Miscellaneous Studies: A Series of Essays
by Walter Horatio Pater

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[62] ABOUT the middle of the seventeenth century, two opposite views of a question, upon which neither Scripture, nor Council, nor Pope, had spoken with authority–the question as to the amount of freedom left to man by the overpowering work of divine grace upon him–had seemed likely for a moment to divide the Roman Church into two rival sects. In the diocese of Paris, however, the controversy narrowed itself into a mere personal quarrel between the Jesuit Fathers and the religious community of Port-Royal, and might have been forgotten but for the intervention of a new writer in whom French literature made more than a new step. It became at once, as if by a new creation, what it has remained–a pattern of absolutely unencumbered expressiveness.

In 1656 Pascal, then thirty-three years old, under the form of “Letters to a Provincial by one of his Friends,” put forth a series of [63] pamphlets in which all that was vulnerable in the Jesuit Fathers was laid bare to the profit of their opponents. At the moment the quarrel turned on the proposed censure of Antoine Arnauld by the Sorbonne, by the University of Paris as a religious body. Pascal, intimate, like many another fine intellect of the day, with the Port-Royalists, was Arnauld’s friend, and it belonged to the ardour of his genius, at least as he was then, to be a very active friend. He took up the pen as other chivalrous gentlemen of the day took up the sword, and showed himself a master of the art of fence therewith. His delicate exercise of himself with that weapon was nothing less than a revelation to all the world of the capabilities, the true genius of the French language in prose.

Those who think of Pascal in his final sanctity, his detachment of soul from all but the greatest matters, may be surprised, when they turn to the “Letters,” to find him treating questions, as serious for the friends he was defending as for their adversaries, ironically, with a but half-veiled disdain for them, or an affected humility at being unskilled in them and no theologian. He does not allow us to forget that he is, after all, a layman; while he introduces us, almost avowedly, into a world of unmeaning terms, and unreal distinctions and suppositions that can never be verified. The world in general, indeed, se paye des paroles. That saying belongs to Pascal, and [64] he uses it with reference to the Jesuits and their favourite expression of “sufficient grace.” In the earliest “Letters” he creates in us a feeling that, however orthodox one’s intention, it is scarcely possible to speak of the matters then so abundantly discussed by religious people without heresy at some unguarded point. The suspected proposition of Arnauld, it is admitted by one of his foes, “would be Catholic in the mouth of any one but M. Arnauld.” “The truth,” as it lay between Arnauld and his opponents, is a thing so delicate that “pour peu qu’on s’en retire, on tombe dans l’erreur; mais cette erreur est si deliee, que, pour peu qu’on s’en eloigne, on se trouve dans la verite.”

Some, indeed, may find in the very delicacy, the curiosity, with which such distinctions are drawn, by Pascal’s friends as well as by their foes, only the impertinence, the profanities, of the theologian by profession, all too intimate in laying down the law of the things he deals with–the things “which eye hath not seen” pressing into the secrets of God’s sublime commerce with men, in which, it may be, He differs with every single human soul, by forms of thought adapted from the poorest sort of men’s dealings with each other, from the trader, or the attorney. Pascal notes too the “impious buffooneries" of his opponents. The good Fathers, perhaps, only meant them to promote geniality of temper in the debate. But of such failures– failures of taste, of respect towards one’s [65] own point of view– the world is ever unamiably aware; and in the “Letters” there is much to move the self-complacent smile of the worldling, as Pascal describes his experiences, while he went from one authority to another to find out what was really meant by the distinction between grace “sufficient,” grace “efficacious,” grace “active,” grace “victorious.” He heard, for instance, that all men have sufficient grace to do God’s will; but it is not always prochain, not always at hand, at the moment of temptation to do otherwise. So far, then, Pascal’s charges are those which may seem to lie ready to hand against all who study theology, a looseness of thought and language, that would pass nowhere else, in making what are professedly very fine distinctions; the insincerity with which terms are carefully chosen to cover opposite meanings; the fatuity with which opposite meanings revolve into one another, in the strange vacuous atmosphere generated by professional divines.

Up to this point, you see, Pascal is the countryman of Rabelais and Montaigne, smiling with the fine malice of the one, laughing outright with the gaiety of the other, all the world joining in the laugh– well, at the silliness of the clergy, who seem indeed not to know their own business. It is we, the laity, he would urge, who are serious, and disinterested, because sincerely interested, in these great questionings. Jalousie de metier, the reader may suspect, has something to do with [66] the Professional leaders on both sides of the controversy; but at the actual turn controversy took just then, it was against the Jesuit Fathers that Pascal’s charges came home in full force. And their sin is above all that sin, unpardonable with men of the world sans peur et sans reproche, of a lack of self- respect, sins against pride, if the paradox may be allowed, all the undignified faults, in a word, of essentially little people when they interfere in great matters–faults promoted in the direction of the consciences of women and children, weak concessions to weak people who want to be saved in some easy way quite other than Pascal’s high, fine, chivalrous way of gaining salvation, an incapacity to say what one thinks with the glove thrown down. He supposes a Jansenist to turn upon his opponent who uses the term “sufficient” grace, while really meaning, as he alleges, insufficient, with the words:–"Your explanation would be odious to men of the world. They speak more sincerely than you on matters of far less importance than this." With the world, Pascal, in the “Provincial Letters,” had immediate success. “All the world,” we read in his friend’s supposed reply to the second “Letter,” “sees them; all the world understands them. Men of the world find them agreeable, and even women intelligible.” A century later Voltaire found them very agreeable. The spirit in which Pascal deals with his opponents, his irony, may remind us of the “Apology” of [67] Socrates; the style which secured them immediate access to people who, as a rule, find the subjects there treated hopelessly dry, reminds us of the “Apologia” of Newman.

The essence of all good style, whatever its accidents may be, is expressiveness. It is mastered in proportion to the justice, the nicety with which words balance or match their meaning, and their writer succeeds in saying what he wills, grave or gay, severe or florid, simple or complex. Pascal was a master of style because, as his sister tells us, recording his earliest years, he had a wonderful natural facility a dire ce qu’il voulait en la maniere qu’il voulait.

Facit indignatio versus. The indignation which caused Pascal to write the “Letters” was of a supercilious kind, and what he willed to say in them led to the development of all those qualities that are summed up in the French term l’esprit. Voltaire declared that the best comedies of Moliere n’ont pas plus de sel que les premieres lettres. “Vos maximes,” Pascal assures the Jesuit Fathers, “ont je ne sais quoi de divertissant, qui rejouit toujours le monde,” and they lose nothing of that character in his handling of them, so much so that it was clear from the first that the world in general would never ask whether Pascal had been quite fair to his opponents: “N’etes-vous donc pas ridicules, mes Peres? Qu’on satisfait au precepte d’ouir la messe en entendant quatre quarts de messe a la fois de differents pretres!” When [68] you have the like of that it is impossible not to laugh, parce que rien n’y porte davantage qu’une disproportion surprenante entre ce qu’on attend et ce qu’on voit.

He has “salt” also, of another kind. He drives straight at the Jesuits, for instance, rather than at those who do but copy them, because, as he tells us: Les choses valent toujours mieux dans leur source. What equity of expression, how brief, how untranslateable! And the “Letters” abound in such things.

But to his comparison of Pascal with Moliere, Voltaire added that Bossuet n’a rien de plus sublime que les dernieres. And in truth the more serious note of the impassioned servant of religion whose lips have been touched with altar-fire, whose seriousness came to be like some incurable malady, a visitation of God, as people used to say, is presently struck when, in the natural course of his argument, his thoughts are carried, from a mere passage of arms between one man or one class of men and another, deep down to those awful encounters of the individual soul with itself which are formulated in the eternal problem of predestination.

In their doctrine of “sufficient grace” the Jesuits had presented a view of the conflict of good and evil in the soul, which is honourable to God and encouraging to man, and which has catholicity on its face. All to whom entrance into the Church, through its formal ministries, [69] lies open are truly called of God, while beyond it stretches the ocean of “His uncovenanted mercies.” That is a doctrine for the many, for those whose position in the religious life is mediocrity, who so far as themselves or others can discern have nothing about them of eternal or necessary or irresistible reprobation, or of the eternal condition opposite to that.

The so-called Jansenist doctrine, on the other hand, of [ ]+ but irresistible grace was the appropriate view of the Port-Royalists, high-pitched, eager souls as they were, and of their friend Pascal himself, however much in his turn he might refine upon it. Whether or not, as a matter of fact, upon which, as distinct from matters of faith, an infallible pope can be mistaken, the dreary old Dutch bishop Jansenius had really taught Jansenism, the Port-Royalists had found in his “Augustinus” an incentive to devotion, and were avowedly his adherents. In that somewhat gloomy, that too deeply impressed, that fanatical age, they were the Calvinists of the Roman Catholic Church, maintaining, emphasising in it a view, a tradition, really constant in it from St. Augustin, from St. Paul himself. It is a merit of Pascal, his literary merit, to have given a very fine-toned expression to that doctrine, though mainly in the way of a criticism of its opponents, to one side or aspect of an eternal controversy, eternally suspended, as representing two opposite aspects of experience [70] itself. Calvin and Arminius, Jansen and Molina sum up, in fact, respectively, like the respective adherents of the freedom or of the necessity of the human will, in the more general question of moral philosophy, two opposed, two counter trains of phenomena actually observable by us in human action, too large and complex a matter, as it is, to be embodied or summed up in any one single proposition or idea.

There are moments of one’s own life, aspects of the life of others, of which the conclusion that the will is free seems to be the only– is the natural or reasonable–account. Yet those very moments on reflexion, on second thoughts, present themselves again, as but links in a chain, in an all-embracing network of chains. In all education we assume, in some inexplicable combination, at once the freedom and the necessity of the subject of it. And who on a survey of life from outside would willingly lose the dramatic contrasts, the alternating interests, for which the opposed ideas of freedom and necessity are our respective points of view? How significant become the details we might otherwise pass by almost unobserved, but to which we are put on the alert by the abstract query whether a man be indeed a freeman or a slave, as we watch from aside his devious course, his struggles, his final tragedy or triumph. So much value at least there may be in problems insoluble in themselves, such as that great controversy of Pascal’s day [71] between Jesuit and Jansenist. And here again who would forego, in the spectacle of the religious history of the human soul, the aspects, the details which the doctrines of universal and particular grace respectively embody? The Jesuit doctrine of sufficient grace is certainly, to use the familiar expression, a very pleasant doctrine conducive to the due feeding of the whole flock of Christ, as being, as assuming them to be, what they really are, at the worst, God’s silly sheep. It has something in it congruous with the rising of the physical sun on the evil and on the good, while the wheat and the tares grow naturally, peacefully together. But how pleasant also the opposite doctrine, how true, how truly descriptive of certain distinguished, magnifical, or elect souls, vessels of election, epris des hauteurs, as we see them pass across the world’s stage, as if led on by a kind of thirst for God! Its necessary counterpart, of course, we may find, at least dramatically true of some; we can name them in history, perhaps from our own experience; souls of whom it seems but an obvious story to tell that they seemed to be in love with eternal death, to have borne on them from the first signs of reprobation. Of certain quite visibly elect souls, at all events, the theory of irresistible grace might seem the almost necessary explanation. Most reasonable, most natural, most truly is it descriptive of Pascal himself.

[72] So far, indeed, up to the year 1656, Pascal’s annus mirabilis, the year of the “Letters,” the world had been allowed to see only one side of him. Early in life he had achieved brilliant overtures in the abstract sciences, and, inheriting much of the quality of a fine gentleman, he figures, with his trenchant manner, never at a loss, as a quite secular person, stirred on occasion to take part in a religious debate. But it is after the grand fashion of the mundane quarrels of that day, the age of the sentiment of personal honour, in which it was so natural for the good-natured Jesuits, stirring all Pascal’s satiric power, to excuse as well as they could the act de tuer pour un simple medisance. The Church was still an estate of the realm with all the obligations of the noblesse, and it was still something worse than bad taste, it was dangerous to express religious doubts. About the Catholic religion, as he conceived it, Pascal displays the assured attitude of an ancient Crusader. He has the full courage of his opinions, and by his elegant easy gallantry in speaking for it he gives to religion then and now a kind of dignity it had lost with other controversialists in the eyes of the world. There is abundant gaiety also in the “Letters.” He quotes from Tertullian to the effect that c’est proprement a la verite qu’il appartient de rire parce qu’elle est gaie, et de se jouer de ses ennemis parce qu’elle est assuree de sa victoire. For he could find quotations to his purpose from recondite writers, [73] though he was not a man of erudition; like a man of the world again, he read little, but that absorbingly, was the master of two authors, Epictetus and Montaigne, and, as appeared afterwards, of the Scriptures in the Vulgate.

So far, his imposing carriage of himself intellectually might lead us to suspect that the forced humilities of his later years are indirectly a discovery of what seems one leading quality of the natural man in him, a pride that could be quite fierce on occasion. And, like another rich young man whom Jesus loved, he lacked nothing to make the world also love and confide in, as it already flattered, him. He turned from it, decided to live a single life. Was it the mere oddity of genius? Or its last fine dainty touch of difference from ordinary people and their motives? Or that sanctity of which, in some cases, the world itself instinctively feels the distinction, though it shrinks from the true explanation of it? Certainly, all things considered, on the morrow of the “Letters,” Blaise Pascal, at the age of thirty-three, had a brilliant worldly future before him, had he cared duly to wait upon, to serve it. To develop the already considerable position of his family among the gentry of Auvergne would have been to follow the way of his time, in which so many noble names had been founded on professional talents. Increasingly, however, from early youth, he had been the subject of a malady so hopeless [74] and inexplicable that in that superstitious age some fancied it the result of a malign spell in infancy. Gradually, the world almost loses sight of him, hears at last, some time after it had looked for that event, that he had died, of course very piously, among those sombre people, his friends and relations of Port-Royal, with whom he had taken refuge, and seemed already to have been buried alive. And in the year 1670, not till eight years after his death, the “Pensees” appeared–"Pensees de M. Pascal sur la Religion et sur quelques autres sujets"–or rather a selection from those “Thoughts" by the Port-Royalists, still in fear of consequences to the struggling Jansenist party, anxious to present Pascal’s doctrine as far as possible in conformity with the Jesuit sense, as also to divert the vaguer parts of it more entirely into their own. The incomparable words were altered, the order changed or lost, the thoughts themselves omitted or retrenched. Written in short intervals of relief from suffering, they were contributions to a large and methodical work–"Pensees de M. Pascal sur la Religion et sur quelques autres sujets"–on a good many things besides, as the reader finds, on many of the great things of this world which seemed to him to come in contact or competition with religion. In the true version of the “Thoughts,” edited at last by Faugere, in 1844, from Pascal’s own MSS., in the National Library, they group themselves into certain definite trains [75] of speculation and study. But it is still, nevertheless, as isolated thoughts, as inspirations, so to call them, penetrating what seemed hopelessly dark, summarising what seemed hopelessly confused, sticking fast in men’s memories, floating lightly, or going far, that they have left so deep a mark in literature. For again the manner, also, their style precisely becomes them. The merits of Pascal’s style, indeed, as of the French language itself, still is to say beaucoup de choses en peu de mots; and the brevity, the discerning edge, the impassioned concentration of the language are here one with the ardent immediate apprehensions of his spirit.

One of the literary merits of the “Provincial Letters” is that they are really like letters; they are essentially a conversation by writing with other persons. What we have in the “Thoughts” is the conversation of the writer with himself, with himself and with God, or rather concerning Him, for He is, in Pascal’s favourite phrase from the Vulgate, Deus absconditus, He who never directly shows Himself. Choses de coeur the “Thoughts” are, indeed those of an individual, though they seem to have determined the very outlines of a great subject for all other persons. In Pascal, at the summit of the Puy de Dome in his native Auvergne, experimenting on the weight of the invisible air, proving it to be ever all around by its effects, we are presented with one of the more pleasing [76] aspects of his earlier, more wholesome, open-air life. In the great work of which the “Thoughts” are the first head, Pascal conceived himself to be doing something of the same kind in the spiritual order by a demonstration of this other invisible world all around us, with its really ponderable forces, its movement, its attractions and repulsions, the world of grace, unseen, but, as he thinks, the one only hypothesis that can explain the experienced, admitted facts. Whether or not he was fixing permanently in the “Pensees” the outlines, the principles, of a great system of assent, of conviction, for acceptance by the intellect, he was certainly fixing these with all the imaginative depth and sufficiency of Shakespeare himself, the fancied opposites, the attitudes, the necessary forms of pathos,+ of a great tragedy in the heart, the soul, the essential human tragedy, as typical and central in its expression here, as Hamlet–what the soul passes, and must pass, through, aux abois with nothingness, or with those offended mysterious powers that may really occupy it–or when confronted with the thought of what are called the “four last things" it yields this way or that. What might have passed with all its fiery ways for an esprit de secte et de cabale is now revealed amid the disputes not of a single generation but of eternal ones, by the light of a phenomenal storm of blinding and blasting inspirations.

[77] Observe, he is not a sceptic converted, a returned infidel, but is seen there as if at the very centre of a perpetually maintained tragic crisis holding the faith steadfastly, but amid the well-poised points of essential doubt all around him and it. It is no mere calm supersession of a state of doubt by a state of faith; the doubts never die, they are only just kept down in a perpetual agonia. Everywhere in the “Letters” he had seemed so great a master–a master of himself–never at a loss, taking the conflict so lightly, with so light a heart: in the great Atlantean travail of the “Thoughts” his feet sometimes “are almost gone.” In his soul’s agony, theological abstractions seem to become personal powers. It was as if just below the surface of the green undulations, the stately woods, of his own strange country of Auvergne, the volcanic fires had suddenly discovered themselves anew. In truth into his typical diagnosis, as it may seem, of the tragedy of the human soul, there have passed not merely the personal feelings, the temperament of an individual, but his malady also, a physical malady. Great genius, we know, has the power of elevating, transmuting, serving itself by the accidental conditions about it, however unpromising–poverty, and the like. It was certainly so with Pascal’s long-continued physical sufferings. That aigreur, which is part of the native colour of Pascal’s genius, is reinforced in the [78] “Pensees” by insupportable languor, alternating with supportable pain, as he died little by little through the eight years of their composition. They are essentially the utterance of a soul malade–a soul of great genius, whose malady became a new quality of that genius, perfecting it thus, by its very defect, as a type on the intellectual stage, and thereby guiding, reassuring sympathetically, manning by a sense of good company that large class of persons who are malade in the same way. “La maladie est l’etat naturel des Chretiens,” says Pascal himself. And we concede that every one of us more or less is ailing thus, as another has told us that life itself is a disease of the spirit.

From Port-Royal also came, about the year 1670, a painful book, the “Life of Pascal,” a portrait painted slowly from the life or living death, but with an almost exclusive preference for traits expressive of disease. The post-mortem examination of Pascal’s brain revealed, we are now told, the secret, not merely of that long prostration, those sudden passing torments, but of something analogous to them in Pascal’s genius and work. Well! the light cast indirectly on the literary work of Pascal by Mme. Perier’s “Life” is of a similar kind. It is a veritable chapter in morbid pathology, though it may have truly a beauty for experts, the beauty which belongs to all refined cases even of cerebral disturbance. That he should [79] have sought relief from his singular wretchedness, in that sombre company, is like the second stroke of tragedy upon him. At moments Pascal becomes almost a sectarian, and seems to pass out of the genial broad heaven of the Catholic Church. He had lent himself in those last years to a kind of pieties which do not make a winning picture, which always have about them, even when they show themselves in men physically strong, something of the small compass of the sick- chamber. His medieval or oriental self-tortures, all the painful efforts at absolute detachment, a perverse asceticism taking all there still was to spare from the denuded and suffering body, might well, you may think, have died with him, but are here recorded, chiefly by way of showing the world, the Jesuits, that the Jansenists, too, had a saint quite after their mind.

But though, at first sight, you may find a pettiness in those minute pieties, they have their signification as a testimony to the wholeness of Pascal’s assent, the entirety of his submission, his immense sincerity, the heroic grandeur of his achieved faith. The seventeenth century presents survivals of the gloomy mental habits of the Middle Age, but for the most part of a somewhat theatrical kind, imitations of Francis and Dominic or of their earlier imitators. In Pascal they are original, and have all their seriousness. Que je n’en sois [80] jamais separe–pas separe eternellement, he repeats, or makes that strange sort of MS. amulet, of which his sister tells us, repeat for him. Cast me not away from Thy presence; and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. It is table rase he is trying to make of himself, that He might reign there absolutely alone, who, however, as he was bound to think, had made and blest all those things he declined to accept. Deeper and deeper, then, he retreated into the renuncient life. He could not, had he wished, deprive himself of that his greatest gift–literally a gift he might have thought it not to be buried but accounted for–the gift of le beau dire, of writing beautifully. “Il avoit renonce depuis longtemps aux sciences purement humains.” To him who had known them so well, and as if by intuition, those abstract and perdurable forms of service might well have seemed a part of “the Lord’s doing, marvellous in our eyes,” as his favourite Psalm cxix., the psalm des petites heures, the cxviii. of the Vulgate, says.* These, too, he counts now as but a variety of le neant and vanity of things. He no longer records, therefore, the mathematical apercus that may visit him; and in his scruples, his suspicions of’ visible beauty, he interests us as precisely an inversion of what is called the aesthetic life.

[81] Yet his faith, as in the days of the Middle Age, had been supported, rewarded, by what he believed to be visible miracle among the strange lights and shades of that retired place. Pascal’s niece, the daughter of Madame Perier, a girl ten years of age, suffered from a disease of the eyes pronounced to be incurable. The disease was a peculiarly distressing one, the sort of affliction which, falling on a young child, may lead one to question the presence of divine justice in the world, makes one long that miracles were possible. Well! Pascal, for one, believed that on occasion that profound aspiration had been followed up by the power desired. A thorn from the crown of Jesus, as was believed, had been lately brought to the Port-Royal du Faubourg S. Jacques in Paris, and was one day applied devoutly to the eye of the suffering child. What followed was an immediate and complete cure, fully attested by experts. Ah! Thou hast given him his heart’s desire: and hast not denied him the request of his lips. Pascal, and the young girl herself, faithfully to the end of a long life, believed the circumstances to have been miraculous. Otherwise, we do not see that Pascal was ever permitted to enjoy (so to speak) the religion for which he had exchanged so much; that the sense of acceptance, of assurance, had come to him; that for him the Spouse had ever penetrated the veil of the ordinary routine of the means of grace; [82] nothing that corresponded as a matter of clear personal intercourse of the very senses to the greatness of his surrender–who had emptied himself of all other things. Besides, there was some not wholly-explained delay in his reception, in those his last days, of the Sacrament. It was brought to him just in time–"Voici celui que vous avez tant desire!"–the ministrant says to the dying man. Pascal was then aged thirty-nine– an age you may remember fancifully noted as fatal to genius.

Pascal’s “Thoughts,” then, we shall not rightly measure but as the outcome, the utterance, of a soul diseased, a soul permanently ill at ease. We find in their constant tension something of insomnia, of that sleeplessness which can never be a quite healthful condition of mind in a human body. Sometimes they are cries, cries of obscure pain rather than thoughts–those great fine sayings which seem to betray by their depth of sound the vast unseen hollow places of nature, of humanity, just beneath one’s feet or at one’s side. Reading them, so modern still are those thoughts, so rich and various in suggestion, that one seems to witness the mental seed-sowing of the next two centuries, and perhaps more, as to those matters with which he concerns himself. Intuitions of a religious genius, they may well be taken also as the final considerations of the natural man, as a religious inquirer on doubt and faith, and their place in [83] things. Listen now to some of these “Thoughts” taken at random: taken at first for their brevity. Peu de chose nous console, parce que peu de chose nous afflige. Par l’espace l’univers me comprend et m’engloutit comme un point: par la pensee je le comprends. Things like these put us en route with Pascal. Toutes les bonnes maximes sont dans le monde: on ne manque que de les appliquer. The great ascetic was always hard on amusements, on mere pastimes: Le divertissement nous amuse, one and all of us, et nous fait arriver insensiblement a la mort. Nous perdons encore la vie avec joie, pourvu qu’on en parle. On ne peut faire une bonne physionomie (in a portrait) qu’en accordant toutes nos contrarietes. L’homme n’est qu’un roseau, le plus foible de la nature, mais c’est un roseau pensant. Il ne faut pas que l’univers entier s’arme pour l’ecraser. Une vapeur, une goutte d’eau, suffit pour le tuer. Mais quand l’univers l’ecraseroit, l’homme seroit encore plus noble que se qui le tue, parce qu’il sait qu’il meurt, et l’avantage que l’univers a sur lui, l’univers n’en sait rien. It is not thought by which that excels, but the convincing force of imagination which sublimates its very triteness. Toute notre dignite consiste donc en la pensee.

There, then, you have at random the sort of stuff of which the “Pensees” are made. Let me now briefly indicate, also by quotation again, some of the main leading tendencies in them. La chose la plus importante a toute la vie c’est la [84] choix du metier: le hasard en dispose. There we recognise the manner of thought of Montaigne. Now one of the leading interests in the study of Pascal is to trace the influence upon him of the typical sceptic of the preceding century. Pascal’s “Thoughts” we shall never understand unless we realise the under-texture in them of Montaigne’s very phrases, the fascination the “Essays” had for Pascal in his capacity of one of the children of light, as giving a veritable compte rendu of the Satanic course of this world since the Fall, set forth with all the persuasiveness, the power and charm, all the gifts of Satan, the veritable light on things he has at his disposal.

Pascal re-echoes Montaigne then in asserting the paradoxical character of man and his experience. The old headings under which the Port-Royalist editors grouped the “Thoughts” recall the titles of Montaigne’s “Essays"–"Of the Disproportion of Man,” and the like. As strongly as Montaigne he delights in asserting the relative, local, ephemeral and merely provisional character of our ideas of law, vice, virtue, happiness, and so forth. Comme la mode fait l’agrement aussi fait-elle la justice. La justice et la verite sont deux pointes si subtiles, que nos instruments sont trop mousses pour y toucher exactement. Bien suivant la seule raison n’est juste de soi: tout branle avec le temps. Sometimes he strikes the express accent of Montaigne: Ceux qui sont dans un vaisseau croient que ceux qui sont [85] au bord fuient. Le langage est pareil de tous cotes. Il faut avoir un point fixe pour en juger. Le port juge ceux qui sont dans un vaisseau, mais ou prendrons-nous un port dans la morale? At times he seems to forget that he himself and Montaigne are after all not of the same flock, as his mind grazes in those pleasant places. Qu’il (man) se regarde comme egare dans ce canton detourne de la nature, et de ce petit cachot ou il se trouve loge, qu’il apprenne the earth, et soi-meme a son juste prix. Il ffre, mais elle est ployable a tous sens; et ainsi il n’y en a point. Un meme sens change selon les paroles qui l’expriment. He has touches even of what he calls the malignity, the malign irony of Montaigne. Rien que la mediocrite n’est bon, he says,–epris des hauteurs, as he so conspicuously was– C’est sortir de l’humanite que de sortir du milieu; la grandeur de l’ame humaine consiste a savoir s’y tenir. Rien ne fortifie plus le pyrrhonisme–that is ever his word for scepticism–que ce qu’il y en a qui ne sont pas pyrrhoniens: si tous etaient ils auraient tort. You may even credit him, like Montaigne, with a somewhat Satanic intimacy with the ways, the cruel ways, the weakness, lachete, of the human heart, so that, as he says of Montaigne, himself too might be a pernicious study for those who have a native tendency to corruption.

The paradoxical condition of the world, the natural inconsistency of man, his strange [86] blending of meanness with ancient greatness, the caprices of his status here, of his power and attainments, in the issue of his existence–that is what the study of Montaigne had enforced on Pascal as the sincere compte rendu of experience. But then he passes at a tangent from the circle of the great sceptic’s apprehension. That prospect of man and the world, undulant, capricious, inconsistent, contemptible, lache, full of contradiction, with a soul of evil in things good, irreducible to law, upon which, after all, Montaigne looks out with a complacency so entire, fills Pascal with terror. It is the world on the morrow of a great catastrophe, the casual forces of which have by no means spent themselves. Yes! this world we see, of which we are a part, with its thousand dislocations, is precisely what we might expect as resultant from the Fall of Man, with consequences in full working still. It presents the appropriate aspect of a lost world, though with beams of redeeming grace about it, those, too, distributed somewhat capriciously to chosen people and elect souls, who, after all, can have but an ill time of it here. Under the tragic eclairs of divine wrath essentially implacable, the gentle, pleasantly undulating, sunny, earthly prospect of poor loveable humanity which opens out for one in Montaigne’s “Essays,” becomes for Pascal a scene of harsh precipices, of threatening heights and depths–the depths of his own nothingness. Vanity: nothingness: these [87] are his catchwords: Nous sommes incapables et du vrai et du bien; nous sommes tous condamnes. Ce qui y parait (i.e., what we see in the world) ne marque ni une exclusion totale ni une presence manifeste de divinite, mais la presence d’un Dieu qui se cache: (Deus absconditus, that is a recurrent favourite thought of his) tout porte ce caractere. In this world of abysmal dilemmas, he is ready to push all things to their extremes. All or nothing; for him real morality will be nothing short of sanctity. En Jesus Christ toutes les contradictions sont accordees. Yet what difficulties again in the religion of Christ! Nulle autre religion n’a propose de se hair. La seule religion contraire a la nature, contraire au sens commun, est la seule qui ait toujours ete.

Multitudes in every generation have felt at least the aesthetic charm of the rites of the Catholic Church. For Pascal, on the other hand, a certain weariness, a certain puerility, a certain unprofitableness in them is but an extra trial of faith. He seems to have little sense of the beauty of holiness. And for his sombre, trenchant, precipitous philosophy there could be no middle terms; irresistible election, irresistible reprobation; only sometimes extremes meet, and again it may be the trial of faith that the justified seem as loveless and unlovely as the reprobate. Abetissez-vous! A nature, you may think, that would magnify things to the utmost, nurse, expand them beyond their natural bounds by his [88] reflex action upon them. Thus revelation is to be received on evidence, indeed, but an evidence conclusive only on a presupposition or series of presuppositions, evidence that is supplemented by an act of imagination, or by the grace of faith, shall we say? At any rate, the fact is, that the genius of the great reasoner, of this great master of the abstract and deductive sciences, turned theologian, carrying the methods of thought there formed into the things of faith, was after all of the imaginative order. Now hear what he says of imagination: Cette faculte trompeuse, qui semble nous etre donnee expres pour nous induire a une erreur necessaire. That has a sort of necessity in it. What he says has again the air of Montaigne, and he says much of the same kind: Cette superbe puissance ennemie de la raison, combien toutes les richesses de la terre sont insuffisantes sans son consentement. The imagination has the disposition of all things: Elle fait la beaute, la justice, et le bonheur, qui est le tout du monde. L’imagination dispose de tout. And what we have here to note is its extraordinary power in himself. Strong in him as the reasoning faculty, so to speak, it administered the reasoning faculty in him a son grbut he was unaware of it, that power d’autant plus fourbe qu’elle ne l’est pas toujours. Hidden under the apparent rigidity of his favourite studies, imagination, even in them, played a large part. Physics, mathematics were with him largely matters of intuition, anticipation, [89] precocious discovery, short cuts, superb guessing. It was the inventive element in his work and his way of putting things that surprised those best able to judge. He might have discovered the mathematical sciences for himself, it is alleged, had his father, as he once had a mind to do, withheld him from instruction in them.

About the time when he was bidding adieu to the world, Pascal had an accident. As he drove round a corner on the Seine side to cross the bridge at Neuilly, the horses were precipitated down the bank into the water. Pascal escaped, but with a nervous shock, a certain hallucination, from which he never recovered. As he walked or sat he was apt to perceive a yawning depth beside him; would set stick or chair there to reassure himself. We are now told, indeed, that that circumstance has been greatly exaggerated. But how true to Pascal’s temper, as revealed in his work, that alarmed precipitous character in it! Intellectually the abyss was evermore at his side. Nous avons, he observes, un autre principe d’erreur, les maladies. Now in him the imagination itself was like a physical malady, troubling, disturbing, or in active collusion with it. . . .

62. *Published in the Contemporary Review, Feb. 1895, and now reprinted by the kind permission of the proprietors.

76. +Transliteration: pathos.

80. *The words here cited are, however, from Psalm cxviii., the cxvii. of the Vulgate, and not from Pascal’s favourite Psalm. (C.L.S.) +C.L.S. stands for Charles Shadwell, editor of the original volume.


Charles L. Shadwell’s Preface  •  A Chronology of Pater’s Works, 1866-1895  •  Prosper Merimee  •  Raphael  •  Pascal  •  Art Notes in North Italy  •  Notre-Dame d’Amiens  •  Vezelay  •  Apollo in Picardy  •  The Child in the House  •  Emerald Uthwart  •  Diaphaneite

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Miscellaneous Studies: A Series of Essays
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