Pascal’s Pensées, A Tour: IV

PascalSince our walk through Summa Contra Gentiles is going so well, why not let’s do the same with Pascal’s sketchbook on what we can now call Thinking Thursdays. We’ll use the Dutton Edition, freely available at Project Gutenberg. (I’m removing that edition’s footnotes.)

Previous post.

9 When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.1

1Good advice for perpetual arguers like yours truly, who sometimes forgot it in the joy of battle, because what’s wrong with most everyday arguments are false or incomplete premises. Pascal’s dictum doesn’t work for every argument, of course. Some are so wrong, or the desire to believe a false conclusion so strong, that nothing short of divine grace will free a person from error. Do you really think that, unaided, you’ll bring a chiropractor or, say, an academic feminist to see what’s wrong with her stance? These folks are so far from the promised land that it isn’t even on their maps. This doesn’t make Pascal wrong, but winning people to the Truth is hard, brutal labor.

10 People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.2

2This is why we have some sympathy whenever an educator rediscovers the truism that kids better grasp ideas they work out for themselves. Yet any kindly disposition we have is blown away the second the educator insists that all learning follow this regimen. If the child (or adult) isn’t provided with a solid foundation (a memorized one), almost no learning can follow. The student won’t have the tools to work things out and he won’t know when something is right and when it is wrong. And we are back to the first point.

11 All great amusements are dangerous to the Christian life; but among all those which the world has invented there is none more to be feared than the theatre. It is a representation of the passions so natural and so delicate that it excites them and gives birth to them in our hearts, and, above all, to that of love, principally when it is represented as very chaste and virtuous. For the more innocent it appears to innocent souls, the more they are likely to be touched by it. Its violence pleases our self-love, which immediately forms a desire to produce the same effects which are seen so well represented; and, at the same time, we make ourselves a conscience founded on the propriety of the feelings which we see there, by which the fear of pure souls is removed, since they imagine that it cannot hurt their purity to love with a love which seems to them so reasonable.

So we depart from the theatre with our heart so filled with all the beauty and tenderness of love, the soul and the mind so persuaded of its innocence, that we are quite ready to receive its first impressions, or rather to seek an opportunity of awakening them in the heart of another, in order that we may receive the same pleasures and the same sacrifices which we have seen so well represented in the theatre.3

3Initially, Pascal’s complaint reads like those of the nuns who schooled my father and who said the worst things kids did was to chew gum or get out of line in the halls. We are at the point where we long for the good old days where love was “represented as very chaste and virtuous.” So far into the wilderness are we that not one in five hundred could today share his fear of theater. It passes all imagination to see oneself marching down Broadway with a “Down with Tartuffe!” sign.

On the other hand, swap in television and movies for theatre and we see Pascal nails it. Particularly those whose of certain sexual natures who choose to violate natural law are portrayed as extraordinary loving wholly sympathetic creatures, superior to the rest of us (don’t think so? Read this). The situations into which these protagonists are thrust are so ludicrous that it would take an audience with a heart of stone not to root for them. No consequences are ever seen and anything that smacks of reality is expunged. Viewers are discouraged from thinking and tricked, manipulated into feeling, only feeling.

Art has always been recognized as dangerous.


  1. Your first footnote: Pascal seems to believe that people can be “won over” to the truth by reason, but that is not case when the person’s belief has no basis in reality or reason, but rather emotion. Which is why reasoning is not going to win over certain groups of people such as those you noted. We can still try, but realistically, realize the odds of success are very, very small.

    Actually, I find #10 most annoying and often stop reading when someone uses the tactic. Climate change people have learned this one to a tee. If you know it’s being used, it’s annoying.

    I didn’t read your link in footnote 3. After all, it’s the holidays and I really should keep my blood pressure down. I suppose people should be happy I’m a Christian, because if I wasn’t….well, you can where this goes. Better to have me down on gays than throwing out my morals, people.

  2. Portraying oneself as a wholly lovable and sympathetic creature doesn’t count. Everybody does that on a dating site.

  3. Briggs, “…. whenever an educator rediscovers the truism that kids better grasp ideas they work out for themselves.” i.e. #10.

    I don’t believe this is true for the majority of people or kids and I’m not sure that you do either. Yes, some people fall in love with their own ideas but even that is not the same as learning. The reasons that this truism is wrong are two fold (shades of Aquinas): most people simply cannot work out the advanced concepts required in education by themselves (there is a reason why we are not still living in the old Stone Age) and the novice mistakes that they do acquire have to be ruthlessly expunged. I think the reason why this truism keeps cropping up is a somewhat related but different process. Many people need to personalize new knowledge – put their own stamp on it, so to speak – in other to completely accept it, but this is not the same thing and with time the personalization tends to disappear – usually because it is slightly wrong. Of course none of this applies to the rare genius whose fiddling does produce an improvement. Maybe this is why Pascal believed it, although I doubt that he was educated that way.

    How many readers of this blog claim their current knowledge and cherished beliefs are largely composed of things that they worked out themselves? Be honest.

  4. Scotian: It depends on what you mean by “work out for themselves”. If we go with the Obama “you didn’t build that” definition, then I agree. Most people do not live on an island and come up with ideas in isolation. On the other hand, if you mean that children take an idea and build upon it until they reach a conclusion based on that knowledge, then I disagree, with the note that it may be decreasing over time as children are actively discouraged from thinking. I believe that if a child works through a problem on their own, they do have a more complete understanding of the solution and a framework to build on for future learning.

    (As to your question: If you mean the second definition, then, yes, most of my beliefs and knowledge I worked out myself. I did need help with the math at times, etc, so it was not a lone journey on a deserted island. However, the conclusions were based on my research. You can interpret that however you want.)

  5. Sheri, “I believe that if a child works through a problem on their own, they do have a more complete understanding of the solution and a framework to build on for future learning.” You mean do the exercises and problem assignments. This is an entirely different thing. An athlete must also do the practice exercises and play the game but is trained in this endeavour and does not work it out for himself. Any attempt to do so would be a disaster.

    “… most of my beliefs and knowledge I worked out myself.” One or two examples would be more convincing than a bald assertion. Remember we are discussing how children learn and not the contributions made by the rare individual to human society, largely after his education is complete. You can see that I am rather sceptical of your claim.

    The Obama reference I do not understand at all (in this context).

  6. Scotian: I probably should not have used the Obama example. However, what I meant was the next sentence: Most people do not live on an island and come up with ideas in isolation. If your meaning was that everyone interacts with everyone else and thus learning occurs, then I agree no one learns on their own.

    I don’t mean learning by just doing the exercises. I mean doing the exercises and making intuitive leaps to information beyond the exercises or being able to understand the connections between what seem to be unrelated ideas. If there is a foundation of understanding, this becomes easier to do. It’s not just rote learning.

    I’m not sure what to give you for an example of why I make the assertion. Some things you have to know me to understand. Perhaps the best answer I can give you is that I was the one everyone came to for answers. I was the one who had no one to ask questions of because no one seemed to have an answer–I learned to find the answers on my own. People who know me will tell you I was never really a child–even when I was in elementary school, I behaved very much like an adult. Things that others found traumatic I didn’t because I understood how people worked (for example, bullying had no effect on me. I understood why it was being done.) In school, I talked teachers into letting me do independent studies on subjects I wanted to learn but were not part of the curriculum.
    I did not expect you to be “unskeptical” of my claim—I actually expected you to be very skeptical. Hopefully, my answer will help reduce the skepticism. Or you’ll tell me this is not what you meant…….

  7. Sheri, “If your meaning was that everyone interacts with everyone else and thus learning occurs, then I agree no one learns on their own.”

    I do not mean this at all and what you say here sounds like magic. Learning occurs when a student is trained in a discipline by a teacher. Even in the rare self taught man, books serve as teacher.

    “It’s not just rote learning.” I have always found it amusing that people who object to what the progressive educational establishment has done to our schools nevertheless spout the same basic slogans as they do. The one I just quoted and “the truism that kids better grasp ideas they work out for themselves” that started this debate.

    I admire your self confident assertions, but aren’t you worried that you might come across as a braggart? In any case I don’t see how it addresses the issue at hand. Are you claiming to have figured out long division on your own, Newton’s three laws of motion, or perhaps taught yourself reading and writing the way Tarzan did? On the other hand Tazan did have the benefit of primers left behind by his parents. I say all this because this is, in fact, what the modern progressive educator expects every student to do and is why most are illiterate.

    A Parthian shot: “I learned to find the answers on my own. ” not worked them out for myself. In any case I think that you are referring to solving the homework assignments which we are all expected to do on our own although some prefer to cheat by cribbing off the better students.

  8. Scotian: I’m sorry if you are reading what I am writing as being magic. It seems pretty clear we are not on the same page here.

    I don’t see that answering a question is being a braggart. You brought it up, I answered. You stated you wanted me to be honest. Reading further, I do believe you are saying the same thing Obama did–no one learns anything on their own. Which I agreed with. No one is an island so it’s impossible. In light of this definition, the question about if anyone here learned things on their own is moot.

    No, I am not referring to solving homework assignments. In fact, it has little to nothing to do with homework. I am not referring to people “cheating” instead of doing the work itself. I don’t think there’s a way to explain this because it seems likely you have already decided the answer to your question before you asked. It makes no difference to me. You can reject my assessment if you like. No problem. I was just answering.

  9. Sheri, “I don’t see that answering a question is being a braggart.” Maybe there are some things that you have to work out for yourself. 🙂

    My position is quite simple. I believe that the following two statements are incorrect for the majority of people.

    “People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.”

    “the truism that kids better grasp ideas they work out for themselves.”

    Nothing else just this, but you keep changing the subject.

    P.S. People rarely know where their ideas come from. This is why art is so dangerous as Pascal says in #11. In fact now that I think of it, #11 contradicts #10, does it not?

  10. Scotian: I have worked them out. Whether or not you find the solution/answer to your liking was not part of my working them out. 🙂

    I have not changed the subject so far as I can tell. I may have inadvertently veered from your desired answer, but that’s not changing the subject. I agree with the statement that people are generally better persuaded……others. My agreement with the second statement depends on your definition of “work out for themselves”. Your definition apparently keeps this from being possible, so there’s nothing to discuss.

    Also, if people don’t know where their ideas come from, then there’s no discussion to be had. We can’t possibly know if people learn better on their own if we don’t know where the ideas came from. From there, it becomes obvious there is no discussion to be had on either statement. One wonders, then, why ask a question when you already had decided what the answer would be and then accuse individuals for “going off topic” when they answer it?

  11. Scotian: I probably should thank you for calling my admission bragging rather than telling me I’m weird and not like other people. 🙂

  12. Blather and p-values indeed! He talks a good game, has pretty graphs but is very short on actual calculations. I agree—it cries out to be critiqued!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *