Blaise Pascal on Lying to Oneself (and Everybody Else) about Oneself – By Nicholas Moore

Nicholas Moore on William Wood’s Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall: The Secret Instinct

William Wood, Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall: The Secret Instinct, Oxford University Press, 2013, 243pp., $125
William Wood, Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall: The Secret Instinct, Oxford University Press, 2013, 243pp., $125

The Pascal who penned the oft-quoted aphorism, “the heart has its reasons, which reason does not know,” also wrote “we are nothing but lies, duplicity, contradiction, and we hide and disguise ourselves from ourselves.” The latter phrase is rarely seen adorning social media profiles in an attempt to justify the latest love interest or project an air of profundity. Yet these statements, although initially appearing to pull in rather different directions, might in fact be aiming at the same target: the human individual is a complex of diverse faculties which, far from cooperating, mislead and deceive each other to create a self opaque to itself.

So far, so Freudian; but Pascal’s view of the self also rests squarely on an understanding of humanity as fallen, so for all its striking contemporaneity it remains profoundly Augustinian. We exist in the world not merely as hapless victims of the fragmentation of truth but as active and willing perpetrators of deception at every level. It is this (at first sight somewhat unpalatable) seventeenth-century account of selfhood that William Wood seeks to describe, defend, and develop in the first major Anglophone study of Pascal’s theology in 40 years. His stated aim is to show that Pascalian theology is both possible and fruitful.

For Pascal, truth and beauty are perfectly united and infinitely instantiated in God. Thus knowledge and love are integrally related: the human being has an infinite capacity for love, and this capacity is satisfied in knowing God. The self is loved finitely in and through this infinite knowledge of God, which entails an appropriate and proportionate knowledge of self. The Fall disorders this pattern: God is no longer an object of love, and the individual’s infinite capacity for love is directed towards the finite self. Instead of loving the truth, the individual hates the truth about itself (that it is unworthy of infinite love) and the truth about God (that he is worthy of such love).

On this account, it is not simply the case that our fallen will is directed away from the love of God and our fallen reason from the knowledge of God, leaving us with a restless, unfulfilled desire for happiness. We also hate the truth and actively avoid it. Further, because we love neither God nor ourselves rightly, we are unable to perceive and respond to value correctly. The Fall is not merely cognitive or affective, it is also evaluative. It is not so much that we no longer perceive truth to be true (although sometimes that is the case); we no longer find it attractive, and therefore we fail to value it as we should. From the inside this is hard to accept: “The desirable seems like the true. Rationalization seems like reasoning.”

The fallen self retains a desire for happiness, and this desire, coupled with the fear of existential boredom (ennui), propels us into various pursuits and entertainments, what Pascal terms “diversion.” On the surface this is because we believe these things will make us happy, but this activity is really an instantiation of our aversion to true happiness, which is found in God. In a kind of dramatic irony (in which I am both actor and dozing spectator), diversion is actually the pursuit of unhappiness. That in seeking entertainment I am in fact chasing discontent becomes apparent when I attain what I was pursuing and discover that it does not in fact satisfy. This realization in turn pushes me either back into ennui, or onwards into the fruitless pursuit of happiness in another object.

Wood applauds the empirical nature of Pascal’s claim concerning happiness but also notes that it is potentially falsifiable: if obtaining a finite good were to make someone fully happy, then the argument fails and the Christian worldview diminishes in plausibility. Pascal does not provide for this contingency, but Wood suggests it would be both possible and desirable to argue that the pursuit of any good presupposes a desire for the absolute good.

In a kind of dramatic irony (in which I am both actor and dozing spectator), diversion is actually the pursuit of unhappiness.

Yet Pascal may not have felt the need to provide any such argument because his claim is not in the final analysis falsifiable. His account of the Fall entails that human failure to attain happiness is observable, but at the same time pulls the empirical rug from under this fact — ehaecause there cannot really be any such thing as observable proof of the state of happiness (and certainly not of the happiness of another), given the duplicity and fragmentary nature of the fallen self. How can I really know that I am truly happy, let alone that someone else is? They could just be pretending, perhaps without even realizing it.

Pascal’s theology is comprehensive, but it implies a rhetorical and apologetic strategy which targets the individual psychology: the point is to bring each person face to face with his ennui, with the incoherence of his pursuit of diversion, in order to draw him back to the pursuit of true happiness. But this is to get ahead of ourselves: Pascal’s fallen self must travel through desolate landscapes both social and political before it can reach redemption.

Pascal’s social and political theologies are integrally related to the question of the self. Every self is an object of love; the false self, le moi, is an object of disordered love. Yet it is not the object simply of its own love but also of the love of others. That is to say, we are complicit in one another’s projects of deception. It is mutually beneficial, in seeking to escape the truth about ourselves, for us to accept and help shape each other’s imaginary, constructed identities. Social media did not create the disparity between what people are actually like and the image they project of themselves, even if it has in certain ways rendered this gulf more apparent. These imaginary selves remain just that, however: the way I think others regard me is nothing more than “my fantasy about your fantasy about me.”

Wood explores the dynamics of constructing le moi through a consideration of Nicholas Bulstrode, the apparently righteous banker in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Through a string of events Bulstrode effectively brings about the death of John Raffles, who knows his secrets and has threatened blackmail. Wood’s reading offers a compelling illustration of the process of self-deception, to which we shall return below. But it also shows clearly that the tacit cooperation of others is crucial to the success of Bulstrode’s project.

The physician Dr Lydgate gives instructions about caring for Raffles in his illness to Bulstrode alone, on his suggestion, and also accepts a loan from him. When Raffles dies after having received brandy from Bulstrode’s servant (against Lydgate’s advice, though unknowingly, as Bulstrode failed to convey this to her), Lydgate fails to raise any query as to whether his instructions were followed. An example like this is doubtless extreme, yet the dynamic whereby we become gradually more complicit in someone else’s project of deception is uncomfortably familiar.

This interpersonal deception is writ large at the political level. States and order are based, fundamentally, on violence (theologically, a sign of God’s wrath in response to the Fall): one group’s ability to subdue and dominate another. To sustain this state of affairs, however, the dominant group must engender submission in the governed group, thereby making actual violence temporary. Submission is perpetuated by deceit, and deceit is created through imagination.

The power of human imagination (which in the early modern period describes the bodily, inward representation of reality, rather than creative flights of fancy) is much greater than that of reason, and in the fallen self it is the primary, though not the constant, means by which experience is interpreted.

Imagination is closely related to and shaped by custom, or habituation. Our values are shaped by our bodily behavior — what Pascal terms “the automaton” or “the machine,” most famously and controversially in the Wager fragment. Here Pascal portrays an individual who, cornered by the logic (and the persuasive rhetoric) that there is more to gain and less to lose by betting on God’s existence, wants to believe but claims that he cannot. Pascal advises him to act as if he believed — attend Mass, take holy water, and so on — because cela vous abêtira: literally, “this will bestialize you;” your actions will gradually accustom and shape your beliefs. This is not to say that any mechanical behavior induces belief but that meaningful behavior, performing actions already invested with meaning, can and does shape the way we think.

Portrait of Blaise Pascal (1623-1672) at the Palace of Versailles. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Blaise Pascal (1623-1672) at the Palace of Versailles. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Applied at the political level, the action of bowing to a nobleman, the vesture of a lawyer, soldier, or clergyman, the mayor’s accompaniment by a bodyguard, all induce belief that these people are inherently superior, powerful, worthy of respect and obedience. Similarly, the notion that the state is in fact founded on and committed to justice can be perpetuated through a collective act of the imagination. The self-interest of the rulers is clearly served by such a situation, but so is that of the subjugated: they admit their weakness if they bow to force but not if they believe they are responding to natural superiority or universal justice.

If this sounds familiar, and possibly surprising coming from a Christian thinker, it may be because political theorists such as Louis Althusser and Pierre Bourdieu explicitly draw on Pascal in their political ideology, though without the Christian framework. Wood objects that in abstracting this theory from its theological roots, Althusser and Bourdieu omit the personal mechanisms of deception that mirror and engender the wider structural ones. Pascal, by contrast, recognizes both.

And lest this theory seem too pessimistic or even diabolical — the violent ruler subordinating a nation through force, then propaganda — Wood is keen to stress that the ruling classes rarely consciously deceive others, being in fact objects of deception together with the ruled. He points also to the potential for the Church to become a counter-institution, inculcating the habits and customs needed for political progress to take place. But any such role for the Church in the pursuit of justice has to take place in a context of humility and realism, for it, like any human institution, is prone to the same processes of violence and self-deception.

Returning to a closer focus on the individual self, Wood develops a Pascalian account of sin as “morally culpable self-persuasion,” which he considers in its strongest form of “lying to oneself.” He offers a penetrating analysis of the recent history of analytical philosophical discussions of the possibility of lying to oneself, showing how the terms of the question quickly changed from “can one lie to oneself?” to the rather different “is it possible to form biased false beliefs from plain evidence?”

Lying to oneself would seem to imply believing a proposition, p, and believing its opposite, not-p, at the same time; this is quickly dismissed by allusion to the spectre of paradox, and the focus of the investigation shifts to how one can believe something against the evidence when one wants to. Yet this is not really self-deception so much as biased irrational belief, and the moral implications in particular are sidelined. If all the evidence suggests René has stolen something and I believe he has not, that is a very different state of affairs from believing that René has committed theft and yet persuading myself that he is not really a thief, as any defence lawyer will tell you.

Even as he lays bare the original question’s derailment in philosophical scholarship, Wood fights back on several points. The logical paradox is not insurmountable: “Arnauld believes p” is not formally contradicted by “Arnauld believes not-p.” (Compare “Arnauld does not believe p,” which would be a formal contradiction of the first statement.)

Wood identifies another, “strategic” paradox, which has to do with how a subject could intentionally cause himself to believe p when he also believes not-p. His response to this point represents one of the most important insights of his Pascal-inspired theological project, and its most telling critique of analytical philosophy. Philosophers investigating the possibility of self-deception have tended to treat the self as an isolated and transparent phenomenon. Yet self-deception is not, as their discussions imply, a case of instantly believing something one knows to be untrue, à la Lewis Carroll’s White Queen. It is rather a question of degrees and process, a long-term project. Identifying and describing this process is a central part of Wood’s account of self-deception, to which we will come shortly.

A further distinction, which registers against the philosophical treatment of the problem as believing p in the face of evidence that not-p, is between empirical and interpretative judgments. Much of the time we are not deceived about observable facts; many of our judgments relate to evidence which is inconclusive or ambivalent and must therefore be formed through persuasion. Error is thus usually a case not of failing to gather information correctly but of failing to engage in the right process of reasoning and (self-)persuasion.

When to the necessity of persuasion is added the disordered self and the various pressures on belief formation that it imposes (such as the imagination’s rule over heart and reason, aversion to truth, and so forth), the notion that we might be hard-wired to deceive ourselves becomes more plausible. The process begins with the imagination, which constructs false images of the self in order to dispel our instinctive, conscience-driven reactions to the right or wrong of a particular course of action. These fantasies are then accepted, where “acceptance” denotes a voluntary (and therefore culpable) act of avowing the false self and hence turning away from truth.

Self-persuasion follows, where internal rhetoric directs one’s thoughts away from inconvenient truths and towards the desired (but false) self-image. In this regard, Wood complements Patricia Topliss’s justly renowned remark that “the Fall is a fall into rhetoric” with the insight that this rhetoric is directed as much inwards as outwards. Here awareness is important: the self-deceiver keeps himself from attending to his contradictory beliefs at the same time; at any point he could avow his intention to deceive himself, but the fact is that he does not. Finally, this false self is bodily enacted, with the individual acting as if he were morally blameless — and here again society is complicit in this deceit.

Wood’s emphasis on process as fundamental to persuasion, and therefore to self-deception, rings true. Indeed, it is also key to most deception of others, and in this if not in every respect self-deceit is fairly modelled on interpersonal deception. Lying to another person rarely takes the form of a straightforward lie; very few unfaithful spouses will actually say “I’m not having an affair.” Rather, it is a case of an interconnected layering of falsehoods over time: fabricated additional meetings and work trips away, removing or covering traces of lipstick or aftershave, and so on. Such a view of deception is also reflected in idiomatic speech: we talk of a “tissue of lies” or a “web of deceit” more than we do of discrete, misleading, false propositions.

If all this seems rather bleak, Pascal unsurprisingly has an account of redemption. Even before this, however, in his account of the fallen self as self-deceiver there is a ray of light: we do still care about truth enough to cover up the fact that we are avoiding it. Self-deception is a sign that we are so fallen that we cannot bear to face up to it. For all the contemporary allegations of Pascal’s closet Protestantism, it is notable that he developed a much more sophisticated and holistic account of what those in the Reformed camp were to term “total depravity,” one that still resonates today. Self-deception is also a sign that somewhere deep down we still desire God and thus cannot stand the truth that we are actively turning away from him.

Only grace can enable the turn back to God, making the self coherent again because its infinite capacity for love is once again directed towards an infinite being. Because truth and beauty are united, love is an interpretative stance. “Love of truth” describes an approach to reality, not to an object or set of propositions. All other love, including love of oneself, is directed through God. Part of the falsity of le moi is its isolation, and this is shattered in the realization that the true self is loved as part of and for the sake of the body of Christ. True subjectivity is relational, indeed Trinitarian, inasmuch as the true self is utterly conformed to Christ. And just like sin and deception, the individual is progressively habituated into the redeemed life.

This study showcases Pascal’s ongoing relevance at the intersection of a variety of what are today distinct disciplines — theology, rhetoric, philosophy, psychology, sociology, literature, as well as (though not touched on here) mathematics and science. Wood writes clearly and with wit, in both its senses. He amply demonstrates his thesis that Pascalian theology is both possible and fruitful. Certainly in the literary world, one occasionally gets the impression that Pascal’s theological views are like the shrunken heads in the Pitt Rivers museum — an intriguing historical artefact worthy of study but not something anyone would actually want to do today. It is to be hoped that this work heralds the beginning of a revival of Anglophone interest in Pascalian theology beyond the popular appeal of some of his aphoristic comments and the Wager.

At a general level, the engagement with Pascal illustrates the immense potential of a well-chosen interlocutor from outside a particular academic discipline to shed light on that discipline’s blind spots. With the exponential increase in scholarly activity and ongoing subdivision into narrow disciplines, such external points of view have become all the more necessary — not simply a faddish dash for “interdisciplinarity” but a search for perspectives which may have been lost in the (perhaps inevitable) narrow channelling of methods and discourse which specialization entails. In a sense, this desire for breadth of insight is an unfulfillable harking for Pascal’s own era, in which being a polymath in the strict sense (Pascal himself stands as a prominent example) was still just possible, and therefore the emphasis on a well-chosen interlocutor is essential.

In the philosophical and theological domain, Wood’s achievement is to have resurrected Pascal to combat the spectre of his erstwhile opponent, Descartes. For what we have in modern analytical philosophy is in many ways a distinctively Cartesian progeny: a self which is considered in the moment, in abstraction from its body, and which is held to be so perspicacious as to be essentially self-transparent. Wood’s Pascal, by contrast, offers us a temporalized, embodied, and complex self which does not fully understand itself. I know which more closely reflects my own experience, though I could, of course, be deceiving myself.