The second part of the work is devoted to the thorny problem of persuasion; here the will comes into question as the path through which human assent to a given argument is to be obtained. Even here, however, a method or a set of rules are supplied for the correct conduct of an argument. Terms must be given clear definitions, axioms must be incontrovertible and must all be explicit, and conclusions should be checked by substituting definitions for the terms used. Pascal’s discussion of scientific method is therefore distinct from Bacon’s negative use of induction although, like Bacon, he conceives of science in evolutionary terms; nor does it evince Descartes’ greater reliance on the resources of human reason; it harnesses the arguments of the sceptics, but escapes from their epistemological dilemma by positing intuitive truths which do not come to us from the exercise of our intellect.

6 Theology and the human condition

In 1658, Pascal gave an account of his planned apology for the Christian religion to his friends at Port-Royal, which is probably the reason for his cutting up his sheets of reflections and notes and arranging them into bundles. It is far from certain, however, that all the fragments which survive were written as part of this one project, or that the project was anything like complete and fixed in Pascal’s mind. Not only are sections of the text in dialogue, with none of the voices clearly identified, it also seems likely that the grammatical first person who appears in a number of other fragments does not refer in all cases to Pascal himself.

Such interpretative problems have not deterred past editors from partial or total reconstructions of the apology. The Lafuma edition, which is less interventionist, begins with a section devoted to the proposed organization of the work, which makes its general character clear. In the first part, the human condition was to be described, and shown to be wretched; in the second, human felicity with God and the truth of the Christian religion were to be demonstrated. In a series of sections entitled ‘vanity’, ‘misery’, ‘ennui’, ‘causes of effects’, ‘greatness’, ‘contradictions’, ‘distraction’, ‘philosophers’, Pascal sets out a description in implicitly Augustinian terms of human experience of the world.

The arbitrariness and injustice of human political institutions, the vapidity of human pastimes, the false notions of social hierarchy, and the wilful flight of humans from confronting the primordial questions of their existence are all memorably expressed, often in terse aphoristic form. Notable is the very low assessment of the moral nature of humanity, whose self is said to be hateful. Pascal then turns to the paradox that in the human’s very wretchedness there lie the seeds of greatness. Although the passions and imagination pervert and oppress them, humans also possess reason and self-awareness, and even can attain to certain knowledge about their environment through their intuitive grasp of geometric axioms.

Such intuition, which Pascal sites in the heart, is also where true faith in God is to be found; the function of his apology is to persuade his reader rationally that the Christian religion is true because its description of the human condition is accurate, but it cannot do more than predispose the reader to receive the gratuitous divine gift of faith. In this sense it is a superfluous enterprise; and although in his Écrits sur la Grâce (Writings on grace) (1657-8?) he tries to come to terms with the Tridentine proposition that the just are able of themselves to obey the Commandments, Pascal seems to concede the inefficacy of instilling rational conviction alone at various points in the Pensées.