Middling

The fancies and reflections of a loquacious ninja

Pensées from reading Pascal: A dead man changing my life

“Pensées” simply means “thoughts” in French, and refers to the title of a work by mathematician, philosopher, and Jansenist Blaise Pascal. Basically, no editing, no formal structure; just the free-flow of a brilliant mind at work. I can claim absolutely no pretenses of cleverness or profundity next to Pascal, but reading him does have a way of awakening the philosopher within. The following thoughts aren’t really organized or remotely polished, and they don’t even relate to what I was reading by him. They just flowed out, and this seemed like an appropriate place to put them. Glean what you will, ignore the rest, and just be glad that I didn’t go on for twice as long.

I was reading something by Pascal today for a research paper.

It was the work of sheer genius. I followed the brilliance of his arguments, laughed at the snarkiness of his expressions, and pondered the depth of his profundity. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore; I was mind-blown. I literally looked at my computer screen and said, “You’ve been dead for hundreds of years. Why… How is it that you can still have such an impact on me? That your life continues on in a way that gives it power to change mine?”

Think about it. A man who belongs to a location and era totally separate from mine has the ability to influence my life. How can that be?

What stronger proof is there that man is more than a merely physical, material reality than this?

Another human being worlds away, whose bones have laid in the earth for centuries or who lives in a place miles apart from my experience, has the power to influence me deeply. I don’t know where Pascal was buried, but it doesn’t matter because his effect on me has nothing to do with a physical connection. He doesn’t need proximity to move my intellect, my heart and my soul. Neither does any other human being on this planet for that matter. Anything you post right now as a blogger or comment-maker has no physical reality beyond words on another person’s screen, yet you carry the potential to shape that person through your actions just the same. You couldn’t do that if reality only consisted of matter. Atoms don’t have that kind of power.

We miss out on so much if we remember only the physical reality around us. Pascal once wrote (in his Pensées) that he sometimes wishes God had never given us reason so that we could always experience him directly through faith alone; no gatekeeper, no passageway, no threshold in getting to Him. I’ve wished the same thing on occasion, but not so much because I desire God as Pascal did; I just get tired of dealing with all the obstacles in my way. Little do I know that reason is a gift from the hand of God Himself. Likewise, I grow weary of the many emotions I experience and will never fully understand, bewildered and frustrated by their constant fluctuation and obscurity, not realizing that this too is the gift of God. What would my existence be like if I were merely physical? Would I be any different than a rock with a more sophisticated arrangement of my atoms and molecules? Would I have any capacity for joy? Understanding? Longing? Pain? Life at all?

The immaterial parts of me give me the capacity to be influenced by others regardless of distance in time or space, and likewise grants me the incredibly potent ability to influence others beyond what I can only see, hear, taste, touch, and so on.

I haven’t the faintest idea if I’ll be having any ongoing effect on the lives of people living four centuries from now, as Pascal does. But by the grace of God, may it be an ability I receive in joy, contentment, and celebration, and exercise in wisdom, goodness, and grace.

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