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Monday
Dec192011

Pascal, "Vanité de l'homme"

A work ("The Vanity of Man") by this French thinker.  You can read the original here.

We are not satisfied with the life we have within ourselves and within our own being.  We long to live within others' notions of an imaginary life, and we try very hard to keep up such an appearance.  We work incessantly to embellish and conserve this imaginary being, and in so doing we neglect our real existence.  And if we have either tranquility, or generosity, or faithfulness, we hasten to make them known in order to append these virtues to this existence contained within our imagination.  In other words, we detach ourselves from them in order to join them in that other realm; and we would quite willingly be cowards so as to acquire the reputation of being brave.  This is an extensive sign of the nothingness of our own existence, of our being content with neither one nor the other, and of our renouncing one for the other!  For infamous is he who would not die to save his honor.

The sweetness of glory is so great that we love it regardless of its association, even if it is associated with death.

Pride counterweighs all our miseries.  For whether it hides them or reveals them, it glorifies itself in the knowledge of them.

Pride seems like such a natural possession amidst our miseries and our errors that we would even forsake a life with joy, provided we may still speak of it. 

Vanity is so entrenched in the heart of man that even a boor, even a kitchen boy, even a picklock boasts and seeks out admirers.  Yet Philosophers too wish themselves some part.  Those who write against glory wish for glory for having written so well; and those who read wish for themselves the glory of having read.  And I who write this, perhaps I have such a wish; and perhaps those who read this text will also have it. 

Despite the sight of all the miseries that surround and touch us, that hold us by the throat, we have an instinct in these matters that lifts us and that we cannot repress.

We are so presumptuous that we would like to be known by the whole wide world and even by those people who will come when we will no longer be there.  And we are so vain that the estimation of five or six people in our vicinity amuses and satisfies us.

The most important thing in life is the choice of profession, and here chance plays its part.  Custom and habit make masons, soldiers, and roofers.  He's an excellent roofer, he says; and when speaking of soldiers he says that they are all mad.  Others are just the opposite: there is nothing greater than war, and everyone else is just a bunch of scoundrels.  We make our choice from having heard in our childhood how people praised certain professions and contemned others, because naturally we love virtue and hate imprudence.  These words move us; it is only in their application that we sin.  And the force of habit is so strong that there arise entire nations who are all masons, and others who are all soldiers.  Surely nature is not quite so uniform.  Thus it is custom and habit that do this, that train nature.  But sometimes even nature overcomes custom and keeps man to his instinct despite his habits, be they good or bad.    

Curiosity is merely vanity.  Most often one only wants to learn of something so as to have the opportunity to talk about it.  We would not travel by sea solely for the pleasure of gazing upon it, or without the hope of ever broaching the subject in conversation with someone else. 

We do not worry about being held in high esteem in those places we pass through quickly.  But when we have to tarry there a bit, we begin to worry.  How long does it take for us to feel this way?  A period in proportion to our futile and meager stay.

Few things console us because few things afflict us.

We never keep to the present.  We anticipate the future as too slow and seek to hasten it; or we recall the past so as to stop it from moving too swiftly.  So imprudent are we that we wander in the times which are not our own, and do not think at all of the only time that belongs to us.  And so vain are we that dream endlessly of those times which do not exist and let pass by, without reflection, the only time that remains.   This is because, normally, the present wounds us.  We hide it from our sight because it afflicts us.  And if we find it somehow agreeable, we regret watching it slip away.  We try to support our present by our future, and we think of possessing things that are not in our power for a period of time at which we have no assurance of ever arriving.

May each of us examine his thoughts.  There he will always find himself occupied with the past or with the future.  We almost never think of the present; and if we do it is only so as to derive wisdom from it and to possess the future.  The present is never our goal.  The past and the present are our means, and the future alone is our aim.  In this way, therefore, we never actually live.  But we may hope to live; and since we are always inclined to be happy, it is dubious that we will ever be if we continue to aspire to a bliss other than what we can enjoy in this life.    

Our imagination enhances the present time so powerfully owing to its continual reflections and so diminishes eternity owing to our lack of reflection upon it, that we make from eternity a nothingness and from nothingness an eternity.  And all this has roots so alive in us that all our reason could not protect us from such indulgence. 

Cromwell was about to ravage all of Christianity, the Royal Family was lost, and his own family more powerful than ever -- without, of course, that small grain of sand in his urethra.   Rome itself would have trembled before him.  But that piece of gravel, which was nothing after all, lodged in that particular place, and there he was dead, his family brought down, and the King reestablished.

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