William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Pascal’s Pensées, A Tour: VI

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.

19 The last thing one settles in writing a book is what one should put in first.

Notes I have to keep this in mind for my book, which is edging ever closer to completion. But it’s too late, because what went in first is already there and what goes in last hasn’t yet been decided.

20 Order.—Why should I undertake to divide my virtues into four rather than into six? Why should I rather establish virtue in four, in two, in one? Why into Abstine et sustine rather than into “Follow Nature,” or, “Conduct your private affairs without injustice,” as Plato, or anything else? But there, you will say, everything is contained in one word. Yes, but it is useless without explanation, and when we come to explain it, as soon as we unfold this maxim which contains all the rest, they emerge in that first confusion which you desired to avoid. So, when they are all included in one, they are hidden and useless, as in a chest, and never appear save in their natural confusion. Nature has established them all without including one in the other.

21 Nature has made all her truths independent of one another. Our art makes one dependent on the other. But this is not natural. Each keeps its own place.

Notes Abstine et sustine = suck it up or live with it (my translations). From Epictetus. From other stoics, Follow nature = well, very little, unless, as Pascal said, you bring with you an already complete philosophy. We’re addicted to aphorisms, though, and they can be quite useful as shorthand or as an open-secret code when talking to other insiders.

22 Let no one say that I have said nothing new; the arrangement of the subject is new. When we play tennis, we both play with the same ball, but one of us places it better.

I had as soon it said that I used words employed before. And in the same way if the same thoughts in a different arrangement do not form a different discourse, no more do the same words in their different arrangement form different thoughts!

23 Words differently arranged have a different meaning, and meanings differently arranged have different effects.

Notes Distinctions lost on a bureaucratic nation which has lost touch with poetry. Anyway, from what Pascal said it follows that language cannot be abstracted to mathematical formula, that not all thoughts can be quantified. That the ultimate analysis of literature cannot be a science.

24 Language.—We should not turn the mind from one thing to another, except for relaxation, and that when it is necessary and the time suitable, and not otherwise. For he that relaxes out of season wearies, and he who wearies us out of season makes us languid, since we turn quite away. So much does our perverse lust like to do the contrary of what those wish to obtain from us without giving us pleasure, the coin for which we will do whatever is wanted.

Notes The corollary to this is to focus on the task at hand, the exact right advice for anybody reading this on the screen of a “device”, where the urge to “surf” can be overwhelming. The art of reading is being lost rapidly.

25 Eloquence.—It requires the pleasant and the real; but the pleasant must itself be drawn from the true.

26 Eloquence is a painting of thought; and thus those who, after having painted it, add something more, make a picture instead of a portrait.

27 Miscellaneous. Language.—Those who make antitheses by forcing words are like those who make false windows for symmetry. Their rule is not to speak accurately, but to make apt figures of speech.

Notes The pleasant not drawn from other than the real is The Daily Show. How much “communication” now is designed to tell readers, in an amusing way, that whoever does not believe as they do are stupid? And this wouldn’t be so bad except that this (to speak loosely) discourse is held in great regard as if it were eloquence. Awards for everybody!

2 Comments

  1. Concerning your last note, the great skill of these mocking communicators is to appear as brave iconoclasts. In reality they’re only glib and clever and able to project an air of heroic challenge and superiority. But people have always liked staged battles and it’s so much fun to be in on the joke.

  2. “Nature has made all her truths independent of one another. Our art makes one dependent on the other. But this is not natural. Each keeps its own place.”

    21 – If I substitute “our science” for “our art”, is this true?
    While I accept that “we” cannot or will not ever “find” a Grand Unification Theory or Theory of Everything, everything in science appears to build on everything else. These “truths” are NOT independent.

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