Front Page Titles (by Subject) DIVERSION. - The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal
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DIVERSION. - Blaise Pascal, The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal 
The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal, translated from the text of M. Auguste Molinier by C. Kegan Paul (London: George Bell and Sons, 1901).
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DIVERSION.—When I have set myself now and then to consider the various distractions of men, the toils and dangers to which they expose themselves in the court or the camp, whence arise so many quarrels and passions, such daring and often such evil exploits, etc., I have discovered that all the misfortunes of men arise from one thing only, that they are unable to stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to dwell with pleasure in his own home, would not leave it for sea-faring or to besiege a city. An office in the army would not be bought so dearly but that it seems insupportable not to stir from the town, and people only seek conversation and amusing games because they cannot remain with pleasure in their own homes.
But upon stricter examination, when, having found the cause of all our ills, I have sought to discover the reason of it, I have found one which is paramount, the natural evil of our weak and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can console us when we think of it attentively.
Whatever condition we represent to ourselves, if we bring to our minds all the advantages it is possible to possess, Royalty is the finest position in the world. Yet, when we imagine a king surrounded with all the conditions which he can desire, if he be without diversion, and be allowed to consider and examine what he is, this feeble happiness will never sustain him; he will necessarily fall into a foreboding of maladies which threaten him, of revolutions which may arise, and lastly, of death and inevitable diseases; so that if he be without what is called diversion he is unhappy, and more unhappy than the humblest of his subjects who plays and diverts himself.
Hence it comes that play and the society of women, war, and offices of state, are so sought after. Not that there is in these any real happiness, or that any imagine true bliss to consist in the money won at play, or in the hare which is hunted; we would not have these as gifts. We do not seek an easy and peaceful lot which leaves us free to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the troubles of statecraft, but seek rather the distraction which amuses us, and diverts our mind from these thoughts.
Hence it comes that men so love noise and movement, hence it comes that a prison is so horrible a punishment, hence it comes that the pleasure of solitude is a thing incomprehensible. And it is the great subject of happiness in the condition of kings, that all about them try incessantly to divert them, and to procure for them all manner of pleasures.
The king is surrounded by persons who think only how to divert the king, and to prevent his thinking of self. For he is unhappy, king though he be, if he think of self.
That is all that human ingenuity can do for human happiness. And those who philosophise on the matter, and think men unreasonable that they pass a whole day in hunting a hare which they would not have bought, scarce know our nature. The hare itself would not free us from the view of death and our miseries, but the chase of the hare does free us. Thus, when we make it a reproach that what they seek with such eagerness cannot satisfy them, if they answered as on mature judgment they should do, that they sought in it only violent and impetuous occupation to turn their thoughts from self, and that therefore they made choice of an attractive object which charms and ardently attracts them, they would leave their adversaries without a reply. But they do not so answer because they do not know themselves; they do not know they seek the chase and not the quarry.
They fancy that were they to gain such and such an office they would then rest with pleasure, and are unaware of the insatiable nature of their desire. They believe they are honestly seeking repose, but they are only seeking agitation.
They have a secret instinct prompting them to look for diversion and occupation from without, which arises from the sense of their continual pain. They have another secret instinct, a relic of the greatness of our primitive nature, teaching them that happiness indeed consists in rest, and not in turmoil. And of these two contrary instincts a confused project is formed within them, concealing itself from their sight in the depths of their soul, leading them to aim at rest through agitation, and always to imagine that they will gain the satisfaction which as yet they have not, if by surmounting certain difficulties which now confront them, they may thereby open the door to rest.
Thus rolls all our life away. We seek repose by resistance to obstacles, and so soon as these are surmounted, repose becomes intolerable. For we think either on the miseries we feel or on those we fear. And even when we seem sheltered on all sides, weariness, of its own accord, will spring from the depths of the heart wherein are its natural roots, and fill the soul with its poison.
The counsel given to Pyrrhus to take the rest of which he was going in search through so many labours, was full of difficulties.
A gentleman sincerely believes that the chase is a great, and even a royal sport, but his whipper-in does not share his opinion.
Dancing.—We must think where to place our feet.
But can you say what object he has in all this? The pleasure of boasting to-morrow among his friends that he has played better than another. Thus others sweat in their closets to prove to the learned world that they have solved an algebraical problem hitherto insoluble, while many more expose themselves to the greatest perils, in my judgment as foolishly, for the glory of taking a town. Again, others kill themselves, by their very application to all these studies, not indeed that they may grow wiser, but simply to prove that they know them; these are the most foolish of the band, because they are so wittingly, whereas it is reasonable to suppose of the others, that were they but aware of it, they would give over their folly.
A man passes his life without weariness in playing every day for a small stake. Give him each morning, on condition he does not play, the money he might possibly win, and you make him miserable. It will be said, perhaps, that he seeks the amusement of play, and not the winnings. Make him then play for nothing, he will not be excited over it, and will soon be wearied. Mere diversion then is not his pursuit, a languid and passionless amusement will weary him. He must grow warm in it, and cheat himself by thinking that he is made happy by gaining what he would despise if it were given him not to play; and must frame for himself a subject of passion and excitement to employ his desire, his wrath, his fear, as children are frightened at a face themselves have daubed.
Whence comes it that a man who within a few months has lost his only son, or who this morning was overwhelmed with law suits and wrangling, now thinks of them no more? Be not surprised; he is altogether taken up with looking out for the boar which his hounds have been hunting so hotly for the last six hours. He needs no more. However full of sadness a man may be, he is happy for the time, if you can only get him to enter into some diversion. And however happy a man may be, he will soon become dispirited and miserable if he be not diverted and occupied by some passion or pursuit which hinders his being overcome by weariness. Without diversion no joy, with diversion no sadness. And this forms the happiness of persons in high position, that they have a number of people to divert them, and that they have the power to keep themselves in this state.
Take heed to this. What is it to be superintendent, chancellor, first president, but to be in a condition wherein from early morning a vast number of persons flock in from every side, so as not to leave them an hour in the day in which they can think of themselves? And if they are in disgrace and dismissed to their country houses, though they want neither wealth nor retinue at need, they yet are miserable and desolate because no one hinders them from thinking of themselves.
Thus man is so unhappy that he wearies himself without cause of weariness by the peculiar state of his temperament, and he is so frivolous that, being full of a thousand essential causes of weariness, the least thing, such as a cue and a ball to strike with it, is enough to divert him.
Diversions.—Men are charged from infancy with the care of their honour, their fortunes, and their friends, and more, with the care of the fortunes and honour of their friends. They are overwhelmed with business, with the study of languages and bodily exercises; they are given to understand that they cannot be happy unless their health, their honour, their fortune and that of their friends be in good condition, and that a single point wanting will render them unhappy. Thus we give them business and occupations which harass them incessantly from the very dawn of day. A strange mode, you will say, of making them happy. What more could be done to make them miserable? What could be done? We need only release them from all these cares, for then they would see themselves; they would think on what they are, whence they come, and whither they go, and therefore it is impossible to occupy and distract them too much. This is why, after having provided them with constant business, if there be any time to spare we urge them to employ it in diversion and in play, so as to be always fully occupied.
How comes it that this man, distressed at the death of his wife and his only son, or who has some great and embarrassing law suit, is not at this moment sad, and that he appears so free from all painful and distressing thoughts? We need not be astonished, for a ball has just been served to him, and he must return it to his opponent. His whole thoughts are fixed on taking it as it falls from the penthouse, to win a chase; and you cannot ask that he should think on his business, having this other affair in hand. Here is a care worthy of occupying this great soul, and taking away from him every other thought of the mind. This man, born to know the Universe, to judge of all things, to rule a State, is altogether occupied and filled with the business of catching a hare. And if he will not abase himself to this, and wishes always to be highly strung, he will only be more foolish still, because he wishes to raise himself above humanity; yet when all is said and done he is only a man, that is to say capable of little and of much, of all and of nothing. He is neither angel nor brute, but man.
One thought alone occupies us, we cannot think of two things at once; a good thing for us, from a worldly point of view, but not as regards God.
Diversion.—Death is easier to bear without the thought of it, than is the thought of death without danger.
Diversion.—Men, unable to remedy death, sorrow, and ignorance, determine, in order to make themselves happy, not to think on these things.
Notwithstanding these miseries, man wishes to be happy, and wishes for happiness only; unable to wish otherwise, he knows not how to gain happiness. For this he must needs make himself immortal; but unable to effect this, he sets himself to avoid the thought of death.
The miseries of human life are the cause of all this; having a perception of them men take to diversion.
Diversion.—If man were happy he would be the more so the less he was diverted, like the Saints and God.
Yes: but is not the power of being pleased with diversion in itself a happiness? No; for that comes from elsewhere and from without, so it is dependent, and therefore liable to be troubled by a thousand accidents, which make afflictions inevitable.
Misery.—The one thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, yet this itself is the greatest of our miseries. For this it is which mainly hinders us from thinking of ourselves, and which insensibly destroys us. Without this we should be weary, and weariness would drive us to seek a more abiding way out of it. But diversion beguiles us and leads us insensibly onward to death.
This is all they have been able to discover to console them in so many evils. But it is a miserable consolation, since it does not serve for the cure of the evil, but simply for the concealment of it for a short time, and its very concealment prevents the thought of any true cure. Thus by a strange inversion of man’s nature he finds that the weariness which is his most sensible evil, is in some measure his greatest good, because more than any thing else it contributes to make him seek his true healing, and that the diversion which he regards as his greatest good is in fact his greatest evil, because more than any thing else it prevents his seeking the remedy for his evils. Both of these are admirable proofs of man’s misery and corruption, and at the same time of his greatness, since man is only weary of all things, and only seeks this multitude of occupations because he has the idea of a lost happiness. And not finding this in himself, he seeks it vainly in external things, without being able to content himself, because it is neither in us, nor in the creature, but in God alone.
Thoughts.—In omnibus requiem quæsivi.
Were our condition truly happy we need not turn our minds from it in order to become happy.
A little matter consoles us, because a little matter afflicts us.
Strife alone pleases us and not the victory. We like to see beasts fighting, not the victor furious over the vanquished. We wish only to see the victorious end, and as soon as it comes, we are surfeited. It is the same in play, and in the search for truth. In all disputes we like to see the clash of opinions, but care not at all to contemplate truth when found. If we are to see truth with pleasure, we must see it arise out of conflict.
So in the passions, there is pleasure in seeing the shock of two contraries, but as soon as one gains the mastery it becomes mere brutality. We never seek things in themselves, but only the search for things. So on the stage, quiet scenes which raise no emotion are worthless, so is extreme and hopeless misery, so are brutal lust and excessive cruelty.
Continuous eloquence wearies.
Princes and kings sometimes unbend. They are not for ever on their thrones, where they grow weary. Grandeur to be felt must be abandoned, continuity in anything is displeasing. Cold is pleasant, that we may seek warmth.
Weariness.—Nothing is so insupportable to man as to be completely at rest, without passion, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his loneliness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness.
At once, from the depth of his soul, will arise weariness, gloom, sadness, vexation, disappointment, despair.
Agitation.—When a soldier complains of his work, or a ploughman, etc., force them to be idle.
Diversion.—Is not the royal dignity itself so truly great as to make its possessor happy by the mere contemplation of what he is? Must he be diverted from this thought like ordinary people? I see well enough that a man may be made happy by diverting him from the thought of his domestic sorrows so that he apply all his care to excel in dancing. But will it be the same with a king, and will he be happier if he devote himself to these idle amusements rather than to the contemplation of his greatness? And what more satisfactory object can he offer to his mind? Might it not be to lessen his content that he occupy his soul in thinking how to suit his steps to the cadence of an air, or how to throw a bar skilfully, rather than allow it to enjoy peacefully the contemplation of the majesty which wraps him round? Let us make the experiment, let us leave a king all alone, without any gratifications of sense, or any occupation for the mind, without companions, reflecting on himself at leisure, and it will be seen that a king without diversion is a man full of miseries. This is therefore carefully avoided, and there are always about the persons of kings a great number of people who watch to see that diversion succeeds to business, and look after their every hour of leisure to furnish them with pleasures and games, so that no vacancy may be left in life; that is, they are surrounded with persons who take wonderful pains that the king is never alone and able to think of self, knowing well that he will be miserable, king though he is, if he think of self.
In all this I am not speaking of Christian kings as Christians, but simply as kings.
Men busy themselves in pursuing a ball or a hare, and this is the pleasure even of kings.
Cæsar, as it seems to me, was too old to set about amusing himself with the conquest of the world. Such a pastime was good for Augustus or Alexander, who were still young men, and these are difficult to restrain, but Cæsar should have been more mature.
The weariness we experience in leaving occupations to which we are attached. A man lives with pleasure in his home, but if he sees a woman who charms him, or if he take pleasure in play for five or six days, he is miserable if he return to his former mode of life. Nothing is more common than that.
Frivolity.—It is plain that the frivolity of the world is so little known, that it is a strange and surprising thing to say it is foolish to seek for greatness, and this is great cause for wonder.
Whoso does not see the frivolity of the world is himself most frivolous. And indeed all see it save young people, who are engaged in turmoil, diversion, and the thought of the future. But take away their diversion and you will see them consumed with weariness; then they feel their nothingness without knowing it. For it is indeed to be unhappy to be intolerably sad as soon as we are reduced to the thought of self, without any diversion.
[P. 34.]Diversion. Under this heading Pascal comprises not only trivial occupations, and the distractions of idle society, but all which, save truth alone, can form the study or the research of man. The main idea of the chapter is borrowed from Montaigne, Essais, l. iii. chap. x.
[P. 36, l. 22.]The counsel given to Pyrrhus. Ib., l. i. ch. xliii.
[P. 37, l. 18.]as children are frightened at a face. Borrowed from Montaigne, Essais, l. ii. ch. xii., and Montaigne in his turn borrowed it from Seneca, Ep. 24.
[P. 37, l. 36.]superintendent. Of finances. The last who held this office was Fouquet, still in office when this was written. He was dismissed in disgrace in 1661.
[P. 37, l. 37.]first president. Of the Parliament of Paris.
[P. 38, l. 1.]dismissed to their country houses. At that date, and for a long time afterwards, a Minister of State rarely fell from Office without receiving a Lettre de cachet which banished him to the seclusion of his country estate.
[P. 40, l. 24.]In omnibus requiem quæsivi. Ecclus. xxiv. 7.
[P. 41, l. 17.]will arise weariness. Compare Montaigne, Essais, l. iii.
[P. 41, l. 7.]Cæsar was too old. See Montaigne, Essais, l. ii. ch. xxxiv.