“For God knows that in the day you eat of [the tree] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” – Genesis 3:5, the Serpent to Eve
“Through space the universe grasps me and swallows me up like a speck; through thought I grasp it.” – Pascal, Pensées, 348
For millennia man has grappled with the question of what he is. How could human nature, that which is inherent to each of us and therefore what is closest, be so elusive? Perhaps it is so because we never encounter man in a “pure” state, that is, a man unconditioned by his place and time. Men live differently based on these conditions; it is difficult to name a general nature in the midst of such variety. Still, many general characteristics can be found in every man: We work, eat, sleep, desire, feel, and think. We have instincts and ideals. Is human nature a sum-total of these commonalities? These can all be reduced to two basic aspects: thought and instinct. By thought here, I mean to indicate our characteristic of reflection, awareness, and of the questions that arise from such practices. I essentially mean consciousness and its implications. If human nature, which is to say, the essence of man, is conceived as the combination of thought and instinct, then we have much to consider. The realm of nature is that of instinct. We do not give ourselves instincts, but are given them when we are born. They help to keep us alive as they do other animals. What of thought, then? If we grant that nature is the realm of instinct, and that instinct is thoughtless, then thought is unnatural, or perhaps supernatural. Man is the meeting place of the natural and the non-natural (whether unnatural or supernatural will not here be decided; simply that it is outside the realm of instinct is sufficient for now). What does thought do for the organism? I believe that a consideration of the meaning of thought requires us to step beyond the realm of biology and physiology. Consciousness does not help us survive; it is rather a reflection on this survival, a probing into life and the conditions under which it is lived; it is thought. Granted, we can only speculate as to the possible significance of consciousness, but this does not at all undermine the task. If one wishes to know something about man, he must consider him in all his most basic characteristics, one of which is thought, this consciousness that is, as far as we know, unique to man.
The topic of human nature and consciousness has been addressed extensively by religion and philosophy. In these fields we find attempted definitions of human nature and discussion of the origins and implications of thought. Christianity has had perhaps the most significant impact on man’s self-conception and -assessment in the modern west. I will here examine the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of human nature and the birth of thought, then proceed to Pascal, a Christian thinker of the 1600’s, to examine his development of these Christian themes and, finally, his idea of human dignity.
The best source of reference for the Judeo-Christian view of man is found in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, where we are told of man’s birth. The myth of the fall provides us with an account of our supposed first parents, the original human beings, who thus embodied our truest and purest nature. The purity of this nature is symbolized by the lives of Adam and Eve in their home of Eden. They are isolated in this paradise and only known to each other. They exist unseparated from nature; they are naked and carefree. They are the ultimate natural human beings. Before eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they are ignorant of such things, and this ignorance proves to be bliss. It constitutes their direct relation to God. If we wish to abstract from this specifically Christian, mythical language, we can say that man is in a state of goodness when he is ignorant. Ignorant man does not think; he lives by nature alone. Ignorance was indeed the state of the original human beings as represented in the Bible; after they eat of the tree, it is said that their eyes are opened. When they were blind, they knew no shame. It is only after becoming wise that they can see themselves in their state, and begin to question that state: they become conscious. Now, the downfall of man in the Bible is literally said to be his transgression from the commands of God. To again abstract from the specifically Christian meaning, the myth of the fall can be summarized in the following manner: The desire to be more than natural, to be constituted by more than instinct, to be wise, to open one’s eyes, is unnatural, and leads from blissful ignorance to unhappy consciousness. In this moral we find the notions of natural limit and pride. When man is in a state of ignorance and stays there, he is in his proper place. Yet human nature includes the desire to become wise, to escape the ignorant state. Here, then, we encounter a tension between nature and human nature, instinct and thought. We naturally strive to overcome our limits, to transcend our nature. This attempt, in the Christian view, is a sin; human nature is therefore characterized by the flaw of consciousness.
Since analogies are always helpful, especially when dealing with myth, let us consider the parallel between the evolution of the first parents and that of any human being from childhood to adulthood. Pre-fall Adam and Eve are like very young children: innocent, shameless, and carefree. They do not know where they stand in relation to the world; they simply exist as an unquestioning part of it. The eating of the fruit is the age of reason; the child starts asking questions and weighing things for himself. Post-fall Adam and Eve are the result of the fruition of consciousness; the adult finds himself in a world he can distinguish himself from, questions his position in it, and makes his own assessments. Life becomes more complicated once thought is introduced, and presumably more unhappy.
The Christian conception of ideal human nature is, then, perpetual childhood. We also find in the Bible a description of post-fall human nature. This nature is characterized by its weakness and fallibility; man becomes the embodiment of error and sin. He is detached from God when he begins to think for himself. Since his own mental powers are limited, he can never attain to the state of goodness he had when his sole authority was God. The pride that fueled the desire to be wise actually tore man from truth; his eyes opened, but the light became dim. Opposite of the “true” human nature expounded in the myth, then, we have a nature depraved and deprived, wanting what it cannot have: Man is proud and futile. If we grant that the fall depicted in Genesis is indeed myth, then we may conclude that the state of human nature represented therein never actually existed; it is perhaps only presented for the sake of contrast between the ideal and the actual, the perfect and the imperfect. The Christian conception of man as he really is emphasizes his smallness and insignificance: he is dust.
Blaise Pascal felt the paradox of human life. He marks a critical point of departure in the history of thought, and is considered by some to be a precursor to existentialism. His significance as a thinker is characterized by his diminution of reason, the intriguing paradoxes he points out in man, his description of human nature and its implications. Pascal rejects the attempts of scholastics like Aquinas who sought to reason their way through – and to – Christianity. He starts rather with what he experiences in life: his desires, capacities, and limitations. This approach is responsible for the emotional, lyrical style of his writing; he is appealing because he appeals to our sentiments. While some say that this approach lacks the rigor of systematic philosophy, this is no argument against Pascal. He could simply counter that the rational faculty is itself too weak for the truths it seeks and claims to reach, and therefore we are left with immanence – with the heart, which for him precedes reason in the rank of knowledge. He was a very religious man, but his thoughts on human nature, I think, go beyond the traditional Christian conception discussed above, and it is this departure I aim to analyze.
In his Pensées, Pascal defined man as a mid-point between many extremes. Man’s nature is therefore a constant tension. He is between error and truth, good and evil; his natural drives clash with his natural capacities. He is at war with the world and with himself. Let us look more deeply into each of these states of paradox.
Pascal recognized the dual aspects of reason and instinct in man. He calls these constituents “signs of two natures,” (29) thus emphasizing their opposition. He seems here to be in accord with the classic definition of man as “rational animal,” but we should note here that Pascal is not advancing this definition. The classic definition gives precedence to reason in man, as that which distinguishes us from and elevates us above other animals. Pascal, on the other hand, does not give this high status to reason. He rather humbles the faculty: “How absurd is reason, the sport of every wind!” (10) Instinct, the knowledge of the heart, furnishes us with certain basic truths; he names space and time as two examples of such knowledge. It seems therefore that he is speaking of that which we learn through lived experience. But our desire for knowledge is not sated thereby; this is where men have turned to reason for higher truths. Pascal tells us that this reliance only leads to error; reason cannot reach knowledge of good and truth. Our desire for knowledge oversteps the capacities of our faculties. We are much in error, yet we do have those truths provided by the heart. We are therefore in between ignorance and knowledge. The attempt to transcend the limits of our faculties and reach truth only lead further to error, yet the desire to do so is just as much in our nature as those limitations.
So far Pascal’s thought is aligned with the Christian conception of human nature depicted in Genesis. He emphasizes the weakness of man’s faculties in obtaining truth and the futility of the attempt to become wise. Yet the tension between reason and instinct is not Pascal’s complete definition of man. His definition of human nature is: “thinking reed.” Let us take a moment to contrast this definition to the traditional one. “Reason” is replaced by “thought,” and “animal” by “reed.” The first replacement is explained by Pascal’s low estimation of reason; it is not as essential to human nature as thought is. I sympathize very much with this replacement. Reason is the faculty of logic. It allows us to calculate, measure, order, formulate coherent arguments, and do math. These may be very fine things, but they are overall mechanical functions. It could be said that reason is simply another instinct, albeit one unique to man. (I realize that what I’m saying here may be highly untraditional, but so be it; I’m holding to it.) Thought, on the other hand, is truly exceptional. I find it a more unique and defining characteristic of man that he has questions to ask than that he has a faculty that attempts to answer them (and often, I think, fails); the questions are prior, and cannot be reduced to instinct. They do not contribute to our ability to live, but have additional concerns, such as the meaning and quality of the life lived. As for the second replacement: reed, like animal, invokes the idea of a natural being with only instinct, but a reed is particularly fragile and weak (much like reason, the sport of every wind). At first glance, these changes may seem like trivialities employed for the mere sake of waxing poetic, but I hold that Pascal’s refinement of the classic definition of man bears profound and intentional implications for the conception of human nature.
The weakness of the reed is what Pascal calls the wretchedness of man. The state of tension is wretched; we are miserable and pathetic due to our insurmountable limits. “A nothing compared to the infinite, a whole compared to the nothing, a middle point between all and nothing, infinitely remote from an understanding of the extremes…” (61) We have ideas of things we cannot understand; we locate ourselves between the extremes we conceive, but, since we cannot know the extremes, how can we know the middle? Man is a mystery to himself, that is, “man transcends man.” (131) Man’s ignorance and his unrealizable desire to overcome it are his wretchedness.
Next, and most crucially, we must consider Pascal’s valuation of thought, or consciousness. It is precisely man’s consciousness of his wretchedness, his weakness, that constitutes his greatness. Here is another major paradox Pascal presents. How is consciousness of wretchedness great? “Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe holds over him.” (66)
This idea of nobility is perhaps impossible to explain logically, yet is something I think we sympathize with. Why do we value a man more than a rock? Pascal says it is because a man knows his state, whereas a rock does not (as far as we know). We act according to this conception every day; when one is angry, he may kick the dirt, but most likely not a man who is passing by. Our consciousness invokes in us a sense of dignity. Yet for Pascal, it is not simply the fact of consciousness in general, but its acknowledgment of weakness in particular, that seems to give it dignity. Perhaps this idea can be likened to the ancient Greek conception of nobility in struggle, a conception most clearly symbolized by Achilles. We have more respect for that which struggles than that which simply exists without a fight. To Pascal, every man is an Achilles in a sense; we know our fate, we know our limits, and yet we keep living in the tension between the extremes that overwhelm us. If Achilles did not know he would inevitably die for his ideal of becoming immortal, his efforts toward this goal would not be nearly as impressive; if we were not conscious of the tension, the paradox, the wretchedness of our lives, our living would not be noble.
This is where I locate Pascal’s departure from the Christian conception of human nature. When Eve sees that she is naked, she is not thereby dignified; on the contrary, this consciousness, this acknowledgment of her state, is that which was forbidden her, and the obtainment of which is the stain upon all mankind – original sin. Ignorance and thoughtlessness were not depicted as lowly; this was bliss, and man’s ideal state. He is eternally guilty – flawed – for becoming conscious. How, then, can we understand the idea Pascal, the pious Christian, presents, that consciousness of our weakness is our greatness? Can the Christian be reconciled with Christianity?
I don’t think so. This is one of the reasons why Pascal is fascinating; he lived during an era that falls between a Christian world and a more secular world, and he reflects the characteristics of this border: he holds traditional religious beliefs while indicating more modern tendencies of thought. With one foot in tradition, he extends the other as a precursor for the exaltation of thought and man, the diminution of reason, and, finally, the valuation of dignity over happiness. This final implication of Pascal’s thought must now be addressed as another example of his departure from Christian tradition.
The capacity for thought that constitutes man’s dignity is the very definition of unhappiness. This is precisely because man is a paradox and, as such, is incomprehensible. Contemplating what cannot be understood is a painful practice. Also, consciousness acknowledges wretchedness, which is an unhappy state. Pascal talks much of man’s tendency to seek diversion. In our culture, who could fail to recognize the truth of this assessment? We busy ourselves with work, hobbies and entertainment; we consume and acquire things, arguably to divert our attention from ourselves. Time becomes a schedule that must be filled. Of course, I am speaking in generalities; surely some want time for contemplation. But is it happiness those few expect from thinking, or is the impetus to thought rather the drive to grasp the incomprehensible that haunts them, that refuses to die despite the impossibility of grasping it? It can be argued that certain thinkers were made happy by their thoughts, but I must question this. Were they contemplating the paradox of human existence, or thinking of ideals that they could never really touch? Pascal’s focus is on the former, and in this light, I can understand the association of unhappiness -and dignity – with thought. He might even say that philosophers like Plato were diverting themselves while thinking of Forms and Ideals they couldn’t ever know and developing systems around them. Pascal wants us to look at ourselves and be honest about what we see and what we experience.
The conception of human nature presented in Genesis also identifies thought with the unhappy state of human existence. Knowledge of good and evil results in the awareness of our limitations and imperfections. It is even associated with death – once Adam and Eve become conscious, God makes them mortal. The definition Pascal gives for diversion, not thinking of oneself, is precisely the situation in Eden: Adam and Eve don’t think of their weakness. Only Pascal devalues this state; since it is the opposite of thought and consciousness, it lacks dignity. The implication of the fall presented in Genesis is precisely what constitutes Pascal’s notion of dignity.
Here we have two different conceptions of human nature: first, the traditional Christian idea of man as mere dust, a weak creature that is nothing without a Creator, something external, and second, one that shows man, with all his weakness, as a creature with immanent dignity. In the former, consciousness is not a virtue; it is a symptom of pride and the overstepping of boundaries, something we should feel guilty for. In the latter, consciousness is our exceptional trait, that which constitutes our essence and our greatness. Both conceptions differ from the traditional philosophical formulation of “rational animal” in that reason is not emphasized in either; rather, man is more essentially flawed by thought in one and exalted by thought in the other. Perhaps a good Christian would say that Pascal was prideful in his designation of dignity in man’s thought; perhaps Pascal would say that this accusation is unwarranted, since his discussion of man’s greatness is intertwined with the recognition of his weakness. Yet the conflict remains between Genesis and the Pensées, between the word of God and the thoughts of a 17th century Frenchman. I believe today we have moved in the direction of Pascal’s thoughts on man and away from the biblical conception; how many today would call themselves dust? Surely the departure is based on some form of pride; whether this pride is unwarranted or not, whether our sense of dignity is empty or founded deeply in the truth of the heart, remains to each of us to decide for himself. I’m with Pascal.