Pascal, intellectuals, and the love of God – Catholic World Report

The Jansenist controversy is a preeminent example of how “intellectuals” of whatever religion, or none at all, overthink an issue, overthinking being their chief intellectual pleasure, the source of their self-confidence and vanity.

Pascal, intellectuals, and the love of God – Catholic World Report
Detail from a statue (1785) of Pascal studying the cycloid, by Augustin Pajou. (Image: Jastrow/Wikipedia)

Intellectual work is performed principally by four categories of people. The first is wise men: men of contemplation, true philosophers whose end is the discovery of truth. These have been for the most part the greatest philosophers of classical Greece, most notably Plato and Aristotle.

The second is comprised of what are called “thinkers” or, since the late 19th century, “intellectuals;” a species of mental acrobat for whom thought—the more complex and dense the better—is its own end: thought for thought’s sake, as art for aesthetes is for art’s sake. These flourished most spectacularly in England, France, and the Germanies in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries: One thinks of Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, and, in the next century, Schopenhauer.

Finally, there are those men who straddle both categories and of whom the best examples are the Christian theological combatants of the Reformation period: Luther, Calvin, Molina, and Jansenius (Cornelius Jansen), for instance.

Pascal’s Pensées has been my bedside reading matter for the past couple of months, together with a brief biography of him by Marvin R. O’Connell. I have read Pascal regularly since I encountered him first in a class in French literature in secondary school, when the famous nuit de feu (23 November, 1654) left a strong impression on my mind, reminding me since perhaps of the circumstance of my own conversion ( dramatic, but far less so) conversion a quarter of a century later.

This time through the book, however, I recognize that what most fascinates me about Blaise Pascal and the Jansenist movement of which he was (in O’Connell’s opinion) a fellow traveler rather than a member is their insistence upon the total depravity of man. “[M]arriage,” Pascal thought, “[is] the most dangerous and the lowest of the conditions of life allowed a Christian.” Further, “It is untrue that we are worthy to be loved by others. It is unfair that we should think such a thing. The will is depraved.”

Among the great theological controversies of Pascal’s time was the dispute between the Jesuits and the Jansenists of Port-Royal who condemned them as heretics. The chief issue on which they opposed one another so fiercely concerned the operation of grace in the human soul. The Spanish Jesuit Luis de Molina had argued in a book published in 1588 (De concordia liberi arbitrii cum donis divinae gratiae) that God gives every fallen human being “sufficient grace” to perform good works, whose effect is to elevate sufficient grace to the status and power of “efficacious grace.”

This proposition implied that the soul has a measure of free will—a thing Jansenius denied from the conviction that, following Adam’s sin, man’s fallen descendants have been so blinded and burdened by concupiscence as to be incapable of free action at all. François Annat, a Jesuit and confessor to the young Louis XIV, responded to this claim by condemning the Jansenists as heretics for having embraced the Calvinist position on grace by denying “that interior grace, necessary for our will in order that it can choose what God demands of it, is never lacking, even when it sins.”

The controversy is a preeminent example of how “intellectuals” of whatever religion, or none at all, overthink an issue, overthinking being their chief intellectual pleasure, the source of their self-confidence and vanity. Aquinas, who was not an “intellectual” but rather a man whose mind, being irremovably rooted in common sense, was able to perceive directly and wholly the basic simplicity of truth. Here is what he has to say on the matter that so agitated the Jesuits, the Jansenists, the Calvinists, and so many others: “Hope does not trust chiefly in grace already received, but on God’s omnipotence and mercy, whereby even he that has not grace, can obtain it [and how else but by works added to mercy?], so as to come to eternal life. Now whoever has faith is certain of God’s omnipotence and mercy.”

Hence we read today in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that we are saved by faith and works. Does the Bible not proclaim that truth as clearly as the heavens proclaim the glory of God? In retrospect, the once-mortal battle over the efficacy of faith versus that of works seems almost incomprehensible today (or it should).

Pascal was not an “intellectual” but a mathematical and scientific genius (conics, the adding machine, etc.) and a vrai philosophe. He was also throughout his life a sick man, suffering from a brain lesion and dying perhaps from carcinomatous meningitis; a circumstance that has been offered to explain his dark view of humanity, human beings taken individually, and the human condition. Perhaps it is so.

In any event, it seems obvious nonetheless that chronic illness resulting in a morbid and pessimistic disposition cannot account, at least in full, for Pascal’s obliviousness to the loving and appreciative tenderness the Lord Himself displayed, in speech an in action, toward His own human creations as He encountered them personally on so many occasions throughout His thirty-three years of life on earth. Certainly He did not consider any of them as inherently “unworthy to be loved by others,” but just the opposite. How often do we read in the New Testament the words, “Jesus looked upon him with love…”? Would Christ have changed water into wine at a ceremony celebrating “the most dangerous and the lowest of the conditions of life allowed a Christian?”

Obviously, he would not have done. But Blaise Pascal lived in a highly speculative age in which religion, along with science, was a principal object for intellectual speculation and thus for overthink and mystification by intellectuals who insist on reading into straightforward statements, arguments, and other matters what simply isn’t there. In this respect, the modern situation is not an improvement on the late 17th century.

Pascal was no pseudo-intellectual, but too many writers on the subject of religion have been, and too many are today. The result is people like John A.T. Robinson who made a fortune with Honest to God (1963); and, more recently, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawson, who tried to put an end to the whole business by denying that theology is the knowledge of anything at all.

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