In his writings about the human condition, Les Pensées or Thoughts, French scientist, inventor and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), positioned mankind between the infinitely large and the infinitely small (Pensées, 199-72*). He wrote that compared to the universe, humans are infinitely small. However, compared to a microscopic mite, he called un ciron, humans are infinitely large.
Infinity is a central concept in Pascal’s Weltanschauung or world view. One of his Pensées, perhaps the most poetical, expresses fear of the infinite. He writes that “[he] fears the eternal silence of space infinite” (my translation): “Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie” (201-206 B).
That Pascal should have been in awe of space infinite is not altogether surprising. The main discovery of the Renaissance, the sixteenth century mainly, may well have been planet Earth’s place in the Universe. Until Copernicus (1473-1543), possibly earlier, planet Earth was looked upon as the centre of the Universe.
But Copernicus placed the Sun at the centre of the universe, thereby introducing heliocentrism. Later, Galileo Galilei (1564-1652) also observed that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Such was not the thinking of the Church, so Galileo had to recant on his observation for fear of facing an untimely and painful death.
Although Pascal was a scientist, the Pensées have a spiritual dimension. In this regard, Pascal’s thoughts on the two infinites resemble his definition of man’s duality. Humans are mortals, misère, but they can think and know, therefore, but they are miserable. We are mere reeds, but we think: le roseau pensant (the thinking reed). Hence our grandeur or nobility. The fact that humans know they are mortals constitute a redeeming feature. We are neither beasts nor angels.
I have already spoken of Pascal’s symmetrical thinking: la misère/la grandeur and must note it again. Pascal discussed our duality, the humaine condition and also does it in his cosmology, thereby giving us, once again, a redeeming half. Without the infinitely small, the infinitely large would engulf humankind. So, as I used to tell my students, it was nice of Pascal to bring us back, and down, to Earth.
However, I regret the fact that we did not devote sufficient time to the infinities. We associate relativity with Einstein, but long before Einstein theory of relativity, relativity was also a humanistic concept.
Pascal’s two infinities are a most eloquent expression of relativity. For instance, not unlike Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), Pascal states that what is an error on one side of the Pyrenees, is truth on the other side of same Pyrenees: “Vérité au-deça [this side] des Pyrénées, erreur au-delà.”
This is the case with justice and jurisprudence. An act may legal in one land and illegal in another land. So there is arbitrariness about justice, a thought which led to French Enlightenment’s Montesquieu’s (1689-1755) De l’Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws). Montesquieu will be discussed in a future post.
For the time being, all I wish to reflect on is that as Christopher Colombus sailed towards India, Galileo and Pascal were exploring space and Montaigne and Pascal were pondering relativity.
*Lafuma and Brunschvicg classification
© Micheline Walker
27 September 2011