A brief essay on The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal plumbs the depths of the human condition and establishes the logic of conservatism by examining hard choices in high-stakes situations. Pascal expresses his insights in brilliant pensées—fireworks of thought.

Let me focus on Pascal’s thoughts about two kinds of hard choices: (a) Who shall rule? (b) How shall I behave if God’s existence is uncertain?

Pascal’s general approach to hard choices is to clarify the limits of reason and the power of psychology, the better to chart a narrow path for rational choice: “There is nothing so conformable to reason as the disavowal of reason.” Pensée no. 272

Knowledge is incomplete. A (partial) increase in one’s knowledge tends to induce overconfidence. Wisdom consists in cognitive humility—an elusive frame of mind for intellectuals:

“The sciences have two extremes which meet. The first is that pure natural ignorance in which every man is born. The other extreme is that reached by great minds, who, having run through all that men can know, find that they know nothing, and again come round to the same ignorance from which they started; but this is a learned ignorance, conscious of itself. Those between the two, who have left their natural ignorance and not been able to reach the other, have some tincture of this vain knowledge, and assume to be wise.” Pensée no. 327

Who shall rule?

Pascal foreshadows the conservative principle, Chesterton’s fence. One should hesitate to change a rule, or to break with tradition, unless one understands the origin or function of the rule or tradition.

Pascal makes a case that traditions deserve legitimacy. Traditions have stood the test of time because they reduce conflict: Do we follow ancient laws and opinions because they are more sound? No; but because they stand alone and take from us the root of diversity [conflict].” Pensée no. 589

Pascal then illustrates the conservative principle’s function by concrete analysis of a fundamental political institution in early modern Europe: monarchy with dynastic succession by primogeniture:

The most unreasonable things in the world become most reasonable, because of the unruly lives of men. What is less reasonable than to choose the eldest son of a queen to guide a state? for we do not choose as steersman of a ship that one of the passengers who is of the best family. Such a law would be ridiculous and unjust; but since they are so themselves, and ever will be, it becomes reasonable and just. For would they choose the most virtuous and able, we at once fall to blows, since each asserts that he is the most virtuous and able. Let us then affix this quality to something which cannot be disputed. This man is the king’s eldest son. That is clear, and there is no dispute. Reason can do no better, for civil war is the worst of evils.” Pensée no. 786

Here Pascal foreshadows Nobel Laureate Thomas C. Schelling’s theory of the crucial role of salient focal points in strategic interaction and conflict resolution. Salience is psychological, not strictly logical. If there exists a clear, preferably unique, focal point, it can forestall or overcome bargaining impasses and self-serving conceptions of justice. If the focal point is recurrent—for example, primogeniture—it may readily become a tradition, a Chesterton fence.

How shall I behave if God’s existence is uncertain?

‘Pascal’s Wager,’ his most famous pensée, deploys both the logic of games of chance, and the psychology of belief-formation, to try and convince freethinkers to bet on God, and to dupe themselves

Pascal’s interlocutor is someone who does not believe in God. Their dialogue has three background empirical premises:

  • If God exists, then belief in God is a necessary condition for salvation in the afterlife.
  • One cannot prove the existence of God.
  • One cannot simply decide to believe.

Given these premises, Pascal first makes a gambler’s case that it would be prudent to believe in God. Pascal makes an appeal to interest, not evidence:

“Let us then examine this point, and say, ‘God is, or he is not.’ But to which side shall we incline? Reason can determine nothing about it. There is an infinite gulf fixed between us. A game is playing at the extremity of this infinite distance in which heads or tails may turn up. What will you wager? [… .]

Let us weigh the gain and the loss in choosing heads that God is. [… .] But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to win, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite; that is decided. Wherever the infinite exists and there is not an infinity of chances of loss against that of gain, there is no room for hesitation, you must risk the whole. [… .]

Every gambler stakes a certainty to gain an uncertainty, and yet he stakes a finite certainty against a finite uncertainty without acting unreasonably. [… .] So that our argument is of infinite force, if we stake the finite in a game where there are equal chances of gain and loss, and the infinite is the winnings. This is demonstrable, and if men are capable of any truths, this is one.” Pensée no. 233

The intuition is that any positive chance at an infinite reward has infinite value, and so trumps any finite worldly pleasures here and now. 

Pascal’s wager triggered an ongoing avalanche of analysis of the logic of ‘expected utility.’ It gets complicated fast. Let me mention just a few issues for flavor. What if God exists, but punishes gamblers? What if a gambler has a high ‘discount rate’ (i.e., cares about the present, not the afterlife)? What if there are many Gods?

Howsoever that may be, Pascal is certain that he has got the gambler’s attention. A quandary—a psychological challenge—then naturally arises. If it would be prudent to believe in God, but there is no proof of God and one cannot simply decide to believe in God, then what is a non-believer to do?!

Pascal’s answer is to take steps to dupe oneself by going through the motions of religious practice: 

“I confess and admit it [that belief in God would be prudent]. Yet is there no means of seeing the hands at the game? — Yes, the Scripture and the rest, etc. — Well, but my hands are tied and my mouth is gagged: I am forced to wager and am not free, none can release me, but I am so made that I cannot believe. What then would you have me do? [… .]

Labor then to convince yourself, not by increase of the proofs of God, but by the diminution of your passions. You would fam arrive at faith, but know not the way; you would heal yourself of unbelief, and you ask remedies for it. Learn of those who have been bound as you are, but who now stake all that they possess; these are they who know the way you would follow, who are cured of a disease of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began, by making believe that they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Thus you will naturally be brought to believe, and will lose your acuteness. — But that is just what I fear. — Why? what have you to lose?

The last process of reason is to recognize that there is an infinity of things which transcend it; it is but weak if it does not go so far as to know that.Pensée no. 233

The psychological thesis is that faking it is transformative. Going through the motions will eventually (a) dull one’s critical faculties, (b) erase one’s awareness of faking it, and (c) induce faith. The rational, self-interested choice is to submit to tradition as a means to psychological transformation.

Pascal’s thoughts about politics (legitimacy of dynastic succession) and about religion (prudent make-believe to achieve faith)—his thoughts about hard choices in high stakes situations—unflinchingly demonstrate the limits of reason and strategically enlist rational choice and psychology to harness traditions. The Pensées are the dawn of the modern conservative mind.


John Alcorn is Principal Lecturer in Formal Organizations, Shelby Cullom Davis Endowment, Trinity College, Connecticut.  Scruples about principles of historical inquiry, and a stint teaching in Columbia’s ‘great books’ core curriculum led him to explore methodological individualism and the social sciences.  As in the Dry Bones song, a concatenation of authors—Jon Elster, Diego Gambetta, Thomas C. Schelling, Robert Sugden, David Friedman, and Michael Munger—eventually brought him to discover EconTalk and EconLog.