Let’s read Keller (2): the meanings behind ‘job’, ‘vocation’, ‘career’, ‘profession’

Let's read Keller

Tim Keller frames Every Good Endeavor in terms of the goal of recapturing the idea of vocation, entitling the introduction ‘The importance of recovering vocation’. He understands the notion in contradistinction to the “expressive individualism” that Robert Bellah identifies at the heart of American life in his classic Habits of the Heart (see here for a lecture by Bellah condensing some of the book’s main themes). Here is Keller’s summary of the term:

The Latin word vocare—to call—is at the root of our common word “vocation.” Today the word often means simply a job, but that was not the original sense. A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it and you do it for them rather than for yourself. And so our work can be a calling only if it is reimagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interests.

This summary made me curious to search out the etymology of other words we use to describe the work we do: ‘job’, ‘occupation’, ‘career’, ‘employment’, ‘profession’, ‘position’, ‘trade’, ‘livelihood’ and ‘work’ itself. What do these words say about the way we conceptualise work and the meaning with which we invest it? Armed with the trusty OED (surely one of my desert island books!), here are my findings. For each word below I begin with my summary of where I think the focus of the term lies, and then I paste selected fruits of my OED research (I found the etymology of ‘career’ particularly interesting).


JOB, n. Focus: the discrete task or ‘thing to be done’

1. a. A piece of work; esp. a small and discrete piece of work done as part of one’s regular occupation or profession.

2. a. An isolated or casual piece of work, undertaken for a one-off payment or on a hire basis. Hence also (depreciative): a task or transaction performed perfunctorily or opportunistically for profit.

4.  a. A task, a thing to be done; an operation, a procedure; a function to be fulfilled.

Etymology:  Origin uncertain. The fact that the word is earliest attested in the phrase job of work at Phrases 1 (see quot.1557-8 at sense 1a) suggests that ‘work’ may not originally have been part of the core meaning of the word. If the sense was originally ‘piece’, then the word may be a spec. use of JOB n.3 (A cartload; the amount that a horse and cart can bring at one time)


OCCUPATION, n. Focus: that which takes up our time.

II. 4.  b. A particular action or course of action in which a person is engaged, esp. habitually; a particular job or profession; a particular pursuit or activity.

c1390   CHAUCER Melibeus 2781   He that..casteth hym to no bisynesse ne occupacion.

?1577   G. BUCHANAN Let. in Vernac. Writings (1892) 58   As to my occupation at thys present tyme, I am besy with our story of Scotland.

a1616   SHAKESPEARE Othello (1622) III. iii. 362   Farewell, Othello’s Occupation’s gone.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman occupacion, occupacioun, occupaciun, ocupacioun and Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French occupation activity, employment (c1175)


EMPLOYMENT, n. Focus: takes the worker as the object, framing him/her as the passive recipient of work granted by an employer. The person who is ‘employed’ is ‘applied’ or ‘put to work’. It could almost stand as a secular equivalent of ‘vocation’.

2. An activity in which a person engages; a pursuit. Also as a mass noun: activity, occupation. Now rare (somewhat arch.).

4.  a. The action or fact of using or employing a person to perform a task, carry out a service, etc. In later use chiefly: the hiring of a person to undertake paid work, esp. in return for wages or a salary under an employment contract. Also: an instance of this.

b. The state or condition of being so employed; the state of working for an employer, esp. in return for wages. Chiefly in in (also into, out of) employment.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman imploier, Anglo-Norman and Middle French emploier, Middle Frenchemployer (French employer ) to use or apply (for a purpose), to put to work (c1100 in Old French), to engage (someone) in an occupation (12th cent.), to occupy (time) with an activity (c1220), to allocate, assign (14th cent.), to bestow (a gift, etc.)


CAREER, n. Focus: The focus here is on intensity, competitiveness and advancement. A term originally applied to animals.

Etymology:  < French carrière racecourse; also career, in various senses; = Italian carriera, Provençal carriera, Spanish carrera road, carrer < late Latin carrāria (via) carriage-road, road, <carrus wagon.

1. a. The ground on which a race is run, a racecourse; (also) the space within the barrier at a tournament.

2. a. Of a horse: A short gallop at full speed (often in phr. to pass a career ). Also a charge, encounter (at a tournament or in battle).Obs.

3. a. By extension: A running, course (usually implying swift motion); formerly [like French carrière] applied spec. to the course of the sun or a star through the heavens. Also abstr. Full speed, impetus: chiefly in phrases like in full career, †to take, give (oneself or some thing) career , etc., which were originally terms of horsemanship (see 2).

5.  b. In modern language (after French carrière) freq. used for: A course of professional life or employment, which affords opportunity for progress or advancement in the world. Freq. attrib. (orig. U.S.), esp.  (a) designating one who works permanently in the diplomatic service or other profession, opp. one who enters it at a high level from elsewhere;  (b) career girl, career woman, etc., one who works permanently in a profession, opp. one who ceases full-time work on marrying. Also,   careers master n. a schoolteacher who advises and helps pupils in choosing careers.,  career mistress n. = careers master n.

1927   Lit. Digest 25 June 14/2   The foundation of any sound Foreign Service must consist of ‘career men’ who have become expert.

1931   F. J. STIMSON My United States xviii. 190   The career professors look somewhat askance at one who comes in from the outside world—just as career secretaries in diplomacy do upon a chief who has not gone through all the grades.


PROFESSION, n. Focus: work in which some body of knowledge or field is mastered and then declared or expressed.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman professioun, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French profession (French profession ) declaration of faith (1155 as professiun ), vows taken when entering a religious order (c1174), condition, occupation (1362 as prophecie ; 1404 as prophecion ; a1417 asprofession ; 1495 as profection ), action of teaching publicly, professorship (1596) and its etymon classical Latin professiōn-, professiō open declaration, avowal, public declaration of one’s person and property, public register of people and property, vocation or occupation that one publicly avows

1.  b. Any solemn declaration, promise, or vow.

4. a. The declaration of belief in and obedience to religion, or of acceptance of and conformity to the faith and principles of any religious community; (hence) the faith or religion which a person professes.

II. Senses relating to professional occupation. 7.  a. An occupation in which a professed knowledge of some subject, field, or science is applied; a vocation or career, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification. Also occas. as mass noun: occupations of this kind. In early use applied spec. to the professions of law, the Church, and medicine, and sometimes extended also to the military profession.

1605   BACON Of Aduancem. Learning II. sig. Aa3,   Amongst so many great Foundations of Colledges in Europe, I finde strange that they are all dedicated to Professions, and none left free to Artes and Sciences at large.

1711   J. ADDISON Spectator No. 21. ¶1   The three great Professions of Divinity, Law, and Physick.

4. b. More widely: any occupation by which a person regularly earns a living.N.E.D. (1908) notes: ‘Now usually applied to an occupation considered to be socially superior to a trade or handicraft; but formerly, and still in vulgar (or humorous) use, including these.’


POSITION, n. Focus: place within a predetermined constellation; connotation of comparison to others.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman posicion, posicioun and Middle French posicion, position, Frenchposition situation, site (late 13th cent. in Old French), thesis, assertion, statement (late 13th cent., earliest in a legal context; now spec. ‘tenet, point of doctrine’ (late 14th cent. or earlier in this sense; rare before 1690)), act of laying down (early 14th cent. or earlier in Anglo-Norman in a legal context)

3. d. The particular location allocated to an employee, esp. the place occupied by each cashier along a service counter.

1937   Times 25 Oct. 21/1   Our operators on the great 24-position switchboard deal with an average of 45,000 calls per day.

8.  a. fig. A relation in which a person stands with respect to another or others; a person’s circumstances, condition, or situation, esp. as affecting his or her influence, role, or power to act; spec. (freq. insocial position) status, rank, standing.

8. b. In a contest or competitive event: the place or standing of a contestant or competitor in relation to the others. In a specified category, field, etc.: the status or rank of any of those included in relation to the others.

c. A post as an employee; a paid office, a job.

1846   DICKENS Dombey & Son (1848) i. 4   Mr. Pilkins here, who from his position of medical adviser in this family—no one better qualified to fill that position, I am sure.


TRADE, n. Focus: habitual work. The track, course or way of work taken by an individual.

Etymology:  < Middle Low German trade (trâ ) feminine, track (Schiller & Lubben), Low German trade (traan < traden ) track (Bremisch. Wbch.); also West Flemish tra ( < trade ) walk, march, course (De Bo), < Old Saxon trada strong feminine, footstep, track = Old High German trata , Middle High German trate , trat strong feminine, footstep, trace, track, way, passage, < West Germanic ablaut-series tred- , trad- to TREAD v. Apparently introduced into English in 14th cent. from Hanseatic Middle Low German, perhaps originally in nautical language for the ‘course or track’ of a ship; afterwards used in other senses of Middle English trede TREAD n.

1. a. A course, way, path; (with possessive or of) the course trodden by a person, followed by a ship, etc.; = TREAD n. 3 common trade, a public thoroughfare. Obs.

5.  a. The practice of some occupation, business, or profession habitually carried on, esp. when practised as a means of livelihood or gain; a calling; formerly used very widely, including professions; now usually applied to a mercantile occupation and to a skilled handicraft, as distinct from a profession (PROFESSION n. 7a), and spec. restricted to a skilled handicraft, as distinguished from a professional or mercantile occupation on the one hand, and from unskilled labour on the other.in trade, following a mercantile occupation, spec. that of a shop-keeper. In earliest use not clearly distinguishable from 3; the sense is developed by contextual additions, as trade (i.e. practice) of husbandry , trade of merchandise, trade of fishing, etc.

1601   Act 43 Eliz. c. 2 §1   For settinge to worke all such persons..[who] use no ordinarie or dailie trade of lief to get their livinge by.

a1616   SHAKESPEARE Julius Caesar (1623) I. i. 12   Mur. But what Trade art thou? Answer me directly… Fla. Thou art a Cobler, art thou?


LIVELIHOOD, n. Focus: Means to the end of living.

Etymology:  < LIFE n. + Old English lād course, journey, way, maintenance, support (see LOAD n., LODEn.). Compare Old High German lībleita food, provisions, means of living. The β. forms show remodelling of the ending by association with nouns in -HOOD suffix, and probably also subsequent remodelling by association with LIVELY adj

1. The course of a person’s life, lifetime; kind or manner of life; conduct. Obs.

2. a. A (person’s) means of living. Also as a mass noun: means of living; maintenance, sustenance. Esp. in to earn (also gain, get, make,or seek) a livelihood .

c1300   St. Mary of Egypt (Laud) l. 18 in C. Horstmann Early S.-Eng. Legendary (1887) 261 (MED),   With spinningue and with seuwingue, hire liflode heo wan.

1711   J. ADDISON Spectator No. 94. ¶8   He set himself to think on proper Methods for getting a Livelihood in this strange Country.

b. (A person’s) physical sustenance; an instance of this. Also: food, provisions.

a1382   Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) (Bodl. 959) (1961) Deut. ii. 28   Liflodys by prise sul to vs þat we etyn.


WORK, n. Focus: The most general of all the terms considered here. Implies effort, and can be used of human or nonhuman actors.

Etymology:  Old English weorc = Old Frisian, Old Saxon, (Middle) Low German, (Middle) Dutch werk, Old High German werah , werc (Middle High German werch , werc , German werk ), Old Norse verk(Swedish, Danish verk ) < Old Germanic *werkom (see WORK v.); cognate are Greek ἔργον , Armeniangorc , Avestan varəza- activity.

I. 1.  a. Something that is or was done; what a person does or did; an act, deed, proceeding, business; in pl. actions, doings (often collectively =3). arch. or literary in gen. sense.

1.  c. Qualified by phr. with of expressing the moral quality of the action, as a work or works of charity, of darkness, of mercy , etc.

2.  a. Something to be done, or something to do; what a person (or thing) has or had to do; occupation, employment, business, task, function.

1598   SHAKESPEARE Henry IV, Pt. 1 II. iv. 105   Fie vpon this quiet life, I want worke.

1604   SHAKESPEARE Hamlet V. ii. 274   The point inuenom’d to, then venome to thy worke.

4. a. Action involving effort or exertion directed to a definite end, esp. as a means of gaining one’s livelihood; labour, toil; (one’s) regular occupation or employment.

8. Physics and Mech. The operation of a force in producing movement or other physical change, esp. as a definitely measurable quantity: see quots.

1832   W. WHEWELL First Princ. Mech. iv. 52   The work done does not depend on the pressure alone.

1832   W. WHEWELL First Princ. Mech. iv. 53   The work done by a machine may be represented as certain pressures exerted through certain spaces.


My aim in offering these etymological reflections is not to draw any trite conclusions about which of these terms Christians should and should not use. I see the aim of this post more as a consciousness-raising exercise, both for myself and for readers of this blog: there are many different ways of considering our work (in terms of our position in a hierarchy, the effort involved, the body of knowledge we deploy, the fact of being given work by someone else, work as a means to the end of living…) and no doubt each term is appropriate in particular contexts. Nevertheless, I am struck by how all the terms apart from ‘vocation’ situate work on a predominantly horizontal level, focusing on our relation to other people and to the product of our labour, but not to God. For this reason, I am minded to echo Keller’s call to recover the concept of ‘vocation’ today. It reminds us of the origin, the goal, the standard and the authority of our work.


Let’s read Keller (1): Success at work, your relational net worth and speculating on the kindness market

Let's read Keller

Over the coming weeks I will be blogging my way through Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor, with a particular eye out for insights that can be of help to Christian academics.

To get the ball rolling, here is a reflection on the book’s Foreword, by Katherine Leary Alsdorf,  the Founder & Executive Director of Redeemer’s Center for Faith & Work, who describes the book in this clip:

In the foreword Alsdorf relates her experience of founding an internet company that was swallowed up in the great dot come bust of the late 1990s. She describes the reaction of her co-workers to hearing that the company would have to fold in this way:

The staff, entirely on their own, made a plan to come in the following day—for no pay—to celebrate one another and the work they had done. Though the celebration was bittersweet, they brought in musical instruments to play for one another or demonstrated the tai chi they taught in the evenings, and they laughed about fun times together. I was amazed. They were honoring a culture, an organization, in which they’d found some joy in their work and in their relationships with one another—despite the end result. Eventually I came to see that day as a glimpse of God at work, doing what God does: healing and renewing and redeeming.

The experience causes Alsdorf to reflect on the definition of failure, and it reminded me that there are always at least two dimensions to any job: what is being achieved and the relational context within which it is achieved. The “what” of Aldsorf’s company ultimately failed, but it’s relational context was a success. Sometimes, the tables are turned: the “what” can be achieved at the cost of the relational context: I get done what is necessary to succeed, but I leave an ugly trail of relational exploitation, broken promises and resentment in my wake.

If Blaise Pascal were writing the preface to Every Good Endeavor, he might have framed the distinction in terms of  the chase and the catch, suggesting that what often matters most to us is the journey rather than the destination, the relational context rather than the ultimate ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of the enterprise. The weight of biblical material related to work would point us in the same direction: God is more concerned with how we work than with what we do, and with how we treat people than whether we are ‘successful’ in stock market terms.

For Christian academics, we must ask ourselves how we measure success in our own careers: by where we end up on the pecking order, or by how we treat people along the way?

The language we use is powerful in shaping the way we think, so let’s try some new concepts on for size, framing biblical values in the sort of language that is common in many workplaces:

  • When was the last time you thought in terms of your ‘relational wealth’, or ‘relational net worth’?
  • Have you ever been excited by the thought of innovating in obedience or making a strategic investment in holiness?
  • Have you ever speculated  on the kindness market or diversified into Christ-like service?

Let’s read Pascal (34): “All people seek happiness” as a principle in apologetics and cultural engagement

Let's Read Pascal

Pascal, Aristotle and Augustine agree on two points: 1) all people seek happiness; 2) the means of seeking happiness are radically diverse.

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves. (Pascal, Pensées 425)


Let us resume our inquiry and state, in view of the fact that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good, what it is that we say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I.4)

In the following passage from the Confessions, Augustine introduces a distinction between what we might call the subjective experience of seeking happiness and the objective truth of what is sought. Some people, in thinking they seek happiness, are in fact actively fleeing that which alone can give them the happiness they think they pursue:

It is not, then, certain that all men wish to be happy, since those who wish not to rejoice in You, which is the only happy life, do not verily desire the happy life. Or do all desire this, but because the flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh, so that they cannot do the things that they would, they fall upon that which they are able to do, and with that are content; because that which they are not able to do, they do not so will as to make them able? For I ask of every man, whether he would rather rejoice in truth or in falsehood. They will no more hesitate to say, in truth, than to say, that they wish to be happy. For a happy life is joy in the truth. For this is joy in You, who art the truth,  O God, my light, the health of my countenance, and my God. All wish for this happy life; this life do all wish for, which is the only happy one; joy in the truth do all wish for. I have had experience of many who wished to deceive, but not one who wished to be deceived. Where, then, did they know this happy life, save where they knew also the truth? For they love it, too, since they would not be deceived. And when they love a happy life, which is naught else but joy in the truth, assuredly they love also the truth; which yet they would not love were there not some knowledge of it in the memory. Wherefore, then, do they not rejoice in it? Why are they not happy? Because they are more entirely occupied with other things which rather make them miserable, than that which would make them happy, which they remember so little of. For there is yet a little light in men; let them walk— let them walk, that the darkness seize them not. (Augustine, Confessions X.22.33)

Now of course Aristotle’s eudaimonia, Augustine’s beatus esse and Pascals “être heureux” do not describe identical notions, but that is precisely the point: there is no consensus about what true happiness is.

I offer five reflections on these quotations:

1) The tension that arises from humanity sharing a common goal yet employing radically diverse approaches to reaching it captures well the Christian condition of being “resident aliens” in our contemporary culture or “elect exiles” as the ESV of 1 Peter 1:1 has it. We are not utterly alienated form our culture (because we share the goal of seeking happiness) but we cannot feel completely at home in it (because we differ profoundly on the means of achieving that goal).

2) It is hard to overestimate the extent to which understandings of happiness can be radically divergent. Just because everyone seeks happiness, it doesn’t follow that we all recognise each other as being engaged in the same search that we are, as these reflections from Pascal illustrate:

And since man has lost the true good, everything can appear equally good to him, even his own destruction, though so opposed to God, to reason, and to the whole course of nature. (425)

True nature being lost, everything becomes its own nature; as the true good being lost, everything becomes its own true good. (426)

In seeking happiness the human race is united; in its understanding of the happiness it seeks, it is radically divided.

3) It is a good general principle, when engaging with ideologies, ideas or people with whom we disagree, to begin with the assumption that they are seeking happiness and, then to try to understand what happiness is being sought and how it is being pursued. Very rarely will a position make no sense to the person who holds it; if it doesn’t make sense to us it may well be that we haven’t understood what notion of happiness underlies it. This is a particularly valuable principle for Christian academics working in secular disciplines, when the assumptions under-girding those disciplines can be radically at odds with biblical truth: audi alteram partem. It is also a helpful principle in addressing personal conflict at the workplace, among friends or in family contexts. Those who disagree with us often have reasons that make perfect sense once we understand what happiness they are seeking and how they are seeking it, and until we comprehend and engage on that fundamental level, our attempts to scratch the surface of their position will most likely only cause irritation and entrenched opposition.

4) The common acknowledgment that all people seek happiness provides the sort of Anknüpfungspunkt (point of contact) that Paul discerns in 1 Corinthians 1, and offers a wonderful opening for apologetic conversations in our contemporary culture in which, as Aristotle somewhat awkwardly puts it, “both the general run of men and people of superior refinement” say that happiness is to be sought. If Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks seek wisdom, what does our society demand and yearn for? There could no doubt be many responses, but I think that “happiness” would be high on any list. To put this in terms of Tim Keller’s fourfold schema drawn from 1 Corinthians 1:

  • You seek happiness
  • But it is not to be found in the way you are seeking it now
  • Happiness is to be found only in Christ
  • Here is how you can find it in him

5) Something in Aristotle’s formulation caught my eye: “both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness” we seek. That is not the same as saying that all people seek happiness. It is one thing to acknowledge that all seek happiness; it is quite another actively to seek it (just as it is one thing to say one believes in Christ, and quite another to live a life in step with that profession). So perhaps part of the way we might engage with non-Christian positions within the academy, and part of our apologetic strategy more broadly, can be to challenge the disconnect between people’s profession of seeking happiness and their actions. And of course, the challenge is also thrown out to Christians: how great a chasm is there between the happiness in God we may claim to pursue, and the actions of our daily lives?

Let’s read Pascal (33): We have an incapacity for proof, insurmountable by all dogmatism. We have an idea of truth, invincible to all scepticism

Let's Read Pascal

Two quotations to lay side by side, one from Pascal and one from the kohelleth of Ecclesiastes:

Instinct, reason.—We have an incapacity of proof, insurmountable by all dogmatism. We have an idea of truth, invincible to all scepticism.

(Pensées 395)


He [God, Elohim] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

(Ecclesiastes 3:11)

Let’s read Pascal (32): A Pascalian lesson on how to critique scepticism

Let's Read Pascal

Pensée 394 is a brief reflection on the principles that underpin sceptical traditions:

All the principles of sceptics, stoics, atheists, etc., are true. But their conclusions are false, because the opposite principles are also true.

Perhaps one of its most insightful reflections contained in this pensée is that a system can be perfectly self-consistent and non-contradictory (I know the presuppositionalists would contest that—let’s just assume it for the moment) and yet lead to false conclusions because other systems built on similarly non-contradictory sets of principles are also true. In examining a theory, position or system of belief, we must not only “see whether it hangs together”, but also see whether a system built on the opposite principles would be equally robust. In addition, this pensée shows that there are more ways to critique a position than to claim that its principles are false.

This pensée also has a Chestertonian whiff about it: it is the very asymmetry of Christianity, the fact that it takes account of contrary principles, its sheer unwieldiness and historical detail, that makes it (as Chesterton might say) quite uniquely human, and quite uniquely true.

Let’s read Pascal (30): when our greatest strengths become our deadliest weaknesses

Let's Read Pascal

In the same way that Pascal refuses to see human greatness and human wretchedness in a simplistically dichotomous relationship, he also shows how our virtues can become our vices and how our greatest strengths can reveal themselves to be our deadliest weaknesses:

When we would pursue virtues to their extremes on either side, vices present themselves, which insinuate themselves insensibly there, in their insensible journey towards the infinitely little: and vices present themselves in a crowd towards the infinitely great, so that we lose ourselves in them, and no longer see virtues. We find fault with perfection itself. (357)

A virtue, Pascal wisely points out, can become a vice when it is pursued to its extreme, abstracted from that constellation of complementary virtues which set its bounds and provide for it a context in which it can be expressed and exercised. Academia is a profession where narrow specialisation is encouraged: a narrow field of research (despite all the rhetoric about interdisciplinarity), a narrow set of methodologies, a narrow array of general competencies and, dare we say it, a narrow range personal skills. While each of these is not of course in itself vicious, academia provides a ripe context for pursuing the associated virtues to their vicious extremes: hard work becomes obsession, carefulness becomes nit-picking, specialisation becomes narrow-mindedness and self-importance. Focusing on work to the neglect of family, church or friends is, I have found in my own experience, implicitly encouraged in much of our profession (if not in so many words then certainly in terms of what we talk about and what our institutions expect, reward and measure), opening for us a clear path for turning our virtues into vices.

In pensée 359, Pascal reflects on the way that a balance between different pressures can constrain our vice:

We do not sustain ourselves in virtue by our own strength, but by the balancing of two opposed vices, just as we remain upright amidst two contrary gales. Remove one of the vices, and we fall into the other.

Perhaps one of the challenges of academia for a Christian is that the profession makes it easier for us to justify “removing one of the vices”, unwisely “simplifying” life in order to become more productive, to meet the expectations of our peers, our profession or our personal demands on ourselves.

Let’s read Pascal (29): There is no human greatness without human wretchedness

Let's Read Pascal

Christians sometimes receive a bad press for being too negative about human beings: always emphasising sin and wretchedness and always searching out the worst of human nature, especially in non-believers. No doubt this is sometimes true, and where we Christians indulge in an unbiblical, one-sided eeyoreish pessimism about humanity we need to repent and embrace the full biblical picture. There is a sense, however, in which to lament human wretchedness does not denigrate the human condition at all, but in fact ennobles it. Over a series of  pensées, Pascal brilliantly shows us why this is the case.

Let me begin with the famous pensée about the “thinking reed” (347), in which Pascal meditates on the twin grandeur and frailty of human nature:

Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.

All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavour, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.

Were these Pascal’s only words on the human condition, we might think that he is merely offering us a straightforward dichotomy between the weakness of the body and the nobility of the intellect, but this is far from the case. For Pascal, the relationship between greatness and the wretchedness of humanity is not a dichotomy but a paradox: the wretchedness is not opposed to the greatness–a feeble body and a majestic intellect–but the glory of the human condition is to be found in a correct understanding of our wretchedness itself (pensée 409):

The greatness of man.—The greatness of man is so evident, that it is even proved by his wretchedness. For what in animals is nature we call in man wretchedness; by which we recognise that, his nature being now like that of animals, he has fallen from a better nature which once was his.

For who is unhappy at not being a king, except a deposed king? Was Paulus Æmilius unhappy at being no longer consul? On the contrary, everybody thought him happy in having been consul, because the office could only be held for a time. But men thought Perseus so unhappy in being no longer king, because the condition of kingship implied his being always king, that they thought it strange that he endured life. Who is unhappy at having only one mouth? And who is not unhappy at having only one eye? Probably no man ever ventured to mourn at not having three eyes. But any one is inconsolable at having none.

By extension, if sin were normal or fitting for the human race there would be no sense in calling men and women wretched for sinning. It is only the refusal to relinquish the vision of something better that causes us to use terms like “wretched” in relation to the human condition. We can think of this in terms of an image from C. S. Lewis’s sermon “The weight of glory”, the image of children making mud pies in the slums because they have never dreamed of a holiday by the sea. Now of course one might argue that it would be cruel to tell the children that there is somewhere much better for them to play, somewhere without the disease of the slum; one might even think that to mention the wretchedness of the slum conditions would disturb their contentment, would make them feel bad about themselves or discontent with “who they are”. If the slum is all we know, the slum is just fine. But put the slum alongside the beach, and the slum looks decidedly wretched. In the same way, to suggest that humanity is not in the least wretched is to suggest that the way things are now–relational fracture, jealousy, quarrels, selfishness, foolishness–is quite appropriate for human beings, quite fitting for who we are. But to suggest, as does Pascal here, that humans are indeed wretched, is to insist on such a grand vision of human beings that all the squalour of the human heart simply cannot sit happily with a picture of ultimate human meaning and purpose. If we are not wretched in our current condition then we are very small indeed and, as Lewis puts it, very easily pleased. Our only grandeur is in our wretchedness.

I find this a refreshingly nuanced antidote to the (by contrast) simplistic anthropologies that pervade our contemporary culture and all too often our academic disciplines, anthropologies which tend to characterise human beings simply in terms of grandeur or—less often—simply in terms of wretchedness. Pascal reflects the biblical truth that our grandeur cannot be retained if our wretchedness is jettisoned. We are either both great and wretched, or we are very little at all. Rightly understood, contemplating our wretchedness always circles back to our greatness, and the more we marvel at our greatness the more we ought to be aware of our wretchedness:

For Port-Royal. Greatness and wretchedness.—Wretchedness being deduced from greatness, and greatness from wretchedness, some have inferred man’s wretchedness all the more because they have taken his greatness as a proof of it, and others have inferred his greatness with all the more force, because they have inferred it from his very wretchedness. All that the one party has been able to say in proof of his greatness has only served as an argument of his wretchedness to the others, because the greater our fall, the more wretched we are, and vice versa. The one party is brought back to the other in an endless circle, it being certain that in proportion as men possess light they discover both the greatness and the wretchedness of man. In a word, man knows that he is wretched. He is therefore wretched, because he is so; but he is really great because he knows it. (416)

Let’s read Pascal (27): when academic productivity is no different to watching television

Let's Read Pascal

One of the brilliant features of Pascal’s writing is the way that it punctures false apprehensions and causes us to see things differently through surprising juxtapositions. It is a Pascalian “bait and switch” technique that, for me, is shown nowhere more brilliantly than in pensée 139, which I quote here in extenso:

When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entering games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home.

But on further consideration, when, after finding the cause of all our ills, I have sought to discover the reason of it, I have found that there is one very real reason, namely, the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely.

Whatever condition we picture to ourselves, if we muster all the good things which it is possible to possess, royalty is the finest position in the world. Yet, when we imagine a king attended with every pleasure he can feel, if he be without diversion, and be left to consider and reflect on what he is, this feeble happiness will not sustain him; he will necessarily fall into forebodings of dangers, of revolutions which may happen, and, finally, of death and inevitable disease; so that if he be without what is called diversion, he is unhappy, and more unhappy than the least of his subjects who plays and diverts himself.

Hence it comes that play and the society of women, war, and high posts, are so sought after. Not that there is in fact any happiness in them, or that men imagine true bliss to consist in money won at play, or in the hare which they hunt; we would not take these as a gift. We do not seek that easy and peaceful lot which permits us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the labour of office, but the bustle which averts these thoughts of ours, and amuses us.

The effectiveness of Pascal’s reasoning here is in part due to the way he couples the familiar with the surprising. Most of us would be at ease, I suspect, with the idea that men and women engage in games and socialising in order to be amused, to be entertained, and to pass the time. But Pascal does not merely offer this conventional thought; he throws in a more surprising example: “Hence it comes that play and the society of women, war, and high posts, are so sought after.” The surprise, for me at least, is to include “high posts” in this category. When people seek play or society to pass the time there can be, in our productive and output-driven academic culture, a tendency to look down on them; they are not, to use that most apt of words in this context, “players”. But what about when productivity itself becomes the distraction; what when peer esteem, “impact” and professorial promotion are themselves used as means to the very same “amusement” provided by play and society? To the extent that this is the case, why are the latter amusements praised and envied, while the former are scorned and pitied? What is the difference, at the end of the day (or indeed on the last day), between play and high office? Are not both merely different means to the same end of entertainment?

Whatever our final answer to these questions, Pascal’s thought at least gives us pause to examine our own hearts and motives, and to ask ourselves whether academic productivity and ambition have become, for us, no more and no less than what endless hours of television are for others.