Pascal’s Memorial

Blaise Pascal, eminent seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher, produced one of the great unfinished works of western culture, the Pensées. These notes, most short, some longish, were gathered into topics and sewn together, but the book that was to be based on them was never written. No matter. The Pensées themselves are reward enough for most readers. Often the inchoative or suggestive note sets the mind going more surely than a finished passage could.

Some themes of the Pensées are known even to those who have not read the work. For example, the distinction between l’esprit de géometrie and l’esprit de finesse, summarized perhaps in the haunting remark, le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point: the heart has reasons reason does not know. It is noteworthy when a mathematician warns us against the hegemony of mathematical reasoning.

What kind of book did Pascal hope to write? In the lingo of the day, it was a work of theodicy, a justification of God to man. Something like natural or philosophical theology. Pascal was an extremely devout and serious Catholic, associated with the austere Jansenists, and his ambition was to break down the barriers man had set up between himself and God. One of his arguments on behalf of the reasonableness of faith is unfortunately too well known. It it contained in the famous pari de Pascal, Pascal’s wager. Should I or should I not accept Christianity?

Well, consider. Christianity is either true or false. If you bet that it is true and live accordingly you will be pleasantly rewarded in the next life. Of course if you bet it is false and it is true, things will not go well with you after death. On the supposition that Christianity is false, the acceptance of it has no bad consequences. Not to have believed in what is not the case entails no punishment and to believe in what turns out not to be true can’t hurt you either, since you won’t be around to be hurt. Of course Christianity could be true. . . .All in all, it looks to be the best bet to accept Christianity as true.

Fascinating as you might find this, in a given mood, such calculation seems an odd response to the message of Christianity. Nor is this passage at all typical of Pascal. For him Christianity is not just a good bet; it is the truth. In the sequel to the wager, he urges pious practices on his reader in the hope that prayer and devotion are likely to produce an inner change.

Important as it is, the Pensées do not exhaust Pascal’s importance for religious thinking. The notes are finally eclipsed by what is known as Pascal’s Memorial. On November 23, 1654, Pascal had an overwhelming spiritual experience. He immediately made notes on it in French and Latin and these notes, the Memorial, he carried with him for the rest of his life. We have the text of the Memorial and to read it is moving in an enigmatic way. The hurried lines can scarcely convey the experience Pascal seeks to record. But they do convey what a powerful experience he’d had. He sweeps away God as spoken of by the philosophers and celebrates the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and is agonized to be separated from Him. He pledges total submission to Jesus Christ.

A feature of the Memorial that should not be overlooked is the effort Pascal makes to date it as precisely as possible. Having given the date, he adds “feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr and other martyrs in the Martyrology, eve of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others. Between ten-thirty in the evening, more or less, until about half past midnight. FIRE.”

Far from being peculiar, such an effort to index in time the spiritual and eternal, is part and parcel of Christianity. What is the liturgy if not the temporal record of the story of salvation? Christmas was a particular day and so was Easter, so was the day Christ ascended into heaven. The interplay of time and eternity. Becoming a Christian is like falling in love and what lover does not delight in recalling the day and the hour?

In a word, Christianity is historical, the unfolding in time of an eternal plan, with God made man the central figure, our savior. There have been efforts to think away as inessential, perhaps mythical, the historical dimension of Christianity. Some have suggested that the Incarnation and Resurrection never happened literally; they were not historical events. What is important is some mystical message they convey. Standing athwart such nonsense is the tradition of the Church and Blaise Pascal, dashing off his account of that tremendous experience which is all the more real for having taken place precisely when it did.

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010)

Ralph McInerny was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.