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Blaise Pascal : Mathematician, Philosopher and Genius (1623-1662)

Guest Post by The Revd Graham Tomlin, Dean of St Mellitus College


On the 23rd September 1647, René Descartes, the father of modern thought and author of the best-known sound-bite in the history of western philosophy, “I think, therefore I am,”  paid a visit to a young, rather sickly twenty-four year old, recently arrived in Paris with his sister. He, like Descartes, was a mathematician, a philosopher of sorts, and a genius. His name was Blaise Pascal. Although at this time they were on fairly good terms, within a few years they were set on almost diametrically opposite paths, Descartes confident that the future lay with human reason, and its ability to explain and understand everything that matters, Pascal convinced that human rationality was fatally flawed by the Fall, and that the truth lay in historic Augustinian Christianity. Much of what they said that day remains unrecorded, but the meeting perhaps symbolises the meeting of an older Christianity with a new modern age, confident in human abilities, thinking it had little need now of those old ways.


Blaise Pascal never saw his 40th birthday. He was an anguished, illness-ridden, often lonely man, who, at the cutting edge of contemporary scientific experimentation, felt keenly the intellectual ferment of his day. One November night in 1654, he experienced a profound encounter with God, which turned a distant and arid faith into a gripping sense of mission and devotion. He died eight years later in voluntary poverty, leaving behind scattered papers which were probably intended as a grand Apology for Christianity, conceived very much with people like Descartes in mind. These were subsequently gathered together and published by his friends as the famous “Pensées”, “Thoughts on Religion and various other subjects.” Throughout these jottings, we can see Pascal countering two opposing attitudes, very familiar to his contemporaries, and also very familiar today, a fact which makes him such a fascinating figure for us.


War on Two Fronts

On the one hand, he was conscious of those who, like Descartes, were supremely and increasingly confident in the power of human reason and its ability to deliver sure, unequivocal certainty. On the other, a vigorous body of opinion in C17th France was distinctly cynical and sceptical about knowing anything for sure. Taking their cue from the great C16th moralist Montaigne, whose great question was “What can I know?”, these “Pyrrhonists” tended to be laid-back and ironic: if we can know nothing, what is there left but to enjoy life while you can? Poised between Descartes’ certainty and Montaigne’s scepticism, Pascal’s self-imposed task was to persuade his contemporaries on both sides that Augustinian Christianity was a better bet than either.


Perhaps all of this has a contemporary ring for us. New Age anti-rationalism, and the laid-back postmodern suspicion of Truth are both heirs of the sceptic Montaigne. On the other hand, there are still old-fashioned rationalists around who believe that science can lead us to infallible knowledge, that human reason and logic can uncover absolute Truth. Neither have much room for the Christian God. Can Pascal help us as we face similar challenges to him?


Some Christians in Pascal’s day bought Descartes’ line. They saw no problem for Christianity if human reason was the ultimate test of Truth, because the Faith could be proved to be reasonable and true. So, a good many works of apologetics appeared in C17th France, all trying to show evidence from nature or miracles which proved the existence of God, or logical arguments designed to demonstrate the rationality of Christianity, so that anyone who read them would be compelled to believe. Pascal thought these a complete waste of time.


For starters, he pointed out that human reason is not actually as reliable as Descartes thought it was. Imagination, for example, is far more persuasive: “Put the world’s greatest philosopher on a plank that is wider than need be; if there is a precipice below, although his reason may convince him that he is safe, his imagination will prevail!” If we really want something to be true, even if it doesn’t quite seem to fit, or even when an annoying fly is buzzing around our ears, the ability to think rationally & coolly somehow vanishes, and reason is quietly shown the door. Furthermore, Pascal admitted, when you look closely at the world, it doesn’t prove God’s existence at all. God does not show himself at every corner, in fact at times he seems distinctly shy and hard to find. The world does not shout out obvious compelling proofs for God’s existence, and even Christianity itself doesn’t always seem to make good rational sense.


Is this then because it isn’t true? Is it because God isn’t there? Is sceptical agnosticism the only answer? Well, no, says Pascal. There is still enough to make us think again. We do sometimes experience a hunger inside, an “infinite abyss” which can only be filled by God, and until then we remain restless. We do have experiences, and see evidence that suggest there just might be a God, that it may be true after all. Not enough to convince, but not enough to silence the voice of faith either. In fact, if sceptics disbelieve in God, Pascal disbelieves in sceptics: “I maintain that a perfectly genuine sceptic has never existed,” he once memorably wrote. The world is so confusing and ambiguous, that neither the rationalist nor the sceptic can fully explain it all.

The Hidden God

Pascal’s answer to this problem can be summed up in one simple sentence from the “Pensées”: “What can be seen on earth indicates neither the total absence, nor the manifest presence of divinity, but the presence of a Hidden God.” For Pascal, God deliberately hides himself in the world: we see glimpses of him, but then we’re not sure whether we can trust the evidence of our eyes. Why on earth should God do this?


Pascal’s answer is very important. God hides himself because he is not the God who stands at the end of an argument, who can be ticked off as something known and then ignored, and does not want to be. He is an intensely passionate God, who, when he comes into relationship with people, “unites himself with them in the depths of their soul.. and makes them incapable of having any other end but him.” You either have this kind of intimate personal encounter with God, or you don’t have him at all. He hides himself so that those who are idly curious, who don’t really want this kind of relationship with God and are only playing theological games, will not find him. Yet those who hunger for him deep within themselves, who are desperate to know him, they and they alone will find what they are looking for.


So, for Pascal, presenting an unbeliever with a list of proofs for Christianity or evidence for faith is probably a waste of breath. If someone basically doesn’t want to believe, no amount of proof can ever convince her. God will always remain hidden, and she will always find reasons not to believe. The crucial factor in persuading someone to believe, suggests Pascal, is not to present evidence, but first to awaken a desire for God in them. In other words, when commending Christianity to people, ‘make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.’ Such proofs as there are for Christianity can convince those who hope it is true, but will never convince those who don’t…




I am profoundly grateful to The Revd Dr Graham Tomlin for allowing me to use this abbreviated version of an article of his, which originally appeared in The Church Times, as an introduction to Pascal, his life and works.

I am hoping to follow this up with my own look at some of Pascal’s sayings.



The sculpture of Pascal, which stands in the Louvre, is by Augustin Pajou. The sculpture and the engraving (nfd) are both from wikimedia and are available under a creative commons licence.


8 comments on this post:

Stephen said...

This is a wonderful exegesis and introduction to Pascale, whose philosophy seems as radical now as it must have done in the 17th C. Don’t agree with GT however that “you either have this kind of intimate personal encounter with God, or you don’t have him at all”. There are other, less personal, means of encounter with Him (but which are hidden from some).

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you very much for this rapid and interesting response. Pascal is perhaps a mirror in which we see reflected our own churchmanship – I had never seen him as such an energetic evangelist, for example. For me Pascal is a quiet companion, a very small voice in my brain, diffidently offering his various thoughts, which have always popped up in my conscious from time to time. Does that sound mad,I wonder?!

Stephen said...

Sounds utterly sane to me. Thanks for bringing this subject to the attention of the community.

24 November 2011 16:43
24 November 2011 16:39
24 November 2011 16:28
UKViewer said...

Interesting when compared with Descartes who seemed to be trying to prove that he existed? Famously saying, “I think, therefore I am” or something like it.

The God that Pascal describes seems to me to be the very God, who filled this empty vessel, when he was desperately searching for something or someone to convince him that there was more to life and death than worms at the end of it. That life meant more than just being. Now, I know that ‘being’ fully human, in the likeness of Jesus Christ is what I was seeking.

Brilliant post, need to learn more now. You’ve done it again, awakened my curiosity. 🙂

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you UKViewer. It was the Revd Sally Hitchiner, who I knew shared my enthusiasm for Pascal from twitter, who suggested I ask Graham Tomlin. (For once, you may be surprised to learn, I really knew I was out of my depth!)I am going to leave it a little while – perhaps until we next need a break from the Anglican Covenant! – and then talk about some of my favourite Pascal quotations.

24 November 2011 17:07
24 November 2011 16:34
philippa cole said...

Is God so close as to be a part of us, invisible and yet not? There but only in shadow? More powerful in absence because I am always hungering for Him?

We reason ourselves in circles when God is but still, in the midst of our search, present but not belonging to us or our reason… I liked this post – thank you.

Lay Anglicana said...

And I like your comment! Thank-you very much – it is thought-provoking. The first part of what you say fits in with Tim Ross’s book, ‘The Nearest: Devotion, not Devotions’, which I reviewed here It was a new idea to me but a powerful one – we have such a long tradition of thinking of God as ‘out there’, even if not actually on a fluffy white cloud!

Your second point I am still teasing the meaning out of – food for thought there!

25 November 2011 12:36
25 November 2011 09:40

[…] This has echoes of the heartfelt remark by Blaise Pascal: […]

02 February 2013 13:51

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