A Blaise of Glory

31 Jan

If you read my review of 2022, you may remember that it wasn’t a great year in reading for me. This year, however, has started with three absolute bangers – although I actually started reading them in 2022. The other two were The Martian and Wool, both of which I started in December, but this blog post is about Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, which I read slowly over the course of the year.

The Pensées, which means ‘thoughts’, is really a collection of notes that Pascal made for a book of Christian apologetics that he never wrote. (Which is an uncomfortable reminder of the notes I have for two books on my to-write pile. Better not drop dead anytime soon.)

Many of these thoughts are very profound or pithy or both. I took to keeping a pencil with me as I read so I could underline my favourite quotes, so what you have here are the underlinings. I seem to have underlined quite a lot, in fact, so if you just read these quotations, you could probably do a good job of bluffing that you had read the whole book.

I’ve divided it roughly into topics (assigned by me, not Pascal) although there is some overlap.

On human nature

This one was actually the first thing I marked in the Pensées, because it reminded me so much of Alexander Pope’s ‘Essay on Man‘:

What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe!

For comparison, here is the passage from Pope:

Created half to rise, and half to fall;

Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;

Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d:

The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Alexander Pope, ‘An Essay on Man’

If our state were really happy, we should not need to take our minds off it in order to make ourselves happy.

Our imagination so magnifies the present, because we are continually thinking about it, and so reduces eternity, because we do not think about it, that we turn eternity into nothing and nothing into eternity.

As someone who is so fond of sleep she could list it among her hobbies, this jumped out at me:

Sleep, you say, is the image of death; for my part I say that it is rather the image of life.

Our soul is cast into the body where it finds number, time, dimensions; it reasons about these things and calls them natural, or necessary, and can believe nothing else.

Each man is everything to himself, for with his death everything is dead for him. That is why each of us thinks he is everything to everyone. We must not judge nature by ourselves, but by its own standards.

The mind naturally believes and the will naturally loves, so that when there are no true objects for them they necessarily become attached to false ones.

The human life is nothing but a perpetual illusion; there is nothing but mutual deception and flattery. No one talks about us in our presence as he would in our absence. Human relations are only built on this mutual deception; and few friendships would survive if everyone knew what his friend said about him behind his back, even though he spoke sincerely and dispassionately.

When our passions impel us to do something, we forget our duty. For example, if we like a book, we read it when we ought to be doing something else. But to remember our duty we need only decide to do something we dislike; we then make the excuse of something else to be done, and thus remember our duty.

When everything is moving all at once, nothing appears to be moving, as on board ship. When everyone is moving towards depravity, no one seems to be moving, but if someone stops he shows up the others who are rushing on, by acting as a fixed point.

The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.

On faith

Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it. It is merely feeble if it does not go so far as to realise that.

This one was quite special to an Ancient Historian and unapologetic Alexander the Great fangirl:

How good it is to see with the eyes of faith Darius and Cyrus, Alexander, the Romans, Pompey and Herod, working unwittingly for the glory of the Gospel!

The will is one of the chief organs of belief, not because it creates belief, but because things are true or false according to the aspect by which we judge them. When the will likes one aspect more than another, it deflects the mind for considering the qualities of the one it does not care to see. Thus the mind, keeping in step with the will, remains looking at the aspect preferred by the will and so judges by what it sees there.

Pascal’s Wager (or, why it makes sense to believe in God). This is just the end of it. You can, if you wish, read the whole argument.

Now, what harm will come to you from choosing this course? You will be faithful, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those noxious pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain even in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see that your gain is so certain, and your risk so negligible, that in the end you will realise that you have wagered on something certain and infinite, for which you have paid nothing.

That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.

Even if someone were convinced that the propositions between numbers are immaterial, eternal truths, depending on a first truth in which they subsist, called God, I should not consider that he had made much progress towards his salvation.

The Christian’s God does not consist merely of a God who is the author of mathematical truths and the order of the elements. That is the portion of the heathen and Epicureans. He does not consist merely of a God who extends his providence over the life and property of men so as to grant a happy span of years to those who worship him. That is the portion of the Jews. But the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of the Christians is a God of love and consolation: he is a God who fills the soul and heart of those whom he possesses: he is a God who makes them inwardly aware of their wretchedness and his infinite mercy: who unites himself with them in the depths of their soul: who fills it with humility, joy, confidence and love: who makes them incapable of having any other end but him. All those who seek God apart from Christ, and who go no further than nature, either find no light to satisfy them or come to devise a means of knowing and serving God without a mediator, thus falling into either atheism or deism, two things almost equally abhorrent to Christianity.

You would not seek me if you did not possess me.

The slightest movement affects the whole of nature; one stone can alter the whole sea. Likewise, in the realm of grace, the slightest action affects everything because of its consequences; therefore, everything matters.

In every action we must look beyond the action at our present, past and future state, and that of others affected by it, and see how all these things are connected. Then we shall exercise great restraint.

We make an idol of truth itself, for truth apart from charity is not God, but his image and an idol that we must not love or worship. Still less must we love of worship its opposite, which is falsehood.

The figure was drawn from the truth.

And the truth was recognised from the figure.

Our religion is adapted to all sorts of minds. The first go no further than the institution, and our religion is such that its mere institution is enough to prove its truth. Others go as far back as the apostles. The best instructed go as far back as the beginning of the world. Angels see it still better, and from a greater distance.

The law obliged men to have what it did not give; grace gives what it obliges men to have.

There are three ways to believe: reason, habit, inspiration. Christianity which alone has reason does not admit as its true children those who believe without inspiration. It is not that it excludes reason and habit, quite the contrary, but we must open our mind to the proofs, confirm ourselves in it through habit, while offering ourselves through humiliations to inspiration, which alone can produce the real and salutary effect.

Who ever proved that it will dawn tomorrow, and that we shall die? And what is more widely believed? It is, then, habit that convinces us and makes so many Christians. It is habit that makes Turks, heathen, trades, soldiers, etc… In short, we must resort to habit once the mind has seen where the truth lies, in order to steep and stain ourselves in that belief which constantly eludes us, for it is too much trouble to have the proofs always present before us. We must acquire an easier belief, which is that of habit.

On thinking

Man is obviously made for thinking. Therein lies all his dignity and his merit; and his whole duty is to think as he ought. Now, the order of thoughts is to begin with ourselves, and with our author and our end.

Now what does the world think about? Never about that but about dancing, playing the lute, singing, writing verse, tilting at the ring etc., and fighting, becoming king, without thinking what it means to be a king or to be a man.

Incomprehensible that God should exist and incomprehensible that he should not; that the soul should be joined to the body, that we should have no soul; that the world should be created, that it should not; that original sin should exist and that it should not.

Those who judge a work without any rule stand with regard to others as do those who have a watch with regard to those who have not. One man says: ‘Two hours ago;’ another says: ‘It is only three quarters of an hour. I look at my watch and tell the first: ‘You must be bored,’ and the second ‘You hardly feel the time passing,’ because it is an hour and a half ago. I take no notice of those who tell me that time must hang heavily on my hands and that I am judging it according to my own fancy.

They do not know that I am judging it by my watch.

Pascal also includes some quotations from other thinkers:

Nothing is too absurd for some philosopher to have said it.


Pledged to certain fixed opinions, they are compelled to defend what they do not approve.


The Christian life

The Christian’s hope of possessing an infinite good is mingled with actual enjoyment as well as with fear, for, unlike people hoping for a kingdom of which they will have no part because they are subjects, Christians hope for holiness, and to be freed from unrighteousness, and some part of this is already theirs.

In the Church, when truth is injured by enemies of the faith, when attempts are made to uproot it from the hearts of the faithful, and make error reign in its stead, would it be serving or betraying the Church to remain at peace? And is it not obvious that, just as it is a crime to disturb the peace when truth reigns, it is also a crime to remain at peace when the truth is being destroyed?

Do small things as if they were great, because of the majesty of Christ, who does them in us and lives our life, and great things as if they were small and easy, because of his almighty power.

It is false piety to preserve peace at the expense of truth. It is also false zeal to preserve truth at the expense of charity.

There are some vices which only keep hold on us through other ones, and if we take the trunk away they come off like the branches.

We implore God’s mercy, not so that he shall leave us in peace with our vices, but so that he may deliver us from them.

The proper function of wealth is to be freely given.

The falsely righteous… do both good works and bad to please the world and show that they are not wholly Christ’s, for they are ashamed to be. Finally, when it comes to great temptations and opportunities, they put him to death.

To make a man a saint, grace is certainly needed, and anyone who doubts this does not know what a saint, or a man, really is.

Pascal’s reply to that Atheist Bus Campaign advert:

A fine reason to rejoice and proudly boast like this: ‘Let us therefore rejoice; let us live without fear or anxiety and wait for death, since it is all uncertain and then we shall see what will happen to us.’ I do not see the logic of this.

Again, this next one is part of a longer argument and makes more sense of you read the whole thing.

It is the same with prophecies, miracles, divinations by dreams, spells, etc., for, if none of this had ever been genuine, none of it would ever have been believed. Thus instead of concluding that there are no true miracles because there are so many false ones, we must on the contrary say that there certainly are true miracles since there are so many false ones, and that false ones are only there because true ones exist. The same argument must be applied to religion, for men could not possibly have imaged so many false religions unless there were a true one.

There are, then, a great number of truths, both of faith and of morality, which seem contradictory but all exist in admirable order. The source of all heresies is the exclusion of certain of these truths.

On reading and writing

Let no one say that I have said nothing new; the arrangement of the material is new. In playing tennis, both players use the same ball, but one plays it better.

I would just as soon be told that I have used old words. As if the same thoughts did not form a different argument by being differently arranged, just as the same words make different thoughts when arranged differently.

As [Montaigne’s] book was not written to encourage piety, he was under no obligation to do so, but we are always under an obligation not to discourage it.

This one made me laugh. He’s not wrong. One of the reasons for reading the Pensées is so you can say you’ve read them.

Those who write against them want to enjoy the prestige of having written well, those who read them want the prestige of having read them, and perhaps I who write this want the same thing, perhaps my readers…

The last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put first.


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