To Be Frank, Part 2, “A Change of Course Thanks to Blaise Pascal”

To Be Frank, Part 2, “A Change of Course Thanks to Blaise Pascal” December 2, 2009

Posted by Frank

I left off last time with the prospect of broadening my mind with the great works of Western thought in the Harvard Classic Five-Foot Shelf of Books (HCFFSB). I was ready to wade into the deep valleys and high pinnacles of the works that molded Western civilization as we know it today. But where to start?
I looked over the choices by scanning the titles embossed in gold lettering on the spines of the volumes. I wasn’t in the mood for poetry so Volume 4, Complete Poems in English, Milton, was out. So was Volume 6, Poems and Songs, Burns (but I would be back for that one). The Aeneid? I had read that already when I was a young warrior. Ditto for Emerson. I was all about Self-Reliance anyway—yawn. Two Years Before the Mast? Sorry—I’ve been at sea for a year with the Royal Navy, fella, via Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, and it’s time to hit port!

Something new, something . . . sophisticated! Something I can feel smart reading while drinking my coffee before taking up my tools and honey-do list. Volume 21: I Promessi Sposi by Alessandro Manzoni. I’m feeling smarter already because this title isn’t even in English! I’ve never heard of it, and here it is in the Canon. I pick it up and learn that the title means “The Betrothed.” Hmmm, not exactly a promising title, but what do I know? This is an IMPORTANT BOOK or it would not be in this set. Press on, Marine!

Yeah, well, it may be important, but from the two chapters of silliness that ensued, I put it down quietly. Maybe later. I went back into the batter’s box for another try and started working my way backward from the last volume until I landed upon Volume 48, Blaise Pascal, Thoughts, Letters, Minor Works. I recognize this name from a math class, and math and I get along, so let’s see what this is about. Little did I know that the esteemed mathematician was about to change my ship’s course and get me on a tack heading to Rome. It would play a major part in my voyage “home” to the Catholic Church.

My first job out of college was as a broker with Merrill Lynch. After all, I didn’t go to college to “find myself.” The Marine Corps took care of all that. College was an investment and I had no illusions about wasting time finding myself. So I fancied myself a financial man because when you don’t have much money, the best way to make some is to deal in it. Naive, reckless, and just plain wrong for me. Did I pray about it? Sure, and I read all the Proverbs about being wise and wealthy too. Did it work out for me? Nope. And I’m glad it didn’t. I learned a lot that first year out of college.

I stayed interested in finance as a hobby, and my Merrill Lynch training didn’t get completely wasted. After leaving the sale of financial products to others and getting a civilian job a Marine could understand (logistics), I had picked up Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk by Peter Bernstein, and it was there that I had my brush with Pascal’s story. Bernstein writes of his genius as a mathematician, a child prodigy, who corresponded with other giants in the field such as Leibnitz and Fermat. He had a gifted mind and seemingly threw “it” all away for God. Bernstein writes that he fell in with Jansenists, a radical Catholic sect in the early 1600s, and had a mystical experience,

He sewed a description of the event into his coat so that he could wear it close to his heart. . . . He abandoned mathematics, and physics, swore off high living, dropped his old friends, sold all his possessions, and a short while later took up residence in the monastery at Port-Royal in Paris.

I think I read that in 1998/1999 and thought to myself, “Weird.”

Keep in mind that somewhere in here is my conversion story. I am a Catholic today and an alumnus of the class of 2008 (which includes Webster Bull; Tony Blair, former PM of Her Majesty’s Government; and thousands of others). My wife is a cradle Catholic, and I was married in the Church (thankfully, as that was one less hurdle to jump in RCIA). But in 1998/99, I was a wash-out.

I had tried to convert before in 1990 at a parish near our first apartment, soon after my wife and I got married. I threw in the towel because the director of the program was clueless, ignorant of scripture, couldn’t explain why these extra books were in the Bible, etc., etc. Besides, I was going to college and this was messing with my grades! I got a nice Catholic Bible and a crucifix, as a keepsake, but I figured I was “one and done” on RCIA.

I attended Mass faithfully with my wife and promised that if we had children I would raise them Catholic. This was important to my sweetie, and I was a “big picture” Christian in an ecumenical sense before I even knew what that meant. Our three children were born and duly baptized in the Church, and I threw myself on the mercy of Catholic coworkers and later Marine Corps comrades to be godfathers of my children. But me become Catholic? Not gonna happen!

So here I am in 2006 with Pascal’s Pensees and the seeds of an idea forming in my head. This is the stuff he wrote after he bailed out of “the world.” Hey…I’ll read this guy’s stuff and use what I find to prove to my wife that the Catholic faith is, if not fatally flawed, then misguided! Then we can look around my hometown for the Protestant church we feel comfortable at and get on with our lives. (Blaise is laughing himself silly as I write this.)

So I pick up the volume and note that it is 444 pages and I think, “This guy was serious about whatever he was writing here. Pretty lengthy book for someone who left the Show.” I read the intro and it says he was born on June 19, 1623, in Clermont in Auvergne—blah, blah, blah—and then “an accident had brought the Pascal family into contact with Jansenist doctrine and Blaise became an ardent convert. Jansenism, which took its name from Jansenis, the bishop of Ypres (note to self: World War I battlefield) had its headquarters in the Cistercian (never heard of ’em) Abbey of Port-Royal, and was one of the most rigorous and lofty developments of post-Reformation Catholicism. Its doctrine somewhat resembled Calvinism in its insistence on Grace and Predestination at the expense of freedom of will.” Ah-ha, Blaise! Gotcha!

It went on to explain that Pascal backed the Jansenists in attacking the Jesuits, who attacked Jansenist doctrine as heretical and the Church ruled that the Jansenists ideas were heterodox. That’s a big ole word I learned in college; it means “baloney”. Silly Catholics… can’t they just get along? Blaise then turned his talents to writing an “Apology for the Christian Religion,” and I thought to myself, “This is gonna be good.”

This book Pensées (Thoughts) was published after his death (gulp! he died at age forty) and is made up of the notes for the book he was never able to complete because of his untimely death. I made it to page 21 before I couldn’t stop myself from breaking out the highlighter pen.

These thoughts of his were right on the mark, and I couldn’t have agreed with them more! Like this:

Scaramouch, who only thinks of one thing. The doctor, who speaks for a quarter of an hour after he has said everything, so full is he of the desire of talking.

Sounds like some of my professors, and other bores I’ve come across.

When a natural discourse paints a passion or an effect, one feels within oneself the truth of what one reads, which was there before, although one did not know it. Hence one is inclined to love him who makes us feel it, for he has not shown us his own riches, but ours. And thus this benefit renders him pleasing to us, besides that such community of intellect as we have with him necessarily inclines the heart to love.

This guy is on to something. . . . I wonder what kind of beer he likes and who his favorite baseball team is?

Let no one say that I have said nothing new; the arrangement of the subject is new. When we play tennis, we both play with the same ball, but one of us places it better. I had as soon it said that I used words employed before. And in the same way if the same thoughts in a different arrangement do not form a different discourse, no more do the same words in their different arrangement form different thoughts!

You mean like me trying to go one-on-one with Kobe Bryant in a game of basketball? Yeah Kobe could “place the ball better”! I can definitely see this.

Epigrams of Martial. — Man loves malice, but not against one-eyed men nor the unfortunate, but against the fortunate and proud. People are mistaken in thinking otherwise. For lust is the source of all our actions, and humanity, etc. We must please those who have humane and tender feelings. That epigram about two one-eyed people is worthless, for it does not console them and only gives a point to the author’s glory. All that is only for the sake of the author is worthless. Ambitiosa recident ornamenta. [Horace, Epistle to the pious, 447. “They curtailed pretentious ornaments.”]

Now he is getting into where I live! This is Don Henley’s tune “Dirty Laundry.” I love that song!

Do you wish people to believe good of you? Don’t speak well of yourself.

And so it goes for 317 pages. How can I not love this man and his ideas? This is the Catholic, who had his earlier support for the Jansenists defeated as heretical by the Jesuits and he still comes back all in love with this Catholic church, full of knowledge and kindness for Her, and it all makes sense to me! He is not feeding me ammunition; he is taking it away!

In the section entitled “The Misery of Man without God” my first highlighted entry is

Self-love. — The nature of self-love and of this human Ego is to love self only and consider self only. But what will man do? He cannot prevent this object that he loves from being full of faults and wants. He wants to be great, and he sees himself small. He wants to be happy, and he sees himself miserable. He wants to be perfect, and he sees himself full of imperfections. He wants to be the object of love and esteem among men, and he sees that his faults merit only their hatred and contempt. This embarrassment in which he finds himself produces in him the most unrighteous and criminal passion that can be imagined; for he conceives a mortal enmity against that truth which reproves him and which convinces him of his faults. He would annihilate it, but, unable to destroy it in its essence, he destroys it as far as possible in his own knowledge and in that of others; that is to say, he devotes all his attention to hiding his faults both from others and from himself, and he cannot endure either that others should point them out to him, or that they should see them.

Blaise, how did you know how I really am? Sheesh…We must be drinking buddies! Then Monsieur Pascal begins talking religion, like so:

How I hate these follies of not believing in the Eucharist, etc.! If the Gospel be true, if Jesus Christ be God, what difficulty is there?

Whoa. Note to self: must look up definition of Eucharist(I was that ignorant!).

According to the doctrine of chance, you ought to put yourself to the trouble of searching for the truth; for if you die without worshipping the True Cause, you are lost. “But,” say you, “if He had wished me to worship Him, He would have left me signs of His will.” He has done so; but you neglect them. Seek them, therefore; it is well worth it.

I had been injured severely in an accident, which took the lives of two of my brother Marines, and almost me. Would I have been O.K. if I hadn’t survived?

Psshaw. Nah, I was fine. Come on man, get a grip on yourself! Don’t be too hasty to buy into Pascal’s silliness. Let’s take a look at those Letters and Minor Works. Don’t panic. Keep digging!

Next time: More about my buddy Blaise Pascal and his prowess as a “closer”.

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