Oct 21, 2011

Blaise Pascal On The Contradictory Nature of Human Beings

 “What a chimera is man! What a novelty, what chaos,
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
     what a subject  of contradiction.” Pascal, Pensées  
Let us begin with fragment 164 of the Pensées where Pascals likens human beings to a freakish chimera, an amalgam of different natures: monster with lion's head, goat's body, and serpent's tail (p. 41). Pascal's thesis is the human condition is contradictory in nature. Subjectivity emerges out of conflict. Knowledge emerges out of paradox. A "cesspool of uncertainty" and "storehouse of truth," the modern subject is a novelty and a monster, the "glory and reject of the universe" (p. 41). "Man is beyond man," Pascal writes (p. 42). In his ability to see himself as mere man, as finite, contingent, yet uniquely novel and independent, man is able to transcend himself through self-awareness. But, as we will see, despite the human capacity to reflect on our own condition we become distracted by the banal and mundane and are bored easily. We often prefer distraction to thinking but we realize that through thinking we are little more than the animals but less than the gods. What makes us who we are as humans is an oscillation back and forth between our greatness and our wretchedness, our distractibility and our insightfulness; in effect we are a mixture of sense, natural reason, and the ways of the heart.

Pascal and Montaigne

The truth of man's condition is not revealed solely by natural reason nor is it based on dogmatic assertions. Similar to Montaigne, Pascal argues truth is "neither within our grasp nor is it our target" (p. 42). Truth lies in the lap of God. For Pascal to be a skeptic is to deny incarnate nature. To be a dogmatist is to "repudiate reason." For Pascal the answer lies somewhere in between these two, between nature and reason.
The incarnation is a key theological point for Pascal (barely mentioned by Montaigne). Jesus is an ideal concept for Pascal, both fully human and fully divine, "begotten not made," "one in being with the Father." Christ is the new man -- a manifestation of man as he would have been in his preternatural state. Because of original sin, ordinary man has lost his divinity except for a fragmentary shard which still remains. Unlike Christ, who revealed himself as God through his divine humanity, Man is a shard of a lost divinity; his greatness lies in his lack, his wretchedness. Pascal’s uncanny psychological insight gleaned from a traditional Catholic christology becomes a radical statement on the human condition. Man's greatness lies in his capacity to recognize his wretchedness. Unlike a tree man is endowed with a capacity to both recognize his futility and simultaneously derive greatness from it. When Pascal writes, "Within this gnarled chasm lie the twists and turns of our condition," he is acknowledging man's in-betweenness (p. 43). Our animality is mechanistic and made redeemable through the operation of grace, a concept Pascal employs to explain how man is able to understand God at all. Grace makes man "as if on the level of God, participating in his divinity." Without grace we would be "deemed equivalent of brute beasts" (p. 43).

Fragment 19

In fragment 19 Pascal says man's quandary is that he does not know what level to put himself (p. 8). Resonating with later existential themes concomitant with Kierkegaard or early existential writing, Pascal paints a modern picture of man lost and unable to find himself. Pascal modifies Augustine's thought that man is restless until he rests in God by stating man is restless and looks for God in “impenetrable darkness” (p. 8). We are neither Protagoras's ideal of "man is the measure of all things" nor are we the scum of the earth, either. We are thinking scum. What makes human beings great is the capacity to acknowledge our fallible, fallen nature. Pascal writes, evoking the Psalmist: we are a "thinking reed". Our wretchedness is a "felix culpa" (happy fault). Pascal writes, "...without this most incomprehensible of all mysteries we are incomprehensible to ourselves" (p. 43). The oracle of Delphi with its inscription "know thyself" is too naive for Pascal nor is the promise of idle distraction the answer either. Reason cannot untangle the mystery of our wretched human condition, Pascal contends, but through "simple submission" can "we truly know ourselves" (p. 43). Humility is crucial for knowledge. Humility is counter to the claim of an all-encompassing logos that can know everything. Pascal equates total submission to logos as hubris. Access to knowledge does not depend on mental acuity or even keen understanding, but possession of a "humble heart and [those] who embrace lowliness" (p. 7).

Fragment 142

Pascal argues in fragment 142 that reason is not enough. Just because reason reveals the fallible nature of the mind, Pascal insists that "our entire knowledge is not made uncertain." Pascal is not a skeptic in the negative sense. He does not distrust reason outright. It is rather that he sees reason as part of the larger story of what constitutes thinking. The ancient skeptics taught we cannot know reality. Montaigne's skepticism is suspicion of scholasticism while Pascal is a skeptic of univocal reason. Reason, he claims does not have reveal knowledge of first principles: time, space, numbers, etc. We know first principles through the heart (p. 35). The "reasons of the heart" ground knowledge. Pascal's concern is faith in empirical reason. A plank wide enough to hold a philosopher yet suspended over a precipice will be unable to quell panic and -- "his imagination will prevail" -- and he will go pale and start sweating (p. 17). Even with certainty of clear and distinct reason we become powerless when our imagination takes over. 

Fragment 80

In fragment 80 Pascal writes that "Everyone should study their thoughts," but he leaves the impression, apparent in the immediacy and the urgency of his prose style, that humanity has not taken thinking seriously. Our reading for today ends with disappointment in humanity: "How hollow and full of filth man's heart is" (p. 49). Pascal is keen to see how diversion and distraction intertwine and disrupt a path to knowledge (see fragments 170, 171, and in other places).

Diversion is a promise of happiness man makes for himself. Man knows he is not a God. He knows he is mortal. In spite of this, man still wants to be happy; so he entertains himself. Man cannot stop himself from wanting to be happy even though he knows he is wretched so he chooses to not think about it: "Not having been able to conquer death, wretchedness, or ignorance, men have decided to stop himself from thinking about it" (p. 44). We are equally incapable of either absolute happiness or total access to truth. Pascal's diagnosis is man lives in despair. Pining for happiness, man searches for it through distraction and diversion. Yet he remains hollow and empty. The task of giving up diversion is likened to a king who has many courtiers filling up his empty moments. A king left alone would think. If we removed duty, preoccupation, diversion, distraction, and work from man he would "then see and think" about himself, removed from superfluous duty man would think about what he is, where he comes from, and where he is going" (p. 49).


Pascal, Blaise, Honor Levi, and Blaise Pascal. Pensées and Other  Writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

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