Indignity and indecency: Pascal on human nature

It is in vain, oh men, that you seek within yourselves the cure for all your miseries. All your insight has led to the knowledge that it is not in yourselves that you discover the true and the good. The philosophers promised them to you, but they were not able to keep that promise. They do not know what your true good is or what your nature is. How should they have provided you with a cure for ills which they have not even understood? Your principal maladies are pride, which cuts you off from God, and sensuality, which binds you to the earth. And they have done nothing but foster at least one of these maladies. If they have given you God for your object, it has been to pander to your pride. They have made you think you were like him and resemble him by your nature. And those who have grasped the vanity of such a pretension have cast you down in the other abyss by making you believe that your nature is like that of the beast of the field and have led you to seek your good in lust, which is the lot of animals.

Blaise Pascal, The Mind on Fire, ed. James M. Houston (Multnomah Pub, 1989), page 115.

Pascal on Human Happiness

Penguin has put out a new series of books, called ‘Great Ideas’, that corral some of the important writings in the history of human thought. Each title is published in a slim, accessible format (some are just excerpts from the original works) with absolutely gorgeous cover art. For those that might otherwise have been intimidated by reading Locke or Dostoyevsky, the Penguin collection represents an excellent introduction to many great literary classics.

Human Happiness by Blaise Pascal is one of their titles in the third series of the ‘Great Ideas’ collection. It is a composite of excerpts from the writings of the seventeenth century Christian philosopher on the condition of man and the felicity of the religious life. Although Pascal was well known to the European scientific community because of his involvement in debates about mathematical and empirical concepts, little of Pascal’s writing was published in his lifetime. It was after his death in 1662 (Pascal was only thirty nine), that his thoughts about religion were posthumously arranged by his family and friends and released (entitled Pensées). Pascal is most well known today for the application of his mathematical genius to restore an old apologetic argument (that it is more prudent to bet on God existing rather than on his not existing), but he also one of the best philosophers to grapple with both the topic of man’s concomitant wretchedness and glory and the problem of God’s hiddenness. This book in the Penguin series contains only one-fifth of the total fragments available but seeks nonetheless to give Pascal’s thoughts on the human pursuit of satisfaction and real joy in life.

Douglas Groothius, author and professor of philosopher at Denver Seminary, has recently written a good review of the Penguin book:

Does Human Happiness succeed as a primer for Pensées and Pascal’s other writings? The answer is, Yes and No. It does succeed in presenting an assemblage of the more assessable and psychologically pertinent fragments concerning the mysteries of being human. But it fails as a primer for two reasons. First, as mentioned above, some crucial texts on Christ go missing. A good primer cannot, of course, include everything and still be a primer. But it should never expunge the essential. Second, given the extraordinary nature of Pensées (an incomplete work of Christian apologetics written in the middle of the Seventeen Century), the neophyte is owed more introductory material to initiate them to the intellectual ambiance of the work. However, this want of prolegomena is overcome somewhat by the timeless and lapidary quality of many of Pascal’s fragments—e.g., “Man’s sensitivity to little things and insensitivity to the greatest things are marks of a strange disorder.” (One may find some assistance in understanding Pascal’s thoughts, life, and world by consulting my book, On Pascal [Wadsworth, 2003].)

In a time when literacy is in deep decline and when so many are learning so little about things that matter so much, I commend Penguin for the Great Idea series and for this particular installment. A close and contentious reading of Blaise Pascal can indeed transform the way one sees oneself—and how one sees God.

You can read the whole thing here.

The book that Groothius mentions (On Pascal) is also available on Amazon.

If you’re interested in reading Pensées, the Christian Classics Ethereal Library has a version online and freely available to view.