Blaise Pascal on the Human Condition

Poets, playwrights, philosophers, and psychologists all take their turns offering insights on the “human condition.” They seek to explain the basic nature, identity, struggle, and aspirations of human beings. In fact, all philosophies and religions try to define and explain humanity’s underlying condition. But do any of them succeed?

One Christian author who I think has written candidly and insightfully about the state of human beings is French scholar Blaise Pascal (1623–1662). (Of course, I share Pascal’s faith so I’m hardly neutral on the matter.) Pascal was a founding father of the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century. A true Renaissance man, Pascal was a mathematician, physicist, logician, inventor, and an intuitive Christian thinker and apologist.

In his theological and philosophical masterwork Pensées (French for “Thoughts” or “Reflections”) Pascal develops a provocative outlook on human beings. Here’s a handful of his perspectives on the general state of humanity and a brief explanation.

Five Insights on the Human Condition

1. Human beings reflect an enigmatic nature of “greatness and wretchedness.”1

As a historic Christian, Pascal here offers a biblical description of humanity’s identity and condition. The greatness of human beings (in reason, technology, art, etc.) is tied to their exceptional identity as bearers of God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). But that image has been significantly tarnished through humankind’s collective fall into sin (Romans 3:23) and accompanying moral wretchedness. Thus, human nature is puzzling and conflicting. Other worldviews—both secular and religious—struggle to account for this enigma.

2. The human person is often afraid to “stay quietly in his room” alone with his thoughts.2

To be alone affords time to look inward and take stock of one’s inner life. Such reflection often reveals an existential aloneness and neediness that many people purposely avoid. There is an uneasiness in the soul. Pascal’s Christian worldview would assert that original sin has left people out of sync with God, with others, and even with themselves. The human heart reflects this estrangement.

3. Humans spend much of their lives following “diversions.”3

Pursuing answers to the deep questions of human existence (God, death, and the hereafter) can prove difficult and threatening. It is much easier to divert attention to the current pragmatic concerns of egotism (self), sensualism (sex), and materialism (money). The Christian worldview explains that blinded by sin, most people are not hostile, but rather ambivalent, to spiritual things. Many engaging options in life and the world can distract a person from spiritual pursuits.

4. “The [human] heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”4

For Pascal the heart reflects not mere emotion but an instinctive intuition of truth apprehended by the soul. Thus one’s most basic beliefs in life (God, mind, morality) are never merely rational or empirical. Philosophers recognize that beliefs may be rational (following reason), irrational (conflicting with reason), or nonrational (prior to or beyond reason: assumption, intuition, mystery). Pascal’s reference to the heart seems to fit with the intuitive nonrational category.

5. Humans only “know themselves” through knowing Jesus Christ.5

The Christian faith proclaims that human beings were made to know, love, and serve God. Yet sin has brought forth separation. However, by embracing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior a person comes to know both God and themselves. Pascal thought humans discover their true selves in being restored to God. Grace serves to heal and revive the tarnished image of God within. This restoration is a common theme in other Christian writers as well (Augustine, Calvin).

Identifying and explaining the paradoxical nature of human beings is indeed challenging. Thus, a worldview’s anthropology (origin, nature, and destiny of human beings) that accurately explains the human condition may be considered most plausibly true. In this way, Pascal’s Christian perspectives on the human condition are not only provocative but seem to correspond well to reality.

Reflections: Your Turn 

What do you think of Pascal’s view of the human condition?

Resources

Endnotes

  1. Blaise Pascal, Pensées (New York: Penguin, 1966), 117/409.
  2. Pascal, 136/139.
  3. Pascal, 133/169.
  4. Pascal, 423/277.
  5. Pascal, 189/157.

  One thought on “Blaise Pascal on the Human Condition

  1. Bob Sherfy
    September 3, 2019 at 9:24 am

    Excellent article.

    • September 3, 2019 at 10:01 am

      Thanks, Bob.

      Ken Samples

  2. Brett Clapham
    September 4, 2019 at 12:11 am

    Thanks for this article, Ken. I found point 5 quite interesting – to truly know oneself entails seeing oneself from Jesus’ perspective.
    I like the succinctness of how the Gospel is presented here and how relevant Pascal’s thoughts are to speaking with people today and trying to point them to Jesus.

    • September 4, 2019 at 9:51 am

      Thanks, Brett.

      Ken Samples

  3. Bret Zagar
    September 4, 2019 at 8:16 pm

    I think Pascal’s view of the human condition is routinely expressed in a biblical and balanced way.

    The post obviously isn’t on Kierkegaard, but the following quote from him relates similar Pascialian themes in terms of the basic human condition:

    “Just as a physician might say that there is very likely not one single living human being who is completely healthy, so anyone who really knows mankind might say there is not one single living human being who does not…secretly harbor an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony, an anxiety about an unknown something or something he does not even dare to try to know, an anxiety about some possibility in existence or an anxiety about himself…an anxiety he cannot explain” – The Sickness Unto Death.

    I think adversity cannot be avoided by any human existent. But stress and anxiety in the soul are optional. Adversity and stress are objective and subjective, respectively. Learning biblical doctrine and fortifying one’s soul with promises found in the scriptures hinders anxiety and stress from dominating the soul and one’s mental attitude. Failure to spiritually rebound and apply 1 John 1:9/admit sins to the Father is one sure way to let anxiety dominate our mental attitude.

    • September 4, 2019 at 9:50 pm

      Engaging Kierkegaard quote.

      Ken Samples

  4. September 8, 2019 at 8:55 am

    Why don’t most of the most mature Christian believers practice silence as Pascal promotes? “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I love how practical that is and how it lines up with scriptural truth. “Be still and KNOW that I am God” Ps 46:10

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