Walk a Mile in the Other’s Shoes

In a previous post I quoted the 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal about the “rule of belief”:

One thing that is necessary for agreement to take place is that there be the rule of your belief (la régle de votre créance) which requires that you never believe anything without having put yourself in the state of not agreeing to it.
It is this agreement of your self with yourself, and the constant voice of reason, and not that of others, which makes it necessary for you to believe.
And belief is so important! A hundred contradictions are true [unless there be a rule of belief].

We cannot believe anything to be true, he says, unless we are willing to doubt its truth. He paraphrases this definition on the next page, ” To deny, to believe, and to doubt, well: these are to a man what running is to a horse.” It is significant, in my opinion, that the work in which Pascal provides this conception of a rule for belief is an extended essay on the validity of the Christian faith. It is here that one finds “Pascal’s wager”: the suggestion that, even if you cannot believe in God, you ought to adopt the doctrine since it involves only a limited sacrifice and, if it is true, produces an infinite reward.

For the accomplished mathematician Pascal, all faith involved an unavoidable degree of doubt.

I was reminded of this rule of belief when reading a reprint, which appeared in 1975 (and I found on the shelf, for a couple of bucks, at Cameron’s Used Books on 3rd Street in downtown Portland), of the 1938 work by the Austrian-born (in what is now Ukraine) Jewish philosopher and memoirist, Manès Sperber, The Structure of Tyranny. Imprisoned in Berlin in 1933, Sperber fled to Belgrade and then Paris in 1934; he survived World War II but wrote ganz lebelang (for his entire life) solely in German. Awarded late in life several literary prizes, including the Goethe Prize, he died in almost 30 years ago. The Viennese publisher of the reprint advised the prospective reader in the blurb that the book is “staggering.” That judgement may involve a certain degree of hype, but this undoubted victim of tyranny spoke of the necessity of exchanging our own system of reference for that of our antagonist’s.

He cited Pascal on the following page.

About M. Meo

Worked as translator, museum technician, truck lumper, lecture demonstrator, teacher (of English as a Second Language, science, math). Married for 25 years, 2 boys aged 18 & 16 (both on the Grant cross-country team). A couple of scholarly publications in the history of science. Two years in federal penitentiary, 1970/71, for refusing the draft.
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