Scales of Values

Blaise Pascal, from Pensées

[Click on image to enlarge] Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) left at his death a mass of fragmentary writings later edited by his family and friends, and published in 1670 as Pensées (Thoughts). These scattered texts, associated with the theological doctrine called Jansenism, are still considered the most brilliant of all defenses of religious faith against skepticism — such as the skepticism that might arise from the new scientific discoveries. The passage below is excerpted from fragment 230, "Disproportion of man."


[Click on image to enlarge] Let man contemplate all of nature in her exalted and full majesty, let him distance his view from the low objects that surround him, let him gaze at the dazzling light placed like an eternal lamp to illuminate the universe, let the earth appear to him a mere point compared with the vast circle that this star describes, and let him be amazed that the vast circle itself is only a very tiny point in relation to those encompassed by the stars that roll through the firmament. But if our view stops there, let imagination pass beyond. It will sooner tire of conceiving than nature of providing. The whole visible world is only an imperceptible speck in nature's ample bosom, no idea comes near it. We have puffed up our conceptions beyond imaginable space, we have only given birth to atoms compared with the reality of things. It is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere, whose circumference nowhere. In the end, the greatest palpable sign of the omnipotence of God is that our imagination loses itself in thinking about it * * *

What is a man, within the infinite?

But to show him another, equally astonishing prodigy, let him inspect the tiniest things that he knows, such as a mite that offers him, in the littleness of its body, parts incomparably more little, legs with joints, veins in its legs, blood in its veins, humors in the blood, drops in its humors, vapors in the drops, which dividing again to the final bit would exhaust the strength of his conceptions; and let the final object he is able to reach become our topic now. He will think, perhaps, that nothing could be littler in nature.

I want to make him see, in there, a new abyss, I want to paint for him not only the visible universe but the immensity that one can conceive of nature within the compass of this microcosmic atom. Let him see there an infinity of universes, of which each has its firmament, its planets, its earth — in the same proportion as the visible world — in this earth, animals, and finally mites, in which he will meet again what the first provided, and find again in others the same thing without end, without rest. Let him lose himself in these wonders, as astonishing in their littleness as the others by their expanse! For who will not marvel that our body, which a moment ago was not perceptible in the universe, which is itself imperceptible in the bosom of everything, should be at present a colossus, a world, or rather an everything, in relation to the nothingness beyond our reach.

Whoever considers himself in this way will be terrifed at himself and, considering himself suspended in the scale that nature has given him between the two abysses of infinity and nothingness, he will tremble at the sight of these wonders * * *

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