Let’s read Pascal (33): We have an incapacity for proof, insurmountable by all dogmatism. We have an idea of truth, invincible to all scepticism

Let's Read Pascal

Two quotations to lay side by side, one from Pascal and one from the kohelleth of Ecclesiastes:

Instinct, reason.—We have an incapacity of proof, insurmountable by all dogmatism. We have an idea of truth, invincible to all scepticism.

(Pensées 395)


He [God, Elohim] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

(Ecclesiastes 3:11)


Let’s read Pascal (32): A Pascalian lesson on how to critique scepticism

Let's Read Pascal

Pensée 394 is a brief reflection on the principles that underpin sceptical traditions:

All the principles of sceptics, stoics, atheists, etc., are true. But their conclusions are false, because the opposite principles are also true.

Perhaps one of its most insightful reflections contained in this pensée is that a system can be perfectly self-consistent and non-contradictory (I know the presuppositionalists would contest that—let’s just assume it for the moment) and yet lead to false conclusions because other systems built on similarly non-contradictory sets of principles are also true. In examining a theory, position or system of belief, we must not only “see whether it hangs together”, but also see whether a system built on the opposite principles would be equally robust. In addition, this pensée shows that there are more ways to critique a position than to claim that its principles are false.

This pensée also has a Chestertonian whiff about it: it is the very asymmetry of Christianity, the fact that it takes account of contrary principles, its sheer unwieldiness and historical detail, that makes it (as Chesterton might say) quite uniquely human, and quite uniquely true.

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 (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)

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.

Let’s read Pascal (26): “We never seek things for themselves, but for the search”

Let's Read Pascal

Pascal has a series of thoughts about the search for truth, of which 135 is a good representative example:

The struggle alone pleases us, not the victory. We love to see animals fighting, not the victor infuriated over the vanquished. We would only see the victorious end; and, as soon as it comes, we are satiated. It is the same in play, and the same in the search for truth. In disputes we like to see the clash of opinions, but not at all to contemplate truth when found. To observe it with pleasure, we have to see it emerge out of strife. So in the passions, there is pleasure in seeing the collision of two contraries; but when one acquires the mastery, it becomes only brutality. We never seek things for themselves, but for the search. Likewise in plays, scenes which do not rouse the emotion of fear are worthless, so are extreme and hopeless misery, brutal lust, and extreme cruelty.

First of all, how much of this rings true for many academic debates: “In disputes we like to see the clash of opinions, but not at all to contemplate truth when found”; “we never seek things for themselves, but for the search”. These sentences could be emblazoned over many a question and answer session after an academic paper, or indeed over many papers themselves.

Secondly, it is far from clear to me that Pascal is simply condemning this attitude. The search itself is something, though it is of course not everything, and the thrill of a good argument is not everything, but it can be mutually invigorating for all parties involved as well as for those looking or listening in.

It seems to me that there are two opposite pitfalls to avoid in relation to what Pascal says here. The first is to value only the struggle and not what it can yield. This academic attitude does not much mind on what it is working, as long as the process of working is itself satisfying. The terminus ad quem of research is a necessary fiction to adorn grant applications, but the real thrill is in the chase, not in the victory.

The opposite pitfall is to value only the end, not the means. This equally problematic attitude risks leading us to a willingness to cut corners, trample on colleagues, exploit students and employ other disgraceful means to achieve our academic ends, so convinced are we of the the ultimate, retroactive  justification of seeing those ends met.

Both these attitudes are deficient. To seek an academic “thing” only for itself and to discount the means of the search, or inversely to value the search alone, discounting what is being searched for, both fall short of what God would have us do, and who God would have us become through doing it.

What story is your work part of? Here are Tim Keller’s diagnostic questions to help you find out

Every so often in the academic life you have a thought or–even worse–publish a paper, only to find that someone else has had a very similar thought and published before you. This is both an encouragement (because it’s an indication you might be on to something) and a let-down (because your idea is not as original as you thought it might be). This experience visited me a few days ago when, a couple of weeks after publishing the post on “the map and the mirror”, I read a post by RJS over at the Jesus Creed blog about the final section of Tim Keller’s book on work: Every Good Endeavor. It turns out that Keller’s exploration of how the gospel should shape and focus our work corresponds to some of the moves made in the map and mirror post. I’m a bit embarrassed by this (I should have read Every Good Endeavor by now, and I don’t want it to look like I’m copying Keller without acknowledging him), but also greatly encouraged that the thoughts presented on this blog might not be utterly dissimilar, mirabile dictu, to those in a book by someone as wise and culturally aware as Tim Keller. There are two main similarities between Keller’s approach, as related by RJS, and our own map and mirror exercise.

1) What story is my work part of?

The first similarity is the importance of the greater narrative we see our work as part of . There are, however, two differences between Keller’s approach and our own (which, happily, makes them complementary). First, whereas we used Two Ways to Live as a narrative outline, Keller focuses on the idea of story more generally, and secondly, while the map and mirror post focused on writing the narrative of “the world according to my discipline”, Keller very helpfully insists on seeing our work as part of God’s story. Here is RJS’s summary:

One of the most significant ways that Christian faith impacts work, for better or worse, is in the story we find ourselves in. Everyone sees themselves as part of a story, a worldview, that makes sense of life, death, and the universe. There is a problem, a plot, and a mission. We see ourselves as actors within this story.

…if you get the story of the world wrong – if, for example, you see life here as mainly about self-actualization and self-fulfillment rather than the love of God – you will get your life responses wrong, including the way you go about your work. (p. 156)

Keller turns this then to the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption and restoration,  summarized briefly. God made the world and everything in it good. There are no intrinsically evil parts of the world. The whole world is fallen and affected by sin. The whole world is going to be redeemed. The way we see this story and see God’s mission in the world will have a profound impact on the way we go about life.  The gospel, Keller points out, “teaches that the meaning of life is to love God and love our neighbor, and that the operating principle is servanthood.” This will affect every aspect of work, from purpose to performance.

To be a Christian in business, then, means much more than just being honest or not sleeping with your coworkers. It even means more than personal evangelism or holding a Bible study at the office. Rather, it means thinking out the implications of the gospel worldview and God’s purpose for your whole work life – and for the whole of the organization under your influence. (p. 168-169).

These thoughts echo the spirit of Geroge Herbert’s The Elixir, and also the following sermon illustration, which I heard a long time ago and can’t remember precisely (disclaimer: I haven’t read Every Good Endeavor yet, so apologies if Tim Keller uses this illustration too!) . It went something like this:

On the set of a great Hollywood blockbuster film, a boy was hired to sweep the set floor after each take. He threw himself into this repetitive and poorly-paid task with such enthusiasm and dedication day after day that, eventually, he drew the attention of the film’s lead actor, who himself was losing enthusiasm for the project. Approaching the boy, the star asked:

“I’ve noticed you around, and I have a question for you. Why do you race around the place like someone who has just won the lottery, when you only have this crummy job that no-one else wants? You come here every day in exchange for some loose change that most of us here wouldn’t pick up if we saw it on the sidewalk; nobody here is interested in you; you are ordered around like a slave, and all you are doing is sweeping the floor again and again. Why are you so enthusiastic?”

Undaunted by the actor’s attentions or by the strange question, the boy looked up at him and replied:

“It might look like I’m merely sweeping the floor, sir, but that’s just an appearance. In fact I’m helping make the best and the biggest film in the history of cinema.”

(If anyone knows the origin of the illustration, do post a link in the comments section). The boy knew what story his work was part of. His sweeping was not, ultimately, about sweeping. It was about playing his part in making the best movie in the history of film. Similarly, the story we see our work as part of makes all the difference in the world. If our sweeping, or data entry, or research, or teaching, or presence at meetings, is just about those things themselves, then we are likely to become either cynical and disengaged from our jobs or self-seeking and determined to build our own empires at work. But if we realise that our work is part of the greatest true story in the history of the world (because it is the story OF the world!), the story in which all things in heaven and on earth are being brought under Christ to the glory of God, then our drudgery is indeed rendered divine (though not in a way that results in Christians wearing a painted-on sickly sweet smile all the time).

Diagnostic questions

The second similarity is that Keller has a list of questions to ask concerning the areas in which we work, some of which are close to the questions we asked in the map and mirror post. Here is Keller’s list:

  • What’s the story line of the culture in which I live and the field where I work? Who are the protagonists and antagonists?
  • What are the underlying assumptions about meaning, morality, origin, and destiny?
  • What are the idols? The hopes? The fears?
  • How does my particular profession retell this story line, and what part does the profession itself play in the story?
  • What parts of the dominant worldview are basically in line with the gospel, so that I can agree with and align with them?
  • What parts of the dominant worldview are irresolvable without Christ? Where, in other words, must I challenge my culture? How can Christ complete the story in a different way?
  • How do these stories affect both the form and content of my work personally? How can I work not just with excellence but also with Christian distinctiveness in my work?
  • What opportunities are there in my profession for (a) serving individual people, (b) serving society at large, (c) serving my field of work, (d) modeling competence and excellence, and (e) witnessing to Christ?

RJS’s summary is well worth reading in its entirety, not least for the reflections he provides towards the end of the post on relating Keller’s principles to working in higher education. P.S.: After a bit of digging, I’ve found a talk given by Tim Keller in which he covers the idea of work in general, and the question of “what story our work is part of?” in particular. If you were ever curious to know the Latin name for the common duck, this is the clip for you:

Let’s read Pascal (25): Pascal on admiring on the page what we would not admire in the flesh

Let's Read Pascal

In pensée 134, Pascal puts his finger on a peculiarity of art:

How useless is painting, which attracts admiration by the resemblance of things, the originals of which we do not admire!

Now I do not think, especially in the context of the pensées collected in the section called “thoughts on mind and style” in modern editions, that Pascal intends here to condemn every work of art that depicts unsavoury events, and if he does I think he is mistaken. We may admire the depiction of an act–say, for example, murder–in a work of art for the purity and intensity of its rendering. for the way in which the human cost or the mentality of the act is “captured” on the canvas, without admiring the act itself we see it committed before our eyes.

Furthermore, this purified and intensified artistic presentation is not the preserve of the visual arts alone. In fact, much literature and, I think, a great deal of political and social theory, presents us with such purified or idealised visions, schemata or theories that, while we admire their elegance and composition on the page, we would find less than congenial were they to be adopted in our own lives and by our own governments. Do we not sometimes admire or praise in our disciplinary circles behaviours, ideas or situations of which we would disapprove were we to encounter them on the street? They are ideologically laudable on the page, but not practically desirable in our own living room.

This is not to condemn all utopianism, all visionaries, all ideals. Far from it. But it is to raise the question of admiring the “beautiful murder” in relation to our own disciplinary theorising. In the post entitled Developing a Christian Approach to Your Academic Discipline: The Map and the Mirror one of the questions we suggested you ask of your discipline was “If the leaders of your discipline became the leaders of the world, what would the world look like?” In the present context, the question is slightly different: “If the theories expounded in your discipline were strictly and rigorously applied in your own context, would they retain their elegance or beguiling attractiveness?” In other words, in your discipline would we still admire as an “original” what we currently admire as a “resemblance”?