July Quarterly Discussion Review

July 29, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart.”
Blaise Pascal, Pensee #282

As usual, the participants in Harrison Middleton University's July Quarterly Discussion were well-prepared and excellently informed. For this discussion, we focused on a selection of Blaise Pascal's Pensées. The topics ranged from construction of self to understanding infinity and contemplation of divinity. Pascal begins the Pensées by attempting to understand differences between mathematical minds and intuitive minds. In his many Pensées, Pascal, a mathematician himself, struggles to define, understand and translate virtue, happiness and a good life. He sees both mathematical minds and intellectual minds as equally important, yet both have blinders in certain areas of life. Therefore, he attempts to identify these barriers and then call attention to them. Additionally, he makes an incredible argument for a belief in God and religion. He argues for a very specific belief, but with such diversity as to address all types of readers.

His arguments are balanced, poignant and elegant, almost as if he is completing a mathematical proof. His arguments seem to rest on the idea of infinity and how it expands man's understanding of the self beyond the limit of the self. He writes, “Let us therefore not look for certainty and stability. Our reason is always deceived by fickle shadows; nothing can fix the finite between the two Infinites, which both enclose and fly from it” (#72). He continues, “If man made himself the first object of study, he would see how incapable he is of going further. How can a part know the whole?” One participant mentioned that there is a sort of continuum between the knower and the thing to be known. Without this connection, humans would lack all responsibility.

In Pensée #194, Pascal addresses his concern for those who lack a desire for such discussion or contemplation. He finds the questions of religion to be among the most important questions for humanity. He writes, “The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us, and which touches us so profoundly, that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is. All our actions and thoughts must take such different courses, according as there are or are not eternal joys to hope for, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgement, unless we regulate our course by our view of this point which ought to be our ultimate end.” Pascal claims that this “carelessness in a matter which concerns themselves, their eternity, their all, moves me more to anger than pity”. The group noted his frustration here, not with those who do not believe in God, but with those who do not even care enough to contemplate His existence. Pascal's emotional argument stems from his belief that what we believe filters into our relationships and progresses into our communities. He views questions of morality and virtue as among the most important for our own health and self-care.

Pascal's Pensées are often boiled down to his infamous 'wager' from Pensée #233. Some believe that his wager offers a cheap and weak argument of God's existence, of the very thing which he emphatically claims is society's most precious gift. Another participant noted, however, that in his defense of his wager, he nearly aligns with 2 Corinthians 4:18 which reads, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” Pascal claims that this question is not one for Reason because God is beyond all knowing. There simply is no proof outside of the heart. But if one does not believe, then one risks infinity, the all, everything eternal. Therefore, it is better to fix oneself upon the idea of the infinite, upon what is unseen. The things unseen allow for a larger, more holistic (and perhaps, for Pascal, a more Real) perspective, much like the Corinthians passage.

Finally, the group discussed whether or not Pascal utilized inductive or deductive styles of reason. As in mathematics, the question's frame is of vital importance. But he also has a specific agenda, and so the exercise of tracing his argument from end to beginning is particularly instructive. The group began looking into this question, wrestling with the stylistic traits, but left it unfinished. Hopefully, we have left it for another discussion and another day. I want to extend a wonderful, appreciative thanks to those who participated.

Check our Facebook page or website for updates on October's Quarterly Discussion. We will study some past presidential speeches for a very timely Social Science discussion.

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