Comparison of the opinions of Montaigne and Pascal on religious beliefs

Through Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Blaise Pascal was an admirer of the writings of Michel de Montaigne. He strongly disagreed with him, but nonetheless understood what he was doing and took charge of it in an interesting way. For both, the main question revolved around the dangers of fanaticism, of serious religious belief (for Montaigne), or the dangers of lack of fanaticism (for Pascal).

Blaise Pascal invented the first calculating machine. (Image: Ana Maria Tone / Shutterstock)

Presentation of Blaise Pascal, the Great Intellectual

Blaise Pascal was one of the greatest intellectuals in European history. He was a brilliant mathematician and scientist. He was born in 1623 and died when he was only 39 years old in 1662. He was a renowned child prodigy; he became famous for science and mathematics. He indeed invented the very first calculating machine.

At 23, in 1646, he joined the Jansenists, a very hyper-Augustinian religious movement within the Roman Catholic Church. The movement was in deep conflict with the Jesuits, who by this time had the king’s ear in France, so Pascal began to disagree with the French establishment, intellectual as well as political.

Pascal is best known today for his Thoughts, Where Thought book. It is a collection of more or less confused aphorisms on which Pascal was working at his death.

This is a transcript of the video series Why evil exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Montaigne and Pascal’s views on religion

An image of sunlight passing through the entrance to an empty tomb.
Pascal disagreed with Montaigne on the relationship between serious religious belief and mental health. (Image: Thoom / Shutterstock)

Pascal on evil was classically Augustinian; in some ways he was sort of hyper-Augustinian. For him, he was not so focused on the subject that interested Montaigne, the idea that religious belief manifests itself in cruelty to others, but was more interested in the cruelty that people show themselves by not thinking. to their religious beliefs.

Pascal read Montaigne very carefully, and he disagreed with him quite radically even though he admired him. Montaigne would not have found that disappointing, moreover; he would have liked it because he knew that the words of each author must be digested and modified so that the reader becomes vital again.

But most profoundly, Pascal disagreed with Montaigne on the relationship between serious religious belief and moral reason, rectitude. Where Montaigne viewed fanaticism as dangerous, for Pascal, nothing less than fanaticism, nothing less than what Montaigne would call fanaticism, would be a simple escape from the realities people face.

Human desire from Pascal’s point of view

The very greatness of people’s lusts, for Pascal, the infinity of their perversity, teaches people something about the infinitude of their desire. It is a desire that can only be satisfied by the presence of God in the lives of people.

The key here is that the human is an incoherent tangle, at least incoherent from the point of view of what’s called the natural world, the order of creation, from which people stand. Humans desire truth and happiness but cannot. This desire, said Pascal, is left to them as much as a punishment for their fall as a reminder from where they fell.

Learn more about Montaigne’s take on zealous extremism.

Entertainment or active ignorance

Pascal thought that no natural science would understand the human; you need something beyond nature, a theological intuition. To understand each other, humans need to “listen to God”. The difficulty is that humans find it horrible to listen to God or to listen to themselves. They find self-reflection incredibly painful and unpleasant.

Humans have two secret instincts at war with each other: they want an ending, but they don’t want to think they want that ending. Humans actively want to avoid thinking about themselves, and it is in the study of this active ignorance that Pascal makes the most distinctive, meaningful, and enduring contribution to thinking about evil. Pascal diagnoses this active ignorance with one devastating word: entertainment.

Learn more about Milton and Epic Evil.

What Pascal thinks about entertainment

Entertainment, for Pascal, was a certain culturally specific way for him of talking about how humans can lead lives that are fundamentally organized around avoiding what they should be doing. It is another language to describe the condition of humans caught in original sin.

This language emphasizing the active nature of the endless round of empty frivolities that humans indulge in, so as not to think about what they should be thinking. Pascal uses this word very intentionally. It is a word in common use in her France as it would be today. The entertainment looks light and harmless, but it shouldn’t be.

An image of the bust of Montaigne at the Museum of Art and Archeology of France.
According to Montaigne,
evil was an effect of denying the diversity and inconsistency in human lives. (Image: MOSSOT / Public domain)

Pascal believed that great evil can and does come from trivial causes. Duel and murder, he said in the Thoughts, both come from boredom, from boredom. So, thought Pascal, the magnitude of the horrors produced by humans is out of step with the banality of the cause: entertainment.

Comparison of Montaigne and Pascal

It should be clear that this is a direct criticism of Montaigne’s point of view, for being too indulgent and blind to such trivial things. Pascal said that these are precisely the trivial things that humans should be worried about; maybe at that level they might be able to control it.

So for Pascal the problem was that people finally have to face the question of whether or not they will believe in God and face God’s commandments for them, and it is only by being caught up in the entertainment that they will. continue to avoid this. This is why fanaticism was so necessary to Pascal and that he opposed Montaigne’s mistrust: because you have to be serious because, in the end, life will come for them, and death too.

Pascal therefore lived after Montaigne in several respects. Where Montaigne spoke of the diversity and the acceptable incoherence and disorder of human life, and for whom the evil was an effect of denying this diversity and this incoherence, Pascal thought that human incoherence was itself an effect human evil and the fall. They directly disagreed.

Frequently asked questions about Montaigne et Pascal

Q: Who was Blaise Pascal?

Blaise Pascal was an intellectual scientist and mathematician born in 1623. He invented the first calculator.

Q: How did Montaigne and Pascal view religion?

Montaigne and Pascal had opposing views on religious beliefs. According to Montaigne, religious belief manifests itself in cruelty, while Pascal said humans harm themselves by not having religious beliefs.

Question: According to Blaise Pascal, how is it possible to understand humans?

For Blaise Pascal, the only way humans can understand each other is to listen to God. But it’s hard for human beings to do it because they find it unpleasant.

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