Blaise of Glory - The Night of Fire
Part 2 of the amazing story of Pascal
In part one I looked largely at Pascal’s mathematical and scientific works. Now we need to look at his attitude to religion – considered by many to be an important part of our psychology. One of my other recent blogs touched on Buddhism. This time it’s Christianity.
Up till now, Pascal had had a lukewarm interest in spirituality. Then something happened when he was thirty-one. And it was like a meteorite. We don’t know exactly what it was but we can have a good guess because, after his death, a piece of paper was found stitched inside his coat. Pascal had carried it everywhere he went. On it were written words which give us a clue as to what he had been through:
‘The Year of Grace 1654. Monday 23rd November … From about half past ten in the evening until about half past midnight
And Pascal goes on to describe what for all the world looks like a mystical experience. In other words, something which he took to be a direct experience of the presence of God.
Whatever we make of that, from this point on Pascal focused his writing on the deepest questions. First of all, some of his friends were under ferocious attack from a particular grouping in the Roman Catholic Church, the Jesuits. Pascal went to their aid. He wrote and published a series of satirical pamphlets which just about destroyed the Jesuits’ credibility in France for over a century. More than that, he made a boring and complicated theological dispute hilarious, compelling reading for the general public and in so doing laid the foundations of modern French.
But Pascal’s real ambition was to write a book that would catch people’s spiritual imaginations. As I said in part one, the book never got beyond notes in his lifetime. For many years Pascal had suffered poor health and the last four years of his life saw a slow and agonizing physical decline caused by an undiagnosed illness – perhaps cancer or tuberculosis. He died in 1662.
The Thoughts of Pascal
However, Pascal’s notes, which were soon published in book form, have had a major impact ever since. Running throughout ‘The Thoughts of Pascal’ is an appeal for human beings to wake up to reality and start thinking about the things that really matter in life. Never mind what other people tell you, he says, hunt for the truth yourself. For Pascal, that meant an appeal to get to grips with the question of whether there is or isn’t a God.
I’m not going to go into the detail here but Pascal takes the arguments that some in his nascent scientific age were making to counter the existence of God – the discovery that we’re not at the centre of the universe, the invention of the telescope and the microscope with the accompanying realization of infinite distances and our own insignificance – and he turns those arguments on their head. Painting a giddying picture of human beings caught between the infinitely large and the infinitely small and unable ever to understand either, Pascal argues that these extremes meet and make sense in God alone. They’re not an argument against God but for God.
He goes on to say that people are fragile but they look for security in the wrong things because, again, that security can only be found in the divine.
Interestingly, Pascal believes that we’re frightened by too much reality and so immerse ourselves in frenetic activity to avoid it: ‘All the unhappiness of people comes from one thing; not being able to remain quietly in a room on their own’. A typical distraction is not being able to keep our thoughts in the present but only in the past or the future: ‘So it is that we never really live but we are always hoping to live. And by always getting ready to be happy, it’s inevitable that we never are’.
We don’t have to believe in God to appreciate the poetry of Pascal’s writing. He believed in finding God within us: ‘The heart has its reasons that reason does not know’. And this scientist strangely writes a meditation where it’s almost as if God is speaking to the now ailing Pascal directly: ‘The doctors won’t heal you, for you’ll die in the end. But I will heal you and make you immortal’. And: ‘You wouldn’t look for me if you hadn’t already found me’.
So that’s something of Blaise Pascal. A genius for sure but a genius who reached his full potential by relying on his own perceptions and not blindly on the teachings of others. Because what he wrote came from his own experience, it has resonated with people ever since. Even his spiritual writings were triggered by an experience he had – however we might understand it. And he encouraged others to quest for answers to ultimate questions themselves.
As Pascal said, ‘A human being is only a reed, the frailest one in all of nature; but it’s a thinking reed’.
Perhaps there’s a lesson in there for us all. About daring to trust ourselves. And, where necessary, having the audacity to challenge.
© Brian Shand 2017
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