Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Pascal's Pensées

THE best edition of Pascal's great work is the one which was published by M. Faugere, from the original MS. At the time of its publication it excited great interest, partly on account of its intrinsic merits, partly on account of a variety of heterodox opinions which the publication was supposed to fix upon Pascal, and partly on account of various controversies excited by collateral circumstances connected with the work itself, which, if it had been completed, was to have been called the Apologie du Christianisme; the fragmentary character of Pascal's notes makes it so difficult to follow their connection, that it may be well to give a sketch of the general nature of the argument which they embody.

The book was meant to consist of two parts—the second forming a treatise on the Evidences of Christianity, and the first a series of dissertations intended to prove that there is a sufficient a priori probability of its truth to induce a reasonable man to accept it on slight positive evidence. It is difficult to make much of the second part of the book. It is partly historical, but principally critical, while a great deal of it was to have turned on the interpretation of the Prophecies and of the typical and mystical portions of the books of the Old Testament. It is difficult to extract anything complete and systematic from the confused notes upon these subjects which alone remain. The argument of the first part, though expressed in a fragmentary manner, can still be pretty clearly traced. Its general purport is as follows:—There is in all human affairs a radical confusion and absurdity, which leads perpetually to two results diametrically opposed to each other. Men, on the one hand, are haunted by conceptions of truth, justice, virtue, nobleness, and happiness—on the other, they live in a state of things which tends to prove these conceptions to be altogether false. Stoicism, on the one hand, and Pyrrhonism on the other, have a hold on the human mind which it can never shake off. There is a point of view from which Epictetus, and there is a point of view from which Montaigne, is unanswerable. Human nature therefore is corrupt. Christianity recognizes and is founded on that corruption which it professes to be able to repair. The life of its author, and the leading facts of its creed, exalt us to the highest dignity. They also enter into the lowest humiliation of which human nature is capable. There is enough positive evidence in favour of the truth of this system to justify any one in adopting it who feels inclined to do so, and to protect him from ridicule if he does. Inasmuch as, in this world, it frequently happens that there is nothing to act upon but imperfect evidence, in which case the intellect has to pray in aid the promptings of inclination, these considerations complete the case in favour of Christianity, proving, in a few words, that there is no reason why you should not believe it if you like, that you risk less by believing than by disbelieving, and that you must do one or the other. This, translated into the plainest language—though it is infinitely less plain spoken and emphatic than Pascal's— is the gist of his argument. It would be impossible in any moderate space to discuss, in their principal bearings, the enormous subjects which such an argument embraces. A few considerations may, however, be offered on the special illustrations which Pascal gives upon one branch of his subject, and on the general method of his argument.

Probably under the influence of the example of Descartes, Pascal takes his own feelings as the criterion by which he is to judge of the feelings of mankind at large. He always appears to think that, because a proposition or a view of life appears self-evident to his mind, it must necessarily appear self-evident to every other mind. There are deep traces of this temper in the fragments of chapters which were intended to prove the misery and corruption of man. The grounds upon which he rests this conclusion are, first, the eagerness which men show for amusement and occupation, which, he says, arises from their inward consciousness of their own misery, and their disinclination to be alone with themselves— secondly, the degrading necessity under which we lie of subjecting ourselves to influences obviously deceptive in their very nature, more especially to imagination and to vanity; and, lastly, the disproportion of man to nature. Surrounded as he is by infinity in point of greatness, and infinity in point of littleness, man can see just enough of the world around him to know that the powers of the mind, vast as their sphere may be, serve only to show him his ignorance.

Such are Pascal's grounds for the conclusion that man is in a position in itself wretched, degraded, and absurd. That much is to be said in favour of such a view is no doubt true, and no doubt it is also true that Pascal had one of those minds which would naturally adopt it; but it is sufficiently obvious that the true value of his observations can be ascertained only by much wider observation and study than he bestowed on the matter. Take, for example, his doctrine about amusement and occupation. "All the misfortunes of life," he says, "may be traced to men's incapacity to sit still in a room." All human occupations he looks upon as merely diversions in the etymological sense of the word—expedients for preventing the mind from preying on itself; and thence he infers that to prey upon itself is at once its natural condition and the abiding and conclusive evidence of its corrupt nature. That Pascal's mind may have been in this condition is extremely probable, but that such is the normal condition of human minds in general is a different and a doubtful proposition. Most people would be inclined to say that the mind, like the body, has powers expressly adapted for action, and that if they do not act and are not supplied with suitable objects for acting, the mind is in an unhealthy condition, as much as the body would be if it were confined to one unvarying posture; so that the inclination of the mind to prey upon itself, when deprived of all external objects of thought, no more proves its corruption than the fact that the body moves during life, and lies still after death, proves that death is its normal state. It is equally strange and true, that in his remarks on this subject Pascal falls into the same error which misled Rousseau in his speculations upon the origin of society. To suppose that unless human nature were corrupt men would take pleasure in absolute inaction is the precise counterpart of the theory, that the savage state must be the state of nature, because it is the simplest state of which we can form a notion.

Similar observations apply to Pascal's remaining arguments upon this point. He adopts the sceptical theory that the imagination is a puissance trompeuse. In M. Faugere's edition of the Pensées there are numerous scattered reflections, some of which had been suppressed in earlier editions, which may well be imagined to have given great scandal to earlier editors. Pascal attributes to deceit—to what we in the slang of the day should call shams—a very large proportion of the power of all established authorities. The judges in their ermine are to him mere "chats fourrés" but he strives to make this view of the case harmonize with the deepest convictions of the sacredness of authority by a reflection which comes very near to the populus vult decipi. Nature is corrupt. Man must be imposed upon—it is a necessary part of his punishment and degradation. As far as it is possible to judge from fragments, he appears to have taken pleasure in confirming these views of the condition and destiny of mankind by a keen exposure of the defects of the arrangements of human society, coupled with a recognition of the fact that they cannot be avoided. It is instructive to find one of the most eminent apologists of Christianity denouncing the inequalities and injustice of institutions essential to the very existence of society, in a manner which, in our own days, denotes the writings of professed revolutionists. Thus, for example, he maintains that abstract justice would require an equal division of property; and he polishes and elaborates, with manifest complacency, a sarcasm, the point of which is, that whereas in general it is a great crime to kill a man, it may become an honourable thing to do so if you live on the opposite bank of a river. It never occurs to him that these things are capable of being remedied or even of being mitigated. It would weaken his cause if they were not there, for it is on the madness and folly of the world that he takes his stand.

Such a standing ground will always be accessible enough; but those who adopt it ought to remember that what they look upon as shams and impostures are so far from being rendered necessary to the transaction of human affairs by the corruption of human nature, that they are either impediments, the removal of which would, even in the present state of things, be a blessing, or else the results of misunderstandings which in some cases have been, and in other cases are being, explained away. The imagination itself is so far from being essentially a puissance trompeuse, that it is in fact the great active principle of our nature. Without imagination a man could not mend a pen or make a pair of shoes, for he must have a conception of the effect which he means to produce before he can produce it. The external decorations of civil and military authority are in their origin mere matters of association. They are, in the present day, either tributes to what men naturally reverence, or else they are pleasures which the position of persons in power enables them to enjoy; but wide and woeful experience ought by this time to have convinced the most sceptical that people who calculate upon the weight which such influences will derive from the weakness or corruption of human nature, reckon without their host. The crown and the ermine may ornament a real authority, but they have no power to defend a sham one. It would be impossible to show that in any province of human .affairs folly or wickedness is, in a temporal point of view, a source of strength, or of anything more than accidental and exceptional profit, yet the proposition that folly and wickedness are useful in a temporal point of view is absolutely essential to the force of Pascal's argument.

The principal contemporary interest of these observations lies in their bearing upon a mode of arguing which, in all probability, will always be popular, and which was never more popular than it is now. It consists in obtaining an orthodox conclusion from sceptical premisses. It is obvious that if it be impartially applied, scepticism may be made suicidal, for it may be so used as to destroy the difficulties which it has raised. The most famous argument of this class is Bishop Butler's criticism on fatalism. If fatalism, he argues, is applied universally, it becomes unimportant, for it puts injustice upon exactly the same footing as justice. This mode of turning an adversary's batteries on himself has a wonderful attraction for some minds. It forms the substance of several books which have obtained wide popularity; for example, of Mr. Mansel's Bampton Lectures and that well-known popular volume The Eclipse of Faith; nor can it be doubted that, within certain limits, it is legitimate. It is, however, important that these limits should be constantly borne in mind, for if they are forgotten, the would-be Christian apologist becomes himself a greater sceptic than his antagonists. What such arguments really prove, or rather what they tend to prove, in favour of any positive form of religious belief, is, that its truth or falsehood is a matter to be determined by critical and historical inquiry into its claims to be considered as revealed truth, and not by a priori speculation; and their value exclusively depends on the weight with which the positive evidence is stated. If the second part of Butler's Analogy, or the second part of Pascal's Apology, were wanting, the first parts of those works would be arguments in favour of Pyrrhonism, if they were in favour of anything. Butler's argument is that there are certain objections to Christianity, and that they all apply equally to theism. Pascal urges the same point in a more general way, and goes so far as to rest the claims of Christianity to be divine upon its recognition, and even upon its reproduction, of the fundamental contradictions which he supposed to pervade all human affairs. If he had stopped here, and had not gone on to give positive evidence in favour of the system as it was his intention to do in the second part of his book, he would have said nothing to the purpose; for if it be true that human affairs are fundamentally absurd—if the result of our widest inquiries upon the subject is that men are disproportioned, at war with themselves, half gods and half brutes, how can that fact alone dispose us to believe in a system which leads its to explain the difficulty? It is indeed a strange way of arguing to say that there must be a solution because there is a difficulty. Primâ facie, the existence of the one is evidence against the other. If the world, so far as we can see, is a mad confusion, the fact that a certain form of doctrine reduces that confusion to harmony is no argument in its favour, unless it is backed by independent evidence of its truth; for it is begging the question, and, in the supposed case, it is selfcontradictory to assume that the system of life must be harmonious, and not confused. People constantly argue as if, by showing the difficulties of other systems, they could establish their own. There cannot be a greater nor a more dangerous error. Doubt can produce only doubt; and the reasoners in question throw a torch into the magazine to save the ship from being taken.

The practical results of resting upon this negative form of argument are in one class of minds to produce that most dishonest of all habits—the habit of believing till you get a creed. In another it gives rise to practical Pyrrhonism, which is infinitely more common than most people suppose. In one of the most remarkable passages of his book, Pascal introduces a debate with a person who doubts the existence of God :—
"S'il y a un Dieu, il est infiniment incompréhensible, puisque n'ayant ni parties ni bornes, il n'a nul rapport à nous; nous sommes done incapables de connaitre ni ce qu'il est ni s'il est . . .  II y a un chaos infini qui nous sépare. Il se joue un jeu à l'extrémité de cette distance infini où il arrivera croix ou pile. Que gagerez-vous? . . .  Le juste est de ne point parier Oui, mais il faut parier: cela n'est pas volontaire; vous êtes embarqué. Lequel prendrez-vous donc?"
He then proceeds to prove that there is less risk in betting on the affirmative than on the negative; and his interlocutor objects—
"J'ai les mains liées et la bouche muette, on me force à parier et je ne suis pas en liberté, on ne me relâche pas et je suis fait d'une telle sorte que je ne puis croire. Que voulez-vous donc que je fasse?— Apprenez [is the answer] de ceux qui ont été liés
comme vous . . .  Suivez la manière par où ils ont commencé; c'est en faisant tout comme s'ils croyaient, en prenant de l'eau bénite, en faisant dire des messes, &c."
St. Paul thought that belief in God was a condition precedent to worship. Pascal exactly reverses this opinion. Whatever may be the misery of the condition of an atheist, there is far more hope that he may be brought to a better mind if he bears his opinions about, consciously regarding them as a calamity, than if he disavows them as dreary, though he cannot renounce them as false. In the one case, he is so far at least an honest man; in the other, whatever pious disguises he may wear, he is a hypocrite, a liar, and a coward. An atheist, no doubt, would be justified in respecting the belief of others. He might very reasonably say, Why should I try to disturb institutions and illusions which are powerful, which may be useful, and which are supported by the strongest of human passions? But every man ought, at any rate, to know his own mind and face his own opinions, for whether he avows them to himself or not, they are his opinions, and whatever may be the nature of the responsibility which they entail, he is responsible for them.

Such states of feeling are not without example in our own time and country; but a far more common result of the injudicious and sometimes savage and malignant zeal with which Christian advocates preach universal scepticism, in order to shut the mouths of deists, is one of which they little suspect the extent. It is not every one who agrees in Pascal's dogma, that "il faut parier." Sharpen the horns of your dilemma as you will, and the great mass of mankind will still, as a general rule, avoid both, by the simple process of remaining undecided. Almost every one who argues on dilemmas, forgets that there are always three ways of proceeding. If you go on, you must either go to the right or to the left, but you may also stay where you are. The position, no doubt, is logically incomplete, and an argument always assumes that logical completeness is an object to the person to whom it is addressed. It ought, however, to be borne in mind, especially by those who argue on religious topics, that the practical result of their arguments on the mass of their readers is of much more consequence than their logical cogency as against their antagonists. To halt between two opinions is, in ordinary cases, far from unpleasant. The number of people who are sincerely and earnestly desirous of arriving at truth, especially at theological truth, at any expense of suffering and labour, is small indeed. The number of people who have a curiosity about the matter is enormously large. Try to drive a man of this sort into one view by showing him the difficulties of others, and you only suggest to him that there are difficulties in all. It is impossible to bring home to such a person the conviction that il faut parier. Indeed, it is not true. A vast proportion of the business of life—business which the common sentiment of the world rightly regards as necessary and honourable—can be carried on without any distinct theological creed; and such business is so abundant, various, and interesting, that not only is it easy to turn away the mind from theological subjects, but it is extremely hard not to do so. Lazy indifference, slightly relieved by languid curiosity, will prevail amongst the majority of the educated world in reference to theology, just in proportion to the success with which theologians succeed in refuting each other's positive opinions, and in showing that they can return with deadly effect the thrusts which they cannot parry.

Another objection which in practice is conclusive against almost all religious dilemmas, is the difficulty, not to say the impossibility, of making them exhaustive. "You must," is the argument, "be either an atheist or a Christian." But what is that Christianity which forms the orthodox branch of the alternative? Does the choice lie between atheism and Popery, atheism and the Church of England, atheism and Calvinism, or atheism and Lutheranism? Is it quite impossible to escape atheism by resorting to Mahometanism, to Buddhism, to Brahminism, to idolatry, to a hypothetical deism adopted as a creed which may possibly be true though it is confessedly doubtful? In fact, does the dilemma come to more than this—You must either be an atheist or something else? and is such a dilemma worth having? As a mode of influencing thought or conduct it is not, but its popularity can astonish no one, for it is a way of arguing which affords men who have given in their public adhesion to recognized forms of religion an admirable opportunity of displaying safe audacity, of gratifying their antipathies, and of insinuating to the world at large the conclusion that if they are not as heretical as their neighbours, it is not because they have a greater disposition to belief, but because they have explored scepticism far enough to see that it also is vanity.

Saturday Review, September 25, 1858.

No comments:

Post a Comment