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)


All the things you can do with the elements contained in one human body

The average human body contains enough sulfur to kill all fleas on an average dog, carbon to make 900 pencils, potassium to fire a toy cannon, fat to make 7 bars of soap, phosphorus to make 2,200 match heads, water to fill a ten-gallon tank, and enough iron to make a 3 inch nail.

So with the resources of only one human body you can set fire to a clean dog, put it out again immediately with water and then launch soap at it out of a small cannon before inviting 899 friends to sketch the results in pencil, finally nailing all the drawings to the wall. Brilliant!

C S LewisAlternatively, you can marvel at being face to face with an immortal:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilites, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

C.S. Lewis, ‘The Weight of Glory’


The amazing paleo diet for your mind

book on a forkDo you need a mental detox from the glucose rush of today’s self-help inspired “how to…” Christian books? Longing for something meaty, a nutrition technology that releases its mental nutrients gradually and satisfies for longer? Then C. S. Lewis has just the diet for you.

You need to become a paleolibricist!

First of all, paleolibricism is history’s natural way of ensuring that only the very best fare enters into your system. Most books written in past centuries have been unceremoniously tossed in the garbage can of history by former generations. Many of them were pretty good, as good as much of what is written today, but the select volumes that remain in circulation are the elite, the top 1%, the deliciously rich crème de la crème. Think of it as history’s quality control on your reading diet: crowdsourcing for your mind by dead people. Why would you not want to make use of that? After all: garbage in, garbage out; you are what you read.

Still not convinced to become a paleolibricist? Then how about this: Fancy a break? Want to get away from it all? Then old books are for you. Let James Houston convince you that one of the best ways to step outside your own culture is to read old books. Paleolibricism is the vacation of the mind, because travel makes us see our own world in new ways. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

Or perhaps you are not the holiday type. You want to shake things up, rattle some gages, cut against the grain of today’s culture; you are the sort who thinks that only dead fish follow the current. Comrade, you need to become a paleolibricist. Old books are the fifth column in our midst. They refuse to conform to the patterns of our contemporary culture; they don’t share our blind spots; they whisper sedition and subversion on every musty page. Paleolibricists of the Christian world, unite!  We have nothing to lose but our cultural chains.

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t read any new books; paleolibricists can have their treats and snacks. But if you are a neolibricist of strict observance you’re missing out on the nutrition of a healthy and balanced mental diet.

Still not convinced? Here’s one final argument that is bound to win you over: it’s also easier on your bank account! Old books are out of copyright and in the public domain; almost all the great Christian classics are available free for kindle and e-readers or as audiobooks, and for a pittance in your local bookstore. What’ s not to love? Grab your knife and fork and hop over to my post on what to read and how to read it, or munch through Pascal’s Pensées along with me; stock up with some free, nutritious, time-tested old books and add some real richness to your mental diet this month.

Become a paleolibricist: it’s yesterday’s best today, for a brighter tomorrow.

How can I justify spending so much of my life on academic research with all the problems in the world?

I work in an obscure corner of some unfashionable discipline. My ideas will never change the world. How can I justify spending so much of my life on academic research? How does it serve the kingdom of God?

These questions read like a typical diary entry from my time as a doctoral candidate. I still struggle with them, though less frequently now than before, and I have been helped in the struggle by C. S. Lewis’s sermon ‘Learning in War-time’.

Lewis starts with a pressing question for a society on the brink of the Second World War:

why should we — indeed how can we — continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?

Rare is the Christian scholar who has not, at some time or other, though of himself as Lewis’s fiddler, ashamed of his frivolous instrument in the midst of “more pressing” “real-world” concerns. Your friends who are doctors and nurses are busy saving people’s lives. The teachers are helping shape the next generation of young minds. The engineers are building the cities of the future, and your friends in IT seem to be dreaming new dreams every week while making millions and having fun. And you? You are reading a bunch of old books in a library somewhere, making notes on them and writing articles that only handful of people will ever read. Do you dread having to explain what you do at parties to people who wish you’d stop wasting tax-payers’ money and start contributing to the economy, and who think you only work for half the year anyway? Join the club.

Anyway, back to Lewis. Before he answers the question, he sharpens it. If academia in wartime is bad enough, then what about academia while souls perish:

I spoke just now of fiddling while Rome burns. But to a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddles while the city was on fire but that he fiddles on the brink of hell.

Lewis continues:

every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology.

Quite. It is a question we fail to face at our peril, and perhaps also at the peril of those around us.

For Lewis’s complete response you’ll have to read the sermon, but here are some of the snippets I have found most helpful:

On when it is a “good time” to pursue scholarship:

We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life”. Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right.

On the unavoidability of ‘culture’:

If you attempted, in either case, to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better. You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or in the line: if you don’t read good books you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions you will fall into sensual satisfactions.

On what is worth living for:

The rescue of drowning men is, then a duty worth dying for, but not worth living for. It seems to me that all political duties (among which I include military duties) are of this kind. A man may have to die for our country: but no man must, in any exclusive sense, live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.

On the necessity of defending God’s truth:

If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now — not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground — would be to throw down our weapons, and then betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.

On the seeming mundanity of much academic endeavor:

The learned life then is, for some, a duty. At the moment it looks as if it were your duty. I am well aware that there may seem to be an almost comic discrepancy between the high issues we have been considering and the immediate task you may be set down to, such as Anglo-Saxon sound laws or chemical formulae. But there is a similar shock awaiting us in every vocation — a young priest finds himself involved in choir treats and a young subaltern in accounting for pots of jam. It is well that it should be so. It weeds out the vain, windy people and keeps in those who are both humble and tough. On that kind of difficulty we need waste no sympathy.

Lewis’s rousing final paragraph:

All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us know. We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.