There’s two things about Pascal you need to know to understand his thoughts on love. First, he doesn’t think reason (rational thinking) is very great: “How ludicrous is reason, blown with a breath in every direction!” Unlike most philosophers, he thinks it’s weak, lesser than faith, overwhelmed by the imagination, leads to pride. Another thing about Pascal is his belief that humans are depraved, unjust, wicked, “a great source of wretchedness.” He constantly talks about it; Hobbes is an optimist compared to him. You could pretty much sum up Pascal’s thoughts about love like this: hate yourself; love God. Period.
The thing about love is that it blindly and stupidly attaches itself to anything it can. If people don’t attach themselves to “true objects, they must attach themselves to false.” Here Pascal is on the same page as Epictetus and others, who think that figuring out what to love is the crucial step to loving well. But what are these “true objects” that we are supposed to love? Well, the better question is what are the “false ones.” Pascal puts all the things we love in a field, sets the field on fire, and sees what’s left--the first to burn is the self, the ego, the “I”:
“Self is the enemy, and would like to be the tyrant of all others.” And: “The nature of self-love…is to love self only…But what will man do?...He wants to be the object of love” but “his faults merit only…hatred and contempt.” “He cannot prevent this,” says Pascal, and “this embarrassment” leads him to “devote all his attention to hiding his faults both from others and from himself.” Such a “voluntary illusion” is a “greater evil” than having the faults in the first place!
But alas, this “aversion to truth” is “inseparable from self-love,” and this all leads to a sort of fake love among people. We con each other into thinking we are all lovable:
“They treat us as we wish to be treated. We hate the truth, and they hide it from us. We desire flattery, and they flatter us. We like to be deceived, and they deceive us…Human life is thus only a perpetual illusion; men deceive and flatter each other. No one speaks of us in our presence as he does of us in our absence. Human society is founded on mutual deceit; few friendships would endure if each knew what his friend said of him in his absence…Man is, then, only disguise, falsehood, and hypocrisy…and all these dispositions, so removed from justice and reason, have a natural root in his heart.”
Wow! In other words, the barrier to us loving ourselves is that we really do suck! Pascal differs from “the philosophers,” who teach people that the greatest thing is inside them, that they should seek within for the divine. You can try to put make-up on yourself, but in the end it’s all pride and illusion and fakeness.
But loving yourself has even larger consequences: “the propensity to self is the beginning of all disorder, in war, in politics, in economy, and in the particular body of man.” “It is…a manifest injustice which is innate within us, of which we cannot get rid, and of which we must get rid.”
This all leads to his views on Christianity, which he considers the only water to put on the fire: “True religion consists in annihilating self before that Universal Being.” And “We must love God only and hate self only.” And “No other religion has proposed to men to hate themselves. No other religion, then, can please those who hate themselves, and who seek a Being truly lovable” and “Jesus Christ did nothing but teach man that they loved themselves…that He must deliver them…that this would be effected by hating self, and by following him…” But isn’t God, according to Christianity, “inside” us? Pascal doesn’t really give a clear answer, saying God is within and without but neither and both.
In somewhat of a Buddhist perspective, Pascal doesn’t want people to be "attached" to him either. “It is unjust that men should attach themselves to me” (“they ought not to”) “for I am not the end of any, and I have not the wherewithal to satisfy them. Am I not about to die?...they ought to spend their life and their care in pleasing God.”
With all this talk about hating oneself, Pascal does think we should love, or take care of, our bodies. We should think of all the parts of our bodies as “thinking members,” each of which have self love that we must give proportionately.
A small peephole for love?
This analogy of being a member of a body is, for Pascal, the key to loving yourself. You can only love yourself as a member of something bigger, not as a self: “in loving the body, it loves itself, because it only exists in it, by it, and for it…We love ourselves, because we are members of Jesus Christ…He is the body of which we are members.” So the only way out of self hatred and depression is putting yourself into a bigger picture, a process of self sacrifice and transformation.
Like many love-writers before him, Pascal praises the greatness of love:
“All bodies together, and all minds together, and all their products, are not equal to the least feeling of charity. This is of an order infinitely more exalted….From all bodies and minds, we cannot produce a feeling of true charity; this is impossible and of another and supernatural order.” And: “We are estranged only by departing from charity.”
And, agreeing with how Augustine interpreted the bible, he says “All that tends not to charity is figurative. The sole aim of the Scripture is charity.” What I don’t understand is how this charity talk fits in with all his talk about hating yourself and (presumably) other people. Why should we give to people that are not worthy of love, Pascal? There seems to be a tension in his philosophy; on one hand, he wants us to hate ourselves; on another, treat everyone with respect?
Giving to the poor is essential. Pascal thinks that all excess wealth (“superfluity”) should be given to the poor: “When we give the poor what is necessary to them, we are not so much bestowing on them what is our property as rendering to them what is their own; and it may be said to be an act of justice rather than a work of mercy.” (Augustine: “the superfluities of the rich are the necessities of the poor.”)
Pascal’s life reminds me of Tolstoy’s in the sense that as he reached his death he became intensely religious, gave away his possessions to the poor, and detached himself from human relationships.
Love Part 1: Platonic Love
Love Part 2: Aristotle
Love Part 3: Epictetus and stoic love
Love Part 4: Marcus Aurelius
Love Part 5: Plotinus
Love Part 6: the Buddha
Love Part 7: Christian Love
Love Part 8: Augustine
Love Part 9: Martin Luther King, Jr
Love Part 10: Aquinas
Love Part 11: Dante
Love Part 12: a Real Love Letter
Love Part 13: Chaucer
Love Part 14: Hobbes
Love Part 15: Machiavelli
Love Part 16: Montaigne
Love Part 17: Bacon
Love Part 18: Spinoza
Love Part 19: Your Body
Love Part 20: Milton
Blaise Pascal Modern Critical Views