René Descartes was kind of a dick.
His famous saying, “I think, therefore I am,” is nothing less than a wholesale rejection of all authority—even objective truth—in favor of a defecated rationality and fierce subjectivism that belittles anything outside one’s own mind.
The modern attitude created by Descartes does two things:
1. It enshrines one’s own beliefs or preferences as the exclusive source of truth (fierce subjectivism).
2. It elevates the logic that flows from that fierce subjectivism (defecated rationality) into a truth (my truth, your truth, his/her/its truth, etc.).
If you draw a thick cocaine line from Descartes to today’s Trans Wars, you’d be drawing coke lines better than Hunter Thompson.
Accused of being an atheist, Descartes claimed to be a “devout Catholic,”[i]but he left his Catholic France to live among the Calvinists and Jews in the Netherlands. He espouses odd (and bizarre) theories about the soul. He spent his final days as the court philosopher for the Lutheran Queen Christina of Sweden and died without Last Rites.
One academic thinks that Descartes was such a poor Catholic that a priest thought his example would prevent Queen Christina from converting to Catholicism, so the priest poisoned the father of modernity by lacing a host with arsenic. The story doesn’t ring true—a priest who cares enough about Catholicism wouldn’t desecrate the host like that—but hey, the Queen converted after Descartes’ death so maybe.
The Pope thought Descartes was kind of a dick. Urban VIII put Descartes’ writings on the Index of Forbidden Books about a dozen years after Descartes died.
Pascal surpassed Descartes
But most people thought Descartes was brilliant. He was the toast of Europe. But Descartes wasn’t the smartest guy in Europe. Heck, he wasn’t even the smartest guy in France.
A young upstart was his intellectual superior. Descartes knew it and resented it (did I mention Descartes was kind of a dick?).
When the 16-year-old Blaise Pascal published a mathematical paper on conic sections when Descartes was 43, Descartes knew he’d been eclipsed when he was at the height of his intellectual power and reputation. At first, he refused to believe someone as young as Pascal could’ve written something so impressive, but when he learned that it was true, Descartes turned to belittling him. When Pascal invented the syringe and the hydraulic press, Descartes mocked him and said Pascal had “too much vacuum in his head.”
Pascal returned Descartes’ disdain, not out of petty jealousy (the better doesn’t envy the other), but rather because Pascal saw that Descartes’ “method” dispensed with God. Pascal, I suspect, saw where Descartes’ method of fierce subjectivism would lead. And even if Pascal couldn’t have imagined men with lipstick and counterfeit vaginas, he no doubt saw, if only vaguely, the ugly road modernity and its subjective rationality would lead.
The heart has its reasons
I’m intrigued that Pascal was thrown into Descartes’ path. Here was Descartes, the greatest mind in Europe, asserting one’s ideas and rationality as the basis of everything and launching that era that we call “modernity,” and then there was his clear intellectual superior coming along less than ten years later, making a name for himself and setting himself up as a better alternative to Descartes.
Pascal is the proto-anti-modern. He was anti-modern before modern was.
And what did this titan of anti-modernity (anti-Cartesian idealism) say?
“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of... We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.”
Don’t, Pascal was saying, trust your own reason as the exclusive arbiter of truth.
Only an arrogant oaf thinks he’s above worship
Modernity, as Jacques Derrida would show, was a series of little religions. The modern thought process goes like this:
1. Reject God;
2. Unwittingly embrace a new god (Derrida: “logocentric idea”);
3. Rationalize truths from that new god.
That’s it. That is the recipe followed by every modern thinker that was, is, and ever shall be.
Heck, it’s not just the recipe followed by every modern “thinker.” Every modern person, thinker and dolt, follows that recipe. The moron at the honky-tonk bar with the flag bandana around his head and a scowl on his face; the woke idiot with a Ukraine flag bandana skateboarding people on the head: both moderns, though of limited intellectual gifts.
The brilliant, if disturbed, David Foster Wallace said, “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”[ii]
A person can claim to reject God, but some other god will take His place in the heart. From that god, new ideas and conclusions will follow, no matter how boneheaded.
Every person needs a starting point that can’t be reasoned to. That starting point is his or her god. Only an arrogant oaf thinks he’s above worship.
For Descartes, that little god was one’s own mind. Once he elevated one’s thoughts to the divine, people could start trusting their thoughts, ideas, even passions as little slices of dogma, cut from that little god of their mind.
Pascal wasn’t having it.
The younger Pascal might not have much cared. He wasn’t particularly religious. By his late 20s, his father had died; his beloved sister was entering a convent against his wishes; he had a small inheritance that was enough to sustain him and that was about it; he only seemed to care about his scientific work.
But then in November 1654, at age 31, he had an intense and direct encounter with the divine. He didn’t talk about it, but he wrote down a description of it and sewed it in the lining of his coat.
He then shifted attention to this experience and started working on a thorough defense of the divine. He wrote passages as they came to him, then, after he had assembled a large collection, he started classifying them by cutting up each sheet into its component pensees, arranging them under twenty-eight headings and fastening the fragments within each bundle by threading string through them.
Unfortunately, illness cut short his life and his great work. Only fragments 1-382 were classified; 383 through 829 weren’t, though their content is occasionally full enough to allow classification by scholars. They also found about 80 more fragments, resulting in 912 total pensées, which has since become a standard in the Western Canon (volume 33 in the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World).
The "hidden God" and "astonishing contradictions"
In the Pensées, Pascal frequently refers to the “hidden God.” The phrase has been the subject of a lot of scholarly commentaries, but my hunch is, he was referring to the Tao. After reason and logic run their course, something always remains. Paradox simultaneously points to that “something,” while at the same time mocking reason and logic, but paradox doesn’t show us what that something is. That something is the Tao. That something is, I think, what Pascal was referring to when he referred to the “hidden God.”
But God exists so it’s reasonable to believe even if irrational. The Pensées, as a whole, show how it’s reasonable to embrace an irrational Christianity. For that matter, the Pensées defend the reasonably irrational in general. It’s a paradox, yes, but reality is laced with paradox.
As I’ve explored previously (here, here, here, and here), full reality can’t be reasoned to. We know all sorts of things that escape logic. We know them by intuition,[iii] or what Hugh Kenner refers to as the “instinct for Being.”[iv]When we reach the limits of our logic, but still see (feel, sense, intuit) there’s something else there, we’ve reach the Tao: paradox, absurdity, the tragedy of existence, the grund . . . whatever.
“Pascal, the rationalist genius who devoted most of his life to unlocking the secrets of the material world,” says Yale historian Carlos Eire, “wrote the Pensées to convince his fellow diehard rationalists that human beings could never be ultimately satisfied by earthly life, or by reason alone.”[v]
Pascal makes that point poetically in pensée199:
We float on a vast ocean, ever uncertain and adrift, blown this way or that. Whenever we think we have some point to which we can cling and fasten ourselves, it shakes free and leaves us behind. And if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slides away, and escapes forever. Nothing stays still for us. This is our natural condition and yet the one farthest from our inclination. We burn with desire to find firm ground and an ultimate secure base on which to build a tower reaching up to the infinite. But our whole foundation cracks, and the earth opens up into abysses.
Reality, Pascal said, full of “astonishing contradictions” and each person experiences them. Reality is a paradox machine. Each person is a little paradox machine.
It’s all absurd. And Pascal knew it, prefiguring the existentialist Albert Camus and his Myth of Sisyphus by about 300 years.
It’s so absurd, we need to be crazy (beyond the reasonable and logical) to appreciate it. Does that mean madness is the norm?
“Men are so inevitably mad that not to be mad would be to give a mad twist to madness.” Pensee 412.
[i] Eire, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 (Yale, 2016), p. 660
[ii]The full passage:
There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. If you worship money and things, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
[iii] Ben Rogers, The Great Philosophers: Pascal, citing pensées 110, 131, and 406.
[iv] Paradox in Chesterton, which might be one of the great unknown classics of the 20th century. Get the version with Marshall McLuhan’s introduction. It’s a threefer: Chesterton/Kenner/McLuhan.
[v] Reformations, 688.