The University Bookman


Spring 2014

On Incomprehensibles

James V. Schall, S. J.

The literary form of Pascal’s Pensées is something of a puzzle. Is it a series of jottings, aphorisms, short essays, even conversational letters, or all of the above? Whatever it is, it is a remarkable work bordering on the inexhaustible. Not unlike Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Pascal’s greatest work is not something one just sits down and reads. It is almost impossible to read through a couple of pages without having enough to think about for the rest of the day. To read any more would be counterproductive, a sign that we failed to give full attention to what was being said. The first section in my edition is entitled: “Thoughts on Mind and on Style.” Its first subheading reads: “The difference between mathematical and intuitive mind.” Pascal, of course, did not think that we had two minds, but one mind with different ways of attending to real things.

The two hundred and thirtieth Pensée reads: “It is incomprehensible that God should exist, and it is incomprehensible that He should not exist; that the soul should be joined to the body, and that we should have no soul; that the world should be created, and that it should not be created, etc.; that original sin should be, and that it should not be.” The premise behind these observations, I suppose, is that we really think such contradictory things should be comprehensible to us, one way or another. If we did not assume this position, we would have no reason to be concerned about it, even if we do not know the full answers. We doubt that the gods, the apes, or the moons worry about these incomprehensible things. Such perplexities are peculiar to our kind. Our lot was that it was good that we find understanding, that we recognize the truth even if it is given to us.

In this entry, Pascal points to at least five examples of things that we cannot but wonder about—the existence of God, the union of body and soul, the nature of the soul, creation, and original sin. In considering such issues, we might well “know” something about each topic or its denial, but we really cannot “comprehend” its full depth. If we cannot “reject” something formally, we have to leave it open. We may be sure about many things, but still realize that many aspects of reality are not so clear to us.

Yet our mind does have to assent to the following propositions: “Either God exists or He does not.” “Either the soul is connected to the body or it is not.” If one side of such statements is true, the other side is false. But this is logic. It tells us nothing about the truth of either side of the alternative. Still, we have learned something when we grasp the meaning of the disjunction properly. If one side is true, the other side cannot be true. Our mind works to do what minds are supposed to do, namely, tell us what a thing is or is not, whether a thing is or is not.

None the less, it is not exactly proper to say that “our mind tells us this or that.” Rather we know something through a faculty of mind that we find operative in us through no doing or making of our own. It comes, as it were, with the package. I do not say: “My mind knows you,” but “I know you.” We cannot help but wonder, in addition to all else about us, why we have a mind. We may try to take refuge in the anti-Aristotelian notion that no purpose exists in things. We still wonder: “What is the ‘purpose’ of something with no purpose?” To avoid such a consideration, the only thing we can do is either lapse into complete silence, or make a firm resolution never to consider such things. But why is such a “firm resolution” necessary if the thesis of no purpose is true?

St. Ephrem the Syrian states: “Lord, who can comprehend even one of your words? ... Be thankful then at what you have received, and do not be saddened at all that such an abundance [of what you do not know] still remains” (d. 375 AD, Commentary on the Diatessaron, Breviary, Sunday, Sixth Week). Aristotle tells us that our minds are capable of “knowing all things.” Yet, following Ephrem, we are astonished at what we do not know even though we know some things and would like to know everything else. Is such a realization also one of the incomprehensibles? Only, I suspect, if we do not accept creation, one of Pascal’s either/ors.

And what about original sin? Even though plenty seems wrong with the world and with everyone else except, perhaps, ourselves, we are hard pressed to explain why the same sins and crimes seem to reoccur in every place and in every era. Some kind of disorder does affect us all. It is not as though these disorders are just “natural” phenomenon, like earthquakes or floods or diseases. They have recurrent human causes that could have been and should have been otherwise. Chesterton said that original sin is the one Christian doctrine for which no proof is needed. All we have to do is to go out in the streets and open our eyes. Of course, we know many a person whose eyes are open, or so they say, but who see not. We wonder why. Is it too incomprehensible? Isn’t Chesterton just repeating Pascal?

Why did Pascal bring up the issue of the incomprehensibles if he thought that much was to be said for each alternative? Is it comprehensible that the incomprehensibles themselves are identified? Too many things can be explained for everything else to be simply incomprehensible. This limited comprehensibility must lie at the root of reason itself. It indicates what it is for. We are supposed to try to explain all things according to our powers and abilities. They have about them hints that they are capable of being comprehended or they would not be at all. “This thing is not that thing,” as Plato put it. We have little trouble in accepting the truth of such an observation. This apple is not that orange. Nor can we predicate John of Joe or Mary, but only of John. We have to say: “John is John, not Sam.” Why is this? Even in death we do not fuse into what is not ourselves—the question of the soul and the body. To recall the end of the Apology, the soul of Socrates remains his soul. That was the whole point.

The soul and body seem to belong together, even if they are separated. Socrates has a soul, but still he seems incomplete without the body his soul forms. Is the alternative to their separation nothingness or, as Socrates put it, immortality? Or is there some datur tertium? Immortality itself seems incomprehensible without bodily presence. It is to this issue that revelation seemed to address itself.

The book of Proverbs says: “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth, established the heavens by his understanding” (3.19). If the heavens are established by “understanding,” they are not a chaos; there is something comprehensible about them. They invite being known for what they are. Who is invited to know them? The heavens themselves cannot know. Wisdom is the knowledge of things in their causes.

What finally are we to make of Pascal’s “incomprehensibles?” They do not let us alone. We are not gods or intended to be gods. Indeed, no one wants to be a god. We want to be human beings, to be our own self and not someone else. But we want to be ourselves as someone who knows all that is not our self. That such “wantings” are wholly untrue seems to be, in the end, well, incomprehensible. 

Posted: April 21, 2014 in On Letters and Essays.

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A Theological Reflection on Virtual Religion
Matthew C. Millsap
Summer 2014

Real progress consists in the movement of mankind toward the understanding of norms, and toward conformity to norms. Real decadence consists in the movement of mankind away from the understanding of norms, and away from obedience to norms.

Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things, 1969


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The University Bookman is joining Fordham University in hosting the award-winning poet and critic A. M. Juster on Monday, February 6, 2017 at 6:00pm on Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus (McMahon Hall, Rm. 109; use the entrance on West 60th Street and Columbus Avenue in Manhattan). Juster will speak on “Riddles, Elegies, and Satires: Adventures in Translation.” The event is free and open to the public and registration is not required. We are also planning a second event in May on the humanities. Watch this space for more details. (27 Dec 2016)

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