Pascal's Apocryphal God-Shaped Vacuum

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I can't count the number of times I've heard that Pascal quote about there being a God-shaped vacuum in our hearts. A friend once asked me where Pascal said it, and I said I didn't know. I'd never really spent any time reading Pascal. He assured that it was somewhere in the Pensees, but he wanted to know exactly where. I couldn't really help him. The problem is that no one could help him. Pascal never said any such thing. Douglas Groothuis provides a quote that does say something in the remote ballpark:

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself. [Pascal, Pensees #425]

Whenever anyone gives you a quote without providing a reference, assume the quote has been misattributed. If the reference includes a book but nothing more specific, always assume the quote has been misattributed before spreading on what might be completely false. People who can't cite page numbers (or section locations for older works) probably shouldn't be trusted. It's likely that, as in this case, the reality is much better than the legend. What Pascal really said is much more eloquent than what the urban legend says he said.

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Pascal in Pensees #425 (via Jeremy): What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everythi... Read More

13 Comments

A good lesson to be sure. I think the attribution of "God-shaped vacuum" to Pascal does more or less reflect his thought there, but certainly he said it much better than that.

The Pensees as a whole are certainly worth your time when you decide to get to them. His other famous idea, the wager, is another one he expresses well, though at much greater length.

I've read the part where he explains the wager, many times. I just haven't spent a lot of time looking around in the book as a whole, never mind reading it carefully cover to cover.

Of course I just read Mill's Utilitarianism for the first time, and I've been having to teach myself Aristotle. It's shameful that a Ph.D. in philosophy can let someone finish courses without covering the history of philosophy very well, and Syracuse happens to be one of the better ones in terms of history.

If I can misattribute that quote again...I thought that was something Calvin said. (That's John Calvin).

A friend of mine had heard it several times as Augustine. It really is Pascal who said something like it. It's just that it's not what he said.

Ever hear the 90s rock band Extreme? Their song "Hole-Hearted" was inspired by this (mis)quote.

I had actually wondered if that song had come from this. I know they did have some Christian influence in their stuff, but I had heard that that only occurred at some point after they had already become somewhat successful. I didn't know if that song was before or after that. The song "More Than Words" is about as far removed from a Christian view of the subject as possible.

I had dinner one time with Gary Cherone (long story). He told me that when he sang with Extreme, he was always trying to sneak in Christian messages that the rest of the band wouldn't recognize. "Hole Hearted" was his number one example.

For that matter, check out the lyrics to "There is no God," and "Am I Ever Gonna Change."

For that matter, check out the lyrics to "There is no God," and "Am I Ever Gonna Change."

Too good! I'd heard this many times... and it surely resonates with me. However, I was first told it came from C.S. Lewis!

In case anyone is interested, here Pascal's quote in the original French:

Qu'est-ce donc que nous crie cette avidité et cette impuissance sinon qu'il y a eu autrefois dans l'homme un véritable bonheur, dont il ne lui reste maintenant que la marque et la trace toute vide et qu'il essaye inutilement de remplir de tout ce qui l'environne, recherchant des choses absentes le secours qu'il n'obtient pas des présentes, mais qui en sont toutes incapables parce que ce gouffre infini ne peut être rempli que par un objet
infini et immuable, c'est-à-dire que par Dieu même.

And you can access the full French text here.

Thanks for your post but in researching I found that section VII: Morality and Doctrine ref 425 does contain this quote.

Do you have a copy of Pensees to check if what I'm sharing is true?
Appreciate wanting to be accurate.

Best regards,
Vicki

That section contains the quote I gave above, yes. But it doesn't contain the exact expression usually quoted about a God-shaped vacuum in our hearts. If you want to read it in context, it's here.

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