Essay, Research Paper: Man And The Universe By Pascal


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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. Pascal’s 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
humankind’s 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 reader’s 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 Pascal’s point of view, the world
(the earth) is an atom. The element involved in Pascal’s 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. Pascal’s 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 man’s 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
man’s 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 man’s 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 Pascal’s 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, Pascal’s 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 Pascal’s 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,” Pascal’s 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, Pascal’s paradoxes indicate man’s
position in the infinite. Man is everything compared to nothingness and does not
have the ability to know everything in this world. This is man’s natural
state, “ Such is our true state. This is what renders us incapable of certain
knowledge and absolute ignorance…” However, with man’s ability to think,
he can save himself from this unfortunate downfall. Everything that humans are
depends on their thinking.
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