Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) was a late Renaissance man—philosopher, mathematician, physicist, inventor, and writer. He discovered the direct relationship between barometric pressure and altitude; he constructed the first functional mechanical calculator; he established in Paris the world’s first public transportation system; he solved innumerable “impossible” problems of mathematics; but probably his greatest legacy to the world were his “thoughts.” Discovered after his death, jotted on scraps of paper scattered and hidden among his belongings, were over 900 random thoughts and fragments of thoughts that have come to be known in Western literature as the Pensées of Pascal. These fragments preserve for us Pascal’s attempt, as he was dying in his late 30s, to systematize on paper a grand apology for the Christian faith.

That this was his design is certain, for four years before his death he revealed to his friends a verbal outline of the comprehensive work he had in mind. When his papers were examined it was recognized that many of the 900 jotted thoughts were the raw material of his projected Apology. These have been published in various arrangements as different editors have attempted to pull the fragments into logical groupings. The reconstruction of the intended Apology from the Pensées remains one of the most tantalizing textual problems in literary history.

The following fragment may reveal Pascal’s own conceptual outline for his unfinished work:

“First part: Misery of man without God. Second part: Happiness of man with God.” Or, “First part: That nature is corrupt. Proved by nature itself. Second part: That there is a redeemer. Proved by Scripture” (60). (Léon Brunschvicg’s numbering scheme for the fragments is the arrangement most often encountered in modern editions of the work.)

This simple, two-part theme is echoed many times throughout the Pensées. “For the Christian faith goes mainly to establish these two facts: the corruption of nature, and redemption by Jesus Christ” (194). In reverse order, “The Christian religion, then, teaches men these two truths; that there is a God whom men can know, and that there is a corruption in their nature which renders them unworthy of him” (556). Fragment 527 speaks of “The knowledge of man’s misery.… The knowledge of Jesus Christ …” Central to his whole apologetic scheme is man. Even as Calvin begins his Institutes with “the knowledge of God and of ourselves,” Pascal’s analysis of the faith finds at its center man’s relationship to God—miserable without him, happy with him.

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In the mid-seventeenth century Pascal, a scientist and mathematical genius, was writing in reaction to a method of Christian apologetics that held that the faith could be proven by empirical and objective proofs. He argued that the courses of the moon and stars do not prove the existence of God to the scientific mind, but rather they are proof of God’s creative power only to the heart that already has the living faith (242). He says, in fact, that “it is a sign of weakness to prove God by nature” (428). Hence the apologetic cannot be outside man, but must deal with man as its subject.

In the Pensées is the solution to a philosophical dilemma that Pascal found typified by his two favorite authors, Epictetus and Montaigne. Epictetus, the stoic, regarded man’s nature as inherently virtuous and strong, while Montaigne, the skeptic who doubted everything—even to the absurdity of doubting that he doubted—relaxed in a state of extreme epicurianism, indulging the nature that he found wretched and irreparable. Thus Epictetus recognized the former grandeur of man but ignored the present state of corruption; Montaigne recognized corruption but failed to see the original created dignity. Neither perceived the key that Pascal used to close the gulf between them: that the present state of man differs from his state at creation. It is man without God that is wretched, and it is these two words, without God, that identify both the problem and its solution.

In the extended and polished argument of Pensée 72, Pascal dwells on two opposite natures of man, soul and body; but he insists that man is a whole (115). Though man may be dissected into many parts, no part is man; rather, all the parts in combination are man, so although man seems to have differing natures of soul and body, Pascal concludes that these are inseparable in the ultimate definition of man. He gives much more attention to a different twofold nature of man, that is, his greatness and his wretchedness, comparing man simultaneously to angels and to brutes (418). He observes that “this twofold nature is so evident that some have thought that we had two souls” (417).

Pascal is considered by some to be a misanthrope because of his dismal view of the natural state of man. His view is strangely detached, as though he were an outsider looking in upon humanity. This trait may be accounted for by his isolated youth, when he was kept apart from other children and a normal pattern of schooling. Before the reader of the Pensées finds the hope of salvation thoroughly presented he is bombarded by a multitude of misanthropic pronouncements: man is deceitful (82), full of error (83), false, egocentric, and hypocritical (100), inconstant (127), vain (150), feeble (347), and mad (414). Man tries to hide his hopeless condition from himself by self-deceit and a constant search for divertissement. His self-love leads him to believe an imaginary idea of himself and his restlessness and dissatisfaction demand distraction and motion—constant motion. “The struggle alone pleases us, not the victory” (135). The chase is better than the capture. Man labors to gain rest, but finds the rest insufferable. “Complete rest is death” (129).

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This echoes a theme from The Preacher, “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing” (Eccl. 1:8). Pascal acknowledges in Solomon an expert who, with Job, has “best spoken of the misery of man” (174).

But in the very totality of the misery that defeated Montaigne, the genius of Pascal saw the hope of victory: “The greatness of man is great in that he knows he is miserable” (397). “All these same miseries prove man’s greatness. They are the miseries of a great lord, of a deposed king” (398). No other part of creation has the ability to recognize its wretchedness as does man, and in this man is different from all the beasts. He seems to know that he has fallen from a better state.

The fall is described thus: “ ‘I created man holy, innocent, perfect. I filled him with light and intelligence. I communicated to him my glory and my wonders.… But he has not been able to sustain so great glory without falling into pride. He wanted to make himself his own center, and independent of my help. He withdrew himself from my rule; and, on making himself equal to me by the desire of finding his happiness in himself, I abandoned him to himself’ ” (430). Pascal’s explanation of original sin is so crisp and clear it should be better known. His lucid observation rightly places the responsibility for sin not on any tempting agent—the serpent, the fruit, or the allurements of Eve—but squarely on man’s desire to make himself his own center. In that desire he made himself equal with God, the ultimate blasphemy, and the sin at the center of all sin.

Man has fallen from his true place (427). “He has fallen from a better nature which once was his” (409). “A ruined house is not miserable. Man only is miserable” (399) in that he can perceive his ruin from a better state. So Pascal identifies a fall from a former state, a state of lordship, of greatness, rest, and happiness to one of misery; and the misery is only man’s because man alone is a thinking creature (346). Man alone has an obscure but powerful nostalgia for the eternal destiny that he lost. The desire for independence brought the fall, described in 430, and then man’s self-love became his consuming sin, for, no longer able to love God, he fell into total love of himself. Now man is in a state of need; he desires release and redemption from his state of corruption. “This desire is left to us, partly to punish us, partly to make us perceive wherefrom we are fallen” (437). But in a state of total egocentricity how can man even recognize his need for a return to God?

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Pascal suggests a remnant of the first state, though not a remnant in the sense of some vestigial working fragment of goodness or perfection that remains. His theology follows that of Augustine and Jansen in defining man as utterly sinful and incapable of any natural righteousness of his own. However, he is not a totally orthodox Jansenist because he allows to man the free will to claim or reject the Cross of Christ for himself. Man has the power to choose and his choice may be influenced by his intuitive memory of something better. Pascal’s concept of “remnant” is explained in the vague memory of the better state, which function Jan Miel refers to as “nostalgia.”

Man has a “secret instinct, a remnant of the greatness of our original nature” (139). “There was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and the empty trace” (425). “ ‘And so estranged from me that there remains to him a dim vision of his Author.… There remains to them some feeble instinct of the happiness of their former state’ ” (430). Pascal makes much of the role of intuition even in the physical sciences, and claims the primacy of it in religion. “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know” (277), perhaps the most quoted sentence from the Pensées, and “reason must trust these intuitions of the heart” (282).

Pascal’s strong and repeated arguments for intuition, the reasons of the heart, secret and feeble instincts, the empty trace, the dim vision—all such description are attempts to define the remnant of the former grandeur. It is that remnant in the form of the dim vision that enables the willing heart to find God; it is the dimness of the vision that allows the unwilling to ignore him. The responsibility is thus squarely on man in his willingness or unwillingness. “There is sufficient clearness to enlighten the elect, and sufficient obscurity to humble them. There is sufficient obscurity to blind the reprobate, and sufficient clearness to condemn them, and make them inexcusable” (578). In the unraveling of this double paradox Pascal illustrates his concept of the “hidden God” who is there for those who seek, but who remains unknown to those who do not.

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Man’s “infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God himself” (425). And more particularly, Pascal confesses that Jesus Christ is the only means of salvation (547). He also reflects the opening statement of Calvin’s Institutes when he says, “Not only do we know God by Jesus Christ alone, but we know ourselves only by Jesus Christ” (548). There is no theology more Christocentric than Pascal’s. Jesus reconciles for Pascal the contradiction between Epictetus and Montaigne. “The knowledge of God without that of man’s misery [a condition akin to Epictetus] causes pride. The knowledge of man’s misery without that of God [Montaigne] causes despair. The knowledge of Jesus Christ constitutes the middle course, because in him we find both God and our misery” (527). Only man can experience the sin of man, only God can save man from his sin, and Jesus Christ is both God and man in his own person. The greatness of the remedy—the Incarnation, his suffering with our misery—demonstrates to us just how great was the misery that had to be remedied (526).

Pascal was loyal to the Jansenist sect of Catholicism and the monastic community of the Port Royal abbey in France in which his sister and his niece were nuns and in which he had lifelong friends. Yet his Catholicism is remarkably close to a Protestant position in its doctrinal essentials. He has little to say about Mary, the mother of Jesus, and almost nothing about the pope or the ecclesiastical structure. Though he set about his apologetic task to preserve the authority of the church, the logic of his arguments appeals to Jesus as the final authority and tends toward the freedom of the individual conscience. His own certainty of the gospel and, therefore, the authority of the church, came in the confirmation of his own experience with a personal God. Early in life he had given his intellectual consent to the authority of the church but it was his second conversion, when he met God in a night of ecstasy, late in his life, that was the proof of his salvation. Pascal is tantalizingly close to the Protestant position that recognizes in each soul the freedom to meet God without the necessary mediation of the church.

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Man, in Pascal’s theology, is totally corrupt and damned, destined to fall into the hands of an angry God. Yet the fear of eternal punishment is not a noteworthy theme in his work. There is not a dwelling on the horrors of damnation so much as on the contrast of eternal salvation with the misery and wretchedness of the present state. Man was once perfect in his love of God and himself, fallen from this state of grandeur because of desire to be self-sufficient, and now miserable in a state of separation wherein he retains a vague and instinctive nostalgia for the former state. God has provided man redemption through the incarnation and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Man feels his very great need and the vacuum within himself, but tends to seek a self-deluded fulfillment in pointless diversions and a whirl of activity.

Pascal argues beautifully and, in a sense, scientifically, the proof of man’s only fulfillment in Jesus Christ. But he also reveals a sense of understanding that his great labor of apology may largely be in vain.

“Men despise religion; they hate it and fear it may be true” (187).


On a tight tether to wind and sun,
willow shadows stand still or run
across the grass. They follow the lines
of pattern the pull of the leash defines.
As God is more than sun and wind
I am more than shadow, yet disciplined
I must be, tethered, tugged by His hand
this way or that, to run as He planned.

Sonnet XXII

Thrice holy, three times spoken, meant, and heard
By one voice speaking once, once only hearing,
One only multifold, all-meaning Word,
From out of time, in time and flesh appearing
Separate, though inseparably one,
Thou who art not the Father, yet art God.
Thou who are Son of Man, though no man’s son;
Root of Jesse, Rock of Ages, Rod
Of Aaron blossoming in barren soil,
Whose petals’ blades are of a burning sword
Which strikes its deep wounds full of healing oil,
Servant of all, and universal Lord;
With literal metaphars we stumbling seek
To praise thee, strong first-born of all who speak.

His Rod and His Staff

Sons of thunder, I have seen it too
And heard the word wherein are contained
The planets, lights, and space, by faith maintained,
Spoken from the void each day anew.
Holy daughters, armed with truth and might,
You cherish dreams that will not let you be.
Till by your faith the promise becomes sight:
The fire falls, the captive world is free.
Try the searchless limits of our God.
Who can know the power of our God?
Who slays us and restores us once again,
Sends love, with pain and joy unto all men;
Stands us where the meteors are hurled,
Heals us where the silent streams purl.
We reel in vertigo without his rod:
Falling off the edge of the world.

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

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