Man And The Universe By Pascal Essay

, Research Paper

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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