Blaise are trapped between wretchedness and greatness,

Blaise Pascal led a sickly life, much of it
in gentile poverty, during the seventeenth century. The Pensées, published
posthumously in 1670, is a lucid labyrinth of thoughts addressing the
contradictions of human existence. The work was put together from notes found
in Pascal’s room following his death. In this essay I will tackle Pascal’s
understanding of the human condition, and how it was situated in his
contemporary context. Pascal splits the human mind into two kinds, esprit de finesse and esprit de géométrie, the mind of
intuition and reason. The Pensées presents itself to be a guide for the
contradictions of existence. The text laments mans constant need for
distraction from the consideration of God, whilst simultaneously being one.1For
Pascal the nature of man is two-fold, we are trapped between wretchedness and
greatness, torn between agitation and repose. “All is one, all is diverse,”
typifies the paradoxes present in Pascal’s theology. He recognized ones finite
place in an infinite universe, and thus, through navigating these paradoxes found
one all-encompassing truth, the truth of God. I will argue in this essay that
Pascal viewed human nature to be intimately, if obliquely, tied to God.


The Copernican revolution is an appropriate
place to start this essay. Galileo himself stated, “By eliminating the earth as
the principle of order which lies at the centre of all things, the new
cosmology embraces disorder and throws into chaos the heavens, the earth and
the entire universe.”2
The place of humans had been reoriented; the universe stopped revolving around
us and a more chaotic picture came into focus. For a philosopher like Bruno
this new conception of cosmology was empowering, and implicitly freeing from
orthodox Christian doctrine. For Pascal, however, the concept of infinity was
paralyzing, in the Pensées he writes, “The eternal silence of these infinite
spaces terrifies me.”3
This concept was new to contemporary western science, more so theology. “It is
not good to be free,” Pascal would write, as an emblematic contradiction.
Pascal’s understanding of human nature I will argue stems from this
reorientation of mans place in the universe, and the daunting concept of

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To grasp exactly how Pascal conceived the
human condition one can look to his thinking
reed concept found in the Pensées. The maxim likens man to a thinking reed,
a reed being “weakest in nature.” Pascal continues, “if the universe were to
crush the reed, the man would be nobler than his killer, since he knows that he
is dying, and that the universe has the advantage over him.”4
Pascal proceeds to state that “all our dignity consists therefore of thought.”5
Awareness of ones wretchedness, for Pascal, is one of the noblest
characteristics of human nature. This idea is closely tied to the theological
theme of nature as a corrupting force. Pascal argued that our nature is
wretched, “but there is greatness in the knowledge of one’s wretchedness.”6
An interesting facet to this imagery of the reed, that is situated between
water and air, is its connection to Pico’s Oration
on the Dignity of Man. Pico wrote of God saying to Adam, “I have created
thee as a being neither celestial nor earthly… so thou shouldst be they own
free moulder and overcomer; thou canst degenerate to animal, and though thyself
be reborn to godlike existence.”7
The idea that we are torn between wretchedness and greatness echoes Pico’s
sentiment that one cannot act like an animal and expect to be rewarded by God,
in Pascal’s words, “For what is natural in animals is wretched in man.”8
Both philosophers suggested that an awareness of ourselves is necessary to be
redeemed. However in this example we see Pascal’s pessimism taking human
wretchedness as an unavoidable aspect of human nature, and humanities general
impotence to stop the whims of the universe. That considered Pascal also
regarded humanity to hold some “great principle of greatness.”9


Pascal’s understanding of faith is of
particular importance to his perception of human nature. The Pensées can be
read as rejecting Descartes’ use of metaphysics to justify faith. Descartes put
human reason on a level with the divine through his concept of the Cogito. The Cogito was the part of a
human that thinks. This concept was resistant to skepticism and logically
argued by the eponymous, “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.” This
proven thing, that humans think, couldn’t be explained with the laws of the
physical world, as the cogito did not abide by the law of matter and extension.
This proved the souls immateriality, which in turn demonstrated the souls
immortality. Phillips has argued the Pensées serves as a “monumental objection”
to Descartes dualism, that of mind-body separation. Pascal wrote that
Descartes’ work on this topic was “useless and uncertain.”10
Pascal saw human reason to be inconsistent, not the crystal clear evidence of
God’s divinity within us. One section of the Pensées highlighted the “various
attitudes of different groups towards the appearance of ‘people of high birth.'”11
This demonstrated the relative reasoning between different groups. Pascal
argued that human reason was bound to our finite experience and that, “Reasons
last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which
are beyond it.”12 This
is yet another example of the paralysis Pascal felt in the face of the concept
of infinity, and that one must surrender oneself to faith. For Pascal humans
are a tangle of contradictions, “man is beyond man,” and human reason cannot
prove God’s existence as God transcends reason.13


Pascal discussed at length what he saw to
be an innate need for distraction present in human beings. Divertissement, or distraction, is an integral facet of our nature.
Pascal would write, “Happiness lies only in repose, not frantic activity.”14

The logic of this opposition is
encapsulated in in a quote from Montaigne Pascal includes in the Pensées, “Not
having been able to conquer death, wretchedness, or ignorance, men have decided
for their own happiness not to think about it.”15

The two-fold nature of man means we
medicate the wretched part of ourselves through sinful distraction, or we are
left to depressing repose through solitary thought. This concept is
demonstrated by the “reason we prefer the hunt to the kill.”16
Pascal’s pessimism with regard to the human condition is typified by the last
line of this section of the Pensées, “How hollow and full of filth man’s heart
However, for Pascal, faith in God can offer relief from this wretchedness. To
demonstrate how innate this aspect of human nature is Pascal employed a
self-reflexive persuasion strategy. When reading his words one is indulging in
divertissement. Hammond has considered the text in its original context and
postulates that motifs of sport and gambling were a direct attempt at involving
Libertins. These Libertins lead their
lives in the seventeenth century free from moral restraints. Hammond has
suggested that, “To a large extent these images are evoked precisely to
accentuate their futility when compared to the quest for spiritual truth.”18
Jean Paul Sartre, pioneer of existentialism, noted that Pascal saw these
distractions and that “there was a meaning that transcended it.”19
Pascal saw movements around him as indulging in wretched vanity, but he saw it
as part of larger aspect of human desire for distraction from death.


One of the core themes of the Pensées is
what Pascal perceived to be the failure of philosophy to reveal our true
nature. Pascal demonstrated these shortcomings through the juxtaposition of the
Dogmatist and Pyrrhonist teachings. This dialogue echoes the contemporary
debate between Rationalism and Empiricism. Contemporary Rationalism maintained
that, “some propositions in a particular subject area, x, are knowable by us by
intuition alone.” This contradicted the Empiricist claim that one, “has no
source of knowledge in x or for the concepts we use in x other than sense
experience.” Pascal argued both were wrong, and truth, paradoxically, lay
somewhere between the two. Pascal parallels this to “instinct and experience,”
suggesting these, “Two things teach us about our whole nature.”20
Pascal emphasized these two concepts opposition, having a “contrary
These “structural limits within the knowledge of the world,” as Khalfa aptly
explained, revealed “contradictions within man.” 22
Pascal wrote, “you cannot be a Pyrrhonist without stifling nature, nor a
dogmatist without repudiating reason.”23
For Pascal philosophy was not the answer as it tried to discern meaning in
human existence. For Pascal the only this had proven is that “it is not certain
that everything is uncertain.” The sentiment of this argument is consistent
with many of the themes in the Pensées, that even reason falls down in the face
of infinity. Pascal wrote of the human condition, “it is the heart that feels
God, not reason.”24


When attempting to prove the inherent flaws
of reason in matters of faith Pascal described a mysterious emotional drive
that percolates through all humanity. The scrutiny of reason, Phillips has argued,
resulted “from the false pretension of reason to possess anything like the
fixed point Descartes locates in the cogito.”25
Pascal believed human’s possessed what Neander called an “immediate
consciousness.” This is an instinctual certainty of “the heart that feels
there are three dimensions in space, that there is infinite series of numbers…”26
This instinct, that Pascal labeled esprit
de finesse, is one of two “kinds of mind” discussed in the Pensées.27
The other kind of mind, the esprit de
géométrie, is the mathematical mind. As such for the esprit de géométrie
the, “principals are obvious, but far removed from common use.”28
Due to the clarity of mathematical principals, “The only definitions recognized
in geometry are what the logicians call definitions of name, that is, the
arbitrary application of names to things which are clearly designated by terms
perfectly known.”29
Esprit de finesse is an intuitive knowledge, that of feeling, where definitions
break down, O’Connell described it as “an experiential faculty competent to
furnish those first principles from which all reasoning necessarily derives.”30
For Pascal the mathematician is rarely intuitive, as they want to “begin with
definitions, followed by principles.”31
The esprit de finesse can see truth “at a glance, and not through a process of
Descartes elevated reason to be the human minds greatest facet, for Pascal this
was untenable as it gave humans a “quassi divine status.”


Pascal’s eponymous wager encapsulates both
his views on sub ordinance of humans under God, and explicitly his views on
human nature. The wager is a simple proposition that made use of Pascal’s
innovation in mathematical probability. Pascal proposes at the end of an
“infinite distance a game is being played and the coin will come down heads or
tails.” He asks the reader, “How will you wager?”33
Pascal suggests on a coin toss, where there is equal chance of winning
“infinity” or “nothingness,” and with a finite amount at stake, the gambler
would wager on infinity.34
For Pascal the choice is clear, one can attain infinite reward, and lead a good
life, free from vanity and vice. Pascal demonstrated it was a moral question,
not a rational one. A person who is “indeifferent to the loss of their being
and to the peril of an eternity is not natural.” Pascal justifies this by
stating “because by nature people care only for what is useful to them.” This
is the culmination of the Pensées in their recovered form. We cant know if
Pascal is right, but we are inclined to believe he is. In his own words, “For
every man is almost always led to believe not through proof, but through that
which is attractive.”35
Pascal believed human’s work with their best interests in mind “We would be
cowards if it gave us the reputation of being brave.” Pascal’s wager is a
method of demonstrating this.



Pascal’s writing is lauded in western philosophy,
in Neander’s words; it represents “the universal and imperishable truths of
Pascal navigates many contradictions endemic in the human condition, in a
pessimistic fashion. Riddled with illness, and the bereavement of his mentor
and father, combined with the loss of his sisters, one to marriage another to
the Port-Royal convent, prior to these thoughts being written down, it is no
wonder why Pascal’s outlook at times is so bleak. The Copernican revolution and
innovations in science like the telescope and microscope, gave way to infinite
extremes of largeness and littleness that, for Pascal, could be resolved “in
God, and in God alone.”37
There was no fixed point where humanity now lay within an infinitely large and
infinitely little universe. Pascal argued that man pertained a great principle
but also a wretched one, one tied to the perfection of Adam and Eve, one bound
by the corrupting force of nature. Pascal argued our mind works on a similar two-fold
nature. Within our minds we have an ability to understand principles of
mathematics, but also an intuition of truth and judgment. For Pascal this
latter mind suggested human nature was intimately tied to God and that we all
“must put our faith in feeling, otherwise it will always waver.”38
Pascal grappled with what it really is to be human. Unlike Descartes, he could
not belittle the indescribable impact of feeling, and it’s impact on human


2497 words.

Hammond, N. (2003). The Cambridge Companion To Pascal. Cambridge University


Pascal, B. (1995). Pensees and other writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Section 233 pp73

idib, S 231 pp73

ibid, S 232 pp73

ibid, S 146 pp36

Pico della Mirandola, G. and Caponigri, A. (1998). Oration on the dignity of
man. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Pub.


O’Connell, M. (1997). Blaise Pascal: Reason’s of the Heart. Grand Rapids,
Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans. pp167

Hammond, N. (2003). The Cambridge Companion to Pascal. Cambridge University

ibid. pp246

B. (1995). Pensees and other writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Pensees. pp42, S 164

ibid. S 166 pp46



ibid. pp49, S171

Hammond, N. (2003). The Cambridge Companion To Pascal. Cambridge University
Press pp243

Sartre, J. (1995). Being and Nothingness. ROUTLEDGE. Pp562

Pensées, S 161 pp39

Hammond, N. (2003). The Cambridge Companion To Pascal. Cambridge University
Press pp130

ibid p130

Pensees, S 164, pp43

Pensees, S 680, pp157

Hammond, N. (2003). The Cambridge Companion To Pascal. Cambridge University

Pensées 142, pp 36


Pensées, S 670, pp150

Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) (1909–14). 
Minor Works. The Harvard Classics.. Of the Geometrical Spirit

O’Connell, M. (1997). Blaise Pascal: Reason’s of the Heart. Grand Rapids,
Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans. p169

Pensees, S 670, pp150


Pensees, S 680 pp153


Pascal, B. (1995). Art of Persuation, in Pensees and other writings. Oxford:
Oxford University Press

‘NEANDER, AUG. (1849) PASCAL’S ‘THOUGHTS;. Journal of sacred literature and
Biblical record, Apr. 1855-Jan. 1867; London Vol. 3, Iss. 6,  (Apr 1849): 338-348.

Hammond, N. (2003). The Cambridge Companion To Pascal. Cambridge University
Press pp155

38 Pascal, B. (1995). Pensees and other writings. Oxford:
Oxford University Press. Section 661, pp149


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