Hostility and Hospitality

After seventeen weekly posts of readings with my annotations, the Pensées of Pascal join two other works that I have blogged about systematically, chapter by chapter or book by book:

  • R. G. Collingwood, The New Leviathan, or Man, Society, Civilization, and Barbarism (1942);

  • Homer, the Iliad, in George Chapman’s translation.

Do three authors belong together, for any other reason than that I have spent time with each of them?

  • For Pascal, the Torah is history, but the Iliad was written too late to be that, and is just a novel (S 688 / L 436 / B 628). It has no concept of law, he says (S 691 / L 451 / B 620), but later Greeks took this and other things from the Jews. I discussed this in “Judaism for Pascal.” For example, Philo Judaeus thinks that when Heraclitus says, “We live their death and we die their life,” this is the death wrought by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis.

  • Pascal and Collingwood both come to terms with a world of contrariety. Collingwood calls it “a Heraclitean world,” alluding to how Plato has Socrates tell Hermogenes in the Cratylus (402a, Loeb translation by Harold North Fowler),

    Heracleitus says, you know, that all things move and nothing remains still, and he likens the universe to the current of a river, saying that you cannot step twice into the same stream.

    Collingwood goes on to say in The New Leviathan, Chapter XXIV (“The Body Politic, Social and Non-social”),

    Plato’s discovery was how the intellect could find its way about in a Heraclitean world. The answer is: think dialectically.

    A Heraclitean world is not a world of compromise; there might be compromises in a non-Heraclitean world; it is a world of change. Change implies a pair of contradictories (call them x and not-x) so related that the positive term is gradually gaining on the negative term: there is something that was not-x, but whatever was not-x is turning into x.

    Pascal’s theme is not change as such, but the contradictories, as in S 614 / L 733 / B 862:

    The Church has always been attacked by contrary errors … The Faith embraces several truths that seem to contradict one another: “time to laugh, to cry,” etc.

    I shall come back to this.

Pascal is a theme of Eric Rohmer, My Night at Maud’s (1969). I was able to watch this during the reading of Pascal, thanks to the attentiveness of my wife Ayşe as to what was playing on Mubi. According to Wikipedia:

Over the Christmas break in a French city, the film shows chance meetings and conversations between four single people, each knowing one of the other three. One man and one woman are Catholics, while the other man and woman are atheists. The discussions and actions of the four continually refer to the thoughts of Blaise Pascal on mathematics, on ethics and on human existence. They also talk about a topic the bachelor Pascal did not cover – love between men and women.

The “French city” is Pascal’s home town of Clermont-Ferrand. Pascal does cover the topic of love between men and women, if only in the ninth of our readings, where Pascal takes up the sacrament of marriage in Sellier fragment 591 (which is Lafuma 713 and Brunschvicg 923; the following is my translation):

In the sacrament of penitence, what remits sins is not only absolution, but contrition, which is not real if one does not seek the sacrament.

In the same way, what prevents sin in the act of generation is not the nuptial benediction, but the desire to beget children for God, which is real only in marriage.

Thus, as somebody who is contrite without the sacrament is more disposed to absolution than an impenitent person with the sacrament, so the daughters of Lot, whose desire was only for children, were more pure, without being married, than married persons who do not want children.

Along with Ayşe then, I must be impure. I did enjoy Rohmer’s film, which like the Pensées themselves is spare. It is black and white and focussed on words, whether in dialogue or in sermons in church. I cannot say the film gave me insight into Pascal himself. It does constitute evidence for a remark of Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind (1987):

Descartes and Pascal are national authors, and they tell the French people what the alternatives are, and afford a peculiar and powerful perspective on life’s perennial problems. They weave the fabric of souls. On my last trip to France I heard a waiter call one of his fellow waiters “a Cartesian.” It was not pretentiousness; he was just referring to what was for him a type. It is not so much that the French get principles from these sources; rather they produce a cast of mind. Descartes and Pascal represent a choice between reason and revelation, science and piety, the choice from which everything follows.

Making such a definitive exclusive choice would seem to be a difficulty for Pascal himself, who says,

  • in the ninth reading again, now in Sellier fragment 512 (L 619, B 394):

    All their principles are true, those of the skeptics, stoics, atheists, etc.; but their conclusions are false, because the opposite principles are also true;

  • in S 614 again, in the tenth reading,

    The source of all heresies is the exclusion of some of these truths.

Myself, I may understand what Descartes is about, better than I do Pascal. But then Pascal is important for taking up the subject of how Jehovah allows his own Son to be killed.

Zeus allows this too, during the Trojan War, in the northwest of what is now Turkey, in a place I could reach in principle by sailing from Istanbul across the Marmara and out the Hellespont. Today the Marmara is getting clogged with sea snot, in part because what was once the Propontis is now made to serve as toilet for millions of residents of Turkey.

Zeus has a wife, Hera, to whom he says, in Book XV of the Iliad, in the translation of Caroline Alexander (lines 59–68; bold emphasis mine):

and let Phoebus Apollo rally Hector for battle,
and breathe strength in him at once, and make him forget the pains
that now bear hard upon him through his lungs, and
let him roll the Achaeans back again after stirring abject panic,
so that they fall fleeing into the many-benched ships
of Peleus’ son Achilles. And he, Achilles, will rouse his companion
Patroclus, whom shining Hector with his spear will kill
in front of Ilion, after Patroclus has destroyed a multitude
of other young men, among them my own son, godlike Sarpedon;

and enraged at Patroclus dying, godlike Achilles will kill Hector.

In Book XVI, Zeus is tempted to let Sarpedon survive. Hera warns him: “Do so; but not all the other gods will approve.”

So she spoke; and the father of gods and of men did not disobey.
But to the earth he rained drops of blood
honoring his beloved son,
whom Patroclus was to
destroy in Troy’s rich soil, far from the land of his father.

It is said of Jesus that, on the Mount of Olives, “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” That is in Luke 22:43–4, whose authenticity is contested.

Sarpedon goes down fighting, still in Book XVI:

And again the two men came together in heart-devouring strife.
And again Sarpedon missed with his shining spear,
and over Patroclus’ left shoulder the spear-point
passed, nor struck him. But then Patroclus attacked with his bronze-headed spear;
and from his hand the shaft did not fly in vain,
but struck, there where the lungs close in around the beating heart;
Sarpedon fell as when an oak falls, or white poplar,
or stately pine that in the mountains timbering men
fell with fresh-whetted axes to make a ship;
so he lay stretched out before his chariot and horses,
roaring, clutching at the bloodied dust.
As when a lion coming among a herd slaughters a fiery, great-hearted
bull among the shambling cattle,
and it dies groaning under the lions’ jaws,
so at the hands of Patroclus did the leader of the shield-bearing Lycians
rage as he lay dying, and called by name his beloved comrade:
Glaukos old friend, warrior among men, now you must
be a spearman and brave warrior;

if you are quick, let bitter war be your desire.
Before all else, range everywhere to rouse the Lycian leaders
to go to battle round Sarpedon;
and then you yourself fight for me with your bronze spear.
For I will be a disgrace and a rebuke for you
all your days through if the Achaeans
strip the armor from me, fallen among the gathering of their ships.
Hold on strongly, and rally all the people.
Then as he was so speaking, the end that is death covered
his nose and eyes. Patroclus stepping with his heel upon his chest
yanked his spear from the flesh, and the lungs followed with it;
so he drew forth the man’s soul and his spear-point together.

The Nazarene has a different response to an armed threat, in Matthew 26, at the conclusion of the Agony in the Garden, when he is arrested:

52 Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.
53 Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?
54 But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?

Says Pascal of this in the fifteenth reading, Sellier 749 (L 919, B 553),

Jesus suffers in his Passion the torments that men inflict; but in the Agony he suffers torments that he gives himself. “[He groaned in the spirit,] and was troubled” [John 11:33]. It is torture from a hand not human, but omnipotent; and one must be omnipotent to endure it.

That dissidents could be tortured to death in Turkey: an American friend wanted me to resolve the paradox that this could happen, even though all the Turks he had personally met in the US were really nice.

“If I had a prize to award to the nicest, kindest people in the world, it would go to the Turks”: thus Anne Mustoe, in A Bike Ride: 12000 Miles Around the World (1991). She is writing about a solo journey that she began in London at age 54. We are in the chapter called “Aegean Turkey,” where Mustoe says,

Turkish men look very fierce. They have dark, flashing eyes and large bristling moustaches and their smile, on meeting a stranger, is not automatic. Yet beneath this alarming exterior they are real softies at heart. It was not long before two of them pulled up in a van and tried to give me a lift, an offer which would be repeated every day by scores of drivers. My suspicions, born of our more violent Western society, soon melted and I learned to take these persistent offers at face value: they were kindly meant by drivers who simply could not understand that a woman might choose to cycle alone over mountains and plains when motorised transport was available. I always refused their lifts, as gently as I could, and cycled on. And they always stood in the road, watching me go, a mixture of bewilderment and pity on their faces.

I took this up in connection with Chapter II of The New Leviathan. Hospitality can be well-meaning, but uncomprehending of a guest’s real wants and needs.

Hospitality can also be domineering, as when Polemarchus insists on hosting Socrates and Glaucon for the evening in Piraeus, at the beginning of the Republic.

In Jane Austen’s novel, Emma Woodhouse has grown up, believing she knows how to care for other people; there is a crisis when she realizes that she has not understood the needs of others or even herself.

Pascal appeals to selfishness in our twelfth reading, in Sellier fragment 680, called “Discourse of the Machine.” This features the famous Wager, in which Pascal touts the Church as a way to obtain eternal life. I think such a prize can be only a symbol or figure of the reality, as Pascal himself might say. A selfish life drawn out to infinity would be hell; at least that is what I imagine, with the help an old Twilight Zone episode, “A Nice Place to Visit.” This is the one that I saw as a child, on the couple of occasions when I was able to stay up late enough to watch the program. Somebody has edited the episode down to five minutes. One can also just read the summary on Wikipedia.

I pointed out that the myth of a god’s sacrifice of his son is not unique to Christianity, since in Homeric myth, Zeus sacrifices Sarpedon. Abraham almost sacrifices Isaac, in a Jewish myth that Pascal does not take up explicitly, although in “Abraham and Gideon,” I noted how he may allude to it.

One may take Abraham and Isaac as a type for the Father and Son of the Trinity, and perhaps Pascal would agree.

Pascal says in the sixteenth reading, Sellier 769 (L 948, B 668),

Let us change the rule that we have been using to judge what is good. We had our own will for a rule; let us now take the will of God. All that he wants is good and just; what he does not want, bad and unjust.

How does one know what God wants? This is a theme of the Euthyphro, the dialogue of Plato that I took up in “Piety.” How for example did Abraham know God had commanded the sacrifice of Isaac?

That he did not know, because God did not want it, is a possibility discovered by Musfafa Akyol and discussed in an interview with David Lepeska called “Gap Between Muslim World & The Rest Becoming Wider” (Kashmir Observer, May 29, 2021):

I dug into this issue and highlighted a different take on this story in Islamic tradition, which was offered by the Mu’tazila scholar Abd al-Jabbar and later the Sufi master Ibn al-Arabi. They said, wait, actually, God never sent a revelation to Abraham in the Quran to sacrifice his son. Abraham just saw a dream and interpreted the dream. It was not a revelation so there was no divine command. And what happened was God saved him from doing this terrible thing by sending a lamb.

Akyol has some sensible general remarks:

In Islam, when we Muslims hear commandments from the divine, God, the Prophet, such as do this or don’t do that, from the Quran or Hadith, are we supposed to obey blindly? Or do we legitimately have our own internal conscience to check things and say, “Wait a minute, this doesn’t sound right. Let me look into this more carefully.” I advocate this latter view because I believe there are commandments from God in every religion, but also there are god-given values to humanity that are universal. And these two values in every religion should be used together.

The question remains of why there should be different religions. Tom Holland takes up what one of them has given the world in “Why I was wrong about Christianity,” in the New Statesman (September, 2016). Quoting 1 Corinthians 1:23, as Pascal also does (in Latin, in the sixth reading, in S 422 / L 834 / B 826), Holland says,

“We preach Christ crucified,” St Paul declared, “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” He was right. Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries – Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.

Holland goes on to say that the Christian revolution

is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering.

And yet this is precisely the lesson of the Gorgias of Plato. I tried to spell out Socrates’s argument in a blog post last year, “Doing and Suffering,” a little before face-to-face courses at my university were cancelled.

Since attacks on Muslims by Hindu mobs in India were in the news, I used them as an example: is it less bad to be in a mob, or to be its victim?

Some persons may calmly maintain that beating somebody to death is better than being that person. However, in the Gorgias, neither Polus nor Callicles can maintain it; their reason does not allow it, when they are questioned by Socrates.

Their actions, their passions, may still belie their reason. Is that a paradox? It may be only corroboration of things Pascal says, for example in the first reading, S 78 / L 44 / B 82, “Imagination”:

The greatest philosopher in the world, on a plank wider than need be: if there is a precipice below, though his reason convince him of his safety, his imagination will prevail.

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