Pascal’s wager

Pascal’s wager — you might as well choose faith, because if you are wrong, you are no worse off — probably deserves deeper consideration within its time and within the Pensées. I mention it here merely to note that it’s commonly regarded as a bit feeble. Perhaps Pascal intended it as an overture to the sceptical reader, and felt no need himself of such an inducement. The whole way of thinking the question implies is one in which the battle is already lost.

The God of the theologians has many faces, and that inconsistency is both disingenuous and fatal. God cannot be at once a person with whom we engage (inviting theodicy) and a cosmic principle. [The concept of “person” has forensic roots.] But at some point, as is still the case in most of the world today, the existence of God seemed obvious, without whom the whole moral and cosmic order would come tumbling down. Atheism was a position both barely conceivable, and intolerable. The atheist would stand outside society as an amoral predator. In Deism, this idea was watered down to the extent that religion was necessary to maintain social order — a poor remnant of the sense of immanent and sustaining divinity, in which the moral principle that the godhead embodies holds up our hearts and the world.

The Greeks divided things up across the pantheon, a cosmology displaced for the thinking man by the quietist philosophies of the Hellenistic period (when life was to be endured, enjoyed, or mocked, now it could no longer be engaged in as politics by a free citizenry — according to the choice of Stoicism, Epicureanism, or Cynicism). We should not dismiss the Olympian way of thinking so lightly. The gods symbolised the dimensions and parameters of life, and their combination to wreak havoc as history’s Muse dictated. Here is Euripides on Eros (no Greek this time):

Eros, god of love, distilling liquid desire down upon the eyes, bringing sweet pleasure to the souls of those against whom you make war, never to me may you show yourself to my hurt nor ever come but in due measure and harmony. For the shafts neither of fire nor of the stars exceed the shaft of Aphrodite, which Eros, Zeus’s son, hurls forth from his hand. ‘Tis folly, folly, that the land of Greece makes great the slaughter of cattle by the banks of the Alpheus and in the Pythian house of Apollo if we pay no honor to Eros, mankind’s despot, who holds the keys to the sweet chambers of Aphrodite! He ruins mortals and sets them upon all manner of disaster when he visits them.

Euripides Hipp. 525 ff, translation by David Kovacs

Plato, too, notes that Eros deserves more attention among the gods than he gets (Symposium, 177a; 189c). Between florid paganism, the Greek faible for personification, and a pressing awareness of the same facts of life with which we too in our rational age contend, nothing could make more sense, and it is anachronistic to insist that it’s merely figurative, a manner of speaking. These are the present forces of life, be it eros, stormy seas, nice compunction, hunting or agriculture.

That brings me to my point that we do just the same in our own way. We would like to find “meaning” in life, and just as for the Greeks after Alexander, that seems to call for an inward turn, and an openness to wishful thinking. Life will not bear the burden. Materialism and fanaticism are stronger than the bonds of kindness. Parents and children betray one another. The best is squeezed out of us in — almost always — deforming, demeaning work. There is no fairness. War continually returns as the map is redrawn. homo homini lupus. The Fates spin the thread of our lives, measure it out and cut it off, before we go down to the shades.

And yet, our cultural imaginarium is populated by ideals we may put on for a while like a garment, before we must pass it on, notions of the worthwhile, such as the virtues (steadfastness, reasonableness, fairness, forethought); or art; or the family or community; truth, reason; love, faith, friendship. They are not ours to own, but we may inhabit them. Are these not our gods?


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