Blaise Pascal was a man who suffered terribly his entire life until he died at age 39 from a metastasizing stomach cancer. His mother died when he was three years old; his father when he was twenty-eight.
For those who aren’t familiar with his life, let me point out that he was French, raised by his sisters, educated by his father, and very involved in the religious controversies of his time (1623-1662). He was an inventor and mathematician of the highest order. His sufferings—his physical ailments and psychological agonies—are legendary.
I won’t burden people with the details of his life—historians and biographers have written many books to help folks understand this tragic man, if anyone is interested. What I want to do is share, in English, some of the clever things he wrote during his short life and provide a link to his books, if anyone is interested in reading further.
Most of the quotations in this essay were first published some years after his death, gleaned from scraps of paper found among his personal belongings. Had they been published during his lifetime, he might have become even more controversial than he actually was. The added stress of additional criticism from contemporaries might have shortened his life even more.
Blaise Pascal had what modern people would call a negative attitude toward groups like the Jesuits and possibly the Catholic Church, which declared five tenets of his Calvanistic-style religious order, the Jansenists, heresy when he was thirty years old and still grieving for his lost father. But mostly, he had a negative attitude toward other people and himself, all of whom he considered to be hopelessly wicked.
Sensitive individuals who suffer like Pascal did, it seems to me, find it more natural than others who live easier lives to think that the world is a hostile place populated by selfish and uncaring people in need of a savior.
Pascal is reported to have said, Sickness is the natural state of Christians. He spoke his dying words in a moment of sublime clarity amid a chaos of physical suffering. He whispered helplessly, May God never abandon me.
Below are some samples of Pascal’s thoughts, which I found interesting and a little sad when first I read them many years ago. His pensees seem to be his way of making sense of a world that held no comfortable place for him to lay his head; a world devoid of a mother’s touch to reassure him; a world lacking the medicines and psychological insights he needed to find the peace, freedom from pain, and the joy for living so many of us in the modern world freely pursue.
Blaise Pascal was oppressed by the heightened discernment of a brilliant mind smothered by relentless suffering. His intelligence (contemporaries called him a prodigy) enabled this sensitive man to articulate his suffering through the lens of Christian philosophy, which he adopted as his own.
Here are some of his thoughts:
Myself at twenty is no longer me.
Christian piety destroys the self. Human civility conceals and suppresses it.
It is a bad sign when someone is seen producing outward results as soon as he is converted.
Sleep, you say, is the image of death; for my part I say that it is rather the image of life.
We are standing on sand; the earth will be dissolved, and we will fall as we look up at the heavens.
Life is nothing but a perpetual illusion; there is nothing but mutual deception and flattery. No one talks about us in our presence as he would in our absence.
Man is nothing but disguise, falsehood and hypocrisy…. He does not want to be told the truth.
Each rung of fortune’s ladder which brings us up in the world takes us further from the truth, because people are more wary of offending those whose friendship is most useful and enmity most dangerous. A prince can be the laughing-stock of Europe and the only one to know nothing about it.
Is it not true that we hate the truth and those who tell it to us, and we want them to be deceived to our advantage, and want to be esteemed by them as other than we actually are?
It is no doubt an evil to be full of faults, but it is a still greater evil to be full of them and unwilling to recognize them, since this entails the further evil of deliberate self-delusion.
The most unreasonable things in the world become the most reasonable because men are so unbalanced. What could be less reasonable than to choose a ruler of a state the eldest son of a queen?
When we have heard only one side, we are always biased in its favor.
To the church: There is no need to be a theologian to see that their only heresy lies in the fact that they oppose you.
It is false zeal to preserve truth at the expense of charity.
Humiliations dispose us to be humble.
It is better not to fast and feel humiliated by it than to fast and be self-satisfied.
God can bring good out of evil, but without God we bring evil out of good.
God will create an inwardly pure Church, to confound…the inward impiety of the proud Pharisees. …. For, although they are not accepted by God, whom they cannot deceive, they are accepted by men, whom they do deceive.
We all act like God in passing judgments.
Do small things as if they were great, because of the majesty of Christ, who does them in us and lives our life; and great things as if they were small and easy, because of his almighty power.
They do both good works and bad to please the world and show that they are not wholly Christ’s, for they are ashamed to be.
Jesus was abandoned to face the wrath of God alone. Jesus is alone on earth, not merely with no one to feel and share his agony, but with no one even to know of it.
Silence is the worst form of persecution.
No one is allowed to write well anymore.
You brand my slightest deceptions as atrocious, while excusing them in yourselves as the [(way of your church)].
Would God have created the world in order to damn it? Would he ask so much of such feeble people?
Persecution is the clearest sign of piety.
Which is harder, to be born or to rise again? That what has never been should be, or that what has been should be once more?
All faith rests on miracles.
How happy I should be if…someone took pity on my foolishness, and was kind enough to save me from it in spite of myself.
We must make no mistake about ourselves: we are as much automaton as mind.
You would soon have faith if you gave up a life of pleasure.
We never do evil so fully and cheerfully as when we do it out of conscience.
The proper function of power is to protect.
If everyone knew what others said about him, there would not be four friends in the world.
Fear not, provided you are afraid, but if you are not afraid, be fearful.
God hides himself. He has left men to their blindness, from which they can escape only through Jesus Christ.
I marvel at the boldness with which these people presume to speak of God.
It is an appalling thing to feel all one possesses drain away.
Who has more cause to fear hell, someone who does not know whether there is a hell, but is certain to be damned if there is, or someone who is completely convinced that there is a hell, and hopes to be saved if there is?
Truth is so obscured nowadays and un-truth so well established that unless we love the truth we shall never recognize it.
“Yet I have left me seven thousand.” I love these worshippers who are unknown to the world, and even to the prophets.
We never love anyone, only their qualities.
Must one kill to destroy evildoers? That is making two evildoers in place of one. Overcome evil with good.
We are nothing but lies, duplicity, contradiction, and we hide and disguise ourselves from ourselves.
As I write down my thought it sometimes escapes me, but that reminds me of my weakness, which I am always forgetting….
Man’s sensitivity to little things and insensitivity to the greatest things are marks of a strange disorder.
It is a fearful blindness to lead an evil life while believing in God.
That’s enough for now.
Blaise, I pray you have found the happiness in heaven that eluded you on the earth.