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Pascal on man: the reconciliation of contradictions

Pascal on man: the reconciliation of contradictions

The aim of this short article is to discuss Pascal's vision of man. That is more precisely to figure out the roots of the particularity of Pascal's view of man. The particularity consists in twofold vision of man's nature, that s based on the reconciliation of two approaches. On the one hand Pascal emphasizes the wretchedness of man – what in its turn stems from application of the skeptical approach, on the other hand Pascal endows man with a distinct feature – to be a possessor of reason and be able to imbed it - here Pascal is so to speak a Cartesian thinker, who shares the view of separateness of man's nature and adds that soul and body must be comprehended as independent structures, in its own terms. What is noteworthy that both sides of man's nature are equally important and counterbalanced, and that the right vision of man is necessarily double per se.

Pascal begins his inquiry on man with the setting a Socrates-like purpose. "We must know ourselves. Even if that did not help in discovering truth, it would at least help in putting order into our life. Nothing is more proper" (Pascal, 1995, p.26). Hence the problem of knowing – epistemological component – is highlighted.  Apropos there is a remark that the acquisition of the whole truth might not be reached, but a picture of man's nature – which tends to help in ordering the life matters - might be achievable.

Anthropology of Pascal in some degree rests on the combination of two sources which are in turn incomparable to each other.  First combination in my view steams from the analogy with two main tenets of man's nature distinguished in the philosophy of Pascal. On the one hand man is a creature enduring a feeling of the overwhelming solicitude in the limits of the Universe:" The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me" (Pascal, 1995, p.73),but one the other hand man is a rational creature, in Pascal's language a "thinking reed", who possesses a priceless advantage - reason. "Thinking reed. It is not in space that I must look for my dignity, but in the organization of my thoughts. I shall have no advantage in owing estates. Through space the universe grasps and engulfs me like a pinpoint; through thought I can grasp it" (Ibid., p.36). This account units Pascal with Descartes and also here is seen a belonging to the so to speak spirit of Modernity in Pascalian philosophy.

Human life is a stage where two contradictions are counterbalanced. Greatness and wretchedness equally met in man. Where the later signifies the animal origin, i.e. the baseness of man, and the former elevates man and differs him from the animal. "In a word, we know that we are wretched. Therefore we are wretched, because we are. But we are indeed great because we know it" (ibid., p.39). The dialectics of this account begins with the acknowledgment of the wretchedness as an inherited and inevitable characteristic of man's nature.  Later on Pascal stresses all and everything is fragile – but the greatness of man consists in the awareness of his fragility.

The next combination of contradictions concerns the emphasis of man's uniqueness although a man is still considered separately from the others  as a part of the multitude. "Human nature can be considered in two ways. One according to our end, and then we are great and incomparable. The other according to the masses … we are low and vile" (Ibid., p. 39).

The emphasis on contradictive particularity of man's condition on the Earth is characteristic hallmark of Pascalian philosophy. "It is not as clear as day that man's condition is twofold? Indisputably" (Ibid., p.42). That is what provides a ground for reflections upon man's capacity to use reason. Here it is necessary to discuss Pascal's reflections and via them the attitude to skepticism. The often reference to skepticism – unfolded in the usage of the term "Pyrrhonists" implying by it the adherents of skepticism – gives again ambiguous picture possessing not one meaning. In other words, Pascal presents his account on skepticism marked in the combination of the adherence and criticism, acceptance and non-acceptance, pointing out its good and bad sides. Pyrrhonists are in general highly praised by Pascal and Pascal as a thinker endorses the basic principles of skepticism.  "And these fine Pyrrhonists with their Stoical ataraxia, doubt, and perpetual suspension of judgment" (p.28).

The following passage from Pensees presents Pascal as a skeptical thinker. "I know not who put me into the world, nor what the world is, nor what I myself am" (Ibid.,p.87). This is in my interpretation the strongest assertion of skepticism revealed in the acknowledgment of ignorance about the origin and future of man. Pascal as religious thinker, Christian apologist allows himself to question even the basics of the faith, but what is significant he remains within the faith. In other words, Pascal doubts but remains to be a believer.

From all Ancient philosophical heritages Pascal in my interpretation distinguishes two teachings. Pascal put in Discussion with Monsieur Sacy : "Two greatest apologists [Epictetus, Montaigne ]for the two most famous philosophical sects in the world" (p.189). Stoicism ad skepticism contributed greatly in the realm of depicting right picture of man. If the former views man as a powerful creature but is ignorant in the weak side of man' nature and negatively results in forming preconditions for man's pride, the later does not deceive itself with the emphasizing man's greatness points out the wretchedness of the man's present condition, but results in the inactive, lazy stand towards reality. In his view if the accounts of man of these two important philosophical lines combine together the right vision appears. Pascal shares the picture with remark what one significant point is nevertheless overlooked, thus it is in sake of truth it is necessary to join two visions in one that counterbalances all opposite and hostile sides.

Montaigne not in last degree is highly valued by Pascal because of his belonging to the skeptical school of philosophizin. However his skepticism if it is relevant to formulate in such a way differs from the skepticism of Descartes and Montaigne. Montaigne is regarded as a founder of modern skepticism,perhaps a predecessor of the revival of skepticism in pre-Modern time. In this regard Descartes is the first Modern philosopher who ranged the skepticism as a ground of methodology, who in addition acclaimed for questioning through the skeptical position. Cogito ergo sum became possible in form of answer to a question how can man prove to himself that he exists. Man equipped with reason might doubt in everything except state of doubting that is a guarantee of his existence. In some respect a thinker haunted by skeptical way of philosophizing comes only after Descartes but inherits and admits the connections with Montaigne.

In essay Of the inconstancy of our Actions Montaigne considers about man's nature with the predominance of skeptical account is no ground for stahich provides to look at man in dual way in accordance with the basis of skeptical tradition: which claims for irrelevance of one-sideness account on something, where is no neither affirmation nor negation because the state of affairs might be turned to opposite, in word there is not ground for stating about stable positions. Man is viewed with the negative characteristics of being inconstant in actions, when unknown for man as such his conduct might mediate between two extremes, man cannot control his desires, wishes that in turn are changeable and not permanent. "Our ordinary manner is to follow the inclination of our appetite this
way and that way, in the left and on the right hand; upward and downward, according as the wind of occasions doth transport us: we never think on what we would have, but at the instant we would have it: and change as that beast that takes the color of the
place wherein it is laid. What we even now purposed we alter by and by, and presently return to out former biased; all is but changing, motion and inconstancy."
The last characteristic of man is especially shared by Pascal.

The similar ambiguity concerns the attitude towards Descartes. There is no one overwhelming opinion. It starts from the uncompromising assertions: " Descartes useless and uncertain" and in Art of Persuasion Pascal finds the correlation in terms of basic idea in  Cogito ergo sum and St. Augustine's maxim  "Matter by nature is naturally and invincibly incapable of thinking" (p.201). In this regard Pascal does not test the authority of principle Cartesian statement but tries to underline the differences in purposes to claim such statements. "I say that this maxim is different in his writing from the same maxim in other people's who put it in as an aside" (Ibid.). When for Descartes it serves as a ground for physics, for St. Augustine serves theological purposes.

In vision of man Pascal in some extent conjoins the separated parts of man's nature: soul and body. "I have, on the one hand, a clear and distinct idea of myself as a thinking, non-extended thing, and, on the other hand, a distinct idea of my body as an extended, non-thinking thing"

In my interpretation the enigma of Pascal's vision of man lies in the longest (by length) passage from Pensees. It locates in the part XVI Transition from Knowledge of man to knowledge of God. Also in turn it symbolizes the significance of the very issue of man as long as so many stokes have been dedicated to it. It begins with the statement speak in favour of vision of man as a conjecture of contradictions: "Disproportion of man" (p.66). Pascal claims to look at man's essence in the measurement of the whole Universe, to account its significance from the standpoint of the comparison of man as a tine cell and the gigantic multisided space of the Universe composed by the endless number of components beyond man's comprehension and grasping.  Therefore the accompanied question arises: "What is man in infinity?" (Ibid.).

The retrospection of man from this global position causes the growing feeling of terrific horror, a dramatic picture of man's nature as a beginning of nothingness, and prospective of infiniteness, where man stands "between two gulfs of the infinite and the void". (Ibid., p.67). What is more dramatic that Pascal emphasizes the incapability to understand man's origin and man's future: man "is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from where he came, and the infinite in which he is covered." (Ibid.). After arriving at the conclusion of the presence of the uncontrolled ignorance and epistemological incapability man tends to fall into despair.  "What will we do, then, apart from nothing some appearance of a mid-point, in eternal despair at knowing neither our beginning not our end?" (Ibid.). (A similar account reappears in Soren Kierkegaard where the turn to religion, the leap into religion – as one of the most important existential moments of man's life – is motivated by the acknowledgment of despair, a feeling originated from the knowledge of man's wretchedness. This is evident point of meeting of Pascal and Kierkegaard.  )

As long as the ultimate goals and origin of the things are hidden from man he is nevertheless quipped by the power of reason to make some steps toward the truth. Man can succeed in the sciences which is nothing but a realm of implementation of reason. However the search for truth might be encouraged but the evaluation of it is still based on the skeptical ground. Pascal does not undermine the necessity of search for the truth, but he gently reminds the potential failures on the route to the truth. The critical evaluation goes further the core of inability to grasp the nature of the thing as it derives from the duality of man's nature: contraposition of the soul and the body. Here Pascal enters the discussion with Descartes with the striking objection that confusion of spiritual and corporeal things results only in complication of the total vision of man. The nature of soul as well of body has to be understood in "their pure state" or as Ding an Sich in Kantian language (p.72).

Pascal again compares Descartes' accounts with St. Augustine. He quotes the line from City of God about the unknown or enigmatic nature of combination of the soul and body which is out man's grasping: "The way in which minds are attached to bodies is beyond man's understanding, and yet this is what man is" (Ibid).

The passage ends as Pascal puts with emphasis on two considerations. The human condition is twofold, contradictory in its nature, is symbolically compared with the reed: "a human being is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed" (p.72) but the last stress speaks for itself, that faculty of thinking distinguishes man from other creatures and gives him a power, perhaps a still doubtful one but a power to think: "All our dignity consists therefore of thought" (p.73).

In conclusion Pascal reconciles two opposite approaches: skeptically-based vision and stoically –oriented vision. As result the vision of man's nature has become complete and fulfilled. In my view the account of man signifies the particularity of entire Pascal's philosophy which is consisted in the conjunction of rationalism and irrationalism. In turn his personal accounts of philosophers: Montaigne and Descartes are ambiguous by the context as research has shown. All together it speak in favour of the statement that Pascal adopts skeptical tools and provides the two-sided accounts and assertions but for instance in the case of being a Christian he directly recommended on the rational grounds the position of believer. This is shown in the example of wager where all possible sides – patterns of man's position towards religion - are examined and where Pascal accents the advantages of holding the position of believer.


Essential Works by Descartes (1961). Bantam Books: New York

Montaigne, M. (1924). Essays. In TheWorld's Classics. University of Oregon.

Pascal, B. (1995). Pensees and Other Writings. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

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