Pascal's Pensées: Week 10, A Thinking Reed


A human being is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but we are a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush us: a vapor, a drop of water is enough to kill us. But even if the universe were to crush us, we would still be nobler than our slayer, because we know that we are dying and the advantage the universe has over us. The universe knows nothing of this.

Thus all our dignity consists in thought. It is on thought that we must depend for our recovery, not on space and time, which we could never fill. Let us then strive to think well; that is the basic principle of morality.


Given all the posts this week about human subjectivity and consciousness, I thought this a fitting pensée for this Friday. There is a physical frailty to human beings, the coronavirus showed that to us. We are a weak reed, prone to breaking. But we are, curiously, a thinking reed. And that power of thought sets us apart within the created order. 

There's a modern, scientific tendency to displace human being from the center of the cosmos. We're told that we exist in a small, unremarkable part of a vast universe, orbiting a minor star. Point taken. This displacement, though, isn't foreign to Holy Scripture: "What are are human beings that you are mindful of them?"

Still, why not put human being at the center of the cosmos? The universe might be vast, but it is cold and empty. Yet here, in the midst of that vast icy silence, exists a hot, burning flame. You are a candle in the darkness. Incandescent. More mysterious and remarkable than anything revealed by astrophysics. 

True, given the vastness of the universe, there may be other candles burning. But wherever that flame burns why shouldn't that be the center of it all? 

Let us not point to the darkness to shame the light.

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