Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Man, the feeblest thing in nature

First edition of Pascal's Pensées 1670
The thoughts of Mr. Pascal on religion and some other subjects
found amongst his papers after his death
       Here is Pensée no 347 ...

       Man is but a reed, the feeblest thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed.  There is no need for the whole universe to arm itself in order to crush him: one vapour, one drop of water will suffice to kill him.  But when the universe crushes him, man is still nobler than his slayer, because man knows that he is dying, and understands the advantage the universe has over him.  The universe knows none of this.

      All our dignity consists, then, in thought.  Thought alone is what elevates us, and not space and time, which we can never fill.  Let us labour, then, to think well;  this is the principle of morality.

           ... and here it is in French ...

      L'homme n'est qu'un roseau, le plus faible de la nature, mais c'est un roseau pensant.  Il ne faut pas que l'univers entier s'arme pour l'écraser; une vapeur, une goutte d'eau suffit pour le tuer.  Mais quand l'univers l'écraserait, l'homme serait encore plus noble que ce qui le tue, puisqu'il sait qu'il meurt et l'avantage que l'univers a sur lui.  L'univers n'en sait rien.

      Toute notre dignité consiste donc en la pensée.  C'est de là qu'il nous faut relever et non de l'espace et de la durée, que nous ne saurions remplir.  Travaillons donc à bien penser voilà le principe de la morale.

Blaise Pascal 1623-1662
There are roughly a thousand of these thoughts. About 300 years ago the original scraps of paper were glued helter-skelter (upside-down, sideways, at all angles) into a large album that is now protected as one of the most precious cultural treasures of France in the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris.  I've searched in vain for an image of this album to put up here. The mathematician George F Simmons tells how he had the privilege of spending a couple of hours examining the album, hunting for familiar passages, and occasionally finding them. Pascal is to France what Plato is to Greece, Dante to Italy, Cervantes to Spain, and Shakespeare to England, he says.*

Pascal’s purpose was to write a monumental and irresistible defence of the Christian religion against the unbelievers, but he died aged 39 in 1662 before he could complete the work.   In general the theme of the Pensées is the grandeur and misery of man.

“Pascal's Wager” is a subject for another day.  In essence it’s the argument that were you to take a bet on God’s existence, it is advisable to bet for rather than against, as the consequences of being wrong on the one side are mild, and on the other catastrophic. Expressed thus it sounds like a satire perpetrated by an atheist. But Pascal was devout, so there's actually more to it than that.

* Calculus Gems 2007, p 123. Simmons actually quotes Pascal’s biographer Ernest Mortimer (1959) quoting a Professor Chevalier.

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