In Job's Balances \ III \ Gethsemane Night


     Everything in Pascal has changed radically. Formerly he was afraid of "reason" with its decrees, and of conscience with its "inexplorable" judgments. Now decrees and judgments alike have ceased to exist for him. Perhaps one might express this even more strongly: Pascal evidently felt that what we all most need is just what reason and conscience forbid us. Perhaps we should make one reservation, to avoid the possibility of misinterpretation. We may remember that Pascal, unlike Descartes and other philosophers, did not understand by truth that which every one could see if it was once pointed out; he maintained that God so made the world that some men are ordained to see and others to remain blind. And the gift of sight or of blindness does not depend on our own will: God deceives those whom He will, and enlightens those whom He will, and we have no means of forcing God to show the truth to all men. Consequently truth has no need to hide from men. Truth wanders about among them, without disguise, and he who is not destined to see it will not see it, for he has no eyes for it.

     It might not be out of place to remark here that Pascal's theory of knowledge is not so original as it appears to us at first. Not that Pascal had borrowed it; he invented it, or rather found it where no one else goes in search of a theory of knowledge: in Holy Scripture. But other philosophers, and heathens among them, had already divined the same thing. Plato told Diogenes that he had not the "organ" needful for seeing "ideas", and Plotinus knew that truth was not a "universally accepted" judgment. He taught that to be able to see the truth one must be able to surmount these "universally accepted" things, to get "beyond" reason and knowledge. Plato and Plotinus said all this, but history has kept quite a different side of their teaching: Plato, as we may remember, has said that the greatest misfortune is to become a misologos (a hater of reason); and Plotinus: archêi oûn logos kai panta logos (in the beginning was reason and all things are reason). History has rejected the rest as useless to mankind, and although modern theories of knowledge are almost all based on Plato and strongly influenced by Plotinus, they take as starting-point Aristotle's dictum: that truth is that which can be shown to every one at any time.

     But Pascal declares that we cannot understand anything of the works of God unless we bear in mind that He wishes to enlighten some and make others blind. Clearly, however, he did not say all that there is to say. It is apparent that God now enlightens, now makes blind, one and the same individual; sometimes man sees the truth, sometimes he sees it not. It happens fairly frequently that a man both sees and does not see at the same time. That is why in "ultimate questions", as Pascal explains to us, there is not, cannot, and ought not to be anything firm and certain, and that is why Pascal himself is a mass of contradiction. His thoughts, as he tells us, come and go according to their own caprice. In the middle of the systematic series of sober deductions of which his "wager" is built up, there suddenly bursts upon us the absurd saying about "brutalizing". On one page he glorifies reason, on another he puts it roughly and contemptuously in its place. And the "ego" which he declares hateful, of which he says that the "only virtue is to hate it", becomes the most precious thing in the world, much more precious than all the virtues, which Pascal abandons to the Pelagians and the denizens of the stable. The maxim: Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas (the heart has its reasons which reason does not know), is in all his writing and produces the most unexpected and miraculous transformations. It is true that one might invert this thesis and proclaim with equal justice that "reason has its reasons which the heart does not know". And this is indeed so. Reason makes its demands without taking the heart into account, as the heart takes no account of reason. The heart - what is this mysterious heart? - says with Job: "Oh that my grief were thoroughly weighed, and my calamity laid in the balances together! For now it would be heavier than the sand of the sea." Reason replies: "Sorrow, even that of the whole world, laid in the balance would not outweigh a single grain of sand."

     Another question, and again we do not know who shall decide. Reason insists: "Man is but a weak reed lost in infinite space. A puff of wind, a drop of water suffices to kill him, as any one can see." "Yes," replies Pascal, "that is evident. But the wind and the water and even the entire universe do not feel their strength, nor the weakness of man, therefore their strength is illusory and null." Is this an argument? Can one dispute self-evident fact thus? Naturally reason rejects such as argument; it only recognizes the demonstrative force of those immaterial truths which neither the drop of water nor the puff of wind nor the whole universe could affect. For reason, "annihilation" is that before which it bows down in reverence, and before which, according to its laws, all must bow. It was reason which taught Pascal, and the ancient philosophers before him, that "the ego is hateful", for it is not eternal, it knows a genesis and a phthora, birth and death; and it is reason which inspired Pascal with the fundamental rule: Il faut tendre au général (one must strive after the general), which has served as basis of all philosophy, ancient and modern, and without which neither ethics nor theory of knowledge would be possible. But the "heart" hates the "general", and does not want to strive after it, no matter what the promises or threats of reason, just as it refuses to recognize reason as the supreme legislator.

     Pascal appeals to the "truths" which he has discovered in the Bible to defeat reason and its demands. You think that it is self-evident that what has had a beginning must have an end, you think that death is as "natural" an event as any other. But your "self-evidence" is only self-deception. Descartes, in his learned simplicity, imagined that God could not and would not cheat man, being forbidden by the pagan theory of knowledge and ethics. But we know that there is another theory of knowledge and another ethic, and that God can and will cheat man. And His greatest deception, of which even divine Plato was the victim, is to persuade us that everything which has a beginning has also an end, and that consequently death is a natural phenomenon amongst all the other natural phenomena. Certainly many things which have a beginning have also an end, but not all. And death, which reason "comprehends" as the necessary consequence of the principles which it has established, is as a matter of fact the most incomprehensible, the least "natural" of all that we see in the world. And it is even less "natural" that men have accepted the truths of reason to love the "general", and "laws", to hate their own "egos"; that they have been able to interest themselves so deeply in "immaterial" truths and forget so completely their own destiny.
"L'immortalité de l'âme est une chose qui nous importe si fort, qui nous touche si profondément qu'il faut avoir perdu tout sentiment pour être dans l'indifférence de savoir ce qui en est." ("The immortality of the soul is a thing of so much importance to us, which touches us so deeply, that one must have lost all feeling to be indifferent about it.")

And again:

"Rien n'est si important à l'homme que son état; rien ne lui est si redoutable que l'éternité. Et ainsi, qu'il se trouve des hommes indifférents à la perte de leur être et au péril d'une éternité de misères, cela n'est point naturel. Ils sons tout autres à l'égard de toutes les autres choses: ils craignent jusqu'aux plus légères, ils les prévoient, ils les sentent; et ce même homme qui passe tant de jours et de nuits dans la rage et le désespoir pour la perte d'une charge ou pour quelque offense imaginaire à son honneur, c'est celui-là même qui sait qu'il va tout perdre par la mort sans inquiétude et sans émotion. C'est une chose monstrueuse de voir dans un même coeur et en même temps cette sensibilité pour les moindres choses et cette étrange insensibilité pour les plus grandes. C'est un enchantement incompréhensible et un assoupissement surnaturel qui marque une force toute-puissante qui le cause."

("Nothing is so important to man as his existence; nothing so much to be feared as eternity. And therefore it is quite unnatural that there should be men indifferent to the loss of their being and to the danger of an eternity of misery. They think quite otherwise of everything else; they fear the smallest things, they anticipate them, they suffer from them; and the same man who passes so many days and nights in rage and despair over the loss of a place or for some imaginary slight on his honour, that same man knows without anxiety or emotion that he will lose everything at his death. It is a monstrous thing to see this strange sensibility about small things, this strange insensibility about great things, existing side by side in the same heart at the same time. It is some incomprehensible magic, some supernatural bewilderment which points to some almighty force as its cause.")
You see how everything is reversed with Pascal. The Greek ethics and theory of knowledge, with their dislike of anything irrational, with their affirmation that "the ego is hateful", with their inclination towards the "general", their belief in the "natural" character of death, lose all power over him. Where philosophy finds truth and proof Pascal finds only incomprehensible magic and supernatural bewilderment. And now we shall no longer dare to reject his adjuration, "Be humbled, impotent reason!" For if our "eternal truths" only lead to "magic" and "bewilderment", if we live in a realm of witchcraft, how can man free himself from these supernatural enchantments? We despise superstition, we are convinced that exorcisms are absurd - this is another of our "eternal truths". But this was only valid as long as our theory of knowledge and our ethics were founded on the supposition that God was just and would submit Himself together with man to the superior law. But if God wills that some should be blind while others can see, things will assume quite a different complexion, and "incantation" appears as the only, though "supernatural", means of breaking through these "self-evident" fantasies created by an equally unnatural force. The search after truth can no longer be a calm and dispassionate affair. Henceforward we must admit that only those who "seek with lamentation" can hope to seek with success. For the abyss which ever haunts Pascal, and his frenzied fear of this abyss, ate more desired than firm ground and peace of soul. Nothing but the terror a man feels when he sees that he no longer has any firm ground beneath his feet and is sinking into the bottomless abyss can induce in him the "mad" resolve to reject the "law" and to set himself against all recognized truth.

     That is why, in his Pensées, Pascal speaks so much of the terrible conditions of our earthly existence. Reason repeats its truths: A=A. The part is less than the whole. Two things which are equal to a third are equal to one another. Everything which has a beginning must also have an end, etc. Morality demands that virtue should be its own reward - that the human ego, which is essentially hostile to all law, should be brought to obedience - that God Himself should submit to the law... Pascal hears all this; he knows these things, he lived in both the secular and the spiritual Rome; he passed through the schools of Epictetus and Montaigne, as also through the school of Descartes with his more timid friends of Port Royal. He became familiar with all the immaterial and eternal truths and learnt to reduce them to a single truth which men call God; he learnt that there has never been any other God among men, and that "the power of the keys" was given by God Himself to him who denied Him thrice in a single night.

     But before the last judgment-seat Pascal learnt something more. He prayed: "Faites (Seigneur) que je me considère en cette maladie comme en espèce de mort, séparé du monde, denué de tous les objets de mes attachements, seul en votre présence" ("Grant, 0 Lord, that I may look upon myself in this illness as a dead man, separated from the world, shorn of everything I love, alone in Thy presence"); and in response to this prayer God sent him the "change of heart" which he had desired. "Alone in Thy presence"; from this wish to see God face to face (Plotinus's phugê monou pros monon) comes the decision to hale Rome and the world before the supreme tribunal. This it was that raised him out of the common way; this gave him the strength and courage needful to speak so masterfully to reason which recognizes no other master than itself; this taught him to reply to the considerations of sound human understanding with that word of exorcism: "Humiliez-vous, raison impuissante." One can and one must sacrifice everything to find God; and the first sacrifice must be our "eternal and immaterial truths", which positive philosophy, in virtue of their actual immateriality and supposed eternity, would put in the place of God. This is what Descartes is not forgiven, and can never be forgiven; for it is through him that men were again made blind, and brought back to that magic and bewilderment of which Pascal tells us. How can the world be freed from this torpor, how can man be freed from the power of death? Who will breathe active force into the exorcism "Vanish!"? Who will help us to profess our "lack of definiteness"? Who will give us the great courage to abandon the gifts of reason and to "brutalize" ourselves? Who will make the sorrows of Job weigh more heavily than the sands of the sea?

     Pascal replies: "Jésus sera en agonie jusqu'à la fin du monde" ("Jesus will be in travail until the end of the world"). God Himself has added His own infinite sufferings to the sufferings of Job, and at the end of the world the sufferings of God and the sufferings of man will weigh more heavily than the sands of the sea. Pascal's philosophy, so unlike any which is usually called by that name, tells us not to seek strength or assurance in this bewitched world; for we must not rest, we must not sleep... This commandment is not for all, but only for certain "elect" or "martyrs". For should they in their turn sleep as the great apostle slept upon that memorable night, the sacrifice of God will have been in vain, and death will triumph definitely and for ever in the world.

Orphus system

   home    intro    texts    links    biblio ToC