Blaise Pascal
Blaise Pascal; drawing by David Levine

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, but still he does it. Pascal’s greatest work, the Pensées, illustrates, he thinks, the transition from rationalism to the dialectical thought of such men as Hegel or Stalin!

PASCAL’S CONTRIBUTIONS to mathematics and physics are considerable and easily assessed; for mathematicians and physicists, when they praise him, do so for much the same reasons. His achievements as a writer about mathematical and other kinds of reasoning, or as a critic of the Cartesian philosophy, are more exciting and more profound, but also more uncertain—if we are to judge by what the philosophers say whose praise of him is loud but whose accounts of what he accomplished differ. No French thinker has been more admired by other great thinkers, French and foreign, than he has been—and for so many different reasons. He fascinates his readers as no other French writer does; for to read him is to be in his company, to be full of both him and his ideas. The admirer of Pascal pays tribute, not just to beliefs which anyone might hold who had wit enough to understand them, but to the strongest personality in French literature; he holds fast to his image of Pascal, which seems to him clear and authentic, though it differs from the images of other admirers.

This personality is revealed in the beliefs and in the way they are expressed. It is the essence of every admirer’s image of Pascal that he was both a great scientist and a critic of the rationalist philosophy which emerged with the rise of modern science, and that he was also a passionately religious man whose attitude to faith and to skepticism was profoundly affected by his being a scientist and a mathematician. Pascal was not, like Newton, a great scientist who retained his faith in spite of his science; he possessed both faith and the scientific spirit more fully, more passionately, than most men are capable of. He also felt the need to define the place of both in the life of man. Abbé Steinmann says that Pascal was more concerned with the geometer than with geometry. It would be impertinent and untrue to add that he was more concerned with the believer and the unbeliever than he was with God; but certainly he is more impressive when he speaks of their condition than when he discusses matters of theology.


PASCAL WAS STILL in his teens when he first attracted the attention of the scientists and mathematicians and was treated by them as an equal. He was born into a religious family and never lost his faith or came near to doing so. Nor did he lose interest in science or mathematics until the last year of his short life, when he was too ill to be capable of sustained effort. His faith deepened as he grew older, and was remarkable in two respects. It made no concessions to science, and yet, as it grew deeper, so too did Pascal’s understanding of the unbeliever and his sympathy for him. Pascal’s God is not the God of Descartes, nor of the philosophers of the eighteenth century, the First Cause or remote Architect or Sustainer of the universe, whose existence—so it was claimed—can be proved by arguments acceptable to the geometer. He is a God with whom man, if he is to find life worth living, must be closely and passionately involved. During the night of November 23rd, 1654, Pascal had an experience lasting about two hours, in which it seemed to him that God was present to him. He spoke of Him as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and above all of Jesus, but not of the philosophers and the learned. He was uncompromising; he accepted the Christian religion in all its fullness, and he accepted also the infinite world of the scientists.

Just as he refused to compromise by reducing God to an abstract idea that could be accommodated to the universe as conceived by physicists and mathematicians, so too he refused to evade the difficult question of how someone accepting that universe could also consistently accept the Christian religion. He looked critically at the credentials of the new science and of Cartesian philosophy because he was aware that man has spiritual needs they cannot satisfy, and he looked at the credentials of religion because he understood the achievements of science, was excited by them, and had contributed to them. Though he did not anticipate the ideas of later thinkers about the proper business of science and its limitations as often as some of his admirers have claimed, he did raise the question of these limitations in a new way. He did not, like Montaigne, amuse himself by pointing to contradictory beliefs whose holders claim that they are grounded in reason, and then conclude that even reason is fallible; he tried to distinguish between different types of reasoning and their proper spheres. He made distinctions not made by Descartes. Again, though he did not anticipate Hume or Kant in exposing the fallacies involved in long-accepted arguments for the existence of God, he did hold that the sort of faith in God which can satisfy man’s deepest needs cannot be established by such arguments. The God of Descartes, as of the deists of the next century, the God whose existence was “demonstrated” by the arguments demolished by Hume and Kant, was merely an hypothesis which the philosophers had not yet learned to discard. No more was needed for them to discard it than their coming to understand clearly the type of explanation they aimed at. Had their ideas been as clear and precise as they took them to, be, they would have needed no God to complete their systems. For example, had they seen clearly what a causal explanation amounts to, they would have seen that the idea of a First Cause, far from being necessary, is logically absurd.

I doubt whether Pascal saw clearly what Descartes altogether failed to see: that a rationalist philosophy true to its principles can dispense with the idea of God. He saw rather that the God of Descartes cannot satisfy the need which makes men turn to God, and he believed that all men have this need, though many dare not acknowledge it. Man is so made that his condition is unbearable to him unless he finds God. Pascal tried to show how man’s need of God arises inevitably from his being self-conscious and rational, and therefore bound to put, about himself and the world, questions giving rise to fears which only faith in God, as Christianity conceives of him, can allay; he tried also to show that it is unreasonable to reject this faith, even though it cannot be established by the kinds of proof at which the geometer or the physicist aims. Man alone among the animals is a thinker, capable of knowledge and therefore of self-knowledge; and it is this that raises him above the animals in his own eyes. But it also afflicts him with doubts and anxieties which, unless he finds God, drive him to escape from himself, from a self-knowledge too painful to bear. Man bereft of God dare not be himself, dare not know himself.


How close to success Pascal would have come if he had completed his great argument for Christianity, we cannot know; for the work in which he attempted it, the Pensées, consists only of fragments. Of these some are lost, and those that survive have never yet been so arranged as to make it clear how the argument would have proceeded had Pascal lived to complete it. Yet the Pensées, though they do not draw clearly even the outlines of a systematic apology for the Christian religion, do give an account of the human condition which is extremely moving, which both frightens and consoles. It is an account which only a mathematician and a scientist could have imagined, though the imagining of it is neither science nor mathematics but an incomparable mixture of insight and poetry.

LUCIEN GOLDMANN ascribes to Pascal what he calls a tragic vision of the world. The man who has this vision both accepts the world and rejects it. He accepts it in the sense that he understands it, lives in it, speaks his mind about it, and does not withdraw from it; and he rejects it in the sense that its occupations and values cannot satisfy him. The medieval Christian could live in the world close to God; for in his circumscribed world God, though not visible to the eye, seemed often to make His presence felt. But the world of Pascal is already the infinite world of modern science. In this world, as the scientist explains it, there is no room for the Christian God, the living God, the God who is more than an hypothesis which science has not yet learned to discard. So the living God becomes, for Pascal, the Hidden God, the God who is both present and absent: present because man, if he has courage enough to contemplate his condition as it really is, cannot help but acknowledge Him in his heart, and absent because the world as science explains it seems not to contain Him.

Just as God is both present and absent to the tragic man, so tragic man is both in society, in the world of men, and outside it. Its justice, in his eyes, is not true justice, nor are its ways a preparation for something better. He does not hope to change it, and is not won over by it; he merely does what it requires of him because no one can profit by his doing otherwise. Nor is he a mystic; he neither withdraws from the society of men into direct communion with God nor sees the mark of God in that society. His faith is an allegiance to something which to him is superior to the world and yet never to be achieved in it, and his fate is to see that world more clearly than those who accept its values. This is his tragedy; and it is also, when he is a man of genius, what makes the art and the ideas born of his vision so moving in their sobriety and their truthfulness.

Goldmann’s portrait of the tragic man fits Pascal well enough; it may not fit all that we know about him but it does help to explain what makes him both inspiring and disturbing. The tragic man takes himself with desperate seriousness; he takes pride in his humanity in spite of the indignities and the defeats it brings upon him. If he is ridiculous in his own eyes, it is because he falls below his own nature, contrasting what he is with what he aspires to be; and his nature is to aspire even when he can no longer hope. He would not be contemptible, he could not despise, unless he had an image of himself which he respected. M. Goldmann’s portrait is of Pascal, the author of the Pensées, in the last years of his short life; it does not explain the Pascal who delighted in science and in controversy, and who could be affectionate, gay, and sociable.

The Hidden God is not easy to read, either in the original French or badly translated into English. M. Goldmann’s style is heavy; he is repetitious and smothers some quite simple points under a weight of words. He has other and worse faults; he makes misleading and even absurd comparisons. Just as he foists the ideas of later thinkers on Pascal, so he attributes Pascal’s attitudes to them; as for example when he presents Kant to his readers as a bearer of the tragic vision. Bishop Berkeley, exasperated by some of the philosophers of his day, ventured to remind them that everything is what it is and not something else; and readers of The Hidden God may be moved to protest that what is true of things is true also of ideas. Besides, Pascal is more admirable simply as Pascal, and Kant as Kant, than either with the other superimposed on him.

Worse still, M. Goldmann tries to relate what he calls “the tragic vision” to the interests and situation of a social group, the magistrates of the sovereign courts, among whom flourished the Jansenism that Pascal defended against the Jesuits and against the Pope. This Marxist exercise, inspired in part by the theories of Georg Lukacs, is singularly inept. M. Goldmann’s thesis is briefly this: A section of the legal profession in France, the magistrates of the parlements (whose offices were bought and sold) had long been supporters of the monarchy against the feudal nobles. In the seventeenth century, these officers, so called because their offices were their personal property, felt themselves threatened by a new group of officials, the commissaires, who held office at the king’s pleasure and whose numbers and authority were increasing. The officiers could not turn against the King but were offended by these new methods of extending the royal power. They had perforce to accept the absolute monarchy and yet also resented it. Their Jansenism with its “tragic vision” gave religious expression to a deep sense of frustration and an ambivalence whose roots were social and political.

But, as M. Goldmann himself admits, the great majority of the officiers were not Jansenists. Moreover, these magistrates were the most cultivated and intellectual group in France, and surely it was only to be expected that some of the more gifted among them, excited by the scientific achievements and the religious controversies of their age, should be moved to reconcile the old religion with the new scientific vision of the world.

It would be difficult to find weaker arguments more tediously expressed. M. Goldmann intrudes them into his account, not only of Pascal’s philosophy but also of the plays of Racine, a pupil of the Jansenists defended by Pascal. These many intrusions spoil an otherwise impressive book. For the book is impressive as an imaginative, though one-sided, interpretation of the Pensées and, much more briefly, of Racine’s tragedies.

THE ABBE STEINMANN’S FAITH gets between him and his readers less than does M. Goldmann’s brand of Marxism, and is in any case more of a help to him in understanding so deeply religious a thinker as Pascal. He too makes some misleading comparisons of Pascal with later thinkers but does so more briefly. His book is a biography, and though it is for the most part an intellectual biography, it does not expound a philosophy or “vision of the world,” which Pascal came close to holding only at one period of his life. Steinmann explains admirably how Pascal’s faith deepened as he grew older, and how his character softened.

As a young man Pascal was brilliant, proud, and honest; he was also ambitious, intellectually if not socially, and arrogant. He liked to win victories and to let others feel the weight of his superiority; he wanted full credit for his achievements in physics and mathematics. After his father’s death, he strongly opposed his sister’s wish to give her part of the paternal inheritance to the convent of Port-Royal, where she had taken her vows, though later he gave way gracefully. His attack on the Jesuits in the Provincial Letters (1656-7) was subtle and keen; he could be cruel both in his indignation and his ridicule. As late as 1661, the year before he died, he was opposed to the Jansenist leaders signing the Formula of Submission required of them by the Assembly of the French Clergy after the Pope had condemned certain propositions attributed to Jansen. He had a high sense of honor, and in controversy, even at his harshest, had impeccable taste.

Abbé Steinmann is at his best when he shows how this proud, brilliant, formidable man was made gentle and compassionate by his truthfulness and the strength of his affections. He was penetrating and implacable as an observer of himself and of others, but he tried to look beyond the vanities and the vices at the fears which give birth to them. This too is part of his modernity. He was less impressed by the sensuality, cruelty, and cowardice of men than by their illusions, their sense of being lost in a world not understood by them, their not knowing what to do with themselves. He was remarkably free from the vices of l’homme moyen sensuel, and had, as Abbé Steinmann points out, little to say about them. Yet he saw in himself, as in all men, the restlessness and the anxiety in which these vices are rooted; and if he escaped the vices, he owed this to his rare talents or, as he would prefer to believe, to the grace of God. He saw also that man would not be restless and anxious if he were not a thinker aspiring to knowledge and to spiritual security. As his faith in God deepened, so too did his understanding of the human condition, of what was common to him and all men. It is said of Pascal that he passed from pride to humility; it would be better to say, of someone who had never a touch of servility about him, that he passed from pride to gentleness.

This Issue

May 4, 1967