Article Aug 17, 2015

Pascal for Today’s Culture: The Problem of Self-Love

Blaise Pascal was well regarded in the 17th century as a scientist, mathematician, inventor and thinker. A prodigy from a young age, Pascal was wildly successful on several fronts over the course of his short life. One of his most significant contributions was his Pensées, a collection of philosophical and theological fragments that remain incomplete due to his early death at the age of 39. My recent reading of his Pensées has been from Peter Kreeft’s Christianity for Modern Pagans, in which Kreeft systematically proceeds through the “essential pensées” of Pascal, including 203 of the original 993. Each pensée is followed by a brief analysis, clarification or expansion from Kreeft on the thought of Pascal.

Self-love and our fallen nature

Reading Pensées has stretched my mind in a number of ways, particularly in Pascal’s discussion of self-love. With targeted and clear diction, Pascal speaks to the rampant and destructive self-love in the world surrounding him, indicting himself as he does it. This self-love, Pascal observes, is inherent to our fallen human nature. While that nature is fundamentally the same today as it was in Pascal’s day, our culture’s idolatry of individualism gives Pascal’s words particular meaning and significance today.

To frame Pascal’s discussion of self-love, it is helpful to begin with a question he proposes, from pensée 978: “Is it not true that we . . . like (others) to be deceived to our advantage, and want to be esteemed by them as other than we actually are?” Indeed, perhaps nothing is more deeply rooted in American culture than this desire. The real substance of our existence pales in importance to its appearance.

Self-love and social media

Consider the entire premise of social media presence: we create online profiles that feature the most exciting, enviable pieces of our lives or the most intellectually stimulating fragments of knowledge that we have to offer, filling our feeds with images or topics that appeal to the specific cultural subset we seek to impress. Our actual selves are crushed under the weight of perception. This is perhaps the most tangible manifestation of the deception of self-love today, but we display it in any number of ways, all intended to promote a targeted and specific image of ourselves that we find pleasing. Whether we actually are that person is essentially irrelevant.

Self-love and constructive criticism

Pascal proceeds to discuss how self-love keeps us from giving or receiving constructive criticism. We each have blind spots and deeply need the correction of others, but in a culture that praises self-love, giving or receiving this correction becomes difficult as we become unwilling to do so for fear of its damaging effects. Our self-love obscures our understanding of our deep need for correction. Pascal explains with a metaphor, again from pensée 978: “A Prince can be the laughingstock of Europe and the only one to know nothing about it” because “telling the truth is useful to the hearer but harmful to those who tell it, because they incur such odium.” Unwilling to do the painful and stretching work of growth through correction and criticism, we choose to remain in a perpetual cycle of “disguise, falsehood and hypocrisy.” This is not what we were created for.

The root of self-love

Ultimately, the deceptions from self-love that we create and live in are rooted in a desire to make ourselves God. Though biblical examples abound, the most poignant is King Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel. Surveying his vast kingdom from his rooftop, Nebuchadnezzar becomes intoxicated with power and filled with self-love, declaring, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30b). Nebuchadnezzar then hears a voice from heaven: “the kingdom has departed from you . . .until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:31b, 32b). Nebuchadnezzar is driven from his kingdom and forced to wander the earth like an animal, “made to eat grass like an ox” (4:33). His story represents an extreme example of the cosmic rebellion each of us acts upon when we live in our self-love.

Pascal points out the foolishness of living in this manner in pensée 617: “It is false that we deserve this position [of God] and unjust and impossible to attain it, because everyone demands the same thing.” The world is teeming with God-complexed individuals, and we blindly throw our hat into the ring. Kreeft puts it succinctly in his analysis to pensée 617: “Few think they are God in theory, but all do in practice.” Kreeft goes on to point out the problem: “there can be at most one winner” in this battle to be God. Ultimately, the satisfying of all my desires and the entirety of control that I possess if I am God infringes on that of all other beings. If I am God, no one else is God. If God is God, I am not. The point is this: ultimately, somebody wins. Our Creator has a distinct advantage.

The answer to self-love

Pascal thus places mankind in an immensely bleak condition: denying our brokenness, we seek prosperity through deception of ourselves and others, sinking deeper and deeper into our fallen nature even as we believe we are improving our standing. Thankfully, like any good apologist, Pascal does not bring us to the depths and leave us there. He proceeds to point to the cure. In pensée 617 Pascal points out: “No other religion has observed [1] that this is a sin, [2] that it is innate in us, [3] that we are obliged to resist it, let alone [4] thought of providing a cure.” No other source diagnoses and cures our human condition like Christianity.

The message of Christianity to Pascal’s presentation of self-love is a message of human weakness. In the words of the Lord to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” The great irony of human existence is that in the pursuit of saving ourselves, we inevitably destroy ourselves. The message of the Bible is not that we are using the wrong method to save ourselves, but rather that the very act of saving ourselves is wrong.

In pensée 562, Pascal puts it like this: “There are only two kinds of men: the righteous who think they are sinners and the sinners who think they are righteous.” The righteous are those who know, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, that “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (64:6). Not even our best deeds can bring us close to Christ, and therein exists the great freedom of Christianity. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). Christ has set us free from the need to perform, enabling us to accept and embrace our weaknesses, knowing that there is where the Lord will meet us. When we turn our eyes from ourselves to the only true God in a world of imitators, we will find what we crave.