Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What Pascal Said

H'llo, y'all. 
So I was thinking about my paper last night and then I was reading Pascal (1623-62) and then I was having this thought.

See, Pascal says this:
It is dangerous to make man too aware that he is on the same level as animals without demonstrating to him his greatness. It is also dangerous to make him too aware of his greatness without showing him his baseness. It is even more dangerous to leave him ignorant of either state, but very helpful to demonstrate both of them to him.

Man must not think he is on a level with either beasts or angels, and he must not be ignorant of those levels, but he should know both. 

" - Pg. 38 (of the 1995 Oxford World Classics edition of the Pensees, translated by Honor Levi)

Which is a very interesting thing to say, I hope you agree. Although not particularly Medieval. But then I remembered that during the Reformation John Calvin (It could have been somebody else though - I'm having some trouble finding / remembering it properly) used to argue how we are lower on a celestial hierarchy than animals, because we are corrupted beyond repair in the face of God while animals have since the dawn of time unhesitatingly followed their task (to be used by men).

So I was wondering, do any of you have any late Medieval or Reformation examples you've been dying to pull out? I'm really curious how these sorts of distinctly un-beastiary views (either that men are at the bottom or that the hierarchy itself is essentially a tool with multiple correct answers) arose. And I have a sinking suspicion that they didn't start with Calvin. What did Augustine have to say on the subject of animals and original sin?

I don't know these things. Do you know these things?

Tell me if you know these things. 

- BB


  1. Interesting quote! I've only read "Confessions" when it comes to Augustine, but from what I recall he would agree with Pascal that we must be aware of our "animal" or carnal nature in order to overcome it. However, a connection to God is also necessary in order to know how to overcome these desires. Augustine's form of knowledge is more internal (we need to know our animal nature and our connection to God, rather than just knowing about animals and God), but the general idea is the same.

  2. Interesting! Very interesting.
    I'm going to hunt through A's City of God later this afternoon and see if I can find some corroborating evidence.

    But I don't think that Pascal is necessarily saying that we can "overcome" our bestial nature. I think what he means is that we are - in many respects - on the same "level" as beasts, but that it behooves us to tell ourselves (and other men) that we aren't. Pascal was, after all, an Enlightened thinker, and he explicitly believed that there were things "owed" us by God. And he was more concerned, I think, with enticing belief (in order to be able to accept these gifts justly) than in ranking things. What Calvin may have implied is that man's divergence from his divine nature taints him in relation to all of creation not so corrupted. Both views - the idea that misrepresenting truth to the masses in order to get people to pursue the good is necessary and the idea that our holiness can be measured by the degree that we adhere to our basic nature - smack of Platonic influence (quite removed from 7th century Platonism, of course). And so I'd really expect similar things to crop up in Augustine as well! Describing his argument as "internal" vs. external observation and categorization is, I think, a very good way of summarizing the differences between Aristotelian and both late and early Neo-Platonic natural science.

  3. Which raises the question of how "scientific" all of this wild Medieval Aristotle really is. I mean, it may not have encouraged this boom in animal classification, but Platonism - despite organizational and biological failings - both ascribes value to and largely doesn't interfere with "science."

    I've got my eye on you, Aristotle.