Why Read the Pensées? Because You've Already Affirmed Pascal's Wager

There are barriers to conversion. Of special interest to Pascal among them is the thought that the truth of Christianity needs to be proved by argument before it can be accepted, and before the things that Christians ordinarily do can be done. Pascal is interested in this because of the audience for whom his apologetical work, posthumously called the Pensées [Thoughts], was intended. They, disproportionately and unusually, placed a high value upon reason, and thought it problematic that Christianity’s central claims appear not to be capable of argumentative demonstration. Pascal is scathing about this. It belongs to Christianity, he writes, to claim that its claims are not demonstrable in that way, and to claim that faith, minimally an act of trust in thought and life in what the LORD has shown of the LORD’s self, is without remainder a gift of the LORD to which the giving and taking of arguments in the space of reason is irrelevant. Briefly, and representatively: 

Faith is God’s gift. Don’t think that we’re saying that it’s a gift of reasoning. The other religions don’t say this about their faith. They offer nothing but reason as a way to faith, but it doesn’t get you there (Pensées 501, OC 2/761).

Thinking that reason might get you there is an error (I leave aside Pascal’s claim that [all?] other religions make that claim) of order: it’s to deploy reason in an order to which it doesn’t belong. The category of disproportion is relevant again here, as it was earlier in considering the orders; there, the emphasis was on the disproportion between our cognitive capacities and the two infinities within which we find ourselves. Here, the disproportion is between us and the LORD, a disproportion that makes the LORD completely (Pascal is often excitable and extreme about this) inaccessible to us by way of reason, whether that reason is used to establish the LORD’s existence, or to delineate the LORD’s nature. But reason, having established its own limits and, what is the same, its proper sphere of action, can deploy what’s been given to it about the LORD to establish what it’s reasonable for us to think and do. That is an exercise within its proper sphere, and Pascal deploys it as an instrument to remove obstacles to faith.

The first move in what Pascal calls le pari, the wager, is to state a dichotomy: either the LORD exists or it is not the case that the LORD exists. This is intended as a contradictory pair that doesn’t allow for a third option: p or not-p. The next move is to say that everyone is already committed to one or other of these options: you’re already embarked (vous êtes embarqué), like it or not. Why is that? Because you’re either worshiping the LORD and otherwise doing what believers do, or you’re not. The pattern of your life shows which of the two possibilities you affirm. There’s no neutral ground. And since reason has no competence to decide the truth here, each decision is identically related to the demands of reason. The question of what’s reasonable in this connection can therefore be jettisoned without remainder. How then to decide which direction to set sail in—whether, that is, to continue in the direction you’re already going, or to change course?

Pascal’s answer to that belongs to game theory. You should assess what the possible gains and losses are in each case, while acknowledging that so far as you know, in the sphere of subjective probability, there’s an equal chance: the probability that god exists is true is one-half, and the probability that it is not the case that god exists is the same. There are then four possibilities: you bet that god exists, and you’re right; you bet that god exists and you’re wrong; you bet that it is not the case that god exists, and you’re right; you bet that it is not the case that god exists, and you’re wrong. You might ask what you have to bet in such a game. What stake is at your disposal? The answer is your pattern of life: either you will live as if the LORD is who the LORD is (ego sum qui sum, as Scripture says), or you will not. And recall that you’ve already made this bet: your life already exhibits one pattern or the other. Those are the stakes, then: living a Christian life, which is to say doing what Christians do; or living a pagan life, which is to say doing what pagans do.

Suppose you bet on the truth of god exists by conforming your life to the LORD, or at least beginning to do so. If you’re right (the first of the four possibilities), then since what properly belongs to living as Christians do is une éternité de vie et de bonheur, an eternity of life and happiness, because that’s what’s promised to the faithful and what the faithful therefore hope for, then your winnings are infinite: endless bliss, just what you’ve always wanted. But suppose you make the same bet and you turn out to be wrong. Well, then you’ll die and be buried and that’ll be the end of that. The pattern of your life will have been based on an illusion.

Suppose that you bet on the truth of it is not the case that god exists by living as pagans do, and you’re right. That’s the third alternative. Then you’ll live a life of obsessive amour-propre, terrified of death and the opacity of life, amusing yourself to death with whatever distractions are available and being frightened and bored when those distractions aren’t to hand. You’ll live a life where, as in the second alternative, when you die that will be the end of you. The last remaining alternative is that you bet on the truth of it is not the case that god exists by living as pagans do, and you’re wrong. In fact, it turns out, the LORD is and the promises are. When you die, in this last possibility, you lose what you really want, what we all really want, which is infinite delight in the embrace of the only one who can provide it, the LORD of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the LORD who is Jesus. You are, that is, damned.

In the case of the first two possibilities, where you place your bet on god exists by ordering your life as if that were so, you have an equal chance of an infinite gain (the bottomless bank account, like Strega Nona’s pasta pot) and a finite loss, which is having a life that doesn’t conform to reality. In the case of the second two possibilities, where you place your bet on it is not the case that god exists by ordering your life as if that were so, you have an equal chance of finite gain, which is having a life that does accord with reality, and infinite loss, which is, one way or another, endless torment.

Leaving aside any other questions (and there are many), Pascal thinks it clear that you should bet that god exists. That’s the direction in which you should set sail. “Our argument,” he writes, “has infinite weight (une force infinie) because the stake is finite, the game is one where there’s an equal chance of winning and losing, and there’s an infinite good to be won (l’ infini à gagner). That’s demonstrative: if we’re capable of any truth, this is it.” You’d be irrational, that is, a fool, if you didn’t embark LORD-ward.

The argument is formally correct, as is easy enough to see if you transpose its terms to those of the gaming table. The stake demanded of you (let’s call it $100) is one you have in your pocket, as everyone does in Pascal’s set-up, and the bet is single and simple: you have to place your stake on either red or black, and one of those must come up. If you bet on black and it comes up you get the bottomless bank account, and if it doesn’t come up you lose your stake; if you bet on red and it comes up you double your money, and if it doesn’t come up you lose all the money you’ve ever had, will ever have, or could ever have. That’s an approximate equivalent to Pascal’s wager, and if you were ever to find yourself at such a table and you didn’t bet on black, you’d be a fool. And Pascal thinks that you are, right now, at just such a table, and have already placed your bet—though still with time to shift it from one color to the other.

Formally, there’s no problem. If you’re a pagan and you’re faced with Pascal’s wager, you ought to adopt a Christian way of life. You’d be irrational not to. But the argument carries conviction only if its axiomatic assumptions are accepted. First among these is an assumption about the LORD—that the LORD rewards those living as Christians with an infinite good, and punishes those who live as pagans with an infinite evil. In the strongest form of the argument, it’s inevitable that those who live as Christians get the reward, while those who don’t get the punishment—as inevitable, anyway, as the bank paying those who bet on black when it comes up. But there’s no reason for pagans to accept such an understanding of the LORD. A pagan knowledgeable about Christianity might rightly note that some Christians, at least, teach that the LORD has a universal salvific will, and that loss of the infinite and everlasting good of life with the LORD need not follow, even on Christian assumptions. Such pagans might reasonably say, well, on the Christian understanding of the LORD I prefer, I don’t need to change my life now. Making the wrong bet now at worst yields purgatory, not damnation. Pascal might respond that even if the loss involved in making the wrong bet isn’t infinite, it’s still very large (millennia in purgatory, perhaps), and so you’d still be irrational to bet on black. But then the argument’s footing has been changed. There’s no need to resolve this disagreement here. That it can occur shows, illuminatingly, that the LORD’s universal salvific will is in play in the argument, and that considering the argument can throw that issue into sharp relief is among the benefits of reading Pascal.

The argument might also be challenged by raising questions about the importance of the stake. That stake is the habits of a life. You might say that those habits have greater weight than the argument makes them seem to have. You, as a pagan, might be being asked to give up all, or very many, of the habits—emotional, sexual, gastronomic, sartorial, social, political, professional—that give your life meaning, and that is a weighty matter. It may seem weighty enough to you that you can’t imagine being able to do it. As I’ve already shown, Pascal’s emphasis on the radicality and violence of conversion suggests that something of revolutionary significance is done to pagan habits when conversion occurs. In the monetary terms appropriate to the gaming table, $100 that you have in your pocket might not be the best analogy. Better might be a contractually guaranteed promise that one-half of all your future income will be garnished at source and given to the poor, and that your expenditure of the other half will in future be limited to a short list of church-approved categories. That would mean that your style of life would become drastically different. You might reasonably be given pause by this. You’d still be gambling a finite stake for a possible infinite reward, but the stake might begin to seem so weighty that you can’t bring yourself to put it on the table. That discussion, also not to be resolved here, raises the question of how deep the difference is between the habits of a Christian life and those of a pagan life, and it is another of the benefits of reading Pascal on the wager to have this question forced upon you. Pascal has his own views about it, as we shall see.

Pascal’s imagined interlocutor in this discussion of the wager objects that he isn’t free simply to believe in the truths of Christianity: “I’m such that I’m not able to believe (que je ne puis croire).” This is reasonable: we can’t ordinarily make ourselves give assent to some claim. When faced with a claim, we find ourselves responding to it in the way that we do—with assent, with doubt, with rejection, with puzzlement, with ridicule, and so on—and that response can’t be changed by fiat. But it wasn’t Pascal’s point to say that it could. His recommended response to the wager isn’t that you should, if you see the wager’s reasonableness, at once become a believer. It’s that you should begin to do something different in the interest of establishing new habits. At more length: 

You’d like to arrive at faith and you don’t know the way. You’d like to be cured of infidelity, and you ask for the remedies. Learn from those who were bound as you are and who now bet everything. These are the people who know the way you’d like to follow and have been cured of the evil you’d like to be cured of. Begin as they did, which was by acting as if they believed, taking holy water, having Masses said, and so on. Doing exactly that will make you believe naturally, like an animal—But that’s what I’m afraid of.—Why? What do you have to lose? (Pensées 397, OC 2/679–80).

You’re not being asked to believe by an act of will. You’re being asked to undertake what believers—Christians—do, by imitation. The examples Pascal provides are liturgical: holy water, Mass, and so on. The “and so on” is important: it indicates the entirety of the liturgical life. Pascal recommends, therefore, that you should commence that life. If you do it regularly, you’ll come to believe naturellement (naturally, inevitably, as speaking English produces in you exactly the habituated capacity to speak English), and “like an animal” (abêtir), which is to say unreflectively, as the hummingbird hovers and the snake slithers. Christian liturgical habits, on this view, make a believer of you over time; the same account could be offered of other patterns of action characteristic of the Christian life, such as the works of mercy. They are the customs of the Christian country, and doing them makes you into an inhabitant.

This treatment of the wager shows the depth of the formal parallels between Pascal’s first (pagan) anthropology, and his second (Christian) anthropology. Both have custom and habit at their heart, and each set of customs is alike in lacking for most of us most of the time demonstrations of their reasonability independent of their practice. There is, for Pascal, no reason to think that a condition necessary for entering upon or continuing in one life or another, pagan or Christian, is having to hand or on the lips arguments whose conclusion is, “this is the right/good/true/beautiful life,” or the habits that constitute this life have fewer disadvantages and more advantages than their competitors.” No. Rather, vous êtes embarqué. You can gain clarity about what kind of life yours is, and what its characteristic marks are; and you may even, with arguments like the wager, be able, in exceptional circumstances to show why a change from one life to another is rational or desirable—but even when you can do that, the argument won’t be, as the wager isn’t, about the substantive merits or virtues of one set of habits over another. Rather, it’ll be a procedural or hypothetical argument, a game-theoretic conditional that’s neutral as to the truth—as the wager is to the question of which way the dice will in fact fall. Pascal, in this way of approaching matters of justification, runs counter to much in the Catholic tradition, and especially to some natural-law-centered kinds of Thomism. He is best understood as espousing skepticism about the possibility of there being standards of justification for modes of life independent of their practice, while at the same time being quite clear that the habits that make a Christian life are in accord with the order of things, while those that make a pagan life are not. 

One misunderstanding of the wager needs to be noted and rejected. It’s the view that the establishment of the habits that make a Christian life is just the same thing as having faith. That reading is in such tension with other themes in Pascal that it’s hard to defend. I have in mind Pascal’s view that faith is without remainder the LORD’s gift, and therefore not something that can be produced ex opere operato, by anything we do. That understanding of faith is an element in Pascal’s depiction of grace, as shorthand for the relation between divine and human agency. The wager is not, then, best read as a claim about the efficacy of what human creatures alone can do, as is evident from Pascal’s view that not all those who live a Christian life are in fact to be understood as Christians.

There aren’t many true Christians. I say the same about faith: there are many who believe out of superstition, and many who don’t because they don’t like constraint. Few are in between. I don’t include in this those whose conduct is truly pious, or those who believe out of the heart’s feeling (Pensées 168, OC 2/603).

Le sentiment de la coeur, which is what Pascal wants faith to spring from, is nothing but the LORD’s gift. Those who have it need not be, and in Pascal’s view are not, the same as those with habits appropriate to the Christian life, even if it’s not possible for us to discriminate the one from the other.

Jansenist understandings of the Christian life are often represented as unremittingly grim: life is affliction; it ends in death, which is usually painful; worldly attachments are problematic because they’re death-shadowed; desire for them and delight in them should be at best moderate, and punished with fear and guilt when, as is almost inevitable, they become immoderate. There are elements of such a picture in Pascal, and those elements may well have been accentuated by some Jansenists. But there’s a fundamental difference. Pascal doesn’t encourage a teeth-gritting bootstrap out of desire for the world; rather, he shows what it’s like to be so in love with and delighted by the LORD that worldly delights assume their proper place. He does, of course, with polemical and satirical vigor, castigate those who make of the Christian life an ornament to the norms and mores of seventeenth-century French bourgeois life. And he does show the deep incompatibility of much in those norms and mores with Christianity. But he does that in order to turn the gaze away from the world and toward the LORD, not to recommend an agonized struggle with the world’s temptations. He does sometimes over-theorize his rhetorical positions, especially when he writes about the providential nature of all affliction; but for the most part he’s a poet of delight rather than of suffering.

Pascal’s anthropology, it’s worth emphasizing again, is a mixture of the universal—here’s what all human creatures are like—and the very particular—here’s what the seventeenth-century French bourgeois are like. A significant portion of his diagnosis of the human condition does, however, presuppose a social class that isn’t pressed by life-threatening material needs, and that has some leisure. That wasn’t most people in Pascal’s Paris, just as it isn’t most people in the twenty-first century. His depiction of ennui and the restless need for divertissement as means of avoiding contemplation of our parlous condition resonates with our bourgeois (to whom I belong), to the extent that it does, for the same reasons as it resonated with his: we have time and leisure, we don’t know what to do with it, and we would very much rather not contemplate our mortality or our sin. But for those whose main concerns are whether they’ll get through today without being killed, or this week without dying of starvation, the resonance will be less. That is a criticism of Pascal’s anthropology only to the extent that it presents itself as more universal than it is, which sometimes it does. It is, rather, an observation about that anthropology: like the pari, Pascal’s analysis of affliction and diversion works most effectively upon those whose lives have in them space for consideration and action not immediately directed toward survival.

The strongest element of Pascal’s anthropology is his depiction of custom and habit. He is entirely right to show them as fundamental to the lives of all human creatures, pagan, Jew, and Christian alike. We are as he depicts us: in large part like machines and nonhuman animals: creatures who do and must habituate themselves so that almost all of what we do neither requires nor uses self-awareness. Among the interesting implications of such a view, not drawn out by Pascal, is that the phenomenology of the inner theater—of what it seems like to us to be us—may itself be an artifact of the Fall, and no necessary part of the Christian life here below, or of the life of glory. Interest in our inner lives and effort to develop them may be just one more divertissement. A Pascalianism for our time would take up that theme.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This is an excerpt from Why Read Pascal? (116–126). Reprinted with the kind permission of The Catholic University of America Press. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Featured Image: Caravaggio, Cardsharps, 1595; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Paul J. Griffiths

Paul J. Griffiths was the Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke University. He is the author of Decreation (2014, Baylor), The Practice of Catholic Theology (2016, CUA), and Christian Flesh (2018, Stanford).

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