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.