Pascal was a polymath who became a major figure in religious thought and polemics, mathematics, theoretical physics, philosophy, and French literature, along with the design of public transport. There are surprising connections between different parts of his thought. For example, his mathematical ideas on probability are used in a famous “proof’ of the existence of God. The status of this proof, known as as a way of grounding, or reinforcing faith rather than as the equivalent of a metaphysical-logical deduction of God’s existence. In Pascal’s wager we should believe in God because it brings us happiness to hope for an eternity of bliss after this life. If the belief is false, we will not lose anything, and if it is correct we make it less likely that we will be punished with an eternity of torment likely to result from failing to accept God.
The argument for God from a form of probability may have survived Enlightenment skepticism better than the intended certainty of metaphysical proofs. What may be more important about the wager is that it expresses the collapse of a metaphysical-theological structure of thought in which God’s existence seems tied up with the existence of nature. In this world-view, humanity itself has clearly defined natural and divine purposes.
Pascal is among the key figures in establishing another view of humanity, which underlies the emergence of modern social science. Pascal’s questioning of the old commonsense anthropology partly came from the Copernican Revolution in Science, and partly from an insistence on a very austere form of Catholic Christianity known as Jansenism. Jansenism was rooted in commentaries on St. Augustine by the Belgian Bishop Cornelius Jansenius, which came to be regarded as heretical by the Vatican. Jansenius, and his followers, emphasized the elements of pre-destination, the fallen nature of humanity and absolutist moral rigor in Augustine. It seems close to Calvinistic Protestantism, but the Jansenists were keen to deny this (as Pascal does in “Writings on Grace”). The convent and school of Port-Royal, in Paris, became a center of Jansenist religious thought, as well as a great center of education (Jean Racine was a student there) and philosophy (Pierre Nicole and others). Pascal had family connections with Port-Royal and became a Jansenist himself. He joined in a battle against the Jesuits, whom the Jansenists considered lax in application of principles, in the polemical-literary work, Letters Written to a Provincial.
The Jansenists were operating in a political environment where at first the French monarchy found them useful in combating the influence of the Jesuits and the Papacy in France, but they were later repressed when the conflict with Rome started to threaten the monarchy.
The currents of Pascal’s life and work come together in his central achievement Pensées (“Thoughts,” but translations always leave the French title). Pascal’s Wager appears there in a series of fragments that mix biblical interpretation with compressed meditations on philosophy and the condition of humanity. Pascal’s Wager itself rests on Pascal’s view of humanity as lost without God, and as marked by the loss of God, since God is absent from nature and the universe. After Copernicus, the universe lacks a center. It has become an eternal sphere without a center. In comparison to the infinite spaces of the universe of modern science, humans can be no more than thinking reeds. Humans have grandeur, but it is lost grandeur because of their fallen nature. We belong with God, but original sin separates us from the happiness of union. Not only are we weak in relation to physical nature, our lives lack substance. Someone who spends half his life dreaming that he is a king is as happy as that king, who might be dreaming that he is one of his lowly subjects.
The idea that life may be no more than a dream and that God is absent from the natural universe can be found in Pascal’s predecessor René Descartes, but Pascal attacked Descartes’s philosophy as useless and ineffective. Descartes’s search for pure foundations to knowledge, in order to overcome skepticism, was considered contradictory by Pascal. Reason cannot justify itself, because we can always keep asking, what is the reason for this reason? According to Pascal, there must be “reasons of the heart” at the origins of all knowledge. There may be an element of religious mysticism here, but less than the phrase suggests. “Reasons of the heart” refers to our capacity to create first principles, such as mathematical axioms. There is no absolute justification for such principles, but we must assume them in order to have knowledge or science of any kind. The skeptical and hypothetical-intuitive spirit is expressed in thoughts on politics and society. The dream of being king already hints at the unreality of legal sovereignty. Pascal regarded all human laws, including those upholding state sovereignty, as fictional. Their only foundation is in force, so we cannot regard them as expressions of natural-theological right. The arbitrariness of law, its lack of intrinsic injustice, is shown in the great variations of law on either side of a changeable border, between humans living in one state and humans living in another state. We cannot regard human societies as conditioned by the ethics and justice of a system of natural right. Our laws themselves emerge from the vanity and self-interest of humans who are driven by the constant urge to have more grandeur than other humans. The search for grandeur is an expression of the lost grandeur of fallen humanity. The consequence is that societies are grounded on the drive for status, prestige, and recognition. These thoughts evidently parallel those of Niccolô Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes on the tendency for humans to seek self-advantage rather than virtue, and anticipate political economy. They made a deep impression on Alexis de Tocqueville to the extent that they are essential to understanding his political and social thought. Pascal’s thought also clearly anticipates Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s views of the natural, substituting for God, and the social. This can be seen in Pensées, but also the “Writings on Grace,” where Pascal establishes the general will of God, in which God wishes to save all humans. Evidently this general will cannot be applied absolutely since all humans are fallen, but it provides grounds for saving an elect few. More recently the cultural and social thought of Slavoj Zizek and Jacques Derrida has included significant considerations on Pascal; his influence must be recognized wherever Rousseau and de Tocqueville have left a mark. He is at the origin of modern anthropology in the broadest sense.
- Pascal, B. (1997). The provincial letters. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.
- Pascal, B. (1999). Pensees and other writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Pascal, B. (2004). Blaise Pascal: Thoughts, letters and minor works. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing.