Douglas Groothuis review of "Human Happiness" by Blaise Pascal.
Blaise Pascal, Human Happiness. New York Penguin Books, 2008. 105 pages. $10. ISBN: 978-0-141-04251-0.
This small volume contains excerpts from an undisputed classic of Western literature: Pensées (French for “thoughts”) of philosopher and scientist, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Human Happiness is part of a series (called Great Ideas) of similarly formatted titles that have been brought out recently by Penguin. Their noble purpose is to commend literary classics to the common reader. The series also includes works (or excerpts from works) by Plutarch, Adam Smith, Tolstoy, Kierkegaard, and others. The back cover provides a short paragraph concerning “books that have changed the world,” written by “great thinkers, pioneers, radicals and visionaries whose ideas shook civilization and helped make us who we are.” There is an even shorter description of Pensées and Pascal there as well. No introduction to Pensées or Pascal himself is contained in the book itself.
This collection serves as a kind of primary source primer, or short introduction to a larger body of work, which is deemed worthy of further study and amenable to abridgement. However, unlike most of the other works in the Penguin series, the text is neither a stand-alone book nor essay nor an excerpt from a finished work. What came to be known as Pensées, was discovered posthumously. At his death at thirty-nine, Pascal left an unfinished treatise defending Christianity against the skepticism and unbelief of his day. He left over a thousand fragments of ideas and arguments, some well developed and coherent, others more epigrammatical or enigmatic. Scholars have long debated the proper ordering of the fragments, and various enumerations are available. This book uses the number system of the well-respected Krailsheimer translation, but selects only about one-fifth of the total fragments available. However, the fragments are arranged by sequence. They begin with fragment #21 and end with #940.
The entries are loosely organized around the theme of the puzzles, conundrums, and yearnings of the human condition. Pascal has long been hailed as an astute student of humanity in both its grandeur and its squalor. I will not offer a detailed critique of the unnamed editor’s decisions regarding omission and inclusion, except to say that several of Pascal’s more grand statements about Jesus Christ were left out. This is unfortunate since Pascal’s purpose for the Pensées was to commend Christ as the center of existence and to call people to Christian faith. Consider this infelicitously omitted fragment:
Not only do we only know God through Jesus Christ, but we only know ourselves through Jesus Christ; we only know life and death through Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus Christ we cannot know the meaning of our life or our death, of God or of ourselves. Thus without Scripture, whose only object is Christ, we know nothing and can see nothing but obscurity and confusion in the nature of God and in nature itself (417).
Pascal’s labors to explain the greatness and misery of the human situation were aimed at helping people realize their need for a divine redeemer, one who shared their humanity, but not their sin. He summarizes Christ’s credentials in another excised entry:
He alone had to produce a great people, elect, holy and chosen, lead them, feed them, bring them into the place of rest and holiness, make them holy for God, make them the temple of God, reconcile them to God, save them from God’s anger, redeem them from the bondage of sin which visibly reigns in man, give laws to his people, write these laws in their hearts, offer himself to God for them, sacrifice himself for them, be a spotless sacrifice, and himself the sacrificer, having himself to offer up his body and blood, and yet offer up bread and wine to God (608).
Nevertheless, Human Happiness does not extract all references to Jesus from the text. One should still be able to discern that Pascal is not merely musing on mortality, but pointing erring mortals toward possible redemption. Consider fragment #631: “It is good to be tired and weary from fruitlessly seeking the true good, so that one can stretch out one’s arms to the Redeemer.”
Does Human Happiness succeed as a primer for Pensées and Pascal’s other writings? The answer is, Yes and No. It does succeed in presenting an assemblage of the more assessable and psychologically pertinent fragments concerning the mysteries of being human. But it fails as a primer for two reasons. First, as mentioned above, some crucial texts on Christ go missing. A good primer cannot, of course, include everything and still be a primer. But it should never expunge the essential. Second, given the extraordinary nature of Pensées (an incomplete work of Christian apologetics written in the middle of the Seventeen Century), the neophyte is owed more introductory material to initiate them to the intellectual ambiance of the work. However, this want of prolegomena is overcome somewhat by the timeless and lapidary quality of many of Pascal’s fragments—e.g., “Man’s sensitivity to little things and insensitivity to the greatest things are marks of a strange disorder.” (One may find some assistance in understanding Pascal’s thoughts, life, and world by consulting my book, On Pascal [Wadsworth, 2003].)
In a time when literacy is in deep decline and when so many are learning so little about things that matter so much, I commend Penguin for the Great Idea series and for this particular installment. A close and contentious reading of Blaise Pascal can indeed transform the way one sees oneself—and how one sees God.
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy