Thursday, June 21, 2012

Revisiting the Pensées (Eliot on Pascal)

I've begun re-reading Pascal's Pensées owing to two facts: my dear mom got me a Kindle for Father's Day and shortly after I was made aware that a Kindle edition is available for free. (Longtime readers of this blog may remember me taking a swipe or two at e-books, but I have to admit the Kindle is an elegant way to read books, and even tactilely satisfying.) This digitized version of a 1958 edition has the bonus of a cracking introduction by T.S. Eliot. It doesn't get much better than Eliot and Pascal. Here are some quotes.

On the value of studying Pascal

Pascal is one of those writers who will be and who must be studied afresh by men in every generation. It is not he who changes, but we who change. It is not our knowledge of him that increases, but our world that alters and our attitudes towards it. The history of human opinions of Pascal and of men of his stature is a part of the history of humanity.

The value of Pascal's life before his conversion

The period of fashionable society, in Pascal's life, is however, of great importance in his development. It enlarged his knowledge of men and refined his tastes; he became a man of the world and never lost what he had learnt; and when he turned his thoughts wholly toward religion, his worldly knowledge was a part of his composition which is essential to the value of his work.

Pascal's skepticism leading to faith

For every man who thinks and lives by thought must have his own scepticism, that which stops at the question, that which ends in denial, or that which leads to faith and which is somehow integrated into the faith which transcends it. And Pascal, as the type of one kind of religious believer, which is highly passionate and ardent, but passionate only through a powerful and regulated intellect, is in the first sections of his unfinished Apology for Christianity facing unflinchingly the demon of doubt which is inseparable from the spirit of belief.

A word of caution to those interested in tackling Pascal's Pensées for the first time. Give yourself time, and give him time, to get into the flow. I can imagine a first-time reader throwing up his hands in frustrated puzzlement after the opening section, but the more one reads Pascal the more cogent he becomes.

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