Studies of a Biographer/Pascal
Pascal is one of the great men whose minds have been fascinated by the eternal riddle of existence, and have carried to a logical conclusion one typical mode of meeting if not of answering it; and who have also had the gift of coining thought into language so terse and vivid as to be part of the intellectual currency of all future generations. Yet the thought even of such men had to be expressed in the dialect and applied to the particular circumstances of their time. It may be worth while, therefore, to consider in what way Pascal's view was coloured by the conditions of the day, and what are its true relations to the development of thought. I make no claim to the special knowledge which would be necessary for a full treatment of the subject treatise, and am content to refer, once for all, to Sainte-Beuve's admirable Port-Royal, in which the great critic has shown Pascal as a living man among his surroundings, and pointed out with incomparable skill his relation not only to the religious and philosophical, but to the social, political, and literary movements of a interesting period. I shall only aim at setting out one or two cardinal points.
First of all, Pascal came at a great period: at the time when philosophic systems were being stirred by the influences named after Descartes and Bacon; when the greatest minds were breaking off the fetters of effete scholasticism; and when it was possible for men of the highest order to take a Pisgah sight of the promised land of knowledge without being distracted and bewildered, like their successors, in the complexity of actual explorations of the region. In one respect Pascal was especially qualified to take part in the new movement. The philosophy of Descartes was essentially a philosophy for mathematicians, for mathematics, at that time, represented the decisive example of intellectual progress. Metaphysics, it seems, might at last become progressive if, instead of wearily rambling round the old dialectical circle, it could adopt similar methods. Descartes laid down the principle. Spinoza's Ethics, appropriating the forms of geometrical demonstration, and presenting the whole universe as an incarnate Euclid, shows the rational consummation of the experiment. Now, Pascal was obviously a heaven-born mathematician. By the age of twelve, we are told, he had thought out for himself the elementary propositions of Euclid; by nineteen he had invented and constructed a calculating machine, and obtained results which were important steps towards the differential calculus developed by Newton and Leibnitz. In his last years, when attacked by a bad toothache, he returned to the studies which had long been thrown aside, and in a few sleepless nights discovered certain geometrical theorems. His results were published, and the mathematicians of Europe challenged to find out the proof. After three months' labour, Wallis, the ablest English mathematician of the day, produced a proof—not, it was said, satisfactory. Patriotism induces me to add that Wallis had no toothache to stimulate him. At an early age, however, Pascal's health had broken down; from his eighteenth year until his death he never had a day free from pain. His first conversion, at the age of twenty-three, induced him to throw aside scientific activity as a worldly vanity. He became closely associated with the remarkable Port-Royal community, and appeared as their champion in the Provincial Letters in 1656. The Provincial Letters marked an epoch in theological disputes and in literature. His friends, when put on their defence, had entangled themselves in hopelessly intricate controversies, devoid apparently of all human interest. Pascal put the point so clearly and with such dexterous irony, that not only the religious world but the world of laughers and of sensible men—rightly powerful in France—came to his side. When he had finished, the great Society of Jesus was stamped with an opprobrium from which it has never been able to free itself, and Pascal had created, once for all, so the highest authorities assure us, a model of admirable French prose. He showed for the first time what we all now know, the unrivalled fitness of his language for clear, logical, convincing statement; and in his hands the perfect form was the more impressive because it everywhere indicates, and is yet never perturbed by, profound conviction and a deep glow of moral indignation. From controversy with the Jesuits he turned to controversy with the Rationalists. The Pensées, as we have them now, are but a fragment of an intended vindication of Christianity. As we had them till lately, they were a fragment distorted by the labours of pious editors. After a year's labour, Pascal had sunk into such feebleness that for the last four years of his life he could only jot down disconnected thoughts. And yet the book, pieced together by well-intentioned friends, made an impression which has hardly grown weaker with time. That a man, dying before forty, immersed in ascetic practices, and having to struggle against constant infirmity, should have produced so great an effect in philosophy, in science, and in literature, is astonishing; and I think that, even among the great men of a great time, there is no one who excites more the sense of pure wonder at sheer intellectual power.
What was the result of his thought? Eminent critics have puzzled themselves as to whether Pascal was a sceptic or a genuine believer; having, I suppose, convinced themselves, by some process not obvious to me, that there is an incompatibility between the two characters. We shall perhaps see the relation more clearly hereafter. I can subscribe, at any rate, with one remark made by Sainte-Beuve. 'You may not cease to be a sceptic,' he says, 'after reading Pascal; but you must cease to treat believers with contempt' ––possibly because you will find how near they come to being sceptics. At any rate, it is well to unlearn contempt for anybody; and, if only for that reason, it may be worth while to consider Pascal's position a little more closely. We shall do so best, I think, by considering the central theory which connects the Letters and the Thoughts, and gives the real starting-point of his speculation.
The Letters to a Provincial open by an exposition of certain disputes about grace, which call up faint memories of the endless and intricate controversies of the time. The technical terms, justification, sanctification, election, grace, predestination, and the like, still occur in respectable text-books of theology, like fossils which show what strange monsters once cumbered the earth. Yet the discussions were the temporary embodiment of inquiries which still interest us profoundly in a different dialect, and involve really vital points of morality. The creed represented by Jansenius has carried on an intermittent warfare with its antagonist at the critical periods of Christian theology. He had declared himself to be simply reproducing the teaching of Augustine, who had elaborated the teaching of St. Paul; and, under the shelter of those infallible authorities, Jansenius roundly declared that the whole system accepted by Catholic divines of his day was a perversion of the truth. The great reformer Calvin had founded his edifice upon the same base, and to make room for it had demolished the authority of the Pope. Naturally Jansenists were accused of sympathising with that abominable heresiarch, and, strongly as they denied the consequence, of being logically bound to abandon either their doctrines or their loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church. Augustine's authority, of course, might not be openly assailed; how then did the doctrines of Calvin and of Jansenius—professedly applications of Augustine's—differ from it and from each other and from the accepted system? Such problems presented a wide field for the subtlety of theologians, and they were not slow to take advantage of the opening and to pile up libraries of distinctions and confutations and interpretations. Beneath the technical phrases lay the real question. What is virtue? Undoubtedly, according to the theologian, it means conformity to a divine law, and it implies the divine grace which disposes the heart to conformity. But which is the ultimate standing-point? Shall we consider morality as a law imposed from without and enforced by the sanctions of heaven and hell, or as defining the state of the heart or the will, which makes the 'law' the spontaneous expression of conduct? 'Law' has in one case the juridical sense, and refers to a compulsion exercised upon the will; in the other, the scientific sense, and refers to the intrinsic character of the will itself. An emphasis upon one or other aspect of the question leads to indefinitely varying shades of opinion and a boundless exercise of metaphysical subtlety. But one practical application meanwhile shows its vital importance. If you can regard morality simply as an 'external'—law comparable to human law—and then, as a system of rules enforced by spiritual penalties and administered by priests, you leave the road open to all the abuses which provoked the Reformation. The Church holds the keys and can absolve sin. A corrupt Church may use its power in the interests of spiritual tyranny and pervert the morality of which it becomes the official guardian. The sinner escapes the consequences of his sins by submitting to an external process: he is pardoned, not because his heart is purified, but because he has paid his fine to the representatives of God on earth. The Reformers, therefore, insisted upon the doctrine of justification by grace to cut up the system of sacerdotal power at the roots. The conversion of the heart, they said, was everything; the external conformity nothing; and the sacraments in general became mere commemorations—useful so far as stimulating the imagination, but not of themselves possessing any supernatural charm.
The Jansenists, accepting the same principle, stopped short at the critical point. Though they laid equal stress upon a change of heart, or 'conversion,' which has the same prominence with them as with the Calvinists or our English Methodists, they also held most strenuously that the sacraments were divinely appointed means of conversion. Thus they represented, as their antagonists said, a semi-Protestantism, which had illogically to combine a belief in the supernatural character of the sacramental system and the priesthood with an insistence upon the paramount importance of the change of heart. This indicates the line upon which Pascal came into internecine struggle with the Jesuits. The opening letters which touch upon certain problems about sufficient and efficacious grace show extraordinary skill, but are chiefly directed to unmask the dexterous equivocation which enabled one wing of his antagonists who really admitted the Jansenists' position to condemn it under cover of an ambiguous term. These letters do not go into the argument itself. But Pascal presently advances to the moral problem. Then he comes to close quarters: he denounces the Jesuits with astonishing vigour as corrupters of morality at its very source; as sanctioning lying, manslaughter, and impurity; as teaching doctrines wholly opposed to the law of Christ; and briefly as deserving of all that the most bitter Protestants have ever said of the Scarlet Lady. I have no pretensions to judge of the justice of Pascal's attacks, though I cannot avoid a strong suspicion that he hit some very weak points; but for my purpose it is enough to assume his sincerity, which is beyond a doubt, and, taking his statement of facts for granted, to consider the logic of the assault. What, then, was the system attacked? The Jesuits, of course, were the most devoted adherents of the Church, and in that capacity the supporters of its system of government. The Catholic is not only a believer in certain dogmas, but a subject of a great ecclesiastical hierarchy. He is governed throughout the whole sphere of conduct by an elaborate code of law, the administration of which is confided by the Church to the confessor. The confessor must have some definite rule to estimate the importance of sins and to know the conditions of pardon. Such a law had been elaborated by the casuists. They had put together a code of spiritual legislation, coinciding in some directions with the ordinary laws of the State, but in others going into every conceivable detail of conduct with which the merely human legislator is incompetent to deal. It was, in short, morality made into law. Here, then, we have the utmost possible elaboration of that view of morality against which the Jansenists protested: the view which assimilates it to an external or municipal law, differing from such law only in the nature of the sanctions—in substituting hell or purgatory for the gallows or the prison—and the all-comprehensive nature of its subject-matter. Not only every act which affects others, but every act affecting the man himself, and even his most secret thoughts or intentions, may come within its purview.
We must notice the way in which this system presented itself to Pascal. The casuist, in the first place, has to classify sins as the secular legislator classifies crimes. This act, says the legislator, is murder; that, only manslaughter. The law must define, that it may not be arbitrary; it must define by external or tangible facts because the judge cannot look into the heart; and it must define actions taken by themselves, and apart from the life-history of each particular agent. Deliberate killing under certain conditions is murder, whoever commits the action and whatever his motive. It follows that actions of the most varying moral quality must be classed together. Murder, that is, deliberate killing by any one not legally authorised, may imply the deepest depravity or admit of palliation to an indefinite degree. To assign the moral guilt implied by the criminal act you would have to take into account all the concrete circumstances of the case—the man's whole character, position, training, and intellectual capacity; in other words, to consider precisely the aspects which the legislator is compelled to neglect. It follows that the criminal law can only correspond in a rough way, or on the average of cases, to the moral law. But then the legislator does not profess to identify his law with morals. When, however, you profess, as the casuists professed, that you are interpreting the moral law itself, and declaring what is the morality of an action in the sight of Omniscience; and when, at the same time, you are forced to adopt the legislator's method—to classify acts apart from the agent, to say this or that act is wrong whatever the concrete circumstances or the motives which led to it; you are at once both claiming to be a moralist and omitting the characteristically moral aspect. You are trying to define the intrinsic quality of conduct by circumstances which are of necessity more or less accidental. Here, as I think, is the fundamental difficulty, though it is not presented exactly in this way by Pascal.
Pascal's indignation was roused by results which follow logically from this position. He specially attacks the two great doctrines of the Jesuits—the doctrine of 'probability,' and the doctrine of 'intention.' By their help morality may be moulded and perverted to any extent. What, then, are these doctrines? The analogy of law gives the explanation. The English law, for example, has been developed by familiar processes. As new cases arise, they are decided by the judges, who, while nominally applying the settled rules, are in reality extending and modifying them. Apart from direct legislation, the law is constantly growing by such decisions, and each decision becomes law by becoming a precedent. Now, in the case of morality, new legislation was out of the question. The law had been given once for all in inspired writings. But the divine law summed up the principle in a few maxims, and what was necessary for the confessor was a system of rules applicable to particular actions. 'Do not lie.' But what precisely is lying? When is lying a mortal or a venial sin? and are there any exceptions when lying is right? The confessor must have his rules, and they were given to him by the casuist. The casuist composed the professional text-book, and, so far as he gained authority, the text-book eventually made the law, like the decisions of the English judges. This is the doctrine of 'probability.' When a writer of gravity had said that this or that action was permissible, his view became probable,' that is, it made a precedent upon which you were entitled to act. If a given action was permitted by any man of authority, it could not be assumed to be a sin, even though it had been condemned by others. It would be hard, obviously, to punish a man for doing something which had been declared to be innocent by a judge of the high court. Such a decision was at least law in the making, and, until implicitly condemned by the Church, must be regarded as establishing a presumption, and therefore a right to act upon it. Hence morality changed. The great Doctor Diana had by his authority made opinions probable, and consequently actions, sinful before, had now ceased to be sins. Pascal found a happy illustration in the case of one Jean d'Alba. He was a servant in a Jesuit College, and confessed to the judges that he had stolen some of the plate. He had, however, looked into his masters' books, and justified the theft by an opinion of the excellent Père Baumy. A valet, that casuist had said, might steal some of his master's property if his wages were insufficient. The opinion of Baumy was enough to establish a probability: John held that his wages were insufficient, and therefore could steal without sin. The secular juices declined to accept the doctrine; but Alba disappeared, and it is apparently implied that his Jesuit masters had seen the force of his appeal to their principles.
The case shows how the law might be developed; and another result shows how development might amount to inversion. A great part is played in English law by what are called legal fictions. Lawyers have been able in many most important cases to alter the law by ingenious devices for applying to one case rules primarily and ostensibly intended for others. The same system in casuistry involved the doctrine of 'intention' and its application may be made clear by one very important case. The Church had condemned usury absolutely. It is wrong to take interest, because you have only a right to the return of exactly what you have lent. When it became clear that to condemn usury was to condemn commerce, the law had to be tacitly modified to conform to the new conditions. The casuists achieved this result, as Pascal tells us, by an ingenious device called the contrat Mohatra—the main principle of which is simple. I give £1000 to a man and agree to receive £1100 a year hence. Have I not lent money at ten per cent, and committed the sin of usury? Not a bit of it! I simply bought goods at a low price and paid the money. That, every one agrees, is permissible. Soon afterwards, indeed, I sold the same goods to the same man at a much higher price, and allowed him to pay me for them at a later date. These were two separate transactions, and in each of them I was perfectly justified. Therefore I was justified when I combined the two. Considered from the legal point of view, such devices may be a necessary though clumsy and indirect mode of altering an antiquated law. If the prohibition of usury be superstitious, it may be well to circumvent it by such circuitous means. But when the legal method is applied to a moral law, when you at the same time affirm the moral law to be divine and immutable while you are eviscerating it of its whole substance, you are playing fast and loose with morality itself. The device in this case, which admits of innumerable applications, is what was called directing the intention. I elaborately pretend, that is, to be doing one thing when I am doing another, and succeed in getting the benefit of one wicked action by doing two actions, harmless separately and averting my mind in each case from the action which is to be its complement. So duelling is forbidden. But it is surely not forbidden to defend my life or honour. I may, again, tell a man without sin that I am going to take a walk in a field and shall probably have a sword by my side. If he goes there, too, and attacks me, I may rightly resist him, even by running him through the body; and I shall have done nothing that does not come under the head of self-defence. Pascal says that, by devices, it was shown that a member of a religious body might murder a man who intended to spread scandal about his society, and discusses the ingenious problem which had been raised as to whether a Jesuit might not on this ground murder a Jansenist. The murder had been forbidden, but only for the reason that the attacks of the Jansenists upon Jesuit morality were too feeble to do real injury to their adversaries—a ground which, as Pascal slyly observes, it might be difficult to maintain on behalf of the author of the Provincial Letters.
I have gone so far into this to point out the real underlying contrast. Essentially the struggle is between the view which assimilates the moral law to the positive law, and that which makes it define the heart or character; between the law which says 'do this' and the law which says 'be this.' The ultimate moral principles, understood as defining the qualities of the heart, may claim to be immutable and eternal. Love your neighbour as yourself! it has been said, sums up the whole of your duty to men, and is true in all times and places. Substitute for this an external law—an attempted catalogue of the precise actions which I am to do if I love my neighbour—and you must at once have innumerable exceptions and distinctions: the law must alter as circumstances change; and actions be classed under one clause or another, according to superficial distinctions which sometimes, as we see, enable you to get the benefit of one crime by combining two innocent actions. Therefore, if you attribute the immutability of the internal law of the heart to the external law of conduct, you are forced to equivocate and have recourse to subterfuge. When, again, the process is carried on, as Pascal held that the Jesuits were carrying it on, with the distinct purpose of accommodating the Church to the world, and obtaining wider influence by lowering the price of obedience, it is no wonder that he condemned, as the Puritan in all ages condemns, the shuffler. Behind this lies a still deeper question. From Pascal's point of view, forgiveness must be an empty word except as a consequence of a change of heart: a man should desire, not escape from the penalty of an action, but purification of the soul from the passion; not absolution won by the magic effect of a sacrament, but conversion and regeneration. From the Jesuit point of view the case was inverted. Absolution must really remit sin, or the power of the Church loses its virtue, and the keys cease to turn the lock. In the Jesuit view, you keep a debtor and creditor account: your score must be fully cleared when the fine has been paid for each separate sin. If the external law be the moral law, conformity to it must be sufficient in the sight of God as well as of the priest. One striking consequence is given in the tenth letter, where Pascal's indignation raises him to the highest pitch of eloquence. The problem occurred as to what state of mind was sufficient to secure absolution. Must your remorse imply love of God, or is it enough to be afraid of hell? Fear of hell may of course prevent a bad act, and leave a corrupt heart. If, however, it secures obedience, does it not remove guilt? The Jesuits, according to Pascal, accepted the result implied by their logic. Suarez thought it enough if one loved God at any time before death: Vasquez, if in 'the article of death'; others if at baptism; others, if on fast days. Hurtado de Mendoza considered that one ought to love God once every year; Coninck, once in three or four years; Henriquez, every five years; while Father Sirmonet decided after discussing these opinions that one need not love God at all if one obeyed His other commands. God, he argued, wants us to love Him simply in order that we may obey His laws. If, then, we can obey Him without love, He would be unreasonable to insist upon a different motive. Queen Victoria, we may say, may demand obedience from her subjects, but she does not claim a legal right to their personal affection. That singular avowal rouses Pascal to one of those passages which score an indelible brand upon the adversary. The love of God was the great commandment, and the Jesuits have succeeded in explaining it away and paying God compliments for not enforcing so harsh a law.
Here we reach Pascal's fundamental point: To be good is to love God. The sinner's heart, then, must be changed; not the correct blood fee paid for a homicide. No mere external operation can avail to reconcile man to God. Then, we may infer, dipping a baby in water will not avert damnation? From that conclusion, which appears to be plausible, Pascal recoiled, though he saw the difficulty. We shall see his answer. Meanwhile, another perplexity follows. You demand a change of heart: but how can the heart be changed? Can a being change not only his conduct but himself? If not, the change must be supernatural. Nothing but divine grace can make the man good. St. Paul and Augustine and Calvin have given definite form to this result by the doctrine of predestination. What, then, becomes of the freewill which, it was urged, was essential to merit? You give a higher place to morality by making it a function of the heart instead of a restraint upon actions; but in doing so you have made it unattainable by man, and therefore destroyed his responsibility. The theory of grace, as St. Paul put it, makes man the pot in the hands of the potter. The Creator and not the creature is the true cause both of vice and virtue. Admit that man can do nothing without grace, and he becomes a mere automaton moved by the arbitrary power of God. Suppose him, on the other hand, able to do something, and that God will always help him, and then you virtually make him do everything; for the grace of God is, so to speak, a constant condition which will be an inevitable consequence of the man's freewill. Pascal, of course, was sensible of this logical difficulty, and in dealing with it falls into subtleties resembling those of his enemies. It indeed appears to be impossible, except by the help of merely verbal distinctions, to divide the provinces of the two, or to make anything of either without virtually mixing up everything.
This problem is one which still exercises many minds in different dialects; and I, of course, am content to notice the fact. It indicates also the connection between the Provincial Letters and the Thoughts. The problem which has met Pascal in the controversy with the Jesuits is really besetting him in the Thoughts, and there he finds the solution which on one side is sceptical and on the other orthodox. For Pascal, as for the great men whom he follows, the starting-point is precisely this identification of all goodness with divine grace. Augustine, more fitly than Spinoza, might be called 'God intoxicated,' and in the Confessions we have the most impressive example of an imagination which interprets the world as everywhere permeated by the divine presence and the heart moved by a sense of personal relation to its Creator. Pascal gives an embodiment of the same pervading sentiment, and his work involves one dominant thought: If you attribute every good impulse to the Creator, what is left for the creature? Clearly only the bad or the absolutely neutral. Belief in divine grace, thus understood, has, therefore, for its correlative doctrine the corruption of man. If all that is good be supernatural, the natural must be other than good. And this is, in fact, the doctrine around which all Pascal's Pensées revolve. The doctrine of the corruption of human nature is, he says, mysterious, and yet it is this mystery alone which makes man intelligible to himself. Christianity, he says, reveals two great truths: the corruption of man's nature and the redemption through Christ. It is in passing these two opposite poles of truth alternately that he sometimes appears as a sceptic and sometimes as a humble believer. He joins hands at moments with the sceptics and the pessimists: he even outdoes their strongest assertions; and at the next moment he is prostrating himself before the Church, accepting mysteries, adoring the sacraments, and arguing for the most groundless traditions, and believing (I say it with a certain sense of shame) in the most trumpery of modern 'miracles.' The modern agnostic or the modern worshipper at Lourdes may equally find support in his dicta. Is this an inconsistency or a deeper insight than that of either side? At any rate, in this lies, I think, the great interest of Pascal. The extraordinary force with which he sums up both sets of convictions casts into the shade all the feebler repetitions of similar combinations of faith and scepticism. The half-hearted unbelievers who turn sentimental over the charms of decayed superstition, and the half-hearted believers who flirt with scepticism to prove that a lie is as good as a truth, may equally derive inspiration from Pascal, but fail to equal his charm because they have not his earnestness and intellectual courage, and what we might almost call the brutal frankness of his avowals. Whatever we may think of his philosophy, every line indicates a consuming desire for a genuine standing-ground which at least commands respect.
Let us turn first to the sceptical side of Pascal. He begins the Pensées by showing us men poised between the two infinites. It is a curious proof of his power that the mathematical illustration near the beginning—the passage in which he imagines a mite, and then the smallest corpuscle in the mite's body, and then a new universe within the corpuscle, and a mite in that universe, and so forth—which, in other hands, would appear as quaint or extravagant—is made profoundly pressive by the throb of emotion indicated. Man, then is a mere speck in the universe, placed between the two abysses of the infinite and of nothingness, unable to comprehend either; floating on a vast ocean, where as soon as he grasps a fact it changes and vanishes on his hands; where he burns with desire to find a firm base for a structure of belief, and where the whole foundation is always crumbling and the earth opening to the abysses. This, he says, is the misery of man; and yet the misery proves his greatness. Man is great because he knows his misery. He is a reed, the feeblest in nature; but yet he is a 'thinking reed.' A vapour, a drop of water might kill him; but should the whole universe crush him, he is nobler than it, for he knows that he is crushed, and the universe knows not that it crushes. He is great as a discrowned king. His present state proves his misery; but his perception that it is misery proves that he has fallen from a higher state, and suggests that that state may be restored.
Then Pascal proceeds to examine human nature, and concentrates in his maxims the pith of many students who have preached upon the text, 'Vanity of Vanities.' The self-conceit of man; the emptiness of his aim; his heartless search for distractions; his hopeless enslavement to the illusions of the imagination; his substitution of custom for reason—all the futile speculations and windy ways of men—are described with a keen insight which reveals to us the countryman of Rochefoucauld and the student of Montaigne. The name of Montaigne is especially significant. Pascal's own experience of the actual world had been brief, though a brief experience was much to so penetrating a mind. He had been behind the scenes of ecclesiastical intrigues, and had looked on at the Fronde in France and at the Civil War in England. Politics seemed to him a vast game played for mere personal ends and decided by accident. Cromwell would have ravaged all Christendom but for a grain of sand in his passages; and, if Cleopatra's nose had been shorter the whole face of the earth would have been changed. In this sphere of meditation, however, Montaigne had been Pascal's great teacher. A conversation in which he gave his opinion of Montaigne and Epictetus is of singular significance; and many sentences of Montaigne have passed almost without alteration into his own pages. Of Montaigne, certainly one of the most delightful of all writers to the worldly, I need only say this: that he reveals (among other things) the impression made upon a most discursive and wayward but strangely shrewd and humorous observer by the bitter controversies and religious wars of the sixteenth century. His amazing good temper and humorous delight in conversation enables him to explore with unfailing amusement the multitudinous foibles of human nature–– the ambitions, and self-seekings, and hypocrisies displayed by the actors in the great tragi-comedy of life. The inevitable philosophical conclusion for such a man is the famous que sais-je? of Montaigne's motto—in other words, complete scepticism. This conclusion, too, is explicitly drawn, often in words adopted by Pascal, in Montaigne's most elaborate essay on the Apology of Raymond de Sebonde. Here, in a comment upon a professed demonstration of natural theology, Montaigne, in his queer discursive fashion, manages to intimate his own opinion. It is, briefly, that man is but one of the animals—a doctrine confirmed, it is true, by a set of anecdotes as to elephants and dogs which would startle even the editor of the Spectator—that the reason of which we boast is thus little more than a blind custom, and that to suppose man capable by reason of attaining to a knowledge of the Deity is the height of absurdity, As Sir W. Hamilton did long afterwards, he quotes the Athenian inscription, 'To the Unknown God,' as the last word of religious philosophy. He will confute the unbeliever, he says, by trampling human pride under his feet; by making men feel their inanity and the feebleness of their reason, bow their heads and bite the earth under the authority of Divine Majesty. And of this method Pascal in the conversation expresses his cordial approval. He loves to see Montaigne humiliate the pride of reason by its own arms, and lower man's nature to the level of the beasts. Montaigne, indeed, had erred because he had stopped at this point: he had exposed the misery but not the greatness of man. How, indeed, could Montaigne go further? He is emphatically the man of this world. He has to deal with human passions as he finds them. He watches the drama as impartially as Shakespeare. He quietly puts aside conversion as impossible. He does not, as he puts it, hold with the Pythagoreans that men assume a new soul when they visit the realm of the gods. He is far more at home with Plutarch, or with his favourite Lucretius, than with Christian dogmas and traditions; and is smiling in his sleeve at the passionate eagerness of theological as well as philosophical partakers in the turmoil. To Pascal, therefore, he exactly represents the natural man: the man fallen from his high estate, but—what is strange—not even conscious that he has fallen. One thing, says Pascal in his opening Thoughts, is unintelligible to me: that is, man's indifference. It irritates me, he declares, rather than excites my pity. What! shall a man say I know not whence I come or whither I go—whether at death I shall be annihilated or fall into the hands of an angry God; and therefore I will live without even trying to find out? The man who will risk his life and soul for some trifling point of honour will remain careless on this inconceivably important point! It must be an incomprehensible enchantment, a supernatural benumbing of the faculties, which can explain such a state of mind. And yet this indifference is the meaning of Montaigne's que sais-je? If he thought of the angry God as a possibility, he probably comforted himself, in the words of the poet:
He's a good fellow and 'twill all be well.
Pascal wasn't so sure of that.
Where, then, is Pascal's escape? In humiliating the intellect, has he not put out the only light, faint and flickering as it may be, that can guide us through the labyrinth? No, he says, the heart has its reasons that reason does not know. Many men have said so before and since; and it is mainly the vigour with which Pascal puts his view—the unflinching audacity with which he accepts conclusions from which others shrink—that makes his version stand out as the fullest utterance of his view. Man is, he tells us, a chimera, a monster, a contradiction. He judges all things and is a mere worm; a depository of the truth and a sink of error; at once the glory and the shame of the universe. Nature confounds the Pyrrhonists, and reason confounds the dogmatists. You must belong to one sect or the other, and yet you can remain in neither. Powerless reason, be humiliated! Imbecile nature, be silent! Hear God. To hear God is to feel the divine power. All that is good in us comes from grace. Our knowledge of God is therefore, if I may so say, a product of the reaction of the heart moved by divine grace. It is the response of the passive spirit to the one all-powerful stimulus. That, in fact, is the true theory of every mystic, though it leads of necessity to very divergent conclusions. Pascal's conclusion is still marked by the sceptical element. He will believe, and yet Montaigne cannot be quite expelled. Montaigne, says Sainte-Beuve, is to Pascal like the fox which gnawed the vitals of the Spartan boy—a torment, yet almost a part of himself. Though a mystic, he is a mathematician, clear-headed, precise, impatient of mere vague reverie. He must have a sharp, clear-cut answer. And the result is noteworthy. The conflict expresses itself in the famous argument which may be called Pascal's wager. You declare that you know nothing, he says: let us then argue the question upon that ground. God is or is not; it is a question of heads or tails. On which side will you bet? The right thing, you will reply, in cases of absolute ignorance is not to bet at all. Yes, but il faut parier: you must bet. You are engaged in the game willy-nilly, and cannot be a mere looker-on. Now, the stakes are infinite. If you bet on God's existence and win your bet, you gain infinitely; even if you lose your bet, you lose nothing. On the other side, if you bet against His existence, the stake lost may be infinite and the stake gained nothing. Can you, then, hesitate? One feels grateful to Pascal for putting so forcibly an argument which more timid theologians insinuate without daring explicitly to enfold. I must point out, however, that a curious assumption is involved. To say that eternal happiness depends on the existence of God is intelligible; but that is not the same as to say that it must depend on my belief in the existence of God. There is a chance that certain conduct may have disastrous consequences. It is just possible, however improbable, that this bit of bread may be poisoned: that is a conclusive reason for not eating it, however infinitesimal the chance may be, if I have another bit of bread which is altogether beyond suspicion. In such cases—and they are illustrated everywhere in life, since we must everywhere be guided by probability—a small chance may be as unequivocal a reason for conduct as a complete certainty. Needlessly to encounter even the smallest risk of a terrible catastrophe is of course unreasonable. But though this is a sufficient ground for conduct, it is no ground at all for belief. Because there is just a chance of the catastrophe, I must avoid the chance: well and good; but must I therefore believe the chance to be a certainty? That is clearly contradictory, and, indeed, the proper inference is the very reverse. To act as if a thing existed is often necessary, though its existence be highly improbable. To act, again, as if it existed is too commonly to persuade myself against reason that it does exist certainly. There are few errors which are more seductive and against which I am more bound to be on my guard. We might, therefore, reply to Pascal: If there be a slight chance of my being damned eternally for certain conduct, that is a conclusive reason for avoiding the conduct; but it is also a conclusive reason for not saying that I am certain to be damned. If the mere possibility be as decisive a guide for conduct as the calamity, that is so far a reason for not confusing chance with certainty. According to you the slightest belief is a sufficient reason. Then why try to hold an absolute belief? After all, if there be such a God as you suppose, He may choose—it is not a very wild hypothesis—to damn me for lying or deliberate self-deception. If, as we are supposing, He has not supplied me with evidence of a fact, He may be angry with me for deliberately manufacturing beliefs without evidence—for believing absolutely what I can only know to be probable; He may do so—if we may venture to attribute to Him a certain magnanimity—even if the fact considered be the fact of His own existence. You contemplate a Deity who wishes to be believed to all hazards, even if He has not given reasons for belief, even therefore if the demand imply the grossest injustice. What is the chance that God, if there be a God, acts on this principle, and not on the opposite principle?
Pascal, logical as he is, seems to overlook this, and for a simple reason. The commands which God is supposed to give us on penalty of damnation, are not simple commands of morality, but commands of religion: we are commanded to worship Him, love Him, and promote His glory, and we cannot do so without believing in Him. The belief, then, is not so much directly ordered as indirectly implied in the practices ordered. Thus the distinction therefore, which I have suggested between conduct and belief, does not show itself. The heart is to obey the divine grace, and the obedience implies recognition of the source of grace. The mathematical view passes, therefore, into the mystical; and hence follows another famous conclusion. The Montaigne element makes a last rally. I am, it exclaims, a mere passive being; I am ordered to believe, but I am not free. I am so made that I cannot believe. What am I to do? Give me proofs and I may be persuaded. No, says Pascal, I cannot give you logical proofs. He has, indeed, sufficiently broken with all mathematical demonstration. Epictetus, as he remarks, falls into the opposite error to Montaigne, for Epictetus imagined that we could rise by reason to a knowledge of God. Pascal had to some degree accepted Descartes's metaphysics in scientific matters. But, as he told his sister, he could not forgive Descartes as a philosopher. Descartes had tried to do without God as far as he could, and was only forced to retain a God in order to give a fillip to set the machinery of the world in motion. Grave metaphysicians have been scandalised at this criticism, and pointed out that Descartes actually invented or refurbished an argument to demonstrate the existence of God. Pascal, of course, did not explicitly deny its force. He only said that such languid arguments did not move men's hearts. It would, I fancy, be truer to say that, if conclusive, they prove the existence of a Being radically different from Pascal's. They go to prove the existence of a first cause and of the unity of the universe, and of a Being identical with the universe; but if anything they disprove the angry Deity, hating sin and punishing sinners, into whose hands Pascal feared to fall. His answer is therefore different. We are, said Pascal, automata, as Descartes had said, though we are also spirits; as automata we believe by custom and instinct, and all that we can do is to accustom ourselves to submit to the right impulses. How, then, will you believe? Learn from those who have preceded you, observe them cured of the disease from which you suffer. How is that? By acting as if they believed, he replies; by taking holy water, causing masses to be said, and so forth. 'Naturellement cela vous fera croire et vous abêtira.' That will make you believe, and will stupefy you. Pascal's commentators have again shrunk from this daring phrase, and tried to explain it away as a mere note to be more delicately put. The crudity of the words perhaps lets out the secret. Some people seem to think that it gives the truth. Now that the danger of appealing to reason has become more marked, Pascal's remedy has become more popular; and I need hardly say that there are plenty of establishments in this neighbourhood where you may try the efficacy of the Holy Water cure.
Was Pascal then a sceptic or a sincere believer? The answer is surely obvious. He was a sincere, a humble, and even an abject believer precisely because he was a thorough-going sceptic. One point must be touched, however, though it cannot be elaborated. The obvious objection to an appeal to the heart is that the answer is necessarily what is called subjective: is satisfactory to the believer, but to the believer alone: the‘will to believe'—as Professor W. James calls it in a recent essay, where he modifies and in some sense rehabilitates Pascal's bet—implies that you believe what you will. I choose to believe this, and you choose to disbelieve it. There is no reconciliation. The Hindu fakir can persuade himself of the enmity of Vishnu as the Christian monk of the divinity of the Saviour. Holy water was used by Pagans as well as by Catholics. Pascal was partly blinded to this by the smallness of the world in his time. He saw as a mathematician that man was between two infinites. Geometry makes us sensible of the fact. But 'history' still meant a mere six thousand years. The Catholic Church could still represent itself to the historian as the central phenomenon of all human history, not as an institution which dates but from a geological yesterday, and peculiar to a special group of nations which forms but a minute minority of the race. Faith in God could therefore be identified with faith in the Church, and a little factor in a vast evolution as equivalent to the whole. The historical argument to which he proceeds is therefore only remarkable for naïveté. 'Those,' he says, 'who saw Lamech, who saw Adam, also saw Jacob, who saw those who saw Moses. Therefore the deluge and the creation are true.' Who will answer for them? To prove anything, that is, you have only to invent evidence as well as to invent facts. That is not Pascal's strong point, and is worthy only of a man who could believe in the Holy Thorn.
The great Pascal, however, remains. This much I will venture to say. The root of all Pascal's creed, if I have judged rightly, is that primary doctrine: Man is corrupt, and all good is due to the inspiration of God. I think, therefore I am, says Descartes: I tremble, therefore God is, adds Pascal. His creed is made of feeling as well as of logic. That gives scepticism on one side and faith on the other. I can believe nothing of myself because I am naturally imbecile. I can accept any belief unhesitatingly, because I am conscious of the power which moves my heart. The belief may be intellectually absurd. The doctrine of inherited guilt is monstrous, says Pascal: can a child be damned for an action committed six thousand years before its birth? Nothing, he admits, so shocking; and yet, he adds, it is essential to understanding man. It is simply one aspect of that profound antinomy from which we start. Is there, then, any such antinomy? Is human nature absolutely corrupt? Divines calmly tell us that it is a fact. Doubtless it is a fact, if you mean that men have bad impulses, and if you further assume that all good influences come from a supernatural source. But why should I? Why interpret man and the world as the meeting-place of these tremendous contradictions? Why divide a single though exceeding complex process into a battle-ground between two wholly opposed forces? I confess that I should correct Montaigne, so far as he needs correction, by allowing more liberally for the nobler impulses of human nature—not by stripping man of all virtue and handing over the good to an inconceivable and inscrutable force. If you once begin by introducing an omnipotent struggling with a finite being, this may be the logical result; but I do not see my way to the first step. Meanwhile, I do see some painful results. I see that Pascal's morality becomes distorted; that in the division between grace and nature some innocent and some admirable qualities have got to the wrong side; that Pascal becomes a morbid ascetic, torturing himself to death, hating innocent diversion because it has the great merit of distracting the mind from melancholy brooding, looking upon natural passions as simply bad, and inculcating demeanour which would turn us all into celibate monks; pushing delicacy to the point at which it becomes confounded with pruriency; distrusting even the highest of blessings, love of sisters and friends, because they take us away from the service of the Being who, after all, does not require our services; consecrating poverty instead of trying to suppress it; and finally, renouncing the intellectual pursuits for which he had the most astonishing fitness, because geometry had no bearing on dogmatic theology. The devotion of a man to an ideal which, however imperfect, is neither base, sensual, nor anti-social, which implies a passionate devotion to some of the higher impulses of our nature, has so great a claim upon our reverence that we can forgive, and even love, Pascal. We cannot follow him without treason to our highest interests.
The point of view from which Pascal repels us is indicated in the common-sense comments upon the Pensées by Voltaire and Condorcet. We decline to stupefy ourselves. Drug yourself with holy water and masses, or be a brute beast. We reply, as the old Duchess of Maryborough replied to her doctor's statement that she must be blistered or die, 'I won't be blistered, and I won't die!' We won't be drugged and we won't be brute beasts. And to Pascal's appeal from the reason to the heart, we answer that it implies a fundamental error. The 'heart' is not another kind of reason—a co-ordinate faculty for discerning truth—but a name for emotions which are not reason at all. Least of all can it claim to pronounce that certain elements in our life are supernatural or intrusions from without. And yet the heart, if we are to use the word, implies something that we must take into account. It represents implicit judgments, for it determines the relative values of different passions and aims, and therefore does, in fact, supply principles which regulate our lives. Pascal's heart, for example, meant a conviction founded upon his own direct experience of the infinite superiority of the spiritual, as he would have said, to the temporal and sensual. Such implicit judgments, and the morality in which they are embodied, are modified more or less directly by the adoption of new philosophical or scientific beliefs. We do not fear for a moment that in seeking for truth and applying the most rigid logical tests, we are endangering whatever is really sound in the judgments or valuable in the morality. A coherent and reliable philosophy would, we are fully assured, incorporate whatever may be sound in the beliefs and feelings which are instinctive rather than reasoned. But the possibility, or rather the certainty, of such a conflict imposes a responsibility upon his opponents. For, in the first place, it explains why persuasion does not go with conviction or exposure of fallacy lead to adoption of the truth. The clearest exposition of the logical error may only lead, as it led Pascal, to a revolt against reason; and the blind instinct will somehow assert itself as a matter of fact, and be an irreconcilable element until a satisfaction be provided for it in a more comprehensive and rational construction. Nor is the instinct, blind though it be, without its light. Its very existence affords a presumption, not that it is true, but that it is an imperfect effort to impress a truth. And this is, in fact, the reason which is impressed upon us most forcibly by such a man as Pascal. He is himself, as he declared man to be in general, a kind of incarnate antinomy. As he brings the heart into hopeless conflict with reason; as he manages at once to exaggerate the baseness and the grandeur of human nature; as he urges alternately with extraordinary keenness two aspects of truth, and is forced to make them contradictory instead of complementary; as his moral position is on one side pure, elevating, and a standing rebuke to all the meaner tendencies of his generation, and yet, on the other, becomes morbid, perverse, and impracticable, because he has separated life into its incommensurable elements,—he leaves to us not a final solution but a problem: How to form a system which shall throughout be reasonable and founded upon fact, and yet find due place and judicious guidance for the higher elements, which he has really perverted in the effort to exaggerate their importance?
- Lecture before the West London Ethical Society, May 2, 1897.
- Causeries du Lundi, vol. v.
- A curious application of the same illustration may be found in De Morgan's Budget of Paradoxes, p. 321, where it is used not to depress but to exalt human intelligence, by showing how far it can push the ' evaluation of π?
- I guess that Pascal was thinking of Montaigne, who, in the essay upon Raymond de Sebonde, says, speaking of the evil of excessive sensibility, 'Il nous faut abestir pour nous assagir.'