By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia
Blaise Pascal was an admirer of Michel de Montaigne’s writing. He disagreed with him profoundly, but nonetheless understood what he was about and took him on in an interesting way. For both, the main question was about the dangers of zealotry, of serious religious belief (for Montaigne), or the dangers of the lack of zealotry (for Pascal).
Introducing Blaise Pascal, the Great Intellectual
Blaise Pascal was one of the greatest intellectuals of European history. He was a brilliant mathematician and scientist. He was born in 1623 and died when he was only 39, in 1662. He was a renowned child prodigy; he became famous for science and mathematics. He invented, in fact, the very first calculating machine.
At 23, in 1646, he became associated with the Jansenists, a very hyper-Augustinian religious movement within the Roman Catholic church. The movement was in deep conflict with the Jesuits, who at that time had the King’s ear in France, so Pascal began to be on the outs with the French establishment, intellectual as well as political.
Pascal is most well known today for his Pensées, or Book of Thoughts. It’s a collection of aphorisms that are more or less jumbled that Pascal was working on when he died.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Montaigne and Pascal’s Views on Religion
Pascal on evil was classically Augustinian; in some ways, he was kind of hyper-Augustinian. For him, he was not so much focused on the topic that interested Montaigne, the idea that religious belief manifests itself in cruelty to others, but was interested more in the cruelty people show themselves by not thinking about their religious beliefs.
Pascal read Montaigne very closely, and he disagreed with him quite radically even as he admired him. Montaigne actually would not have found this disappointing; he would have liked it because he knew that each author’s words must be digested and modified for the reader to become vital again.
But most profoundly, Pascal disagreed with Montaigne about the relationship between serious religious belief and moral sanity, rectitude. Where Montaigne saw zealotry as dangerous, for Pascal, anything less than zealotry, anything less than what Montaigne would call zealotry, would be mere evasion of the realities confronting people.
Humans Desire from Pascal’s Point of View
The very magnitude of people’s lusts, for Pascal, the endlessness of their perversity, teaches people something about the infinitude of their longing. It’s a longing that can only be sated by the presence of God in people’s lives.
The key here is that the human is an incoherent tangle, at least incoherent from the point of view of what is called the natural world, the order of creation, from where people stand. Humans desire truth and happiness but are incapable of them. This desire, Pascal said, is left to them as much as punishment for their fall as for a reminder of from whence they have fallen.
Learn more about Montaigne’s view of zealous extremism.
Divertissement or Active Ignorance
Pascal thought that no natural science would understand the human; something beyond nature is needed, a theological insight. To understand themselves, humans need to “listen to God”. The difficulty is that humans find listening to God or listening to themselves horrible. They find self-reflection incredibly painful and distasteful.
Humans have two secret instincts at war with one another: they want an end, but they don’t want to reflect on themselves wanting that end. Humans want to actively avoid thinking about themselves, and it is in the study of this active ignorance that Pascal makes the most distinctive, most significant, and most abiding contribution to thinking about evil. Pascal diagnosed this active ignorance with a single, devastating word: divertissement.
Learn more about Milton and epic evil.
What Pascal Thought about Divertissement
Divertissement, for Pascal, was a certain culturally specific way for him of talking about how humans can lead a life fundamentally organized around avoiding what they should be doing. It is another language for describing the condition of humans caught in Original Sin.
This language highlighting the active character of the endless round of empty frivolities humans indulge in, in order to not think about what they should be thinking about. Pascal uses this word very intentionally. It’s a word of some common use in his France as it would be today. Divertissement sounds light and harmless, but it shouldn’t be so.
Pascal thought that great evil can and does come from trivial causes. Dueling and murder, he says in the Pensées, both come from ennui, from boredom. Thus, Pascal thought, the magnitude of the horrors that humans produce is out of all proportion to the triviality of the cause: divertissement.
Comparison of Montaigne and Pascal
It should be clear that this is a direct critique of Montaigne’s view, for being too forgiving and blind toward these trivial things. Pascal said it’s precisely the trivial things humans should worry about; perhaps at that level, they may be able to control it.
So for Pascal, the issue was that people must finally confront the question of whether or not they will believe in God and confront God’s commands for them, and it is only by being caught up in divertissement that they continue to avoid this. This is why zealotry was so necessary for Pascal and why he opposed Montaigne’s suspicion of it: because people have to be serious because, in the end, life will come for them, and so will death.
Pascal, then, lived after Montaigne in several senses. Where Montaigne was about diversity and acceptable incoherence and the messiness of human life, and for whom evil was an effect of denying that diversity and incoherence, Pascal thought that human incoherence was itself an effect of human evil and fallenness. They directly disagreed.
Common Questions about Montaigne and Pascal
Blaise Pascal was an intellectual scientist and mathematician born in 1623. He invented the first calculator.
Montaigne and Pascal had opposing views on religious beliefs. According to Montaigne, religious belief shows itself in cruelty, while Pascal said humans harm themselves by not having religious beliefs.
For Blaise Pascal, the only way humans can understand themselves is by listening to God. But it is difficult for human beings to do so because they find it unpleasant.