Pascal's Pensées: Week 13, Existential Superficiality


A trifle consoles us because a trifle upsets us.


In Hunting Magic Eels I describe what I call "the Ache," the emotional consequences of a life without God or a sense of the transcendent. In A Secular Age Charles Taylor describes it as "the malaise of modernity."

A part of this ache and malaise is how, with the collapse of the transcendent, life is rendered hollow, shallow, and flat. The theologian Paul Tillich describes it as a loss of depth. Tillich wrote:

If we define religion as the state of being grasped by an infinite concern we must say: Man in our time has lost such infinite concern...

How did the dimension of depth become lost? Like any important event, it has many causes, but certainly not the one which one hears often mentioned from ministers' pulpits and evangelists' platforms, namely that a widespread impiety of modern man is responsible. Modern man is neither more pious nor more impious than man in any other period. The loss of the dimension of depth is caused by the relation of man to his world and to himself in our period, the period in which nature is being subjected scientifically and technically to the control of man. In this period, life in the dimension of depth is replaced by life in the horizontal dimension. The driving forces of the industrial society of which we are a part go ahead horizontally and not vertically...

One does not need to look far beyond everyone's daily experience in order to find examples to describe this predicament. Indeed our daily life in office and home, in cars and airplanes, at parties and conferences, while reading magazines and watching television, while looking at advertisements and hearing radio, are in themselves continuous examples of a life which has lost the dimension of depth...

Nothing, perhaps, is more symptomatic of the loss of the dimension of depth than the permanent discussions about the existence or nonexistence of God--a discussion in which both sides are equally wrong, because the discussion itself is wrong and possible only after the loss of the dimension of depth.

When in this way man has deprived himself of the dimension of depth and the symbols expressing it, he then becomes a part of the horizontal plane. He loses his self and becomes a thing among things. He becomes an element in the process of manipulated production and manipulated consumption....

But man has not ceased to be man. He resists this fate anxiously, desperately, courageously. He asks the question, for what?"
Following Tillich, Charles Taylor observes:
Almost every action of ours has a point; we're trying to get to work, or to find a place to buy a bottle of milk after hours. But we can stop and ask why we're doing these things, and that points us beyond to the significance of these significances. The issue may arise for us in a crisis, where we feel that what has been orienting our life up to now lacks real value, weight...A crucial feature of the malaise of immanence is the sense that all these answers are fragile, or uncertain; that a moment may come, where we no longer feel that our chosen path is compelling, or cannot justify it to ourselves or others. There is a fragility of meaning...[T]he quotidian is emptied of deeper resonance, is dry, flat; the things which surround us are dead, ugly, empty; and the way we organize them, shape them, in order to live has not meaning, beauty, depth, sense...[We now experience] a terrible flatness in the everyday.
One of the symptoms of this "flatness in the everyday" is existential superficiality. 

As Pascal observes, when our lives are not guided by higher or deeper things what upsets us and consoles us are, when viewed from more transcendent perspectives, found to be quite trivial. More often than not, our moods and emotions follow the ups and downs of social media, entertainment culture, or consumerism. The biggest events in our week become the next streaming film/series release, Facebook likes, sporting event, your birdie on the 7th hole, glass of wine, or Amazon delivery.

This is why, I tell my students, the modern world wants you godless and unhappy. Because you buy stuff.

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