Blaise Pascal/Conversation on Epictetus and Montaigne

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Minor Works by Blaise Pascal, translated by Orlando Williams Wight
Conversation on Epictetus and Montaigne

CONVERSATION OF PASCAL

with m. de saci


On Epictetus and Montaigne

"M. Pascal came, too, at this time, to live at Port-Royal des Champs. I do not stop to tell who this man was, whom not only all France, but all Europe admired; his mind always acute, always active, was of an extent, an elevation, a firmness, a penetration, and a clearness exceeding any thing that can be believed.…This admirable man, being finally moved by God, submitted this lofty mind to the yoke of Jesus Christ, and this great and noble heart embraced penitence with humility. He came to Paris to throw himself into the arms of M. Singlin, resolved to do all that he should order him. M. Singlin thought, on seeing this great genius, that he should do well to send him to Port-Royal des Champs, where M. Arnauld would cope with him in the sciences, and where M. de Saci would teach him to despise them. He came therefore to live at Port-Royal. M. de Saci could not courteously avoid seeing him, especially having been urged to it by M. Singlin; but the holy enlightenment which he found in the Scripture and in the Fathers made him hope that he would not be dazzled by all the brilliancy of M. Pascal, which nevertheless charmed and carried away all the world. He found in fact all that he said very just. He acknowledged with pleasure the strength of his mind and conversation. All that M. Pascal said to him that was remarkable he had seen before in St. Augustine, and doing justice to every one, he said: 'M. Pascal is extremely estimable in that, not having read the Fathers of the Church, he has of himself, by the penetration of his mind, found the same truths that they had found. He finds them surprising, he says, because he has not found them in any place; but for us, we are accustomed to see them on every side in our books.' Thus, this wise ecclesiastic, finding that the ancients had not less light than the moderns, held to them, and esteemed M. Pascal greatly because he agreed in all things with St. Augustine.

"The usual way of M. De Saci, in conversing with people, was to adapt his conversation to those with whom he was talking. If he met, for example, M. Champagne, he talked with him of painting. If he met M. Hamon, he talked with him of medicine. If he met the surgeon of the place, he questioned him on surgery. Those who cultivated the vine, or trees, or grain, told him all that was remarkable about them. Every thing served to lead him speedily to God and to lead others there with him. He thought it his duty therefore to put M. Pascal in his province, and to talk with him of the philosophical readings with which he had been most occupied. He led him to this subject in the first conversations that they had together. M. Pascal told him that his two most familiar books had been Epictetus and Montaigne, and highly eulogized these two minds. M. de Saci, who had always thought it a duty to read but little of these two authors, entreated M. Pascal to speak of them to him at length."

"Epictetus," says he, "is among the philosophers of the world who have best understood the duties of man. He requires, before all things, that he should regard God as his principal object; that he should be persuaded that he governs every thing with justice; that he should submit to him cheerfully, and that he should follow him voluntarily in every thing, as doing nothing except with the utmost wisdom: as thus this disposition will check all complaints and murmurs, and will prepare his mind to suffer tranquilly the most vexatious events. Never say, says he, I have lost this; say rather, I have restored it. My son is dead, I have restored him. My wife is dead, I have restored her. So with property and with every thing else. But he who has deprived me of it is a wicked man, you say. Why does it trouble you by whom the one who has lent it to you demands it of you again? While he permits you the use of it, take care of it as property belonging to another, as a man who is travelling would do in an inn. You ought not, says he, to desire that things should be done as you wish, but you ought to wish that they should be done as they are done. Remember, says he elsewhere, that you are here as an actor, and that you play the part in a drama that it pleases the manager to give you. If he gives you a short one, play a short one; if he gives you a long one, play a long one; if he wishes you to feign the beggar, you should do it with all the simplicity possible to you; and so with the rest. It is your business to play well the part that is given you; but to choose it is the business of another. Have every day before your eyes death and the evils which seem the most intolerable; and you will never think of any thing lower and will desire nothing with excess.

"He shows, too, in a thousand ways what man should do. He requires that he should be humble, that he should conceal his good resolutions, especially in the beginning, and that he should accomplish them in secret: nothing destroys them more than to reveal them. He never tires of repeating that the whole study and desire of man should be to perceive the will of God and to pursue it.

"Such sir, said M. Pascal to M. de Saci, was the enlightenment of this great mind that so well understood the duties of man. I dare say that he would have merited to be adored if he had also known his impotence as well, since it is necessary to be a god to teach both to men. Thus as he was clay and ashes, after having so well comprehended what was due, behold how he destroys himself in the presumption of what can be done. He says that God has given to every man the means of acquitting himself of all his obligations; that these means are always in our power; that we must seek felicity through the things that are in our power, since God has given them to us for this end: we must see what there is in us that is free; that wealth, life, esteem, are not in our power, and therefore do not lead to God; but that the mind cannot be forced to believe what it knows to be false, nor the will to love what it knows will render it unhappy; that these two powers are therefore free, and and that it is through them that we can render ourselves perfect; that man can by these powers perfectly know God, love him, obey him, please him, cure himself of all his vices, acquire all the virtues, render himself holy, and thus the companion of God. These principles of a diabolic pride lead him to other errors, as that the soul is a portion of the divine substance; that sorrow and death are not evils; that one may kill himself when he is persecuted to such a degree that he has reason to believe that God calls him, and others.

"As for Montaigne, of whom you wish too, sir, that I should speak to you, being born in a Christian State, he made profession of the Catholic religion, and in this there was nothing peculiar. But as he wished to discover what morals reason would dictate without the light of faith, he based his principles upon this supposition; and thus, considering man as destitute of all revelation, he discourses in this wise. He puts all things in a universal doubt, so general that this doubt bears away itself, that is whether he doubts, and even doubting this latter proposition, his uncertainty revolves upon itself in a perpetual and restless circle, alike opposed to those who affirm that every thing is uncertain and to those who affirm that every thing is not so, because he will affirm nothing. It is in this doubt which doubts itself, and in this ignorance which is ignorant of itself, and which he calls his master-form, that lies the essence of his opinion, which he was unable to express by any positive term. For if he says that he doubts, he betrays himself in affirming at least that he doubts; which being formally against his intention, he could only explain it by interrogation; so that, not wishing to say: " I do not know," he says: "What do I know?" Of this he makes his device, placing it under the scales which, weighing contradictories, are found in perfect equilibrium: that is, it is pure Pyrrhonism. Upon this principle revolve all his discourses and all his essays; and it is the only thing that he pretends really to establish, although he does not always point out his intention. He destroys in them insensibly all that passes for the most certain among men, not indeed to establish the contrary with a certainty to which alone he is the enemy, but merely to show that, appearances being equal on both sides, one knows not where to fix his belief.

"In this spirit he jests at all affirmations; for example, he combats those who have thought to establish in France a great remedy against lawsuits by the multitude and the pretended justice of the laws: as if one could cut off the root of the doubts whence arise these lawsuits, and as if there were dikes that could arrest the torrent of uncertainty and take conjectures captive! Thus it is that, when he says that he would as soon submit his cause to the first passer-by as to judges armed with such a number of ordinances, he does not pretend that we should change the order of the State,—he has not so much ambition; nor that his advice may be better,—he believes none good. It is only to prove the vanity of the most received opinions; showing that the exclusion of all laws would rather diminish the number of disputants whilst the multiplicity of laws serves only to increase them, since difficulties grow in proportion as they are weighed; since obscurities are multiplied by commentaries; and since the surest way to understand the meaning of a discourse is not to examine it, and to take it on the first appearance: as soon as it is scrutinized, all its clearness becomes dissipated. In the like manner he judges by chance of all the acts of men and the points of history, sometimes in one way, sometimes in another, freely following his first impression, and, without constraining his thought by the rules of reason, which has only false measures, he delights to show, by his example, the contrarieties of the same mind. In this free genius, it is alike equal to him to get the better or not in the dispute, having always, by either example, a means of showing the weakness of opinions; being sustained with so much advantage in this universal doubt, that he is strengthened in it alike by his triumph and his defeat.

"It is from this position, floating and wavering as it is, that he combats with an invincible firmness the heretics of his times in respect to their affirmation of alone knowing the true sense of the Scripture; and it is also from this that he thunders forth most vigorously against the horrible impiety of those who dare to affirm that God is not. He attacks them especially in the apology of Raimond de Sebonde; and finding them voluntarily destitute of all revelation, and abandoned to their natural intelligence, all faith set aside, he demands of them upon what authority they undertake to judge of this sovereign Being who is infinite by his own definition, they who know truly none of the things of nature! He asks them upon what principles they rest; he presses them to show them. He examines all that they can produce; and penetrates them so deeply, by the talent in which he excels, that he demonstrates the vanity of all those that pass for the firmest and the most natural. He asks whether the soul knows any thing; whether she knows herself; whether she is substance or accident, body or spirit, what is each of these things, and whether there is any thing that does not belong to one of these orders; whether she knows her own body, what is matter and whether she can discern among the innumerable variety of bodies from which it is produced; how she can reason if she is material; and how she can be united to a particular body and feel its passions if she is spiritual: when she commenced to be? with the body or before? and whether she will end with it or not; whether she is never mistaken; whether she knows when she errs, seeing that the essence of contempt consists in not knowing it; whether in her obscurity she does not believe as firmly that two and three make six as she knows afterwards that they make five; whether animals reason, think, talk; and who can determine what is time, what is space or extent, what is motion, what is unity, what are all the things that surround us and are wholly inexplicable to us; what is health, sickness, life, death, good, evil, justice, sin, of which we constantly speak; whether we have within us the principles of truth, and whether those which we believe, and which are called axioms or common notions, because they are common to all men, are in conformity with the essential truth. And since we know but by faith alone that an all-good Being has given them to us truly in creating us to know the truth, who can know without this light whether, being formed by chance, they are not uncertain, or whether, being formed by a lying and malicious being, he has not given them to us falsely in order to lead us astray? Showing by this that God and truth are inseparable, and that if the one is or is not, if it is certain or uncertain, the other is necessarily the same. Who knows then whether the common-sense, that we take for the judge of truth, can be the judge of that which has created it? Besides, who knows what truth is, and how can we be sure of having it without understanding it? Who knows even what is being which it is impossible to define, since there is nothing more general, and since it would be necessary at first, to explain it, to use the word itself: It is being…? And since we know not what is soul, body, time, space, motion, truth, good, nor even being, nor how to explain the idea that we form within ourselves, how can we assure ourselves that it is the same in all men, seeing that we have no other token than the uniformity of consequences, which is not always a sign of that of principles; for they may indeed be very different, and lead nevertheless to the same conclusions, every one knowing that the true is often inferred from the false.

"Lastly, he examines thus profoundly the sciences, both geometry, of which he shows the uncertainty in the axioms and the terms that she does not define, as centre, motion, etc., physics in many more ways, and medicine in an infinity of methods; history, politics, ethics, jurisprudence, and the rest. So that we remain convinced that we think no better at present that in a dream from which we shall wake only at death, and during which we have the principles of truth as little as during natural sleep. It is thus that he reproaches reason divested of faith so strongly and so cruelly that, making her doubt whether she is rational, and whether animals are so or not, or in a greater or less degree, he makes her descend from the excellence which she has attributed to herself, and places her through grace on a level with the brutes, without permitting her to quit this order until she shall have been instructed by her Creator himself in respect to her rank, of which she is ignorant; threatening, if she grumbles, to place her beneath every thing, which is as easy as the opposite, and nevertheless giving her power to act only in order to remark her weakness with sincere humility, instead of exalting herself by a foolish insolence."

"M. de Saci, fancying himself living in a new country, and listening to a new language, repeated to himself the words of St. Augustine: O God of truth! are those who know these subtleties of reasoning therefore more pleasing to thee? He pitied this philosopher who pricked and tore himself on every side with the thorns that he formed, as St. Augustine said of himself when he was in this state. After some meditation, he said to M. Pascal:

"I thank you, sir; I am sure that if I had read Montaigne a long time, I should not know him so well as I do, since the conversation that I have just had with you. This man should wish that he might never be known, except by the recitals that you make of his writings; and he might say with St. Augustine: Ibi me vide, attende. I believe assuredly that this man had talent; but I know not whether you do not lend to him a little more than he had, by the logical chain that you make of his principles. You can judge that having passed my life as I have done, I have had little counsel to read this author, the works of whom had nothing of that which we ought chiefly to seek in our reading, according to the rule of St. Augustine, because his works do not appear to proceed from a solid basis of humility and piety. We should forgive those philosophers of former times who styled themselves academicians, for putting every thing in doubt. But what need had Montaigne to divert the mind by reviving a doctrine which passes now in the eyes of Christians for the folly? This is the judgment that St. Augustine passes on these persons. For we can say after him of Montaigne: He sets faith aside in every thing that he says; therefore we, who have faith, should set aside every thing that he says. I do not blame the talent of this author, which was a great gift from God; but he might have used it better, and made a sacrifice of it to God rather than to the devil. What avails a blessing when one uses it so ill? Quid proderat, etc., said this holy doctor of him before his conversion. You are fortunate, sir, in having raised yourself above these people, who are called doctors, who are plunged in drunkenness, but whose hearts are void of truth. God has poured out into your heart other sweets and other attractions than those which you find in Montaigne. He has recalled you from that dangerous pleasure, a jucunditate pestifera, says St. Augustine, who renders thanks to God that he has forgiven him the sins which he had committed in delighting too much in vanity. St. Augustine is so much the more credible in this that he held formerly the same sentiments; and as you say of Montaigne that it is through universal doubt that he combats the heretics of his times, so through this same doubt of the academicians, St. Augustine forsook the heresy of the Manicheans. As soon as he belonged to God, he renounced these vanities, which he calls sacrileges. He perceived with what wisdom St. Paul warned us not to suffer ourselves to be seduced by these discourses. For he acknowledges that there is in them a certain harmony which fascinates: we sometimes believe things true only because they are narrated eloquently. Those are dangerous viands, says he, that are served up in fine dishes; but these viands, instead of nourishing the heart, starve it. We then resemble men who sleep, and who fancy that they eat while sleeping: these imaginary viands leave them as empty as they were before.

"M. de Saci made several similar remarks to M. Pascal; whereupon M. Pascal said to him, that if he complimented him on thoroughly possessing Montaigne, and of knowing how to construe him well, he could tell him without flattery that he understood St. Augustine much better, and that he knew how to construe him much better, though little to the advantage of poor Montaigne. He expressed himself as being extremely edified by the solidity of all that he had just represented to him; nevertheless, being full of his author, he could not contain himself, and thus continued:

"I acknowledge, sir, that I cannot see without joy in this author proud reason so irresistibly baffled by its own weapons, and that fierce contention of man with man, which, from the companionship with God, to which he had exalted himself by maxims, hurls him down to the nature of brutes; and I should have loved with all my heart the minister of so great a vengeance, if, being a disciple of the Church by faith, he had followed the rules of ethics, in bringing men whom he had so usefully humiliated, not to irritate by new crimes him who alone can draw them from the crimes which he has convicted them of not being able even to know.

"But he acts on the contrary like a heathen in this wise. On this principle, says he, outside of faith every thing is in uncertainty, and considering how much men seek the true and the good without making any progress towards tranquillity, he concludes that one should leave the care of them to others; and remain nevertheless in repose, skimming lightly over subjects for fear of going beyond one's depth in them; and take the true and the good on first appearances, without dwelling on them, for they are so far from being solid that if one grasps them ever so lightly, they will slip through his fingers and leave them empty. For this reason he follows the evidence of the senses and common-sense, because he would be obliged to do violence to himself to contradict them, and because he knows not whether he would gain by it, ignorant as to where the truth is. So he shuns pain and death, because his instinct impels him to it, and because he will not resist for the same reason, but without concluding thence that these may be the real evils, not confiding too much in these natural emotions of fear, seeing that we feel others of pleasure which are accused of being wrong, although nature speaks to the contrary. Thus there is nothing extravagant in his conduct; he acts like the rest of mankind, and all that they do in the foolish idea that they are pursuing the true good, he does from another principle, which is that probabilities being equal on either side, example and convenience are the counterpoises that decide him.

"He mounts his horse like a man that is not a philosopher, because he suffers it, but without believing that this is his right, not knowing whether this animal has not, on the contrary, the right to make use of him. He also does some violence to himself to avoid certain vices; and he even preserves fidelity to marriage on account of the penalty that follows irregularities; but if the trouble that he takes exceeds that which he avoids, It does not disturb him, the rule of this action being convenience and tranquillity. He utterly rejects therefore that stoical virtue which is depicted with a severe mien, fierce glance, bristling locks, and wrinkled and moist brow, In a painful and distorted posture, far from men. In a gloomy silence, alone upon the summit of a rock: a phantom, he says, fit to frighten children, and which does nothing else with continual effort than to seek the repose which it never attains. His own is simple, familiar, pleasant, playful, and as we may say sportive: she follows whatever charms her, and toys negligently with good and bad accidents, reclining effeminately in the bosom of a tranquil indolence, from which she shows to those who seek felicity with so much toil that it is only there where she is reposing, and that ignorance and incuriosity are soft pillows for a well-balanced head, as he himself has said.

"I cannot conceal from you, sir, that in reading this author and comparing him with Epictetus, I have found that they are assuredly the two greatest defenders of the two most celebrated sects of the world, and the only ones conformable to reason, since we can only follow one of these two roads, namely: either that there is a God, and then we place in him the sovereign good; or that he is uncertain, and that then the true good is also uncertain, since he is incapable of it. I have taken extreme pleasure in remarking in these different reasonings wherein both have reached some conformity with the true wisdom which they have essayed to understand. For if it is pleasing to observe in nature her desire to paint God in all his works, in which we see some traces of him because they are his images, how much more just is it to consider in the productions of minds the efforts which they make to imitate the essential truth, even in shunning it, and to remark wherein they attain it and wherein they wander from it, as I have endeavored to do in this study.

"It is true, sir, that you have just shown me, in an admirable manner, the little utility that Christians can draw from these philosophic studies. I shall not refrain however, with your permission, from telling you still further my thoughts on the subject, ready, however, to renounce all light that does not come from you, in which I shall have the advantage either of having encountered truth by good fortune or of receiving it from you with certainty. It appears to me that the source of the errors of these two sects, is in not having known that the state of man at the present time differs from that of his creation; so that the one, remarking some traces of his first greatness and being ignorant of his corruption, has treated nature as sound and without need of redemption, which leads him to the height of pride; whilst the other, feeling the present wretchedness and being ignorant of the original dignity, treats nature as necessarily infirm and irreparable, which precipitates it into despair of arriving at real good, and thence into extreme laxity. Thus these two states which it is necessary to know together in order to see the whole truth, being known separately, lead necessarily to one of these two vices, pride or indolence, in which all men are invariably before grace, since if they do not remain in their disorders through laxity, they forsake them through vanity, so true is that which you have just repeated to me from St. Augustine, and which I find to a great extent; for in fact homage is rendered to them in many ways.

"It is therefore from this imperfect enlightenment that it happens that the one, knowing the duties of man and being ignorant of his impotence, is lost in presumption, and that the other, knowing the impotence and being ignorant of the duty, falls into laxity; whence it seems that since the one leads to truth, the other to error, there would be formed from their alliance a perfect system of morals. But instead of this peace, nothing but war and a general ruin would result from their union; for the one establishing certainty, the other doubt, the one the greatness of man, the other his weakness, they would destroy the truths as well as the falsehoods of each other. So that they cannot subsist alone because of their defects, nor unite because of their opposition, and thus they break and destroy each other to give place to the truth of the Gospel. This it is that harmonizes the contrarieties by a wholly divine act, and uniting all that is true and expelling all that is false, thus makes of them a truly celestial wisdom in which those opposites accord that were incompatible in human doctrines. And the reason of this is, that these philosophers of the world place contrarieties in the same subject; for the one attributed greatness to nature and the other weakness to this same nature, which could not subsist; whilst faith teaches us to place them in different subjects: all that is infirm belonging to nature, all that is powerful belonging to grace. Such is the marvellous and novel union which God alone could teach, and which he alone could make, and which is only a type and an effect of the ineffable union of two natures in the single person of a Man-God.

"I ask your pardon, sir, said M. Pascal to M. de Saci, for being thus carried away in your presence into theology, instead of remaining in philosophy, which alone was my subject; but I was led to it insensibly; and it is difficult not to enter upon it whatever truth may be discussed, because it is the centre of all the truths; which appears here perfectly, since it so obviously includes all those that are found in these opinions. Thus I do not see how any of them could refuse to follow it. For if they are full of the idea of the greatness of man, what have they imagined that does not yield to the promises of the Gospel, which are nothing else than the worthy price of the death of a God? And if they delighted in viewing the infirmities of nature, their ideas do not equal those of the real weakness of sin, of which the same death has been the remedy. Thus all find in it more than they have desired; and what is marvellous, they who could not harmonize in an infinitely inferior degree, then find themselves in unison!"

"M. de Saci could not refrain from testifying to M. Pascal that he was surprised to see how well he knew how to interpret things; but he acknowledged at the same time that every one had not the secret of making on these readings such wise and elevated reflections. He told him that he was like those skilful physicians, who by an adroit method of preparing the most deadly poisons knew how to extract from them the most efficacious remedies. He added, that though he saw clearly, from what he had just said, that these readings were useful to him, he could not believe however that they would be advantageous to many people of slow intellect, who would not have elevation of mind enough to read these authors and judge of them, and to know how to draw pearls from the midst of the dunghill, aurum ex stercore, as said one of the Fathers. This could be much better said of these philosophers, the dunghill of whom, by its black fumes, might obscure the wavering faith of those who read them. For this reason he would always counsel such persons not to expose themselves lightly to these readings, for fear of being destroyed with these philosophers, and of becoming the prey of demons and the food of worms, according to the language of the Scripture, as these philosophers have been."

"As to the utility of these readings, said M. Pascal, I will tell you simply my thought. I find in Epictetus an incomparable art for troubling the repose of those who seek it in external things, and for forcing them to acknowledge that they are veritable slaves and miserable blind men; that it is impossible that they should find any thing else than the error and pain which they fly, unless they give themselves without reserve to God alone. Montaigne is incomparable for confounding the pride of those who, outside of faith, pique themselves in a genuine justice; for disabusing those who cling to their opinions, and who think to find in the sciences impregnable truths; and for so effectually convicting reason of its want of light and its aberrations, that it is difficult, when one makes a good use of its principles, to be tempted to find repugnance in mysteries, for the mind is so overwhelmed by him, that it is far from wishing to judge whether the Incarnation or the mystery of the Eucharist are possible; which the generality of mankind discuss but too often.

"But if Epictetus combats indolence, he leads to pride, so that he may be very injurious to those who are not persuaded of the corruption of the most perfect justice which is not from faith. And Montaigne is absolutely pernicious to those who have any leaning to impiety or vice. For this reason these readings should be regulated with much care, discretion, and regard to the condition and disposition of those to whom they are counselled. It seems to me only that by joining them together they would not succeed ill, since the one is opposed to the evil of the other: not that they could bestow virtue but only disturb vice; the soul finding itself combated by contrarieties, the one of which expels pride and the other indolence, and being unable to be tranquil in any of these vices by their reasonings, or to shun them all."

"It was thus that these two persons of so fine an intellect agreed at last upon the subject of the reading of these philosophers, and met at the same goal, which they reached however by a somewhat different method; M. de Saci arriving there at once through the dear views of Christianity, and M. Pascal reaching it only after many turns by clinging to the principles of these philosophers."