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Experiments For Intellectuals: Pascal Without Frontiers

“Good morning. Today we are going to finish up studying Blaise Pascal’s Pensées. In particular, we are going to examine Pascal’s claim that, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Is this true? Is man truly incapable of sitting quietly in a room? I would like to put Pascal to a test.

This morning, I would like you to participate in a little experiment with me.

Who can recall why Pascal said man could not sit quietly alone in a room? That’s right. Distraction. Pascal claimed that man’s life was perpetually distracted. Distracted by what? By things that appear to be pleasurable, but only waste our time.

What happens to a mind when it is left to itself? A weak mind will unravel, begin to devour itself. A strong mind is capable of doing work without any other tools than itself. A strong mind enjoys thought, a strong mind enjoys the life of the mind, the private microcosm wherein the imagination dabbles in the infinitude of God, making and remaking all things new. The mind which has been blown out by raw sensuality is not capable of such imagination. The mind which has been indulged in perpetual feasting, a gluttony of sight and sound and comfort, does not know what to do when it is left to itself.

Here is the experiment.

First, I would like you all to move your chairs to the walls, and then turn and face the walls. Remove everything from your pockets. You should have nothing with you. Everyone should be sufficiently far apart from one another that you will not be tempted to speak. No one should talk. You should be alone in your thought. Gloriously alone for one entire hour.

During this time, you may think about whatever you like. Can you do real intellectual work in such conditions? Absolutely. In fact, you might find greater clarity of thought in such conditions. You can make plans. You can think about… how you would like to raise your children. You could compose a poem in your head. You could tell yourself a story.

Now, here is the trick.

You may leave this room whenever you like.

I will be in the next room. In the next room, I will be watching something amusing, one of my favorite television shows. You may join me if you like. I also went out early this morning and got some very delicious food. This is no vain threat. I did not get a box of cheap powdered doughnuts. What I bought to eat is, in fact, still a little hot from the oven. Whenever you like, you may leave your thoughts behind for the sensual distractions I will be enjoying.

Pascal claims that you all, alone in the room and with your thoughts, will have spent your morning in a far better way than I. In truth, he claims that distractions always finally frustrate a man, so even though I am going to be eating delicious things, Pascal would say you are still getting the better end of the deal.

At the end of the hour, I am going to ask you some questions about what you thought about and why… for those of you who decide to think.

Alright, everyone. Begin. I will be in the next room.”

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