Because it has been a staple of the high school classroom, it is nearly impossible to approach The Scarlet Letter with the sort of wonder and respect it deserves. Somber and at times melodramatic, The Scarlet Letter is an altogether quieter book than, say, Moby Dick, which can make it feel tame by comparison. But that is an unfortunate misperception. In this tale of American origins and purposes, Nathaniel Hawthorne found the form that he had sought for so long: a historical tale of “human frailty and sorrow,” tinged with tragedy, rich in ambiguity and symbolism, and supported by a profound understanding of the philosophical undercurrents running beneath the surface of American life—a book that continues to speak with urgency to us today.
I have been writing & speaking what were once called novelties, for twenty five or thirty years, & have not now one disciple. Why? Not that what I said was not true; not that it has not found intelligent receivers but because it did not go from any wish in me to bring men to me, but to themselves. I delight in driving them from me. What could I do, if they came to me? — they would interrupt and encumber me. This is my boast that I have no school & no follower. I should account it a measure of the impurity of insight, if it did not create independence.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his journal, April 1859
First part: Misery of man without God.
Second part: Happiness of man with God.
First part: That nature is corrupt. Proved by nature itself.
Second part: That there is a Redeemer. Proved by Scripture. (60)
(Order:) Men despise religion; they hate it and fear it is true. To remedy this, we must begin by showing that religion is not contrary to reason; that it is venerable, to inspire respect for it; then we must make it lovable, to make good men hope it is true; finally, we must prove it is true.
Venerable, because it has perfect knowledge of man; lovable because it promises the true good. (187)
(Inconstancy:) We think we are playing on ordinary organs when playing upon man. Men are organs, it is true, but, odd, changeable, variable with pipes not arranged in proper order. Those who only know how to play on ordinary organs will not produce harmonies on these. We must know where the keys are. (111)
If he exalt himself, I humble him; if he humble himself, I exalt him; and I always contradict him, till he understands that he is an incomprehensible monster. (420)
When Blaise Pascal said “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not”, he spoke for us all. We read that and nod quietly, agreeing that our perspective is firmly rooted within us, even when it makes no sense. Argument won’t drive it out. In fact, the harder we try to deny it, the deeper its talons go. Pascal is our wise friend who helps us to, as Emerson said “stand next to our beliefs and examine them.”
John Mark Reynolds, said this in his book The Great Books Reader:
Pascal is easy to read and, in any given saying, easy to understand. As with Proverbs, reading his words will pay off quickly. Like that Bible book, catching the deep coherence behind all the sayings is worth years of effort. Pascal is easy in the particulars and difficult in the generalities but rewarding in both.
Read Pascal with your understanding, but with a mind stirred up by your heart. Some of his argument is in the poetry of his words and in the emotions they arouse. Like Plato, Pascal knew that following the way of the dialectic was intellectual activity, but this mental movement was driven by a heart motivated by love.
If you think nobody gets it and that God and Christianity are stupid and ugly, Pascal is the response.
How do you handle it when your mind and heart disagree?
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.
D I G D E E P E R
Unlike Augustine, who lived a long life and wrote hundreds of treatises, Blaise Pascal died young and wrote only one great book, the Pensées. Yet even that is not a book; it is almost a thousand scattered notes for a book he never finished. (Pensées means, simply, “thoughts.”) Only nine or ten are finished chapters, two- to six-pages long; the rest are a few paragraphs or a few sentences or even a few words. One editor called them “a workshop in ruins.”
I have organized the “big ideas” in a logical and psychological sequence, like events in a conversion story, and added headings or titles for each step. I think this is the sequence he had in mind, but he did not have time to arrange and classify most of them. They are just “thoughts”: not a book but the unfinished raw material for a book.
However, they are more powerful in this unfinished condition than they would have been had Pascal lived to integrate them into a finished work. They’re like raw pearls without a string. Pascal mercifully was struck dead before he could spoil his masterpiece.
I teach “great books,” many of them Christian masterpieces—by St. John, St. Paul, St. Augustine, Boethius, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Kierkegaard, Newman, Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien. All are geniuses. But no Christian writer who ever lived speaks to my very modern and secular students more powerfully than Pascal. His “thoughts” are arrows shot straight into their hearts. He makes them get suddenly very quiet, even stop breathing for ten seconds. He knows them. He knows God. And he is a matchmaker.
He wrote as he was dying. It was to have been an argument for the truth of the Christian faith, one that appealed to the heart as much as the head. He wrote most of it after he had given away his entire large library except for two books, which he reread continually, and these two explain its power: the Bible and Augustine’s Confessions. The first two you’d want to take to your desert island for the rest of your life.
The salient biographical facts can be summarized very briefly. Blaise Pascal was a seventeenth-century contemporary and acquaintance of Descartes, “the father of modern philosophy.” But he was the only modern philosopher for two hundred years, until the existentialists, who didn’t get on Descartes’s rationalist, Enlightenment bandwagon of making science an idol.
Even so, he was a very great scientist himself. He did major work in physics (he was the first to prove the atmosphere has weight) and mathematics (he founded much of probability theory). A computer language is named after him because he invented the first working computer (calculator); he also invented the vacuum cleaner and the first public transportation system.
Pascal knew the power of science to make us clever and powerful, and he was also aware of its impotence to make us wise or good. Pascal knew sin.
Peter Kreeft, PhD, is a professor of Philosophy at Boston College and The King’s College, New York. He is an acclaimed author and speaker on many philosophical and theological topics.
John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).