Our Inability to Sit in a Quiet Room Alone

Our Inability to Sit in a Quiet Room Alone April 3, 2020

As the days of coronavirus quarantine turn into weeks and the prospect of months, we are getting stir crazy.  I have come across several references to Blaise Pascal’s observation about the human inability to sit in a quiet room alone.

I’m a big fan of Pascal (1623-1632)–the mathematician, scientist, inventor of the calculator, and computer pioneer–who experienced a dramatic conversion to Christianity and became one of its great apologists.  His approach was not to devise abstract arguments but to plunge into the depths of the human heart and how Christ alone can resolve our contradictions.  (Pascal was a French Catholic, but he was a Jansenist, a movement that was close to that of the Reformation, which Rome condemned as a heresy.)

Here is the quotation along with its context.  He is discussing how human beings have to have diversions, in order, he says, to avoid facing themselves, something that can lead them to recognize their need for God.

From PASCAL’S PENSÉES [that is, “Thoughts.”  My bolds]:

139

Diversion.—When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., 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 entering games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home. . . .

Hence it comes that men so much love noise and stir; hence it comes that the prison is so horrible a punishment; hence it comes that the pleasure of solitude is a thing incomprehensible. And it is in fact the greatest source of happiness in the condition of kings, that men try incessantly to divert them, and to procure for them all kinds of pleasures.

The king is surrounded by persons whose only thought is to divert the king, and to prevent his thinking of self. For he is unhappy, king though he be, if he think of himself.

This is all that men have been able to discover to make themselves happy. And those who philosophise on the matter, and who think men unreasonable for spending a whole day in chasing a hare which they would not have bought, scarce know our nature. 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. . . .

Men seek rest in a struggle against difficulties; and when they have conquered these, rest becomes insufferable. . . .

Thus so wretched is man that he would weary even without any cause for weariness from the peculiar state of his disposition; and so frivolous is he, that, though full of a thousand reasons for weariness, the least thing, such as playing billiards or hitting a ball, is sufficient to amuse him.

Do you see his point?  Those of you who are “sheltering in place,” practicing “social distancing,” and under “stay-at-home” orders, how are you handling this?  Before you may have felt that you were too busy; now you “have time.”  Is that working out for you, or would you rather be too busy again?

Image:  Portrait of Blaise Pascal, a copy of the painting of François II Quesnel, which was made for Gérard Edelinck en 1691[réf. nécessaire]. – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12193020 via Wikimedia Commons


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