The Brilliant Thoughts of Blaise Pascal

One of my favorite Christian thinkers is Blaise Pascal. Pascal was a French writer and philosopher who lived from 1623—1662. He was a brilliant mathematician (a computer language was eventually named after him) and left his mark in physics. What’s interesting about Pascal is that he became a Christian the last eight years of his life before he died at the young age of 39. He left uncompleted a book he was writing on philosophical evidences for the Christian faith. All we have are his crypt notes he was writing as thoughts he would later develop and edit for a book. These notes are collected in a work entitled Pensees, which is French for “thoughts.”

Pascal’s “thoughts” are intensely philosophical and, in my opinion, a bit proto-C.S. Lewisian (another one of my favorite thinkers). Pensees is not for the casual reader, but rather for that person who wants to think deeper about the ultimate issues of life and faith in an original and challenging way. What makes Pascal so invigorating to me is that, though written in the 1660’s, it reads like a fresh voice from one of the world’s best minds. His observations are profound, sometimes a bit dark, but ardently true to the human condition. There is a good reason why Pascal’s Pensees are so widely in print and read still in our day.

Here is an example of one of Pascal’s Pensees:

“Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.” (Pensees #434 in Krailsheimer’s translation)

Here’s another:

“…The same man who spends so many days and nights in fury and despair at losing some office or at some imaginary affront to his honor is the very one who knows that he is going to lose everything through death but feels neither anxiety nor emotion. It is a monstrous thing to see one and the same heart at once so sensitive to minor things and so strangely insensitive to the greatest.” (within note #427 in Krailsheimer’s translation)

Here’s one of my favorites:

“The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” (423)

But when I think of Pascal, I think most of what he wrote about the enigma of humanity—that we are at the same time depraved (or “wretched”) and glorious (or “great”). Here is a string of some of my favorite observations from Pascal:

“It is wretched to know that one is wretched, but there is a greatness in knowing one is wretched.” (114)

“It is certain that as man’s insight increases so he finds both wretchedness and greatness within himself. In a word man knows he is wretched. Thus he is wretched because he is so, but he is truly great because he knows it.” (122)

“Knowing God without knowing our own wretchedness makes for pride.
Knowing our own wretchedness without knowing God makes for despair.
Knowing Jesus Christ strikes the balance because he shows us both God and our wretchedness” (192)

“The incarnation shows man the greatness of his wretchedness through the greatness of the remedy required.” (352)

There are so many little thoughts (or pensees) like these that are so insightful and interesting to read. I so deeply wish Pascal would have been granted the final years needed to complete and edit his book, but God had other plans.

I encourage you to get a copy of Pensees to read for yourself if you’re looking for some intensely philosophical thoughts regarding the truthfulness of the Christian faith, its diagnosis of the human condition, and the reason why Jesus really is the only way out.

There is another much less cryptic approach to learning and enjoying the brilliant thoughts of Pascal. Thomas V. Morris, who was a philosophy professor at Notre Dame, kind of took the “best of” Pascal to put together an easy to read and very enjoyable book that is one of my all-time favorites. It’s called Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life, and it should be available at The Crossing’s bookstore. I highly recommend it, especially for someone you’d like to help expose to some of the deeper, philosophically true to life and reality reasons for believing the Christian faith.

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