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Pascal was a mathematician, but in his youth obsessed with games and gambling. This obsession led to one of the early formulations of the mathematics of probability. As he matured, however, Pascal reflected on his need to distract and divert himself with frivolity. His notes on these thoughts are collected in the Pensées, No.s 139-143.

In short: no sooner do we free ourselves from toil and strife than we plunge into diversions (divertisement). While we imagine that we would be satisfied if we were royalty and had every worldly thing available at our command, the example of kings is rarely calm and relaxed:

Yet, when we imagine a king attended with every pleasure he can feel, if he be without diversion and be left to consider and reflect on what he is, this feeble happiness will not sustain him; he will necessarily fall into forebodings of dangers, of revolutions which may happen, and, finally, of death and inevitable disease; so that, if he be without what is called diversion, he is unhappy and more unhappy than the least of his subjects who plays and diverts himself.

This, it seems to me, is a far more powerful and frightening trope than “Pascal’s Wager”. The “Wager” is relatively short and easy to understand, particularly to those impressed by Pascal’s accomplishments in science, those possessing “l’esprit de geometrique”, the mind which proceeds in a detailed, linear, systematic fashion, as opposed to “l’esprit de finesse” which grasps things holisticly, in terms of purpose and perfection. Unfortunately, in its brevity and simplicity, the Wager and its assumptions are easy to dismiss.

Not so the reflections on diversion. These require positing no dubious God. The need for diversion is universal and undeniable. While we clearly have devised new diversions, the Seventeenth Century had its sport. Pascal speaks of games, hunting, sports, business, scholarship, solving algebra problems.

Pascal did not anticipate that one could make a game and diversion out of despair and depression, of the pose and the pretense of wallowing in the dismal swamp of self which everyone else avoids when possible. The same principles he discusses, however, apply to this diversion as to all of them. Pascal knew what makes a game truly diverting:

This man spends his life without weariness in playing every day for a small stake. Give him each morning the money he can win each day, on condition he does not play; you make him miserable. It will perhaps be said that he seeks the amusement of play and not the winnings. Make him, then, play for nothing; he will not become excited over it and will feel bored. It is, then, not the amusement alone that he seeks; a languid and passionless amusement will weary him. He must get excited over it and deceive himself by the fancy that he will be happy to win what he would not have as a gift on condition of not playing; and he must make for himself an object of passion, and excite over it his desire, his anger, his fear, to obtain his imagined end, as children are frightened at the face they have blackened.

On Everthing2, one thinks of XP and quests. In short, we try very hard not to think about ourselves, and employ strong drink to forget ourselves. What are we trying so hard not to think about? The scattered notes we have collected and call the “Pensées” are all directed at making us reflect on the misery of the human condition, how far we actually are from perfection and how much we need divine grace and inspiration.

Pascal can thus be found in the midst of a French intellectual tradition --beginning with La Rochefoucauld and Montaigne and culminating with Twentieth Century existentialists such as Camus and Sartre-- which dared to stare into the ugliness of life, and the repulsiveness of the truth about mankind.


Quotes from public domain translation by W.F.Trotter:

http://www.ccel.org/p/pascal/pensees/pensees03.htm

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