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Joann P. Cobb PASCAL'S WAGER AND TWO MODERN LOSERS Blaise Pascal addressed his argument of the wager to the seventeenth -century sceptic confronting the failure of reason to answer the question, "Does God exist?" Pascal in his zeal for conversion of the free-thinker intended the wager on the affirmative answer as only a last-ditch appeal to self-interest and as a predisposition for the infusion of faith, and modern opinion has been influenced by Voltaire's disparaging comment that it is indecent to introduce the concept of a game involving gain and loss to the grave subject of the existence of God. But three centuries later, the wager has a relevance to the society shaped by logical positivism and existential "angst" that has not been entirely overlooked. Two modern short stories present wagerers who lose: Granny Weatherall in Katherine Anne Porter's "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" and The Misfit in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." These contemporary gamblers illustrate an implication of the argument unexploited by Pascal, but the frequent inclusion of these stories in anthologies and textbooks testifies to the compelling pertinence of the "game." The most appropriate position in the Pense'es for the fragment containing the argument of the wager is still the subject of some debate, but most editors place it after Pascal has delineated the miseries of the human condition and the paradoxical status of mankind. A mixture of misery and greatness, man is endlessly frustrated: "We desire truth, and find within us naught but uncertainty. We seek happiness, and find only misery and death. We are incapable of not desiring truth and happiness, and are incapable of certainty or happiness" (p. 87). Man's greatness, for Pascal, consists in knowledge of his own misery as he confronts the human situation: "No great elevation of soul is needed to understand that here below is no true and solid satisfaction; that all our pleasures are but vanity, that our woes are infinite, and that lastly death, which threatens us every moment, must infallibly 187 188Philosophy and Literature in a few years land us in the dreadful necessity of being forever either annihilated or miserable" (p. 105). Such understanding leads to thought of the Infinite, but "if there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible" and we are incapable of knowing by the light of nature "what He is, or whether He is" (p. 117). Yet, Pascal says, "a game is on, at the other end of . . . infinite distance, and heads or tails will turn up." Pascal argues that man must wager for he is "embarked," and he cites the odds of the game's outcome as it will affect man's happiness: "Let us weigh gain and loss in calling heads that God is. Reckon these two chances: if you win, you win all; if you lose, you lose naught" (p. 119). Pascal secures the assent of the postulated listener with repeated assertions that the chances of success are even, while the possible gain is infinitely disproportionate to the stake. Pascal's "unbeliever" gives up without much fight, agreeing that he will wager though he cannot believe. In a much criticized passage, Pascal then prescribes the sceptic's course: seek a decrease of human passions, rather than an increase of divine proofs, make believe you believe by using the ritual of the Catholic religion, and this will bring you to believe. And Pascal repeats the question: "What have you to lose?" (p. 121). Pascal's answer, of course, is "nothing" (rien), and he describes the attributes of the sceptic who follows the path of the believer: "You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, beneficent, a good friend, true. ... I tell you that you will gain in this life, and that at every step you take on this road you will see such certainty of gain, such nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last realize that you have wagered on something certain and infinite, for which you have risked naught" (pp. 121, 123). But a modern reader is not so quick to agree that "naught" is at stake: "Unmoved by the apologist's disparagement...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 187-198
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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