Car drivers or bicycle riders who have experienced flat tyres will be familiar with the kilopascal, the decimal unit of air pressure. The unit derives its name from the famous French scientist, Blaise Pascal (1623–1662).
As will be evident from the dates, his life was tragically short but, in addition to a brilliant scientific career, Pascal wrote on philosophical and theological issues, many of them hugely relevant to our own troubled times. Other than letters to various people (he was a controversialist and embroiled in the Jansenist debate), Pascal left us a collection of short notes and reflections published posthumously as Pensées (Thoughts). These notes and reflections were intended to be fleshed out into a book – a defence of the Christian religion, but Pascal died before he could elaborate on the notes.
Nonetheless, Pensées has long been regarded as one of the great literary works of the Western canon. The range of topics covered is colossal – God, infinity, death, the nature of the universe, the limits of reason, the meaning of life, human psychology, to mention just a few. Pensées is akin to a dictionary of quotations and any writer interested in philosophy and theology will almost certainly have the Pensées, on his or her bookshelf.
It is also an excellent bedtime book because, unlike novels, which often demand long readings at any one time, you can open the Pensées anywhere and begin reading. Even if you read the whole work several times in this haphazard fashion, each new visit will deliver up some new insight. Writers find it to be a marvellous source of quotes for their own works.
The most famous episode in the Pensées, (often placed as an introduction – it was not part of Pascal’s normal notes) takes up only a paragraph or so, but it describes (as best he can describe such an episode) some sort of vision of God.
The description that Pascal wrote down on a piece of paper he subsequently sewed into the hem of his shirt. It is often called his “Night of Fire” and it changed his life. He was always a practising Catholic, but this vision imbued his faith with a deep fervour.
Here is the first half or so of the description, translated from the French:
“This year of Grace 1654, Monday, November 23rd, day of Saint Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology, Eve of Saint Chrysogonus, martyr, and others; From about half past ten at night, to about half after midnight, Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, Not of the philosophers and the wise. Security, security. Feeling, joy, peace. God of Jesus Christ, Deum meum et Deum vestrum …”
The other famous excerpt from Pensées is usually called Pascal’s Wager. It has delighted and angered thinkers from his time until ours. His argument, rather crudely condensed, is as follows.
God either exists or he does not. You must choose one or other option (Pascal will not allow you to opt out of the wager). If he exists, you have everything to gain, If he does not, you have nothing to lose. The choice, therefore, is obvious. Now, this pitifully brief account of the Wager may not seem to be much to us, but is was ground-breaking at the time because here Pascal is employing the methodology used today in probability theory and decision theory.
Pascal, of course, did not need the Wager to ground his own faith. It was more a sort of intellectual exercise to put to others.
But what most delights the casual reader is the marvellous way in which Pascal can describe human foibles and human types.
Here is a little note about an “intellectual” rather full of his own oratorical powers: “The doctor, who speaks for a quarter of an hour after he has said all he has to say, so full is he of the desire of talking. The parrot’s beak, which he dries though it is clean already.”
The analogy to the parrot is perfect. Certain radio talkback hosts come to mind!
Here is another little reflection: “Set the greatest philosopher in the world on a plank really wider than he needs, but hanging over a precipice, and though reason convince him of his security, imagination will prevail. Many will scarce bear the thought without a cold sweat.”
The next time you see a university graduation procession, or a group of judges entering a court, you might bring to mind this reflection from Pascal:
“Our magistrates are well aware of this mystery [power of Imagination]. Their scarlet robes, the ermine in which they wrap themselves like furred cats, the halls in which they administer justice, the fleurs-de-lis, and all their august apparatus are most necessary; if the doctors had not their cassocks and their mules, if the lawyers had not their square caps, and their robes four times too wide, they would never have duped the world, which cannot resist so authoritative an appearance.”
A bit harsh, perhaps, but not without a grain of truth.
For me, though, one of the best sections of Pascal’s work is that concerned with diversion – our need to occupy ourselves in some way – hobbies, games, hunting, etc, so as to ward off boredom and ennui:
“Imagine any situation you like, add up all the blessings with which you could be endowed, to be king is still the finest thing in the world; yet if you imagine one with all the advantages of his rank, but no means of diversion, left to ponder and reflect on what he is, this limp felicity will not keep him going; he is bound to start thinking of all the threats facing him, of possible revolts, finally of inescapable death and disease, with the result that if he is deprived of so-called diversions he is unhappy, indeed more unhappy than the humblest of his subjects who can enjoy sport and diversion.”
For Pascal, the quest for diversion is by no means an improper activity – most of us simply cannot do without it. Rather, the problem is that we seek diversion as an end in itself.
As Pascal says: “The trouble is that they want it as though, once they had the things they seek, they could not fail to be truly happy. This is what justifies calling their search a vain one”.
Diversion is simply a tactic to stave off anxiety about our condition. It does not solve the problem for us. The whole point of Pascal’s arguments concerning the true nature of the human condition is to show us that without some overarching, transcendental goal, we will never be truly at peace with ourselves. We can obtain partial relief by occupying our minds with other things, but sooner or later, the “big questions” intrude. For Pascal, only by humbly recognising our position of ignorance and seeking divine help can we hope to obtain real peace of mind.
In our own age, there are two particular approaches to diversion. The first is a sort of vaccination against the reality of our condition via massive exposure to a harmless version of the real thing – like an inactivated-virus vaccine. Each day, the television screen or the tabloid page brings with it hundreds of images of death, suffering and destruction from around the world.
These images come to us in the comfort of our own homes and without the slightest degree of actual danger to us. Moreover, to better placate any possible fears we may have, such horrific images are interspersed at random with wholly benign or pleasurable ones. Thus, a shot of starving children in a refugee camp will be followed by a story on a beauty contest or a new drug to combat obesity.
These images are brought to us not to arouse our pity, to disturb us, or to stir us into action. On the contrary they are simply there for entertainment – for spectacle. The overall effect is to blunt our sensitivities to both the good and the bad aspects of what it means to be a human. I say good and bad because the proper appreciation of one cannot be had without a proper appreciation of the other. Somehow or other, we have managed to disengage our higher emotions from our senses and replaced them with the mere capability of distraction, this being the price we pay for being protected from reality.
The second approach, vindicating Pascal, is our inordinate reliance on diversion as a survival strategy. There is a grim earnestness about it. The latest fantasy movie is specifically designed to provide us with an alternative reality. In the latest action movie, the hero or heroine confronts all our terrors and triumphs over them – on our behalf. Every effort is made to reproduce or re-make reality into something more palatable and, it goes without saying, “more real”.
We might recall the “Feelies” in Brave New World, where a love scene on a bearskin rug attracts the admiring comment: “every hair of the bear reproduced”. And it is in Brave New World that Huxley gives us the ultimate diversionary device – soma. The idea of a substance that would relieve us of the burden of being human is, of course, as old as civilisation. Homer’s Odysseus forbids his men to partake of the lotus fruit because it will prevent them from “thinking of home”.
But only in our own era has the idea of chemical happiness really started to have mass appeal and mass application. There is a thriving university industry in “happiness research”.
For those who have not read Pensées, I recommend the book as a sort of medicinal draft against the mad diseases of post-modernity. You can buy the Kindle edition for less than a dollar. A modern potboiler of a novel will cost you fifteen.
This, in itself, says something about the way that the modern age values its literary heritage.