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The tasks of life: Pascal, Kafka, Weil and Levinas


This module will examine four significant thinkers - Blaise Pascal, Franz Kakfa, Simone Weil, and Emmanuel Levinas - who are linked by a shared sense that our knowledge of ourselves, God and our purpose is difficult and tentative; best lived rather than thought; and glimpsed in fragments rather than grasped through extended metaphysical narratives.

This module will examine the distinctive features of these thinkers in relation to the constraints, possibilities and flourishing of human life and how they view human life in relation to God, religion and ethics. It will engage in a critical and comparative evaluation of the distinctive features of the four writers, their religious anthropology and the contribution of their religious background to their thought. Among the topics covered will be:

Topics covered

  • Pascal’s: Augustinian approach to sin, boredom and diversion; the three orders of body, mind, heart in relation to the world and God; God known through religious experience; the challenge of deism and atheism; the hidden God and revelation.
  • Kafka’s: stories as metaphysical parables and their diverse interpretations; possible religious background to his thought; cruelty and religion; modernity and religion; alienation and judgement in a secular context.
  • Weil: on Plato‟ myth of the Great Beast and the allegory of the Cave; how the world expresses divine goodness and beauty, yet is harsh towards humans; divine kenosis and creation; beauty, love of neighbour and religious rituals as implicit ways of loving God.
  • Levinas: on responsibility for the other; the centrality of ethics and religion; the Jewish meaning of suffering; comparison of Judaism and Christianity on suffering, responsibility and mercy; „universalizing‟ Judaism.

Learning outcomes


  • Examine the distinctive features of these four thinkers and their ideas on human life, God, religion and ethics
  • Consider your approaches in relation to one another and to other thinkers
  • Discuss your views more broadly in their philosophical and theological contexts
  • Conduct critical and comparative evaluations of the approaches of the four writers.
  • Develop your own informed ideas about the tasks of life in a critical and independent manner.


Three-hour examination.

Indicative reading list

Blaise Pascal (1623-62) Primary texts

Pascal, B. Pensées translated by A.J. Krailsheimer (Penguin, 2003) [ISBN 0140446451; 9780140446456]. Read especially: 25–26; 44; 47; 110–18; 131; 136; 148–49; 160; 166; 189–92; 198; 199; 200–01; 298; 308; 400; 405; 417; 423; 424; 427; 449; 513; 533; 608; 688; 695; 697; 699; 806; 913; 919; 933; 977. Entretien avec M. de Sacy. (Pascal‟s conversation with M. de Sacy at Port-Royal) translated by J. McDade. (VLE)

Secondary texts:

  • Krailsheimer, A.J. Pascal. (Oxford University Press, 1980) [ISBN 0192875124; 9780192875129]. Out of print, but second-hand or library copies may be available.
  • McDade, J. „The Contemporary Relevance of Pascal,‟ New Blackfriars 91 (2010),pp.185–96. (Online: PDF available)

Franz Kafka (1883-1924) Primary texts

Kafka, F. The Complete Short Stories (Vintage, 2008) [ISBN 9780749399467].

For the purposes of this module, read the following:

Longer stories

  • 1. Metamorphosis
  • 2. In the Penal Colony
  • 3. A Hunger Artist

Shorter stories

  • 1. Before the Law
  • 2. An Imperial Message
  • 3. The Knock at the Manor Gate
  • 4. The City Coat of Arms
  • 5. On the Tram

Kafka, F. The Trial (Penguin, 2000) [ISBN 9780141182902] or in The Complete Novels (Vintage, 2008) [ISBN 9780099518440].