Jeff McDonough has retrieved a crisp general audience talk by Margaret Wilson on Pascal and Spinoza, titled “Pascal and Spinoza on Salvation: Two Views on the Thinking Reed”. The lecture was published in the Harvard Graduate Society Newsletter (Fall 1992: 8-13). Framing her lecture as addressing ‘a central humanistic issue’, Wilson surveys Pascal’s and Spinoza’s views on reason, passion and how to achieve salvation.
‘Both Pascal and Spinoza express in their writings a strong sense of urgency about finding the correct values and commitment in life, about being saved, together with an implicit conviction that there is a unique and universal right answer to be found.’ (p. 9)
‘At the heart of both Pascal’s and Spinoza’s conceptions of the situation of man in nature is the contrast between man as a finite being with strong egoistic drives, but brief duration and limited powers, and nature as vast, all powerful, limitless, infinite, and completely incommensurable with human purposes.’ (p. 10)
‘Both philosophers also stress that as finite and dependent beings, we are subject to endless external emotional influences and disturbances. These perturb our reason and constantly affect our state of mind, our sense of pleasure and misery, in ways we may be powerless to control or even to understand. To this extent, it is part of human nature to be “wretched”, as Pascal often puts it, or to be subject to the “bondage” of the emotions and of inadequate understanding, in the terminology favored by Spinoza.’ (p. 10)
Wilson observes three key differences between Pascal and Spinoza’s attitudes. These concern: (1) their view on reason’s power (or lack of it) to ‘remove us from the state of wretchedness or bondage’; (2) their respective conceptions of happiness or salvation; and (3) their account of the role and appropriateness of fear—in particular the fear of death. Wilson states:
‘Pascal believes that a correct and reasonable perception of our position in the universe naturally and appropriately produces terror. (…) Spinoza would regard Pascal’s outlook as unenlightened, morbid, and weak.’ (p. 12)
The talk ends with a number of evaluations, including the following:
‘The central problem for Spinoza’s position is that he does not provide a clear or persuasive account of the notion of absolute rational insight on which it depends. (…) In some respects, Pascal’s position seems the more accessible and believable. True, Pascal may have exaggerated the impossibility of human beings fathoming by sense and reason the infinities of nature. Our powers of extending our knowledge have not proved so easily daunted or radically hedged as Pascal apparently imagined. But it seems to me, he still looks to be more nearly right than Spinoza and some other seventeenth-century rationalists in his claims about reason.’ (p. 13)
Read the full lecture here.