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Summer 2015

‘Spoken with Sufficient Seriousness’

James V. Schall, S. J.

On April 12, 1656, Pascal began his XI Provincial Letter “To the Reverend Fathers, the Jesuits,” in this manner: “Reverend Fathers, I have seen the letters which you are circulating in opposition to those which I wrote to one of my friends on your morality; and I perceive that one of the principal points of your defense is, that I have not spoken of your maxims with sufficient seriousness.” Whether the “seriousness” with which we take another’s maxims is a criterion of its truth constitutes the irony of Pascal’s remarks.

Chesterton was to spend much of his life insisting that no conflict existed between what is serious and what is true. If something funny contains a truth, it does not lose that truth on account of its wit. The opposite of funny, he said, is not what is “serious.” The opposite of funny is what is “not funny.”

Pascal’s Provincial Letters to the Jesuits were definitely letters, rather long ones. We find that his famous Pensées is, as a text, more like a collection of maxims and short essays. It is something like the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius or perhaps the essays of Montaigne. Of the latter, Pascal said: “It is not in Montaigne, but in myself, that I find all that I see in him” (#64). We find here, perhaps, also something of the Confessions of St. Augustine. I am not sure if the meaning of Pascal’s remark about Montaigne indicates that he can dispense with Montaigne. He can write what Montagne wrote himself. Perhaps, better, it means that the reading of another is an occasion for reading oneself.

Pascal’s maxims are often amusing in their truth. “Too much and too little wine. Give him none, he cannot find truth; give him too much, the same” (#72). The “him” of this maxim, I presume, is precisely “everyman.” The lesson of Alcoholics Anonymous, I suppose, is that the truth for them is no wine. The truth for those who imbibe too much is, as Aristotle said, moderation. But for most men, Pascal had a point. A “little wine,” as St. Paul said, “is good for the stomach.” And, Pascal adds, for the mind too.

Perhaps the most famous epigram in the Pensées is this one: “The infinite silence of these infinite spaces frightens me” (#206). It is not the infinite spaces, but their silence that seems to bother him most. In our time, we have set up space telescopes, radio search surveillances, and other devices to discover whether there is someone out there who is busily trying to contact us. Our science fiction is filled with two presuppositions: Either those beings “out there in the infinite spaces” are benevolent or they are hostile to us. If they are just like us, they probably have a bit of both.

And if the infinite spaces are not so silent, would we hear them if they spoke to us? That is the whole drama of the adventure we know as revelation. We are struck, moreover, about what we know of the age of the universe, its order, that it seems odd that beings exist in this same cosmos who seek to understand it, as if it is open to their understanding.

The epigram that follows the “infinite spaces” one is as follows: “How many kingdoms know us not!” (#207). These words are not posed as a question, but as an exclamation of astonishment. I was reading the first chapters of the First Book of Chronicles, with its lists and lists of who begot whom. It is like reading the genealogies of the Chinese emperors, or even the kings of England, not to mention Roman emperors.

Both the infinite spaces and the kingdoms that know us not are designed to subdue our pride. Charles Murray recently had an essay in which he made the very Aristotelian argument that it is only in small towns and cities that people can know and be friendly with each other (Commentary, June 2015). Yet if the infinite spaces tell us nothing and we are unknown to most kingdoms of the world, far from subduing our pride, it gives us the impression that we can make of ourselves whatever we want, which, give or take a few distinctions, is the definition of pride.

Pascal lists what he calls the “objections of atheists.” In the silence of the infinite spaces, his recording of the reason for the atheism of atheists is remarkable: “But we have no light” (#228).

If I understand Plato correctly, the problem of the philosopher was that he had too much light. He was dizzied not because there was nothing to see, but because there was so much to see that his powers of seeing were overwhelmed.

I think that Aquinas held a similar view, though he was perhaps more patient. He broke down the light into ordered beams whereby we could see what we could see more clearly. But if more light was still available, it still had to be given to us.

“What shall we conclude,” Pascal asks, “from all our darkness, but our unworthiness?” (#557). The complaint that “we have no light” is not answered by the fact of our darkness. “The light shone in the darkness, but the darkness comprehendeth it not” (John 1:5). If we are not “worthy” of the light, it shines upon us none the less.

And what shall we conclude from both our darkness and our unworthiness, from the silence of the infinite spaces and the kingdoms that know us not? If we do not see in the light that is given to us, it is not because there is no light or things upon which it shines. Rather it is that, in our pride, we choose not to see what is there to be seen because we want to build our own kingdoms even when the infinite spaces are not silent.

We take ourselves too seriously when we object that no light has been given to us. Perhaps a little wine, not too much, not too little, might help. I believe it was a Roman poet who remarked, in a famous maxim, “In vino veritas”—something good for both the stomach and the mind. In the end, it is the truth that counts, the light.  

Posted: June 28, 2015 in On Letters and Essays.

Any healthy society requires an enduring contest between its permanence and its progression. We cannot live without continuity, and we cannot live without prudent change.

Russell Kirk

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