Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, March 15, 2007


Pascal ranks as one of the world’s truly great intellects. He was always busy doing things like inventing the world’s first known mechanical calculating machine, discovering the science of hydrostatics, and formulating the mathematical principles of probability theory. So what does a man like that have to say to ordinary people living ordinary lives? Surprisingly humble but sound wisdom: “…the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room…because they do not enjoy staying at home.” That sounds like something parents or grandparents might say, but it sounds true. For all his scientific achievements Pascal is still a human being and knows very well what it is that human beings really want – they want to be happy. He puts it this way: “All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions. However different the means they may employ, they all strive toward this goal.”

If there are no exceptions, then we too are included. We may think that Pascal’s idea of happiness would surely be different from ours. Would the Einstein of his age find happiness the same way we do? Actually the answer is yes. For all the hustle and bustle people really just want to relax and be comfortable. St. Augustine once said that the heart is restless until it finds its rest in God. Pascal agrees. Pascal’s most famous observation is “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” This seems a little strange coming from such a rational man. But Pascal doesn’t think we’ll find our happiness in God via the intellect. He explicitly states that “It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is…” Even though Pascal spent his life in the rational realm of mathematics and science, in the end he turns to faith for solace. He believes true happiness comes from a heart turned toward God. He also says that “Telling a man to rest is the same as telling him to live happily.” Pascal equates staying at home, resting, and being content with happiness. Since there’s no permanent rest or home or happiness in this life we should direct our thoughts and efforts toward heaven.

How do we do that? First we need to know who we are in this world and where we belong in the state of nature. Pascal asks “…what is man in nature? A nothing compared to the infinite, a whole compared to the nothing, a middle point between all and nothing…Let us then realize our limitations. We are something and we are not everything.” Since we’re not all good and not all bad but in constant flux somewhere in between, Pascal thinks it would be wise to “…seek neither assurance nor stability…once that is clearly understood, I think that each of us can stay quietly in the state in which nature has placed him.” Very well then, once we realize our true place in nature we’ll give up the search for any permanent happiness this side of heaven. However, that doesn’t mean we should give up all worldly intellectual pursuits. Quite the contrary. Pascal affirms that “Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed…Thus all our dignity consists in thought…Let us then strive to think well…” If we can think clearly then we’ll acknowledge that our greatest chance for permanent happiness lies beyond this world. It can only be found in eternity with God.

But does God really exist? Given the limitations of mortal creatures can we ever be absolutely certain, one way or another? Unfortunately no. It’s the most important question we’ll ever ask and yet even a mind as great as Pascal’s can’t give a definite answer. It’s all one big gamble. But even though Pascal can’t prove that God exists, he thinks he can improve the odds we face when gambling in life’s greatest casino challenge: “How will you wager…you must wager. There is no choice…if you win, you win everything, if you lose you lose nothing. Do not hesitate then; wager that he does exist.” And if we’re right the payoff is eternal happiness.



Blogger SMJ said...

“All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions. However different the means they may employ, they all strive toward this goal.”

The problem with this statement is that we do not all agree what happiness means. Even if it is true that we all seek happiness, what exactly is it that we are seeking? Some people seek God, others seek mammon. Some of us want to sit quietly at home, "resting and being content," far from all the hustle and bustle of life. Others want to perform on the world's largest stage, to conquer nations and build monuments which proclaim their great deeds. No one remembers Xerxes, Alexander, Caesar or Napoleon for staying quietly in their rooms. And it's fortunate for civilization that many of us don't want to just relax and be comfortable. Where would we be today without the achievements of Kepler, Newton, Magellan, Darwin, Edison or Pasteur? The great breakthroughs of medicine, astronomy, and engineering, or the legacy of creative genius by Mozart, Beethoven, Raphael, Blake and Shakespeare? These are not the accomplishments of people content to "stay at home and relax."

Then, of course, there is the moral consideration of whether we seek just our own happiness or do we care about the happiness of others? Can you ever be truly happy if others around you are miserable?
Pascal may have wanted us to find God, but in doing so, was it merely to satisfy his own desire for happiness? He never succeeded in giving a rational explanation for God's existence, but he did appeal to what he believed was a universal trait in humanity...the instinct of seeking our own interest. His wager was not a logical argument but a rhetorical device meant to challenge the secular drift toward enlightenment philosophy. In other words, a bit of gamesmanship meant to attract rational minds seeking justification for their beliefs. Thus, where faith is not available, probability theory must suffice.

“Telling a man to rest is the same as telling him to live happily.”

Really? Let's examine that notion. In Newtonian physics, rest is a state of non-action. Thus, rest is the state which precedes and follows our brief interval of mortality. Rest, as Immanuel Kant disclosed, is just a synonym for perpetual peace. Yet another synonym for it is death. Didn't Heraclitus say that motion (change) is the universal principle of all existence? Well, maybe it is or maybe it isn't. But it certainly seems to be a better description of human life than the concept of rest. Far from telling a man to live happily, the opposite seems to be true: telling a man to rest is like telling him to drop dead.

We live in a world of constant strife and sorrow. Our happiness to come (if there is any) lies in some far off time and place beyond easy reach. The real wager for us is not whether God, in fact, exists, but whether He cares enough to rescue us from an eternity of suffering. Isn't one lifetime of pain enough? Either human life goes on after death or it doesn't. If it doesn't, we ought to be enjoying what little life remains to us. If it does, then the question becomes whether we'll be happy or miserable?

Maybe cosmic symmetry requires that those who are happy in this world must suffer in the next; and those who are miserable now will be better off later. So, remember the words of Lowell George, who told us to be careful of how we act, for

"...the same people you misuse
on your way up,
you might meet up
on your way down."

3/15/2007 2:11 PM  

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