“Provincial Letters” By Blaise Pascal

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest you also be like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest he be wise in his own eyes.
–Proverbs 26:4,5

Blaise Pascal, a Catholic theologian, scientist and brilliant thinker, wrote these letters to defend his Jansenist friends against charges of heresy by the Jesuits.

I tend to think that Pascal and Kierkegaard are kindred spirits. First, they both strongly object to the academics of their time who substitute abstraction and speculation for the concrete and specific moral demands of Christianity on the individual. Second, they both employ irony to great effect, following the tradition of Church Fathers such as Tertullian and Augustine. One cannot help but feel their passion when they laugh at the folly of their opponents, and weep over their blindness at the same time.

Pascal criticizes the Society of Jesus for holding many contradictory doctrines. It doesn’t surprise me, since minds as diametrically opposed as Voltaire and Descartes both came from their midst. As Aristotle put it, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Justice and Authority

The Jesuits’ moral reasoning, casuistry, seems to be an attempt to reconcile the Christian doctrine of Charity with secular social norms, such as the concept of honour as demonstrated in the practice of dueling and honour killing, and the concept of reciprocal justice known as “an eye for an eye”.

Pascal sharply criticizes the Jesuits for condoning calumny and murder on plausible pretences. For example, some Jesuits write, “Honour is more than life; it is allowable to kill in defence of life; therefore it is allowable to kill in defence of honour.” One might replace “honour” with “liberty” or “property”, or anything else he deems valuable, to justify murder, as Locke justifies killing in defence of private property in his treatise on government.

To avoid the crime of murder, we must act at once by the authority of God, and according to the justice of God;… According to St. Augustine, “He who, without proper authority, kills a criminal, becomes a criminal himself, chiefly for this reason, that he usurps an authority which God has not given him”; and on the other hand, magistrates, though they possess this authority, are nevertheless chargeable with murder, if, contrary to the laws which they are bound to follow, they inflict death on an innocent man.


Pascal rejects the Protestant understanding of the Eucharist as heresy, but I suspect he couldn’t make sense of the Thomist doctrine of transubstantiation himself, for otherwise he would have explained it clearly in his own words as he did the doctrine of efficacious grace and many other subjects.

The following passage is the only place I can find where Pascal explains why he accepts the doctrine. It appears that he believes in the Real Presence, as do Calvin and Luther, but he misunderstands the Reformers’ objections: the issue is not whether Christ is present, but the mode of His presence, in the Eucharist, which seems to me a philosophical issue, rather than a theological one.

“God,” says St. Eucher, “has made three tabernacles: the synagogue, which had the shadows only, without the truth; the Church, which has the truth and shadows together; and heaven, where there is no shadow, but the truth alone.” It would be a departure from our present state, which is the state of faith, opposed by St. Paul alike to the law and to open vision, did we possess the figures only, without Jesus Christ; … And it would be equally a departure from our present state if we possessed him visibly; because faith, according to the same apostle, deals not with things that are seen. And thus the eucharist, from its including Jesus Christ truly, though under a veil, is in perfect accordance with our state of faith.



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