Pascal’s dread (II)


Blaise Pascal was a mathematician and a Catholic apologist. C.S. Lewis was a converted Christian and a scholar of medieval literature. Both turned their eyes toward the cosmos. The medieval cosmos, they would have seen, was a delicate synthesis of Aristotelian cosmology and Christian theology. Aristotelianism insisted on the finite scope and spherical design; Christian theology built in a creative being acting within the cosmos yet also standing apart from it. The design was beautiful and harmonious, so starkly unlike the shape and substance of the modern world as to be all but unrecognizable and inconceivable to us moderns.

Both Pascal and Lewis, separated by 300 years, separately mourned the loss of the medieval cosmos. We must imagine Lewis ill at home here. We need do not such thing in the case of Pascal and this because he told us so with force and in anguish.

Pascal’s stance toward the epochal transformation was one of considerable dread. He was horrified by–in Alexandre Koyre’s words–the metamorphosis of the “closed world” into the “infinite universe.” In his Pensees, Pascal lamented that the “eternal silence of infinite spaces fills me with dread.” Pascal’s mood indicates that he is set apart from this new order of things and despairs of its ever being a home. Here, he implies, is a mathematicized universe of indefinite extension, a universe at once soundless and voiceless, song-less and devoid of life. Where in this conception of arbitrary and featureless nature, where in this unanimated matter, can human beings find themselves? Where can they revel and sing, where come to ‘proper measure’, where glory in God’s great creation? For will they not be exiled from song, fated to look on from without at a world that cannot possibly be ‘their own’? If Pascal could grasp the math, he yet despaired of finding a reason for the world’s existing at all. Whence his dread.

Ever the educator and Oxford don, Lewis is keen to take us on a visual tour of how a medieval cosmos might have looked and felt to its native denizens. In The Discarded Image, a book on medieval theology he finished not long before his death in 1964, Lewis eulogizes at length, stressing the aesthetic feel of things:

Whatever else a modern feels when he looks at the night sky, he certainly feels that he is looking out—like one looking from the saloon entrance on to the dark Atlantic or from the lighted porch upon dark and lonely moors. But if you accepted the Medieval Model you would feel like one looking in. The Earth is ‘outside the city wall’. When the sun is up he dazzles us and we cannot see inside. Darkness, our own darkness, draws the veil and we catch a glimpse of the high pomps within; the vast, lighted concavity filled with music and life. And, looking in, we do not see, like Meredith’s Lucifer, ‘the army of unalterable law’, but rather the revelry of insatiable love [as from Neo-platonic and Christian God]. We are watching the activity of creatures [most notably, planets which were alive but also angels] whose experience we can only lamely compare to that of one in the act of drinking, his thirst delighted yet not quenched. For in them the highest of the faculties is always exercised without impediment on the noblest object; without satiety, since they can never completely make His perfection his own, yet never frustrated, since at every moment they approximate to Him the fullest measure of which their nature is capable. You need not wonder that one old picture represents the Intelligence of the Primum Mobile [the First Movable, the final sphere before Heaven where God resides] as a girl dancing and playing with her sphere as with a ball. Then, laying aside whatever Theology or Atheology you held before, run your mind up heaven by heaven to Him who is really the centre, to your senses the circumference, of all; the quarry whom all these untiring huntsmen pursue, the candle to whom all these moths move yet are not burned.

Whatever else the medieval man felt he must have felt the sensuous properties–the dazzling sun, the quenched thirst, the dancing girl–inhering in the nature of the cosmos and wherever his eyes looked they would have been raised up in joy and wonderment at the beauty of being.

It is not quite as simple as saying that the scientific conception of nature replaced an aesthetic conception, though saying this much would be a start and would take us a good deal further. It is to say, however, that Descartes’s materialism, Locke’s metaphysics, and a more general turn from practice to theory would be turning points in the story of how nature disappeared and how human beings could no longer ‘see themselves’ as fitting into this new and estranging order.

Part III: We turn to Descartes’s argument for efficient causality tomorrow…