Pensées - Blaise Pascal - ebook

Pascal's Pensées' is a collection of fragments on theology and philosophy written by 17th-century philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal. Pascal's religious conversion led him into a life of asceticism and the Pensées was in many ways his life's work. This book represented Pascal's defense of the Christian religion. The concept of "Pascal's Wager" stems from a portion of this work.

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Blaise Pascal

First digital edition 2017 by Anna Ruggieri


It might seem that about Blaise Pascal, and about the two worksonwhich his fame is founded, everything that there is to say hadbeen said. The details of his life are as fully known as we canexpect to know them; his mathematical and physical discoveries havebeen treated many times; his religious sentiment and histheological views have been discussed again and again; and hisprose style has been analysed by French critics down to the finestparticular. But Pascal is one of those writers who will be and whomust be studied afresh by men in every generation. It is not he whochanges, but we who change. It is not our knowledge of him thatincreases, but our world that alters and our attitudes towards it.The history of human opinions of Pascal and of men of his statureis a part of the history of humanity. That indicateshis permanentimportance.

The facts of Pascal's life, so far as they are necessary forthis brief introduction to thePensées, are as follows. He wasborn at Clermont, in Auvergne, in 1623. His family were people ofsubstance of the upper middle class. Hisfather was a governmentofficial, who was able to leave, when he died, a sufficientpatrimony to his one son and his two daughters. In 1631 the fathermoved to Paris, and a few years later took up another governmentpost at Rouen. Wherever he lived, the elder Pascal seems to havemingled with some of the best society, and with men of eminence inscience and the arts. Blaise was educated entirely by his father athome. He was exceedingly precocious, indeed excessively precocious,for his application to studies in childhood and adolescenceimpaired his health, and is held responsible for his death atthirty-nine. Prodigious, though not incredible stories arepreserved, especially of his precocity in mathematics. His mind wasactive rather than accumulative; he showed from his earliest yearsthat disposition to find things out for himself, which hascharacterised the infancy of Clerk-Maxwell and other scientists. Ofhis later discoveries in physics there is no need for mention here;it must only be remembered that he counts as one of the greatestphysicists and mathematicians of all time; and that his discoverieswere made during the years when most scientists are stillapprentices.

The elder Pascal, Étienne, was a sincere Christian. About1646 he fell in with some representatives of the religious revivalwithin the Church which has become known as Jansenism—afterJansenius, Bishop of Ypres, whose theological work is taken as theorigin of the movement. This period is usually spoken of as themoment of Pascal's "first conversion." The word "conversion,"however, is too forcible to be applied at this point to BlaisePascal himself. The family had always been devout, and the youngerPascal, though absorbed in his scientific work, never seems to havebeen afflicted with infidelity. Hisattention was then directed,certainly, to religious and theological matters; but the term"conversion" can only be applied to his sisters—the elder,already Madame Périer, and particularly the younger,Jacqueline, who at that time conceived a vocation for the religiouslife. Pascal himself was by no means disposed to renounce theworld. After the death of the father in 1650 Jacqueline, a youngwoman of remarkable strength and beauty of character, wished totake her vows as a sister of Port-Royal, and for some time her wishremained unfulfilled owing to the opposition of her brother. Hisobjection was on the purely worldly ground that she wished to makeover her patrimony to the Order; whereas while she lived with him,their combined resources made it possible for him to live morenearly on a scale of expense congenial to his tastes. He liked, infact, not only to mix with the best society, but to keep a coachand horses—six horses is the number at one time attributed tohis carriage. Though he had no legal power to prevent his sisterfrom disposing of her property as she elected, the amiableJacqueline shrank from doing so without her brother's willingapproval. The Mother Superior, MèreAngélique—herself an eminent personage in the history ofthis religious movement—finally persuaded the young novice toenter the order without the satisfaction of bringing her patrimonywith her; but Jacqueline remained so distressed by this situationthat her brother finally relented.

So far as is known, the worldly life enjoyed by Pascal duringthis period can hardly be qualified as "dissipation," and certainlynot as "debauchery." Even gambling may have appealed to him chieflyas affording a study of mathematical probabilities. He appears tohave led sucha life as any cultivated intellectual man of goodposition and independent means might lead and consider himself amodel of probity and virtue. Not even a love-affair is laid at hisdoor, though he is said to have contemplated marriage. ButJansenism, asrepresented by the religious society of Port-Royal,was morally a Puritan movement within the Church, and its standardsof conduct were at least as severe as those of any Puritanism inEngland or America. The period of fashionable society, in Pascal'slife, is however, of great importance in his development. Itenlarged his knowledge of men and refined his tastes; he became aman of the world and never lost what he had learnt; and when heturned his thoughts wholly towards religion, his worldly knowledgewas a part of his composition which is essential to the value ofhis work.

Pascal's interest in society did not distract him fromscientific research; nor did this period occupy much space in whatis a very short and crowded life. Partly his naturaldissatisfaction with such a life, once he had learned all it had toteach him, partly the influence of his saintly sister Jacqueline,partly increasing suffering as his health declined, directed himmore and more out of the world and to thoughts of eternity. And in1654 occurs what is called his "second conversion," but which mightbe called his conversion simply.

He made a note of his mystical experience, which he kept alwaysabout him, and which was found, after his death, sewn into the coatwhich he was wearing.The experience occurred on 23 November, 1654,and there is no reason to doubt its genuineness unless we choose todeny all mystical experience. Now, Pascal was not a mystic, and hisworks are not to be classified amongst mystical writings; but whatcan only be called mystical experience happens to many men who donot become mystics. The work which he undertook soonafter,theLettres écrites à un provincial, is a masterpiece ofreligious controversy at the opposite pole from mysticism. We knowquite well that he was at the time when he received hisillumination from God in extremely poor health; but it is acommonplace that some forms of illness are extremely favourable,not only to religious illumination, but to artistic and literarycomposition. A piece of writing meditated, apparently withoutprogress, for months or years, may suddenly take shape and word;and in this state long passages may be produced which requirelittle or no retouch. I have no good word to say for thecultivation of automatic writingas the model of literarycomposition; I doubt whether these momentscanbe cultivated by thewriter; but he to whom this happens assuredly has the sensation ofbeing a vehicle rather than a maker. No masterpiece can be producedwhole by such means; but neither does even the higher form ofreligious inspiration suffice for the religious life; even the mostexalted mystic must return to the world, and use his reason toemploy the results of his experience in daily life. You may call itcommunion with the Divine, or you may call it a temporarycrystallisation of the mind. Until science can teach us toreproduce such phenomena at will, science cannot claim to haveexplained them; and they can be judged only by their fruits.

From that time until his death, Pascal was closely associatedwith the society of Port-Royal which his sister Jacqueline, whopredeceased him, had joined as areligieuse; the society was thenfighting for its life against the Jesuits. Five propositions,judged by a committee of cardinals andtheologians at Rome to beheretical, were found to be put forward in the work of Jansenius;and the society of Port-Royal, the representative of Jansenismamong devotional communities, suffered a blow from which it neverrevived. It is not the place here to review the bitter controversyand conflict; the best account, from the point of view of a criticof genius who took no side, who was neither Jansenist nor Jesuit,Christian nor infidel, is that in the great book ofSainte-Beuve,Port-Royal. And in this book the parts devoted toPascal himself are among the most brilliant pages of criticism thatSainte-Beuve ever wrote. It is sufficient to notice that the nextoccupation of Pascal, after his conversion, was to write theseeighteen "Letters," which as proseare of capital importance in thefoundation of French classical style, and which as polemic aresurpassed by none, not by Demosthenes, or Cicero, or Swift. Theyhave the limitation of all polemic and forensic: they persuade,they seduce, they are unfair.But it is also unfair to assert that,in theseLetters to a Provincial, Pascal was attacking the Societyof Jesus in itself. He was attacking rather a particular school ofcasuistry which relaxed the requirements of the Confessional; aschool which certainly flourished amongst the Society of Jesus atthat time, and of which the Spaniards Escobar and Molina are themost eminent authorities. He undoubtedly abused the art ofquotation, as a polemical writer can hardly help but do; but therewere abuses for himto abuse; and he did the job thoroughly.HisLettersmust not be called theology. Academic theology was not adepartment in which Pascal was versed; when necessary, the fathersof Port-Royal came to his aid. TheLettersare the work of one of thefinest mathematical minds of any time, and of a man of the worldwho addressed, not theologians, but the world in general—allof the cultivated and many of the less cultivated of the Frenchlaity; and with this public they made an astonishing success.

During thistime Pascal never wholly abandoned his scientificinterests. Though in his religious writings he composed slowly andpainfully, and revised often, in matters of mathematics his mindseemed to move with consummate natural ease and grace. Discoveriesand inventions sprang from his brain without effort; among theminor devices of this later period, the first omnibus service inParis is said to owe its origin to his inventiveness. But rapidlyfailing health, and absorption in the great work he had in mind,lefthim little time and energy during the last two years of hislife.

The plan of what we call thePenséesformed itself about1660. The completed book was to have been a carefully constructeddefence of Christianity, a true Apology and a kind of Grammar ofAssent, setting forth the reasons which will convince theintellect. As I have indicated before, Pascal was not a theologian,and on dogmatic theology had recourse to his spiritual advisers.Nor was he indeed a systematic philosopher. He was a man with animmense genius for science, and at the same time a naturalpsychologist and moralist. As he was a great literary artist, hisbook would have been also his own spiritual autobiography; hisstyle, free from all diminishing idiosyncrasies, was yet verypersonal. Above all, he was a man of strong passions; and hisintellectual passion for truth was reinforced by his passionatedissatisfaction with human life unless a spiritual explanationcould be found.

We must regard thePenséesas merely the first notes forawork which he left far from completion; we have, in Sainte-Beuve'swords, a tower of which the stones have been laid on each other,but not cemented, and the structure unfinished. In early years hismemory had been amazingly retentive of anything that hewished toremember; and had it not been impaired by increasing illness andpain, he probably would not have been obliged to set down thesenotes at all. But taking the book as it is left to us, we stillfind that it occupies a unique place in the history of Frenchliterature and in the history of religious meditation.

To understand the method which Pascal employs, the reader mustbe prepared to follow the process of the mind of the intelligentbeliever. The Christian thinker—and I mean the man who istryingconsciously and conscientiously to explain to himself thesequence which culminated in faith, rather than the publicapologist—proceeds by rejection and elimination. He finds theworld to be so and so; he finds its character inexplicable by anynon-religious theory; among religions he finds Christianity, andCatholic Christianity, to account most satisfactorily for the worldand especially for the moral world within; and thus, by what Newmancalls "powerful and concurrent" reasons, he finds himselfinexorably committed to the dogma of the Incarnation. To theunbeliever, this method seems disingenuous and perverse; for theunbeliever is, as a rule, not so greatly troubled to explain theworld to himself, nor so greatly distressed by its disorder; nor ishe generally concerned (in modern terms) to "preserve values." Hedoes not consider that if certain emotional states, certaindevelopments of character, and what in the highest sense can becalled "saintliness" are inherently and by inspection known to begood, then the satisfactory explanation of the world must be anexplanation which will admit the "reality" of these values. Nordoes he consider such reasoning admissible; he would, so to speak,trim his values according to his cloth, because to him such valuesare of no great value. The unbeliever starts from the other end,and as likely as not with the question: Is a case of humanparthenogenesis credible? and this he would call going straight tothe heart of thematter. Now Pascal's method is, on the whole,themethod natural and right for the Christian; and the opposite methodis that taken by Voltaire. It is worth while to remember thatVoltaire, in his attempt to refute Pascal, has given once and forall the type of such refutation; and that later opponents ofPascal's Apology for the Christian Faith have contributed littlebeyond psychological irrelevancies. For Voltaire has presented,better than any one since, what is the unbelieving point of view;and in the end we must all choose for ourselves betweenone point ofview and another.

I have said above that Pascal's method is "on the whole" that ofthe typical Christian apologist; and this reservation was directedat Pascal's belief in miracles, which plays a larger part in hisconstruction than it would in that, at least, of the modern liberalCatholic. It would seem fantastic to accept Christianity because wefirst believe the Gospel miracles to be true, and it would seemimpious to accept it primarily because we believe more recentmiracles to be true; we accept the miracles, or some miracles, tobe true because we believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ: we found ourbelief in the miracles on the Gospel, not our belief in the Gospelon the miracles. But it must be remembered that Pascal had beendeeply impressed by a contemporary miracle, known as the miracle ofthe Holy Thorn: a thorn reputed to have been preserved from theCrown of Our Lord was pressed upon an ulcer which quickly healed.Sainte-Beuve, who as a medical man felt himself on solid ground,discusses fully the possible explanation of this apparent miracle.It is true that the miracle happened at Port-Royal, and that itarrived opportunely to revive the depressed spirits of thecommunity in its political afflictions; and it is likely thatPascal wasthe more inclined to believe a miracle which wasperformed upon his beloved sister. In any case, it probably led himto assign a place to miracles, in his study of faith, which is notquite that which we should give to them ourselves.

Now the great adversary against whom Pascal set himself, fromthe time of his first conversations with M. de Saci at Port-Royal,was Montaigne. One cannot destroy Pascal, certainly; but of allauthors Montaigne is one of the least destructible. You could aswell dissipate a fog by flinging hand-grenades into it. ForMontaigne is a fog, a gas, a fluid, insidious element. He does notreason, he insinuates, charms, and influences; or if he reasons,you must be prepared for his having some other design upon you thanto convince you by his argument. It is hardly too much to say thatMontaigne is the most essential author to know, if we wouldunderstand the course of French thought during the last threehundred years. In every way, the influence of Montaigne wasrepugnant to the menof Port-Royal. Pascal studied him with theintention of demolishing him. Yet, in thePensées, at the veryend of his life, we find passage after passage, and the slighterthey are the more significant, almost "lifted" out of Montaigne,down to a figure ofspeech or a word. The parallels[A]are most oftenwith the long essay of Montaigne calledApologie de RaymondSébond—an astonishing piece of writing upon whichShakespeare also probably drew inHamlet. Indeed, by the time a manknew Montaigne well enough to attack him, he would already bethoroughly infected by him.

It would, however, be grossly unfair to Pascal, to Montaigne,and indeed to French literature, to leave the matter at that. It isno diminution of Pascal, but only an aggrandisement of Montaigne.Had Montaigne been an ordinary life-sized sceptic, a smallman likeAnatole France, or even a greater man like Renan, or even like thegreatest sceptic of all, Voltaire, this "influence" would be to thediscredit of Pascal; but if Montaigne had been no more thanVoltaire, he could not have affected Pascal at all. The picture ofMontaigne which offers itself first to our eyes, that of theoriginal and independent solitary "personality," absorbed in amusedanalysis of himself, is deceptive. Montaigne's isnolimitedPyrrhonism, like that of Voltaire, Renan, or France. Heexists, so to speak, on a plan of numerous concentric circles, themost apparent of which is the small inmost circle, a personalpuckish scepticism which can be easily aped if not imitated.Butwhat makes Montaigne a very great figure is that he succeeded, Godknows how—for Montaigne very likely did not know that he haddone it—it is not the sort of thing that mencanobserve aboutthemselves, for it is essentially bigger than the individual'sconsciousness—he succeeded in giving expression to thescepticism ofeveryhuman being. For every man who thinks and livesby thought must have his own scepticism, that which stops at thequestion, that which ends in denial, or that which leads tofaithand which is somehow integrated into the faith whichtranscends it. And Pascal, as the type of one kind of religiousbeliever, which is highly passionate and ardent, but passionateonly through a powerful and regulated intellect, is in the firstsections of his unfinished Apology for Christianity facingunflinchingly the demon of doubt which is inseparable from thespirit of belief.

There is accordingly something quite different from an influencewhich would prove Pascal's weakness; there is a realaffinitybetween his doubt and that of Montaigne; and through thecommon kinship with Montaigne Pascal is related to the noble anddistinguished line of French moralists, from La Rochefoucauld down.In the honesty with which they face thedonnéesof the actualworld this French tradition has a unique quality in Europeanliterature, and in the seventeenth century Hobbes is crude anduncivilised in comparison.

Pascal is a man of the world among ascetics, and an asceticamong men of the world; he had the knowledge ofworldliness and thepassion of asceticism, and in him the two are fused into anindividual whole. The majority of mankind is lazy-minded,incurious, absorbed in vanities, and tepid in emotion, and istherefore incapable of either much doubt or much faith;and when theordinary man calls himself a sceptic or an unbeliever, that isordinarily a simple pose, cloaking a disinclination to thinkanything out to a conclusion. Pascal's disillusioned analysis ofhuman bondage is sometimes interpreted to mean that Pascal wasreally and finally an unbeliever, who, in his despair, wasincapable of enduring reality and enjoying the heroic satisfactionof the free man's worship of nothing. His despair, his disillusion,are, however, no illustration of personal weakness; they areperfectly objective, because they are essential moments in theprogress of the intellectual soul; and for the type of Pascal theyare the analogue of the drought, the dark night, which is anessential stage in the progress of the Christian mystic.A similardespair, when it is arrived at by a diseased character or an impuresoul, may issue in the most disastrous consequences though with themost superb manifestations; and thus we getGulliver's Travels; butin Pascal we find no such distortion; hisdespair is in itself moreterrible than Swift's, because our heart tells us that itcorresponds exactly to the facts and cannot be dismissed as mentaldisease; but it was also a despair which was a necessary preludeto, and element in, the joy of faith.

Ido not wish to enter any further than necessary upon thequestion of the heterodoxy of Jansenism; and it is no concern ofthis essay, whether the Five Propositions condemned at Rome werereally maintained by Jansenius in his bookAugustinus; or whetherweshould deplore or approve the consequent decay (indeed with somepersecution) of Port-Royal. It is impossible to discuss the matterwithout becoming involved as a controversialist either for oragainst Rome. But in a man of the type of Pascal—and thetypealways exists—there is, I think, an ingredient of whatmay be called Jansenism of temperament, without identifying it withthe Jansenism of Jansenius and of other devout and sincere, but notimmensely gifted doctors.[B]It is accordingly needful to state inbrief what the dangerous doctrine of Jansenius was, withoutadvancing too far into theological refinements. It is recognised inChristian theology—and indeed on a lower plane it isrecognised by all men in affairs of daily life—that freewillor the natural effort and ability of the individual man, and alsosupernaturalgrace, a gift accorded we know not quite how, are bothrequired, in co-operation, for salvation. Though numeroustheologians have set their wits at the problem, it ends in amystery which we can perceive but not finally decipher. At least,it is obvious that, like any doctrine, a slight excess or deviationto one side or the other will precipitate a heresy. The Pelagians,who were refuted by St. Augustine, emphasised the efficacy of humaneffort and belittled the importance of supernatural grace. TheCalvinists emphasised the degradation of man through Original Sin,and considered mankind so corrupt that the will was of no avail;and thus fell into the doctrine of predestination. It was uponthedoctrine of grace according to St. Augustine that the Jansenistsrelied; and theAugustinusof Jansenius was presented as a soundexposition of the Augustinian views.

Such heresies are never antiquated, because they forever assumenew forms. For instance, the insistence upon good works and"service" which is preached from many quarters, or the simple faiththat any one who lives a good and useful life need have no "morbid"anxieties about salvation, is a form of Pelagianism. On the otherhand, one sometimes hears enounced the view that it will make noreal difference if all the traditional religious sanctions formoral behaviour break down, because those who are born and bred tobe nice people will always prefer to behave nicely, and those whoare not will behave otherwise in any case: and this is surely aform of predestination—for the hazard of being born a niceperson or not is as uncertain as the gift of grace.

It is likely that Pascal was attracted as much by the fruits ofJansenism in the life of Port-Royal as by the doctrine itself. Thisdevout, ascetic, thoroughgoing society, striving heroically in themidst of a relaxed and easy-going Christianity, was formed toattract a nature so concentrated, so passionate, and sothoroughgoing as Pascal's. Butthe insistence upon the degraded andhelpless state of man, in Jansenism, is something also to which wemust be grateful, for to it we owe the magnificent analysis ofhuman motives and occupations which was to have constituted theearly part of his book.And apart from the Jansenism which is thework of a not very eminent bishop who wrote a Latin treatise whichis now unread, there is also, so to speak, a Jansenism of theindividual biography. A moment of Jansenism may naturally takeplace, and take placerightly, in the individual; particularly inthe life of a man of great and intense intellectual powers, whocannot avoid seeing through human beings and observing the vanityof their thoughts and of their avocations,their dishonesty andself-deceptions, the insincerity of their emotions, theircowardice, the pettiness of their real ambitions. Actually,considering that Pascal died at the age of thirty-nine, one must beamazed at the balance and justice of his observations; much greatermaturity is requiredfor these qualities, than for any mathematicalor scientific greatness. How easily his brooding onthe misery ofman without Godmight have encouraged in him the sin of spiritualpride, theconcupiscence de l'esprit, and how fast a hold he hasofhumility!

And although Pascal brings to his work the same powers which heexerted in science, it is not as a scientist that he presentshimself. He does not seem to say to the reader: I am one of themost distinguished scientists of the day; I understand many matterswhich will always be mysteries to you, and through science I havecome to the Faith; you therefore who are not initiated into scienceought to have faith if I have it. He is fully aware of thedifference of subject-matter; and his famous distinction betweentheesprit de géométrieand theesprit de finesseis one toponder over. It is the just combination of the scientist,thehonnête homme, and the religious nature with a passionatecraving for God, that makes Pascal unique. He succeeds whereDescartes fails; for in Descartes the element ofesprit degéométrieis excessive.[C]And in a few phrases aboutDescartes, in the present book, Pascal laid his finger on the placeof weakness.

He who reads this book will observe at once its fragmentarynature; but only after some study will perceive that thefragmentariness lies in the expression more than in the thought.The "thoughts" cannot be detached from each other and quoted as ifeach were complete in itself.Le cœur a ses raisons que laraison ne connaît point: how often one has heard that quoted,and quoted often to the wrong purpose! For this is by no means anexaltation of the "heart" over the "head," a defence of unreason.The heart, in Pascal's terminology, is itself truly rational if itis truly the heart. For him, in theological matters, which seemedto him much larger, more difficult, and more important thanscientific matters, the whole personality is involved.

We cannot quite understand any of the parts, fragmentary as theyare, without some understanding of the whole. Capital, forinstance, is his analysis of thethree orders: the order of nature,the order of mind, and the order of charity. These threearediscontinuous; the higher is not implicit in the lower as in anevolutionary doctrine it would be.[D]In this distinction Pascaloffers much about which the modern world would do well to think.And indeed, because of his unique combination and balance ofqualities, I know of no religious writer more pertinent to ourtime. The great mystics like St. John of the Cross, are primarilyfor readers with a special determination of purpose; the devotionalwriters, such as St. François de Sales, are primarily forthose who already feel consciously desirous of the love of God; thegreat theologiansare for those interested in theology. But I canthink of no Christian writer, not Newman even, more to be commendedthan Pascal to those who doubt, but who have the mind to conceive,and the sensibility to feel, the disorder, the futility, themeaninglessness, the mystery of life and suffering, and who canonly find peace through a satisfaction of the whole being.

T. S. Eliot.




The difference between the mathematicaland the intuitivemind.[1]—In the one the principles are palpable, but removedfrom ordinary use; so that for want of habit it is difficult toturn one's mind in that direction: but if one turns it thither everso little, one sees the principles fully, and one must have a quiteinaccurate mind who reasons wrongly from principles so plain thatit is almost impossible they should escape notice.

But in the intuitive mind the principles are found in commonuse, and are before the eyes of everybody. One has only to look,and no effort is necessary; it is only a question of good eyesight,but it must be good, for the principles are so subtle and sonumerous, that it is almost impossible but that some escape notice.Now the omission of one principle leads to error; thus one musthave very clear sight to see all the principles, and in the nextplace an accurate mind not to draw false deductions from knownprinciples.

All mathematicians would then be intuitive if they had clearsight, for they do not reason incorrectly from principles known tothem; and intuitive minds would be mathematical if they could turntheir eyes to the principles of mathematics to which they areunused.

The reason, therefore, that some intuitive minds are notmathematical is that they cannot at all turn their attention to theprinciples of mathematics. But the reason that mathematicians arenot intuitive is that they do not see what is before them, andthat, accustomed to the exact and plain principles of mathematics,and not reasoning till they have well inspected and arranged theirprinciples, they are lost in matters of intuition where theprinciples do not allow of such arrangement. They are scarcelyseen; they are felt rather than seen; there is the greatestdifficulty in making them felt by those who do not of themselvesperceive them. These principles are so fine and so numerous that avery delicate and very clear sense is needed to perceive them, andto judge rightly and justly when they are perceived, without forthe most part being ableto demonstrate them in order as inmathematics; because the principles are not known to us in the sameway, and because it would be an endless matter to undertake it. Wemust see the matter at once, at one glance, and not by a process ofreasoning, at least to a certain degree. And thus it is rare thatmathematicians are intuitive, and that men of intuition aremathematicians, because mathematicians wish to treat matters ofintuition mathematically, and make themselves ridiculous, wishingto begin with definitions and then with axioms, which is not theway to proceed in this kind of reasoning. Not that the mind doesnot do so, but it does it tacitly, naturally, and without technicalrules; for the expression of it is beyond all men, and only a fewcan feelit.

Intuitive minds, on the contrary, being thus accustomed to judgeat a single glance, are so astonished when they are presented withpropositions of which they understand nothing, and the way to whichis through definitions and axioms so sterile, and which they arenot accustomed to see thus in detail, that they are repelled anddisheartened.

But dull minds are never either intuitive or mathematical.

Mathematicians who are only mathematicians have exact minds,provided all things are explained to them bymeans of definitionsand axioms; otherwise they are inaccurate and insufferable, forthey are only right when the principles are quite clear.

And men of intuition who are only intuitive cannot have thepatience to reach to first principles of things speculative andconceptual, which they have never seen in the world, and which arealtogether out of the common.


There are different kinds of right understanding;[2]some haveright understanding in a certain order of things, and not inothers, where they goastray. Some draw conclusions well from a fewpremises, and this displays an acute judgment.

Others draw conclusions well where there are many premises.

For example, the former easily learn hydrostatics, where thepremises are few, but the conclusions areso fine that only thegreatest acuteness can reach them.

And in spite of that these persons would perhaps not be greatmathematicians, because mathematics contain a great number ofpremises, and there is perhaps a kind of intellect that can searchwith ease a few premises to the bottom, and cannot in the leastpenetrate those matters in which there are many premises.

There are then two kinds of intellect: the one able to penetrateacutely and deeply into the conclusions of given premises, and thisis the precise intellect; the other able to comprehend a greatnumber of premises without confusing them, and this is themathematical intellect. The one has force and exactness, the othercomprehension. Now the one quality can exist without the other; theintellect can be strong and narrow, and can also be comprehensiveand weak.


Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understandthe process of reasoning, for they would understand at first sight,and are not used to seek for principles. And others, onthecontrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, do not atall understand matters of feeling, seeking principles, and beingunable to see at a glance.


Mathematics, intuition.—True eloquence makes light ofeloquence, true morality makes lightof morality; that is to say,the morality of the judgment, which has no rules, makes light ofthe morality of the intellect.

For it is to judgment that perception belongs, as sciencebelongs to intellect. Intuition is the part of judgment,mathematics of intellect.

To make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher.


Those who judge of a work by rule[3]are in regard to others asthose who have a watch are in regard to others. One says, "It istwo hours ago"; the other says, "It is only three-quarters of anhour." I look at my watch, and say to the one, "You are weary," andto the other, "Time gallops with you"; for it is only an hour and ahalf ago, and I laugh at those who tell me that time goes slowlywith me, and that I judge by imagination. They do not know that Ijudge by my watch.[4]


Just as we harm the understanding, we harm the feelingsalso.

The understanding and the feelings are moulded by intercourse;the understanding and feelings are corrupted by intercourse. Thusgood or bad society improves or corrupts them. It is, then,all-important to know how to choose in order to improve and nottocorrupt them; and we cannot make this choice, if they be notalready improved and not corrupted. Thus a circle is formed, andthose are fortunate who escape it.


The greater intellect one has, the more originality one finds inmen. Ordinary persons find no difference between men.


There are many people who listen to a sermon in the same way asthey listen to vespers.


When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another thathe errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for onthat side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, butreveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied withthat, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failedto see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything;but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arisesfromthe fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and thatnaturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since theperceptions of our senses are always true.


People are generallybetter persuaded by the reasons which theyhave themselves discovered than by those which have come into themind of others.


All great amusements are dangerous to the Christian life; butamong all those which the world has invented there is none moretobe feared than the theatre. It is a representation of thepassions so natural and so delicate that it excites them and givesbirth to them in our hearts, and, above all, to that of love,principally when it is represented as very chaste and virtuous.Forthe more innocent it appears to innocent souls, the more theyare likely to be touched by it. Its violence pleases our self-love,which immediately forms a desire to produce the same effects whichare seen so well represented; and, at the same time, we makeourselves a conscience founded on the propriety of the feelingswhich we see there, by which the fear of pure souls is removed,since they imagine that it cannot hurt their purity to love with alove which seems to them so reasonable.

So we depart from the theatre with our heart so filled with allthe beauty and tenderness of love, the soul and the mind sopersuaded of its innocence, that we are quite ready to receive itsfirst impressions, or rather to seek an opportunity of awakeningthem in the heart of another, in order that we may receive the samepleasures and the same sacrifices which we have seen so wellrepresented in the theatre.


Scaramouch,[5]who only thinks of one thing.

The doctor,[6]who speaks for a quarter of an hour after he hassaid everything, so full is he of the desire of talking.


One likes to see the error, the passion of Cleobuline,[7]becauseshe is unconscious of it. She would be displeasing, if she were notdeceived.


When a natural discourse paints a passion or an effect,one feelswithin oneself the truth of what one reads, which was there before,although one did not know it. Hence one is inclined to love him whomakes us feel it, for he has not shown us his own riches, butours.And thus this benefit renders him pleasing to us, besides thatsuch community of intellect as we have with him necessarilyinclines the heart to love.


Eloquence, which persuades by sweetness, not by authority; as atyrant, not as a king.


Eloquence is an art of saying things in such a way—(1)that those to whom we speak may listen to them without pain andwith pleasure; (2) that they feel themselves interested, so thatself-love leads them more willingly to reflection upon it.

It consists, then, in a correspondence which we seek toestablishbetween the head and the heart of those to whom we speakon the one hand, and, on the other, between the thoughts and theexpressions which we employ. This assumes that we have studied wellthe heart of man so as to know all its powers, and then to find thejust proportions of the discourse which we wish to adapt to them.We must put ourselves in the place of those who are to hear us, andmake trial on our own heart of the turn which we give to ourdiscourse in order to see whether one is made for the other, andwhether we can assure ourselves that the hearer will be, as itwere, forced to surrender. We ought to restrict ourselves, so faras possible, to the simple and natural, and not to magnify thatwhich is little, or belittle that which is great. It is not enoughthat a thing be beautiful; it must be suitable to the subject, andthere must be in it nothing of excess or defect.


Rivers are roads which move,[8]and which carry us whither wedesire to go.


When we do not know the truth of a thing, it isof advantage thatthere should exist a common error which determines the mind of man,as, for example, the moon, to which is attributed the change ofseasons, the progress of diseases, etc. For the chief malady of manis restless curiosity about things which he cannot understand; andit is not so bad for him to be in error as to be curious to nopurpose.

The manner in which Epictetus, Montaigne, and Salomon deTultie[9]wrote, is the most usual, the most suggestive, the mostremembered, and the oftenest quoted; because it is entirelycomposed of thoughts born from the common talk of life. As when wespeak of the common error which exists among men that the moon isthe cause of everything, we never fail to say that Salomon deTultie says that when we do not know the truth of a thing, it is ofadvantage that there should exist a common error, etc.; which isthe thought above.


The last thing one settles in writing a book is what one shouldput in first.


Order.—Why should I undertake to divide my virtues intofour rather than into six? Why should I rather establish virtue infour, in two, in one? Why intoAbstine et sustine[10]rather thaninto "Follow Nature,"[11]or, "Conduct your private affairs withoutinjustice," as Plato,[12]or anything else? But there, you will say,everything is contained in one word. Yes, but it is useless withoutexplanation, and when we come to explain it, as soon as we unfoldthis maxim which contains all the rest, they emerge in that firstconfusion which you desired to avoid. So, when they are allincluded in one, they are hidden and useless, as in a chest, andnever appear save in their natural confusion. Nature hasestablished them all without including one in the other.


Naturehas made all her truths independent of one another. Ourart makes one dependent on the other. But this is not natural. Eachkeeps its own place.


Let no one say that I have said nothing new; the arrangement ofthe subject is new. When we play tennis, weboth play with the sameball, but one of us places it better.

I had as soon it said that I used words employed before. And inthe same way if the same thoughts in a different arrangement do notform a different discourse, no more do the same words in theirdifferent arrangement form different thoughts!


Words differently arranged have a different meaning, andmeanings differently arranged have different effects.


Language.—We should not turn the mind from one thing toanother, except for relaxation, and that when it is necessary andthe time suitable, and not otherwise. For he that relaxes out ofseason wearies, and he who wearies us out of season makes uslanguid, since we turn quite away. So much does our perverse lustlike to do the contrary of whatthose wish to obtain from us withoutgiving us pleasure, the coin for which we will do whatever iswanted.


Eloquence.—It requires the pleasant and the real; but thepleasant must itself be drawn from the true.


Eloquence is a painting of thought; andthus those who, afterhaving painted it, add something more, make a picture instead of aportrait.


Miscellaneous. Language.—Those who make antitheses byforcing words are like those who make false windows for symmetry.Their rule is not to speak accurately, but to make apt figures ofspeech.


Symmetry is what we see at a glance; based on the fact thatthere is no reason for any difference, and based also on the faceof man; whence it happens that symmetry is only wanted in breadth,not in height or depth.


When we see a natural style, we are astonished and delighted;for we expected to see an author, and we find a man. Whereas thosewho have good taste, and who seeing a book expect to find a man,are quite surprised to find an author.Plus poetice quam humanelocutus es.Those honour Nature well, who teach that she can speakon everything, even on theology.


We only consult the ear because the heart is wanting. The ruleis uprightness.

Beauty of omission, of judgment.


All the false beauties whichwe blame in Cicero have theiradmirers, and in great number.


There is a certain standard of grace and beauty which consistsin a certain relation between our nature, such as it is, weak orstrong, and the thing which pleases us.

Whatever is formedaccording to this standard pleases us, be ithouse, song, discourse, verse, prose, woman, birds, rivers, trees,rooms, dress, etc. Whatever is not made according to this standarddispleases those who have good taste.

And as there is a perfect relation between a song and a housewhich are made after a good model, because they are like this goodmodel, though each after its kind; even so there is a perfectrelation between things made after a bad model. Not that the badmodel is unique, for there are many; but each bad sonnet, forexample, on whatever false model it is formed, is just like a womandressed after that model.

Nothing makes us understand better the ridiculousness of a falsesonnet than to consider nature and the standard, and then toimagine a woman or a house made according to that standard.


Poetical beauty.—As we speak of poetical beauty, so oughtwe to speak of mathematical beauty and medical beauty. But we donot do so; and the reason is that we know well what is the objectof mathematics, and that it consists in proofs, and what is theobject of medicine, and that it consists in healing. But we do notknow in what grace consists, which is the object of poetry. We donot know the natural model which we ought to imitate; and throughlack of this knowledge, we have coined fantastic terms, "The goldenage," "The wonder of our times," "Fatal," etc., and call thisjargon poetical beauty.[13]

But whoever imagines a woman after this model, which consists insaying little things in big words, will seea pretty girl adornedwith mirrors and chains, at whom he will smile; because we knowbetter wherein consists the charm of woman than the charm of verse.But those who are ignorant would admire her in this dress, andthere are many villages in which she would be taken for the queen;hence we call sonnets made after this model "Village Queens."


No one passes in the world as skilled in verse unless he has putup the sign of a poet, a mathematician, etc. But educated people donot want a sign, and draw little distinction between the trade of apoet and that of an embroiderer.

People of education are not called poets or mathematicians,etc.; but they are all these, and judges of all these. No oneguesses what they are. When they come into society, they talkonmatters about which the rest are talking. We do not observe in themone quality rather than another, save when they have to make use ofit. But then we remember it, for it is characteristic of suchpersons that we do not say of them that they are fine speakers,whenit is not a question of oratory, and that we say of them thatthey are fine speakers, when it is such a question.

It is therefore false praise to give a man when we say of him,on his entry, that he is a very clever poet; and it is a badsignwhen a man is not asked to give his judgment on someverses.


We should not be able to say of a man, "He is a mathematician,"or "a preacher," or "eloquent"; but that he is "a gentleman." Thatuniversal quality alone pleases me. It is a bad sign when, onseeing a person, you remember his book. I would prefer you to seeno quality till you meet it and have occasion to use it (Ne quidnimis[14]), for fear some one quality prevail and designate theman. Let none think him a fine speaker, unless oratory be inquestion, and then let them think it.


Man is full of wants: he loves only those who can satisfy themall. "This one is a good mathematician," one will say. But I havenothing to do with mathematics; he would take me for a proposition."That one is a good soldier." He would take me for a besieged town.I need, then, an upright man who can accommodate himself generallyto all my wants.


[Since we cannot be universal and know all that is to be knownof everything, we ought to know a little about everything. For itis far better to know something about everything than to know allabout one thing. This universality is the best. If we can haveboth, still better; but if we must choose, we ought to choose theformer. And the world feels this and does so; forthe world is oftena good judge.]


A poet and not an honest man.


If lightning fell on low places, etc., poets, and those who canonly reason about things of that kind, would lack proofs.


If we wished to prove the examples which we take to proveotherthings, we should have to take those other things to be examples;for, as we always believe the difficulty is in what we wish toprove, we find the examples clearer and a help todemonstration.

Thus when we wish to demonstrate a general theorem, we must givethe rule as applied to a particular case; but if we wish todemonstrate a particular case, we must begin with the general rule.For we always find the thing obscure which we wish to prove, andthat clear which we use for the proof; for, when a thing is putforward to be proved, we first fill ourselves with the imaginationthat it is therefore obscure, and on the contrary that what is toprove it is clear, and so we understand it easily.


Epigrams of Martial.—Man loves malice, but not againstone-eyed men nor the unfortunate, but against the fortunate andproud. People are mistaken in thinking otherwise.

For lust is the source of all our actions, and humanity, etc. Wemust please those who have humane and tender feelings. That epigramabout two one-eyed people is worthless,[15]for it does not consolethem, and only gives a point to the author's glory. All that isonly for the sake of the author is worthless.Ambitiosa recidentornamenta.[16]


To call a king "Prince" is pleasing, because it diminishes hisrank.


Certain authors, speaking of their works, say, "My book," "Mycommentary," "My history," etc. They resemble middle-class peoplewho have a house of their own, and always have "My house" on theirtongue. They would do better to say, "Ourbook," "Our commentary,""Our history," etc., because there is in them usually more of otherpeople's than their own.


Do you wish people to believe good of you? Don't speak.


Languages are ciphers, wherein letters are not changed intoletters, but words into words, so that an unknown language isdecipherable.


A maker of witticisms, a bad character.


There are some who speak well and write badly. For the place andthe audience warm them, and draw from their minds more than theythink of without that warmth.


When we find words repeated in a discourse, and, in trying tocorrect them, discover that they are so appropriate that we wouldspoil the discourse, we must leave them alone. This is the test;and our attempt is the work of envy, which is blind, and does notsee that repetition is not in this place a fault; for there is nogeneral rule.


To mask nature and disguise her. No more king, pope,bishop—butaugust monarch, etc.; not Paris—the capitalof the kingdom. There are places in which we ought to call Paris,Paris, and others in which we ought to call it the capital of thekingdom.


The same meaning changes with the words which express it.Meanings receive their dignity from words instead of giving it tothem. Examples should be sought....


Sceptic, for obstinate.


No one calls another a Cartesian[17]but he who is one himself, apedant but a pedant, a provincial but a provincial; and I wouldwager it was the printer who put it on the title ofLetters to aProvincial.


A carriageupsetoroverturned, according to the meaningTo spreadabroadorupset, according to the meaning. (The argument by force ofM. le Maître[18]over the friar.)


Miscellaneous.—A form of speech, "I should have liked toapply myself to that."


Theaperitivevirtue of a key, theattractivevirtue of a hook.


To guess: "The part that I take in your trouble." TheCardinal[19]did not want to be guessed.

"My mind is disquieted."I am disquietedis better.


I always feel uncomfortable under such compliments asthese: "Ihave given you a great deal of trouble," "I am afraid I am boringyou," "I fear this is too long." We either carry our audience withus, or irritate them.


You are ungraceful: "Excuse me, pray." Without that excuse Iwould not have known therewas anything amiss. "With reverence be itspoken...." The only thing bad is their excuse.


"To extinguish the torch of sedition"; too luxuriant. "Therestlessness of his genius"; two superfluous grand words.




First part: Misery of man without God.

Second part: Happiness of man with God.

Or,First part: That nature is corrupt. Proved by natureitself.

Second part: That there is a Redeemer. Proved by Scripture.


Order.—I might well have taken this discourse inan orderlike this: to show the vanity of all conditions of men, to show thevanity of ordinary lives, and then the vanity of philosophic lives,sceptics, stoics; but the order would not have been kept. I know alittle what it is, and how few people understand it. No humanscience can keep it. Saint Thomas[20]did not keep it. Mathematicskeep it, but they are useless on account of their depth.


Preface to the first part.—To speak of those who havetreated of the knowledge of self; of the divisions ofCharron,[21]which sadden and weary us; of the confusion ofMontaigne;[22]that he was quite aware of his want of method, andshunned it by jumping from subject to subject; that he sought to befashionable.

His foolish project of describing himself! And thisnot casuallyand against his maxims, since every one makes mistakes, but by hismaxims themselves, and by first and chief design. For to say sillythings by chance and weakness is a common misfortune; but to saythem intentionally is intolerable, and to say such as that ...


Montaigne.—Montaigne's faults are great. Lewd words; thisis bad, notwithstanding Mademoiselle deGournay.[23]Credulous;people without eyes.[24]Ignorant;squaring thecircle,[25]a greater world.[26]His opinions on suicide, ondeath.[27]He suggests an indifference about salvation,without fearand without repentance.[28]As his book was not written with areligious purpose, he was not bound to mention religion; but it isalways our duty not to turn men from it. One can excuse hisratherfree and licentious opinions on some relations of life(730,231)[29]; but one cannot excuse his thoroughly pagan views ondeath, for a man must renounce piety altogether, if he does not atleast wish to die like a Christian. Now,through the whole of hisbook his only conception of death is a cowardly and effeminateone.


It is not in Montaigne, but in myself, that I find all that Isee in him.


What good there is in Montaigne can only have been acquired withdifficulty. The evil that is in him,I mean apart from his morality,could have been corrected in a moment, if he had been informed thathe made too much of trifles and spoke too much of himself.


One must know oneself. If this does not serve to discover truth,it at least serves as a ruleof life, and there is nothingbetter.


The vanity of the sciences.—Physical science will notconsole me for the ignorance of morality in the time of affliction.But the science of ethics will always console me for the ignoranceof the physical sciences.


Men are never taught to be gentlemen, and are taught everythingelse; and they never plume themselves so much on the rest of theirknowledge as on knowing how to be gentlemen. They only plumethemselves on knowing the one thing they do not know.


Theinfinites, the mean.—When we read too fast or tooslowly, we understand nothing.


Nature...—[Nature has set us so well in the centre, thatif we change one side of the balance, we change the other also.Iact.Τάζῶατρέχει This makes me believe thatthe springs in our brain are so adjusted that he who touches onetouches also its contrary.]


Too much and too little wine. Give him none, he cannot findtruth; give him too much, the same.


Man's disproportion.—[This is where our innate knowledgeleadsus. If it be not true, there is no truth in man; and if it betrue, he finds therein great cause for humiliation, being compelledto abase himself in one way or another. And since he cannot existwithout this knowledge, I wish that, before entering on deeperresearches into nature, he would consider her both seriously and atleisure, that he would reflect upon himself also, and knowing whatproportion there is ...] Let man then contemplate the whole ofnature in her full and grand majesty, and turn his vision from thelow objects which surround him. Let him gaze on that brilliantlight, set like an eternal lamp to illumine the universe; let theearth appear to him a point in comparison with the vast circledescribed by the sun; and let him wonder at the factthat this vastcircle is itself but a very fine point in comparison with thatdescribed by the stars in their revolution round the firmament. Butif our view be arrested there, let our imagination pass beyond; itwill sooner exhaust the power of conception than nature that ofsupplying material for conception. The whole visible world is onlyan imperceptible atom in the ample bosom of nature. No ideaapproaches it. We may enlarge our conceptions beyond all imaginablespace; we only produce atoms in comparison with the reality ofthings. It is an infinite sphere, the centre of which iseverywhere, the circumference nowhere.[30]In short it is thegreatest sensible mark of the almighty power of God, thatimagination loses itself in that thought.