I’ve owned this nice 1968 edition of Pascal’s Pensees for over twenty years: unread, though looking great on various bookshelves. Like other items in my fantasy vanitas (cars, guitars, record sleeves) the style and idea of the thing – where it leads my imagination – is always as attractive as actual knowledge, I have to admit.
But lately I’ve been reading a little of it each day – first thing, between sips of hot tea – and beginning to see why Malcolm Muggeridge often cited Blaise Pascal as one of a handful of luminous thinkers who convinced him that Christianity, shorn of ecclesiastical pretensions, was both reasonable and beautiful. Like a desk drawer of small but potentially useful items, many of which don’t have an obvious purpose or reason for being there, Pensees is really a commonplace book of thoughtful bits and bobs – representing the mathematician’s notes towards a rational defence of Christian belief, which were recovered after his death in 1662.
Accordingly, quite a lot of it seems random and inscrutable, with odd phrases like Pensee number 107 – ‘The parrot wipes its beak although it is clean’ – being included as if requiring no further elaboration. However, just when you think you’re reading a four hundred year old philosophical shopping list, treasures like this turn up:
“Vanity is so firmly anchored in man’s heart that a soldier, a rough, a cook or a porter will boast and expect admirers, and even philosophers want them; those who write against them want the prestige of having written well, those who read them want the prestige of having read them, and perhaps I who write this want the same thing, perhaps my readers…”
For Pascal, the internal conflict faced by men and women arises from the duality of human nature: that sense of our own greatness, always threatening to over-inflate our ballooning pride, vying with alertness to our abject failures, which leads so easily to despair. The resulting crisis confounds even those who appear to have everything: a king, writes Pascal, ‘left to ponder and reflect on what he is’, will soon grow morbid without the ‘limp felicity’ of constant distraction.
So much of what we present to the world is just a dust jacket concealing an entirely different story within. The inner discourse, veering as it does between the vain and venal, needs (and secretly longs for) a third voice, telling us we are not God, yet calling us to God. The older I become, the more I realise this is pretty much the heart of my spiritual desire: a longing to surrender my overweening ego to a higher cause, a higher personality than my own. Early morning attempts at prayer, before glancing at the fairground mirrors of social media, consist largely of this – and a huge release it is, too.
Hard on the heels of another Good Friday, with Watts’ unsurpassed line from When I survey the wondrous cross – ‘all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood’ – still ringing in my ears, I long to do the same and increasingly wish (pace Ray Davies) I could be like Isaac Watts. To be put in my proper place: with God in his. ‘I have often said’, writes Pascal, ‘that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room’. He’s right, I think – and if I can do that without gazing the while at my groaning shelves, so much the better.