The crowd, Pascal, and the philosophers

June 20, 2009

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I have been fascinated by Blaise Pascal for a long time.  He was a child prodigy; he invented an early mechanical calculator; he was an accomplished wit and satirist who skewered his opponents in religious controversy in his Provincial Letters; his scientific work on hydrostatics and the debate over the existence of a vacuum were as monumental for the future of physics as was his ground breaking work on geometry and probability theory for mathematics.  And, he was a mystic.

In the last week or two, a few exchanges here and there in my little corner of the blogsphere have brought him to mind once again; specifically his thinking about the role of The Philosopher (thinkers and intellectuals)vis a vis The People, aka The Masses.  In his very short introduction to Pascal (Pascal:  In Praise of Vanity, part of the Great Philosophers series) Ben Rogers teases out Pascal’s thoughts on this topic from his Pensées, that disordered bundle of notes and passages in his papers found after his death.

Sometimes I take Troutsky & Co. @ Thoughtstreaming to task for their leftist-Marxist assumptions about the nature of popular consciousness. I happen to agree with most of their policy prescriptions, but they often sound to me as if they believe that “everyone is just so damn stupid – if they’d just read more theory, or listen to us, they’d see the truth and revolt – but they are drugged (that opium, again…) by popular consumer culture and propaganda so they vote Republican, etc. etc…”  Sometimes these agitators of the Left sound almost as supercilious about The  People as William F. Buckley, that great pseudo-intellectual snob, sounded on a good day.  Pascal addresses just this conflict.

As Rogers reads him, Pascal detected in The Philosophers a “conceited intellectualism – a utopian rationalism – which he was determined to shake and unsettle.”  Even though Pascal assented to the Philosphers’ condemnation of popular vanity – the people don’t know the truth, they are diverted by stupid useless entertainments, they are driven by their passions rather than by analysis – he engages in a “constant swing pro to con” about them.  Some might call it a dialectic.

Thus we have shown that man is vain to pay so much attention to things which do not really matter, and all these opinions have been refuted.

Then we have shown that all these opinions are perfectly sound so that, all these examples of vanity being perfectly justified, ordinary people are not as vain as they are said to be. (#93)

For example, Rogers notes that the “sages” complain that the activities that people pursue are vain and trivial, distracting, and rule out all opportunity for reflection. Pascal responds that this is precisely their point.  As he puts it in a fragment on divertissement:

…those who hold that  people are quite unreasonable to spend all day chasing a hare they would not have wanted to buy, have little knowledge of our nature.  The hare itself would not save us from thinking about death and the miseries distracting us, but the hunting does so.  (#136)

How’s that for a demolition of the Situationist critique of compelled consumption/consumer culture?

Pascal’s thought is subtle and diffuse, but, in sum, he feels that The People have adapted sensibly to the pressures of life served up to them by God and the political order.  At bottom, there is a dark, pessimistic conservatism in his politics.  He says it is necessary for The People to be distracted, and lied to, because if they were told the bald truth about the injustice of society, they would rebel.  Pascal is not a rebel, though he is subversive!  He demolishes the pretentions of the Philosophers who try to demonstrate that the political order is just, and according to God’s law.  He knows it’s a sham.  The people sense this, and they know their relative powerlessness, so they adapt.

One need not endorse Pascal’s bleak realpolitick to accept the wisdom of many of his observations.  He is right – philosophers, sages, agitators, are often out of touch with the real life of the people, and they impose their tastes, views, and aspirations on them, dismissing other approaches to life as surrender to bourgeois hegemony, apathy, or some other political sin.  Thus, the possibilities for overturning the political order are slim to none.  History does not offer much support for the claim that it is eminently feasible.

Moreover, nobody is truly free.  We have free will, but it is limited.  We do not choose where or when we are born.  We cannot start from a blank slate.  We are raised in, and must move forward from the state of things as they are.

Most important, when “thinkers” start riffing on “false-consciousness,” cultural brainwashing, the evils of popular culture, the pernicious influence of the media, think of Pascal and his double-edged critique of “conceited” Philosophers.

More junk from me on Monsieur Blaise:

  • Pascal’s famous wager on the existence of God.
  • Further reflections on divertissement.
  • A note on Pascals most famous mystical passage.

A Peep…

November 20, 2007

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Foul things lurk in the dark, damp caves of seditious politics! If my ignorance of Latin doesn’t hobble me too much, it says on the right, “Truth is great, and will prevail.”  (The thumbnail gives a larger and more clear uncolored image of this wonderful print by James Gillray.)

This print is from the Anti-Jacobin review, a journal dedicated to combating liberal and revolutionary sympathies in England in the last decade of the 18th century. All sorts of good people were pilloried in its articles. James Gillray was, for part of his career, in the pay of the Tory party, not an unusual arrangement for a satirist in those days.

Gillray, however, even as he took one side in his work, was not likely to let the other side off easily. In the print below, he shows Price, a well known liberal divine, surprised in his study as he pens subversive, “revolutionist” texts. And who, or what!, is finding him out? Edmund Burke, the famous conservative, here represented primarily by his nose. (Compare to the contemporary portrait detail shown below.) As the Gillray collector and scholar, Draper Hill, remarked,

“with typical ambiguity, the content of the engraving is critical of Price but the form ridicules Burke.”

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For a wealth of images and background on Gillray, visit this excellent online gallery: New York Public Library – Gillray

Here are the notes on the image above:

Although originally a Whig and a supporter of the American Revolution, statesman and celebrated orator Edmund Burke warned that the French Revolution would lead to the collapse of order and an outbreak of regicide and atheism. Reduced here to a pair of peering spectacles, a prying nose, and a pair of tiny hands wielding a crown and a crucifix, Burke split with the Whigs and by 1792 had allied himself with the Tory leader, William Pitt. The “rat” upon whom Burke spies is the Dissenting, radical clergyman Dr. Richard Price. Gillray imagines Price at work on an imaginary essay “On the Benefits of Anarchy Regicide Atheism,” with a picture of the execution of Charles I hanging over his desk. Price’s actual sermon before the reformist Revolution Society, which praised the French Revolution and its ideals of liberty, and championed an elective monarchy, provoked Burke to write Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). While Burke’s essay was probably instrumental in changing Gillray’s attitude toward the French Revolution, the artist chose to portray Burke as a crazed fanatic. As Draper Hill has commented, “with typical ambiguity, the content of the engraving is critical of Price but the form ridicules Burke.”


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