It would seem that all goods are interdependent, in relationship with the good of other things, and that no one good in life or in the world is “sovereign.” It would seem that if we could just continue those things that are pleasant in life, while mitigating the painful, as much possible, then we’ll be happy. Well, it is ironic, that the very rational, Blaise Pascal, the famous 17th Century French mathematician, physicist and inventor, would show his very heart-felt common sense ideas about life in his Pensées (Penguin Classics: New York. 1966.) or book on “thoughts.”
Pascal is bold, forthright and very rational throughout his Pensées but especially in the chapter entitled, “The Sovereign Good.” He says, “Man without faith can know neither true good nor justice.”(p.45) Here, Pascal reminds us of Saint Anselm’s statement “I believe, so that I may understand.” It can be said, that if one starts with faith, there is an openness of the will to accept revealed knowledge, knowledge from faith. A closer look at Pascal’s statement reveals that he is not excluding reason, but rather he is including faith as another reliable source of available knowledge, in addition to reason, so one to come to a complete understanding of what is the “true good” and “justice.” He continues, “All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions…the reason why some go to war and some do not is the same desire in both, but interpreted in two different ways.”(p.45) The notion that “there are no exceptions” also rings true as a universal statement, an obvious reminder that everyone seeks happiness, just not by the same means or by the same ends. Like Aristotle says in the very first phrase of the Nicomachean Ethics, so too does Pascal bring up this truth, that all people desire to be happy. We can see this commonality as a source of unity for everyone, and we can see here that Pascal points to the idea that its the interpretation of what will actually bring true happiness, the difference between what will actually bring happiness and a misperception of an end that will bring true happiness.
Pascal touches on another truism. The present is fleeting and elusive, he says, “So, while the present never satisfies us, experience deceives us, and leads us on from one misfortune to another until death comes as the ultimate and eternal climax.” (p.45) As he mentioned earlier, that “all men want to be happy,” we can think here of the idea that the difference between pleasure, delight, play and joy–these are all fleeting, short-lived not constantly sustainable, so we are unsatisfied with them because we know very well that that experience will come to an end. He says “experiences decieves us.” This sort of doubt sounds quite Cartesian, but we can look at it maybe from another point of view, in that, all of these momentary joys of the present disappoint us as “deceptions” because maybe we think that in the moment that the joy will continue forever, ad infinitum but, of course, we find that they do not or maybe in the moment we also anticipate their end. Therefore, we can be decieved in the moment when we forget about the temporality of joys, of pleasures and of delights, because we desire true happiness, true joy, true delight, not fleeting, not ending, not deceptive by its short-livedness, rather we desire everlasting joy, everlasting delight, everlasting happiness.
Pascal acknowledges the existence of the soul with our body, and we are certain that the soul is the part that purdures, that part lives beyond death, that part of us that is our deep-seated interior, our true identity as persons which is unique and unrepeatable, which is seeks unity but so often finds individuation. So what do we do? Pascal has some ideas, saying, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?” Here, we can see that Pascal believes in the a priori existence of the soul, and that our hearts, our will, our person, our being, has a logic of love oriented away from that which is temporal toward that which is eternal which we somehow foreknow. He says, “This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” (p.45) In other words, there is an exact fit to this longing in our heart, in our soul, in our life, and we know it exists to be filled, we want to be completed, but there is no thing that can do it no matter how long and hard we search. Pascal says, “God alone is man’s true good, and since man abandoned him it is a strange fact that nothing in nature has been found to take his place: stars, sky, earth, elements, plants, cabbages, leeks, animals, insects, calves, serpents fever, plague, war, vice, adultery, incest. Since losing his true good, man is capable of seeing it in anything, even his own destruction, although it is so contrary at once to God, to reason and to nature. (p.46) One might be reminded here of Saint Augustine’s famous quote, “My soul does not rest, until it rests in you O Lord” from his Confessions. This “confession” of Pascal reminds us that “yes,” we desire happiness, and “yes,” we desire what is good for ourselves and for others, but first we should be careful that we constantly seek, in our “heart of hearts,” exclusively the “Sovereign Good” who can truly satisfy this infinite desire of ours, as Pascal says, this is only God Himself.