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 (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.

Is academia becoming your apple pie? John Piper on losing our hunger for God

In a previous post we introduced the idea of the “combs and mirrors” of the academic life, those trinkets and baubles that can turn our head and lead us away from Christ, his kingdom and his values. Here is a powerful passage from John Piper, sketching the same idea in vivid terms:

The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night. For all the ill that Satan can do, when God describes what keeps us from the banquet table of his love, it is a piece of land, a yoke of oxen, and a wife (Luke 14:18-20). The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts. And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable

 John Piper, A Hunger for God (Wheaton: Crossway, 1997) 14

You probably know what you are doing in your job, but do you know who you are doing it for?

As Christians in academia we probably have a pretty good idea of what we want to do: what experiments we want to conduct, what papers or books we want to write, and what ideas we want to critique. We spend quite a lot of time thinking about and planning these things. But how much time do we spend thinking about who we are doing it all for? If your experience is anything like mine, the answer is probably “very little”.

We have mentioned before on this blog the academic temptation working for ourselves and not for God. Here is a passage from D. A. Carson’s A Call to Spiritual Reformation that makes the same point in relation to Christian service more broadly:

The Christian’s whole desire, at its best and highest, is that Jesus Christ be praised. It is always a wretched bastardization of our goals when we want to win glory for ourselves instead of for him. When we arrange flowers in the church, or serve as an usher, or preach a sermon; when we visit the sick, or run a youth group, or attend prayer meeting—when we do any of these things, and more, with the secret desire that we might be praised for our godliness and service, we have corrupted the salvation we enjoy. Its purpose is to reconcile us to God, for God must be the center of our lives, the ground and the goal of our existence. Indeed, Christ himself, the agent of God in creation, is the one of whom Paul elsewhere declares that all things were made by him and for him (Col. 1:16). Lying at the heart of all sin is the desire to be the center, to be like God. So if we take on Christian service, and think of such service as the vehicle that will make us central, we have paganized Christian service; we have domesticated Christian living and set it to servitude in a pagan cause.

Who are you working for?

All Christian academics need to see this: The Illustrated Guide to a PhD, by Matt Might

If you are a grad student or university professor and you haven’t seen Matt Might’s “The Illustrated Guide to a PhD” yet, do it now.

In twelve pictures Matt nails both the greatness and the insignificance of pushing back the boundaries of human knowledge. Perhaps most helpfully for Christian academics, he gives a vivid visual demonstration of how we have a tendency to over-emphasise the importance of our own small patch of knowledge. There is a tendency for all of us, I think, to think of our own area of study as secretly the most important, and we choose a scale of importance that will–conveniently–place us at the top. Shelley proclaimed that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Even if you are not an English lit major, I bet you can have a good guess at what Shelley did.

Let us be wary of choosing scales of value that place us and what we do on the top rung of the ladder of importance. All the departments and schools of the modern university are important. Our own research has its importance but it is limited and circumscribed, as Matt Might’s diagrams brilliantly show.

Let’s read Pascal (15): Is your professional seniority making you a knowledgeable fool?

Let's Read Pascal

We take it for a granted that, as a general rule, gaining increased seniority in our chosen profession betokens a deeper knowledge. Postdocs know more than doctoral students; lecturers know more than postdocs; professors know most of all. Though in most cases this is undoubtedly true, there is also a concomitant danger that accompanies seniority. I will let Pascal explain it in his own words:


Hence it happens that if any have some interest in being loved by us, they are averse to render us a service which they know to be disagreeable. They treat us as we wish to be treated. We hate the truth, and they hide it from us. We desire flattery, and they flatter us. We like to be deceived, and they deceive us.

So each degree of good fortune which raises us in the world removes us farther from truth, because we are most afraid of wounding those whose affection is most useful and whose dislike is most dangerous. A prince may be the byword of all Europe, and he alone will know nothing of it. I am not astonished. To tell the truth is useful to those to whom it is spoken, but disadvantageous to those who tell it, because it makes them disliked. Now those who live with princes love their own interests more than that of the prince whom they serve; and so they take care not to confer on him a benefit so as to injure themselves.

The higher we climb in academia, the less likely it is that, in our own group or department, people will speak to us the hard truth that helps us at the expense of injuring them. I don’t just mean the truth about the ideas for which we argue in our papers: anyone can critique those, and to challenge someone’s ideas can often be a way of affirming their competence and dignity, not questioning it. I mean the way we treat our “inferiors” in the pecking order, the way we run our labs, the time we take to complete those tasks that do not directly benefit us but help others in the field. It becomes less likely that we are challenged about those aspects of our behaviour. In other words, I am talking not about knowledge but about wisdom. As we rise in the academic hierarchy we will be more knowledgeable, but it will also be easier for us to survive unchallenged as knowledgeable fools.

Temptations of the academic life (5): Seeking novelty for its own sake, and over-correcting imbalances

In this short video from Biola University’s Centre for Christian thought, James Houston succinctly sketches two temptations of the academic life: to seek after novelty for its own sake, and to address a problem by over-correcting its errors. The temptation to over-correct is often born of a desire to differentiate ourselves sufficiently from those who went before us to be seen to be doing something new and different:

Calling all Christian academic buffalo herders

Buffalo herder

In a very thought-provoking conversation with Nicholas Wolterstorff on the nature of Christian scholarship, Alvin Plantinga voices a concern that Christians in disciplines other than philosophy are “too buffaloed by the whole academic establishment of the discipline in question”, and there is a “premium on fitting in and conformity with the way things are done”. He could be giving an illustration of Pascal’s account of custom: we humans have a tendency to fit in with the culture around us to the point where it becomes a “second nature” that we stop questioning.

While we Christian academics have no interest in being the weird uncle, neither do we want to be “buffaloed” by our disciplines and completely lose control over our own research trajectories as we chase after the latest disciplinary faddish stampede. We need the instinct, the courage and the hard graft of the buffalo herder, willing to sidestep and, if need be, marshal and direct the beasts of academic fashion in the midst of which we move.

In the video below the relevant segment begins at around 34:50…

Let’s read Pascal (9): Would you rather know something about everything, or everything about one thing? The pitfalls of expertise

Let's Read Pascal

The intense specialisation and consequent fragmentation of the contemporary university is well documented. Fields of specialism are constantly shrinking and anyone who wishes to keep their job is required to become an “expert” in smaller and smaller parcels of knowledge with each passing decade.

While this trend certainly has its reasons (not least that we know more information about more objects of knowledge than we have ever known before), it comes at a cost that we are sometimes slow to count. Consider this pensée:


Since we cannot be universal and know all that is to be known of everything, we ought to know a little about everything. For it is far better to know something about everything than to know all about one thing. This universality is the best. If we can have both, still better; but if we must choose, we ought to choose the former. And the world feels this and does so; for the world is often a good judge.

Would you agree with Pascal? If you could only choose one of the two options, would you rather know a little about everything, or everything about one thing? With tongue just a little in cheek, we could frame the choice in this way: would you rather be a public intellectual or an academic?

In an age when the language of choice to refer to university employees is increasingly “experts” (just google “the university expert” and you’ll see what I mean), the species formally known as “dons”, “professors” or even “academics” now serve the public good by injecting off-the-shelf snippets of “expert” information into the “real world” when we are so bidden.

What we lose in the race to know everything about smaller and smaller areas is the wisdom (let’s use that word) that comes from a broad understanding, the balance that one disciplinary outlook and one set of disciplinary presuppositions can bring to another set, and the explosive arcing that comes when disparate areas of knowledge are brought into contact with each other. It also cements disciplinary group-think and the internal feedback loop of affirmation that can beset any closed group.

What we most risk losing, perhaps, is more serious than any of these disciplinary peccadilloes. We are in danger, in becoming too identified with our specialty or “expertise”, that our identity is first, foremost and foundationally as God’s creatures and forgiven sinners saved by grace who will give a final account of our lives to God alone. Why is this important to remember? One reason is that it ensures against one of the great academic temptations: to think that the expertise which we have the privilege of developing at the taxpayer’s expense in some way enhances the quality and worth of our souls. Now I know that to put it like that sounds ridiculous, but is there not a sense in which we are tempted to consider ourselves just that little bit elevated as people by virtue of our “superior knowledge and wisdom”? Elevated as academics: quite possibly; elevated as people: to think so would be spectacularly to misunderstand the very heartbeat of both the Old and New Testaments.

In his Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller quotes Dr Martin Lloyd-Jones musing on the trajectory that leads a person away from humanity and into to expertise: “there are many whom I have had the privilege of meeting whose tombstones might well bear the grim epitaph . . . ‘born a man, died a doctor.'”

God grant that it may never be said of us: “born a human being, died an expert.”

Let’s read Pascal (5). Who wrote “my” book? Pascal on taking and giving academic credit

Let's Read Pascal

Here’s Pascal brilliantly lifting the lid one one more besetting academic temptation: seeking more credit for ourselves than we are due:


Certain authors, speaking of their works, say, “My book,” “My commentary,” “My history,” etc. They resemble middle-class people who have a house of their own, and always have “My house” on their tongue. They would do better to say, “Our book,” “Our commentary,” “Our history,” etc., because there is in them usually more of other people’s than their own.

For me, the comparison with “my house” incisively exposes that, under a veil of intellectualism and the pursuit of knowledge, there can lurk the same venal acquisitiveness that Christians are quick to dismiss in materialism (when we see it in others). Bravo Pascal, now for the soul searching…