It has been a long time since I last opened Blaise Pascal’s Les pensées, which is a fragmentary set of notes rather than a completed work—for a project not in philosophy, but Christian apologetics. I was reminded of the fact that I had spent nearly 50 years teaching French literature, which in French, as opposed to English, includes the classics of French thought.
Pascal (1623-1662) is indeed best appreciated not by a “philosopher” in the Anglo-Saxon post-linguistic-turn sense, but by a practitioner of la nouvelle critique, that peculiarly French brand of wide-ranging postwar theorizing that includes everyone from Girard to Derrida—a highly politicized version of which came to be known in the US at a somewhat later date as French theory. Someone, in a word, a little like a generative anthropologist.
Thus the sentence I quoted from memory in the previous Chronicle (Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie) stands outside the metaphysical universe of Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel by its appeal to the esthetic. The final m’effraie—which doesn’t work in English because you would have to put “me” at the end, so you should really translate it by I fear the eternal silence of these infinite spaces—adds a “poetic” effect that is inseparable from most of Pascal’s better known aphorisms, a feature you will find nowhere in Kant
and rarely in Hegel, although it reappears in Nietzsche and Heidegger.
Another peculiarity of the French is their respect for people who are good at math. For example, an independent candidate for the 2020 Paris mayoralty election is Cédric Villani, who dresses like a 19th-century dandy, but who is a winner of the Field Prize in mathematics, the equivalent of a Nobel. Show me a big-city mayor here who could win a Field prize; Mike Bloomberg (a fellow Hopkins man) is about as close as we’ll get.
I was pretty good at math, even won an award at Bronx Science, but nowhere near the Field category. Pascal, on the other hand, was, like Descartes (the founder of “Cartesian” geometry), a world-class mathematician, the inventor of “Pascal’s triangle,” a student of conic sections, and the constructor of perhaps the world’s first calculating machine at the age of 19. His most famous theo-philosophical construction, the “wager” or pari, was the direct product of his contribution to the nascent study of probability, stimulated by the 17th-century popularity of games of chance. I can easily imagine Pascal as a particularly brilliant student at Science, though he probably wouldn’t have made the handball team.
Pascal’s thinking is not easily classifiable. It is focused on our unknown (divine and/or worldly) human origin, yet unconcerned by “anthropological” questions such as the origin of language. His unique concern is to demonstrate the validity of Christian faith, but not by seeking to prove the truth of religion by rational argument. Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point (the heart has its reasons that the reason does not/cannot know) is typical of Pascal’s deliberately paradoxical rhetoric. No doubt he is using the word raison here in two different senses: as a “reason to believe” and as “logical reasoning,” but his point is that what really counts are the “reasons” that are to us questions of life and death, and which cannot, contra Descartes, be demonstrated by (logical) reasoning.
No philosopher is more aware than Pascal of the mimetic component of human nature, of our slavery to “custom” and to “vanity,” as well as to divertissement or frivolous diversions that distract us from the ultimate questions. Indeed, it is not difficult to situate Girard in the Jansenist vein of French Catholics such as Pascal and Racine, Christians aware that given our fallen nature, our “mediation” by the judgment of others is even more powerful than indulgence of our appetites.
A powerful conversion experience in November 1654, recounted in the Pensées in the “Mémorial,” put an end to the “worldly” phase of Pascal’s life and solidified his ties with the Jansenists. This Augustinian and near-Calvinist sect was under suspicion by the Church, then dominated by the Jesuits. It would be condemned in 1661 and its members forced to sign a “formulary” condemning its eponymic theologian Jansenius. (Pascal, already in very poor health, did not sign; his sister Jacqueline, a nun in the Jansenist convent of Port-Royal, did so, and died shortly afterward.)
The earliest telescopes and microscopes had taught Pascal’s generation that the natural universe included “infinities” both great and small beyond the realm of normal human perception. Our more recent discoveries, including that of our presumably “finite” universe, have only transformed the proto-Newtonian space-time of Pascal’s day into a cosmos ever less commensurate with our earthly capacities. What indeed would Pascal have made of the “dark” matter and energy that at last report make up some ninety-six percent of the universe?
If we speak, as it has become common to do, of human language merely as a new “trait” or “technique” that certain creatures have acquired at a certain moment in the history of life, then the only distinction we humans can grant ourselves is the vague one mentioned in Chronicle 611: “something profoundly distinct…” But if we take seriously the originary equivalence of sacred and significant, not simply as presiding at the inaugural stage of humanity, but as expressing its permanent essence, then we are able not only to grasp the anthropological relevance of Pascal’s thinking, but to see it as the beginning of the development that will lead to the “overcoming of metaphysics”—and to GA.
Given that Girard’s central anthropological breakthrough was to provide, in the enhanced mimetic abilities and dangers resulting from our increased mental capacity, the necessity that was the mother of invention of language, we can already see in Pascal the first stages of this translation of religious revelation into anthropological and psychological terms. For the human sharing of representations not merely grants us enhanced abilities in practical matters, it is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of the human social order. The fate of the nascent human community depends on the shared interdiction of the sacred and the rules for its non-conflictive sharing, and this same cultural foundation holds for our far more complex social systems.
In some relatively rare historical moments, such as the immediate postwar era in which I had the good fortune to spend my childhood, social harmony is relatively unproblematic. But as we have all been aware in the US and the West since the 1960s, this is increasingly less the case. The decades since victory in the Cold War, while by no means invalidating Francis Fukuyama’s judgment of the superiority of liberal democracy, has certainly put it in doubt. We have learned the renewed relevance of Benjamin Franklin’s ominous quip, “a Republic, if you can keep it,” which Justice Gorsuch chose as the title of his recent book. Such critical moments, to the extent that they have not (yet?) led to catastrophe, allow us privileged insights into the fragility of the shared sacrality/significance that remains the basis of any social order, however this sharing is distorted by the inevitable power hierarchies that control the terms of the “conversation.”
Pascal’s religious convictions gave him an insight into the fundamentals of human nature that is quite compatible with that of GA. He presents the dichotomy between man-creates-God and God-creates-man in the form of an opposition between those he calls “Pyrrhonists” or doubters, and “dogmatists” or believers. In Pascal’s world, the latter accept the biblical creation story, and the former admit of no belief whatever. Unlike Descartes, Pascal has no faith in the power of reason alone, as illustrated by the Cogito, to convert doubt into certitude. At most he will say that nature prevents us from truly respecting the terms of universal doubt, which remains always an ideal construct—a point that Dr. Johnson supposedly made against Berkeley’s solipsism by kicking a stone.
Today we use different arguments, but must ultimately face the same antinomy. Somehow the universe has permitted us to exist on this planet—an extraordinary thing given what we know about the rest of it, which is why, against all (absence of) evidence, astrophysicists seem incapable of writing a paragraph about “exoplanets” without discussing their “suitability for life.”
But even this suitability refers merely to self-reproducing/perpetuating life, which before the existence of humanity was unable to question its own existence. In the case of humans, not only did the universe “allow” us to evolve, but more pertinently, it has arranged matters so that our species’ continued existence has depended from the first on our shared representations, both “formal” and “institutional,” not in a merely mechanical sense, as the equivalent of feeding or reproductive mechanisms, but in order that we be able to keep the threat of internecine conflict, and subsequently, of external conflict, at a survivable level. Many human societies have perished, but the species still thrives, more numerous and vigorous than ever.
In the religions with which we are familiar, and appreciably already even in more primitive ones, the “will” attributed to divinities is essentially that of enforcers of moral/ethical laws. The “higher” the religion, the more this element prevails over the attribution to the god of cosmic powers. Girard always made the point that in Christianity, we should see God as not at all a purveyor of violence. Our violence is our own, as was already the essence of Judaism, although lacking the paradox of the Cross. But even the most primitive religions, however crudely, implement this principle. The Aztecs too maintained their society through a moral code, albeit one that involved butchering and eating large numbers of their neighbors.
Why are we interested in the biological-anthropological origin of language and of the human, if not as a means of self-understanding? Pascal seeks a way of putting this question in terms that need no extrinsic explanation. Whence the pari or “wager,” which by all indications was to be the central argument, addressed to the libertin (unbeliever) as well as the pious, of his defense of Christianity. The pari was designed as a means to paradoxically unite Pascal’s two spiritual families, elsewhere described as the esprit de finesse (intuitive, “esthetic” judgment) and esprit de géométrie (strict logical reasoning).
Here is Pascal’s clearest exposition of the pari, following what he called les lumières naturelles, our worldly power of reasoning:
If there is a God, he is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, he has no relation to us. We are therefore incapable of knowing either what he is, nor if he is. This being the case, who will dare attempt to resolve that question? Not we, who have no relation to him.
Who then will blame Christians for not being able to justify their belief, they who profess a religion for which they cannot provide a rational basis? They declare, in presenting it to the world, that it is a foolishness, stultitiam; and then you complain that they do not provide proof! If they proved it, they would not be keeping their word; it is in lacking proofs that they do not fail to make sense. — “Yes; but . . . that does not justify those who accept Christianity.” — Let us then examine this point, saying “God is, or he is not.” But which side should we opt for? Reason cannot determine anything: an infinite chaos separates us. A game is being played, at the extremity of this infinite distance, that will come up heads or tails. Which will you bet? By reason, you cannot . . . justify either choice. So do not accuse of falseness those who have made a choice . . . — “No, but I will blame them for having made, not this choice, but any choice . . . the right thing is not to bet.” — Yes; but you must bet. It is not voluntary: you are already embarked (vous êtes embarqué). Which then will you choose? . . . Let us weigh the gain and the loss, in betting that God is. Let us evaluate the two cases: if you win, you gain everything; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager then that he is, without hesitating. — “That is admirable. Yes, one must bet; but perhaps I am betting too much.” — Let us see. Since there is an equal chance of winning and losing, if you would only win two lives for one, you could still bet; but if you would win three, . . . you would be imprudent, given that you are obliged to play, not to risk your life to win three in a game where there is equal chance of win or loss. . . . But there is here an infinity of infinitely happy life to be gained, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you are betting is finite. This removes all doubt; wherever there is infinity, and where there is not an infinity of chances of loss against that of gain, you must give everything. (Pensées 233-418; my translation.)
Pascal’s argument is that we should accept to wager the finite content of our earthly life against any non-zero chance of the infinite happiness of salvation. Which is to say that, turning our backs on superfluous earthly satisfactions, we should live every moment in function of our hope of salvation. The force of the argument is that once one grasps the terms of the wager, one must not merely feel obliged to participate in the wager, but one must realize that one is already participating—vous êtes embarqué. How you live your life is “always already” the expression of your “wager” on what in the previous Chronicle I spoke of in reference to Kant’s categorical imperative as “doing the right thing.” To which Pascal adds the historically attested element of faith: even if there is a tiny chance that it is justified, its promise of eternal beatitude still provides a better bet than the ephemeral pleasures of worldly vanity.
If I have insisted on defining metaphysics by its refusal to concern itself with the (human) origin of language, it is because, by taking language as a given, it provides itself with a neutral medium in which to exercise its “rational” speculations, which is to say that for philosophy, the existence of the human with its culture is a given, and from this point of departure, it seeks to deduce, by speculating on “the nature of things,” the conditions of the “good society.” This is the ultimate subject of all Plato’s dialogues, even of Aristotle’s Organon, to the extent that knowledge of the things of this world are of potential use to this society.
In contrast, Pascal’s paradoxical language reflects his desire to go to the very root of our species’ existence, to refuse to turn away from our need to understand, not simply its evolutionary causality, but its cause. For the originary hypothesis proposes for humanity a cause, the need to control our potential mimetic violence, a necessity to which our invention of language and culture was the response.
The simplest way to understand such a cause is as a purpose, whence the eternal division between the believer and the skeptic. I am sure that among Pascal’s many readers over the centuries, few indeed have been persuaded by the pari to bet on the Church’s promise of eternal happiness. But it is also true that, beyond the so-called anthropic principle, which is in its formulation strictly biological, using the same reasoning for humanity it could have used for the amoeba—however little amoebas themselves would be capable of it—we are obliged to understand the universe as somehow, after billions of years, making possible the existence of a society of creatures whose mimetically driven appetites made it necessary for them to develop a transcendental system of representations, as well as the concomitant “consciousness,” whose essential difference from that of other species we are still far from understanding in much greater detail than as our “scene of representation.” In a word, we are obliged to take Pascal’s bet, perhaps not on our soul’s eternal happiness, but on the continuing, and as far as we know, unique significance—and sacrality?—of our species.
The power of Lars Van Trier’s film Melancholia comes from the fact that we do indeed need to “wager.” Kirsten Dunst’s Justine (the name’s Sadian origin is surely not accidental), whose death-wish dominates the film, is a modern version of the Pyrrhonist whom Pascal condemns. Her chilling lines: “The world is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it.” have been heard lately on all too many lips.
To be continued…