I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entertaining games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home.

Blaise Pascal’s Pensées (Thoughts) are a collection of notes and jottings that were meant to be groundwork for a book on a defense of Christian religion. “Much of the theological argument implied in these utterances has little appeal to the modern mind”, reads the introductory note, “but the acuteness of the observation of human life, the subtlety of the reasoning, the combination of precision and fervid imagination in the expression, make this a book to which the discerning mind can return again and again for insight and inspiration.”

The passage quoted above is a part of several long and short notes on the topic of diversions. Pascal contends that we engage in activities and amusements as a diversion, for without such diversions, one would be left to contemplate on oneself, and would become weary by painful and disquieting thoughts.

Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.

A recurring example that Pascal uses is that of hunting hare; one is reminded that it was the 17th century in which he lived and wrote. According to him, the chase is what excites and diverts one, rather than the possession of the game.

The hare in itself would not screen us from the sight of death and calamities; but the chase which turns away our attention from these, does screen us.

Our folly lies in believing that possession of the end will bring us happiness, and not realizing that it is the pursuit that keeps us from being unhappy. The journey is the destination.

Their error does not lie in seeking excitement, if they seek it only as a diversion; the evil is that they seek it as if the possession of the objects of their quest would make them really happy. In this respect it is right to call their quest a vain one.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) is perhaps better known for his mathematics than his philosophies, notably his work on probability that includes developing the idea of expected value, a key concept in modern economics and finance, and for inventing the first mechanical calculator at the age of 19. In addition to expository passages such as the one described above, the Pensées are a treasure trove of pithy aphorisms

A mere trifle consoles us, for a mere trifle distresses us.

Rivers are roads which move, and which carry us where we desire to go.

and quotable quotes

The great and the humble have the same misfortunes, the same griefs, the same passions; but one is at the top of the wheel, and the other near the center, and so is less disturbed by the same revolutions.

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