Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Belloc on Two Philosophers: Descartes and Pascal

Tomorrow, Anna Mitchell and I will conduct our penultimate discussion of Hilaire Belloc's Characters of the Reformation on the Son Rise Morning Show. This time, we'll look at his views of two philosophers: Rene Descartes and Blaise Pascal:

In the midst of these political figures. Kings and Statesmen and Soldiers, whom we have been considering in connection with the great religious struggle of the seventeenth century, we must turn for a moment to two men who had no political power. They were neither Soldiers nor Statesmen nor men of any hereditary position; but they influenced the mind of Europe so greatly that their indirect effect weighed more than the direct effect of others.

These two men stood to each other in time as might a father to a son. Descartes, nearly the contemporary of Cromwell, was born in 1596 and died in 1650. Pascal was twenty-seven years younger, but died only twelve years after Descartes in 1662. It is remarkable to note how both of them survived to see the settlement in the political and military fields of the great quarrel between the Reformation and the Catholic Church.

Since he included two philosophers among his Characters, I think Belloc should have profiled a couple of theologians, perhaps St. Robert Bellarmine or Reginald Cardinal Pole or someone from the School of Salamanca: Pole would have been a great choice to include in the Tudor section; Bellarmine in the Stuart era. Pole had a great role in the Church and in the restoration of Catholicism in England during Mary I's reign; Bellarmine was a great theologian, reformer, and argued against James I's doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings.

Belloc includes these two philosophers, however, because of their influence on philosophy in the modern era and how that influence has affected our culture:

These two men represent the effects upon the Catholic culture of two very great forces let loose by the Reformation, or at any rate let loose by the break-up of the old united Christian order in Europe. The first was Rationalism: the second may be called (I think with propriety) Emotionalism. Both men remained orthodox throughout their lives, each could claim that he was not only orthodox but strongly attached to the Catholic Church and all that the Catholic Church believes and teaches, yet from them proceeded results which stretched throughout the Catholic culture and shook its stability, while at the same time spreading far outside the boundaries of the culture into the Protestant culture and affecting the whole of European thought. 

 Of the two it was Descartes who did the most. He was undoubtedly the greater man — indeed, intellectually one of the greatest men Europe has ever produced. But negatively Pascal was also of high effect, because his example and the power of his word fostered that non-rational dependence upon emotion which is ultimately as disruptive of Catholic solidity as is Rationalism.

He compares their scientific and literary achievements:

Both men were great mathematicians. Descartes much the greater. Both men were remarkable writers, Pascal much the greater. From Pascal you may say comes the whole habit of clear modern prose writing; and from Descartes comes the whole business of analytical geometry and the theory of the calculi, differential and integral.

Belloc clearly appreciates what Descartes accomplished in mathematics but notes that his philosophical method has had a disastrous influence on modern culture:

Descartes approached the problem of the discovery of truth by a process of elimination. "What are we? Whence do we come? Whither do we go? What is the Universe and what are we therein ? " To answer these prime questions he began by throwing overboard everything which he felt he could not, in the new scientific temper of the time, affirm. And he reached the residuum that the only thing of which he was absolutely certain — the only thing which he could take as a first postulate, the only thing "known" whence he could proceed to discover the unknown, was his own existence.

That postulate was undoubtedly true, but it was the postulate of a skeptic, and it has acted ever since as a poison. For there is another thing of which we are also just as certain, really, as we are of our own existence — and that is the existence of things outside ourselves. There is no rational process by which the reality of the external universe can be discovered; all we know is that it can be confidently affirmed. Aristotle, who might be called reason itself; St. Thomas, whose whole process was that of beginning with a doubt, and examining all that there was to be said for that doubt before the denial of it and the corresponding certitude could be arrived at, both postulate this second truth. Not only am I, I, but that which is not myself is just as real as I am, and what is more, can be and is apprehended by myself. 

That is, like all true philosophy, common sense. Your plain man, who is made in the image of God and who, so long as his reason and conscience are not warped, is on the right lines, has no patience with any denial of it. The whole of human society takes it for granted and must take it for granted. The witness in a Court of Justice, the man con- ducting his own affairs, the simplest activities of daily life, takes for granted as absolutely certain, not only the external universe in which we live, but our own power of apprehending it. Descartes returned to the very extreme of the old Greek skepticism, and said, "No, we must begin with the prime certitude of our own existence; from which, no doubt, we can proceed to a second certitude that the external world exists. But we must not take it as a primal postulate." Therefore, it is from Descartes that the whole stream of modern skepticism flows. He built up a system carefully and accurately from so exiguous a beginning; it was like building a pyramid upside down, balanced upon a point, yet that system was stable and indeed on all its main lines it has stood for 300 years. It included the idea which most men still have of space, of the universe in three dimensions and three dimensions only, of the value of physical experiment and the certitude of our scientific conclusions therefrom. Of the certitude also of our power of measurement, upon which all modern physical science is built. The philosophy of Descartes remained stable and held the field because it was supported and continued by the rising flood of physical science. In some of his detailed conclusions he was fantastic, and would seem particularly fantastic in modern eyes; but his general spirit conquered the European mind and directed it right on into the memory of men now living. Indeed, no small part of our bewilderment, when we hear the doubts or questions of the latest physical science, is due to our being disturbed in what we thought to be our quite secure Cartesian philosophy; namely, that matter and spirit are quite distinct, and that all time and motion are referable to fixed standards — and so forth. But there is no denying Descartes' far-reaching influence.

Belloc notes that Pascal has a very different starting point from Descartes in his pursuit of truth:

Pascal started from the very other end from Descartes of the mental process ; not from a search for the last ultimate thing of which reason is certain, but from that which emo- tion most poignantly affirms. With Descartes it was, "I am sure of one thing — that I think." With Pascal it was, " I am sure of one thing — that I feel." Descartes began like a man pursuing a piece of research in history or chemistry; Pascal began like a man moved suddenly by a vision or a great love. The one would have told you that he had done nothing until he had begun to analyse — the other that he had not lived until he had been overwhelmed by a spiritual flood from within.

There were two occasions in Pascal's life in which he suffered or enjoyed that experience which is often called "conversion." Each confirmed the other, without either he would not have been what he was, and it was under the influence of intense personal feeling in the matter of religion that he began his famous quarrel with the Jesuits — which quarrel is, I am afraid, the main source of his reputation in the anti-Catholic world. For the attitude of the anti- Catholic world towards Pascal, and particularly the academic Protestant world, is something like this: — "The Jesuits are the quintessence of Catholicism. Pascal attacked the Jesuits. Therefore, although we are very sorry that he remained orthodox and was never excommunicated we feel that he was on our side."

Belloc describes the conflict between the Jansenists and the Jesuits and Pascal's role as the spokesman for the Jansenists in France. He notes that Pascal's literary legacy is the Pensees and the Lettres Provinciales:

It is strange that the literary and spiritual influence of Pascal should repose as it does upon such a very small body of matter. Apart from the Provinciales the only thing of his that really counts is a jumble of disjointed aphorisms which have had to be edited and re-edited to give them any cohesion, which even so have no unity, and to which the tide is generally given of the Pensees or "Thoughts" of Pascal. Two of his ideas at least were profound and of high value, quite apart from the merely aesthetic value of his power of the "Word." One of these was the somewhat whimsical but arresting conception of the "wager." It is not a rational conception, but it is calculated to make the sceptic think. It amounts virtually to this: — If the Christian revelation be not true, I lose nothing by accepting it. If it be true, I gain everything by accepting it. As against this, I for my part will at once advance a certain sentence of St. Paul's, to the effect that if we are wrong in our choice of the Christian revelation, then we are "of all men the most miserable."

The other and more valuable and what will, I think, prove the most permanent literary "find" of Pascal's was his famous paradox on the coincident greatness and littleness of man. He did not invent that idea of course; it is as old as human thought upon these things: Man is miserably weak, even physically; he is mortal, limited in all his powers, even those of the reason; subject to all manner of suffering and apparently unable to help himself, even where the path to a tolerable existence lies clear. But at the same time man is gifted with a mind which can conceive the universe, he is the child of God and in the image of God, all beauty is at his command, he can even in a sense create, he is vastly greater than anything else there is within our immediate experience, yet he is immeasurably less than what he knows he might be. He is at once despicable and awful; petty and supreme. That consideration on the contrasting and dual nature of man is perhaps the most fecund germ that can be planted in the soil of the mind — and Pascal planted it more surely and deeply than any other man in his brief statement.

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