William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Pascal’s Pensées, A Tour: V

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.

Now that the hacking is all sorted out, we’re back to our regularly scheduled program. Thinking Thursdays!

14 When a natural discourse paints a passion or an effect, one feels within oneself the truth of what one reads, which was there before, although one did not know it. Hence one is inclined to love him who makes us feel it, for he has not shown us his own riches, but ours. And thus this benefit renders him pleasing to us, besides that such community of intellect as we have with him necessarily inclines the heart to love.

Notes This is so, but then so is this: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (King James). Also see this translation: “For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths.”

15 Eloquence, which persuades by sweetness, not by authority; as a tyrant, not as a king.

16 Eloquence is an art of saying things in such a way—(1) that those to whom we speak may listen to them without pain and with pleasure; (2) that they feel themselves interested, so that self-love leads them more willingly to reflection upon it.

It consists, then, in a correspondence which we seek to establish between the head and the heart of those to whom we speak on the one hand, and, on the other, between the thoughts and the expressions which we employ. This assumes that we have studied well the heart of man so as to know all its powers, and then to find the just proportions of the discourse which we wish to adapt to them. We must put ourselves in the place of those who are to hear us, and make trial on our own heart of the turn which we give to our discourse in order to see whether one is made for the other, and whether we can assure ourselves that the hearer will be, as it were, forced to surrender. We ought to restrict ourselves, so far as possible, to the simple and natural, and not to magnify that which is little, or belittle that which is great. It is not enough that a thing be beautiful; it must be suitable to the subject, and there must be in it nothing of excess or defect.

Notes Point (2) does not say something good about listeners. While it’s true the speaker has a duty to ease pain, the listener is not excused labor. If he is, we’re back to tickling ears. Anyway, it’s clear that when Pascal said, “We ought to restrict ourselves, so far as possible, to the simple and natural, and not to magnify that which is little, or belittle that which is great” he proved that he would not have been a hit on the Internet. I’m also reminded of the late philosopher David Stove’s lament “You or I might perhaps be excused if we sometimes toyed with solipsism, especially when we reflect on the utter failure of our writings to produce the smallest effect in the alleged external world.” From “Epistemology and the Ishmael Effect.”

A reminder that we’re skipping some points, like 17, which states rivers are moving roads.

18 When we do not know the truth of a thing, it is of advantage that there should exist a common error which determines the mind of man, as, for example, the moon, to which is attributed the change of seasons, the progress of diseases, etc. For the chief malady of man is restless curiosity about things which he cannot understand; and it is not so bad for him to be in error as to be curious to no purpose.

The manner in which Epictetus, Montaigne, and Salomon de Tultie wrote, is the most usual, the most suggestive, the most remembered, and the oftenest quoted; because it is entirely composed of thoughts born from the common talk of life. As when we speak of the common error which exists among men that the moon is the cause of everything, we never fail to say that Salomon de Tultie says that when we do not know the truth of a thing, it is of advantage that there should exist a common error, etc.; which is the thought above.

Notes Montaigne would have made a great blogger. Epictetus, who did not publish, would have been hired by either a faithless university or some White House administration and then, at some point, abandoned when he went on quip too far. Incidentally, Salomon de Tultie is Pascal’s nom de plume, and Salomon is the French of Solomon. But what about that curious “it is of advantage that there should exist a common error”? The analogy I see is that every ship has only one captain. It is better sailing when all are in one accord (whether openly or not) then to have many hands pointing in different directions. This doesn’t preserve all ships from foundering, but it does most. And morale is better.

10 Comments

  1. Is everybody waiting for some one else to comment before they chime in? Or are you having problems:

    but then so is this: “For the time will come …

    I know Catholics have a different slant on the “End Times” but I am HOPING this is a reference to then – my personal experience is the point 14)

    15 Eloquence, which persuades by sweetness, not by authority; as a tyrant, not as a king.

    Did Pascal’s time have a different take on what a “tyrant” is? 15) seems to be comparing sweetness with tyrrany?

  2. By the way I LOVE 18)

    It is so true (about all of us … not just “you know who”

    I need to figure out how to use these HTML tags – italics?
    block?

    Do I need a primer on these?

  3. John,

    It’s just that when Briggs posts an essay that I agree with I don’t comment, in order to avoid giving him a swell head with excessive adulation. In these cases I wait for someone else to make a foolish comment that I can jump on. 🙂 On the other hand I occasionally withdraw into a sullen silence, overwhelmed by the minutiae of my own life.

    “For the time will come…”: This refers to the students in my classes who dare to question my pronouncements. It is not the questioning of the sound doctrine of the physics that I attempt to drum into their heads no much, but the questioning of my methods of marking that is most irritating. Ungrateful whippersnappers each and everyone. How did King James know?

  4. It’s just that when Briggs posts an essay that I agree with I don’t comment

    That was kinda why I wasn’t commenting but the silence was deafening!

    and I do want to understand that tyrant and king thing

    Any takers on that? I get the distinct impression Pascal prefers the one over the other? Or is he implying that “sweet persuasion” is analogous to tyranny in that it can’t be fought, however we CAN rebel against kingly authority … hmmmm

  5. Oh my …

    A new OT theme …

    If God was indeed eloquence (sweet persuasion) to the extreme, that was why his people preferred a king, so they could indeed feel free to rebel! They couldn’t bear the “tyranny” of God!

  6. John,

    The King has the authority of an anointed position whereas the tyrant is often an usurper who needs to persuade the mob to gain support and does this by appealing to baser instincts and resentments. We see this in a socialist regime and in many democracies.

  7. Scotian

    Yes

    But Pascal talks favorably about eloquence in persuading people to do the right thing and by extension tyranny – see point 16

    But I do get your point – it was eloquent

  8. Anyway, it’s clear that when Pascal said, “We ought to restrict ourselves, so far as possible, to the simple and natural, and not to magnify that which is little, or belittle that which is great” he proved that he would not have been a hit on the Internet.

    Mr. Briggs,

    Proved! Doesn’t the above imply that you believe magnifying-the-little-and-belittling-the-great (mtl-btg) is the only way to be a hit online?

    I used to read this very popular blog – http://zenhabits.net/. The author does no (or minimum depending on what it means to be “little” and “great”) mtl-btg!

    I like what Pascal said. I imagine if Pascal wrote a blog, just like Terry Tao (another genius), he would have undoubtedly attracted a following of special quality.

  9. Scotian, indeed. Mao Zi Dong was charismatic and eloquent.

  10. John,

    I think that you are reading too much into it. Here is another Pascal quote about tyranny.

    “Justice without force is powerless; force without justice is tyrannical.”

    Blaise Pascal

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