Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
From the ‘Thoughts’
By Blaise Pascal (1623–1662)
(See full text.)

THE WHOLE visible world is but an imperceptible speck in the ample bosom of nature. No idea approaches it. We may swell our conceptions beyond all imaginable space, yet bring forth only atoms in comparison with the reality of things. It is an infinite sphere, the centre of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere. It is, in short, the greatest sensible mark of the almighty power of God; in that thought let imagination lose itself.  1
  Then, returning to himself, let man consider his own being compared with all that is; let him regard himself as wandering in this remote province of nature; and from the little dungeon in which he finds himself lodged—I mean the universe—let him learn to set a true value on the earth, on its kingdoms, its cities, and on himself.  2
  What is a man in the infinite? But to show him another prodigy no less astonishing, let him examine the most delicate things he knows. Let him take a mite, which in its minute body presents him with parts incomparably more minute; limbs with their joints, veins in the limbs, blood in the veins, humors in the blood, drops in the humors, vapors in the drops; let him, again dividing these last, exhaust his power of thought; let the last point at which he arrives be that of which we speak, and he will perhaps think that here is the extremest diminutive in nature. Then I will open before him therein a new abyss. I will paint for him not only the visible universe, but all that he can conceive of nature’s immensity in the inclosure of this diminished atom. Let him therein see an infinity of universes, of which each has its firmament, its planets, its earth, in the same proportion as in the visible world; in each earth animals, and at the last the mites, in which he will come upon all that was in the first, and still find in these others the same without end and without cessation; let him lose himself in wonders as astonishing in their minuteness as the others in their immensity; for who will not be amazed at seeing that our body, which before was imperceptible in the universe, itself imperceptible in the bosom of the whole, is now a colossus, a world, a whole, in regard to the nothingness to which we cannot attain.  3
  Whoso takes this survey of himself will be terrified at the thought that he is upheld in the material being given him by nature, between these two abysses of the infinite and nothing,—he will tremble at the sight of these marvels; and I think that as his curiosity changes into wonder, he will be more disposed to contemplate them in silence than to search into them with presumption.  4
  For after all, what is man in nature? A nothing in regard to the infinite, a whole in regard to nothing, a mean between nothing and the whole; infinitely removed from understanding either extreme. The end of things and their beginnings are invincibly hidden from him in impenetrable secrecy; he is equally incapable of seeing the nothing whence he was taken, and the infinite in which he is engulfed.  5
  What shall he do then, but discern somewhat of the middle of things, in an eternal despair of knowing either their beginning or their end? All things arise from nothing, and tend towards the infinite. Who can follow their marvelous course? The author of these wonders can understand them, and none but he.  6
  WE think we are playing on ordinary organs when we play upon man. Men are organs indeed, but fantastic, changeable, and various, with pipes not arranged in due succession. Those who understand only how to play upon ordinary organs make no harmonies on these.  7
  THE WEATHER and my moods have little in common. I have my foggy and my fine days within me; whether my affairs go well or ill has little to do with the matter. I sometimes strive against my luck; the glory of subduing it makes me subdue it gayly, whereas I am sometimes wearied in the midst of my good luck.  8
  THE SPIRIT of this sovereign judge of the world—man—is not so independent but that it is liable to be troubled by the first disturbance about him. The noise of a cannon is not needed to break his train of thought, it need only be the creaking of a weathercock or a pulley. Do not be astonished if at this moment he argues incoherently: a fly is buzzing about his ears, and that is enough to render him incapable of sound judgment. Would you have him arrive at truth, drive away that creature which holds his reason in check, and troubles that powerful intellect which gives laws to towns and kingdoms. Here is a droll kind of god!  9
  WHEN we are too young our judgment is at fault; so also when we are too old.  10
  If we take not thought enough, or too much, on any matter, we are obstinate and infatuated.  11
  He that considers his work so soon as it leaves his hands, is prejudiced in its favor; he that delays his survey too long, cannot regain the spirit of it.  12
  So with pictures seen from too near or too far: there is but one precise point from which to look at them; all others are too near or too far, too high or too low. Perspective determines that precise point in the art of painting. But who shall determine it in truth or morals?  13
  IT is not well to be too much at liberty. It is not well to have all we want.  14
  NOTHING more astonishes me than to see that men are not astonished at their own weakness. They act seriously, and every one follows his own mode of life, not because it is as a fact good to follow, being the custom, but as if each man knew certainly where are reason and justice. They find themselves constantly deceived; and by an amusing humility always imagine that the fault is in themselves, and not in the art which all profess to understand. But it is well there are so many of this kind of people in the world, who are not skeptics for the glory of skepticism; to show that man is thoroughly capable of the most extravagant opinions, because he is capable of believing that his weakness is not natural and inevitable, but that on the contrary his wisdom comes by nature.  15
  Nothing fortifies skepticism more than that there are some who are not skeptics. If all were so, they would be wrong.  16
  CHANCE gives thoughts, and chance takes them away; there is no art for keeping or gaining them.  17
  A thought has escaped me. I would write it down. I write instead, that it has escaped me.  18
  THE NATURE of man is not always to go forward,—it has its advances and retreats. Fever has its hot and cold fits, and the cold proves as well as the hot how great is the force of the fever.  19
  THE STRENGTH of a man’s virtue must not be measured by his occasional efforts, but by his ordinary life.  20
  WE do not remain virtuous by our own power: but by the counterpoise of two opposite vices, we remain standing as between two contrary winds; take away one of these vices, we fall into the other.  21
  IT is not shameful to man to yield to pain, and it is shameful to yield to pleasure. This is not because pain comes from without us, while we seek pleasure; for we may seek pain, and yield to it willingly, without this kind of baseness. How comes it then that reason finds it glorious in us to yield under the assaults of pain, and shameful to yield under the assaults of pleasure? It is because pain does not tempt and attract us. We ourselves choose it voluntarily, and will that it have dominion over us. We are thus masters of the situation, and so far man yields to himself; but in pleasure man yields to pleasure. Now only mastery and empire bring glory, and only slavery causes shame.  22
  WHEN I have set myself now and then to consider the various distractions of men, the toils and dangers to which they expose themselves in the court or the camp, whence arise so many quarrels and passions, such daring and often such evil exploits, etc., I have discovered that all the misfortunes of men arise from one thing only, that they are unable to stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to dwell with pleasure in his own home, would not leave it for seafaring or to besiege a city. An office in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it seems insupportable not to stir from the town; and people only seek conversation and amusing games because they cannot remain with pleasure in their own homes.  23
  But upon stricter examination, when, having found the cause of all our ills, I have sought to discover the reason of it, I have found one which is paramount: the natural evil of our weak and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can console us when we think of it attentively.  24
  Whatever condition we represent to ourselves, if we bring to our minds all the advantages it is possible to possess, royalty is the finest position in the world. Yet when we imagine a king surrounded with all the conditions which he can desire, if he be without diversion, and be allowed to consider and examine what he is, this feeble happiness will never sustain him; he will necessarily fall into a foreboding of maladies which threaten him, of revolutions which may arise, and lastly, of death and inevitable diseases: so that if he be without what is called diversion he is unhappy, and more unhappy than the humblest of his subjects who plays and diverts himself.  25
  Hence it comes that play, and the society of women, war, and offices of State, are so sought after. Not that there is in these any real happiness, or that any imagine true bliss to consist in the money won at play, or in the hare which is hunted: we would not have these as gifts. We do not seek an easy and peaceful lot, which leaves us free to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the troubles of statecraft, but seek rather the distraction which amuses us, and diverts our mind from these thoughts.  26
  Hence it comes that men so love noise and movement; hence it comes that a prison is so horrible a punishment; hence it comes that the pleasure of solitude is a thing incomprehensible. And it is the great subject of happiness in the condition of kings, that all about them try incessantly to divert them, and to procure for them all manner of pleasures.  27
  The king is surrounded by persons who think only how to divert the king, and to prevent his thinking of self. For he is unhappy, king though he be, if he think of self.  28
  That is all that human ingenuity can do for human happiness. And those who philosophize on the matter, and think men unreasonable that they pass a whole day in hunting a hare which they would not have bought, scarce know our nature. The hare itself would not free us from the view of death and our miseries, but the chase of the hare does free us. Thus, when we make it a reproach that what they seek with such eagerness cannot satisfy them, if they answered—as on mature judgment they should do—that they sought in it only violent and impetuous occupation to turn their thoughts from self, and that therefore they made choice of an attractive object which charms and ardently attracts them, they would leave their adversaries without a reply. But they do not so answer, because they do not know themselves; they do not know they seek the chase and not the quarry.  29
  They fancy that were they to gain such-and-such an office they would then rest with pleasure, and are unaware of the insatiable nature of their desire. They believe they are honestly seeking repose, but they are only seeking agitation.  30
  They have a secret instinct prompting them to look for diversion and occupation from without, which arises from the sense of their continual pain. They have another secret instinct, a relic of the greatness of our primitive nature, teaching them that happiness indeed consists in rest, and not in turmoil. And of these two contrary instincts a confused project is formed within them, concealing itself from their sight in the depths of their soul, leading them to aim at rest through agitation, and always to imagine that they will gain the satisfaction which as yet they have not, if by surmounting certain difficulties which now confront them, they may thereby open the door to rest.  31
  Thus rolls all our life away. We seek repose by resistance to obstacles; and so soon as these are surmounted, repose becomes intolerable. For we think either on the miseries we feel or on those we fear. And even when we seem sheltered on all sides, weariness, of its own accord, will spring from the depths of the heart wherein are its natural roots, and fill the soul with its poison.  32
  THE COUNSEL given to Pyrrhus, to take the rest of which he was going in search through so many labors, was full of difficulties.  33
  STRIFE alone pleases us, and not the victory. We like to see beasts fighting, not the victor furious over the vanquished. We wish only to see the victorious end, and as soon as it comes we are surfeited. It is the same in play, and in the search for truth. In all disputes we like to see the clash of opinions, but care not at all to contemplate truth when found. If we are to see truth with pleasure, we must see it arise out of conflict.  34
  So in the passions: there is pleasure in seeing the shock of two contraries, but as soon as one gains the mastery it becomes mere brutality. We never seek things in themselves, but only the search for things. So on the stage: quiet scenes which raise no emotion are worthless; so is extreme and hopeless misery, so are brutal lust and excessive cruelty.  35
  CÆSAR, as it seems to me, was too old to set about amusing himself with the conquest of the world. Such a pastime was good for Augustus or Alexander, who were still young men, and these are difficult to restrain; but Cæsar should have been more mature.  36
  NOT from space must I seek my dignity, but from the ruling of my thought. I should have no more if I possessed whole worlds. By space the universe encompasses and swallows me as an atom; by thought I encompass it.  37
  MAN is but a reed, weakest in nature, but a reed which thinks. It needs not that the whole universe should arm to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water, is enough to kill him. But were the universe to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which has slain him, because he knows that he dies, and that the universe has the better of him. The universe knows nothing of this.  38
  All our dignity, therefore, consists in thought. By this must we raise ourselves, not by space or duration which we cannot fill. Then let us make it our study to think well; for this is the starting-point of morals.  39
  JUSTICE and truth are two such subtle points, that our instruments are too blunt to touch them accurately. If they attain the point, they cover it so completely that they rest more often on the wrong than the right.  40
  OUR imagination so enlarges the present by dint of continually reflecting on it and so contracts eternity by never reflecting on it, that we make a nothing of eternity and an eternity of nothing; and all this has such living roots in us, that all our reason cannot suppress them.  41
  WE are not content with the life we have in ourselves and in our own being: we wish to live an imaginary life in the idea of others, and to this end we strive to make a show. We labor incessantly to embellish and preserve this imaginary being, and we neglect the true. And if we have either calmness, generosity, or fidelity, we hasten to let it be known, that we may attach these virtues to that imaginary being; we would even part with them for this end, and gladly become cowards for the reputation of valor. It is a great mark of the nothingness of our own being that we are not satisfied with the one without the other, and that we often renounce one for the other. For he would be infamous who would not die to preserve his honor.  42
  VANITY is so anchored in the heart of man that a soldier, a camp-follower, a cook, a porter, makes his boasts, and is for having his admirers; even philosophers wish for them. Those who write against it, yet desire the glory of having written well; those who read, desire the glory of having read; I who write this have maybe this desire, and perhaps those who will read it.  43
  Whoever will know fully the vanity of man has but to consider the causes and the effects of love. The cause is an unknown quantity, and the effects are terrible. This unknown quantity, so small a matter that we cannot recognize it, moves a whole country, princes, armies, and all the world.  44
  Cleopatra’s nose—had it been shorter, the face of the world had been changed.  45
  ON what shall man found the economy of the world which he would fain govern? If on the caprice of each man, all is confusion. If on justice, man is ignorant of it.  46
  Certainly, had he known it, he would not have established the maxim, most general of all current among men, that every one must conform to the manners of his own country; the splendor of true equity would have brought all nations into subjection, and legislators would not have taken as their model the fancies and caprice of Persians and Germans instead of stable justice. We should have seen it established in all the States of the world, in all times; whereas now we see neither justice nor injustice which does not change its quality upon changing its climate. Three degrees of latitude reverse all jurisprudence, a meridian decides what is truth, fundamental laws change after a few years of possession, right has its epochs, the entrance of Saturn into the Lion marks for us the origin of such-and-such a crime. That is droll justice which is bounded by a stream! Truth on this side of the Pyrenees, error on that….  47
  Can there be anything more absurd than that a man should have the right to kill me because he lives across the water, and because his prince has a quarrel with mine, although I have none with him?  48
  THE MOST unreasonable things in the world become most reasonable because of the unruly lives of men. What is less reasonable than to choose the eldest son of a queen to guide a State? for we do not choose as steersman of a ship that one of the passengers who is of the best family. Such a law would be ridiculous and unjust; but since men are so themselves, and ever will be, it becomes reasonable and just. For would we choose the most virtuous and able, we at once fall to blows, since each asserts that he is the most virtuous and able. Let us then affix this quality to something which cannot be disputed. This man is the king’s eldest son. That is clear, and there is no dispute. Reason can do no better, for civil war is the worst of evils.  49
  MEN of unruly lives assert that they alone follow nature, while those who are orderly stray from her paths; as passengers in a ship think that those move who stand upon the shore. Both sides say the same thing. There must be a fixed point to enable us to judge. The harbor decides the question for those who are in the vessel; but where can we find the harbor in morals?  50
  DO we follow the majority because they have more reason? No; but because they have more power.  51
  THE WAY of the majority is the best way, because it is plain, and has power to make itself obeyed; yet it is the opinion of the least able.  52
  IT is necessary that men should be unequal. True; but that being granted, the door is open, not only to the greatest domination, but to the greatest tyranny.  53
  It is necessary to relax the mind a little, but that opens the door to extreme dissipation.  54
  We must mark the limits. There are no fixed boundaries in these matters; law wishes to impose them, but the mind will not bear them.  55
  MINE, THINE.—“This is my dog,” say poor children; “that is my place in the sunshine.” Here is the beginning and the image of the usurpation of the whole earth.  56
  GOOD birth is a great advantage; for it gives a man a chance at the age of eighteen, making him known and respected as an ordinary man is on his merits at fifty. Here are thirty years gained at a stroke.  57
  HOW rightly do men distinguish by exterior rather than by interior qualities! Which of us twain shall take the lead? Who will give place to the other? The least able? But I am as able as he is. We should have to fight about that. He has four footmen, and I have but one; that is something which can be seen; there is nothing to do but to count; it is my place to yield, and I am a fool if I contest it. So by this means we remain at peace,—the greatest of all blessings.  58
  WE care nothing for the present. We anticipate the future as too slow in coming, as if we could make it move faster; or we call back the past, to stop its rapid flight. So imprudent are we that we wander through the times in which we have no part, unthinking of that which alone is ours; so frivolous are we that we dream of the days which are not, and pass by without reflection those which alone exist. For the present generally gives us pain; we conceal it from our sight because it afflicts us, and if it be pleasant we regret to see it vanish away. We endeavor to sustain the present by the future, and think of arranging things not in our power, for a time at which we have no certainty of arriving.  59
  If we examine our thoughts, we shall find them always occupied with the past or the future. We scarcely think of the present; and if we do so, it is only that we may borrow light from it to direct the future. The present is never our end; the past and the present are our means, the future alone is our end. Thus we never live, but hope to live; and while we always lay ourselves out to be happy, it is inevitable that we can never be so.  60
  OUR nature exists by motion; perfect rest is death.  61
  GREAT men and little have the same accidents, the same tempers, the same passions; but one is on the felloe of the wheel, the other near the axle, and so less agitated by the same revolutions.  62
  MAN is full of wants, and cares only for those who can satisfy them all. “Such a one is a good mathematician,” it is said. But I have nothing to do with mathematics: he would take me for a proposition. “This other is a good soldier.” He would treat me as a besieged city. I need then an honorable man who can lend himself generally to all my needs.  63
  I FEEL that I might not have been, for the “I” consists in my thought; therefore I, who think, had not been had my mother been killed before I had life. So I am not a necessary being. Neither am I eternal nor infinite; but I see plainly there is in nature a necessary being, eternal and infinite.  64
  WE never teach men to be gentlemen, but we teach them everything else; and they never pique themselves so much on all the rest as on knowing how to be gentlemen. They pique themselves only on knowing the one thing they have not learnt.  65
  I PUT it down as a fact that if all men knew what each said of the other, there would not be four friends in the world. This is evident from the quarrels which arise from indiscreet reports made from time to time.  66
  WERE we to dream the same thing every night, this would affect us as much as the objects we see every day; and were an artisan sure to dream every night, for twelve hours at a stretch, that he was a king, I think he would be almost as happy as a king who should dream every night for twelve hours at a stretch that he was an artisan.  67
  Should we dream every night that we were pursued by enemies, and harassed by these painful phantoms, or that we were passing all our days in various occupations, as in traveling, we should suffer almost as much as if the dream were real, and should fear to sleep, as now we fear to wake when we expect in truth to enter on such misfortunes. And in fact, it would bring about nearly the same troubles as the reality.  68
  But since dreams are all different, and each single dream is diversified, what we see in them affects us much less than what we see when awake, because that is continuous; not indeed so continuous and level as never to change, but the change is less abrupt,—except occasionally, as when we travel, and then we say, “I think I am dreaming,” for life is but a little less inconstant dream.  69
  WHEN it is said that heat is only the motion of certain molecules, and light the conatus recedendi which we feel, we are surprised. And shall we think that pleasure is but the buoyancy of our spirits? we have conceived so different an idea of it, and these sensations seem so removed from those others which we say are the same as those with which we compare them. The feeling of fire, the warmth which affects us in a manner wholly different from touch, the reception of sound and light,—all this seems to us mysterious, and yet it is as material as the blow of a stone. It is true that the minute spirits which enter into the pores touch different nerves, yet nerves are always touched.  70

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