It is still tragically sometimes assumed
that the best way to cheer someone up
is to tell them that everything will be alright.
To intimate that life is essentially a pleasant process
in which happiness is no mirage and human fulfillment a real possibility.
However, we need only read a few pages of the book known as The Pensées
by the great French 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal
to appreciate how entirely misguided this approach must be.
Because Pascal pulls off the feet
of being both one of the most pessimistic figures in western thought
and simultaneously one of the most cheering.
The combination seems typical.
The darkest thinkers can,
often be the ones who best lift our mood.
Pascal was born in Auvergne in central France in June 1623.
And from the earliest days
learnt to look at the glass of life as half empty.
His mother died when he was three,
he had few friends, he was a hunchback, and he was always ill.
他朋友很少 背又有点驼 而且还总生病
Luckily, he was recognized from an early age
– and by more than just his proud family – to be a genius.
By 12, he’d worked out the first 32 propositions of Euclid.
He went on to invent the mathematics of probability.
He measured atmospheric pressure,
constructed a calculating machine,
and designed Paris’s first omnibus.
Then, at the age of 36,
ill health forced him
to set aside plans for further scientific exploration
and led him to write a brilliant, intensely pessimistic series of aphorisms
in defense of Christian belief
which became known as the Pensées,
the book for which we today chiefly remember and revere him.
The purpose of the book was to convert readers to God
and Pascal felt
the best way to do this
was to evoke everything that was terrible about life.
Having fully considering the misery of the human condition,
he assumed his readers would then instantly turn for salvation to the Catholic church.
Unfortunately for Pascal,
very few modern readers now follow the Pensées like this.
The first part of the book, listing what’s wrong with life,
has always proved far more popular than the second,
which suggests what’s so right with God.
Pascal begins by telling us that
earthly happiness is an illusion.
But he’s especially keen to point out
how much we hate being on our own,
thinking and exploring our own condition.
Pascal is perhaps best known for this aphorism of genius:
“All of man’s unhappiness comes from his inability
to stay peacefully alone in his room.”
This aphorism should be written in large letters
in the departure lounges of all the world’s airports.
Pascal’s charm lies in his bitterness and tart cynicism.
People will do anything rather than consider their dreadful reality, he thinks.
Man is so vain
that the slightest thing, like pushing a ball with a billiard cue,
is enough to divert him.
At the same time for Pascal,
people are tortured by their passions, especially the passion for fame.
We are so presumptuous that we want to be known all over the world,
even by people who will only come after we have gone.
And perhaps the greatest source of suffering is the most banal:
We struggle against obstacles,
but once they are overcome,
rest proves intolerable
because of the boredom it produces.
Pascal’s bitter conclusion:
Pascal misses no opportunities
to confront his readers with evidence of
mankind’s resolutely deviant, pitiful, and unworthy nature.
人类绝对反常 卑微 微不足道的本性
In constantly seductive classical French,
he informs us that happiness is an illusion.
That misery is the norm.
That true love is a chimera.
That we are as thin-skinned as we are vain.
That even the strongest among us are rendered helpless
by the countless diseases to which we’re vulnerable.
That all worldly institutions are corrupt.
and finally, that we are absurdly prone to overestimate our own importance.
The very best we may hope to do in these circumstances,
is to face the desperate facts of our situation head-on.
Given the tone,
it comes as a real surprise to discover that
reading Pascal is not at all the depressing experience one might have presumed.
The work is consoling, heart-warming, and even at times pretty hilarious.
他的作品给人安慰 温暖 有时甚至很搞笑
For those teetering on the verge of despair,
there can paradoxically
be no finer book to turn to
than one which seeks to grind man’s every last hope into the dust.
The Pensées, far more than any
saccharine volume touting inner beauty,
positive thinking, or the realization of hidden potential
has the power to coax the suicidal off the ledge of a high parapet.
If Pascal’s pessimism can so effectively console us,
it’s because we usually cast into gloom
not so much by negativity as by hope.
It’s hope with regard to our careers, our love lives,
our children, our politicians, our planet
孩子 政治人物 我们的星球
that’s primarily to blame for angering and then embittering us.
The incompatibility between the size of our aspirations and the mean reality of our condition
generates the violent disappointments
which torture our days
and etch themselves in lines of acrimony across our faces.
We should honor Pascal
and the long line of Christian pessimists to which he belongs
for doing us the great favor
of publicly and elegantly rehearsing the facts of our rather sinful and pitiful state.
Reading Pascal reminds us that the secular are,
at this moment in history,
a great deal more optimistic than the religious.
Something of an irony, given the frequency with which the latter
have been derided by the former for their apparent naïvety.
It’s the secular whose longing for perfection has grown so intense
as to lead them to imagine
that paradise might be realized on this earth
after just a few more years of financial growth and medical research.
With no evident awareness of the contradiction,
they may in the same breath gruffly dismiss a belief in angels
while sincerely trusting that
the combined powers of the IMF, the medical research establishment,
Silicon Valley, and democratic politics
will together cure the ills of mankind.
Religions have wisely insisted that we are inherently flawed creatures
incapable of everlasting happiness,
beset by troubling desires, obsessed by status,
vulnerable to appalling accidents, and always heading for death.
Why should any of this be so cheering?
Perhaps because pessimistic exaggeration is so comforting.
Whatever our private disappointments,
we can start to feel very fortunate
when we compare our mood to Pascal’s.
Pascal wanted to turn us to God
by telling us how awful life was.
But by sharing his pessimistic analyses,
he ironically strengthens us to face the trouble of our own lives on this Earth
with greater courage, forbearance, and occasional humor.