Alain de Botton Column: A good idea from... Pascal

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT IS STILL, tragically, sometimes assumed that the best way to cheer someone up is to tell them that everything will turn out all right; to intimate that life is essentially a pleasant process in which happiness is no mirage and human fulfilment a real possibility.

However, we need only read a few pages of the Pensees of Blaise Pascal (1623-62) to appreciate how entirely misguided this approach must be, because Pascal pulls off the feat of being one of the most pessimistic figures in Western thought and simultaneously one of the most cheering. The combination is typical: the darkest thinkers are almost always the ones who can lift our mood.

Pascal was born in Auvergne in June 1623, and from the earliest days, learnt to look at the glass of life as half-empty. His mother died when he was three, he had few friends, he was a hunchback and always ill. Luckily, he was recognised at an early age - and by more than just his proud family - as a genius. By 12, he had worked out the first 32 propositions of Euclid; he went on to invent the mathematics of probability; he measured atmospheric pressure, constructed a calculating machine and designed Paris's first omnibus. Then, at the age of 36, ill-health forced him to set aside plans to write a large book on religion, and he wrote in its place a brilliant, intensely pessimistic series of aphorisms in defence of Christian belief, the Pensees.

The purpose of the work was to convert readers to God, and Pascal felt the best way to do this was to evoke everything that was terrible about life. Having fully considered the misery of the human condition, he assumed his readers would instantly turn for salvation to the Catholic Church. Unfortunately for Pascal, very few readers have ever read the Pensees like this. The first part of the book, listing what is wrong with life, has always proved far more popular than the second, which suggests what is right with God.

Pascal begins by telling us that earthly happiness is an illusion. The proof is that we always run around escaping ourselves. "If our condition were truly happy we should not need to avoid thinking about it." People will do anything rather than consider their dreadful reality. At the same time, they are tortured by their passions. And perhaps the greatest source of suffering is the most banal - boredom. "We struggle against obstacles, but once they are overcome, rest proves intolerable because of the boredom it produces." Pascal's conclusion: "What is man? A nothing compared to the infinite."

Why should this be cheering? Perhaps because exaggeration is so comforting. Whatever our private disappointments, we can feel fortunate when we compare our mood to Pascal's. Pascal wanted to turn us to God by telling us how awful life was. But by sharing his troubles, he ironically made us feel better - and far less inclined to turn to his beloved Church for salvation.