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Blaise Pascal and the Youth of the Sixty-Eight

Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti 
Full Professor of Fundamental Theology
Director of DISF Center 

The first time I read Blaise Pascal's Thoughts I was 15 years old. There were challenging books circulating in the state high school I attended, including Marx's Capital and Mao-Tze-Tung's Little Red Book. The latter intrigued me especially because it looked like a missal, with tissue paper under the cover protecting Mao's photograph, as one would protect a valuable holy card. Only a year separated us from 1968. Student collectives, self-managed classes and occupations were about discussing philosophy and reasoning about the future of society. It may seem unthinkable but that was exactly what it was. A 15-year-old from 1968 and one from 2023 might look like two different biological species today. Not true, they are both young people who, when stimulated with the right questions, can wake up from their slumber and open their eyes to the world.

That is what Blaise Pascal helped me to do, and that is why I decide to tell you about him. I was won over by his directness, his paradoxes, his merciless but true description of the condition of the human being. He did not lie, he did not sugarcoat, he did not talk about the weather or the latest soccer game, he did not use euphemisms and phrases of convenience. He spoke to me as we, the youth of Sixty-Eight, wished the grown-ups would speak to us, not hiding behind a screen of authority, but facing things with authenticity. Pascal told me what I was like on the inside. How I was in front of myself, in front of the world and in front of God. The very God that the family and society still talked to us about, but without being able to explain what he had to say to the man who was about to go to the moon. Pascal, on the other hand, could explain it to me. By confronting me with the great questions of life, he made me understand that even astronauts and men of science had to question life and death, good and evil. Even those who seemed confident and repeated the answers inherited from previous generations, perhaps no longer understanding them, were challenged by good Pascal. We were all embarked on the ship of life and could not help but wonder where it was going. Our human dignity lay, and lies, right there, in the courage to ask ourselves.

Pascal's Thoughts was a book you could take with you it fit comfortably even in a small backpack. Reading one of those strictly numbered points (many years later, when it became one of my study texts, I discovered the infinity of critical editions and possible numbering....) was like a bullet that hit you in the heart. If you read it while walking you could not go on, you had to stop and think. You discovered that Pascal was right, it was just as he said: when he talked about man and when he talked about God, when he talked about reason and how much he talked about faith. Finally someone who did not mock you and, when he did not have an answer, confessed it to you, declaring that, like you, he was still searching. The recurring feeling was that what I was wondering, perhaps just like every teenager coming into life, Pascal had already wondered and formulated it for me in an unbeatable way: "I do not know who put me in the world, nor what the world is, nor who I am; I find myself in a terrible ignorance of all things; I do not know what my body is, what my senses are, what my soul is, and this very part of the self that thinks what I say, that reflects on everything and on itself, and that does not know itself, any more than it knows everything else. I see those frightening spaces of the universe enclosing me, and I find myself attached to a corner of this vast expanse, without my knowing why I am placed in this place rather than in another, nor why that little time I am given to live is allotted to me in this moment rather than in another of all the eternity that has preceded me and all that follows me. I see nothing but infinity in all the parts that enclose me, like an atom and like a shadow that lasts but an instant without return. All I know is that I must soon die, but what I ignore most is this death itself that I would not know how to avoid." (n. 335)

Questions that had been answered for centuries by faith, but now it seemed reason could answer them. How to put them together? To whom to turn? And again: what is the relationship between the two? Pascal suggested the track again, with two lapidary thoughts, "Two excesses: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason" (No. 3). "The last step of reason is to recognize is that there are an infinity of things that surpass it; it is but weak, if it does not come to recognize this" (n. 466). The libertines in front of him, indifferent to the great issues of existence and only intent on playing cards and having fun, were provoked, shaken, forced to reflect. They, too, embarked on the boat of life. They, too, like everyone else, "condemned to death" by the mere fact of having come to life: "One imagines a great number of men in chains, and all condemned to death, of whom one is every day slaughtered in the sight of the others; those who remain see their own condition in that of their fellow men, and, looking at each other with sorrow and without hope, await their turn. It is the image of the condition of men" (341). Despite the contradictions that grip him, the human being is called, by Pascal, to question his condition: "What chimera then is man? What novelty, what monster, what chaos, what subject of contradictions, what prodigy! Judge of all things, clueless worm of the earth; depositary of the true, cloaca of uncertainty and error; glory and refusal of the universe. Who will unravel this garble?" (n. 438)

Penetrating through Pascal's reading, it was only a matter of time, one would sooner or later come to the foundation on which those thoughts rested: the desire for God and the joy of having found him in Jesus Christ. What was mystically sighed, perhaps shouted, in the Memorial was already present, as if in a watermark, along the path of most of the Thoughts. A God sought in suffering, in chiaroscuro, but always sought as the most important thing in the world. A God who seemed to recede just when one already believed he possessed him: "Here is what I see and what troubles me. I look on all sides, and I see everywhere nothing but darkness. Nature offers me nothing that is not a matter of doubt and disquiet. If I saw nothing in it that pointed to a deity, I would determine myself to negativity; if I saw everywhere the signs of a Creator, I would rest in peace in faith. But, since I see too much to deny and too little to assure myself, I am in a compassionate state, in which I have wished a hundred times that, if a God sustains nature, it would point to him without equivocation, and that, if the signs it provides are deceptive, it would suppress them altogether; that it would say all or nothing, so that I might see which party I should follow. Instead, in the state in which I am, ignorant of what I am and what I must do, I know neither my condition nor my duty. My whole heart tends to know where the true good is, to follow it; nothing would be too dear to me for eternity" (No. 414).

In Pascal's company you understood that life was serious, very serious. And that the search for God was and is what most showed that he understood it. The encounter with Jesus Christ had for Pascal the flavor of a liberation, not just the value of a landing place. It was the Christ he would find in the mystical experience of November 23, 1654: "Fire... God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob. Not of the philosophers and the learned. Certainty. Certainty. Feeling. Joy. Peace. God of Jesus Christ. [...] Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy. I have parted from it; Dereliquerunt me fontem aquae vivae. My God, will you forsake me? May I not be separated from it forever. [...] Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. I have separated myself from it: fled from it, denied it, crucified it. May I never be separated from it. It is preserved only by the ways taught by the Gospel." Those who seek meaning in life, those who seek truth, those who seek God, if sincere seekers, cannot do so with less fervor. Today's age calls us to exercise a new faith in man. Faith that the human being, despite the secularization and religious indifference, pragmatism and consumerism that imprison him, is still capable of looking within himself and looking toward the other, is still capable of longing for God. And to find him. Even at the cost of questioning himself to the core, without discount, like Blaise Pascal.