The European Enlightenment

Blaise Pascal

Pensees 198, 199


Pensées 198   Seeing the blindness and misery of man, and looking over the muteness of the entire universe, and man without any light, abandoned and alone in this corner of the universe, without knowing who placed him there, what he has come to do, what will happen to him when he dies, incapable of knowing anything at all, I am seized with fear, like a man who has been carried in his sleep onto a desert island and who wakes up without knowing where he is, without any means of escape. Then, on top of this, I am filled with wonder that people aren't moved to utter despair over their wretched state. I see other people surrounding me, of a nature similar to myself: I ask them if they are better instructed than I am; the tell me they aren't; and on top of this, these miserable creatures look around themselves, and having seen some pleasant objects, they give themselves wholeheartedly to them and attach their entire existence to them. As for me, I could never attach myself to these objects, and, considering that there very well may be something more than just the appearances which I see, I have tried to search out whether or not God has left behind some marks of himself.

   I see many contrary religions, which are, therefore, false, except for one. Each of these religions wishes to be believed on its own authority and menaces all unbelievers. I do not believe them because of this. Anyone can say that, anyone can call himself a prophet. But I only see Christianity where I find prophecies, and this is something very few can do.


Pensées 199
Man's Disproportion
   Behold! This is where natural reason brings us. If it is not true, there is no truth in man; if it is true, he finds in it a great cause of humiliation; either way, he is forced to abase himself.

   And, since he cannot go on without this knowledge, I wish, before entering into larger studies of nature, that he consider nature for a serious and leisurely moment, as well as look on himself, and get to know the proportions between nature and man.

   Let man contemplate Nature in its entirety, high and majestic; let him expand his gaze from the lowly objects which surround him. Let him look on this blazing light, placed like an eternal lamp in order to light up the universe; let him see that this earth is but a point compared to the vast circle which this star describes and let him marvel at the fact that this vast orbit itself is merely a tiny point compared to the stars which roll through the firmament.

   But if our gaze stops there, let the imagination pass beyond this point; it will grow tired of conceiving of things before nature tires of producing them. The entire visible world is only an imperceptible speck in the ample bosom of nature. No idea can come close to imagining it. We might inflate our concepts to the most unimaginable expanses: we only produce atoms in relation to the reality of things. Nature is an infinite sphere in which the center is everywhere, the circumference is nowhere. Finally, it is the greatest sensible mark of God's omnipotence, that our imagination loses itself in that thought.

   Let man, having returned to himself, consider what he is in comparison with all that is; let him see himself as if thrown out of the district of Nature; and, from this little prison cell in which he finds his lodging, I mean the universe, let him learn to judge the earth, its kingdoms, its villages, and himself with a proper estimation. What is man in the infinite?

   But to offer him another astonishing prodigy, let him behold the tiniest things he knows of. Let a mite show him in the smallness of its body parts incomparably smaller, legs with joints, veins in the legs, blood in the veins, humours in the blood, drops in the humours, vapors in the drops, which, dividing to the smallest things, he wears out his imaginative power, and let the last object which he arrives at become now the subject of our discourse; he might think that this perhaps is the smallest thing in the universe. I wish now to make him see therein a new abyss. I want to paint for him not only the visible universe, but all the imaginable immensity of nature within the confines of an atom. Let him see an infinity of universes, in which each has its own firmament, planets, earth, in the same proportion as the visible world; within this earth, there are animals and finally, mites, in which he'll find again the same things as he found in the mite he started with; and finding again the same things without end, let him lose himself in these wonders, as shocking in their smallness as others are in their immensity; for who will not admire our body, which before was imperceptible within the universe, imperceptible itself within the bosom of nature, and which is now a colossus, a world, or rather a whole, in comparison to the nothing, the smallness, we can't arrive at?

   Anyone who considers himself in this way will be seized with terror and, discovering that the mass nature has given him supports itself between two abysses of infinity and nothingness, he will tremble in the face of these marvels; and I believe that as his curiosity changes to admiration, he will be more disposed to contemplate them in silence then search them out with presumption.

   For, finally, what is man in nature? He is nothing in comparison with the infinite, and everything in comparison with nothingness, a middle term between all and nothing. He is infinitely severed from comprehending the extremes; the end of things and their principle are for him invincibly hidden in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he arises and the infinity into which he is engulfed.

   What else may he do except to perceive some appearance of the middle of things, eternally despairing to know their principles or ends? All things arise from nothingness and are carried to infinity. Who can follow these astonishing processes? The author of these marvels can comprehend them. All others cannot.

   Failing to contemplate these infinities, men have recklessly taken it on themselves to study nature, as if it had the same proportions as they did. It is a mighty strange thing that they wished to comprehend the principles of things, and to arrive from there at a knowledge of everything, with a presumption as infinite as their object. For doubtless no-one could devise such a plan without a presumption or capacity as infinite as nature's. . . .

   We naturally believe that we are more capable of arriving at the center of things rather than embracing their circumference. The visible extent of the world surpasses us visibly; but, since we surpass small things, we believe ourselves capable of possessing them, and yet it requires no less capacity to reach nothingness as it takes to reach everything; the one is just as infinite as the other; and it appears to me that anyone who comprehended one of these extreme principles of things would have also arrived at the knowledge of the other infinite. The one depends on the other, and the one leads to the other. These extremities touch each other and reunite by going in opposite directions and find themselves again in God, and in God alone.

   Let us then know our limits; we are something, and we are not everything; such existence we have takes from us the knowledge of first principles, which arise from nothingness; and the smallness of our existence hides infinity from our view. . . .

   Behold: this is our true state. It is this which renders us incapable of knowing anything for certain or from being absolutely ignorant. We wander in a vast medium, always uncertain and drifting, pushed by one wind and then another. Whenever we find a fixed point to attach and fix ourselves to, it shifts and leaves us and, if we follow it, it slips away from us and flees from us eternally. Nothing stops for us. This is our natural state, but the one most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find a firm seat, and a final, constant base on which to build a tower which will lift us to the infinite; but all our foundations crack, and the earth opens up into an abyss.

   Let us not then seek assurance or finality. Our reason is always deceived by the inconstancy of appearances; nothing can fix the finite which lies between the two infinities which enclose and flee from it. . . .

Translated from the French by Richard Hooker 1995



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1995, Richard Hooker
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