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Tuesday
Aug032010

Pascal, "Contre l'Indifférence des Athées"

An essay ("Against the atheist's indifference") by this French thinker.  You can read the original here.

May those who combat religion learn at least what it is before they do battle.  If religion boasted of having a clear view of God and of possessing that view uncovered and unveiled, it could be combated by saying that there is nothing visible in our world that could demonstrate its existence.  But religion states quite on the contrary that man lives in darkness and far from God, and even bestows such a name upon Him in the Scriptures: Deus absconditus.  Religion may then try to establish these two things: that God has left palpable marks in the Church to be recognized by those who sincerely seek Him out and that, nevertheless, He has cloaked these marks in such a way that they will be not perceived except by those who search with their wholeness of their hearts.  What advantage could they possibly derive from professing to seek the truth amidst their negligence if they believe that nothing will be revealed?  This darkness which they inhabit and which the Church contests only establishes one of the tenets that the Church endorses without touching upon any other, and, far from ruining its doctrine, actually confirms it.

To combat the Church, they would have to believe that they have exerted all efforts to look everywhere, even in those things that the Church offers to teach them, but without any satisfaction.  Were they really to talk thus they would indeed combat one of the Church's pretensions.  But what I hope to show here is that this manner of speech could be produced by no reasonable person.  I would even say that no one has ever spoken in this way.  We know all too well how persons of this mindset act.  They think they have spared no effort to instruct themselves; in actuality, they spent a few hours perusing the Scriptures, then questioned some clergyman on the truths of faith.  We know all too well that afterwards they boast of having searched unsuccessfully in books and among men.  But in reality I cannot prevent myself from informing them that this negligence is not acceptable.  This is not about the superficial interest of an unknown person; this is about us and about our whole existence.   

The immortality of the soul is something that matters so dearly to us and that touches us so profoundly that one would have to have lost all feeling for being if one were indifferent to what this immortality might be.  All our actions and all our thoughts may take very different routes depending on whether or not one may in this process hope for eternal goods, and whether or not, in pursuing these goods from the point of view that should be our ultimate aim, it is impossible to approach the matter with sense and judgment.

Therefore our primary interest and primary task is to clarify the subject on which our entire conduct depends.  And this is why, among those who are not persuaded, I detect a large difference between those who work with all their might to instruct themselves and those who live without bothering or thinking about the subject.

I can only have compassion for those who wail in sincere doubt, who look upon the matter as the greatest of evils, and who, sparing nothing to escape this predicament, research their principal and most serious occupation.  But I have a very different opinion of those who live their life without thinking about the very end of life, who only do so because they cannot find within themselves the light to persuade them, and who, neglecting to look elsewhere, then do not examine in depth whether this attitude is one that people accept out of simple credulity or one of which a few obscure persons among them have, as it were, a solid base.  This negligence in an affair that deals with themselves, with their eternity, with their entirety, irritates me more than one would expect – it surprises and repulses me; to me it is a monster.  I do not say this out of the pious zeal of spiritual devotion.  On the contrary, I surmise that self-esteem, human interest, and the simplest rays of our reason would usher in such sentiments.  One should not see for that reason what is seen by the least enlightened among us.  

One need not have a sublimated soul to understand that no true or solid satisfaction is to be found, that all our pleasures are mere vanities, that our evils are infinite, and that eventually death, who threatens us at every instant, will need in a matter of years or perhaps even a matter of days to place us in an eternal state of happiness, unhappiness, or annihilation.  Between us and Heaven, Hell or Nothingness there is only life – which is the most fragile thing in the world.  And with Heaven being uncertain for those who doubt that their souls are immortal, they can await then only Hell or Nothingness.   

There is nothing more real or more terrible than this.  We may be as brave as you'd like – this is the end that awaits the most beautiful life in the world.

It is in vain that they steer their thoughts from the eternity that awaits them as if they could annihilate it and no longer think about it.  Yet it subsists despite them, it advances; and the death that must reveal this eternity will infallibly place them in little time in the horrible necessity of being eternally annihilated or unhappy.

And here is the doubt of a terrible consequence; and it is assuredly a woeful condition to be entrapped within that doubt; but nevertheless it is an indispensable task to search when one is there.  Thus he who doubts and does not search is at once both very unjust and very unhappy.  Whether it is with this condition, calm and satisfied, that one makes one's profession and finally one's vanity, and however this same condition may be the subject of one's joy and one's vanity, I have no term with which to name such an extravagant creature.

Where can one find such sentiments?  What subject of joy awaiting misery without recourse?  What subject of vanity that sees into the impenetrable darkness?  What consolation in never waiting to be consoled?

The relaxation through this ignorance is monstrous and one should make these persons feel the extravagance and stupidity of living their life in this fashion, and of representing what happens within themselves, to confuse them with a view of their own madness.  Because here is how men reason when they choose to live in ignorance of what they are and not to seek enlightenment.

I know not who placed me in this world, nor what the world is, nor what I am.  I am in terrible ignorance of all things.  I do not know what my body is, what my senses are, what my soul is; and this part of myself which thinks what I say and which reflects upon everything and itself, knows itself no more than the rest.  I see these horrific spaces in the Universe which confine me, and I find myself attached to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am located in this place rather than in another, nor why this little time I have been given to live has been assigned at this point rather than at another point during the course of eternity that preceded me and that which shall come in my wake.  I see only infirmities everywhere that devour me like an atom, like a shadow that lasts only a second without returning.  All I know is that I will soon have to die; but what I know least about is this death that I do not know how to avoid.

In the same way that I do not know where I come from, I also do not know where I am going.  I only know that, departing this world, I will fall forever into Nothingness or into the hands of an irritated God, not knowing in which of these two conditions I will have to spend eternity.

Here is my condition full of misery, of weakness, of obscurity.  And from all this I therefore conclude that I must spend all the days of my life without dreaming of what will come to pass, and that I have nothing to do but to follow my inclinations without reflection or inquietude in doing everything needed so as to tumble into eternal unhappiness in the event that what is said is true.  Perhaps I could find some enlightenment amidst my doubts; but not wanting to make the effort, not taking a step in this search, and treating with contempt those who will labor with this care in mind, I would like without foresight or fear to tempt such a great event, and let myself gently be led to death uncertain of the eternity of my future condition.

In reality it is to the glory of Religion to have as enemies such unreasonable men.  Their opposition is so minutely dangerous in their contradiction of the establishment of basic truths which Religion teaches us.  Because the Christian faith seeks in principle to establish these two things: the corruption of nature and the redemption of Jesus Christ.  For if they do not demonstrate the truth of redemption in the saintliness of their mores, they at least admirably show the corruption of nature by sentiments so denatured.

Nothing is as important to man as his condition; nothing is as redoubtable to him as eternity. And in this way, if he finds men indifferent to the loss of their being and in peril of an eternity of misery, this is not natural.  They are completely other with regard to all other things: they fear even the smallest things, they see them in advance, they feel them.  And this same man who passes his days and nights in rage and despair owing to the loss of a fee or for some imaginary offense to his honor, is the same man who knows he will lose everything in death and who remains nevertheless without inquietude, without trouble, and without emotion.  This strange insensibility to the most terrible things in a heart so sensitive to the most frivolous – this is an incomprehensible enchantment and a supernatural slumber.

A man in a prison cell not knowing whether his judgment has been pronounced and not having more than an hour to learn of it, and this hour being sufficient, if he knows that he has been judged, to have it revoked, it is then against nature for him to use this hour not to inform himself as to whether his judgment has been pronounced, but to play and amuse himself.  This is the condition in which these people find themselves, with the difference being that the evils which threaten them are others than the simple loss of life and brief torture of which the prisoner will learn.  Nevertheless they run without care towards the precipice after having placed something before their eyes to impede their view of it, and they mock those who might warn them. 

Thus true Religion is proven not only by the zeal of those who seek God, but also by the blindness of those who do not seek Him and who live in this horrible negligence.  There needs to be a strange reversal in the nature of man to live in such a condition, and still more to make a vanity of it.  Because once they have entire certainty that they have nothing to fear after death apart from falling into Nothingness, would this not be more a subject of despair rather than of vanity?  Is this not, therefore, inconceivable madness, not having been assured of anything, to glorify being in such doubt?

And nevertheless it is certain that man is so denatured that his heart retains in this endeavor some seeds of joy.  This brutal respite between the fear of Hell and of Nothingness seems so grand that not only those who truly wallow in these doubts glorify the matter, but also even those who do not wallow therein believe that it is glorious for them to pretend to be – since experience makes us see that the majority of those involved belong to this second category and that these people are disguised and are not what they want to appear to be.  They are people who have heard said that the fine manners of the world consist of getting carried away in this vein.  This is what they call "having shed the yoke," and most of them only do it to imitate others.

But however small the amount of common sense they may possess, it is not difficult to get them to understand to what degree they abuse themselves in searching for esteem in this way.  This is not how to obtain it; and I would say the same thing to those persons of the world who employ a healthy judgment of things and who know that the only path to success is to be honest, faithful, judicious and capable of making use of one's friends, because men naturally do not like what can be useful to them.  For what advantage is there for us to hear said by a man that has "shed the yoke," a man who does not believe that there is a God who watches over his actions, that he considers himself the only master of his conduct, that he does not think of being aware in this regard of anyone but himself?  Does he think in so doing he has henceforth instilled our confidence in him, and from this can expect consolations, advice and help in all of life's needs?  Does he believe he has elated us by saying that he doubts that our soul is anything more than a bit of wind and smoke, even telling us this in a proud and happy voice?  Is this something to be said gaily?  Isn't this, on the contrary, a sad statement, perhaps the saddest statement in all the world?

If they thought seriously about the matter they would see that this is so badly formulated, so contrary to good sense, so opposed to honesty, and so distant in every way from the good manner that they seek, that nothing is more capable of bestowing upon them the contempt and aversion of mankind and have them seem to be persons without spirit or judgment.  And, indeed, if one were to make them aware of their sentiments and the reasons they have to doubt Religion, they would say things so feeble and base that they would persuade us rather of the contrary.   This was what one person said one day on the subject: if you continue such debates, he told them, you will convert me for real.  And he was right; for who would not hate to be viewed with such sentiments as would make them companions to people so contemptible?    

Thus those who only feign these sentiments are quite unhappy to constrain their natural being to render themselves the most impertinent of men.  If they are angry in their heart of hearts for not having more light, they cannot hide it.  Such a declaration would not be honest; there is no shame apart from not doing so.  Nothing reveals more of a strange weakness of mind than not to know what is man's unhappiness without God.  Nothing indicates a greater baseness of heart than not to want the truth regarding eternal promises. Nothing is more cowardly than to brave God.  May they then leave these impieties to those who were already badly born to be capable of them: may they be the least honest of persons if they cannot yet be Christians; and may they recognize finally that there are only two types of people: those who serve God with all their hearts because they know Him and those who seek Him with all their hearts because they do not know Him yet.   

It is therefore for those who seek God sincerely and who recognize their misery in desiring truly to escape this conundrum that it is just to work, with the aim of helping them to find the light that they do not possess. 

But for those who live without knowing Him and without seeking Him, they deem themselves so unworthy of their own care, may they not be worthy of care by others.  One would have to show all the charity of the Religion they despise not to despise them until one abandons them to their folly.  Yet because this Religion obliges us to regard them always as being capable of Grace in this life, Grace that might enlighten them, and to believe that, in short order, they might be more filled with faith than we are, and that, conversely, we too might fall into the blindness which they inhabit, we have to do for them what we would want done for us if we were in their place and beseech them to take pity on themselves, and at least to take a few steps to see whether they might not find this light.  May they devote to the reading of this work a few hours of which they would otherwise make little use.  Perhaps they will find something here, or at least they would not lose too much.  But for those imbued with perfect sincerity and veritable desire to know the truth, I hope that they will be satisfied and convinced of the proofs amassed here of a Religion so divine.     

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