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Pascal and the Conflict between Jerusalem and Athens

By A.J. Peters

As a junior, I’ve spent the last two seminars reading Pascal’s Pensées. There are some program authors that are consumed by reason and seem to feel nothing (Descartes, *cough* *cough*). Pascal is not one of them. He, on the other hand, feels everything. He is crushed by internal disagreements, and he makes the reader partake in his discomfort. In his thinking we are too knowledgable to be blissfully ignorant, but too ignorant to ever find bliss in knowledge. We are an amalgamation of passion and reason, and while just one or the other would serve us well, the combination condemns us to misery. Read a passage like this, and try to tell me you feel nothing:

For, in fact, what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up.

This is our true state; this is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge and of absolute ignorance. We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and to fasten to it, it wavers and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes for ever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition and yet most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses.

Or how about this one:

The greatness of man is great in that he knows himself to be miserable. A tree does not know itself to be miserable. It is then being miserable to know oneself to be miserable; but it is also being great to know that one is miserable.

By the end of the Pensées, Pascal — a child prodigy — looks to Christianity as the only antitode to the miserable nature of mankind. He is the epitome of an internal conflict between the cultures that have influenced westerners most: the heroism, tragedy, and self-agency of the Ancient Greeks versus the redemption, eternal happiness, and surrederance to God of Christianity.

As someone who was raised in a secular community with a healthy dose of world religions, I’ve certainly faced this dichotomy before, even if I couldn’t name it. When do we set out with fearless determination, telling ourselves that if we fail we’ll at least fail nobly? And at what point do we give in and admit that we are fundamentally flawed and cannot save ourselves?

In middle school, one of my favorite quotations was Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Reading it now, it still is one of my favorites: I can’t help but feel a bit inspired. It’s a thought process that stares down failure and says, “you may take away my success, but you can’t take away greatness.” It’s the thought process that sends Achilles and Menelaus to Troy, or Aeneas to Rome. Think Hemingway. But there’s a part of Pascal and Christianity that nags at me and tries to tell me these wordly triumphs are ultimatly unfulfilling. Don’t waste your time. As Pascal would have it, these struggles are simply a way to pass the time and distract ourselves from our own innate misery. So forget the man in the arena, the sweat and the triumph, and learn to live more deeply.

Yet I simply don’t feel the misery that Pascal evokes, and I’m not sure any words on paper could convince me that I’m as miserable as he describes. In fact, most of the time I’m pretty happy. Towards the end of last night’s seminar, we spoke about how the Greek Underworld looks a lot like the Christian life that the New Testament sets out — in both, we relinquish some (or all) of our agency. That’s not intended to be a slight to Christianity; any of the tragedies show how hellish Greek life can look. But I wonder if we might need the Greek tragic fall to truly consider the traditional Christian life.

Unlike Pascal, I haven’t passed much of my life bed-ridden from sickness. While at times I certainly feel the warring factions that seem to crush him in every moment, I can normally just push on through. But I’m not sure that’s an option for him.

After seminar last night, one of my friends mentioned her first seminar of Sophomore year and recited the brief introduction her Tutor gave to Genesis:

Athens and Jerusalem are your mother and father. You’ve spent a year getting to know one, and now it’s time to know the other. You won’t know yourself until you know your parents.

It’s true, and I’m still working on it. I think most of us are. That’s a good thing — what would it say about our lives if we weren’t terribly confused every once in a while?


The student writing staff of the johnnie chair blog

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