Pascal, intellectuals, and the love of God

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.

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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About Chilton Williamson, Jr. 16 Articles
Chilton Williamson, Jr. is the author of several works of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and “pure” nonfiction, including After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy and Jerusalem, Jerusalem! A Novel. He has also written hundreds of essays, critical reviews, and short stories for publications including Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, Harper’s, The New Republic, National Review, Commonweal, The New Leader, The American Spectator, among others. You can visit him online at www.chiltonwilliamson.com.

17 Comments

  1. An excellent well researched essay on the overly intellectual [rationalist] and the simplicity of truth. Especially significant, “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”. Otherwise, how could the sinner convert, or revert back to faith? An entirely Catholic perhaps exclusive Catholic perspective that reminds us there’s always hope despite our failures.

  2. The mentioned Richard Dawkins’–his particular mental block is the notion that mindless biological evolution explains everything. Economics, culture, history, and theology—all of these are only the products of cosmic churning and the sifting and sorting and random survival of the least unfit.

    All beliefs or religions other than his own construction (!) are no more than an accident of random evolutionary give and take, that spreads to others like any other “virus” or transmittable “meme.” (In a way, he’s partly right—hasn’t the more recent COVID virus become a sort of political belief system?)

    Dawkins also speculates that everything sifted and churned on planet earth still might trace back to alien visitors—themselves also randomly evolved. In this tautology, he reminds us of the pre-scientific ancients who concluded that the mysterious world was supported on the back of a giant tortoise crawling through space—and that this tortoise was supported by yet another, and another.

    Smartly modern and very original “pseudo-intellectual,” this overthinking/ underthinking, guru Dawkins.

  3. There is an historical kerfuffle on whether free will is in play when moving from sufficient grace to efficacious grace, notwithstanding Luis de Molina SJ, or François Annat SJ and the perennial antagonism on this issue with Dominicans from Domingo Báñez OP 16th century to Garrigou-Lagrange OP. The roadblock: how can the will freely move from a fallen state by sufficient grace to embrace efficacious grace, when according to Aquinas OP it requires efficacious grace to will good? Even the best of Catholic theologians have presented lengthy convoluted appearing discourse on a complex issue.
    Fr William Most in Actual Grace EWTN also appears entangled in a web, although he gives a thorough account of the problem well worth a read. “At the end of the 10 years of debates ordered by Clement VIII in 1597, Paul V closed the sessions in 1607. On the advice of St. Francis de Sales, whom he consulted, the Pope refused to approve either the Thomist or the Molinist solutions. We conclude: this is playing with a stacked deck again” (Fr Most).
    The best resolution is found in one of the lesser studied works of Aquinas, De Veritate. Grace is always an unmerited gift. Whatever God wills cannot be caused as if something in us were to cause Him to give us that grace. It is rather that God’s will is productive of good in us (De Veritate 27, 1). I add, God’s love for us is so great that it causes [in us] that which makes us worthy of that love. A gift to those whom He chooses. God who is all powerful creates free will and nonetheless moves our will to act in complete freedom, which is why we call him God.

  4. If not with perfect philosophical satisfaction, Pascal’s Gambit nonetheless seems applicable for the individual soul’s struggle regarding God’s Grace, Omniscience, & free human will.
    *
    To wit, if in fact one’s own decisions do not in any way affect one’s salvation, one accordingly loses nothing by holding the illusion such actions and decisions do matter.
    *
    On the other hand, if they in fact matter, & you use that fact to decide they don’t, you lose – everything? Much, at any rate, & perhaps all that will was meant, in cooperation with Grace, to obtain.

  5. The first thing intellectuals need to understand is that their intellects are finite. They can never fully understand the “operation of grace in the human soul” since its operation is managed by an infinite intellect.

    It is enough to understand that its operation is managed with perfect love.

    God knows exactly how much light each of us possessed and to what extent we lived according to it.

  6. Fluid dynamics and objective literary criticism aside, I imagine if there was a conversation between Pascal and Spinoza it would go something like this: “…And what would you wager Msr. Spinoza?” To which Spinoza would reply, “Everything!” Get it? Theology is about a static unchanging God but philosophy is dynamic and should work around contemporary cultural context. If there is a serious attempt to incorporate a lay Synod it should be in my opinion be one of moving beyond an official philosophy created when the Earth was flat with the entire universe revolving around it where a heavier objects released in space hit the ground before lighter one and time was constant. Science is a tool not a philosophy but as St. Augustine alluded to, with every quantum of new knowledge God seems to get bigger and less accessible.

    • But, is the Triune and relational (!) God simply about what we imagine as “static”, and is the Faith defined by nothing more than a non-dynamic “official philosophy” constrained by pre-scientific thought?

      And, does the 5th-century Augustine confine his quest to only scientia (the method of science) at the exclusion of the quite different sapientia (the insight of wisdom)? That is, wisdom as the “‘creative’ rather than [either] ‘poetic’ or ‘scientific’ truth” (e.g., Charles Norris Cochrane in his “Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study of Thought and [!] Action from Augustus to Augustine”).

      Says Augustine: ” [to sapientia] belongs the intellectual apprehension of the eternal” as distinguished from “the rational apprehension of the temporal” which is the work of science (from “On the Trinity”, one of his three leading books, along with his “Confessions” and “The City of God”). He also warns against “fantastica fornicatio,” the prostitution of the mind to its own fancies—-by now the manifest agenda of the Synod in Germany in its “contemporary cultural context.”

      As for the 13th-century Thomas Aquinas, his truth-seeking method, both grounded and open, seems to have anticipated Copernicus and Galileo by centuries:

      “Reasoning is employed (in another way), not as furnishing sufficient proof of a principle but as showing how the remaining effects are in harmony with an already posited principle; as in astronomy the theory of eccentrics and epicycles is considered as established because thereby the sensible appearances of the heavenly movements can be explained; not however as if this proof were sufficient, since some other theory [!] might explain them” (Summa Theologica, cited in L.M. Regis, “Epistemology”).

      Static? Dynamic? Much to be sorted out, and both discovered and preserved. But these two imaginary stereotypes too often kill the real conversation.

    • Forgive me if I seem harsh, although this fallacy deserves exact measure in response. Justa Tourista defines God understood in medieval context as static. Nothing can be more false than this simplistic conceptualization of the reality of God. Tourista’s error is based on dynamic as movement, that is, physical movement measured in space and time. False because what is transient never reaches perfection until it reaches its natural end. As such finite. Infinitely more dynamic is the pure act of God that isn’t subject to the imperfection of constantly changing position [presumed as progress by progressives].
      Insofar as Aquinas neither is the apprehension of truth subject to time and space.

      • Thank you for your response Mr. Beaulieu and Fr. Morello. As a simple architect and engineer I do appreciate the conversation and insight. When I use the the term “Static” and “Dynamic” in describing the study of God I am speaking of both Pascal and but mainly Spinoza’s definition of God as being the only meaningful eternal reality and Substance. Constant velocity is in essence “Static”; all other persons, things, ideas both seen and unseen being non-temporal and in constant flux as an extension of God, (Greek Nature = Dynamic change). I think it is remarcable that both the Hindu and Christian religions allude to a timeless, immovable mover and two aspects of his being as agents of change. And while I think as a Christian it is objectionable to think of God as a Universal Perpetual Machine, (as Spinoza and Pascal did), in the contemporary setting of STEM culture I have found that it is a useful language to allow contemporary young people to think about the intersection of the Christian faith. I know I am incredibly ignorant and wayward in Catholic Theology being brought up a Baptist – but Viva La Difference – we need to be the religion which embraces dialogue, Augustine skepticism and Thomistic synthesis. I pray the Pope’s Synod is successful in bridging perceived gap between science and Catholicism as Pascal was trying so desperately to do.

        • A note on your response, “all other persons, things, ideas both seen and unseen being non-temporal and in constant flux as an extension of God” [I’m not certain whether it’s your viewpoint] when thinking as a physicist it’s necessary to consider another dimension, an immaterial reality that is understood in terms of principles of being and God as First Principle. Created beings cannot be an extension of this First Principle as we find in Pantheism common to Hindi, or Buddhist explanations of the universe. A First Principle incontext of being transcends its creation, all that is not God cannot be a composite of God.
          +So from the perspective of the Catholic philosophical theological tradition God is unique, and in a sense similar to Spinoza, is the only absolute principle of existence. The principle here is that God creates from nothing so to speak, ultimately meaning not from, as an extension of his Being.
          Created beings having an initial point of reference as created in consequence acts, unlike God, in time and space.

          • Thank you Fr. Morello. “The other extreme is that reached by the great intellects who having run thrhough all the men can know find the know nothing and come back again to that same ignorance from which they set out, {a} learned ignorance which is conscious of itself”- Pascal. Someday I hope to rid myself of all skepticism and return to the faith of a child, but for now it’s to fun not to overthink simplicity.

  7. “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.”

    I understand that about 75% of “modern philosophers” are in this category. These people are immoral. This is how moral relativism has come about.

    “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.”

    The version Pensees with Voltaire’s notes is on The Index of Forbidden Books. It is not moral to read it without permission.

    • The Index of Forbidden Books ceased publication under Pope Paul VI, in 1966, and now is an historical relic, unenforced. For individual readers, self preservation and interior peace might counsel avoidance of this or that item affecting faith or morals, but under the Natural Law. Under Canon Law, the List itself is suppressed and no longer active, and permission is not required.
      https://www.britannica.com/topic/Index-Librorum-Prohibitorum

  8. Back in 2008 Richard Dawkins and the British Humanist Association arranged for buses in London UK to display the message “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Apart from noting that we do not seem to have any proper atheists who deny the existence of God, Pascal no doubt would have had a good laugh. He was the inventor of the public bus system in Paris and also a co-founder of probability theory. The problem is that the statement does not preclude the possibility that there is a God. There lies the problem.

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