A Bad bet

October 2008By Christopher Beiting

Christopher Beiting is Associate Professor of History at Holy Cross College in South Bend, Indiana.

Pascal's Wager: The Man Who Played Dice With God.  By James A. Connor. HarperCollins. 240 pages. $24.95.

Intellectual historians sometimes refer to the 17th century as the "Century of Genius," given the remarkable number of extraordinary intellects who lived in that time. The 17th century witnessed the work of individuals ranging from Cervantes to Newton. It is popularly viewed as the time of the birth of modern science, but it was also a time of religious fervor strong enough to be seen in events that ranged from the Thirty Years War to the life and ministry of St. Vincent de Paul. Blaise Pascal (1625-1662) was very much a man of his times, beginning his career as a path-breaking mathematician and scientist, and ending it as a very original apologist for a very strict form of Christianity. Pascal is popularly remembered today in the computer program that commemorates his name; in the famous "Wager," which is a logical argument for the existence of God; and for his Pensées, a spiritual classic that is still read with profit by millions. Pascal was a polymath to the point bordering on the paradoxical, and it is upon these aspects of his life that author James Connor chooses to focus his biography.

What Pascal's Wager does, it does reasonably well, and it succeeds on a certain level. However, like Pascal himself, Connor also has some contradictions within his nature, but, unlike Pascal, his are more severe and less resolved, resulting in a biography that falls maddeningly short of understanding the true genius of a genius.

First the good: As an account of the life of Blaise Pascal, Pascal's Wager is a great success, providing a reliable, concise, and readable account of the main details of Pascal's life. The book is well researched and substantive without being pedantic and will appeal to the academic without sacrificing approachability to the ordinary reader. Connor takes care to depict the details of Pascal's life against the larger backdrop of the often tumultuous events of the 17th century, demonstrating well how the larger political events of the era affected Pascal and his family directly (there is a very nice timeline at the outset of the work that serves as a mini Timetables of History and is particularly valuable to the casual reader). All the major details of Pascal's life are present: his difficult childhood; his early genius; his scientific work into fields as diverse as conic sections, the nature of the vacuum, and the mechanical calculator; his personal and social success; his family's encounter with Jansen­ism, resulting in his sister Jacqueline's becoming a nun at the Jansenist community at Port-Royal; his own religious quest; his delicate health and breakdown; and finally the struggles between the Port-Royal community and the alliance of the French Crown and the Jesuit Order, which broke the back of the Jansenist movement in Pascal's lifetime and would ultimately culminate in its destruction after Pascal's death.

The title of this biography comes from the famous argument in Pascal's Pensées (#418), in which Pascal argues that, absent clear proof of God, it is safer to believe in Him -- if one is wrong and there is no God, one loses very little; if one is correct, one gains everything. Indeed, the entire biography is structured around an elaborate and artsy metaphor of gambling -- it is central to the way Connor chooses to understand Pascal. Moreover, the entire work is written with a novelist's touch: Although he has backgrounds in philosophy, theology, and the geosciences, Connor is a professor of English, and he writes in an imaginative style that at times lends itself more to a historical novel than an academic biography, making it very easy to read.

Unfortunately, herein lie the problems. While it pains me to criticize a work admired by so redoubtable a figure as John Polkinghorne (among others), I find I cannot give the work the high praise that he does -- for a number of reasons. On the one hand, the novelistic quality of Connor's prose at times conspires against the seriousness of the work. For example, in describing Pascal's participation in Père Mersenne's famous seminar, Connor notes that "one can only imagine the conversations held in that room," and then goes on to speculate about them -- a fine technique for historical fiction, but fraught with danger for serious biography, especially when Connor lets imagination dominate fact. Furthermore, Connor's style, while light, also displays the postmodern fondness for whimsy and frivolity, to the point where the substantiveness of the overall tone of the work suffers. Each chapter opens with some thematic quotations, and alongside quotes from people like Pascal himself, and Chesterton and Einstein, one finds others from such "deep thinkers" as Abbie Hoffman and Freddie Mercury. More maddening is Connor's repeated tendency to present any negative action on the part of the French Crown as a contributing factor to an inevitable French Revolution (viz., "the people languished in poverty, and the French Revolution inched closer"). Such a tendency is simply wrong, as nothing is inevitable in human history, and the effort is as cloying and absurd as claiming that the actions of Frederick William II of Prussia in 1789 would inevitably lead to World War II, a century and a half later.

The most significant weakness of Pascal's Wager, though, lies in the conflicted nature of Connor himself. His own spiritual memoir, Silent Fire (2002), chronicles events surrounding a crisis of faith (being unable to give advice to a young woman whose child died suddenly and tragically) that would ultimately result in his leaving both the Jesuit order and the Catholic priesthood, demonstrating once again the old canard that the only thing worse than a Jesuit is an ex-Jesuit. Silent Fire details several days in a retreat in the Canadian wilderness, and all of the warning signs of spiritual danger are there for any reader to see, from Connor's efforts to mix Zen and Christianity to his attempts to look for advice from American Indians, to his tendency to seek poetic rather than rational or mathematical truths. Here we have a man clearly crippled in faith and reason, who utters such fatuities as, "Oddly enough, the Buddhists are right -- there is no God, at least not as we have imagined God. Oddly enough, the Christians are right -- there is a God, and we speak to that God every day. I cannot collapse these opposites; I can only say that in some mysterious way, there is no difference between them."

Where does one begin with an individual who is so oblivious to the Law of Non-Contradiction, let alone the very real differences between religions? With such a cavalier approach to basic reason, it would follow that matters of truth would logically matter little to such a man, and, sure enough, such appears to be the case for Connor, who elsewhere describes the events of the 16th century by saying, "All theological disputes were the product of frightened human beings, men and women too afraid to love." To sum up the Reformation and Counter-Reformation eras this way is to display a remarkable superficiality, to say the least. Not surprisingly, Connor displays little patience for people who believe in things like standards and truth; he dismisses a parishioner who objected to his interment of a suicide in consecrated ground as a "righteous defender of orthodoxy." In the end, one wonders why Connor remains a Catholic at all, when his version of an apologia pro vita sua appears to be little more than the following: I am a Catholic today because it is a good way for me to be. It is my path to God, though it isn't for everyone. You practice a religion because you find God there -- no other reason. No one can explain his path, nor does he need to. Mine is as peculiar as anybody's, I suppose. Besides, I like the poetry.

Such invertebrate sentiments call to mind the satirical definition of a liberal as "someone unable to take his own side in a fight," and call into question the ability of the person who voices them to understand in any way a person for whom religious doctrine actually matters, as it certainly did for Pascal and his contemporaries.

Given such limitations, it is small wonder that, while Connor presents the details of Pascal's life well, he is utterly unable to understand the man. Indeed, one wonders why he chose to write a biography of Pascal in the first place. Doubtless he felt some affinity for Pascal's famous Nuit de feu, and Connor relates a mystical experience of his own in Silent Fire that is somewhat like Pascal's. But despite the commonality Connor clearly feels with Pascal, it's abundantly clear that both men actually experienced something completely different: Pascal's experience led him away from the world and into a deeper, more stringent religious life and faith; Connor's helped lead him out of the religious life into the world, and to a less-stringent faith. All of this combines to make Pascal's Wager a very uneven work, and Connor fails totally to understand or even sympathize with Pascal on some very critical points. Overall, Connor's sympathies clearly lie with his former order, the Jesuits, rather than with Pascal, the subject of the work. So Connor has few good words to spare about Pascal's classic work of satire, the Provincial Letters, in which Pascal criticized the Jesuits for their religious laxity (oblivious to the fact that Pascal might have taken the example of a Jesuit who spends more time on Zen Buddhism than the Spiritual Exercises to be proof of his point). Indeed, Connor seems constitutionally unable to appreciate the basic fact that a person might desire a stricter religious life rather than a looser one, which makes it impossible for him to see anything good in Augustinian thought in general, let alone Jan­senism. Connor also does not understand Pascal's desire to abandon his scientific work for religious studies, or his active life for the monastic style of living at Port-Royal -- Connor himself is suspicious of the religious tendency to try to retire from the world to lead a contemplative life (itself an odd sentiment in a self-professed mystic), noting that the Jesuit way is not to abandon the world "in some introverted drive for self-perfection," but rather to remain active in the world. Alas, it was a pity, Connor notes, that Pascal hadn't turned to the Jesuits for spiritual guidance, perhaps then he could have remained in the world and continued his scientific work, instead of "wasting" it in monastic-style isolation at Port-Royal. The words of our Lord in Luke 10:41-42, and the primacy the Church has traditionally given to the contemplative life as a result, seem not to figure in Connor's opinions.

Most tellingly, Connor gives short shrift to Pascal's greatest work, his Pensées, which are only touched upon occasionally throughout the work, and covered very briefly near the end, and then not even mentioned by name! Such a lacuna is difficult to comprehend -- if the casual reader reads Pascal these days, the Pensées are the one work he reads, so for Connor to give them so minimal a treatment is a clear demonstration of a misunderstanding of Pascal that borders on the deliberate. The only significant consideration of the arguments in the Pensées that Connor makes are of Pensée 913, the Nuit de feu, with which Connor clearly sympathizes, and Pensée 418, the Wager, which provides the metaphor around which the entire biography is spun. Had Connor truly understood Pascal, he would have realized that such a focus is misplaced. Pascal's Wager, however interesting it is to some folk, is in reality only a very small part of Pascal's thought, and a disproportionate focus on it is a common mistake I have seen countless of my freshmen college students make. The Wager is not an end; rather, it is a beginning. Pascal is not, in actuality, interested in trying to "prove" the existence of God to his readers. The Wager is only a starting point. Pascal was no mere theist -- he was a committed Christian, dedicated to trying to get his readers not to know God but to love Christ. Indeed, Pascal asserts, one cannot really know God at all apart from Christ (#449), and as a result Pascal is as hostile to the Deist as he is to the Muslim (#321), and as critical of the Jews for not recognizing Christ (#502) as he is admiring of them for bequeathing Him to the world (#451-455). To Pascal it was actually dangerous to know God apart from Christ! But how, then, does one know Christ? We can only know Him through Scripture (#417), as well as orthodox belief and membership in the Church (#733). These ideas are the core of what was truly most important to Blaise Pascal, and are critical to understanding him. And they are nowhere present in Connor's biography.

Pascal's Wager is thus an interesting gamble, and, like many gambles, one that fails in the end. Connor's book is useful for obtaining biographical information on the life and work of Blaise Pascal, but it utterly fails to grasp the real essence of Pascal and his thought. The interested reader who wants to truly understand Pascal is recommended instead to read Pascal's own Pensées.

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