I find strange comfort in reflecting on Pascal’s reflection: “We do not rest satisfied with the present.” Would Pascal have been a songwriter in our time, supplying us something more deep than Mick Jagger’s regret that he can’t get [no] satisfaction?
“The strength of a man’s virtue must not be measured by his efforts, but by his ordinary life,” says Pascal. I find such a tension at work in myself and in culture between trying to be great and learning to be ordinary. My best work, relationships, and sense of self tend to come from just focusing on being good at being ordinary, asking how do I simply just care for the people and things right here and right now. Pascal’s quote above dovetailed with other writers who warn against over-inflated attempts at greatness rather than embracing the stewardship of the ordinary.
I wonder if I need to rethink my negative assumptions about cynicism after reading Arthur C. Brooks’ “Live Like the Ancient Cynics.” Brooks qualifies his approval of cynicism by distinguishing its modern variant from its ancient form: “The modern cynic rejects things out of hand (‘This is stupid’), while the ancient cynic simply withholds judgment (‘This may be right or wrong’).” I wonder if the conceptual net that Brooks casts is a bit too wide for what can count as healthy practices of cynicism that he believes can be found in Indian traditions, Greek philosophers and skeptics, stoicism, Christianity, and Buddhism. I’m pondering Pascal’s thoughts related to such matters.
Happy Monday? Probably not, especially if you think about how problematic the notion of happiness is.
Where shall rest be found on our days of rest?
How strange it is to think about how we know, or think that we know, what we know! Pascal and other great writers of the past might help us learn to practice healthy skeptical thinking so that we can become more honest and humble about knowledge. With social media, divisive politics, and confusion over what constitutes reliable science, we could all benefit from practicing some healthy skepticism about what we think, feel, desire, hear, and think we know.
In addition to questioning imagination, Pascal engages all sorts of questions of trust throughout his Pensées, directly and indirectly. We can find many folks who provide very thoughtful answers to all your questions, but Pascal provides (and provokes) very thoughtful questions for all your answers.
The 17th-century writer Pascal is so interesting to imagine as in dialogue with those who’ve come before him (some of whom such as Descartes are specifically alluded to in the Pensées) and as in dialogue with those who come after him such as the existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre or Frederick Nietzsche. Pascal’s evaluation of the self at work desiring, willing, choosing, and influencing others seems to address and surpass the insights from these other thinkers.
The phrase “writing burdens” intentionally carries a double-meaning here. In one sense, Pascal’s Pensées reflects the help found in writing about the burdens of trying live well in the face of wretched challenges throughout life and the larger need for grace in order to flourish. In another sense, the Pensées reflect the burden of trying to write well.
“In a word, man knows that he is wretched. He is therefore wretched, because he is so; but he is really great because he knows it,” says Pascal in his Pensées
What a fascinating life coach and mentor Pascal would make for each of us! If he coached and counseled each of us in the manner of his unfinished Pensées, we’d constantly be challenged to rethink our spiritual, mental, social, and material sense of balance.