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T.S. Eliot – Introduction to Blaise Pascal’s PENSEES

T.S. Eliot Pascal Pensees

Page 4: T.S. Eliot – Introduction to Blaise Pascal’s PENSEES

There is accordingly something quite different from an influence which would prove Pascal’s weakness; there is a real affinity between his doubt and that of Montaigne; and through the common kinship with Montaigne Pascal is related to the noble and distinguished line of French moralists, from La Rochefoucauld down. In the honesty with which they face the données of the actual world this French tradition has a unique quality in European literature, and in the seventeenth century Hobbes is crude and uncivilised in comparison.

Pascal is a man of the world among ascetics, and an ascetic among men of the world; he had the knowledge of worldliness and the passion of asceticism, and in him the two are fused into an individual whole. The majority of mankind is lazy-minded, incurious, absorbed in vanities, and tepid in emotion, and is therefore incapable of either much doubt or much faith; and when the ordinary man calls himself a sceptic or an unbeliever, that is ordinarily a simple pose, cloaking a disinclination to think anything out to a conclusion. Pascal’s disillusioned analysis of human bondage is sometimes interpreted to mean that Pascal was really and finally an unbeliever, who, in his despair, was incapable of enduring reality and enjoying the heroic satisfaction of the free man’s worship of nothing. His despair, his disillusion, are, however, no illustration of personal weakness; they are perfectly objective, because they are essential moments in the progress of the intellectual soul; and for the type of Pascal they are the analogue of the drought, the dark night, which is an essential stage in the progress of the Christian mystic. A similar despair, when it is arrived at by a diseased character or an impure soul, may issue in the most disastrous consequences though with the most superb manifestations; and thus we get Gulliver’s Travels; but in Pascal we find no such distortion; his despair is in itself more terrible than Swift’s, because our heart tells us that it corresponds exactly to the facts and cannot be dismissed as mental disease; but it was also a despair which was a necessary prelude to, and element in, the joy of faith.

I do not wish to enter any further than necessary upon the question of the heterodoxy of Jansenism; and it is no concern of this essay, whether the Five Propositions condemned at Rome were really maintained by Jansenius in his book Augustinus; or whether we should deplore or approve the consequent decay (indeed with some persecution) of Port-Royal. It is impossible to discuss the matter without becoming involved as a controversialist either for or against Rome. But in a man of the type of Pascal—and the type always exists—there is, I think, an ingredient of what may be called Jansenism of temperament, without identifying it with the Jansenism of Jansenius and of other devout and sincere, but not immensely gifted doctors.[B] It is accordingly needful to state in brief what the dangerous doctrine of Jansenius was, without advancing too far into theological refinements. It is recognised in Christian theology—and indeed on a lower plane it is recognised by all men in affairs of daily life—that freewill or the natural effort and ability of the individual man, and also supernatural grace, a gift accorded we know not quite how, are both required, in co-operation, for salvation. Though numerous theologians have set their wits at the problem, it ends in a mystery which we can perceive but not finally decipher. At least, it is obvious that, like any doctrine, a slight excess or deviation to one side or the other will precipitate a heresy. The Pelagians, who were refuted by St. Augustine, emphasised the efficacy of human effort and belittled the importance of supernatural grace. The Calvinists emphasised the degradation of man through Original Sin, and considered mankind so corrupt that the will was of no avail; and thus fell into the doctrine of predestination. It was upon the doctrine of grace according to St. Augustine that the Jansenists relied; and the Augustinus of Jansenius was presented as a sound exposition of the Augustinian views.

Such heresies are never antiquated, because they forever assume new forms. For instance, the insistence upon good works and “service” which is preached from many quarters, or the simple faith that any one who lives a good and useful life need have no “morbid” anxieties about salvation, is a form of Pelagianism. On the other hand, one sometimes hears enounced the view that it will make no real difference if all the traditional religious sanctions for moral behaviour break down, because those who are born and bred to be nice people will always prefer to behave nicely, and those who are not will behave otherwise in any case: and this is surely a form of predestination—for the hazard of being born a nice person or not is as uncertain as the gift of grace.

It is likely that Pascal was attracted as much by the fruits of Jansenism in the life of Port-Royal as by the doctrine itself. This devout, ascetic, thoroughgoing society, striving heroically in the midst of a relaxed and easy-going Christianity, was formed to attract a nature so concentrated, so passionate, and so thoroughgoing as Pascal’s. But the insistence upon the degraded and helpless state of man, in Jansenism, is something also to which we must be grateful, for to it we owe the magnificent analysis of human motives and occupations which was to have constituted the early part of his book. And apart from the Jansenism which is the work of a not very eminent bishop who wrote a Latin treatise which is now unread, there is also, so to speak, a Jansenism of the individual biography. A moment of Jansenism may naturally take place, and take place rightly, in the individual; particularly in the life of a man of great and intense intellectual powers, who cannot avoid seeing through human beings and observing the vanity of their thoughts and of their avocations, their dishonesty and self-deceptions, the insincerity of their emotions, their cowardice, the pettiness of their real ambitions. Actually, considering that Pascal died at the age of thirty-nine, one must be amazed at the balance and justice of his observations; much greater maturity is required for these qualities, than for any mathematical or scientific greatness. How easily his brooding on the misery of man without God might have encouraged in him the sin of spiritual pride, the concupiscence de l’esprit, and how fast a hold he has of humility!

 

NOTE:

[B]The great man of Port-Royal was of course Saint-Cyran, but any one who is interested will certainly consult, first of all, the book of Sainte-Beuve mentioned.

 

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