On Witnessing Greatness
An analysis of Pascal’s Pensée 792
Jesus Christ, meet Archimedes. Archimedes, Jesus Christ.
What do the Son of Man and the ancient mathematician have in common? According to Blaise Pascal, both are princes in their own rite. Unassuming princes who, without relying upon worldly demonstrations of greatness, are undeniably great.
Pascal draws the striking comparison between Jesus and Archimedes in Pensée 792. Notable for its completeness and for its elegant structure, this pensée seeks to answer the question: To whom is greatness visible?
Pascal distinguishes between three classes of greatness, visible to some while invisible to others. The glory of worldly greatness has no lustre for les gens d’esprit—those who are in search of mind, or spirit. In turn, the greatness of the gens d’esprit is invisible to kings and other carnal-minded beings who find validation in this world. Impossible without God, the greatness of wisdom prevails above the other kinds. It is invisible both to the carnal-minded and to those who seek l’esprit.
Pascal grants that the question of visibility ought to be applied to how we perceive people. Concepts like greatness are rarely spotted alone in the wild. Rather, they are embodied by outstanding individuals. It is thanks to this personnification that we have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the true form of greatness. He who embodies greatness of mind is a great genius. He who embodies greatness of wisdom is a saint. The question becomes: To whom are great geniuses and saints apparent?
One needs the mind alone in order to perceive great genius. C’est assez. The genius has no need of carnal grandeur. He possesses his own private grandeur, his own empire, his own victory. The saint, too, has an empire and an audience of his own. Unperceived by the body, unnoticed even by the curious, the saint is seen by God and the angels alone. He seeks no further recognition. Dieu lui suffit.
At this point, Pascal begins to draw upon the example of Archimedes. Pascal states that even without his rank as a thinker, respected among the Syracusean elite, Archimedes would have been subject to renown. “He fought no battles for the eyes to feast upon; but he has given his discoveries to all men.” Pascal continues, “Oh! how brilliant he was to the mind!” Once again the question of perceiving greatness is invoked. Not the eye, but the mind is needed to recognize Archimedes’ premier qualities, his princehood, his great genius.
Archimedes proved and demonstrated laws of nature in writings such as his treatise On the Equilibrium of Planes and On Floating Bodies. One is reminded of Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever that we may follow all the words of this law.” One could argue that natural laws are a manifestation of the order of God’s creation and therefore of divine laws.
In this line of thinking, Pascal writes Pensée 642: “As nature is an image of grace, He has done in the bounties of nature what He would do in those of grace, in order that we might judge that He could make the invisible, since He made the visible excellently.”* If nature is indeed an image of grace, then Archimedes’ insights as a natural scientist may also be insights into grace. Archimedes demonstrated, for all posterity, laws which govern the physical world as it was created.
One is reminded of the kind of genius that Archimedes displayed in solving the Crown Problem. In the legend recounted by Vitruvius, when Hiero gained royal power in Syracuse, he sought to place a golden crown in a temple for the immortal gods.** He weighed out a precise amount of gold for its fabrication and sent it off to be forged. The ornament was made and, to the eye, it appeared a dazzling work of artisanry.
Later, an accusation was made that gold had been abstracted in exchange for an alloy. Hiero requested that Archimedes settle the matter. He pondered the matter while in the bath, as he was wont to do when mulling over enigmas. Archimedes observed that as he sank into the bath, water was displaced in proportion to the submerged part of his body. Notoriously, he leapt out of the bath and ran home naked, crying out “Εὕρηκα, εὕρηκα”, “I found it, I found it!”
To test the purity of the crown, Archimedes first plunged a mass of silver and a mass of gold into separate buckets filled with water. Just as in the bath, a definite quantity of water was displaced in proportion to the density of the submerged material. Gold, having a greater density than silver, displaces a lesser quantity of water than silver of the same weight. To settle the affair, Archimedes placed the crown itself inside a water vessel. Since more water was displaced by the crown than by a lump of pure gold of equal weight, he concluded that someone had tampered with the crown.
Ironically, the crown—a worldly symbol of greatness and beauty for the eye to behold—was discovered to be tainted upon further investigation by the mind. The triumph of Archimedes is demonstrative of his great genius. His great victories came to be no thanks to worldly means, but grâce à l’esprit.
With Archimedes as great genius, we must turn to the greatness of the saint. The greatness of the saint is the greatness of wisdom. The greatness of Jesus is the greatness of wisdom of a divine order. Pascal admits that Jesus possesses an order of holiness entirely his own. It would have been useless for Archimedes to have acted the prince in his books on geometry since he was already a prince . Similarly, “It would have been useless for our Lord Jesus Christ to come like a king, in order to shine forth in his kingdom of holiness. But he came there appropriately in the glory [éclat] of his own order.” It is enough for the Son of God to be recognized by His Heavenly Father.
Pascal returns to his main question: To whom is greatness visible? What limitations in our mortal perception have become blinders and impediments to our vision of true greatness? Of Christ, one might perceive a lowly man who dined with women and prostitutes. One who came as King of the Jews riding on a donkey rather than a mule. If we could see true greatness for what it is, we could recognize, as God does, that in lowliness there is greatness and nobility. Pascal writes:
It is most absurd to take offence at the lowliness of Jesus Christ, as if His lowliness were in the same order as the greatness which He came to manifest. If we consider this greatness in His life, in His passion, in His obscurity, in His death, in the choice of His disciples, in their desertion, in His secret resurrection, and the rest, we shall see it to be so immense, that we shall have no reason for being offended at a lowliness which is not of that order.
To those who recognize worldly greatness alone, Jesus appears lowly. Invisible to the carnal-minded, the saintly greatness of Jesus Christ is perceived by the eyes of the heart, les yeux du corps, which are fit to perceive wisdom. Pascal reminds us of a proportion he has previously invoked: “the infinite distance between body and mind is a symbol of the infinitely more infinite distance between mind and charity.” The body and the worldly greatness that it is restricted to perceiving are infinitely distant from greatness of the mind. Above these remains the greatness of wisdom, grace, and charity.
In citing this last proportion, Pascal is consistent with his other views on infinity, namely that the earth is but a point in comparison to the vastness of the universe. To the question, “What is man in nature?” Pascal answers: “A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything.”*** Pascal, like Archimedes, is no stranger to the pursuit of proving natural laws. His earlier writings such as Treatise on the Weight of the Mass of the Air and Treatise on the Equilibrium of Liquids, Pascal interests himself in the properties of measurement and equilibrium among natural bodies. He later turned away from scientific investigation to focus on theology.
Where Pascal falls on the spectrum between greatness of mind and greatness of wisdom is an open question. Nevertheless, his mind and his heart were disposed to have great insight into greatness. The comparison between Christ and Archimedes is a product of this insight.
Christ is often compared to Socrates and reasonably compared to any number of religious types who foreshadowed or succeeded Him. Yet it is rare to find a really substantive comparison of Christ to any other figure. Beyond the parallels already cited, Christ and Archimedes were both killed by Roman authorities, Jesus under the prefecture of Pontius Pilate in 33 A.D. and Archimedes during the Siege of Syracuse in 212 B.C.
Pascal’s own interest in natural science and in understanding God’s creation grâce à l’esprit allowed him to perceive the great genius of Archimedes. Pascal’s devotion to his faith allowed him to recognize the lowliness of Jesus as true greatness. Although he may not see Jesus with the perfect clarity of God the Father, Pascal’s devotion to wisdom cleared a path for his vision of true greatness.
* Pascal, Pensées, Article X: Les figuratifs, Pensée 792 (Brunschvicg)
** Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, De Architectura Libri Decem, Book IX Introduction, sections 9-12
*** Pascal, Pensées, Article II: Misère de l’homme sans Dieu, Pensée 72 (Brunschvicg)
* Thank you shmoop for Crown problem diagram