PHILOSOPHY – Blaise Pascal

Posted By on September 13, 2019


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.

Posted by Lewis Heart

This article has 100 comments

  1. It's wonderful that the man who invented probability was such a staunch believer when the main atheistic argument hinges on probability. Reminds me of Corinthians 1:19 " I will destroy the wisdom of the wise & the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."

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  2. "Some desire love! Others family! Only then did I realize the truth…the core of humanity…is conflict. They fight. Steal. Kill. This is humanity in its purest form!"

    – Adam, from Nier Automata

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  3. I was delighted when I read a little about Pascal's contribution to probability. Suppose we are playing roulette. Suppose further I have a wager on black. You say, "bet on red." I don't listen and sure enough red is the outcome and I lose my rent money. You say to me, "I told you to bet on red and I was right!" I reply, "no you weren't! You had no idea what the outcome of that spin would be; you just got lucky."

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  4. Blaise Pascal 1623-1662
    Mathematician, Physicist, Philosopher, Inventor.
    Pioneer of Probability Theory

    "There are two kinds of people one can call reasonable:
    Those who serve God with all their heart because they know him
    And those who seek him with all their heart because they do not know him."

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  5. Blaise Pascal was a French mathematical genius who died in 1662. After running from God until he was 31 years old, on November 23, 1654 at 10:30 p.m., Pascal met God and was profoundly and unshakably converted to Jesus Christ. He wrote it down on a piece of parchment and sewed into his coat where it was found after his death eight years later. It said,

    Year of grace 1654, Monday 23 November, feast of St. Clement . . . from about half past ten at night to about half an hour after midnight, fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars. Certitude, heartfelt joy, peace. God of Jesus Christ. God of Jesus Christ. “My God and your God.” . . . Joy, Joy, Joy, tears of joy . . . Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. May I never be separated from him.

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  6. “Justice is subject to dispute might is easily recognized and is not disputed so we cannot give might to justice because might has gain said justice”

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  7. Love this channel. I take everything from the School of Life, but one thing I can say for sure, This channel never fails to impress me in the realm of thoughts.

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  8. great vídeo, great subject matter too, this man would have been a genius even if he didn't do all this philosophical works, but such its the the grandness of great humans like him to give us a new perspective to life.

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  9. I'm Spanish speaking philosophy student, I have to say: those, or philosophers, had, have difficulties to understand fiction.

    Let's make actually, modern philosophy,… I'm inviting you to check criticize of the literature reazon by Spanish literature professor. Jesus G Maestro.

    Literature must go along with philosophy.

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  10. Wow. I'm in awe. You smear religion even on a video regarding Pascal? I truly am baffled. His religious thought is all about putting forward the idea that one day we are going to die and that in the meantime we're living this wierd experience that life is, something that could arguably be considered as mostly suffering. Men are wretched beyond comprihension, as not even their descendants are going to live forever, once the last stars are going to extinguish, and if we had to choose between believing and not believing, the consequence of the two would be heaven- nothing and hell- nothing, but I guess that's what happens when people criticize something they know very little of.

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  11. I like how Pascal is a extremely religious philosopher who believes in GOD and would like people to see the world for what it is and then turn to GOD.

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  12. Terrible of life ,,,,, life is not all terrible … unless we choose to choose it ……. Pascal thoughts are so negative .. when he chooses religion to fall back on … he loses me …

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  13. Father Jack in father ted had a very different viewpoint to blaise and it was just as valid get pissed and fix yous all it led to disgusting personal appearance and terrible skin condition but he was happy

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  14. I feel like this whole argument that his cynicism can cheer us from the depths of despair is assumed because this hasn’t been my experience.

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  15. Pascal's ideology is not very unique at all. It is very very similar to that of Protestant Calvinists, and particularly Puritans. The difference is that Pascal argued from a Catholic viewpoint and remained a Catholic.

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  16. war is 10,000 year old ,writing is 6,000 year old you only being wring of war for 6000 year ,your philosophy is bullshit ,it is not real , if your philosophy is true ,can you (stop ) war ? in action ,can you go to battlefield & stop war ? where is your philosophy now smart gay ,I can tell you nothing in this world happen once ,i'm not a philosopher but you take that to the bank ,do you know a date without war ?

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  17. Pascal's opinions are not depressing & dismal. It's refreshing to hear someone objectively critique humanity and expose it for what it truly is. Sick of wholesome-normal yuppies who've never experienced u.s./nato terrorism (bombing, occupations, sanctions etc) crowing their narcissistic glass-half-full rubbish on social media & tv

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  18. Thank you for another great video. As a philosophy enthusiast, may I recomend that you do one of your superlative shorts on Leibniz.? Being that his works are too technical for beginers, and he made strides in logic it might be profitable to do one. Be well M.A.

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  19. Thank you for that reference to the hydraulic press, which works by Pascal's principle, at 7:15
    -A physics teacher

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  20. It is ironic tnat by focusing on our aspirations and hopes we forget what we DO have A philosopher like Pascal works to remind us by realizing that our lives are not as necessarily pessimistic as it exponds in the Pansee'

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  21. if you want to read the book, herer it is https://www.pdfdrive.com/pens%C3%A9es-by-blaise-pascal-the-ntslibrary-e17392996.html don't buy books, read only

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  22. Secularizing Pascal, I see. A bit self-gratifying and disingenuous to Pascal, don’t you think? Though, there were some real telling ideas presented here, especially exposing the moral naïveté of our modern, neo-liberal, democratic age. Still a big fan of this channel, for sure!

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  23. It’s all smoke and mirrors to the deft slight of hand artist.

    Oh the bitter irony of it all,, just when one begins to understand, alas, times up.

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  24. Way to forget about the famous wager! No treatment of his writing about the faith. This is only half of a video about Pascal!

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  25. Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Catholic theologian.
    "Pascal argues that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas he stands to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell)." Wikipedia.

    In other words Pascal did not believe the Hebrew god Yahweh existed but was afraid of eternal torture in hell if he was wrong.

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  26. One of these days we may be fortunate enough to realize that boredom is actually the ultimate luxury… 😉

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  27. Like Pascal, I'm a strange kind of optimist: I always expect the worst… but hope for the best. By expecting the worst, I am rarely disappointed and occasionally pleasantly surprised; if I were to expect the best, I would constantly be disappointed.

    By expecting the worst, one is also in the constant habit of preparing for any possible disaster, at least to the degree that one can, and thus constantly in a position to be able to minimize the effect of such disasters. Those who expect the best are rarely prepared for disaster, but tend to live their lives 'on a wing and a prayer'; such people are inevitably the hardest hit when disaster strikes.

    As to the old 'glass half full or half empty' conundrum, it should be obvious that whether the glass is half full or half empty depends on whether one is in the act of filling the glass, or drinking it! (In other words, since the 'glass' is a metaphor of 'life', it is half-empty… Or at least, it is when one reaches our mid-thirties or so! Presuming, of course, that one is lucky enough to survive that long!)

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  28. I was watching to compare to the Nier Automata Pascal but I haven't really figured out what ties them together. I'm probably too dumb to figure it out haha

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  29. you have not talked about his famous contribution to physics and mathematics world like pascal's experiments and pascal's triangle
    he also wrote a book which is talking about vibrating objects

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  30. I have to pause and say that this speaker has one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard from An orator and his French is so beautiful give him a prize give him a raise give him a bonus

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  31. He wasn't correct in the particulars. It is really very simple. Man makes what is good or what is bad. If you follow the commandments as categorical principles of good then you will indeed reap good. It's that simple. That leaves the ills attributable not to man's doings but to God's. Wouldn't it indeed be good if God were good, too. Give good for ill means when you see something is bad make it better. If you have a hole in your shirt sew it. If the street needs sweeping , sweep it. You misread it.

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  32. Lucky dogs, w/ their 1/2 empty glasses.
    Wish mine was.
    Mine is totally bone dry.
    In fact I dropped it on the floor & it is broke.

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  33. Pascal: We are inherently flawed dark creatures and will never through science, math, and logic achieve any of our utopian ideals. Therefore, it is better to play make believe and assume the utopia already exists and is waiting for us on the otherside of death.

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