Some of you will recognize the author of this quotation, Blaise Pascal. Some won’t and given the times we live in will think that Pascal’s words mean that our being confined to our own living spaces is not necessarily a bad thing. In any case Pascal must have been familiar with flue like conditions and threats in the 17th. century and that people then were not unfamiliar with the recommendation that to avoid infection one had only to stay at home. In addition isn’t Pascal really implying, as people now are discovering confined in their living spaces, there are a lot of good things that can be accomplished just by staying home.
And in fact Pascal’s words might be translated into 21st century English in the following way:
“The risk of infection and subsequent death from Covid-19 comes from our not knowing how to remain at rest at home.”
Is this what Pascal meant? One can divide the citation into two parts, there is something he calls, “le malheur des hommes,” men’s greatest trouble or unhappiness, the nature of which Pascal has little or nothing to say, at least here. And then there is man who does not know how to sit or stand still. Here Pascal’s meaning is clear at least to the extent that men would be much better off if they would cease to be constantly moving about. Those who are directing our societal response to the Coronavirus would agree fully with Pascal here.
I didn’t recognize the citation right away as being from Pascal. I saw it for the first time in a text message from my nephew, Erik, in France, but I did see right away Pascal’s words might be interpreted as our being confined to our rooms, apartments and homes, and that our remaining at rest, could be a good thing in itself, and not just a response to the danger of infection from the virus. And I saw that not staying home, but in constant activity outside, could very well be the principal cause and source of not just a viral infection but of “le malheur des hommes.”
I’m not yet sure what Pascal meant by these words. I think I know what my nephew meant, that by remaining at home while protecting ourselves from the bug, we were getting down to the essential, which is getting know ourselves as Socrates would have it. That we were beginning to understand what was important in our lives and what was not. And that, yes all our troubles, not just a viral infection, came from our not being able to, stop, rest, and just sit still.
Reading Pascal’s words one may forget about the virus, as the virus couldn’t have been what was on his mind, nor on my mind as I thought more about it. And in fact one begins to think about what we’re losing by constantly running about, by not staying in one place.
This is what was on my nephew’s mind, although the citation wasn’t well chosen in that as one reads Pascal one thinks too much about the Coronavirus, and not enough about why we should run around less, and stay in one place. And in one place, what did Pascal do? write another book, solve a math problem for the first time….? And how many of us are accomplishing more by staying in one place?
Now neither Pascal nor my nephew had anything good to say about our being overly active, “running all around ” as we say. Yet, in spite of the virus there is a good case to be made for even excessive activity. But not now.
However, I did see right away that there is a delightful irony here. For the virus, being a malheur, perhaps now the greatest one, right up there with global warming, requires us not to move about. And Pascal isn’t he saying just the opposite that to live best, to enjoy the best of life, is not to be out there moving about. The irony being that both the worst, the virus, and the best, our staying in place and getting to know ourselves, are both working to the same end. So the virus in effect is motivating us to do what Pascal says we should be doing, although mot for the same reasons.
And if I were to say a bit more about the malheur des hommes? Does it become also ironic? Leaving out for the moment the virus, nothing has ever brought about the confinement of men more effectively than the tyrants who imprison those who disagree with them. And prisoners in general don’t they know best how to remain at rest in a room. Here is the irony again in that there are those who would now free the prisoners.
Here of course in the ordinary view of things, the malheur is the confinement. But in Pascal’s word our greatest bonheur could arise from our confinement.