During the pandemic, among other books, I got around to reading some classics that had been on my list for some time: Plato's Republic, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and Pascal's Pensées. Timeless works like those are hard to say anything new about, so this isn't a review; this post is simply a collection of notes and quotes I wanted to have available for future reference.
There is an introduction to Athanasius' On The Incarnation (another worthwhile classic work that I've read recently, thanks to the encouragement of online/forum/blog book discussions) by C.S. Lewis that says,
Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about "isms" and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.
As the kids say, can confirm.
He goes on give the following advice to read old books:
It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.
The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.
These are definitely old books. Plato's Republic was written around 375 BC, Marcus Aurelius' Meditations were written in the years leading up to A.D. 180, and Pascal's Pensées were published in 1669.
In each of the following sections, I'll share some notes I took from these works and some quotes that stood out to me. Please pardon the terse/point-form nature of this post. Or consider it as a snapshot of my writing process, since this type of notes is how most of my book review posts start out. And I deliberately decided that fleshing these notes out into a set of full reviews was far too large in scope.
The Republic was a book I found well worth reading. It has been so influential over the millennia that many parts had some familiarity, but getting them in the original form was cool. And in places it's even quite funny.
- after an introductory discussion on the nature of justice they decide to consider an ideal city, since many things are easier to recognize/discern at a larger scale
- a key motivating question is whether being a just person is intrinsically worthwhile?
- the perfectly unjust person will be thought just (because they are successful at deceiving those around them) whereas the perfectly just person will be thought unjust (or else they'd only be evidence for the benefits of a good reputation, rather than for justice in and of itself) and be persecuted/killed
- given Greek polytheistic theology, the smart move if you take the poets like Homer seriously, is to get rich via injustice then make impressive offerings to the gods to win back their favour
- division of labour and specialization in the ideal city
- luxuries are a necessary concession, but they make the city less ideal. If everyone would be satisfied with simple and wholesome food, clothing, etc., there would be less complexity required.
- one specialization will be guardians (rulers/warriors). They will need to be bold and effective in combat, but genteel within the city--this is a tough combination, so a lot of care must be taken with their education
- Censorship: only poems that depict the gods and heroes doing good things and displaying character traits that should be emulated should be allowed. Also, no mourning in literature/entertainment, as it's unmanly and detracts from stoic courage. Music needs to be restricted to what goes well with the allowable themes.
- a lot of care is taken in Book 3 about media (poetry, plays, music, etc.) since it shapes character traits and thus actions. Simplicity, beauty, and goodness are the aim.
- similarly, diets for the guardians shouldn't be fancy, but should consist of simple meals that promote good health and good character. No drunkeness.
- None of this chronic medical care: get treated and get back to your vocation (applicable to artisans and rulers alike)—you'll get better or you'll die and either way the problem is over.
- a noble lie (so everyone accepts their role, but also accepts having the best person for a role promoted to it) that all citizens come from the same stock and suitability for different roles in society is in-born but not fully hereditary — meritocracy on top of a general frame of equality
- To prevent their becoming too powerful and dominating the rest of society, the guardians shouldn't accumulate personal property. The picture he's painting of these guardians (i.e. well-trained, exemplary character, austere lifestyle almost to the point of a vow of poverty) makes them sound like some kind of military monastic order like the knights templar or hospitallers.
- the guardians (and everyone else in society) need to diligently fulfill their role instead of leveraging privilege for pleasure
- education is very important for setting a path in life, so the youth won't be allowed licentious entertainment
- An awesome dig at politicians: "there are some for whom the applause of the multitude has deluded into the belief that they are really statesmen" "When a man cannot measure, and a great many others who cannot measure declare that he is four cubits high, can he help believing what they say?"
- a perfect state will be wise, valiant, temperate, and just
- everyone should practice one thing, the thing he is best suited for. This principle relates to justice.
- The 2 previous points are then related back to examining justice in an individual. Reason, spirit, and desires (analogous to guardians, warriors, and artisans) need to be rightly ordered
- guardians should not have private property or families (to promote unity instead of competing to increase the status of their own household); wives and children will be common in this class of society
- don't wage total war against other hellenic cities
- knowledge vs opinion. True knowledge looks to the ideal forms, not just instances of beauty or justice.
- peer pressure makes young people with a philosophical nature stray from fully seeking the truth rather than approval
- "Can a man help imitating that with which he holds reverential converse?"
- just one philosopher-king would set the state on the right path
- philosophers who know the truth must go down (in turns, to share the burden) into the cave instead of staying in the realm of contemplation
- education of the guardians is a major theme of The Republic. arithmetic and geometry should certainly be part of it. They have practical (i.e. military) applications and also get people used to thinking about abstract/ideal forms (e.g. an exact circle instead of the particular imperfect one drawn as a visual aid).
- the guardians should be shape rotators rather than manipulators of symbols
- strong commitment to abstract reasoning over empiricism (e.g. in discussion of the right way to study astronomy).
- debt leading to inequality and revolutions
- democracy is 'charming' but Plato doesn't believe that everyone is fundamentally equal
- don't give all your desires a democratic vote
- under democracy, there's inappropriate equality between parents and children, teachers and students, masters and slaves, men and women, and even people and animals (c.f. 5 relationships in Confucius)
- tyrants gaining popularity by redistributing the property of the rich
- tyrants are miserable, because they must always fear the people rising up
- Abolition of Man tie-in: the education of Plato's guardians was meant to promote courage, justice, and solidarity with fellow citizens. Contemporary pedagogy (and this has advanced since Lewis' day) seems to achieve the opposite: bullying is a problem for adults to solve instead of an opportunity for kids to gain conflict-resolution skills, equity is seen as more important that excellence, no-fail grading removes consequences for lack of studying, centering consciousness around facets of identity (race, gender, sexuality) entrenches divisions
And here are some selected excerpts with further notes/discussion:
There is no one in any rule who, in so far as he is a ruler, considers or enjoins what is for his own interest, but always what is for the interest of his subject or suitable to his art; to that he looks, and that alone he considers in everything which he says and does.
Socrates makes "no true Scotsman" arguments like this a fair bit. That is, to the extent someone doesn't live up to the ideal of his or her role, they aren't considered to truly be that role (e.g. a leader). Here the ideal is leadership in the interest of one's subjects:
Discussion of the perfectly just man (p.54, book II), who must continue to be just while being thought the most unjust so that there is no ulterior motive or external reward/incentive for his justice:
The just man who is thought unjust will be scourged, racked, bound -- will have his eyes burnt out; and, at last, after suffering every kind of evil, he will be impaled.
The poets setting a bad example for the youth. World view matters, and the stories about the Greek gods give the impression that it is better to get rich (by fair means or foul) and offer sacrifices than to be just your whole life but have nothing to offer the gods:
If the poets speak truly, why then we had better be unjust, and offer of the fruits of injustice [to the gods]; for if we are just, although we may escape the vengeance of heaven, we shall lose the gains of injustice; but, if we are unjust, we shall keep the gains, and by our sinning and praying, and praying and sinning, the gods will be propitiated, and we shall not be punished.
Outline (book II, p. 61)—considering justice first in the State to better understand it in the individual:
The in the larger, the quantity of justice is likely to be larger and more easily discernable. I propose therefore that we enquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them.
Discussion of comparative advantage and specialization and gains from trade, p. 62:
We must infer that all things are produced more plentifully and easily and of a better quality when one man does one thing which is natural to him and does it at the right time, and leaves other things.
The nature of God, from logical first principles ('that of which nothing is greater'):
'If he change at all he can only change for the worse, for we cannot suppose him to be deficient either in virtue or beauty.' ...
'Then it is impossible that God should ever be willing to change; being, as is supposed, the fairest and best that is conceivable, every god remains absolutely and for ever in his own form.'
(Of course, the Greek gods are very changeable (both in form, being wont to go in disguise, and in character, being rather capricious), and he criticizes the poets for this).
Choose your role models well (p.87)—really there is so much in here about the education of the youths, especially future leaders
Did you never observe how imitations, beginning in early youth and continuing far into life, at length grow into habits and become a second nature, affecting body, voice, and mind?
(a lot of the length of the Republic comes from it being a dialogue, but most of the characters aside from Socrates have typical lines of "Yes, certainly" or "Very right".)
Discussion of medicine and how the upper classes have too much leisure:
In all well-ordered states every individual has an occupation to which he must attend, and has therefore no leisure to spend in continually being ill.
Virtuous members of the artisanal class ask the doctor for a "rough and ready cure" and afterwards such a person "either gets well and lives and does his business, or if his constitution fails, he dies and has no more trouble." But the rich are prone to seeking constant care for every little physical complaint and even veer into hypochondria
"Such excessive care of the body, when carried beyond the rules of gymnastics, is most inimical to the practice of virtue." (p.99)
Choose your entertainment well (Book IV, p.115):
Our youth should be trained from the first in a stricter system, for if amusements become lawless, and the youths themselves become lawless, they can never grow up into well-conducted and virtuous citizens.
Justice = internal unity and harmony (p.134, book IV):
For the just man does not permit the several elements within him to interfere with one another, or any of them to do the work of others - he sets in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself;
He's very big on a place for everyone and everyone in his proper place, both in society, and within a man (keeping reason, spirit and urges/passions/appetites in their proper order)
Can a man help imitating that with which he holds reverential converse? ...
The philosopher holding converse with the divine order, becomes orderly and divine, as far as the nature of man allows;
How the philosophers should write the constitution of their state, p. 188:
When they are filling in the work, as I conceive, they will often turn their eyes upwards and downwards: I mean that they will first look at absolute justice and beauty and temperance, and again at the human copy
Contemplation of the ideal forms comes first; empiricism or inductive reasoning is not his way
p.152 has a passage reminiscent of 1 Cor 12:
'Or that again which most nearly approaches to the condition of the individual - as in the body, when but a finger of one of us is hurt, the whole frame, drawn towards the soul as a centre and forming one kingdom under the ruling power therein, feels the hurt and sympathizes all together with the part affected, and we say that the man has a pain in his finger; and the same expression is used about any other part of the body, which has a sensation of pain at suffering or of pleasure at the alleviation of suffering.'
'Very true,' he replied; 'and I agree with you that in the best-ordered State there is the nearest approach to this common feeling which you describe.'
'Then when any one of the citizens experiences any good or evil, the whole State will make his case their own, and will either rejoice or sorrow with him?'
'Yes,' he said, 'that is what will happen in a well-ordered State.'
Mentions reluctant rulers being the best, and the responsibility of those who have seen the truth to go back down into the cave and help others
p.213, Book VII:
Then nothing should be more sternly laid down than that the inhabitants of your fair city should by all means learn geometry.
"Discovery of the absolute by the light of reason only, and without any assistance of sense" (p.217)
Danger of getting disillusioned with the values you were raised with without discovering new ones to take their place. p.224 continues to discuss the danger of excessive skepticism, nihilism, deconstruction:
And when [youth who get a taste for argument] have made many conquests and received defeats at the hands of many, they violently and speedily get into a way of not believing anything which they believed before, and hence, not only they, but philosophy all all that relates to it is apt to have a bad name with the rest of the world.
(so teach dialectic/argument/rhetoric after students have gained wisdom and maturity)
p.228, matching up 5 types of states to 5 types fo people: aristocratic (good), contentious/ambitious (like Sparta), Oligarchical (pre-revolutionary), democratic (assumed to follow from a revolution, and tyrannical (when the chaos of democracy makes people crave a strong leader)
p.239 trouble in oligarchy (such a good match for student loans!)
The rulers, being aware that their power rests upon their wealth, refuse to curtail by law the extravagance of the spendthrift youth because they gain by their ruin; they take interest from them and buy up their estates and thus increase their own wealth and importance ...
let there be a general rule that everyone shall enter into voluntary contracts at his own risk, and there will be less of this scandalous money-making, and the evils of which we were speaking will be greatly lessened in the State.
p.242, Democracy: (he doesn't believe everyone is intrinically equal)
Democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.
Remember the discussion of the State is paralleled with the discussion of the individual soul. The criticisms of democracy are applied to basically say don't give all your desires a democratic vote; the man who corresponds to democracy is internally ungoverned/unruly.
if anyone says to him that some pleasures are the satisfactions of good and noble desires, and others of evil desires, and that he ought to use and honour some and chastise and master the others -- whenever this is repeated to him he shakes his head and says that they are all alike, and that one is as good as another. ...
His life has neither law nor order; and this distracted existence he terms joy and bliss and freedom
p. 247, Book VIII, more criticism of democracy (anarchy because democracy's focus on equality diminishes hierarchies that are good and proper): (c.f Confucius' 5 relationships)
By degrees the anarchy finds a way into private houses ...
I mean that he father grows accustomed to descend to the level of his sons and to fear them, and the son is on a level with his father, he having no respect or reverence for either of his parents; and this is his freedom. ...
in such a state of society the master fears and flatters his scholars, and the scholars despise their masters and tutors ...
no one who does not know would believe how much greater is the liberty which the animals who are under the dominion of man have in a democracy than in any other State ...
all things are just ready to burst with liberty.
(it also talks about too much equality between citizens and non-citizens, old and young, slave and free, men and women
On that same page, the pendulum theory of politics:
The truth being that the excessive increase of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction; and this is the case not only in the seasons and in vegetable and animal life, but above all in forms of government.
I don't think he's against freedom and equality, they just aren't his ultimate values, so he's adamant that they be kept in balance, not in excess
Rise of a tyrant, p.251:
Liberating debtors, and distributing land to the people and his followers, and wanting to be so kind and good to everyone! ...
But when he has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader
(many such cases throughout history)
p.262-263 in Book IX, getting close to conclusion; contrasts the happiness of the just with the misery of the tyrant who can't control himself
The best and justest is also the happiest, and that this is he who is the most royal man and king over himself
p.273 continues in this theme:
Is not the noble that which subjects the beast to the man, or rather to the god in man; and the ignoble that which subjects the man to the beast?
Be rightly governed internally, with every part of your nature in its proper role
p.275 makes this more explicit:
He will look at he city which is within him, and take heed that no disorder occur in it, such as might arise either from superfluity or from want
This might mean avoiding wealth and honour that is likely to disorder one's soul (e.g. not going into politics unless your own State is compatible enough with the ideal City/Republic described herein)
p.275, about the ideal City existing as a Platonic form:
'In heaven,' I replied, 'there is laid up a pattern of it, methinks, which he who desires may behold, and beholding, may set his own house in order. But whether such an one exists, or ever will exist in fact, is no matter; for he will live after the manner of that city, having nothing to do with any other.'
(Obvious City of God tie-in is obvious)
Discussion in Book X (or maybe end of Book IX) of forms, specific instances, and images of them (example is the Ideal Bed, a bed made by a carpenter, a painting of a bed)
Right at the end, he drops a bombshell that he believes in the immortal soul, p.290:
The whole period of three score years and ten is surely but a little thing in comparison with eternity? ...
'Are you not aware', I said, 'that the soul of man is immortal and imperishable?'
The general themes of Aurelius' Meditations include:
- transistory nature of life
- wisdom of keeping your mouth shut
- not taking insults or flattery to heart
- equinamity in all circumstances
- 3 disciplines: perception (seeing the world objectively), action (how you treat others), will (accepting what happens to you)
- Stoic answer to theodicy is that everything is ordered and fated, and if you can't accept it that's your problem
- everything should act according to its purpose, and the purpose of a person is to help others.
- he doesn't have definitive views on religion but does on morality; for example, he says at one point that whether or not the gods answer prayers, that doesn't change his duty--which includes praying (but moreso for fortitude to face a given situation than that the situation be changed)
Marcus Aurelius was a keen observer of the natural world. For example, book 8 includes observations about how matter gets recycled by natural processes of decay, and how rays of sun extend out in straight lines, illuminating what they touch.
It is pretty repetitive. He keeps returning to the same themes, looking to remind himself as much as anyone (note that it wasn't originally written for an audience).
Here are some notes I took from the Introduction to my volume (regarding Stoic doctrines):
- Logos = the faculty of reason and the "rational principle that governs the organization of the universe"
- Stoic view of free will was a "voluntary accommodation to what is in any case inevitable"
- Stoic answer to Theodicy (in their case, why do bad things happen in what they believed to be an orderly and harmonious universe) was acquiescence: everything happens for a reason, the problem is in your perception. Contrast this to: "Rage against the dying of the light"; or "The last enemy to be destroyed is death"
Here are some excerpts that stood out to me:
The present is the same for everyone; its loss is the same for everyone; and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can't lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don't have?
p.32 urges to identify what we perceive accurately and "to call it by its name" (echoes of Confucius). Everything has its proper place, as "a citizen of that higher city, of which all other cities are mere households." (echoes of Plato and St. Augustine)
Book 4.7-8 (against victimhood):
Choose not to be harmed--and you won't feel harmed.
Don't feel harmed--and you haven't been.
It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise it cannot harm you--inside or out.
Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone.
Existence flows past us like a river: the "what" is in constant flux, the "why" has a thousand variations. Nothing is stable, not even what's right here. The infinity of past and future gapes before us--a chasm whose depths we cannot see.
So it would take an idiot to feel self-importance or distress. Or any indignation, either. As if the things that irritate us lasted.
Start of Book 5: admonishment to get out of bed!
Short snippets from Book 5:
- "If it does not harm the community, it does not harm its members"
- "So other people hurt me? That's their problem. Their character and actions are not mine."
- "be tolerant with others and strict with yourself."
Stoicism is a philosophy, but it is also an attitude. An attitude the modern world could use more of, probably.
p.70 (6.9-10) has conflicting views on whether the material world is all there is.
Some things are rushing into existence, others out of it. Some of what now exists is already gone. Change and flux constantly remake the world, just as the incessant progression of time remakes eternity.
We find ourselves in a river. Which of the things around us should we value when none of them can offer a firm foothold?
(c.f. Psalm 90)
Obstructing and thwarting things is also a role the world needs (6?.42)
Some Science-related Observations:
p.88 on thermodynamics:
Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What's closer to nature's heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed?
p.111 (8.50) on nutrient cycles: (also in 9.35)
Nature has no door to sweep things out of. But the wonderful thing about its workmanship is how, faced with that limitation, it takes everything within it that seems broken, old and useless, transforms it into itself, and makes new things from it.
Book 7.49-50, very reminiscent of Ecclesiastes
Look at the past--empire succeeding empire--and from that, extrapolate the future: the same thing. No escape from the rhythm of events.
Which is why observing life for forty years is as good as a thousand. Would you really see anything new?
"... Earth's offspring back to earth
But all that's born of heaven
To heaven returns again."
Either that or the cluster of atoms pulls apart and one way or another the insensible elements disperse.
Summary of stoic teaching: (9.31)
Indifference to external events. And a committment to justice in your own acts. Which means: thought and action resulting in the common good. What you were born to do.
But why does justice matter given other parts of the Stoic worldview? Kind of incoherent with the view that acquiescense is the right response to bad things happening. Or if not incoherent, at least asymmetric (your own character and good behaviour matter, but you can't expect that of others).
Peak Stoic (p.132):
Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it's endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it's unendurable... then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well.
Whether it's atoms or nature, the first thing to be said is this: I am a part of a world controlled by nature. Secondly: that I have a relationship with other, similar parts. And with that in mind I have no right, as a part, to complain about what is assigned me by the whole. Because what benefits the whole can't harm the parts, and the whole does nothing that doesn't benefit it.
Thoughts on theodicy, spoken like an emperor
And uncertainty regarding the Ultimate: (p.164, 12.14)
Fatal necessity, and inescapable order. Or benevolent Providence. Or confusion--random and undirected. If it's an inescapable necessity, why resist it? If it's Providence, and admits of being worshipped, then try to be worthy of God's aid. If it's confusion and anarchy, then be grateful that on this raging sea you have a mind to guide you. And if the storm should carry you away, let it carry off flesh, breath and all the rest, but not the mind. Which can't be swept away.
Pascal's Pensées was actually written as notes for a book that he didn't live to complete. But the semi-point-form outline that survives is the length of a decent book in itself.
Here are some of my notes:
- chap 2 demonstrates the depravity of man, but not via spectacular sins. Rather, he focuses on everyday matters like the dishonest way everyone tries to make themselves look better than they are (v. relevant in age of social media) and how we all want to be distracted instead of being at peace with our own contemplations (a popular diversion in his day was hunting)
- discussion of the limitations of reason and how it isn't irrational to only rely on it within the domain where it is valid. Need to recognize how much we don't know.
- people who have studied long and gained wisdom recognize that there is so much they are still ignorant of, and the common people are also aware of their ignorance. it's those in the middle you need to watch out for (insert midwit meme here)
- Several of the following points are about politics (from Section 5)
- it's easier to justify might than it is to add strength to true justice
- laws aren't universal between nations, so they can't be synonymous with true justice
- choosing who is in charge by external factors (e.g. birthright, or deferring to the person with the larger entourage when you meet in the street) doesn't seem as fair as going by internal factors like cleverness (he doesn't use the term meritocracy, but it fits), but it is legible to everyone (no need for inside knowledge that the system is working) and avoids constant competition/conflict (Hobbes' war of all against all?) between those who might think they could qualify to be in charge
- peasants respect nobles, intermediate critics say there's nothing special about bloodline, the wise respect nobles (not because they intrinsically deserve it, but because there needs to be some basis for social stability and structure; civil wars are awful)
Themes about apologetics:
- There are enough signs of Divine activity in the world to be found by those who seek, but not enough to compel belief in those who don't. This matches what the Bible says about God speaking through parables and signs, and also what it says about the human condition.
- One of the strongest testimonies is the Bible itself (keep in mind it was not written as a single book, but compiled much later). The Old Testament with its prophecies of the Messiah was meticulously preserved by Jews rather than by followers of Jesus (so there wasn't bias in His favour). And the 4 gospels provide multiple witnesses to Jesus
- OT prophecies, preserved by Jews who came before Jesus or didn't believe He's the Messiah (is there an All That The Prophets Have Spoken website to link?)
- The Bible doesn't lead us to think that God's works are obvious, just that He can be found by those who seek Him. In fact, we're told that some things are hidden
- Religion (and other supernatural things like miracles) being nigh-universal in human cultures suggests that there's something real there. Adding my own analogies: people don't counterfit monopoly money; for animals that have colouration that mimics something poisonous, the creature being mimicked really exists.
And here are some additional notes and excerpts:
When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. ...
People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.
1.17, on rivers:
Rivers are roads which move, and which carry us whither we desire to go.
One must know oneself. If this does not serve to discover truth, it at least serves as a rule of life
Poetic and profound:
We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and to fasten to it, it wavers and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes for ever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition, and yet most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses.
It is natural for the mind to believe, and for the will to love; so that, for want of true objects, they must attach themselves to false.
he lists several ways our reason is short-circuited and then sums up the epistemological challenge,
These two sources of truth, reason and the senses, besides being both wanting in sincerity, deceive each other in turn. The senses mislead the reason with false appearances, and receive from reason in their turn the same trickery which they apply to her; reason has her revenge.
Several quotes illustrating our fallen nature. Not in a bombastic manner, but very relatable:
The nature of self-love and of this human Ego is to love self only and consider self only. But what will man do? He cannot prevent this object that he loves from being full of faults and wants. He wants to be great, and he sees himself small. He wants to be happy, and he sees himself miserable. He wants to be perfect, and he sees himself full of imperfections.
To tell the truth is useful to those to whom it is spoken, but disadvantageous to those who tell it, because it makes them disliked.
Man is then only disguise, falsehood, and hypocrisy, both in himself and in regard to others. He does not wish any one to tell him the truth; he avoids telling it to others, and all these dispositions, so removed from justice and reason, have a natural root in his heart.
We find it hard to rest and be still. The constant quest for diversions reveals that starkly.
I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town.
3.185, importance of free will:
to put it into the mind and heart by force and threats is not to put religion there, but terror
wrestling with doubt:
It is incomprehensible that God should exist, and it is incomprehensible that He should not exist; that the soul should be joined to the body, and that we should have no soul; that the world should be created, and that it should not be created, etc.;
The famous wager:
wherever the infinite is and there is not an infinity of chances of loss against that of gain, there is no time to hesitate, you must give all.
He quotes "none can come to the Father but the Son, and those to whom the Son reveals Him" and explains that Scripture never claims God is obvious. Him being hidden without the eyes of faith is compatible with the claims of the Gospel, a theme he'll return to later.
Known unknowns, unknown unknowns, and epistemic humility:
The last proceeding of reason is to recognise that there is an infinity of things which are beyond it. It is but feeble if it does not see so far as to know this. But if natural things are beyond it, what will be said of supernatural?
He emphasizes that faith is a gift of God, not a gift of reason. It is irrational to rely on reason beyond its proper scope
"Why do you kill me? What! do you not live on the other side of the water? If you lived on this side, my friend, I should be an assassin, and it would be unjust to slay you in this manner. But since you live on the other side, I am a hero, and it is just." ...
Can anything be more ridiculous than that a man should have the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of the water, and because his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have none with him?
Interplay between might and right: (5.298)
It is right that what is just should be obeyed; it is necessary that what is strongest should be obeyed. Justice without might is helpless; might without justice is tyrannical. Justice without might is gainsaid, because there are always offenders; might without justice is condemned. We must then combine justice and might, and for this end make what is just strong, or what is strong just.
There is a slight edge of cynicism to this; surrounding passages imply that we shade our sense of right and wrong to align with the powerful, because seeing injustice everywhere and being powerless to stop it breeds cognitive dissonance. For example, he also says,
being unable to cause might to obey justice, men have made it just to obey might. Unable to strengthen justice, they have justified might;
But he is very interested in peace (especially avoiding civil wars) even if it requires compromise. So in his view, legible hierarchies and status markers are preferable to illegible ones that are more meritocratic:
How rightly do we distinguish men by external appearances rather than by internal qualities! Which of us two shall have precedence? Who will give place to the other? The least clever. But I am as clever as he. We should have to fight over this. He has four lackeys, and I have only one. This can be seen; we have only to count. It falls to me to yield, and I am a fool if I contest the matter. By this means we are at peace, which is the greatest of boons. ...
For whom will men choose, as the most virtuous and able? We at once come to blows, as each claims to be the most virtuous and able. Let us then attach this quality to something indisputable. This is the king's eldest son. That is clear, and there is no dispute. Reason can do no better, for civil war is the greatest of evils.
(legible mechanisms for the peaceful transfer of power (e.g. primogeniture) have an advantage over ones that might be more optimized for the right candidate in theory but have a higher risk of conflict (e.g. Ottoman succession involving fraticide))
Custom as a Schelling point for social harmony, but needs to be imbued with myth or legal fiction to be sustained. But the truly wise can see that customs may not have anything deeper under them, but follow them anyway out of pragmatism:
Custom should be followed only because it is custom, and not because it is reasonable or just. But people follow it for this sole reason, that they think it just. Otherwise they would follow it no longer, although it were the custom; for they will only submit to reason or justice.
It would therefore be right to obey laws and customs, because they are laws; but we should know that there is neither truth nor justice to introduce into them, that we know nothing of these, and so must follow what is accepted.
His evidence that human laws aren't synonymous with ideal justice (definite Plato vibes here) is that they aren't universal across societies while true justice is. However, the pragmatic considerations of societal peace still apply:
Laws are not universal thus not equal to true justice. But it is still expedient for them to be obeyed. Some ruleset is needed for society. ...
It is dangerous to tell the people that the laws are unjust; for they obey them only because they think them just. Therefore it is necessary to tell them at the same time that they must obey them because they are laws, just as they must obey superiors, not because they are just, but because they are superiors. In this way all sedition is prevented,
there are people who see through the law matching true justice, but fail to recognize the importance of having a common ruleset for society:
Those between the two, who have departed from natural ignorance and not been able to reach the other, have some smattering of this vain knowledge, and pretend to be wise.
This quote and the subsequent one on attitudes toward authority figures (nobles in his day) make me think of the "midwit" meme template.
The people honour persons of high birth. The semi-learned despise them, saying that birth is not a personal, but a chance superiority. The learned honour them, not for popular reasons, but for secret reasons.
(Secret reasons = as a pragmatic way to keep society stable since civil war is awful
poignant that this was pre-revolution by a bit over a century)
Moving on from politics,
Memory is necessary for all the operations of reason.
(anticipates some of the aspects of a Turing machine)
6.375 - he distrusts himself, which gradually led to a disillusionment with society being just:
I have passed a great part of my life believing that there was justice, and in this I was not mistaken; for there is justice according as God has willed to reveal it to us. But I did not take it so, and this is where I made a mistake; for I believed that our justice was essentially just, and that I had that whereby to know and judge of it. But I have so often found my right judgment at fault, that at last I have come to distrust myself, and then others.
Need for an absolute moral standard to judge between competing perspectives on morality:
The licentious tell men of orderly lives that they stray from nature's path, while they themselves follow it; as people in a ship think those move who are on the shore. On all sides the language is similar. We must have a fixed point in order to judge. The harbour decides for those who are in a ship; but where shall we find a harbour in morality?
The human condition (6.418 and possibly before):
in proportion as men possess light they discover both the greatness and the wretchedness of man. In a word, man knows that he is wretched. He is therefore wretched, because he is so; but he is really great because he knows it. ...
It is dangerous to make man see too clearly his equality with the brutes without showing him his greatness. It is also dangerous to make him see his greatness too clearly, apart from his vileness. It is still more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both. But it is very advantageous to show him both. Man must not think that he is on a level either with the brutes or with the angels, nor must he be ignorant of both sides of his nature; but he must know both.
Apologetics point #1, the Bible accurately describes the two sides of the human condition
The greatness and the wretchedness of man are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us both that there is in man some great source of greatness, and a great source of wretchedness. It must then give us a reason for these astonishing contradictions.
More echoes of Plato - rightly ordered parts of a person are crucial:
If the feet and the hands had a will of their own, they could only be in their order in submitting this particular will to the primary will which governs the whole body. Apart from that, they are in disorder and mischief; but in willing only the good of the body, they accomplish their own good.
Grace is indeed needed to turn a man into a saint; and he who doubts it does not know what a saint or a man is.
Watch how you talk to yourself, insightful:
For man holds an inward talk with his self alone, which it behoves him to regulate well
God is not obvious in the world, nor can it entirely make sense without Him. This leaves faith as a necessity and leaves room for mystery in religion, both major themes of the apologetic arguments Pascal makes:
All appearance indicates neither a total exclusion nor a manifest presence of divinity, but the presence of a God who hides Himself. Everything bears this character.
There is sufficient clearness to enlighten the elect, and sufficient obscurity to humble them. There is sufficient obscurity to blind the reprobate, and sufficient clearness to condemn them, and make them inexcusable.
The Old Testament prophecies of the coming of Christ were not preserved by Christians, but by Jews who interpreted them differently. Therefore, these prophecies can be seen as an external testimony. See 749: "If the Jews had all been converted by Jesus Christ, we should have none but questionable witnesses. And if they had been entirely destroyed, we should have no witnesses at all."
OT prophecies as a form of Divine pre-registration
Here is a succession of men during four thousand years, who, consequently and without variation, come, one after another, to foretell this same event.
Prophecy itself does not claim to be clear to all:
He is to blind the learned and the wise, Is. vi, viii, xxix, etc.; and to preach the Gospel to the lowly, Is. xxix; to open the eyes of the blind, give health to the sick, and bring light to those that languish in darkness. Is. lxi. He is to show the perfect way, and be the teacher of the Gentiles. Is. lv; xlii, 1-7. The prophecies are to be unintelligible to the wicked, Dan. xii; Hosea xiv, 10; but they are to be intelligible to those who are well informed.
His fragmentary summaries of significant prophecies:
that there should be another priesthood after the order of Melchisedek, and it should be eternal; that the Christ should be glorious, mighty, strong, and yet so poor that He would not be recognised, nor taken for what He is, but rejected and slain;
Why was the book of Ruth preserved? Why the story of Tamar?
Another apologetics point: the behaviour of the disciples after Jesus rose and ascended. Not the behaviour of deceivers.
Religion being almost a human universal suggests that there's something there, in Pascal's view:
We must reason in the same way about religion; for it would not be possible that men should have imagined so many false religions, if there had not been a true one.
From the Appendix:
Faith embraces many truths which seem to contradict each other. There is a time to laugh, and a time to weep, etc. Responde. Ne respondeas,[*] etc.
*a reference to Prov 26
Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.
On Free speech:
Now, after Rome has spoken, and we think that she has condemned the truth, and that they have written it, and after the books which have said the contrary are censured; we must cry out so much the louder, the more unjustly we are censured, and the more violently they would stifle speech, until there come a Pope who hears both parties, and who consults antiquity to do justice.