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Nigel Harris

God’s Agony and the Dialectic

(Winter 1965)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.23, Winter 1965, p.30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Hidden God, A Study of the Tragic Vision in the Pensées of Pascal and the Tragedies of Racine
Lucien Goldmann
Routledge, 70s.

The Hidden God is a most difficult, complex and profound work, the problems of which are compounded by any sort of Anglo Saxon philosophic background. Goldman, a distinguished French philosopher and dialectical materialist, presents Lukàcs’ concept of a tragic hero (Lukàcs’, Die Seele and die Formen), extrapolates from this a tragic vision which he discusses at length, and then goes on to use this as his basic analytic concept in an examination of Pascal and Racine; conjoined to this, he identifies the essence of Jansenism in seventeenth century France as encompassing this tragic vision, and, in Pascal, as being the preliminary formulation of the central contradiction of all modern philosophy (between fact and value, understanding and action, science and God, individuals and. totalities), superseded only by dialectical thought in Hegel and Marx. This crude resume does no more than cite the more obvious features of this work, the richness and subtlety of which cannot be evoked in a review. At each stage, the concrete particular is integrated with the whole, and the whple brought to bear on the particular – Pascal is linked and contrasted with Descartes before him, with the earlier example of a tragic vision in Greek tragedy, with Kant after him, and, above all, with Marx.

The certainties of existence, presumed within a stable world vision, dissolve in the transition between world visions, between different types of society, and are replaced in marginal groups (that is, groups not belonging either to the old order or to the new) by a pervading sense of tragic doubt or philosophic demoralisation –

‘All forms of consciousness express a provisional and mobile balance between the individual and his social environment; when this balance can be fairly easily established and is relatively stable, or when it can pass fairly easily from one form to another, men tend not to think about the problems raised by their relationship to the external world. On a social as well as on an individual plane, it is the sick organism which creates awareness, and it is in periods of social and political crisis that men are most aware of the enigma of their presence in the world. In the past, this awareness has tended to find its expression in tragedy. At the present day it shows itself in existentialism’ (p.48).

The tragedy lies in simultaneously comprehending the essence and promise of each vision, of each order of society, despite their irreconcilability – God is and He is not; He is both the central pivot of existence, the concept which gives meaning to all the particulars of experience and to the future, and, in Descartes, no more than a useful term to cover the gaps in rational knowledge. Pascal, on Goldmann’s interpretation, both shared in the excitement of scientific discovery, whose philosophic presuppositions he recognised, shared in a social world where God was no more than a piety, and yet held beliefs that were firmly integrated into the pursuit of a vision of the divine. The contradiction constitutes an unsupportable agony that demands compromise, even though that compromise can only deny the truth of both thesis and antithesis. In seeing the truth of incompatible propositions describing existence, for Goldmann, is the essence of the tragic vision, and a truncated version of dialectical thought – in the truncatedness lies the tragedy.

Goldmann suggests, tentatively, that Jansenism was the social embodiment of the tragic vision of a social group, the noblesse de robe, the class of lawyers and administrators, created and maintained by the French monarchy; the King, allying to the Third Estate, used this hereditary legal class, to gain supremacy over the nobility proper, only to abandon the noblesse de robe on attaining the power to balance class against class: the noblesse de robe was superseded by royally appointed officials, corps de commissaires. Thus rejected by the power that had created it, the noblesse de robe was trapped between its own loyalty (the former condition for its advancement) and its hostility, compounded by political impotence. Goldmann schematises three Jansenist responses to the contradiction – in Barcos, total withdrawal from and rejection of the world; in Arnauld, a compromise that attempted to accept Descartes in the natural world and God in the supernatural; and in Pascal, an acceptance in full measure of the contradiction –

‘The clear voice of the judgement of God no longer sounds out above the march of human destiny, for the voice which once gave life to all has now fallen silent. Man must live alone and by himself. The voice of the Judge has fallen silent for ever, and this is why man will always be vanquished, doomed to destruction in victory even more than in defeat’ (Lukàcs, op. cit., pp.332-3).

Pascal continues his scientific work and lives in the world, both of which are, in principle, meaningless; he continues to strive after a God who gives no reply. Conscious of thesis and its negation, but without dialectical synthesis, Pascal offers only the wager: ‘learn from those,’ he tells the man intellectually convinced of God’s existence but unable to believe, ‘who have been tied as you are now tied, and who now wager all they have’ (Fragment 233, Pensées, Everyman edition). Goldmann comments:

‘Once practical philosophy is no longer centred around an ideal of individual wisdom but comes to deal primarily with external reality, man’s life takes on the aspect of a wager on the success of his own action and, consequently, on the existence of a force which transcends the individual. This force must accompany or contribute to the efforts which he makes, so that his life becomes a wager that God, Humanity or the Proletariat exists and will triumph’ (p.301).

‘It would be just as absurd for Pascal or Kant to deny the existence of God on empirical grounds as it would for Marx to use the same criterion to assert or deny the validity of the idea of progress or of humanity’s march towards socialism. In both cases, the initial wager depends upon an act of faith, on “reasons of the heart” in Pascal, or the validity of reason in Kant and Marx, a wager which goes beyond and integrates theory and practice’ (p.92).

But the contradiction of Pascal can, of its nature, achieve no synthesis, even if he cannot escape the gamble of being and acting. Goldmann argues that Pascal could have no conception of time, of development and process. Thus, the synthesis which integrates Marxism is denied him – the propositions of the contradiction are absolute and eternal, their essence cannot be superseded in this world. Pascal’s Pensées are then, for Goldmann, both a profound contribution to philosophy, a document in the conquest of man’s essence, and a cry of anguish for an integrated vision where God is real and the centre of a meaningful universe. From Pascal, he moves to the tragedies of Racine, culminating in the identification of the same complex of incompatibilities in Phèdre. Only at the end, does one fully comprehend the opening sections of Goldmann’s book where he attempts to integrate his conception of Western culture for the purposes of this study, identifying the crucial concepts in his methodology and the criteria to be employed. Jansenism provides the specific context, a concrete historical situation and an expression of a continuing tradition, both a historical by-way and part of the mainstream. The reader travels from totality to particular, from Pascal to Marx, each illuminating the other. The substance of Goldmann’s contributions seems too important initially to carp, at distortions – indeed, only Pascal scholars will be fully able to appraise his contribution on this narrow score. His schematisation is necessary and fruitful even if it tends to distort the evidence at points. The importance of Goldmann lies less in what he has to say about Pascal or Jansenism than in his general approach and its implications – this will have to be ruminated on for a long time before one can reach a general assessment. Overall, it is a very impressive work, an event of a high order in Marxist scholarship.

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