T.S. Eliot’s Introduction to Blaise Pascal’s “Pensees”

I thought it worthwhile to include this link to T.S. Eliot’s introduction to an edition of Blaise Pascal’s Pensees.  As the name of this blogsite indicates, I am a great fan of Pascal’s — and T.S. Eliot is, well, T.S. Eliot.

I learned about the introduction from a recent Wall Street Journal review by Joseph Epstein of The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot; the relevant sentence read, “In his essay on Pascal, for example, [Eliot] remarks that Pascal’s ‘Letters to a Provincial’ are unsurpassed as polemic, ‘not by Demosthenes, or Cicero, or Swift.'”  Epstein is making the point that, “To intelligence Eliot added wide learning and a tone of easy authority that has not been matched in formal criticism since his death.”

Eliot’s introduction begins with a biographical sketch of Pascal and, when he turns to the Pensees, declares early on that “it occupies a unique place in the history of French literature and in the history of religious meditation.”  Next, Voltaire’s approach to Christianity is starkly contrasted with Pascal’s, “the process of the mind of the intelligent believer.”  Pascal’s despair, continues Eliot, “was a necessary prelude to, and element in, the joy of faith.”  In discussing Pascal’s Jansenism, Eliot discusses how “freewill or the natural effort and ability of the individual man, and also supernatural grace [emphasis in original], a gift accorded we know not quite how, are both required, in co-operation, for salvation.  Though numerous theologians have set their wits at the problem, it ends in a mystery which we can perceive but not finally decipher.  At least, it is obvious that, like any doctrine, a slight excess or deviation to one side or the other will precipitate a heresy.”

I was struck by how frequently Eliot’s prose and turns of phrase reminded me of G.K. Chesterton’s (maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised).  I liked Eliot’s observation that, in the Pensees, “the fragmentariness lies in the expression more than in the thought.”  And, after quoting Pascal’s famous line regarding head and heart, Eliot admonishes those who would use it to put the latter over the former:  “The heart, in Pascal’s terminology, is itself truly rational if it is truly the heart.”

Here’s how Eliot concludes his introduction:

…. And indeed, because of [Pascal’s] unique combination and balance of qualities, I know of no religious writer more pertinent to our time. The great mystics like St. John of the Cross, are primarily for readers with a special determination of purpose; the devotional writers, such as St. François de Sales, are primarily for those who already feel consciously desirous of the love of God; the great theologians are for those interested in theology.  But I can think of no Christian writer, not Newman even, more to be commended than Pascal to those who doubt, but who have the mind to conceive, and the sensibility to feel, the disorder, the futility, the meaninglessness, the mystery of life and suffering, and who can only find peace through a satisfaction of the whole being.