Blaise Pascal

by Dennis E. Bradford, Ph.D.

in spiritual well-being

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was the first modern western thinker who clearly understood our difficulty of living in the modern world.  He was the forerunner of later existentialist philosophers, the first of which was the 19th century Dane Soren Kierkegaard.

The Frenchman was not only a philosopher, but also a mathematician, physicist, inventor, and theologian.  His most important contribution was his conception of human nature.

Blaise Pascal thought that we are miserable, vain creatures unable to use reason to uncover first principles; however, we are nevertheless great because we alone of all creatures are able to think about our own wretchedness.

Instead of accepting the reality of our condition, nearly all of us turn to philosophy and other distractions:  “philosophers . . . debate to pass the time” [all quotes here are from Honor Levi’s translation of Blaise Pascal’s Pensees; see link below].  (Think of Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game.)  The game philosophers play is that of shuffling concepts, concept mongering.

Not surprisingly, Blaise Pascal himself never organized his thoughts into a coherent system.  Pity, though, the undergraduate who has not lost sleep over his disorganized thoughts.

That we turn in our despair to drugs, sex, rocknroll, religion, moneymaking, fame seeking, power grabbing, and other distractions seems obvious today.

How did Blaise Pascal describe our human condition?  We are bored to death.

“BORDOM.  Nothing is so intolerable for man as to be in a state of complete tranquility, without passions, without business, without diversion, without effort.  Then he feels his nothingness, his abandonment, his inadequacy, his dependence, his helplessness, his emptiness.  At once from the depths of his soul arises boredom, gloom, sadness, grief, vexation, despair” [#515, XXXIV].

So what should we do?

Blaise Pascal’s only clearly articulated solution was his familiar Wager argument, which, unfortunately for him, depends upon an incoherent substance ontology [which I have criticized elsewhere in these posts].

Much more interesting is his recognition of our attachment to thinking:  “Man is obviously made for thinking.  It is his whole dignity and his whole merit, and his whole duty is to think as he ought” [#513, XXXIV].  “[M]y self consists in my thinking” [#167, IX].

So it might seem from this that living well consists in thinking well, thinking as we ought.

Well, no.  Why not?

As soon as we begin thinking we notice that “death and illness . . . are unavoidable” [#168, IX].  He quotes what Montaigne says about this, namely, we all want to be happy.  As soon as we begin thinking, however, we realize that we could only be happy if we were immortal, which we are not.  Therefore, our task becomes stopping ourselves from thinking, distracting ourselves unto death.

We are caught between being nothing and being everything; we are “suspended between the two gulfs of the infinite and the void . . . a mid-point between nothing and everything” [#230, XVI; cf. Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being].  “Limited in every respect,” our intelligence cannot offer salvation.

In short, our condition is “[i]ncomprehensible” [#656, XXXIX].  “[D]eath . . . threatens us at every moment”; “I am terrifyingly ignorant about everything . . . Nothing is more real nor more dreadful than that . . . I see nothing but infinities on all sides . . . All I know is that I must shortly die . . .” [#681, XLVI].

As soon as we think about life, we realize the inevitability of sickness, aging, and death.  Seeking an antidote to thinking, we distract ourselves, which always gives way to boredom.  Therefore, we are perpetually discontent, dissatisfied, ill at ease, uncomfortable, despairing.

[Incidentally, one of the characters in my novel A Dark Time is, like Svidrigailov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, utterly bored. Readers tend to be horrified by such characters.  Why?]

For Blaise Pascal, then, we humans suffer.  We are stuck in our dreadful human condition.

My experience as an undergraduate myself and my many years of teaching undergraduates is that many college students are open to Pascal’s understanding of human nature and are themselves seeking a way to ameliorate it.  Most have not yet given up their standard dreams of a satisfying career and a comfortable, happy family, so they busy themselves pursuing such limited goods.

They go on to lead, to quote Thoreau, “lives of quiet desperation” or, to quote Freud, lives of “common unhappiness.”  Like the rest of us, they age, get sick, and die.

“I do not know who put me into the world . . . In the same way that I do not know where I came from, neither do I know where I am going” [#681, XLVI].  He’s right about that.  As much as we would like to be able to control our destinies because they are very important to us, we simply don’t.

Is there, despite what Blaise Pascal accurately depicts, a way to live well?

 

I happen to think there is.

However common, Pascal’s conception of philosophy as concept mongering is too narrow.  Genuine philosophers don’t reshuffle concepts for the sake of reshuffling concepts, passing the time.  By definition, genuine philosophers seek wisdom.  To be wise is to live well.

Are we able, then, to be better philosophers than Pascal who seems not to have found a way to live well?  He’s brilliant at describing the problem, but he offers no clear solution.

It is not that Pascal made some kind of simple error in thinking that is easily corrected.  The accuracy of his description of being human is spot on and, given it, there seems to be no possible way out.

His mistake seems to me to have been a fundamental one that, once uncovered, is profoundly illuminating.  He made a very questionable assumption, namely, in his words, that “Man is obviously made for thinking.”

If that assumption is correct, it does seem to me to follow that living well is impossible.

Let me suggest here an alternative that I have tried to sketch in many other posts [particularly in the spiritual well-being category of this blog].  He thinks we are caught between nothing and everything.

I recommend turning this around: since we are not nothing, we are part of everything.

Everything, however, is unthinkable; it is impossible to conceive everything as a whole.  The reason for this is that to conceive (conceptualize, think, judge) is to separate and there is no separation in the whole of everything!

If so, although it follows that there is no way to conceive living well, it does not follow that there is no way to live well.  Why?  Living well is not bound by concepts [cf. David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous].  A well-lived life is characterized by a lack of separation.

So apprehension of nothing (no thing, nonbeing, a lack, emptiness) is able to heal us.  There is no fullness without emptiness.

Therefore, as long as we stick with Pascal’s initial assumption that humans are made for thinking, it follows that there is no way to living well.

It’s very important to notice, however, that if we reject that assumption, there may be a way to live well that is nonconceptual.

A greater philosopher than Pascal demonstrated that there is a nonconceptual way to living well, that, in fact, living well is the way.

 

suggested reading:  Blaise Pascal’s PENSEES AND OTHER WRITINGS.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

BigTuna March 10, 2013 at 9:10 pm

Excellent post. It is humbling to think that geniuses like Pascal did not have access to the Buddha’s teaching or to the teachings of any other sages. It seems very difficult to find the Way unless you happen to run into a teacher or someone who is already following the Way.

Dennis E. Bradford, Ph.D. March 10, 2013 at 10:45 pm

Exactly: I have had the same thought many times. What would it be like to try to live well without having had someone show you the Way? Frightening, actually. It is humbling, too, and fills me with gratitude.

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