Pascalian Politics

Pascalian Politics April 10, 2015

Paul Griffiths (Decreation) argues that “quietism” about political interest and judgment is a sign here and now of the future quietus of heaven. “Quietism” doesn’t mean a retreat from advocacy or passion. Citing Pascal, Griffiths lays out a version of political advocacy that renounces political calculations of a conventional sort.

Pascal’s political quietism is theologically grounded: According to Pascal, Christians should “understand opposition to a proposal you favor as an opportunity to suffer anything at all in the service of establishing . . . what seems to be the truth of the matter, and you should welcome this opportunity instead of rejecting or muttering against it.” This is possible because we know that “the LORD . . . who has, as it seems to you, shown you the truth about the controverted question under discussion is the very same LORD who permits there to be obstacles to what you would like to happen.” There is no other power, and so it must be the Lord “who at the same time excites your support of the proposal and provides strength and energy to those who oppose it.” As a result, Christians should greet opposition “with the calm that is among the principle marks that you are working in according with the Spirit.” When we react with anger to opposition, it’s a sign that we are energize by esprit propre – “the fundamental error of identifying yourself as the origin and cause of the truth of your judgments,” which leads you to believe that they are “transparently true” and should be transparent to everyone else as well (341).

Calm in the face of political opposition is also grounded in the recognition that our political actions might well be motivated by “damnable desires” and a recognition of the limitations of our ability to predict the outcomes of the proposals we advocate. On Pascalian grounds, we don’t advocate because our proposals will have a good outcome; we cannot know, and we certainly cannot predict all the unintended outcomes that may follow. We advocate because we believe our proposals to be right

Political quietism usually implies retreat from politics, or indifference. What Pascal (on Griffiths’s reading) advocates isn’t indifference to justice but indifference to the normal calculus of political success. Pascal says we ought to be calm in the face of opposition, but he strongly endorses political passion: “When the topic seems important to you, and when you are deeply convinced that your position on it is the right one, and that, therefore, the extent to which your opponents advocate a position incompatible with yours they are wrong, then, other things being equal, you should engage in controversy with all the passion you can muster. . . . [The] outcome, whatever it is – victory, defeat, victory with unanticipated bad effects, defeat with unanticipated good effects – neither prospectively motivates the controversialist’s advocacy nor retrospectively calls it into question. Controversy, Pascal thinks, should be undertaken on altogether different grounds and for altogether different purposes” (345).

One of the values of Pascal’s approach is that it demonstrates how Jesus serves as a model of political advocacy, to be followed and imitated. Jesus taught, healed, then was crucified. Following him, we “take the same line when we engage in controversial advocacy” (343).

But it’s here that reservations emerge. Jesus went to the cross expecting success – “for the joy that was set before Him” and because He believed that His cross would cast out the ruler of this world and because He trust His Father to vindicate Him. He wasn’t indifferent to consequence, but went to the cross confident of eventual victory. That can be grafted onto Pascal’s political quietism, though someone clumsily.

Leave the reservations behind, though: What would it do to today’s  politics if Christians acknowledged that the same Lord inspires us and also permits our opposition? What might happen if Christians could engage and advocate with passion, but without anxiety? What might it mean if Christians cultivated a political demeanor of calmness?

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