Pensees the Provincial Letters

Pensees the Provincial Letters - Blaise Pascal Much like Molière, Pascal’s influence is probably best appreciated if read in French. His style, satire and wit are heavily commented on and, since I don’t read French, I’m sure I’m missing much of what makes Pascal influential.

Pensees is the skeleton of a book. Never published during Pascal’s life, it existed simply as scraps of paper until someone decided to compile and bind them. A collection of one-liners and short writings, in style they are reminiscent of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or the Tao Te Ching. In substance, they are not that far off either. It’s not Stoicism or Daoism, but there is a stress on humility, escape from the trappings of vice and the dilemma of happiness. Of course, the most well known and best writing comes in Section 3, The Necessity of the Wager. Despite what we imagine the truth is behind our existence, he sums it up nicely. “Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked.” (Pensees, 233, pg. 80).

Toward the end of the Pensees the writing takes on a much more Christian orthodox tone. His dismissal of Islam and contesting beliefs in favor of Christianity lacks the self-reflective tenor of the earlier writings. Belief is no longer a wager, it becomes conviction.

The Provincial Letters takes up the second half of the book. Pascal writes in defense of the Jansenists against the accusations of the Jesuits. The letters attack the spurious causistic morality of the Jesuits and contain debates of finer points of Catholicism such as the existence of efficacious grace. In the time they were written, they may have been compelling reading on the esoteric aspects of faith but, not surprisingly, they are hard to get into today. Unless you are a hardcore Calvinist or something.