What a nice little nœud we have here. To be read every morning with breakfast:
L’homme n’est qu’un roseau, le plus faible de la nature, mais c’est un roseau pensant. Il ne faut pas que l’univers entier s’arme pour l’écraser; une vapeur, une goutte d’eau suffit pour le tuer. Mais quand l’univers l’écraserait, l’homme serait encore plus noble que ce qui le tue puisqu’il sait qu’il meurt et l’avantage que l’univers a sur lui, l’univers n’en sait rien.
Tout notre dignité consiste donc en la pensée. C’est de là qu’il faut nous relever et non de l’espace et de la durée, que nous ne saurions remplir.
Travaillons donc à bien penser: voilà le principe de la morale.
There’s a pleasant intertwining of the categories consciousness, reason and morality here, afforded by the “universal” starting point. Pascal takes a poetic description of anthropocentrism and then defends this anthropocentrism as being both noble, and the basis of rationalist ethics. Beginning with talk about consciousness as man’s distinction from the universe, we arrive at the idea that thinking well is the foundation of good moral thought; or rather, as the last line can be read in two ways, Pascal offers his own ethical imperative (NB. the form of “travaillons”): indulging one’s consciousness appropriately is itself morally good, as well as the foundation of morality. The double reading hinges on whether “principe” is taken as being a foundational principal or an edict. The result is that, as both its telos and arche, the domain of consciousness is totally identified with that of morality. Crucially, as consciousness is categorically irreconcilable with the material universe, that universe has no legislative power over moral thought, which is – to complete the slide into a different vocabulary – self-grounding, within the space of reasons.
The unknown here is, of course, what “bien penser” means. Merely thinking is not sufficient. This little axiological qualification lets unravel the distinction between consciousness (Pascal’s starting point) and reason (on which he doesn’t comment here). Indeed, the implicit question of just what “thinking well” entails leads to a whole host of theses about the sociality of reason and again lets us push this passage in a somewhat relativistic (if Idealistic) direction.
Having unpacked all of this, however, it’s important not to lose sight both of the passage’s starting point and its poeticism, which imply a moral vision based on human self-assertion. Dignity and nobility do not apply to the material and can only be attained by an exercise of our properly human capacities, which in turn mask fright before extinction. This masking is the dark heart of Pascal’s theology: the opening characterization of human weakness is perhaps better understood as an awareness of our cosmic insignificance, expressed in the famous Pensée 187: “Le silence des espaces infinis m’effraie.” Referring to Pascal as “the first truly modern atheist” (a provocative though fitting appellation: he died fifteen years before Spinoza), Frederic Rzewski took this as the title of a work in which he attempts to play the theological and rational against each other, against the backdrop of the social. Such an explosion of Pascal’s thought is a great counterpoint to the quiet assurance of his own form. And this surely points to another moral principle: form as consolation.