Let’s read Pascal (17): things are true or false according to the aspect in which we look at them


Let's Read Pascal

In seeking to persuade, either in apologetics or in academic writing, what is our task? It is not, Pascal warns us, simply to stack up the facts in favour of our case. That will never penetrate to the heart of the matter, because it will never penetrate to the human will. It is the will that directs and marshals which facts we choose to dwell on, and what meaning we give to them:


There is an universal and essential difference between the actions of the will and all other actions.

The will is one of the chief factors in belief, not that it creates belief, but because things are true or false according to the aspect in which we look at them. The will, which prefers one aspect to another, turns away the mind from considering the qualities of all that it does not like to see; and thus the mind, moving in accord with the will, stops to consider the aspect which it likes, and so judges by what it sees.

To persuade is not to change the “things” we see (or at least should not be, on pain of dishonesty) but to change the way that people look at and understand those things, which things they see as important, and which things they use as interpretative frameworks to understand others. This is true of the way people see Christianity; it is true of political positions; it is true of debates within and between academic disciplines.

The way we see things is not determined solely by the things themselves, any more than the way a young love-struck romantic sees his beloved is determined solely by the beloved herself. Pascal says “The will is one of the chief factors in belief”: if we want not to believe a given thing, or if we want to reject a given position, then we will find reasons and “facts” that induce us to do just that, and the hapless apologist who addresses such a rejection with yet more facts is merely throwing wood on a fire in the hope of dampening it down.

To persuade is to change not what is seen, but the aspect in which it is seen. One consequence of this fundamental realisation about human belief formation is that it is no mere appendage to an apology for the Christian faith–or to any argument that seeks to persuade for that matter–to show how it is not simply true, but also good and beautiful. In fact, seeing a position as good and beautiful more often than not precedes any assent to its truthfulness.

Pascal will have much more to say about the importance of convincing people that they should want Christianity to be true before convincing them that it is true. Much the same could be said of any argument in the arts and social sciences: if we have not convinced someone that they should want something to be true, they will not invest the effort in finding out whether it is true, and if for some reason they do investigate the matter they will likely see the “facts” in its favour as supporting the view of things in which their will has been truly invested all along.


Let’s read Pascal (8): Pascal on the importance of making your arguments beautiful

Let's Read Pascal

In a series of reflections in the first section of the Pensées (entitled “Thoughts on Mind and Style”), Pascal meditates on the nature and place of beauty in our speech and in our reasoning. His reflection in pensée 16 merits careful reflection for both apologists and academic writers alike. What are we seeking to accomplish when we write to persuade? Here is Pascal’s answer: we are seeking to bring the hearer’s head and heart into harmony by bringing our own thoughts and expressions into harmony:


Eloquence is an art of saying things in such a way—(1) that those to whom we speak may listen to them without pain and with pleasure; (2) that they feel themselves interested, so that self-love leads them more willingly to reflection upon it.

It consists, then, in a correspondence which we seek to establish between the head and the heart of those to whom we speak on the one hand, and, on the other, between the thoughts and the expressions which we employ.

There are many points that could be made from these two short sentences. One of the most fruitful in my eyes is that we never speak to the head alone, but always also to the heart, whether we realise it or not. Our academic and apologetic arguments never trade in the sole currency of truth, however much we may wish to believe otherwise and however much our hearers would maintain otherwise, but always carry a weight of goodness and beauty as well. A harmony is established between the head and heart of those to whom we speak, I take it, when they see that the ideas we are communicating are not only true but also good and beautiful.

Later in the same pensée Pascal adds a further crucial point: the goal of our communication is not that our point be beautiful and compelling to us (it will almost certainly be that in any case), but that it be beautiful and compelling to our hearer:

This assumes that we have studied well the heart of man so as to know all its powers, and then to find the just proportions of the discourse which we wish to adapt to them.

This is the golden academic principle of walking in the other’s shoes, or audi alteram partem. Persuasiveness is a hearer-dependent notion.

With all this talk of beauty, is there not a danger of sophism? Is Pascal not at risk of saying that argumentation is all in the style, not in the substance? Not at all, for that naïve cavil assumes that goodness, truth and beauty can operate in splendid isolation from each other. Pascal is of a different opinion:


Eloquence.—It requires the pleasant and the real; but the pleasant must itself be drawn from the true.

Truth has its own beauty, its own elegance, and the job of the academic writer or the apologist is not to bolt on some gratuitous “beauty” to an argument but to find the beautiful within the truth and draw it out in order to bring the hearer’s heart and mind into harmony in its contemplation.

Lest all this talk of beauty scare off any but the poetically minded, Pascal reminds us that the sciences as well as the arts are very capable of, and indeed demand, an aesthetic sensibility:


Poetical beauty.—As we speak of poetical beauty, so ought we to speak of mathematical beauty and medical beauty. But we do not do so; and the reason is that we know well what is the object of mathematics, and that it consists in proofs, and what is the object of medicine, and that it consists in healing. But we do not know in what grace consists, which is the object of poetry. We do not know the natural model which we ought to imitate; and through lack of this knowledge, we have coined fantastic terms, “The golden age,” “The wonder of our times,” “Fatal,” etc., and call this jargon poetical beauty.

So the beauty of mathematics and medicine is, in fact, for Pascal easier to apprehend than that of poetry, for the latter has been obscured by a welter of fine-sounding but ultimately empty concepts.

For anyone who writes to persuade, the first section of Pascal’s Pensées provides a concise and penetrating style manual.