Almost everyone who writes about Pascal comments on his “modernity,” though not everyone understands the same thing by it. Lucien Goldmann, a Marxist and the author of The Hidden God, sees in Pascal a forerunner of Hegel and of Marx, and the Abbé Steinmann, a Catholic admirer of this most paradoxical of Christian apologists, sees in him a man far closer than the skeptical Voltaire to the unbeliever of today. During Voltaire’s lifetime doubt was still firmly allied to reason, and was young and confident, and laughed easily at superstition, whereas in our day doubt has undermined reason (or has seemed to do so) and has left the doubter appalled by his doubts. Doubt is a burden to him, a source of anxiety, and nobody understood this burden better than Pascal.
The modernity of Pascal can hardly consist in his doubts about the competence of reason, for some philosophers and many theologians since philosophy and theology began have voiced such doubts. The longest of Montaigne’s essays is an essay in skepticism. Pascal’s modernity must consist rather in his being the first philosopher profoundly affected by modern science to argue that some of the assumptions on which science and rational behavior depend are neither self-evident nor demonstrably true.
The trouble with some of the claims made on Pascal’s behalf is that those who make them fail to explain just how they are to be understood. For example, in one place Abbé Steinmann suggests that, according to Pascal, the first principles even of geometry are apprehended not by reason but by “the heart,” while in another he speaks as if Pascal conceived of geometry precisely as Descartes did, and disagreed with him only in believing that the kind of reasoning typical of the geometer has limited application. M. Goldmann, more boldly still, suggests that Pascal’s distinction between “the heart” (as a source of knowledge) and reason comes close to Hegel’s distinction between reason and the understanding.
No doubt, Pascal had more varied and more subtle ideas than Descartes had about how men come by their beliefs and conduct their arguments, but neither Abbé Steinmann nor M. Goldmann succeeds in explaining them. I suspect that they claim for Pascal more than they are justified in doing. Philosophers now make distinctions between types of argument and kinds of belief not made in Pascal’s time, and Pascal almost certainly came closer than Descartes, or indeed any other philosopher of their day, to making some of them. But the task of assessing just how close he came is extraordinarily difficult, if only because so much of his thought is fragmentary. It calls for a more careful and discriminating analysis than either of the authors under review attempts. Both are too eager to pull Pascal into philosophical company with later thinkers whom they happen to admire. M. Goldmann even goes so far as to compare him, as a thinker, with Stalin. He does it only once, briefly and in passing …