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)