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Wagering on an Ironic God
Pascal on Faith and Philosophy
“Philosophers startle ordinary people. Christians astonish the philosophers.”
In Wagering on an Ironic God Thomas S. Hibbs both startles and astonishes. He does so by offering a new interpretation of Pascal’s Pensées and by showing the importance of Pascal in and for a philosophy of religion.
Hibbs resists the temptation to focus exclusively on Pascal’s famous “wager” or to be beguiled by the fragmentary and presumably incomplete nature of Pensées. Instead he discovers in Pensées a coherent and comprehensive project, one in which Pascal contributed to the ancient debate over the best way of life—a life of true happiness and true virtue.
Hibbs situates Pascal in relation to early modern French philosophers, particularly Montaigne and Descartes. These three French thinkers offer distinctly modern accounts of the good life. Montaigne advocates the private life of authentic self-expression, while Descartes favors the public goods of progressive enlightenment science and its promise of the mastery of nature. Pascal, by contrast, renders an account of the Christian religion that engages modern subjectivity and science on its own terms and seeks to vindicate the wisdom of the Christian vision by showing that it, better than any of its rivals, truly understands human nature.
Though all three philosophers share a preoccupation with Socrates, each finds in that figure a distinct account of philosophy and its aims. Pascal finds in Socrates a philosophy rich in irony: philosophy is marked by a deep yearning for wisdom that is never wholly achieved. Philosophy is a quest without attainment, a love never obtained. Absent Cartesian certainty or the ambivalence of Montaigne, Pascal’s practice of Socratic irony acknowledges the disorder of humanity without discouraging its quest. Instead, the quest for wisdom alerts the seeker to the presence of a hidden God.
God, according to Pascal, both conceals and reveals, fulfilling the philosophical aspiration for happiness and the good life only by subverting philosophy’s very self-understanding. Pascal thus wagers all on the irony of a God who both startles and astonishes wisdom’s true lovers.
"This is the most profoundly relevant book I’ve read in years. Hibbs, with a rigorous and meticulous marshalling of all the available evidence, shows us how to live as if the truth and my particular life really matter. The ‘Christian Socratism’ of Hibbs and Pascal is the most wondrous and dialogic form of inquiry around these (and all) days, and we can hope it saves many—including most professors of philosophy—from their dreary restlessness in the midst of prosperity."
—Peter Lawler, Dana Professor in Government, Berry College
"This exceptionally rich book will challenge the way many people understand modern philosophy by showing the often unnoticed continuities with ancient philosophy as the Socratic quest for the best way of life. In reconstructing the trialogue between Montaigne, Descartes, and Pascal, Hibbs also presents the claims of both philosophy and of Christianity with the radical immediacy often obscured by the common interpretations of these thinkers and by the characteristic prejudices of our time."
—V. Bradley Lewis, Associate Professor of Philosophy, The Catholic University of America
"Tom Hibbs’ new book invites the reader into a fascinating debate about Socratic irony among three great French thinkers—Montaigne, Descartes, and Pascal. With many fresh insights for the scholar, Wagering on an Ironic God will draw in any reader responsive to Socrates' challenge to live the examined life."
—David O’Connor, Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Notre Dame
Thomas S. Hibbs is Dean of the Honors College and Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University.