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Blaise Pascal's Penses

Pensées by Blaise Pascal – Reviewed

Blaise Pascal’s Pensées is simply put, a book of wisdom. As merely a collection of thoughts jotted down in a notebook from the mind of one of the most brilliant of men to live, it qualifies as one of the most lucid collections of thoughts. Taking nothing away from Pensées, it goes without saying that, had the thoughts and ideas of Pascal been formally organized into more meaningful and consistent streams of thought, it would make for an even stronger work. Unfortunately, Pascal passed away before this could be carried out.

Who was Blaise Pascal? Pascal was a 17th-century French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and theologian. Though Pascal passed away at the young age of 39, his contributions to though and invention have had a lasting impression. Pascal, the exemplar Rennaisance man, contributed much to humanity in various areas. Perhaps among his best-known accomplishments are his epic work of building one of the first digital calculators, inventing the syringe and the hydraulic press. The later years of his short life were filled with his work on philosophy and theology, which brings us to his thoughts, or Pensées.

Pensées is a collection of thoughts that is easy to read in bits as the thoughts are not typically expanded upon. Yet, despite this, the work is a treasure trove of brilliant thoughts meant to give a reasonable demonstration of the truth of Christianity by various philosophical and historical arguments. However, there’s something even more appealing about Pensées than the compelling arguments for Christianity from the external evidence of reality; Pascal’s incredible insights into the human being from his existential struggle and condition are nothing short of genius, as many of similar passages demonstrate,

“If man made himself the first object of study, he would see how incapable he is of going further. How can a part know the whole? But he may perhaps aspire to know at least the parts to which he bears some proportion. But the parts of the world are all so related and linked to one another, that I believe it impossible to know one without the other and without the whole. For it is impossible that our rational part should be other than spiritual; and if any one maintain that we are simply corporeal, this would far more exclude us from the knowledge of things, there being nothing so inconceivable as to say that matter knows itself. It is impossible to imagine how it should know itself.”

Fantastic insight! Pensées is a must-read for anyone who wants to take a deep-dive into the most important of matters of meaning, purpose, and destiny. Some of my personal favorite passages from Pensées include the following:

“Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand the process of reasoning, for they would understand at first sight, and are not used to seek for principles. And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, do not at all understand matters of feeling, seeking principles, and being unable to see at a glance.”

“For the chief malady of man is restless curiosity about things which he cannot understand; and it is not so bad for him to be in error as to be curious to no purpose.”

“Eloquence is a painting of thought; and thus those who, after having painted it, add something more, make a picture instead of a portrait.”

“We either carry our audience with us, or irritate them.”

“…let man consider what he is in comparison with all existence; let him regard himself as lost in this remote corner of nature; and from the little cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him estimate at their true value the earth, kingdoms, cities, and himself. What is a man in the Infinite? But to show him another prodigy equally astonishing, let him examine the most delicate things he knows. Let a mite be given him, with its minute body and parts incomparably more minute, limbs with their joints, veins in the limbs, blood in the veins, humours in the blood, drops in the humours, vapours in the drops. Dividing these last things again, let him exhaust his powers of conception, and let the last object at which he can arrive be now that of our discourse. Perhaps he will think that here is the smallest point in nature. I will let him see therein a new abyss.

I will paint for him not only the visible universe, but all that he can conceive of nature’s immensity in the womb of this abridged atom. Let him see therein an infinity of universes, each of which has its firmament, its planets, its earth, in the same proportion as in the visible world; in each earth animals, and in the last mites, in which he will find again all that the first had, finding still in these others the same thing without end and without cessation. Let him lose himself in wonders as amazing in their littleness as the others in their vastness. For who will not be astounded at the fact that our body, which a little while ago was imperceptible in the universe, itself imperceptible in the bosom of the whole, is now a colossus, a world, or rather a whole, in respect of the nothingness which we cannot reach? He who regards himself in this light will be afraid of himself, and observing himself sustained in the body given him by nature between those two abysses of the Infinite and Nothing, will tremble at the sight of these marvels; and I think that, as his curiosity changes into admiration, he will be more disposed to contemplate them in silence than to examine them with presumption.

For in fact what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret, he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up. What will he do then, but perceive the appearance of the middle of things, in an eternal despair of knowing either their beginning or their end. All things proceed from the Nothing, and are borne towards the Infinite. Who will follow these marvellous processes? The Author of these wonders understands them. None other can do so.”

“We naturally believe ourselves far more capable of reaching the centre of things than of embracing their circumference.”

“Limited as we are in every way, this state which holds the mean between two extremes is present in all our impotence. Our senses perceive no extreme. Too much sound deafens us; too much light dazzles us; too great distance or proximity hinders our view. Too great length and too great brevity of discourse tend to obscurity; too much truth is paralysing (I know some who cannot understand that to take four from nothing leaves nothing). First principles are too self-evident for us; too much pleasure disagrees with us. Too many concords are annoying in music; too many benefits irritate us; we wish to have the wherewithal to over-pay our debts. Beneficia eo usque læta sunt dum videntur exsolvi posse; ubi multum antevenere, pro gratia odium redditur.[34] We feel neither extreme heat nor extreme cold. Excessive qualities are prejudicial to us and not perceptible by the senses; we do not feel but suffer them. Extreme youth and extreme age hinder the mind, as also too much and too little education. In short, extremes are for us as though they were not, and we are not within their notice. They escape us, or we them.”

“If man made himself the first object of study, he would see how incapable he is of going further. How can a part know the whole? But he may perhaps aspire to know at least the parts to which he bears some proportion. But the parts of the world are all so related and linked to one another, that I believe it impossible to know one without the other and without the whole. For it is impossible that our rational part should be other than spiritual; and if any one maintain that we are simply corporeal, this would far more exclude us from the knowledge of things, there being nothing so inconceivable as to say that matter knows itself. It is impossible to imagine how it should know itself.”

Pascal’s Pensées is a thoughtful work that is sure to expand one’s mind and perhaps lead to a slightly different view of the world.

Image Credit: Tony Bowden, Blaise Pascal, Clermont-Ferrand (2011), CC-BY-SA

About the Author Arthur Khachatryan

Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.

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