Infini Rien: Pascal's Wager and the Human Paradox

Infini Rien: Pascal's Wager and the Human Paradox

Infini Rien: Pascal's Wager and the Human Paradox

Infini Rien: Pascal's Wager and the Human Paradox

Excerpt

Pascal's wager has been seen in terms of the calculus of probabilities, as a piece of religious apologetic, as an event in the religious and psychological life of Pascal himself, and as an event in the life of the Jansenist movement and its various expressions at Port-Royal. But what concerns me in this monograph is the underlying logic of ideas brought to the surface by the intersection of two philosophical lines of thought. Pascal, as Henri Gouhier argues, was not educated in the tradition of Aristotelian scholasticism. Indeed, he came to philosophy largely by way of two particular strands of Platonism or neo-Platonism: one, strongly mystical, associated with the founder of the French Oratorian order, Pierre de Bérulle; and the other, the Augustinian Platonism associated with Duvergier de Hauranne and Cornelius Jansen. It was in these philosophical outlooks that many of Pascal's friends at Port-Royal saw their religion, and I argue that there are strong traces of various kinds of Platonism in the Pensées themselves. At the same time, Pascal was engaged in a struggle with skepticism -- as much within himself as with the Pyrrhonists to whom he refers more than twenty times in the Pensées fragments.

Pascal agrees with the skeptics that it is difficult to find God in physical nature. His own experiments with the vacuum show that nature's abhorrence of the vacuum, a fact commonly alleged to demonstrate that being, and so God, permeates everywhere, is simply a phenomenon of air pressure. But he disagrees with the skeptics' claim that we know nothing of nature. The problem, indeed, is that the human being is both "infinite" and "nothing." Our minds seem to know no limits, and yet when we try to find ourselves as objects in nature, we find only the mundane bodies of physics. If this reduces the force of some skeptical claims, it surely gives rise to new ones. What if we know nothing about the world and nothing about the knower?

Obviously there is a problem in relating the various sorts of neo-Platonism that influenced the Jansenists to the skepticism that Pascal thinks he must take seriously. But it may not be so obvious that each of these strands of thought was also undergoing its own crisis. The neo-Platonism of Yves de Paris was popular in Paris in the years just before Pascal, and it continued to be developed after him in various forms by Nicolas de Malebranche (one of Bérulle's Oratorians) and by the Jesuit Yves-Marie André, who was Malebranche's biographer. The traditional neo-Platonism saw the emanations of the One everywhere and ultimately envisaged nature as returning to the One. The One, in traditional Plotinian terms, was the source of everything and was truly without limits. Its unlimitedness was taken . . .

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