My friend Andrew Killick wrote a blog article on the nature of man recently, which I’ve been meaning to reply to for a while. He draws together a quote from Pascal’s Pensees, and a quote from Psalm 8.
However, it seems to me that Pascal and the Psalmist are talking about two different aspects of human nature. Pascal is comparing mankind’s innate desire for truth, and innate sense that truth must exist and be discoverable, with our inability to perceive truth on our own or to find certainty in the truth we do uncover through our own investigations of the natural world. He argues that mankind is both great, in our capacity and hunger for truth, and wretched in our inability to find it ourselves. Here’s the quote in context:
What, then, shall man do in this state? Shall he doubt everything? Shall he doubt whether he is awake, whether he is being pinched, or whether he is being burned? Shall he doubt whether he doubts? Shall he doubt whether he exists? We cannot go so far as that; and I lay it down as a fact that there never has been a real complete sceptic. Nature sustains our feeble reason and prevents it raving to this extent.
Shall he, then, say, on the contrary, that he certainly possesses truth–he who, when pressed ever so little, can show no title to it and is forced to let go his hold?
What a chimera, then, is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe!
Who will unravel this tangle? Nature confutes the sceptics, and reason confutes the dogmatists. What, then, will you become, O men! who try to find out by your natural reason what is your true condition? You cannot avoid one of these sects, nor adhere to one of them.
Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Humble yourself, weak reason; be silent, foolish nature; learn that man infinitely transcends man, and learn from your Master your true condition, of which you are ignorant. Hear God.
For in fact, if man had never been corrupt, he would enjoy in his innocence both truth and happiness with assurance; and if man had always been corrupt, he would have no idea of truth or bliss. But, wretched as we are, and more so than if there were no greatness in our condition, we have an idea of happiness and can not reach it. We perceive an image of truth and possess only a lie. Incapable of absolute ignorance and of certain knowledge, we have thus been manifestly in a degree of perfection from which we have unhappily fallen.
Pascal goes on to point out that only by God speaking directly, by God revealing truth to us, can we ever find truth or have certainty.
The Psalmist is I think talking about something quite different. Psalm 8 is a song of praise to God because, despite mankind’s physical insignificance in the universe, he cares for us and has given us a position of great honour in the world. Here’s the Psalm with a few more verses:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet…
The Psalmist recognises a different tension, between the physical insignificance of our existence in the universe, and the place and role God has given us in the universe. In the Psalmist’s eyes we have significance as human beings because of how God views us, not how we see ourselves.