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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Pascal's Memorial

March 25, 2016

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

Blaise Pascal composed his "Memorial" during a transcendent experience, a 'night of fire'. I find this a fitting poem for discussion considering all of the religious holidays that fall during this time of year. I also recently attended a community seminar about Pascal, and as usual, was extremely pleased with the depth of discussion. From this discussion, I add my own thoughts here regarding Pascal's “Memorial” (both the original and the English translation can be found here).

I find it difficult to believe in only a single thread of truth. Instead, truth for me contains various hues, many experiences and mountains of compiled moments. If we are talking about a religious 'truth' then I feel even moreso, the natural truth, the Truth, is something infinitely more inexplicable. Though they may be inexplicable however, I feel that discussion of these large truths is vital to humanity.

For this reason, Pascal's “Memorial” captures my attention. Pascal dates this experience as: “The year of grace 1654/ Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology./ Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others./ From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,/ FIRE.” Remarkable the specificity in his entry. Even more remarkable, however, is the fact that this moment, this fire, stuck with Pascal so intensely, that after jotting down this poem, he sewed it into his coat and carried it with him for the rest of his life. Obviously, whatever experience, feeling or development Pascal stumbled upon between ten and midnight, it struck a deep chord of truth within him.

For example, in the midst of his poem, Pascal wrote: “Deum meum et Deum vestrum./ 'Ton DIEU sera mon Dieu.'” In nearly every French version that I come across, this passage is presented with the quote marks around the second phrase. Yet, in nearly every English version, the quote marks are missing as is the Latin. In the original document, I cannot find evidence to support or omit the quote marks. And my conundrum is this: I believe Pascal's “Memorial” to be more than a single transcendental experience. I believe that it IS a conversation. Perhaps, it is a conversation from the exterior Pascal to his interior self. Perhaps it is more. Regardless, the importance he places on this single conversation (if you will indulge me the use of conversation) is overwhelming. He sewed it into his clothing and wore it daily. I believe that on this night in 1654, Pascal wrote himself a roadmap to transcendence. He wanted more of these moments, and more than just savoring the experience, he wanted to have it again and again. These words continued to guide him, this FIRE continued to control his thoughts for the rest of his life. Why?

Reading Pascal's Pensées after reading the “Memorial” reinforces my belief that his single experience reinforced his desire to continue scribbling thoughts as they passed. Pascal's deep, penetrating questions regarding God show his intellect. Yet, the meaning of Pascal's “Memorial” continues to evade me. I feel that I understand a section only to lose it again as I fumble with the next. So, I have written a few questions that seem to me to be of least if we are trying to figure out Pascal in English (and I am). These questions deal mostly with translation from the original language. But I also think of it in larger terms than that. Pascal's roadmap attempts to translate a transcendent experience. In the end, any language will most likely fall short of this lofty goal. (Perhaps for this reason, Pascal hid his poem and carried it close to his chest, among the things in his soul, privately.) However, the two versions do differ, and they offer some speculation.

Therefore, my questions are:

1] Why does the English translation often translate the original Latin phrases? There are only three phrases in Latin, and all of them have been rendered into English. Not so with the French, which maintains the original Latin phrasing. Why? If the Latin phrasing was important to Pascal, shouldn't it be important to the reader? If Latin is the language of science, do the Latin phrases represent the questions that Pascal pursues in this short piece? Is the Latin stronger in some sense or does it carry more meaning?

2] Why does Pascal combine John 20:17 in Latin with Ruth 1:16 in French? Not only is he having a conversation with himself through himself, but he's using different languages and different translations. Pascal was a serious mathematician and this is his most serious equation.

3] Who inserted the quotation marks into the printed copies of Pascal's “Memorial”? Are they evident in the original somewhere?

4] Can we view this poem in the sense of a Trinity: three Latin phrases, which act as the frame of the entire document? Three seems to be important here (obviously important Biblically), but also for Pascal's mathematical mind. More than the three phrases, Pascal repeats Jesus Christ and joy three times.

All of these questions get me to my final point: the Latin quotes are, of course, Biblical quotes. However, they transcend the Bible, they transcend the language, they are being used by a mathematician during a moment of religious enlightenment. “Your GOD will be my God” is Ruth, but it is not just Ruth. It is Pascal speaking to himself about Pascal. In his mind, writing down these two hours of fire gave him a solid moment worth pursuing. His Pensées, then, endeavor to reinforce this same kind of spirituality.

Pascal's "Memorial" via Wikimedia Commons

Pascal's "Memorial" via Wikimedia Commons

Find this image on Wikimedia here.


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