PASCAL: Pensées [Numbers 72, 82-83, 100, 128, 131, 139, 142-143, 171]

Pensées by Pascal

72 – Man’s Disproportion

  • The earth is a point compared to the vastness of the sun; the sun is a point compared to other stars; the stars are points in an infinite universe. Nature surpasses our capacity of imagination; this is the greatest sensible mark of God – i.e. imagination loses itself in contemplation of nature.
  • What is a man, or a city, or a kingdom in comparison to the Infinite?
  • Yet there is an infinity of universes in even the smallest conceivable part of an atom.
  • Man, who is imperceptible on the scale of the universe, is a whole world compared to the nothingness we cannot comprehend. Man is suspended between two abysses of Nothing and the Infinite.
  • Since man is infinitely removed from the two abysses, he cannot know the ends or beginnings of things. He is incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up.
  • Only God knows the marvelous processes of the beginning and end of things.
  • We believe we are far more capable of understanding the center of things than the circumference. The extent of the world visibly exceeds us, but we think that we can understand things that are smaller than us. However, we need infinite capacity to understand both the Infinite and Nothing. These two extremes are only found in God.
  • Our intellect holds the same position in the world of thought as our bodies holds in the world of nature.
  • Our senses cannot perceive extremes – too much sound deafens us, too much light blinds us, too much pleasure sickens us, etc.
  • Although our natures incline us to seek stability and certainty, we do not have the capacity to attain such certainty. Thus, we ought to be content with our limitations and the lot which has been given to us. If a man has a little bit more knowledge of the universe, he only ascends a little higher, but is still infinitely far from understanding the whole as is the man who does not possess such knowledge. A man who has ten years left of life is as infinitely removed from eternity as the man who has 20 years left of life.
  • If man considers his nature, then he would understand that he is not capable of understanding the universe; for a part cannot know the whole. He cannot even know himself; for he must know why he needs air to breathe, food to eat, water to drink, etc., and this requires him to know the nature of these other things, and the other things dependent upon the other things, ad infinitum. Therefore, to know a part, one must know the whole, which is impossible.
  • Since we are composed of body and soul – mind and matter – we cannot perfectly know things that are entirely corporeal or entirely spiritual. If we are entirely corporeal, then we are even further removed from knowledge of the universe because matter cannot conceive of itself.
  • We confuse the qualities of material things with the qualities of spiritual things and vice versa. For example, we say that bodies have a tendency to fall, they seek the center, they fly from destruction, they have inclinations, sympathies, etc. When we speak of minds, we say that they exist in a certain space, they are moved, etc.
  • Man cannot even understand himself. He cannot conceive of the body or the mind; and he cannot conceive how the body and mind are united.

“The universe is an infinite sphere, the centre of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere. It is the greatest sensible mark of the almighty power of God, that imagination loses itself in that thought.”

“Perhaps he will think that here is the smallest point in nature. I will let him see therein a new abyss. I will paint for him not only the visible universe, but all that he can conceive of nature’s immensity in the womb of this abridged atom. Let him see therein an infinity of universes, each of which has its firmament, its planets, its earth, in the same proportion as in the visible world.”

“All things proceed from the Nothing, and are borne towards the Infinite.”

“We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and to fasten to it, it wavers and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes for ever. Nothing stays for us. We burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses.”

“Man is to himself the most wonderful object in nature; for he cannot conceive what the body is, still less what the mind is, and least of all how a body should be united to a mind.”

This first thought of Pascal in the reading plan is fantastic. I hope that the others are just as interesting and thought-provoking. In thought 72, Pascal contemplates the relationships between the man, the Infinite, and Nothing. He asserts that man is a mean between the two abysses of the Infinite and Nothing; and therefore he cannot comprehend either of the two.

I noticed some similarities between Pascal, Aurelius, and Lucretius. They all seem to understand the imperceptible smallness of man in comparison to the Infinite, but also the almost infinite vastness of man in comparison to Nothing. What ought we to do with this knowledge? Aurelius and Pascal argue that we should be content with our lot, and to not become frustrated by our lack of understanding of the machinations of the universe; for even if one attains some additional knowledge of the universe, he is always infinitely distant from the understanding of the whole. One must possess an infinite intellect to understand the Infinity of the Whole.

Pascal is a Christian writer, and the Pensees have been described as an apology of Christianity and an exhortation to the readers to accept the precepts of the Religion. Already in this first thought, Pascal has made comments with explicit religious sentiments. He writes that the union of the Infinite and Nothing is only found in God. All things proceed from Nothing and are swallowed up in the Infinite. Pascal also argues using terms such as body and soul. He believes that man is a union of body and soul, and this nature prevents men from attaining knowledge of the universe; for man cannot perfectly know simple bodies because he wants to ascribe spiritual qualities to matter, and man cannot perfectly know spiritual things because he wants to ascribe physical qualities to things such as the mind, God, etc.

82 – Imagination

  • Imagination is a greater persuader of men than reason. Though the wisest philosopher be on a sturdy plank overhanging a precipice, his imagination will convince him that he is in danger.
  • Appearance is more persuasive than truth. An orator who is eloquent and well-dressed is more persuasive than an orator who is shabbily dressed and stutters, though the latter orator speaks according to Truth while the former does not.
  • The majority of men do not follow Reason; for they are persuaded by imagination and appearances, not Truth. The wise man is deemed foolish by the majority of men.
  • Professions establish themselves by show – the doctor wears a certain type of apparel, as does the lawyer, businessman, etc. If these professions truly possessed the arts they claim, then they would not need distinct apparel to signify that they indeed possess it. The profession of soldiers is the only profession that does not require ostentation because it establishes its power by force.
  • We are inclined to think of men who are dressed in customary garb of a certain trade to possess the skills of that art. For example, it would take a very discerning intellect to consider a King that is surrounded by his courtiers and pomp to be an ordinary man. When we see a judge dressed in the customary black robe, it is difficult not to ascribe the quality of prudence to him.
  • Thus, imagination leads us into error.
  • There is no principle that may not be deemed a false impression of education or of the senses. You believe in the possibility of a vacuum because you saw an empty box as a child. This is an illusion of your senses that must be corrected by science. On the other hand, you do not believe in the possibility of a vacuum because you were taught to believe so in school. The teachers have perverted your common sense, which clearly comprehends that a vacuum is possible; you must correct this by returning to your commons sense. The question remains: Which has deceived you, your senses or your education? The most powerful cause of error is the war between the senses and reason.
  • Our own self-interest leads us into error.
  • Justice and Truth are two subtle points that are incapable of being grasped by our intellect.

“The imagination disposes of everything; it makes beauty, justice, and happiness, which is everything in the world.”

“Which has deceived you, your senses or your education?”

In number 82, Pascal discusses the various causes of errors in judgment. The most powerful cause is the war between senses and reason. Men often judge the qualities of a thing by its appearance rather than upon its essence. For example, the wisest philosopher will imagine that a sturdy plank jutting from a precipice is dangerous despite all reasonable explanations of the plank’s steadfastness. This thought can serve the reader as a reminder to consider the nature of an object rather than its appearance. We must resist the natural inclination to suppose that men who are surrounded by admirers, pomp, and extravagance are greater or more special than any other man. A man in a judge’s robe does not make him a good judge. Good judgment makes a man a good judge.

83 – Deceptive Powers

  • Man is full of error. Everything deceives him. The two sources of truth – reason and the senses – deceive one another. The senses mislead reason with false appearances, and the reason misleads the senses with false judgments.

Thought 83 is concise and interesting. Pascal writes that the two sources of truth are reason and the senses, and both sources deceive one another. For example, the senses mislead the reason with false appearances. I immediately thought of a stick that appears broken when half of the stick is placed in water. Likewise, the reason misleads the senses with false judgments. I thought of when one is in love, one often idealizes the object of their love, and becomes blind to the faults of their abject of affection.

100 – Self-love

  • Men naturally love themselves, but men also have evident faults and wants. Men want to be perfect, but see that they are imperfect.
  • This fact arouses unrighteous and criminal passion against the truth that reproves him. He would annihilate this fact, but because he cannot do so, he contents himself by deceiving himself and others.
  • We do not think it is fair for others to deceive us; therefore it is not fair that we should deceive others.
  • We ought not to be angry at people who discover our imperfections; for they are not the cause of our imperfections. Furthermore, they free us from the ignorance of our imperfections, and therefore do us a good.
  • These are the sentiments of a heart full of equity and justice. What ought we to do when we discover our heart to be of a wholly contrary disposition?
  • We hate truth and those who tell it to us. We wish for everyone to be deceived in our favor. We wish to be esteemed for something that we are not [then is it truly we who are esteemed? No.]
  • This disposition of deception is inseparable from self-love.
  • Others attempt to avoid offense by lessening and excusing our faults.
  • Each degree of good fortune removes us further from the truth. The King is farthest from the truth because men are most afraid of offending one whose love is most useful and whose hate is most dangerous.

“They treat us as we wish to be treated. We hate the truth, and they hide it from us. We desire flattery, and they flatter us. We like to be deceived, and they deceive us. Human life is thus only a perpetual illusion; men deceive and flatter each other. No one speaks of us in our presence as he does of us in our absence. Human society is founded on mutual deceit; few friendships would endure if each knew what his friend said of him in his absence, although he then spoke in sincerity and without passion.”

Thought number 100 is absolutely brilliant. Pascal writes that self-love causes men to deceive others and themselves. No one wishes to be told the truth because no one wishes to be told of his own faults, but no man is without imperfections. Man wishes to be perfect, but is not. Furthermore, men seek the love of others; and therefore do not tell others their faults lest they anger them and arouse their hatred.

At first, I laughed at the striking truth of Pascal’s insights, but after further reflection I became appalled. Men are social animals. They are dependent upon one another for survival. Aristotle wrote that one who does not live in a society is either a god or a beast, not a man. So, if men are social animals, and a society requires that men deceive one another about the truth, then in order for mankind to perpetuate its existence truth must be suppressed – philosophy must be suppressed.

I remember the scene from The Matrix in which one of the characters says that he knows the piece of steak he is about to eat is not a real steak – for he was located within the computer simulation of the matrix – but the truth did not matter to him. He stated that “ignorance” was bliss. In other words, a deliberate deception about the truth – effectively ignorance – is more desirable, and to some extent necessary, for men to live.

128 – Weariness

  • “The weariness which is felt by us in leaving pursuits to which we are attached. A man dwells at home with pleasure; but if he sees a woman who charms him, or if he enjoys himself in play for five or six days, he is miserable if he returns to his former way of living. Nothing is more common than that.”

131 – Weariness

  • “Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.”

139 – Diversion

  • Men are unhappy because they require constant diversion. They require constant diversion because whenever they consider their own nature they realize the miserable condition of their existence – nothing can comfort them except turning away from the consideration of themselves, selective ignorance.
  • If we gather all the good things that it is possible to possess in this world, being king is the finest position in the world; and yet if a king is without diversion and left to consider what he is, then this feeble happiness will not sustain him. He will begin to fear revolutions, assassinations, disease, and death. If the king is without diversion, then he is unhappier than the lowliest of his subjects who diverts himself. Thus, there are men constantly about the king whose sole task is to divert the king in order to prevent him from thinking of himself.
  • We seek diversions that amuse us and avert our thoughts from ourselves. We do not seek gambling because we think that true bliss consists in the money won at gambling. We seek the activity of gambling because it amuses us and averts our thoughts from ourselves.
  • Men spend a whole day chasing a hare that they would not even buy because the chase turns their attention away from death and fearful calamities. The hare itself does not screen us from these thoughts, but the activity of obtaining the hare does.
  • Men avoid rest more than anything else. They seek toil.
  • Evil does not lie in seeking excitement if men seek excitement only as a diversion. Evil lies in seeking excitement as if the object of their endeavor would make them truly happy. This quest is a vain one, and rightly reprehensible.
  • It is the chase, and not the quarry, which men seek.
  • When men imagine that if they obtained something then they would be at rest and happy, they misunderstand the insatiable nature of the “if” desire. They do not seek rest, they seek excitement and diversion.
  • Men have a natural instinct to seek amusement and toil because they are constantly unhappy. They also have a natural instinct to believe that happiness consists only in rest; this arises from a vague memory of the greatness of our original nature – i.e. union with god. These contrary instincts incite men to seek rest by excitement, and persuade them that the satisfaction they seek will come to them after they have surmounted whatever difficulties confront them.
  • Rest is insufferable; for we either think of the misfortunes we have or of those which threaten us.
  • A man will happily spend his entire life playing every day for small sums; but if you give him the money he can win each morning, on condition that he does not play, then you make him miserable. Moreover, if he plays for nothing, then he will not become excited over it and become bored. It is not amusement alone that men seek. Men must get excited over something and deceive themselves by imagining that they will be happy to win it.

“All the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact: they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.”

“We like the chase better than the quarry.”

“When we take the exception against them, that what they seek with such fervour cannot satisfy them, if they replied- as they should do if they considered the matter thoroughly- that they sought in it only a violent and impetuous occupation which turned their thoughts from self, and that they therefore chose an attractive object to charm and ardently attract them, they would leave their opponents without a reply. But they do not make this reply, because they do not know themselves. They do not know that it is the chase, and not the quarry, which they seek.”

“This man spends his life without weariness in playing every day for a small stake. Give him each morning the money he can win each day, on condition he does not play; you make him miserable. It will perhaps be said that he seeks the amusement of play and not the winnings. Make him, then, play for nothing; he will not become excited over it and will feel bored. It is, then, not the amusement alone that he seeks; a languid and passionless amusement will weary him. He must get excited over it and deceive himself by the fancy that he will be happy to win what he would not have as a gift on condition of not playing; and he must make for himself an object of passion, and excite over it his desire, his anger, his fear, to obtain his imagined end.”

“However full of sadness a man may be, he is happy for the time, if you can prevail upon him to enter into some amusement; and however happy a man may be, he will soon be discontented and wretched, if he be not diverted and occupied by some passion or pursuit which prevents weariness from overcoming him.”

142 – Diversion

  • A king without diversion is miserable; and therefore we see a great number of people constantly about the king whose sole task it is to amuse and avert the thought of the king form himself.

143 – Diversion

  • “Men are entrusted from infancy with the care of their honour, their property, their friends, and even with the property and the honour of their friends. They are overwhelmed with business, with the study of languages, and with physical exercise; and they are made to understand that they cannot be happy unless their health, their honour, their fortune and that of their friends be in good condition, and that a single thing wanting will make them unhappy. Thus they are given cares and business which make them bustle about from break of day. It is, you will exclaim, a strange way to make them happy! What more could be done to make them miserable?- Indeed! what could be done? We should only have to relieve them from all these cares; for then they would see themselves: they would reflect on what they are, whence they came, whither they go, and thus we cannot employ and divert them too much. And this is why, after having given them so much business, we advise them, if they have some time for relaxation, to employ it in amusement, in play, and to be always fully occupied.”

Beginning at thought number 128, Pascal discusses the natural instinct of men to seek amusement and diversion in order to escape the realization of the miserable condition of themselves. Pascal argues that if any man is allowed to reflect upon himself, he will inevitably think of his own misfortunes or the dangers that threaten him. Even kings will begin to consider the possibilities of assassination, revolution, disease and death. This contemplation is insufferable for men; and therefore, they seek to avert their thought from themselves by amusement and diversion.

This argument is very persuasive. When I was reading these thoughts, I immediately thought of the various hobbies of people. When people are not working, they constantly seek diversion through movies, television, sports, novels, operas, theater, etc. If man were placed in solitary confinement with nothing to divert his attention and thoughts away from himself, then he would go mad. Indeed, I have often heard stories of prisoners who are placed in isolation becoming very depressed and suicidal; some even begin to hallucinate – perhaps this is a desperate attempt to amuse and divert oneself.

171 – Misery

  • “The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.”

Pascal criticizes the inclination of men to avert their own thoughts from themselves. Though the consideration of man’s wretched condition is depressing and insufferable, it is only through this sort of contemplation that we might discover a more solid way of escaping our wretchedness.

Pensées by Pascal

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One thought on “PASCAL: Pensées [Numbers 72, 82-83, 100, 128, 131, 139, 142-143, 171]”

  1. Thank you for the excellent brief introduction. Last evening I wrote about Ramble and Babble, and mentioned Pascal in passing. Self delusion harms and calms, and in that reflection, we hope to learn to be a little wiser.

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