Pascal and Disbelief
Catechesis and Conversion in the Pensees
"This study constitutes a major contribution to the literature on Pascal. . . . [It] should be read by all students of Pascal, as well as by a wider audience of readers interested in the apologist. . . . The serious reader . . . will find an excellent introduction to Pascal's Penses as well as a wealth of scholarly information useful for embarking on a serious study of that great work of apologetics."—Professor Lane M. Heller, Department of French, The University of Western Ontario
"The originality of Pascal and Disbelief consists in its ability to draw together under a single critical scrutiny the diverse targets of the apologist: atheists; deists; the lukewarm . . .; heterodox eccentrics . . . ; Muslims; Chinese; the pagans of classical antiquity. In and of itself, the choice of such a critical perspective illuminates all sorts of fragmentary texts found in the Penses and brings to the fore a number of entirely new questions. Having synthesized the contributions of the commentators who preceded him, Professor Wetsel goes on to develop a series of completely innovative analyses. He is up to date on the most recent findings of Pascalian research, which he successfully integrates into his study. . . . Pascal and Disbelief both enlightens and provokes: it is illuminating because of the diversity of its scholarly contributions and challenging because . . . it opens new areas of scholarly investigation."— Philippe Sellier, from the Foreword
Although Blaise Pascal's Penses have occupied a uniquely privileged niche in the literary canon in France for over three centuries, they had long slumbered in America. It is just in the last thirty years that critical theorists in this country have been discovering in them texts rich in modernist and post-modernist readings. Still, critics here have largely ignored the renewal in traditional Pascal studies that has occurred in France over the last four decades.
Pascal and Disbelief introduces American readers to the recent developments in Pascal scholarship, particularly the return of the Penses to their original status as the working draft of Pascal's never-completed Apology for the Christian Religion. All sources, including critical commentary and little-known seventeenth-century texts, are presented both in their original French and in English translation.
This new work aims to answer a question that has puzzled readers since the Penses first appeared in 1670: To whom is Pascal's call to Christian conversion really addressed? David Wetsel asserts that the answer lies in a series of fragments he believes represent Pascal's draft of a preface to the Apology. He argues, based on these fragments, that Pascal's call to conversion was directed not at the erudite atheists or resolute skeptics of his time but at those "seekers" who had not yet fallen into hardened disbelief. This conclusion depends on an essential distinction that Pascal makes throughout the Penses between two forms of disbelief, the alterable and the incorrigible. This distinction, Wetsel maintains, is deeply rooted in Pascal's allegiance to the Augustinian doctrines of election and predestination. For Pascal, the truly hardened, incorrigible disbelievers must be numbered among the damned. The "seekers," however, would be susceptible to the shock tactics he employs in the first half of the Apology. By approaching the Penses from the vista of the contemporary study of the history of religions, Wetsel seeks to contribute to a rapprochement between modernist and traditionalist Pascal studies and thereby initiate a new dialogue between theology and critical theory.
David Wetsel is associate professor of French at Arizona State University and the author of L'Ecriture et le Reste: The Penses of Pascal in the Exegetical Tradition of Port-Royal.
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