Blaise Pascal's "Thought" Essay
In his fragmented work “Thoughts” Pascal derides several perceived pillars of human society. At the core of his criticisms lies the notion that people are mistaken. Mistaken, in the sense that they believe aspects of their common society are reasonably grounded in truth.
To Pascal, these seemingly grounded truths are just conventions that humanity designed to distract themselves from the genuine truth of Christianity. Pascal argues that these conventions are generally fickle in nature and throughout the course of his work, pushes hard for a view that undermines any legitimacy that they hold in society. While he rebukes numerous conventions and their validity, he makes a determined effort to strip the credibility of humanity’s ability to reason, its societal leaders, and its fair justice system. During the time Pascal lived in France, there was already a brewing ideology, largely due to an earlier work from the philosopher Descartes, that urged the idea that it was a truth that all individuals held the virtue of reason. This ideology is exactly what a large portion of Pascal’s argument in “Thoughts” serves to undermine.
In Pascal’s view “man’s true state” is one of “misery” and “natural ignorance” (Fragment 327, 168). This is important because his argument explains that since man is in a state of misery, they naturally seek to rid themselves of this affliction. However, there is only one cure: practicing the truth of Christianity. In his argument doing anything besides this is dismissed as merely an action to divert oneself (171, 545). In essence, this means that anything humanity does other than try and find the truth of God is a diversion: including holding the belief that everyone can reason.
Since all of humanity is naturally born into a state of ignorance, misery, and has the urge to distract themselves with diversions presumed as truths such as the ability to reason, Pascal’s argument can go a step further and create in its readers a sense that this belief is not actually a truth, but is a convention that has been formed from years of ignorant individuals trying to distract themselves from the only actual truths that stem from holding a belief in God. Pascal’s work continues to find issues in society when it begins aggressively pursuing an argument that forces its audience into questioning the validity of societal leaders. To construct this argument, Pascal creates a sense that there lies a misconception in humanity’s capacity to judge things based upon visual cues. To Pascal, the concept of respect lies squarely in the habitual way in which society perceives the state of appearance. He noticeably addresses this concept when he begins to critique humanity’s reasons for believing in the divinity of Kings.
According to “Thoughts” if not for the various “paraphernalia” that we as a society have grown accustomed to seeing around our Kings; we would in fact not hold them in as high esteem, thus eliminating some of their authority (82). To further emphasize this point Pascal also uses the example of another perceived societal leader: a preacher. In the example he uses, if this preacher had anything affecting their appearance such as say a “hoarse voice,” “bad shave,” or “dress” that is “more dirtied than usual” they would surely lose some “gravity” in what they were saying (82). Because appearance, a variable trait, plays so much into the determination process of whether a leader is viewed as credible Pascal dismisses the notion and urges his audience to view leaders as unreliable constructs that only have power due to a habitual thought process which falsely determines that they are suitable to lead. Pascal does not see society’s justice system as a credible construct either and much like his statements about humanity’s ideology pertaining to reason and societal leaders, Pascal’s justice argument does not let up in its criticisms.
For this particular argument, Pascal uses the notion of inconsistency to bring down the standing of humanity’s supposedly equitable justice system. According to Pascal, there is no “equity” in the current justice system because it has the inherent flaw of being biased (254). He argues that this is evident due to the fact that there is not one over encompassing system of law that “brings all nations under subjection” (254). Instead, there is a system that varies between lands and has seen its “fundamental laws change” due to the “caprice of men” being too unpredictable (254). “Thoughts” presents the case that the justice system is controlled by whims, whims that have seen such events such as “theft, incest, infanticide,” and “parricide” all as a “virtuous” act at one point. Therein lies the question how could something seemingly so variable be fair? To Pascal the answer is that it is not.
Though incomplete Pascal’s fragmented work, “Thoughts,” creates a compelling argument that not only challenges his societal norms, but also creates a strong appeal for his religion of Christianity. Everything that his society has assumed is a truth is, in his opinion, just a convention that both flawed in nature, and capable being proved irrational. To him, God and his teachings are the only real truths in the world and everything else like humanity’s reasoning capabilities, leaders, and supposedly fair justice system are just distractions created by an ignorant society that is desperate for a diversion.