The Third Way, 43: Kohelet, 7 – Pascal and Kohelet

“All truth is God’s truth.”

Clement of Alexandria, ca. 200 CE

“The worship of novelty is closely related to belief in inevitable progress.  The assumption that the new will be better than the old follows naturally from that presupposition.  The extraordinary thing is that it survives in the face of irresistible evidence from every auction room that in a dozen departments of life the new just cannot match the old.  Where is the instrument maker who can produce a violin to match those made by Antonio Stradivari three hundred and fifty years ago?  Where is the writer of today who can be classed with Shakespeare, Dante or Homer?”

Harry Blamires, The post Christian Mind. (Vine Books, Servant Pulications, 1999), p. 91.

Kohelet-Solomon, our ancient sage and anachronistic guide to post-modernism, has been leading us all over the intellectual and worldview map.  Like an existentialist filled with angst, he laments the seeming futility of everything that is and has ever been. Yet somehow he still affirms that there is a Creator who holds it all together and who will someday bring everything and everyone to account.  But then he lapses into his prototype of post-modern scepticism, “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.  They have no further reward and even their name is forgotten.” (chapter 9, verse 5a).

He illogically follows that with “Go and eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. . . . Enjoy life with your wife [mate, spouse] whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. . . . Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” (chapter 9, verses 5-10)  He seems to believe that death is the end of personal existence, but, nevertheless, says there is an infinite Creator-Judge whom we should take into account in choosing how we live and treat one another.

Postmodern response: if it is really all meaningless, ultimately futile, and of no particular benefit to strive to be a good person except to avoid being caught and punished by the authorities, then taking God into account as a factor makes no sense.  If death is the end of existence (except perhaps for God, if there is one), why shouldn’t I just be an Epicurean and “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow I die”?  That is what Kohelet seems to say in just slightly different words—like Epicurus 800 years later suggesting that there is still an element of proper order, boundaries, and morality involved.  “Enjoy life with the wife [spouse] of your youth. . . . whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. . .”

Perhaps Solomon-Kohelet and Epicurus needed to meet someone like Blaise Pascal (1623-1662 CE).  In his Pensées, Pascal reflects on discussions he had with skeptics and atheists of his own day (the earliest proponents of the Enlightenment, such as the Deist Descartes) that even if you don’t believe there is a Creator and Divine Judge, living a moral and upright life is still a road to greater personal happiness.  For whether you hold with God or not, you cannot escape your conscience, nor can you escape the shame and ostracism of others for reprehensible behaviour.  And if that is still not enough to deter outright amoral hedonism, which he noted was rampant among the young and the trendy set of his time (there truly is “nothing new under the sun”), there is the increasing likelihood of dying an early death and finding nothing more than momentary pleasure in this brief life, with it ending full of remorse at having added nothing of worth to the world. 

Like Solomon-Kohelet, Pascal sounds remarkably contemporary with our own time in his address to the skeptics and thrill seekers of his day, always running to some party or flashy event, always trying to outdo their peers in fashion and novelties (see Blamires above), always drinking and philandering, oblivious to the reality that they were in fact gambling with their souls’ destiny in eternity, as well as establishing themselves as socially worthless persons in the here and now.  And all this does not take into consideration that they were participating in the ruination of other lives in the process.

Pascal was a child-prodigy, a renowned scientific and mathematical genius (still much studied) before he became a passionate Christian at age thirty following a near-death experience.  His precocious career-fame gave him a platform to speak about the disastrous spiritual condition of his society.  Part of his critique was of the entrenched religious hypocrisy he found all around him in both fashionable society and Church hierarchy, including the foremost intellectuals in both spheres who spent their time justifying practices and doctrines which were in fact crippling society and the Church’s witness.  Once more we are reminded of Kohelet’s observation that “What is has already been, and what has been will be repeated again.” Pascal’s treatise, Provincial Letters, was a reasoned, brilliant and easy to read excoriation of these faults and a massive best-seller for the time (over 200 000 copies sold at a time when the reading public in France numbered perhaps two million).  The Pope condemned it and ordered it banned and all copies burned, so it must have hit home very hard.

Perhaps what brings Pascal closest to Kohelet, our guide in this series of reflections, is what has been called “Pascal’s Wager” (found in Pensées).  This argument was certainly used orally by Pascal during his lifetime in his discussions and comments among his peers about the state of affairs in his society.  It is still a brilliant piece of apologetic, although modern philosophers and anti-theists have long since discounted its validity, on rather dubious grounds one might add.  One suspects that, in their eagerness to shove it into some dark corner lest it disturb them too much, we are hearing the postmodern scientific and philosophic equivalent of Hamlet’s soto voce comment about Ophelia’s remonstrations that what he had said to her was not true, “The lady doth protest too much.”

The following summary of the “wager” will not do it justice[i], but roughly it goes like this:

“You say there is no Creator to whom you will ever have to give an account, and that when death comes, you will simply go into oblivion.  Thus there is no reason to be concerned with the consequences of your selfish and even brutish behaviour, let alone your milder and most secret indulgences, unless you attract the attention of the law and lose your freedom to do as you please.  As long as you avoid this extreme, you can do whatever you fancy and spend your time, energy, and wealth pleasuring yourself with whatever maximizes your enjoyment while pursuing whatever you conceive happiness to be.

“Now, you may be right (although I certainly don’t think so).  If you are, when you die you will never actually know, because when you die you will no longer know or be able to know anything at all.

“However, the possibility that you may actually be wrong is at least as strong as the probability of the option you have chosen.  After all, no one ever has ever returned to tell us what, if anything, actually transpires after death.  Or so we are told ad nauseum.

“Thus, the choice of how to live your life becomes a sort of wager, a gamble.  The odds of making the wrong choice about where you are headed are in fact 50/50.  However impressive, science cannot help you here, nor can philosophy, at least not if it is merely a tool you employ to justify all your self-centered behaviour.  In the end, it is a question of faith. 

Your faith tells you that you need not fear any god or God to whom you will give an account for the things you have done, said, and thought during your very short time on this earth.  But you really do not know whether you are right or wrong.  You are taking a great gamble, like staking everything, absolutely everything, on a single flip of a coin.

My faith tells me that there is a Creator, a Being whom I will face when I die, and who will call me to answer for what I have done, said, and thought, and for what I have not done but should have, etc.  But my faith also tells me that this Being is not only just, but merciful, compassionate, and loving.  He does not desire for me to go into the fires of condemnation and eternal separation from His love.  Therefore, He offers me forgiveness and pardon.  He points me to the One who came to open the way to His love, and if I will turn to that One, the One who actually did rise from death, I too can be with Him for eternity.

“But in your innermost soul you already know that you have this choice.  My question for you is, “Are you willing to wager your eternal destiny on the one in two chance that you are actually right?”  You say that you are, but consider the terrible shock you may well experience when you arrive face to face with the one you say either does not exist or who made you with no greater nature than to die like an animal and cease to be forever.  What then will you have to say in your own justification?

“I, on the other hand, am willing to wager that this Being whom you scorn or say is imaginary will be there when I die, and that He will receive me according to His mercy, grace, and compassion in light of my faith.  What have I gained if I have chosen well?  Everything! An eternity so full of wonder and love that it is beyond any words or imagination to express.

“If, perchance, I am proven wrong, what have I lost in spending my life living according to the faith and principles which flow from my faith?  Nothing! Nothing in the next existence because it is not there to lose.  And nothing of real worth in this realm.  By living out my faith and principles in this realm, I will have ultimately given hope and love and care to some, and even myself.  And that is worth something right now. I will have known the joy there is in giving myself for others.  In contrast, the life centered on self-fulfilment finds itself empty and remorseful in the end.

“You may protest, “One may live a good life without bowing to a fable or myth of a Supreme Judge waiting on the other side.”  I admit, it is not entirely impossible to live well according to high principles because it is good for oneself if others are helped by what we do for them.  But the motive is still to benefit myself for my own ultimate peace and sense of well-being.  And then, at the end, should I discover that the Judge is not a fable, His question for me will be “Why did you despise Me? All I asked was for you to live well for love of Me and others rather than for your own benefit.”

“My friend, you cannot avoid this wager; you cannot escape it, whatever you may think.  Indeed, you make it every day you do not choose to accept the offer of free grace and pardon which remains on the table till your dying breath.  But when you have taken that breath, the offer has gone forever.  You may now make light of it, and you may amuse and distract yourself to avoid facing it.  But whether you wager or not, you have wagered.  And the ante you have put on the table is your eternal soul.  The coin is in the air; how will you call it?  A word of caution: making no call is the same as saying “No” to the offer lying on the table, and to the One who had made the offer.”

In our conclusion to Kohelet’s ancient reflections about meaning in a universe which seems totally futile, we will find that the ancient sage was rather more in tune and sympathy with M. Pascal than first meets the eye.


[i]  Pascal died far too prematurely at age 39.  Pascal’s mastery of written French dazzled his contemporaries and inspired later writers as different from him as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire.  He was called “le Maître”. Some have called him “the Cicero of French”. His French was so articulate, clear, and beautiful stylistically that he has served as a model ever since and greatly influenced the development of French prose writing.  The Académie Française often refers to him in determining the best usage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s