In Job's Balances \ III \ Gethsemane Night|
Pascal heard these things, I repeat, at the tribunal of the Almighty. He heard them, and accepted them without dispute, though doubtless he no more "understood" them than those do who criticize him and take exception to the reactionary character of his thought. He appeared, and still appears, to others as a madman, a fanatic. He appeared so to himself. And he was indeed a madman, a fanatic. So if we had retained the right to judge him, it would have been a small matter to convict him.
But (whether for good or evil) we have just recollected that "Non pudet, quia pudendum est"; meaning that sometimes, at least, we must not be ashamed though the whole world cry with one voice, "It is shameful". And we know too that Pascal had brought his cause before the tribunal of that God who accepted of His free will the most shameful of all things which men hold shameful. Whether we like it or not, we are obliged when listening to Pascal to revise all our "pudet, ineptum, impossibile", and all our "veritates aeternae".
We must not forget that Pascal did not exactly chose his own fate. Fate chose him. When he praised the cruelty and inexorability of Fate, Pascal was exalting God Himself, the God who had proved him with unheard-of trials, like Job of old. When he sang the praises of "absurdity" he was praising God, who had deprived him of the consolations of reason. And even when he put all his faith in the "impossible", it was God alone who could have inspired him to such folly. Let us remember what his life was. His biographers tell us that "although nearly fifteen years passed between 1647 and his death, yet one may well say that he hardly lived at all during that time, for his maladies and incessant disabilities left him with a bare two or three years interval, not of perfect health, for that he never enjoyed, but of a more bearable invalidity in which he was not wholly incapacitated for work". His sister writes: "Il nous disait quelquefois que depuis l'âge de dix-huit ans il n'avait pas passé un jour sans douleur." ("He told us sometimes that, from the age of eighteen, he had never passed a day without pain.") Port Royal says the same: "His sicknesses hardly left him without pain throughout his whole life."
What was this continual torture, and who ordained it? And why? We should rather like to think that this question should not be put. No one ordained Pascal's torments with premeditation, and they could serve no purpose. In our view there is not and cannot be any question of this. But for Pascal, as for mythical Job, and for Nietzsche, who was alive only lately in our midst, it is there, and nowhere else, that all the questions lie which are of significance to man. If we will not believe "reactionary" Pascal, or "primitive" Job, let us take the testimony of "advanced" Nietzsche. He tells us:
Pascal could have repeated this saying of Nietzsche's word for word, and with equal right. Indeed, he says the same thing himself in his wonderful "Prayer to ask of God mercy in illness". Pascal the "believer" and Nietzsche the "unbeliever" are completely in accord in their testimony; Pascal whose thoughts all turned back to the Middle Ages, and Nietzsche who lived only in the future. And it is not only in their testimony that they are alike; their philosophies too are almost identical in the fundamental points for the reader who is able to get behind the words and to recognize the self-same essence under varying disguises. One need only call to mind what men most willingly forget, what the monk Luther expressed of old so forcefully in his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, written shortly before his break with the Church:
"As for my long illness, I undoubtedly owe far more to it than I do to my health. I owe it all my philosophy... Only great pain ultimately sets the spirit free. It teaches boundless suspicion. It makes of every U and X a true and genuine Y, the penultimate letter of the alphabet. Only great pain, that long and slow pain, that seems lengthily to consume us over a slow fire - only such pain as this will force us philosophers to descend to the lowest depths and to reject all that is trustful, kindly, conventional, soothing, in which we ourselves had perhaps formerly set our humanity."
If we compare Nietzsche's "horribiles blasphemiae" with Pascal's "laudis jubilationes", so different from one another, both equally meaningless to the modern ear, and yet, if we may believe Luther, both so precious and so familiar to God, we begin to think that "intelligent" history may be mistaken this time and that in spite of its verdict, Pascal, whom it had slain, came to life again two hundred years later in the person of Nietzsche. Or has history perhaps attained its end after all? Is he admired of all and read by none? It is possible, it seems even probable. Nietzsche, too, appealed from reason to the fortuitous, the capricious, the uncertain, from Kant's "synthetic a priori judgments" to the "will to power"; he too taught "non pudet quia pudendum est", which be translated as "beyond good and evil". He, too, delighted in absurdity" and found certainty where other men saw "impossibility".
"Blasphemiae... aliquanto gratiores sonant in aure Dei quam ipsum Alleluya vel quaecumque laudis jubilatio. Quanto enim horribilior et foedior est blasphemia, tanto est Deo gratior." ("Blasphemies sometimes sound more pleasing in God's ear than an Alleluia itself or a song of praise. The more frightful and horrible the blasphemy, the more pleasing it is to God.")
The Abbé Boileau tells us of Pascal: "This great intellect always thought that he saw an abyss on his left side, and used to have a chair put there to reassure himself. I have this story at first hand. His friends, his confessor, his director, told him in vain that there was nothing to fear, that it was only the terror of an imagination exhausted by abstract and metaphysical studies; he agreed with them in all their arguments, yet a quarter of an hour afterwards he again laid open the abyss which terrified him."
It is not possible to verify this story, but to judge from Pascal's own writings, Boileau was probably speaking the truth. All that Pascal wrote proves to us that instead of the solid earth beneath his feet he always felt and saw the abyss (another strange similarity between Pascal's fate and Nietzsche's). There is, perhaps, a single error in the story: the abyss was clearly not on Pascal's left side but under his feet. The rest is either told or guessed correctly. It seems true that Pascal tried to hide the abyss from himself by a chair. "Nous courons sans souci" - it is not the Abbé but Pascal himself speaking now - "dans le précipice après que nous avons mis quelque chose devant nous pour nous empêcher de le voir." ("We run heedlessly into the abyss, after having put something before us to prevent us seeing it.") If the Abbé's story is an invention, it is the invention of a seer, of one who could see into the shadows where for others all things melt in a confused twilight.
It is certain that Pascal never passed a day without suffering, and hardly knew what sleep was (Nietzsche's case was the same); it is also certain that Pascal, instead of feeling the solid earth beneath his feet as other men do, felt himself hanging unsupported over a precipice, and that had he given way to the "natural" law of gravity he would have fallen into a bottomless abyss. All his Pensées tell us this, and nothing but this. Hence also his extraordinary and unexpected fears (remember his "the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me," etc.); and neither his friends nor his confessor could do anything against them.
His reality in no way resembles other people's reality. Men in general usually feel well; they seldom feel acute pain or disquiet, and do not even admit the possibility of unfounded fears; they always feel the solid earth beneath their feet, they only know by hearsay of falls into the abyss, or if they experience these things it is only a short and fugitive experience.
But does reality cease to be real when it ceases to be ordinary? And have we the right to refuse recognition to those conditions of existence which occur but rarely? Practical people naturally do not concern themselves with exceptions, to them only the rule with its steady repetition is important; but the task of philosophy is different. If somehow a man came down to earth, from the moon or some other planet, and that man were able to tell how beings unlike ourselves live in other worlds, such a man would prove a marvelous treasure-trove to us. Pascal, Nietzsche, and many others of whom I cannot speak here, are such men coming from another world of which our philosophy can only dream, a world so unlike our own that all which is the rule to us is to them the exception, and things happen continually there which happen here rarely or not at all. Here men never walk over a precipice, they have the solid earth under their feet. That is why the law of gravity is the fundamental law of our world; everything tends towards the center of the earth. It never happens among us that a man lives in perpetual torment. With us things are generally alternately difficult and easy; each effort is usually followed by rest and quiet. There nothing is easy, everything is difficult; there is no rest, no quiet, only eternal unrest; no sleep, only an endless vigil. Can we be sure of finding there those truths which we are accustomed to reverence here? Everything tells us that our usual truths are lies up there, and that what we reject is accepted there, cherished as the supreme good. Here on earth Rome is the supreme tribunal, reason the chief criterion. There the only judge is he to whom Pascal cried: "Ad te, Domine, appello." "Therefore let us not seek certainty or security."