Saturday, July 25, 2009

Book Review: Pensées by Blaise Pascal

In the span of a short life of 39 years (1623-1662), the French-born Blaise Pascal made his mark as scientist, inventor, philosopher, and theologian. Yet his Pensées (thoughts), published eight years after his death, continues to make an impact because of its depth and insight. Pensées is really just a compilation of Pascal’s notes, which he intended to be made into a defense of Christianity. However, because of Pascal’s poor health he died before he was able to complete his work.

The Pensées we have today are arranged thematically. These themes range from the wretchedness and greatness of man to the use of reason and the proofs for God. Often Pascal is making observations on human nature, always returning to the theme of the lowly state of man – the paradox of man’s greatness and man’s depravity. At times he paints a dramatic picture of the state of man:

“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.” (434/199)

“We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it.” (166/183)
Pascal emphasizes the fallen state of mankind, the need to seek after God, and the centrality of Christ. Many times he points to the hiddenness of God: “There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.” (149/430) While pointing out that it is the disposition of one’s will that plays a large role in one’s “seeing” God, he also emphasizes the need for God himself to open the eyes.

The reader will enjoy the full context of Pascal’s “wager,” the core of which may be summarized: “…I should be much more afraid of being mistaken and then finding out that Christianity is true than of being mistaken in believing it to be true.” (387/241) The wager address itself spans about five pages and is not merely a paragraph admonishing the unbeliever that he has nothing to lose. Many have gone so far as to think (mistakenly) that the wager was intended to be an argument for the existence of God. Instead, Pascal’s wager is but a key part of a larger line of reasoning intended to persuade the unbeliever to seek after God.

Grieved by the indifference of man, we can hear Pascal’s heart: “Nothing is so important to man as his state: nothing more fearful than eternity. Thus the fact that there exist men who are indifferent to the loss of their being and the peril of an eternity of wretchedness is against nature.”(427/194) He returns once again to the need to seek after God: “…there are only two classes of persons who can be called reasonable: those who serve God with all their heart because they know him and those who seek him with all their heart because they do not know him.”(427/194)

In addition to providing deep, probing insights into the nature of man and his need to seek God, Pascal also presents a case for the truth of Christianity through scripture, fulfilled prophecy, and the person of Jesus Christ. Filled with profound thought and perspective, Pascal’s Pensées is a treasure of a book that is sure to challenge and enrich.


Jordan said...

Thanks for this review. After I first read the Pensees last year, it instantly became one of my most treasured books. Profound and perennially relevant, a must-read for all interested in apologetics. Pascal was truly gifted and genuinely humble.

FYI, the edition put out by Victor Books in 2006, re-titled "The Mind on Fire," features a great introduction by Os Guinness, a handy timeline of Pascal's life, selections from his "Provincial Letters," and more. I recommend that edition to first-time readers, though the Penguin Classics edition you have pictured is good too.

Anonymous said...

An extremely persuasive and encouraging book for anyone open enough to want to know "Why did Jesus come into the world and why should I believe in him" Fran

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