It requires notable generosity of spirit for a Jesuit pope to regard Blaise Pascal as a potential candidate for beatification. In his 18 Provincial Letters, written between January 1656 and March 1657, Pascal (under a pseudonym) accused the Society of Jesus of having “forgotten the law of God, and quenched the light of nature”. Jesuits, he averred, “have such a good opinion of themselves as to believe that it is useful … that their influence should extend everywhere, and that they should govern all consciences.”
Since most people wanted to avoid harsh penances and find excuses for their sinful behaviour, Pascal’s Jesuits had become expert at dispensing laxist moral advice. Jesuit confessors had found casuistical ways to excuse all manner of noxious behaviour: from homicide to theft, to monks ditching their habits and visiting brothels. “It must be worth one’s while,” Pascal quipped, “living in the neighbourhood” of Jesuit theologians.
Pascal’s assault has long been recognised as an exercise in caricature. It was a shame, as Hilaire Belloc put it, that “such excellence of writing, so much wit and fervour” had been put to such scurrilous use. Beyond question, the landscape of 17th-century Jesuit moral theology had both peaks and troughs, but the notion of a concerted attempt to introduce “unmeasured license” into public morals was a gross exaggeration. It was an image that stuck, however, and Pascal’s literary brilliance was largely to blame.
His Provincial Letters, which ended up on the Index of Forbidden Books, were not some random literary jeu d’esprit, but a specific attempt to defend the French champions of Jansenism. Deriving from the thought of the Flemish theologian Cornelius Jansen, this pessimistic worldview dwelt on the corruption of human nature and the impotence of human agency in achieving salvation. Rigour and asceticism were the watchwords of Jansenism, and the supposed laxity of Jesuit moral theology was the obvious enemy. Unfortunately for French followers of the cause, Innocent X had condemned various theological propositions allegedly contained within Jansen’s major work, the Augustinius, in 1653, and leading Jansenist figures, including Antoine Arnauld, had come under censure. The Provincial Letters were part of an unsuccessful attempt to rehabilitate Jansenist reputations. Pascal realised that the tone of the Letters sometimes veered towards the comical but what, he asked, “is more fitted to raise a laugh than to see a matter so grave as that of Christian morality decked out with fancies so grotesque as those in which [the Jesuits] have exhibited it?”
Pope Francis apparently sees past all the Jesuit-baiting and, of course, the roster of venerables, blesseds and saints already contains a fair few names who had a harsh word or two to say about the Society of Jesus. Moreover, Pascal’s spiritual journey is certainly interesting. No one could doubt the depth and passion of his faith and we even have a compelling conversion narrative at our disposal. On the famous “night of fire”, November 23, 1654, Pascal appears to have had an extraordinary spiritual experience, a moment in which “certitude, feeling, joy [and] peace” descended. He stitched a rather cryptic account of this transformation into the lining of his jacket and carried it with him for the remainder of his life.
The roots of Pascal’s theologising will trouble many, however, not least his extremist take on Augustine which flirted with the borders of orthodoxy. When it comes to the laws of probability or the study of vacuums, Pascal is your man; as for the operation of grace and free will, not so much.
I like Pascal’s writings well enough, and the Provincial Letters can be very funny. I like the Pensées, too, even if they are, as someone once put it, stones piled up without cement – though one can hardly blame Pascal for dying before moulding them into shape. On darker days, there is even something appealing in Pascal’s bleak view of the human condition and it certainly serves as an antidote to all those upbeat Enlightenment philosophes who came next.
Pascal, the man of science, turned to the heart and a search for religious understanding through personal experience. It’s a shame that all we ever hear about is the famous wager – a snappy probability exercise that makes belief in God the only option at the soteriological bookies. The wager was just one grandstanding bit of writing and precisely the kind of logic Pascal did not require: his faith had moved beyond the straitjacket of reason.
So, yes, Pascal was a gifted scientist, he did some good deeds and his ability to pursue his multifarious intellectual journeys through a lifetime plagued by illness is inspiring. The self-mortification is a little off-putting, of course, but it’s safe to see him as, in the famous phrase of Chateaubriand, an effrayant génie – a scary genius. But Blessed Blaise Pascal? That would be a stretch.
Jonathan Wright is an honorary fellow in the department of theology and religion at Durham University. His book Layered Landscapes: Early-Modern Sacred Space Across Faiths and Cultures, co-edited with Eric Nelson, is published by Routledge
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