate the shallows into which the modern story has led.