Abstract

We’ve always had two Pascals, one apologetic, the other startlingly unapologetic. The unapologetic Pascal is the merciless, proto-ethnographic observer of human psychology and human social arrangements whose sardonic picture of what he calls the wretchedness of life without God is summed up in the strikingly Hobbesian chiasmus “Lacking the might to compel obedience to right, we’ve made it right to compel obedience to might.” However, Pascal turns demoralizing insights like this to apologetic purposes by showing how they’re the natural effect of a lack of specifically Christian belief. The question this essay poses against the background of the conflicted history of Pascalian exegesis is, how should we read the Pensées? The answer proposed is that we should do so in the dialectical terms that Pascal’s characteristic resort to chiasmoi like this one suggest. The result takes the form of a three-cornered conversation that links Pascalian thinking not only to the Hobbes of Leviathan but to the Hegel of the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Elements of Right and to the Wittgenstein of the late, sadly fruitless notebook On Certainty.

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