Man And The Universe By Pascal Pascal builds his argument in “Man and the Universe” out of a series of paradoxes, seemingly contradictory truths. In writing, “Man and the Universe,” Pascal reflected his views on what is our place in the world as human beings. Pascals writing shows a harmony between mathematical certainty and moral truths in support of his argument. In his “Pensees” or “Thoughts,” Pascal hoped to integrate scientific progress with the notion of humankinds fallen state. Many suggest that Pascal is the “master of paradox.” A paradox is an idea or situation that appears to contradict itself but that is nevertheless true.
The purpose of a paradox is to provoke fresh thought and draw the readers attention. An example of a paradox is the statement, “Less is more.” In addressing his point of view of the universe, Pascal wrote, “I will picture to him not only the visible universe, but the conceivable immensity of nature, in the compass of this abbreviation of an atom.” Pascal reduces the apparently infinitely great and large to its actual small position. Pascal uses this paradox to show the universe and its great magnitude compared to an atom. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word, “magnitude” as “greatness in size or extent.” In mathematics and physics, the term magnitude is used to describe the amount or quantity of an object or equation. An example of this is the volume of a sphere or the length of a vector.
In chemistry, the atom is the smallest unit of an element. This is a paradox because something great in size as the universe is obviously not the size of an atom. When Pascal wrote this, he did not intend to make it something literal; as in showing a comparison between the universe and an atom. Rather, it was meant to be something figurative. In Pascals point of view, the world (the earth) is an atom. The element involved in Pascals paradox is the universe itself.
Therefore, it is implied that the universe, or the”element,” is composed of a great amount of planets, or “atoms.” Pascal speaks to mankind, “let him view therein an infinity of worlds, each of which has its firmament, its planets, its earth, in the same proportion as the visible world…” It is implied that man has the knowledge that they are very small beings compared to the greatness and vastness of the universe. Imagine man as being as a grain of sand within the extent a desert. We are a grain of sand. Composed with many other grains, we are able to make the desert. It is microscopic in comparison to the immensity of the desert. The universe is just a little dot in nature; a spec in nature.
Our ideas and thoughts are also a spec in the midst of the infinite. Paradoxically, greatness is shown to be the illusion of relative perspective. Pascal changes perspective in order to view the same object as a world in itself relative to the number and complexity of its divisions. This is mathematical. When we divide, we are not a whole any longer.
In changing perspective, Pascal wrote, “..let a mite exhibit to him in the exceeding smallness of its body parts incomparably smaller, limbs with joints, veins in these limbs, blood in these veins, humors in this blood, globules in these humors, gases in these globules; let him, still dividing these last objects, exhaust his powers of conception, and let the ultimate object at which he can arrive now be the subject of our discourse..” Paradoxically, the infinitely small now has an infinity of parts. In support of his description of human beings, Pascal wrote, “What a chimera, then, is man! What a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos, what a subject of contradiction, what a prodigy!” When Pascal is speaking of human beings, he uses a tone of pity. He has feelings of sorrow and grief for the “misfortune” of man. Pascal calls man a “chimera,” a fabulous creature, then calls him a novelty. He calls man a contradiction; the equivalence of paradox. He also adds, “what a prodigy!” A prodigy is a person with exceptional talents and abilities.
If man, indeed is a prodigy, how is he also a monster and chaos? This paradox is used in support of the following paradox. In the midst of his argument, Pascal wrote, “A judge of all things, feeble worm of the earth, depository of the truth, cloaca of uncertainty and error, the glory and the shame of the universe!” Pascal is indicating that man is a limited being. God is the only being with the distinguished ability to comprehend all; nothingness and the infinite. Pascal points out that some humans think they know everything. If man is “a judge of all things,” how could he ever be a “feeble worm?” We judge everything in this world. Yet, we cannot know every single thing in this world.
Pascal shows that individuals cannot judge what they do not know. Judging gives humans a sense of authority and superiority. However, Pascal considers man a weak, and fragile being. Pascals writing is very universal. Since Adam and Eve broke innocence at the Garden of Eden, humans are in search of the truth.
Pascal called man, a “depository of the truth.” A depository is a place where something is deposited for safekeeping. It is a storehouse. Pascal also writes that the universe has both glory and shame within it. Glory is something majestic or splendor. Shame is something full of disgrace and is disappointing. Man is a glorious being, however, simultaneously, he is also a shameful being.
Limitations get in mans way. In using this paradox, Pascal describes man in an optimistic and pessimistic way. He includes in his argument, “Know then, haughty man, what a paradox you are to yourself.” According to Pascal, man is a beautiful creation living in a “sick” planet. This paradox reflects on mans desire to have all knowledge possible. “..What is man in the midst of nature? A nothing in comparison with the infinite, an all in comparison with nothingness: a mean between nothing and all.” Pascal wrote this to inform mankind that they are “nothing” in the universe. The paradox, “..mean between nothing and all,” indicates mans position.
A “mean” is the middle point between two extremes; the infinite and nothingness. In mathematics, it is known as an average. Pascal wanted to send his message: an individual is nothing in nature. However, individuals are everything when compared to nothingness. This is also reflected on Pascals thoughts on how a person lies somewhere in the middle.
That person is capable of comprehending the smallest things. However, the “proper value” of humankind is a being of limited powers. According to Pascal, only God can comprehend nothingness and the infinite. Pascal encourages his readers to look up to God and his special ability. “..If man had never been corrupted, he would enjoy in his innocence both truth and happiness.. If man had never been anything more than a corrupted being, he would have no idea either of truth or of beatitude.” In this paradox, Pascal indicates that man is in search for the truth and happiness.
In supporting this, Pascal wrote, “..We have an idea of happiness, and we cannot reach it; we feel an image of the truth, and possess but falsehood..” Why as a human being, is falsehood true? That is yet another limitation of humankind. Man is unhappy because he cannot attain what he can conceive. Once again, Pascal describes human beings in a paradoxical way: “Man is but a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.” A reed is a tall grass that has jointed, hollow stalks. This paradoxical metaphor shows both a positive and negative attitude toward human nature. The positive attitude is that Pascal considers human beings special for having the ability to think.
This is how human beings are distinguished from other life forms. According to Pascal, we are a weak and fragile being. However, with the ability to think well, we are the noblest being than any other. Since our nobility, essence, and existence depends on our ability to think, Pascals message is: “Let us endeavor, then, to think well: this is the principal of ethics.” The negative attitude towards human nature is the way Pascal describes man. By calling man a”reed,” it reminds us even more of how weak and fragile man is. For instance, Pascal wrote, “A breath of air, a drop of water, suffices to kill man.” Pascal used his many paradoxes to gain the attention of the reader to what is being said.
Paradox was used to make Pascals writing emotionally intense and concentrated. In addition to these paradoxes, Pascal used scientific and mathematical inquiries to better express his thoughts and ideas on humankind. In “Man and the Universe,” Pascals primary message to humankind is: recognize your powers and limitations and act accordingly. His message is embodied throughout all his paradoxes. In order to aid humankind in conceiving their powers and limitations, Pascals paradoxes indicate mans position in the infinite. Man is everything compared to nothingness and does not have the ability to know everything in this world.
This is mans natural state, ” Such is our true state. This is what renders us incapable of certain knowledge and absolute ignorance..” However, with mans ability to think, he can save himself from this unfortunate downfall. Everything that humans are depends on their thinking.