Being Happy in an Endless Universe: Descartes, Spinoza, and Pascal

Being Happy in an Endless Universe: Descartes, Spinoza, and Pascal

The Healthy Mind and the Sick Soul

Despite having been excommunicated from the Jewish community as a young man and vilified as an atheist and corruptor of morality in his later years, Baruch Spinoza was, it seems, a happy man. Stephen Nadler writes that, though he was often more occupied with his work than with other people, “Spinoza was, when he did put down his work, gregarious, self-controlled, and possessed of a pleasing and even-tempered disposition.”[1] In his Ethics Spinoza writes,

It is of the first importance in life to perfect the intellect, or reason, as far as we can, and the highest happiness or blessedness for mankind consists in this alone. For blessedness is nothing other than that self-contentment (acquiescentia in se ipso) that arises from the intuitive knowledge of God (Ethics part 4, appendix n. 4).[2]

For Spinoza, the supreme happiness of what he called the “intellectual knowledge of God” (Ethics part 5, proposition 32, corollary) brought with it a kind of resting-in-oneself, since the self was not something really distinct from God, and to know God (or Nature) is to accept the self that God has made.

Spinoza’s contemporary, Blaise Pascal, might seem to have been a deeply unhappy person. Voltaire complained, “Nature does not make us unhappy all the time. Pascal always speaks like a sick man who wants the world to suffer.”[3] Whereas Spinoza understands happiness as self-contentment, Pascal speaks of an implacable hatred of the self that seeks to make itself the center of everything, implacable because while a reform of manners might make us more pleasing (or at least less harmful) to others, it cannot mitigate the fundamental injustice of the self:

In a word, the self has two qualities: it is unjust in itself, in that it makes itself the center of everything; it is irritating to others, in that it would subjugate them, for each self is the enemy and would like to be the tyrant of all others. You can take away the irritation, but not the injustice (Pensées §494).[4]

No wonder Leszek Kolakowski wrote of “Pascal’s Sad Religion.” Yet Pascal also wrote, “No one is happy like a true Christian, or so reasonable, or virtuous or lovable” (Pensées §389). What is this Pascalian happiness? Whatever it is, it certainly could not be Spinozan self-contentment.

The difference between Spinoza and Pascal may simply be the difference between what William James called “the healthy minded” and “the sick soul.” But without denying the significance of temperament, I think we can press the question a bit further. Spinoza and Pascal are possessed not simply of different temperaments, but of different metaphysical visions, different accounts of the fundamental nature of reality, which give a particular shape to their views on happiness. Both Spinoza and Pascal are thinking in the wake of Descartes and accept his infinitizing of the universe, but in their different ways of construing this infinite we might gain some insight into their different views of happiness.

Descartes on the Infinite Universe

Arguably, it is Descartes’s liberation of the universe from the confines of the finite cosmos, anticipated in the works of Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno, rather than the Copernican shift from a geocentric to a heliocentric cosmos, that is the true innovation that marks the modern age. Copernicus’s cosmos, after all, was still cozily bounded by an outer sphere of fixed stars.[5] When Descartes, and later Newton, embraced the infinity of the universe, it marked a new beginning for how we think about the world, its relationship to God, and our place in relation to both God and the world.[6] One might think that this would have robbed the world of any sense of finality—any telos, the attainment of which could make us happy. But for Descartes this infinity was itself a source of happiness. He wrote to Hector-Pierre Chanut of the importance of regarding created things “in a manner proper to [God’s] omnipotence instead of enclosing them in a ball as do people who insist that the world is finite. If a man meditates on these things and understands them properly, he is filled with extreme joy.”[7] Descartes did, however, recognize that this new picture of the universe raised several thorny issues, which he addressed in a subsequent letter to Chanut. I will focus on three.

One issue was how an infinite universe might be distinguished from the infinite God. While some earlier thinkers, such as Cusa, had avoided censure by the Church, others, like Bruno, had not fared so well, and the specter of pantheism haunted the attribution of infinity to the created order. Descartes sought to evade this issue by means of a distinction between “infinity”—which only applied to God—and “indefiniteness”—which can be said of the universe. As he explained this distinction, he called God “infinite” because he could prove by reason that God must be boundless, whereas he called the world “indefinite” because he could find no proof that it was not boundless: “it is impossible to prove or even conceive that there are bounds in the matter of which the world is composed.”[8] Beyond this perhaps merely verbal distinction, Descartes’s substance dualism, sharply distinguishing thought from matter, provided a way to distinguish God, who is infinite mind without extension, from the created universe, which is infinite in extension but occupied by finite minds.

A second issue concerned the physical nature of this infinite universe. Though almost all scholastics held to Aristotle’s horror vacui as a matter of fact, there was a long tradition of scholastic speculation about the theoretical possibility of void space beyond the boundaries of the world, as well as of an interstitial void between the bodies of which the world was composed.[9] In infinitizing the universe, Descartes thus retains Aristotle’s horror vacui, though by means of a very un-Aristotelian conception of matter, redefining “matter” as “having extension in length, breadth, and depth, so that whatever has these three dimensions is part of matter; and there cannot be any empty space … because we cannot conceive such a space without conceiving in it these three dimensions and consequently matter.”[10]

A third issue concerns the place of humanity within the cosmos—whether we are in any sense the “crown of creation.” Descartes grasps the nettle here, and says that although the Genesis account of creation is anthropocentric, because it was written for human beings, in an infinite universe humanity is not only not at the center of things, but there is a real sense in which there is no center, and possibly the notion of “place” doesn’t apply at all. But he ends up assuring Chanut:

When we love God and through him unite ourselves willingly to all the things he created, then the more great, noble, and perfect we reckon them, the more highly we esteem ourselves as being parts of a more perfect whole, and the more grounds we have for praising God on account of the immensity of his works.[11]

Spinoza and Pascal on the Infinite Universe

It is hardly controversial to say that both Pascal and Spinoza are Cartesian thinkers, at least with regard to their acceptance of the infinity to the world. But even within their agreement on this point, Spinoza and Pascal approach the issues addressed by Descartes in different ways, and these differences are related to how they think about happiness.

God and the World

First, both Spinoza and Pascal cast aside Descartes’s worries about using the term “infinite” to describe both God and the world. Spinoza grasps the pantheistic nettle and rejects substance dualism in favor of a single infinite substance—identified as God or Nature—possessed of infinite attributes. As Stephen Nadler puts it, “for Spinoza, God or nature—being one and the same thing—just is the whole, infinite, eternal, necessarily existing, active system of the universe within which absolutely everything exists.”[12] This identification of God and the world enables Spinoza to recast the eminently traditional notion of happiness consisting in knowledge of God. Because our minds are finite modes of God’s infinite attribute of thought and our bodies are finite modes of God’s infinite attribute of extension, Spinoza, seeming to cast aside any apophatic reserve, holds that we can form an adequate—in the Cartesian sense of “clear and distinct”—concept of God: “God’s infinite essence and his eternity are known to all” (Ethics part 2, proposition 47, scholium).[13] And because we are finite modes of infinite substance, our capacity to form an adequate concept of God is also adequate knowledge of ourselves, of the infinite sea of forces that has produced this particular mode that is “me.” To know God, to know Nature, is to know that the self must be as it is, and so knowledge of God is the source of our “self-contentment.”

Pascal likewise sees no need to hold back from calling the world infinite, but, like Descartes, maintains a real distinction between God and the world by denying that God possesses the attribute of extension. This distinction has implications for how we might conceive of happiness as rooted in knowledge of God. We can know things that are finite and have extension, because we are finite and extended. We can also know that there is an infinite, extended universe, though we do not know its nature, since we share with it the attribute of extension, but not infinity. But God, being both infinite and lacking extension, is utterly unknowable to us (Pensées §680).[14] The sharp distinction between God and the world means that God is, as Pascal frequently states, a “hidden God” (Pensées §§275, 681, 752). This may seem a more orthodox account of God’s relation to the world, but it also seems to suggest knowledge of the world cannot lead to knowledge of God, which implies either 1) that happiness is unattainable since knowledge of God is unattainable, or 2) that happiness consists in something other than knowledge of God. Neither of these points is Pascal willing to concede. Instead, he holds that God has made himself known by entering the world of finitude and extension in Jesus Christ, a presence that is both revelatory and hidden (Pensées §738). Thus the only “adequate” knowledge we have of God comes through Christ: “We know God only through Jesus Christ. Without this mediator, all communication with God is cut off; through Jesus Christ we know God” (Pensées §221). This self-revelation of God gives a knowledge of reality that no mere human knowledge could ever attain: “Jesus Christ is the object of everything and the center to which everything ends. Whoever knows him knows the reason for everything” (Pensées §690). It would not be too much to say that whereas Spinoza sees happiness as self-contentment or “resting in oneself,” Pascal sees it as resting in Christ.

The Void

Second, regarding the physical constitution of this infinite world, here it is Spinoza who holds more closely to the Cartesian view, denying that the world can contain or be contained by a void (Ethics part 1, proposition 15, scholium IV). Spinoza writes:

All bodies are surrounded by others, and are determined by one another to existing and producing an effect in a certain and determinate way, the same ratio of motion and rest always being preserved in all of them at once, that is, in the whole universe. From this it follows that every body, insofar as it exists modified in a certain way, must be considered as a part of the whole universe, must agree with the whole to which it belongs, and must cohere with the remaining bodies . . . Its parts are restrained in infinite ways by this nature of the infinite power, and compelled to undergo infinitely many variations” (Ep 32, to Oldenburg; cf. Ep 12 to Mayer [IV/55-56]). 

One can see how the notion of a vacuum would be abhorrent to this conception of nature, since it would introduce “gaps” between bodies and thereby undo the fixed ratio of motion and rest. Spinoza’s notion of happiness requires that we, as finite modes of infinite substance, must be capable of grasping the necessary interconnectedness of all things, which is what it means to have adequate knowledge of God.[15] Nature is a voidless plenum, otherwise it risks collapsing into incoherence, becomes opaque, and happiness becomes impossible.

Pascal, of course, is famous for the experiments he performed as a youth to demonstrate the existence of void space. Though he is never explicit as to how these experiments related to his later religious thought, it is undeniable that the image of nature as an infinite expanse of emptiness dominates the Pensées. Nature itself, far from being transparent (much less identical) to God, is a strange cipher that refuses to yield a clear meaning. Pascal writes, “without Scripture, whose only object is Jesus Christ, we know nothing, and see only darkness and confusion in the nature of God and in nature itself” (Pensées §36). The infinite empty spaces of the universe are not simply mute with regard to God; they are terrifying. As he writes in a famous passage (perhaps speaking for those who lack faith): “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” But for Pascal this is a salutary terror, for it presses us to seek our happiness beyond the world. “We burn with desire to find firm ground and an ultimate secure base on which to build a tower reaching up to the infinite. But our whole foundation cracks, and the earth opens up into abysses” (Pensées §230).

The world is not an infinite plenum but an infinite void. And the abyss is not only outside of us; it is within us as well, a void left by our falling away from God. Pascal writes of this abyss that the human person “tries vainly to fill it with everything around him, seeking from things absent the help he does not receive from things present. But they are all inadequate, because only an infinite and immutable object—that is, God himself—can fill this infinite abyss” (Pensées §181). In this sense, he and Spinoza agree on the implications of the existence of a void: if it exists, it renders the world mute with regard to God and forces us to seek happiness in something that is not the world.

The Place of Humanity

Third, regarding the place of human beings in the universe, Spinoza sees our happiness rooted in our becoming aware of our embeddedness with the infinite system that is God/Nature. In this way he echoes Descartes that the infinite universe causes us to “esteem ourselves as being parts of a more perfect whole” (though for Spinoza we are not so much “parts” as finite modes or attributes of Nature). This awareness, this “intellectual love of God,” is arrived at through knowledge of Nature’s laws—not an abstract knowledge but the acceptance into oneself of the immutability and necessity of those laws, the knowledge that “we are a part of the whole of Nature whose order we follow” (Ethics part 4, appendix n. 32). Humanity may not be the crown of creation, but by constantly seeking to form adequate ideas of the necessary causal chains that constitute Nature, philosophic inquiry is itself an exercise in happiness because it “places” us within the plenum that is God and shows us that we are all part of a vast system of necessity that is the divine will. Ultimately, this philosophical life frees us from the fear of death, because it enmeshes us in life. In one of the more famous propositions of the Ethics Spinoza writes: “A free man thinks of nothing less than death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death” (Ethics part 4, proposition 67). This is Spinozan happiness.

If Spinoza finds happiness in finding himself embedded in the infinite substance that is God, in being ruled by the inexorable laws of Nature, Pascal finds himself profoundly dis-embedded within the infinite void that is our world. Nature has its laws—Pascal describes it as “the Machine”—but knowledge of these laws cannot make a person happy. To know the world as infinite void is quite literally to know nothing. Pascal writes:

Engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces I do not know and that do not know me, I am frightened and astonished to see myself here rather than there; for there is no reason why I am here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me? (Pensées §102, cf. §227)

We are dis-placed within the infinite universe, not merely in the sense of being out of place, but in the sense of the loss of all place. To be fallen is to be placeless because it is to be exiled from the God who calls us into existence from nothing. We try to distract ourselves from this, perhaps by hunting or gambling, or ruling a nation. These diversions give us a momentary respite by preventing us from thinking about ourselves and our placelessness, but ultimately they block the only path to real happiness. Surely Pascal would say that Spinoza’s wise man is simply using philosophy as another form of diversion, though perhaps one, as André Comte-Sponville says, “more refined than the others.” [16] To think nothing of death, in Spinozan fashion, is to consign ourselves a mere simulacrum of happiness, for it is only through recognizing our displacement that we despair of ourselves and turn to the God who is hidden and humiliated in Jesus Christ. “Jesus Christ is a God we approach without pride, and before whom we humble ourselves without despair” (Pensées §245). It is in this hope-filled humility that we find happiness.


The difference between Spinoza and Pascal is perhaps not unfittingly captured by James’s descriptions of the healthy mind, happily embedded in Nature, and the sick soul, which is only happy when released from this world in a new birth. Yet this difference of temperament is not simply a matter of the balance of one’s humors; it is also a difference of metaphysical vision, and it shows how such vision might open or foreclose certain avenues of happiness. Pascal and Spinoza agree on the infinite nature of the universe. Even more, they agree that, as Pascal put it, “Happiness is neither outside us nor within us. It is in God, both outside and within us” (Pensées §26). But such agreement serves simply as a backdrop for profound differences on the nature of God, the nature of the self, and ultimately what we mean by “happiness.” And the differences between them might help us, who are fellow inhabitants with them in the placeless infinity of the post-Cartesian cosmos, to map the itineraries on offer today for the journey to happiness.

[1] Spinoza: A Life (Princeton, 2018), 336.

[2] Quotations from Spinoza are taken from The Collected Work of Spinoza, Edwin Curley, ed. and trans. (Princeton, 1985-2016).

[3] Quoted in Kolakowski, God Owes Us Nothing (Chicago, 1995), 132.

[4] Pascal writes in the Pensées of his horror at the thought of anyone becoming attached to him, of making him their end (§15). One can see this also in his sister Gilberte’s comment that he discouraged anyone from becoming emotionally attached to him, and that those who encouraged such attachments “were taking possession of a heart that should be God’s alone, which amounted to stealing from him the one thing in the world that was most precious to him” (Life of M. Pascal §62 in Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Pierre Zoberman, trans. [CUA Press, 2022]). The Pensées are cited according to Philippe Sellier’s edition and quotations are taken from Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Roger Ariew, ed. and trans. (Hackett, 2005)

[5] See Alexandre Koyré, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (Johns Hopkins, 1957).

[6] The tale of how we got from a finite cosmos to an infinite universe is a complicated, and not uncontested, one. Moreover, after Lemaitre and Einstein it is not entirely clear today in what sense the universe ought to be spoken of as “infinite.” However, it is clear is that by the middle of the 17th century philosophers were beginning to get over the vertigo that the thought of an infinite universe induced in medieval thinkers.

[7] Letter to Chanut, 1 February 1647 Philosophical in Writings, John Cottingham et al. eds. (Cambridge, 1991), 3:309.

[8] Letter to Chanut, 6 June 1647, Philosophical Writings, 3:319-320. See Koyré, 8.

[9] See Robert M. Grant, Much Ado About Nothing (Cambridge, 1981).

[10] Letter to Chanut, 6 June 1647, Philosophical Writings, 3:320.

[11] Letter to Chanut, 6 June 1647, Philosophical Writings, 3:322.

[12] A Book Forged in Hell (Princeton, 2011), 86.

[13] I say “seeming” because Spinoza posits for God an infinite number of attributes, of which human beings can know only the two in which they share: thought and extension. In these infinite attributes that are unknown to us, the “pantheist” Spinoza might be said to retain something akin to divine transcendence. I am indebted to Professor Yitzhak Melamed for pointing this out to me.

[14] Pascal elsewhere suggests the traditional apophatic view that we might know that God is without knowing what God is—but in this case it would be difficult to see how God’s infinity differs from that of the universe.

[15] Vittorio Morfino writes that the necessity of denying a void “is the relational necessity of modes that could not exist except in the complex frame of this ‘concurrence/contest’ [concours] that manifests itself as a finite effect of immanent causality.” (“Retour sur l’enjeu du vide,” in Pascal et Spinoza, Laurent Bove et al., eds. [Amsterdam, 2007], 176). Back in the 14th century, Nicholas of Autrecourt had argued that there must be an interstitial vacuum; otherwise no body could move without every other body moving (see Grant, Much Ado, 75). Spinoza would say he is right, but that this in fact is a reason in favor of the universe being a plenum.

[16] “Pascal et Spinoza face au tragique,” in Pascal et Spinoza, 313.