Challenge #4: The Pensees, by Pascal

Challenge #4: A Classic in Translation- The Pensees, by Pascal (translated by J.M. Cohen)

I remember learning about Pascal in a high school text book, Mystery of History Vol. III.  His quotes and the dramatic story of his conversion impressed me.  I have been fascinated by this man of great faith and great mind ever since, but it wasn’t until this year that I read any of his work.

Holiness- I will pour out my spirit (Acts, 2:17).  All the nations were in unbelief and greed.  The whole world became fiery with love.  Princes abandoned their pomp, maidens suffered martyrdom.  Whence did this strength arise?  From the coming of the Messiah; these are the effects and signs of his coming.

The Pensees was originally designed to be an apologetic work, but Pascal died before he could finish it.  His notes were gathered up and published under the title ‘thoughts’.  Even in its unfinished state, and with the many topics, there is a clear path in The Pensees.  The first section is about mankind (titled The Design, Order, and Plan of the Work). The second section is titled Man without God.  The third, final, and longest section is titled Man with God.  In a way the book reminded me of The Problem of Pain, which is interesting since The Problem of Pain opened with a quote from The Pensees.  I’m in the habit of marking pages with remarkable paragraphs, and there is hardly a page in The Pensees that I haven’t marked!  Pascal has some very interesting things to say, and I was delighted to be able to delve into his mind.

 The heart has its reasons of which the reason knows nothing, as we see on a thousand occasions.  I say that the heart has a natural love for the Universal Being or for itself, according as it surrenders to the one or the other; and it hardens against either at its own will.  You have rejected one and kept the other.  Is it reason that makes you love yourself?

As much as I enjoyed the book, I must admit there were a few things that irritated me.  For one, there are unfinished thoughts that will never be completed.  I hate it when a writer dies in the middle of their work! There were also some things which I thought Pascal accepted a little too quickly, and I was surprised that he didn’t dig deeper into certain issues.  But with some of the things that bug me, I am the one at fault.  Pascal references writers and events that I know little- if anything- about.  I wished I had a better understanding of the world in which Pascal lived (and a better understanding of the language he spoke would also be nice).

Let us change the rule we have hitherto used to judge of what is good.  We took our own will as rule.  Now let us take God’s will.

The Pensees is a rich and fascinating book.  But in my opinion the best of all the things Pascal had to say were in the final section, his thoughts on God.  The thoughts on the power of God, his relationship with Man, his transcendence, had me thrilled.  They touched both heart and mind, and rang true.  Even if there were parts that I couldn’t understand or didn’t agree with, Pascal remains one of my historical heroes because of quotes like this:

Not only do we not know God except through Jesus Christ, but we do not know ourselves except through Him.  Without Jesus Christ, we do not know what our life is, or our death, or what God is, or ourselves.  Thus without the Scriptures, the sole purpose of which is Jesus Christ, we know nothing, and see nothing but darkness and confusion in God’s nature and in our own.

2 thoughts on “Challenge #4: The Pensees, by Pascal

  1. Whoa, this sounds wonderful! I’ve always loved Pascal’s quotes, to the point where I chose him for my high school end-of-the-year scientist report based on a couple of one-liners alone. 🙂

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