Showing posts with label human nature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label human nature. Show all posts


Quote: Isaac Watts Admonishes How Idle Hands Are the Devil's Work (And a Reflection on How I Got Into the Habit of Collecting Quotes)

"In works of labour, or of skill, I would be busy, too;

For Satan finds some mischief still 

For idle hands to do."

— Isaac Watts, 1674 - 1748
Nacer Eddine

Photo by nacer eddine on Unsplash

I do this thing where I look at my old journals. 

It's the greatest accomplishment of my youth. That I wrote a lot of entries. It's an activity that I tell my students to do often (as I am a high school English teacher), and I wonder if it must be a thing of adolescence — to inscribe one's thoughts down on paper. As an adult, I am not as prone to journal writing. I've lost interest in my own subjectivity!

That's sort of a joke, but I have done one activity consistently — collecting quotes. I found the above quote about idleness in one of those old journals from my youth.

It's easy to scoff at Isaac Watt's suggestion that one ought to stay busy. It's a sentiment ingrained in the Puritan notion of "work ethic" that has so often infused every aspect of American culture and history. In the current dispensation, productivity is rewarded, and idleness is looked down upon as indicative of a rotten soul.

I guess that is why the devil is co-opted in this dialectic between work and inactivity — since the devil is the symbol of perversion. Therefore, the lack of work, the absence of productivity is an abomination in this worldview.

There is a lot to be said for idleness, though. Even when the devil is idle, I suspect, they are having a good time! 


Blaise Pascal On The Contradictory Nature of Human Beings

What follows is a short analysis of fragments 164, 19, 142, and 80 from Blaise Pascal's philosophical work Pensées.
 “What a chimera is man! What a novelty, what chaos, what a subject  of contradiction.”- Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1657-58)  

Beginnings: Fragment 164 of Pascal's Pensées

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
Let us begin with fragment 164 of the Pensées where Pascals likens human beings to a freakish chimera, an amalgam of different natures: a monster with the combination of lion's head, goat's body, and a serpent's tail (p. 41). Pascal's thesis is the human condition is contradictory in nature. Subjectivity emerges out of conflict. Knowledge emerges out of paradox. A "cesspool of uncertainty" and "storehouse of truth," the modern subject is a novelty and a monster, the "glory and reject of the universe" (p. 41). "Man is beyond man," Pascal writes (p. 42). In his ability to see himself as mere man, as finite, contingent, yet uniquely novel and independent, man is able to transcend himself through self-awareness. But, as we will see, despite the human capacity to reflect on our own condition we become distracted by the banal and mundane and are bored easily. We often prefer distraction to thinking but we realize that through thinking we are little more than the animals but less than the gods. What makes us who we are as humans is an oscillation back and forth between our greatness and our wretchedness, our distractibility and our insightfulness; in effect, we are a mixture of sense, natural reason, and the ways of the heart.

Pascal and Montaigne

The truth of man's condition is not revealed solely by natural reason nor is it based on dogmatic assertions. Similar to Montaigne, Pascal argues truth is "neither within our grasp nor is it our target" (p. 42). Truth lies in the lap of God. For Pascal to be a skeptic is to deny incarnate nature. To be a dogmatist is to "repudiate reason." For Pascal, the answer lies somewhere in between these two, between nature and reason.
     The incarnation is a key theological point for Pascal (barely mentioned by Montaigne). Jesus is an ideal concept for Pascal, both fully human and fully divine, "begotten not made," "one in being with the Father." Christ is the new man - a manifestation of man as he would have been in his preternatural state. Because of original sin, ordinary man has lost his divinity except for a fragmentary shard which still remains. Unlike Christ, who revealed himself as God through his divine humanity, Man is a shard of a lost divinity; his greatness lies in his lack, his wretchedness. Pascal’s uncanny psychological insight gleaned from a traditional Catholic Christology becomes a radical statement on the human condition. Man's greatness lies in his capacity to recognize his wretchedness. Unlike a tree man is endowed with a capacity to both recognize his futility and simultaneously derive greatness from it. When Pascal writes, "Within this gnarled chasm lie the twists and turns of our condition," he is acknowledging man's in-betweenness (p. 43). Our animality is mechanistic and made redeemable through the operation of grace, a concept Pascal employs to explain how man is able to understand God at all. Grace makes man "as if on the level of God, participating in his divinity." Without grace we would be "deemed equivalent of brute beasts" (p. 43).
This is the copy of the text
I used to write this post.

Man Doesn't Know What Level to Put Himself

In fragment 19 Pascal says man's quandary is that he does not know what level to put himself (p. 8). Resonating with later existential themes concomitant with Kierkegaard or early existential writing, Pascal paints a modern picture of man lost and unable to find himself. Pascal modifies Augustine's thought that man is restless until he rests in God by stating man is restless and looks for God in “impenetrable darkness” (p. 8). We are neither Protagoras's ideal of "man is the measure of all things" nor are we the scum of the earth, either. We are thinking scum. What makes human beings great is the capacity to acknowledge our fallible, fallen nature. Pascal writes, evoking the Psalmist: we are a "thinking reed". Our wretchedness is a "felix culpa" (happy fault).
Pascal writes, "...without this most incomprehensible of all mysteries we are incomprehensible to ourselves" (p. 43). The oracle of Delphi with its inscription "know thyself" is too naive for Pascal nor is the promise of idle distraction the answer either. Reason cannot untangle the mystery of our wretched human condition, Pascal contends, but through "simple submission" can "we truly know ourselves" (p. 43). Humility is crucial for knowledge. Humility is counter to the claim of an all-encompassing logos that can know everything. Pascal equates total submission to logos as hubris. Access to knowledge does not depend on mental acuity or even keen understanding, but possession of a "humble heart and [those] who embrace lowliness" (p. 7).

Our Entire Knowledge is Not Made Uncertain

Pascal argues in fragment 142 that reason is not enough. Just because reason reveals the fallible nature of the mind, Pascal insists that "our entire knowledge is not made uncertain." Pascal is not a skeptic in the negative sense. He does not distrust reason outright. It is rather that he sees reason as part of the larger story of what constitutes thinking. The ancient skeptics taught we cannot know reality. Montaigne's skepticism is suspicion of scholasticism while Pascal is a skeptic of univocal reason. Reason, Pascal claims does not have to reveal knowledge of first principles: time, space, numbers, etc. We know first principles through the heart (p. 35). The "reasons of the heart" ground knowledge. Pascal's concern is faith in empirical reason. A plank wide enough to hold a philosopher yet suspended over a precipice will be unable to quell panic and -- "his imagination will prevail" -- and he will go pale and start sweating (p. 17). Even with the certainty of clear and distinct reason, we become powerless when our imagination takes over. 

Everyone Should Study their Thoughts

In fragment 80 Pascal writes that "Everyone should study their thoughts," but he leaves the impression, apparent in the immediacy and the urgency of his prose style, that humanity has not taken thinking seriously. Our reading for today ends with disappointment in humanity: "How hollow and full of filth man's heart is" (p. 49). Pascal is keen to see how diversion and distraction intertwine and disrupt a path to knowledge (see fragments 170, 171, and in other places).
Diversion is a promise of happiness man makes for himself. Man knows he is not a God. He knows he is mortal. In spite of this, man still wants to be happy; so he entertains himself. Man cannot stop himself from wanting to be happy even though he knows he is wretched so he chooses to not think about it: "Not having been able to conquer death, wretchedness, or ignorance, men have decided to stop himself from thinking about it" (p. 44). We are equally incapable of either absolute happiness or total access to truth. Pascal's diagnosis is man lives in despair. Pining for happiness, man searches for it through distraction and diversion. Yet he remains hollow and empty. The task of giving up diversion is likened to a king who has many courtiers filling up his empty moments. A king left alone would think. If we removed duty, preoccupation, diversion, distraction, and work from man he would "then see and think" about himself, removed from superfluous duty man would think about what he is, where he comes from, and where he is going" (p. 49).


Pascal, Blaise, Honor Levi, and Blaise Pascal. Pensées and Other Writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth, Adult Education, Homeschooler, Not Grade Specific -


Are Philosophers Inspired by the Figure of the Child?

In this post, I discuss one of my favorite topics: how have thinkers, writers, and philosophers been inspired by the figure of the child?

I am stuck on this topic of the child as a figure of philosophical thought or inspiration. The question writ large is this: how can the child be both a muse and tabula rasa? In other words, how can the child be a figure of inspiration, yet at the same time, not capable of the label philosopher? The philosopher, artist, thinker, writer, goes to the child for their inspiration, but the paradox is this: the child is seldom seen as a locus of philosophical import. How can it be both? Both muse and empty of content? We call the child innocence but what we mean is empty, according to Kincaid. And i agree. The label of innocence creates a bind. A problem. Innocence maintains the status of muse but creates a problem by which the child is only able to miraculously appear through nostalgia and leaves whence she came. William Blake trumpets the child as a muse. Blake writes of a poet/piper in the introductory verse of the Songs of Innocence who is visited by a child on a cloud who commands him to write: "Piper sit thee down and write / In a book that all may read." Is the child merely an apparition for the romantic poet? Notice it is the poet and not the lofty nude boy cherub who puts words onto paper. How can it be that the child inspires the poet to write but is bereft of his own song?
I can name three famous instances where a child appears in the margins of the history of philosophy. In Plato’s Meno, Socrates employs a slave child to demonstrate to Meno that learning is recollection. Meno assures Socrates that the boy has no previous knowledge of geometry. The question is if the child has no prior knowledge of geometry can she still learn it? Socrates asks the slave boy questions. He does not supply him with answers as if his mind were an empty vessel. Socrates is notorious for asserting that we come upon the quest for knowledge at an instance of nothing. We know nothing. Nothing is a starting point. Just by the guidance of a question, the slave boy is able to come up with the solution to the problem of halving a square. Plato does not indicate the child's age. I would guess he is no older than sixteen. No younger than seven. Is it a coincidence that Socrates uses him as an example? To use a child to illustrate a philosophical point suggests something about the status of a child. In this case a slave child. To be a slave and a child at the time of Socrates was to be afforded little political privilege. Neither the child or the slave were properly thought of as citizens of the state. Philosophy is adult business. Citizen business. So to demonstrate the boy's ability to know, to recollect knowledge, as a priori to learning itself, is to present the child as exemplar, but still leaves us to question the concept of child as philosopher.
Nietzsche famously invokes the figure child in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in tandem with the lion and the camel, as the third stage in the metamorphosis of philosophical progress.
Augustine in the Confessions opens a random selection of sacred scripture whereby he is inspired by Saint Paul’s words to put on the person of Christ and rid himself of wanton desires. When the child enters the scene of philosophical history she becomes an example, as we can see in Socrates’s use of the boy, or as metaphor for something “new” and “fresh” as in Nietzsche. Or simply inspiration as in Augustine’s anecdotal story of his conversion.
For the most part children are excluded from the annals of Western Philosophy in the main along with discussions of sex, the body, and anything related to our finitude. Philosophers in the main have traditionally been more fond of loftier topics such as mind, reason, and clear and distinct ideas. Children are far from such sophisticated concepts being as they are undeveloped intellectually. While we can grant the child her own special status as philosopher who has not heard a child ask why? it is still fairly common to assume philosophy is meant for grown-ups. The long-standing view of children is that they are extensions of adults. Thomas Hobbes excludes the child as having the status of person in the Leviathan. Along with madmen and fools, the child is a brute beast, with no claim to the law or sovereignty. For Hobbes, the child is not a person. According to Phillip Aries, the concept of the child as independent from an adult only recently became adopted in the West in the nineteenth century. For centuries children were seen as diminutive versions of adults. Homunculi. The great modern revelation, it is said, is that children embody a consciousness that is temporally defined and authentic to childhood itself. How far have we come from Hobbes? But how uneasy it is for us to ask the child muse to speak her own voice. Children grow up. They become adults. And it is usually adults who provide the child's voice. The word "infant" means "without voice." The Romantic view of childhood, as seen in the Blake poems, and also with Rousseau, privileged the child as possessing a unique access to experience that becomes lost after the emergence of puberty. What Freud would later call the stage of latency, the period after infancy leading up to adolescence, becomes a period in the development of the human person infused with a new sense of interest and curiosity. Jean-Jacques Rousseau breaks the silence and places the figure of the child front and center, but he too retains a nostalgia for something lost. We vacillate, I conjecture, from positing the child as an empty slate to embodying all truths, but in each event, we are foreclosed to the child qua child.