On the tragic existence

Life and Christianity in Pascal’s Pensées

by Luca Vidotto

We take life for granted. It seems that everything in this world is as it should be. But if we truly look around and notice the people that surround us and the places we live in – if we scrutinise our inner selves, without prejudice: everything becomes chaotic and curls up into incomprehensible whirlwinds and nonsense. We ask ourselves “What have I to do?” [1] with the anguished awareness that everything around us resounds utter emptiness. Things that at a first glimpse seem solid and certain, are actually gradually falling apart under our noses. 

Every opinion, judgement, value and person show themselves as “ambiguous and in a certain doubtful obscurity from which our doubts cannot eliminate all clarity, nor our natural lights chase away all darkness[2]. 

Pascal’s interlocutor, who is gripped in this darkness, can be found amongst the fragments that arrange his Pensées. When advancing in these ruins, passing this jagged landscape, through this place that holds together many different spaces, centers, streets, through which our stride limps, we too are taken by dismay “seeing the blinding and the misery of man, looking at the whole mute universe and mankind without light left in them[3] and their empty hearts are “filled with filth[4].

Maybe because we are not our misery, and this self inquisition can light a faint ember able to fend the darkest hour which seams impenetrable.

If there were a supreme reason that guided the world and life’s every detail, from which one could reflect, gain dignity and purpose; if nothing were to prevent it, we would most certainly not be thrown into an ocean of despondency. Yet it is in this abyss, in this “cursed land[5] that we continue to live.

Despite our condition, one that should cause pity and compassion, we are always deluded. Guided by our imagination and habit, we are gripped by strength and violence that wear the masked as justice, what are we doing? We divert ourselves. We choose “to not think about it at all[6]. Even though we are the last, worst amongst the animals, so much is our wretchedness, we consider ourselves to be the first amongst the gods. This can be foreseen every time we hear the foulest of pronouns resound from our lips, one we repeat incessantly and without shame: «I… I… I!».Not even in these circumstances do we sound close to a God, but rather closer to a bray of a donkey! So clouded by our own self-love, “we run without a care over the precipice after putting something in front of ourselves to prevent us from seeing it” [7]. 

If this is our condition, why should we continue to live? Why continue such mockery?

Maybe because we are not our misery, and this self inquisition can light a faint ember able to fend the darkest hour which seams impenetrable. This is the enigma that Pascal extends to us: “Misery is not without awareness: ruin does not come without acknowledgement. Mankind is in inherently miserable” [8]. What does this awareness mean? He says it is “misery is the acknowledgement of being miserable, but it is grand to admit one’s misery[9].

In this consideration shines mankind’s greatness. The humble, yet painful thought is like a feeble and uncertain light of a hermit’s lantern. A hermit that travels hoping that the night has an ending – even if he can only illuminate he’s sully feet. 

We see man caught between darkness and light, greatness and misery, and we can only ask ourselves: “And what is man?” [10] Are we to say mankind is nothing? An error? “What chimera is mankind? what innovation, what monster, what chaos, what contradictional individual, what prodigy? […] Who will untangle this crux?” [11]. For Pascal, Jesus Christ shall do so, according to his “cross and insanity” [12]: is folly not the truth shown in its own contradiction, which shows “a God humiliated till death”, a human God “one that triumphs over death through dying”? [13] Christ is the contradiction and in him all our aversion are affirmed.

This God is not the same philosophical God or logical one: he is the God that embodied “the pain of men”  [14]. One who does not elude evil, but rather confronts it by turning evil into scandal and intolerance due to its controversy to God’s infinite kindness. He is Job’s God in front of whom he curses and is consumed by his ineptitude and the world’s eternal corruption – oppressed in the “mysterium iniquitatis” [15].

A God who promised our redemption but at the same time left us to fall. Leaving an ambiguous relationship – marked by concealment.  

The original sin is what allows Pascal to show us not only man’s misunderstood condition, but also the coexistence between the divine illumination that inhabits mankind and the corruption that indelibly marks mankind, making it similar to “a dethroned king” [16].

He does not explain anything but enlightens the concept of light and darkness that oppresses the world and it’s souls. This condition reflects the harsh face of a Deus absconditus, that turns the world inside out, leaving it speechless. “The crux of our understanding folds and rewinds into this abyss. So that man is more inconceivable without this mystery than this mystery is inconceivable without man” [17].

But what is to happen to us? Christianity’s truth is tragic, it shows us man’s incurable misery, a greatness which is a mere awareness of the obscenity that inhabits our hearts. It reveals a God of love but at the same time distances him from us to the extent where he is unable to be understood as something other than a God that hides himself. Moreover, Christianity affirms the originality of our bliss, but at the same time the eternal presence of our corruption; it talks about salvation but relegates it to a time that will come only after evil has accomplished itself on this Earth – depicting it as peaceful beginning only for a fraction of men, for the leftovers, for the waste. We remain here alone with one truth that grieves us – alone and desperate in our clarity of mind.

We remain here alone with one truth that grieves us – alone and desperate in our clarity of mind.

[1] B. Pascal, Frammenti, [The Pensées] italian translation by Enea Balmas, BUR, Milano 2017, p. 105, fr. 2 (227, Brunschvicg edition).
All quotes present in this text were translated from Italian to English by La Livella’s translator. In the bibliographic notes the number in brackets refers to the number of the fragments in the Brunschvicg edition.

[2] Ivi, p. 171-173, fr. 109 (392). 

[3] Ivi, p. 255, fr. 198 (693).

[4]  Ivi, p. 211, fr. 139 (143).

[5] Ivi, p. 599, fr. 545 (458).

[6] Ivi, p. 195, fr. 133 (168).

[7] Ivi, p. 239, fr. 166 (183).

[8] Ivi, p. 453, fr. 437 (399).

[9] Ivi, p. 175, fr. 114 (397).

[10]Sal 8, 5, Il libro dei Salmi, [The book of psalms], translation and comments by G. Ceronetti, Adelphi, Milano 1985.

[11] B. PASCAL, Fragments, cit., p. 189, fr. 131 (434).

[12] Ivi, p. 345, fr. 291 (587).

[13] Ivi, p. 297, fr. 241 (765).

[14] Is 53, 3, Il libro del profeta Isaia [The book of the prophet Isaiah], translation and comments by G. Ceronetti, Adelphi,  Milano, 1981.

[15] 2 Ts 2, 1.

[16] B. Pascal, Fragments, cit., p. 177, fr. 117 (409).

[17] Ivi, pp. 191-193, fr. 131 (434).