Brighten Youth Education Centre

 

 

Blaise Pascal and the challenges of life

 

Today we examine the wisdom of a seventeenth-century French philosopher and physicist who was obsessed with calculating machines and who, apparently, sewed a document describing a brush with death and religious visions into every outfit he ever wore: Blaise Pascal.

Pascal had plenty of reasons to be pessimistic. His mother died when he was very young, he suffered constantly with poor health, he had few friends and he was a hunchback. However, his genius was recognised at a young age, and he was particularly gifted in the field of mathematics. At the age of thirty-six, his health forced him to give up on further work in the scientific arena and instead he turned to philosophy, producing the work he is perhaps best remembered for today, the Pensées (1670). The book was actually a collection of highly pessimistic aphorisms in defence of Christian beliefs, yet it is the first part of the book (which explores all the problems of life) which remains more popular today than the second (what’s great about God).

Pascal begins by arguing that earthly happiness is an illusion and that most of our problems come from the fact that we hate to be alone and actually think about our lives (“All of humanity’s unhappiness stems from man’s inability to stay peacefully alone in his room.”). In his opinion, we will do anything rather than consider our reality but at the same time we are tortured by our passions, particularly fame (“We are so presumptuous that we should like to be known all over the world, even by people who will only come when we are no more. Such is our vanity that the good opinion of half a dozen of the people around us gives us pleasure and satisfaction.”) He also argues that humans, among many other things, are incapable of happiness and always willing to pursue new and often unattainable goals.

So, what are we to do with this information? Give up and go back to bed? Not necessarily, but we would do well to accept our reality, rather than convincing ourselves that all we need is a promotion/more money/a new relationship/a place at the “right” university/those expensive shoes to be really happy. There will always be something more that we want. This doesn’t mean that we should be interested and set goals (Pascal himself was incredibly accomplished), but we should think about our motivation for doing these things. In particular, we should be wary of doing things because we think they will impress other people. In Pascal’s opinion, it is better to be good at something for its own sake, rather than because we feel it will gain us notoriety. Pascal is an excellent companion when thinking about the challenges of life.

 

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