PHILOSOPHY – Blaise Pascal
It is still tragically sometimes assumed that the best way to cheer someone up is to tell them that everything will be alright. To intimate that life is essentially a pleasant process in which happiness is no mirage and human fulfillment a real possibility. However, we need only read a few pages of the book known as The Pensées by the great French 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal to appreciate how entirely misguided this approach must be. Because Pascal pulls off the feet of being both one of the most pessimistic figures in western thought and simultaneously one of the most cheering. The combination seems typical. The darkest thinkers can, paradoxically, often be the ones who best lift our mood. Pascal was born in Auvergne in central France in June 1623. And from the earliest days learnt to look at the glass of life as half empty. His mother died when he was three, he had few friends, he was a hunchback, and he was always ill. Luckily, he was recognized from an early age – and by more than just his proud family – to be a genius. By 12, he’d worked out the first 32 propositions of Euclid. He went on to invent the mathematics of probability. He measured atmospheric pressure, constructed a calculating machine, and designed Paris’s first omnibus. Then, at the age of 36, ill health forced him to set aside plans for further scientific exploration and led him to write a brilliant, intensely pessimistic series of aphorisms in defense of Christian belief which became known as the Pensées, the book for which we today chiefly remember and revere him The purpose of the book was to convert readers to God and Pascal felt the best way to do this was to evoke everything that was terrible about life. Having fully considering the misery of the human condition, he assumed his readers would then instantly turn for salvation to the Catholic church. Unfortunately for Pascal, very few modern readers now follow the Pensées like this. The first part of the book, listing what’s wrong with life, has always proved far more popular than the second, which suggests what’s so right with God. Pascal begins by telling us that earthly happiness is an illusion. But he’s especially keen to point out how much we hate being on our own, thinking and exploring our own condition. Pascal is perhaps best known for this aphorism of genius: “All of man’s unhappiness comes from his inability to stay peacefully alone in his room.” This aphorism should be written in large letters in the departure lounges of all the world’s airports. Pascal’s charm lies in his bitterness and tart cynicism. People will do anything rather than consider their dreadful reality, he thinks. Man is so vain that the slightest thing, like pushing a ball with a billiard cue, is enough to divert him. At the same time for Pascal, people are tortured by their passions, especially the passion for fame. We are so presumptuous that we want to be known all over the world, even by people who will only come after we have gone. And perhaps the greatest source of suffering is the most banal: Boredom. We struggle against obstacles but once they are overcome, rest proves intolerable because of the boredom it produces. Pascal’s bitter conclusion: “What is man? A nothing compared to the infinite.” Pascal misses no opportunities to confront his readers with evidence of mankind’s resolutely deviant, pitiful, and unworthy nature. In constantly seductive classical French, he informs us that happiness is an illusion. That misery is the norm. That true love is a chimera. That we are as thin-skinned as we are vain. That even the strongest among us are rendered helpless by the countless diseases to which we’re vulnerable. That all worldly institutions are corrupt. and finally, that we are absurdly prone to overestimate our own importance. The very best we may hope to do in these circumstances, Pascal suggests, is to face the desperate facts of our situation head-on. Given the tone, it comes as a real surprise to discover that reading Pascal is not at all the depressing experience one might have presumed. The work is consoling, heart-warming, and even at times pretty hilarious. For those teetering on the verge of despair, there can paradoxically be no finer book to turn to than one which seeks to grind man’s every last hope into the dust. The Pensées, far more than any saccharine volume touting inner beauty, positive thinking, or the realization of hidden potential has the power to coax the suicidal off the ledge of a high parapet. If Pascal’s pessimism can so effectively console us, it’s because we usually cast into gloom not so much by negativity as by hope. It’s hope with regard to our careers, our love lives, our children, our politicians, our planet that’s primarily to blame for angering and then embittering us. The incompatibility between the size of our aspirations and the mean reality of our condition generates the violent disappointments which torture our days and etch themselves in lines of acrimony across our faces. We should honor Pascal and the long line of Christian pessimists to which he belongs for doing us the great favor of publicly and elegantly rehearsing the facts of our rather sinful and pitiful state. Reading Pascal reminds us that the secular are, at this moment in history, a great deal more optimistic than the religious. Something of an irony, given the frequency with which the latter have been derided by the former for their apparent naïvety. It’s the secular whose longing for perfection has grown so intense as to lead them to imagine that paradise might be realized on this earth after just a few more years of financial growth and medical research. With no evident awareness of the contradiction, they may in the same breath gruffly dismiss a belief in angels while sincerely trusting that the combined powers of the IMF, the medical research establishment, Silicon Valley, and democratic politics will together cure the ills of mankind. Religions have wisely insisted that we are inherently flawed creatures incapable of everlasting happiness, beset by troubling desires, obsessed by status, vulnerable to appalling accidents, and always heading for death. Why should any of this be so cheering? Perhaps because pessimistic exaggeration is so comforting. Whatever our private disappointments, we can start to feel very fortunate when we compare our mood to Pascal’s. Pascal wanted to turn us to God by telling us how awful life was. But by sharing his pessimistic analyses, he ironically strengthens us to face the trouble of our own lives on this Earth with greater courage, forbearance, and occasional humor.