This post is not altogether about Blaise Pascal’s description of the human condition. I used Pascal to write about Ann Coulter who was not allowed to give a speech at the University of Ottawa, Canada. She had labelled President Obama’s Dreams From My Father a “Dimestore Mein Kampf.” Officials in Ottawa and the University of Ottawa feared a disturbance.
When this article was published, I had just started to post web logs. It is informative, but links to newspapers and other sources are lacking. Fortunately, I have now learned to use WordPress. But this post has relevance. I thought of deleting it, but this no longer seems appropriate. (22 April 2014)
Seventeenth-century French writer and scientist Pascal (Blaise Pascal, 1623-1662) described the human condition as both misère (pitiful, vulnerable, weak, poor) and grandeur (dignity, nobility). It was Pascal’s view that human beings were repeatedly being deceived by “puissances trompeuses” (deceitful, misleading powers), such as vanity, imagination, self-interest, and other influences that prevented self-scrutiny and, therefore, debased human beings. Those were the reasons why humans were misérables. Moreover, to make matters worse, humans sought frivolous entertainment instead of thinking and coming to terms with their dual condition.
Fortunately, although Pascal considered human beings not only as misérables but also as fragile, as fragile as fabulist La Fontaine’s (1621-1695) humble reed (“The Oak Tree and the Reed”), he granted them superiority over beasts by making his roseau “un roseau pensant,” or “a thinking reed”(Pensées [Thoughts] 113-348). In this respect, he expressed himself beautifully. “La grandeur de l’homme est grande en ce qu’il se connaît misérable; un arbre ne se connaît pas misérable.” Humans have nobility, or grandeur, in that they at least “know they are miserable,” to which he added that “a tree does not know it is miserable,” (Pensées, 114-397) with the notable exception of La Fontaine’s previously-mentioned boastful but unbending oak tree, felled by a powerful wind.
Has anything changed in our contemporary society? We still have “puissances trompeuses.”
Given most of their recent statements, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter and Arianna Huffington might indeed be looked upon as “deceitful powers.” When Ann Coulter was not allowed to speak at the University of Ottawa, for security reasons, she commented that she “was guessing the scores to get into the University of Ottawa are not very challenging.” (Stephen Chase, The Globe and Mail, Tuesday 23 March 2010) Civil libertarians protested, but there was a very real possibility of violence. “The move [to cancel the address] followed boisterous demonstrations outside that sponsors of the appearance feared could turn violent,” (Stephen Chase, The Globe and Mail), which justified Ann Coulter’s not being allowed to give an address.
There is freedom of speech in Canada, but there exist inappropriate speeches. Responsible parents protect children from exposure to hateful discourse and to discrimination towards minorities, such as the disabled and homosexuals. Responsible parents also protect their children from discrimination against coloured individuals and from depictions of violence. Besides, as French poet, novelist (Les Enfants terribles, 1946), illustrator, artist, playwright and filmmaker (Beauty and the Beast, 1929) Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) put it, “[t]ack in audacity is knowing just how far one can go too far.” “Le tact dans l’audace c’est de savoir jusqu’où on peut aller trop loin.”
As the Greeks taught us, there are limits to everything, including freedom of speech. They spoke of moderation. We also know that the end does not, of necessity, always justify the means and that when means are unacceptable, they become an end in themselves, an unacceptable end. In other words, since, in April 2008, Ann Coulter allowed herself to describe Barack Obama’s book Dreams From My Father as a “Dimestore Mein Kampf,” thereby comparing the future president with Hitler, it was quite legitimate on the part of University of Ottawa and Ottawa city officials to fear that Ann Coulter may create a violent disturbance. There are laws against violent disturbances in Canada and, I should think, the United States. As well, her above-mentioned statement about the future President of the United States was needlessly provocative. Untruths and offensive speeches have no place on public podiums in Canada, which, I believe, is also the case in the United States.
There was hope for Pascal’s fragile roseau. He could think. He was “un roseau pensant.” However, is redemption a possibility for persons who speak and write like Ann Coulter? Unlike the fragile reed, le roseau, it is unlikely that she indulges in any form of serious contemplation. When godliness was distributed, little was apparently bestowed on such persons as Ann Coulter, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Arianna Huffington. The afore-named ladies and their followers and rich sponsors are not about to grant godliness to the disinherited. They do not seem to care for the common man. If they cared for the people, Americans would have long ago had access to universal health-care and Republicans and Tea Party members would be supporting the creation of more social programs as well as job-creation projects.
These individuals should cease whining about preserving their unnecessary and underserved tax cuts for the rich. And they should also rally behind people who are protecting the environment. As things stand, these people are eating their children’s bread. Ann Coulter is seemingly an educated person, but it would appear her education was not put to good use. When disorder enters the debate, it is best to end it. Even in a world where relativity has gained considerable ground, there is still a right and a wrong. Look at sports where we find an abundance of rules. All games have rules. But let me reassure you. It could be that the afore-named persons’ private Hell will be in the here and now.
As Sartre put it: “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (others are hell). Well, do consider that there are plenty of others. Moreover, we always stand a second away from catastrophes of all kinds and death, despite the grandeur granted us as Pascal’s roseau pensant. In this regard, all of us are the same. Humans are mortals who know they are mortals. This is the human condition. However, thinking does not preclude enjoying our journey into infinity.
P.S. Pascal’s Pensées were not assembled during his short lifetime. He bundled them up. They were in liasses (tied bundles). The numbers I have used correspond to two of three classifications. The first is Louis Lafuma’s and the second, Léon Brunschvicg (in italics). The third is Philippe Sellier’s.