Pascal and Marcus Aurelius

Two great figures of times past, Pascale and Marcus Aurelius, pagan and Christian, address the wager of the unknowable in nearly equal terms.

For one sad fact defines mortal life: man is mortal. We know death is ever nigh, and never to be escaped. What is beyond is unknown.

One happy hope inspires all human life: beyond mortality is immortality. Creation has a creator, so much is self-evident, or else all races of all ages would not agree that some unseen power governs all. But who has seen the unseen?

Mortal man sees no immortal gods dancing atop the mountains, nor do we dare to see one face to face, lest we die. Even for the just and good to meet a angel is terror, which is why their most common greeting is “Fear not.”

Men live in a whirl of confusion, some doubting whether heaven is empty, some whether god is one or many, with us or far away.

Some say divine beings live in bliss too pure to be disturbed by human prayers.  Others portray the gods impure indeed, creatures born from Chaos and Old Night, parricides and adulterers truly unworthy of worship.

In the Near East, God is a warlord, panting for the blood of infidels, and in the Far East, Godhood is serene emptiness, a Way not to be put into words.

In Christ alone is there an answer which is clear, and brings hope, peace, love.

But in the midst of these contrary claims, how shall we deal with the uncertainty of the unknowable?

Heaven is too high and far, and the spirit is subtle to be seen. Unless He reveals Himself, the Highmost is hidden.

Marcus Aurelius, the famed philosopher-emperor, essentially stated, “Live a good life. If there is a god and they are just, they will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are unjust gods, then you will not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then your memory will live on in those who you have lived virtue by.”

Pascal, meanwhile, in his PENSEES voices a similar sentiment for dealing with the uncertainty about divine things.

…”God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is infinite chaos that separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. “No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.”

Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

“That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much.” Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to change your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.

Pascal’s Wager is not an argument for the existence of God. In a nutshell, Pascal argues this: If, having heard proofs for and against God, but still being unpersuaded by either, skepticism is unwarranted because it is imprudent,.

Skepticism is imprudent on the grounds that if the skeptic is wrong, and God exists, the skeptic will be punished by God for his disloyalty, whereas if the Christian is wrong, and God does not exist, the Christian will not be punished by non-God for his non-disloyalty.
In one case, you break even, and in the other, your loss is eternal and infinite.
But, by the terms of the wager, this is only when no proof one way or the other has proved sufficient for you. Obviously one cannot believe an untruth merely because it might be in one’s self interest.