Pascal, our contemporary?

Pascal’s philosophy. The worry principle

by Laurence Devilairs

PUF, 256 pages, €24

Pascal and the Christian proposal

by Pierre Manent

Grasset, 432 pages, €24

Two works mark, from this autumn, the return of the figure of Pascal (1623-1662), who will be in the spotlight in 2023, on the occasion of the celebration of the 400e anniversary of his birth, June 19, 1623, listed in the calendar of national commemorations. We owe the first to Laurence Devillairs, teacher at the Catholic Institute of Paris (ICP) and at the Center Sèvres-Jesuit Faculties of Paris, specialist in the XVIIe century. The second to Pierre Manent, former director of studies at the EHESS, specialist in political philosophy.

It is a philosophical Pascal brought to life with finesse by Laurence Devillairs, who invites us to reread the Thoughts through the prism of concern. It places at their heart an understanding of the human condition “where the desire for truth and happiness cannot be satisfied, (…) where there is also an ‘instinct which elevates us’ and which must lead to the affirmation that ‘man passes man’”.

From this front door, Laurence Devilllairs easily crosses other Pascalian concepts: entertainment, boredom, misery and the greatness of man… Under his pen, Pascal becomes very human, and more philosophical than a theologian. A philosopher who, admittedly, mocks philosophy – “Making fun of philosophy is really philosophizing”he writes in the Thoughts (no. 671, in the text established by Philippe Sellier).

Laurence Devillairs considers that Pascal thus offers a “counter-history of philosophy”, where the essential is no longer of the conceptual order, but of life. For Paschal, “to live is the only imperative, the only task to be assigned to philosophy”she summarizes.

Back to Divorce

Pierre Manent takes the religious question head on. His book also highlights the importance of Pascal’s anxiety, but it also reveals that of the author in the face of the evolution of European societies and the developments of modernity, where Pierre Manent diagnoses the combined effects of hubris of reason and science.

In his foreword entitled “Europe and the Christian Question”, the philosopher reveals the tenor of his uneasiness: it is linked to the amnesia of Europeans who would have lost intelligence and use” of Christianity and “don’t want to hear about it anymore”. With modernity, Europe would have decided to ignore its religious history. Europe “decided to be born again. At new birth new baptism, it will be a baptism of obliteration”, he acts.

To question, and even counter this disenchantment, Pierre Manent chooses to return to what he identifies as the moment of bifurcation of history, this XVIIe century in which the all-powerful State would take shape, ready for all forms of growth. A domination, for which the Jesuits would be responsible by their defense of a “accommodating religion”, swallowing down the demands of penance and true faith.

Curiously, Pierre Manent takes up this severe criticism of the Society of Jesus stated by Pascal in The Provincials, without questioning the extremely polemical character of this text, nor resituating it historically. The use of the present tense in this chapter even seems to sign that it would still be valid today…

Thinking about man and society

It is undoubtedly that the essential for him is in the Pascalian gesture: it is a question of returning to Pascal to revitalize a Church which is sure of itself, at ease with its dogmatics and its hierarchical character, not letting the modern mind take its heart, accused of leveling hierarchies and values. A Church that would not go astray in dialogue with skeptics or in a positive rereading of secularization. It is allowed not to share this project.

That our time is lacerated by many evils and heavy with a number of concerns, we will not dispute it to Pierre Manent, who often knows how to describe them with acuity. We could cite his questioning of the domination of the state (“Today there is no longer, strictly speaking, a ‘separation’ [entre l’État et l’Église, NDLR] since the State has drawn to itself all the authority (…) The state cannot be both truly superior and truly separate. “) or his critique of progress (“The only command that is worth [pour nos contemporains, NDLR], it is (…) the commandment of progress itself, that of becoming what we are, finally delivered from the misfortune of the human conscience, the misfortune of feeling at fault before the Law. “)

That Pascal can help us to think about man and society, no one will disagree. But can it offer the theological-political and spiritual discourse adjusted to our present situation? We can doubt it, because Christians have also learned, politically and theologically, over the 400 years that separate us from his birth.


Extract. Christian life

“The Christian life for Pascal is a life – a life separate – with its own and exclusive principles. Its meaning and its form, its intimate tenor, are determined by its Christian character. To be a Christian does not consist of an affective disposition that is quick to recognize and assert human resemblance – that is democratic religiosity, so powerful among us. (…) In the case of Christian life, it is particularly important today to underline that the end it aims for, the criteria that guide it, the motives and feelings that move it, are absolutely proper to it and even exclusive. »

Pierre Manent, Pascal and the Christian proposal, Grasset.


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