10 July, 2005

Pascal's Christian apologetic

It has probably never occurred to anyone to be distressed at not having three eyes, but those who have none are inconsolable. — Pensée 117 (409)

I had been reading Peter Kreeft's Christianity for Modern Pagans until today. Since I'm leaving the country, I thought it best to leave it at the library, since I don't actually own it. I'll take along Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling and the Book on Adler as well as L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time.

I've read about half of Christianity for Modern Pagans. I want to start by saying that I generally like Peter Kreeft's work; I read his Summa of the Summa some years ago, and I found him thought-provoking. I am not however impressed with this book.

My beef with the title
The first problem is the title. Kreeft calls it, Christianity for Modern Pagans, which suggests that it's addressed to the modern pagans themselves. This is not the case; nor does the book resemble what Kreeft suggests: a way to get his class on Pascal's Pensées out to the world. The book consists by and large of Kreeft preaching to the choir, and with a rather condescending tone to boot.

Pascal's desired strategy in argument was along the following lines (paraphrased, since I cannot find the appropriate pensée in my notes): Start by telling someone how he is correct from his point of view, then proceed to show him how from a different point of view one might arrive at a different conclusion. The result is that one's opponent will be quite pleased. (I forget the reasoning, but it struck me as quite sound.)

If only Kreeft had employed this method! When Kreeft is not dripping with scorn for "modern pagans", he is simply dismissing them. This might be forgivable if Kreeft were consistently on solid ground; the problem is that he's not. Changing one word would produce a more accurate title: Christianity Critiques Modern Pagans.

My beef with the commentary
So, the highlight of this book is, at least in the first half, Pascal and not Kreeft. Kreeft himself encourages the reader to ignore him and read Pascal straight through at first, and I have been doing that, but afterwards one is curious to see what Kreeft has to say. One is rewarded with curiosities such as,
Who would fear and obey policeman without uniforms? (pg. 103)
Now, I'm fairly certain that "secret" police forces don't wear uniforms, and I'd say that most people consider secret police more fearsome than ordinary police. Indeed, I don't generally fear the police at all, not in the United States anyway; the fact that they wear uniforms helps a great deal, because I can identify them. I respect them and the authority they represent, and for that reason I obey them on the occasions that they stop me and give instructions, but I don't fear them.

Some comments are based on questionable, undocumented pseudo-scholarship. For example,
The word "boredom" does not exist in any ancient language. It first appears in the seventeenth century. No one knows its origin. (pg. 187)
Perhaps the English word "boredom" first appears in the seventeenth century (perhaps later), but the Latin word taedium appears quite a while before it. Maybe I misunderstand the argument, but Kreeft isn't exactly helping — and I want desperately to be on the man's side! Note that the context of this remark is to provide evidence for Kreeft's highly questionable assertion that people never felt boredom before the seventeenth century. (He says, people invent words for what they need, so the natural conclusion is that they didn't need the word until then — whereas they did need to say that they were tired of chopping wood for ten hours a day.) I must be misunderstanding something here, because Kreeft (a professor of philosophy at Boston College) can't possibly be ignorant of ancient Roman patrician society, and their use of the vomitorium.

Moreover, Kreeft is unduly flippant about the serious concerns that many genuine Catholic thinkers have regarding Pascal's Jansenist sympathies.

I know that Kreeft is a much better thinker than this, so I can't for the life of me imagine what was going through his head when he wrote the commentary to this book. Admittedly, Kreeft provides enlightening remarks as well; for example,
Christ did not come to give us an aspirin but an operation.
In an age of saccharine spirituality, those are refreshing words. However, there is an awful lot of mire that one has to wade through before arriving at the islands of sanity.

My beef with the Pensées proper
Jansenist or no, Pascal is wonderful to read. His writing is full of insights that are thought-provoking (see the quote that begins this insight, which is pointing out that surely people ought to be happy, since they are aware of and inconsolable in their unhappiness), though not nearly as conclusive as Kreeft implies. Pascal answers Cartesian rationalism rather effectively, and mocks Descartes without ever mentioning his name:
Men are so inevitably mad that not to be mad would be to give a mad twist to madness. We desire truth and find in ourselves uncertainty. We desire happiness and find only wrtechedness and death. We are incapable of not desiring truth and happiness and incapable of either certainty or happiness. — Pensées 412, 401 (414, 437)
Of course, he is given to some rather ill-considered (if attractive) hyperbole:
The soul cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room. — Pensée 136 (139)
One some of these occasions (like the one above) Kreeft's commentary manages to explain the nugget of truth that I, a rather slow-witted modern Catholic, was not able to grasp on my own.

One of the greatest deficiencies of philosophical discussions, to my mind, is that people don't begin with the simple question that began many of Socrates' inquiries (at least, as Plato portrays him): "What is...?" So:
  • we debate God's existence, without ever asking just what we mean by the word;
  • we talk about how to find happiness, without ever thinking about what happiness is;
  • we try to say what it means to live a full life, without first considering what makes for a genuine life. &c.
It seems to me that Pascal is somewhat aware of this, and he considers these questions insofar as he can use them to deflate the prevailing philosophies of his time (and later times as well):
All very well to cry out to a man who does not know himself that he should make his own way to God! — Pensée 141 (509)
I am not sure however that Pascal does a very good job of defining the terms himself. For example, in Pensée 688 (323), he begins by asking, "What is the Ego?", and concludes:
[I]t is impossible and would be unjust to love the soul of a person in the abstract and whatever qualities might be therein. We never, then, love a person, but only qualities.
For all the merits this insight may have, it simply does not answer the question that began the pensée.

I don't want the reader to misunderstand: the Pensées are great, and Kreeft's commentary is somewhat helpful. Pascal's philosophy is a little like Nietzsche's in that it abounds in memorable soundbites that one does not typically hear in our consumerist, materialist society. It's hard to pick a favorite; besides the one that leads this entry, I might suggest Pensée 113 (348):
Through space the universe grasps me and swallows me up like a speck; through thought I grasp it.
I have copied down three pages of pensées and commentary (questionable and otherwise), and I would point to Pensées 869, 166, 44, 821, 21, 699, 114, 131 (508, 183, 82, 252, 381, 382, 397, 434). You can find them by going to this wepage and looking up the numbers I've listed in parentheses. (There are apparently two standards for numbering the Pensées.)

However, the marketing for Kreeft's book represents it as something it's not — or else I am in worse philosophical shape than I thought. If anyone else has read it, and has some thoughts that would correct my point of view, I would be very interested in your insights.


Brandon said...

It's been a while since I've read Christianity for Modern Pagans, but what you say fits with what I remember. I think that perhaps part of Kreeft's problem is that he doesn't quite take seriously enough the fact that the Pensées are not a philosophical text but the fragmentary notes for a philosophical text that Pascal never actually wrote, collected together by others after his death. There is no doubt, for instance, that the Wager argument would have been reworked into a philosophical dialogue, and the Pensées are full of directions for the writing of epistolary essays on various topics. The notes don't present us with Pascal's arguments; they present us with the notes he jotted to guide his writing of the arguments, when he got around to writing them. His commentary tends to treat too much of it as-is. Pascal's thoughts on diversion, for instance, have a lot of potential, but for commentary they really require more than just expanding on them a bit -- as you say, we need something that conveys not just the Pascalian meaning but the Pascalian approach as well, and Kreeft doesn't really manage it. Admittedly, it would be difficult to do.

I don't recall what Kreeft says about Pascal's Jansenism, but it is quite clear from some of the fragments that part of the work Pascal was planning would have been devoted to defending Jansenism; it comes up in some fragments on morality, and much of Pascal's discussion of miracles would probably have been devoted to defending the alleged miracle of the Holy Thorn of Port Royal, one of the centerpieces of Jansenist apologetics. On the other hand, I do think one can overstate the problem of Jansenism, too; Pascal was a genuinely devout Catholic, who affirmed obedience to the Pope and the Church even despite being worried that his book against the Jesuits (the Provincial Letters) might be condemned at Rome. It's virtually impossible to imagine anyone today doing anything similar; think of how startling it would be to hear Catholics-in-error saying similar things today.

jack perry said...

Hi Brandon,

I agree with what you say about the Pensées not being a philosophical text. Kreeft said in the introduction that when he first read the Pensées, he wondered why he had never encountered them in a philosophy class; based on Christianity for Modern Pagans, though, I can understand very well why not!

I don't recall what Kreeft says about Pascal's Jansenism...

I don't have the introduction handy, but what Kreeft writes stands in stark contrast with what the Catholic Encyclopedia (which I linked to) had to say about it. Kreeft basically boils it down to: there were the casuistic (?) Jesuits, who were BAD, and anyone else, who was good. He doesn't explain Jansenism, nor what the heresy in Jansenism was, nor why Pascal is associated with it. I have a vague idea that Jansen himself was not a heretic, and the only things condemned were some writings of some of his followers, but I never did clarify my understanding of it. It was most careless expositions I have ever read of it, and that this should come from a philosopher at a somewhat prestigious American university, who says that he wants to give us a flavor of his class, I found quite unsettling.

I hope you're still checking this from time to time, because I've never heard of the Holy Thorn of Port Royal. What's that all about?

By the way, I forget to by a Wrinkle in Time before leaving for the airport, and of course the barbarians who run airports have sorry excuses for bookstores. I'm very depressed.

Brandon said...

That does sound like a very odd characterization of Jansenism. Five propositions from Jansen's own work were condemned; the Jansenists maintained that the Pope had been deceived by the Jesuits as to what the Jansenists actually believed. Newman gives a good summary of the series of events. It sounds like Kreeft has simply taken Pascal's criticisms of the Jesuits in The Provincial Letters at face-value, when in fact there's a lot to be said for the Jesuit side.

I don't know much about the details of the Holy Thorn miracles, but this seems to be a good starting point. Pascal was personally involved (his niece was the first one healed).