ON THE PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY
Here on earth everything has a beginning, and nothing an end.
Jésus sera en agonie jusqu'à la fin du monde: il ne faut pas dormir pendant ce temps-là.
Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world: there must be no sleep while that lasts.
- PASCAL, Le Mystère de Jésus.
Three hundred years have passed since Pascal's birth, and hardly less since his death: Pascal lived but a short while, thirty-nine years in all.
During these three hundred years mankind has made great advances. What, then, can we learn from a man of the seventeenth century? If it were possible to recall him to life, he could learn from us, not we from him. The more so because, even among his contemporaries, Pascal was a "reactionary"; he did not feel himself impelled, with all the rest, forwards towards a "better" future, but backwards towards the deeps of the past. Like Julian the Apostate, he wanted to turn back the wheel of time. He was himself in fact an apostate; he abjured and denied all that humanity had acquired by its common efforts in the two brilliant centuries to which a grateful posterity gave the name of "Renaissance". The whole world was renewing itself, and saw in this renewal the fulfillment of its historic destiny. But Pascal feared novelty above all things. All the strength of his restless, yet profound and concentrated mind, was applied to resisting the current of history, preventing himself from being carried forward by it.
Is it possible, is it reasonable to fight against history? Of what interest to us can a man be, who tries to make time run backwards?
Are not he, and all his works with him, foredoomed to ill-success, to failure, to sterility? There can be only one answer to this question. The verdict of history is merciless for the apostate. Pascal has not escaped the common fate. It is true that his works are still printed, still read; that he is even praised, celebrated; his august face is like the image of a saint, before which a lamp burns that will burn yet for many a long day. But no one listens to him. People listen to others, to those whom he hated and fought, and it is to others that they go to seek the truth for which he sacrificed his life. It is not Pascal but Descartes whom we call the father of modern philosophy; and it is not from Pascal but from Descartes that we receive the truth; for where else could truth be sought but in philosophy? This is the verdict of history; Pascal is admired, but passed by. It is a verdict from which there is no appeal.
What would Pascal reply to the arraignment of history if he could be brought back to life? An idle question; history deals with the living and not with the dead. True: yet for this one occasion, for Pascal's sake, I will suppose that it were well to force history to concern itself with the dead. The undertaking is, indeed, neither easy nor straightforward. To justify itself, history would have to invent a new philosophy, for Hegel's philosophy will prove inapplicable, and it is Hegel's philosophy which all profess, even those who do not acknowledge him as master; and there were many who professed it long before his day. But would it be so terrible to take a little trouble? And is it so necessary to defend Hegel at all costs? Hitherto history has always been written on the assumption (unverified, it is true) that men, once dead, absolutely cease to exist, that they are consequently defenseless before the judgment of posterity, and without influence over the living. But the time may come when even the historians will feel that the dead were men like themselves; and then they will become more careful and circumspect in their judgments. It is our belief, indeed our strong conviction today, that the dead are silent and will always remain silent, whatever we say of them, however we treat them. But if one day we are robbed of this conviction, if we suddenly feel that the dead can come back to life at any moment, can rise from their graves, invade our lives, and stand before us as equals - how shall we speak then?
One must admit that this is possible; I mean, it is possible that the dead are not so helpless, so bereft of all power, so "dead" as we think. In any case philosophy, which, as we have been taught, should not admit any statement without proof, cannot guarantee to historians in saecula saeculorum the same security from the dead, in which the dead leave them today. In an anatomical theatre one can dissect corpses at leisure. But history is not an anatomical theatre, and it is conceivable that the historians may one day have to render account to the dead. If they are afraid to face their responsibilities and do not want themselves to be turned from judges into defendants, they had better abandon the Hegelian method of investigating the past and try to find some other. I do not know whether the Emperor Julian would have accepted the verdict of history; but Pascal, even during his lifetime, had prepared his answer to past and future generations. It runs:
Thus did the living Pascal reply to the threats of Rome; thus, doubtless, would he reply to the verdict of history. In his Provincial Letters he declares categorically; "Je n'espère rien du monde, je n'en appréhende rien, je n'en veux rien ; je n'ai besoin, par la grâce de Dieu, ni du bien, ni de l'autorité de personne." ("I hope for nothing from this world, I fear nothing, I ask nothing of it; I need, by the grace of God, neither its riches nor its approval.") Can he be terrorized by our disapproval, or be driven to recantation by our threats? Will history appear to him as a just court of appeal, as the ultimate court? "Ad tuum, Domine Jesu, tribunal appello."
"Vous mêmes êtes corruptibles. Il est meilleur d'obéir à Dieu qu'aux hommes. J'ai craint que je n'eusse mal écrit, me voyant condamné, mais l'exemple de tant de pieux écrits me fait croire au contraire..."
("You are yourselves fallible. It is better to obey God than man. Seeing myself condemned, I have been afraid that I have written wrongly, but the example of so many pious writings has convinced me that this was not so...")
"Si mes lettres sont condamnées a Rome, ce que j'y condamne est condamné dans le ciel. Ad tuum, Domine Jesu, tribunal appello."
("If my letters are condemned in Rome, that which I condemn in them is condemned in heaven. Ad tuum, Domine Jesu, tribunal appello.")
In these words, I think, lies the solution of the enigma that Pascal's philosophy presents. The supreme judge of all differences is not man, but He who is above all men. And, consequently, to find truth one must free oneself from all that man generally looks upon as true. For a long time the legend prevailed that Pascal was a Cartesian; but we now know that this was not the case. Not only was Pascal never a disciple of Descartes, but Descartes incorporated everything against which Pascal fought. He says as much openly in his Pensées: "Écrire contre ceux qui approfondissent trop les sciences, Descartes." ("To write against all those who go too deeply into the sciences, like Descartes.") And finally, quite decisively, and giving his reasons for his opinion:
"Je ne puis pardonner a Descartes; Il aurait bien voulu, dans toute sa philosophie, pouvoir se passer de Dieu; mais il n'a pas su s'empêcher de lui faire donner une chiquenaude pour mettre le monde en mouvement; après cela il n'a plus que faire de Dieu." ("I cannot forgive Descartes. In all his philosophy he would have liked to dispense with God. But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this he would have no more to do with God.") "I cannot forgive" applies not only to Descartes, but to all the old philosophy in which Descartes had been reared, and all the new philosophy, of which Descartes laid the foundation. What was this philosophy except the conviction that the world can be "explained by natural means", that man can "be independent of God" (the Pelagians had formulated this thought in the phrase: Homo emancipatus a Deo); and where else but in this conviction lay the essence of Rome, since Pascal had to appeal from Rome to God?
Pascal began to feel this very early, and the last years of his life were merely one protracted and continuous struggle against the world and Rome, which were striving to emancipate themselves from God. Hence the enigmatic and paradoxical character of his philosophy and his conception of life. Those things which usually pacify men arouse in him the gravest anxiety, while conversely, the things that men most fear fill him with the greatest hopes. The older he gets, the more firmly does he entrench himself in his conception of life. Thus he becomes ever stranger and more inhuman to mankind. No one denies that Pascal is a great man, a man of inspired genius; every line of his writings bears witness to this. Yet every line taken separately, as also all his writings taken together, are useless to humanity and hostile to it. Not only do his writings give nothing; they take all. Men need something "positive"; they ask for something which will resolve their difficulties and calm their fears. What can they hope from Pascal who, in the throes of his sombre exaltation, proclaims, or rather cries aloud: "Jésus sera en agonie jusgu'à la fin du monde: il ne faut pas dormir pendant ce temps-là"? ("Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world: there must be no sleep while that lasts.")