Pascal was fascinated by our capacity to distract ourselves from the bigger questions of life and death. Is there a God? Who am I? Which religion is true, if any of them? What happens after our brief lives are over? If we are a tiny speck of life on a tiny insignificant planet within the vast expanses of space that were beginning to be discovered at the time, what possible significance can we have? How do you explain the monstrous contradiction of human beings who have the capacity for compassion, understanding and greatness and yet also for cruelty, bestiality and shame?
These are all big questions on which our eternal destiny depends, and so should occupy our minds day and night, and yet we have a remarkable capacity to distract ourselves from thinking about them. Silence and inactivity are unbearable to us and so we fill our time with (in his day) hunting, cards, conversation, tennis. As he put it, “the sole cause of a man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” He would have marvelled at our age with Twitter, TikTok, 24-hour TV and the myriad ways we find to divert ourselves during the most fantastically distracted age there has ever been.
And so Pascal tries to unsettle his reader, trying to stir up the instinct to consider deeper questions. Yet he still knows that even when we do start thinking about these things, we get muddled. Is there a God? Religious people say Yes; Atheists say No. Pascal knows enough of science to know that it is not capable of adjudicating on such questions, that evidence of miracles or biblical prophecies are ambiguous, and certainty is impossible to find. So what do you do when you’re intrigued by religion but there isn’t enough evidence to push you across the line to be a Christian? When one moment you’re convinced God is real, but the next you doubt the whole thing?
Maybe you give up on it – get back to scrolling through TikTok videos, watching the football on TV, musing over Harry and Meghan? Yet Pascal says you can’t just do that.
Today would have been the 400th birthday of the genius that was Blaise Pascal. Here is my take on why you need to read him and how he helps us locate happiness. https://t.co/HjcCMEBpbe
— Graham Tomlin (@gtomlin) June 19, 2023