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Image Credit: teenage girl takes a “duckface” selfie with her camera phone
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Learning From Our Hard Corona Days

Turning quarantine into an opportunity for self-mastery

The world has reached a new level of boredom, it seems. Lately, since the NBA has suspended its season, ESPN has been televising a different sort of basketball game: NBA players playing the basketball video game NBA 2K. In their oppressive boredom, people tune in to watch and, I suppose, to comment on and argue about it on social media.

Speaking of that common distraction, I have seen friends on Facebook, including smart and learned writers and scholars, diverting themselves in the dullest of ways. One person, having made a list of ten famous people, asked in a post, “Can you guess which of these I have met?” I passed on venturing an answer myself, and not just because of the low odds. Another friend, surely just as bored, confessed that during the week, when he’d normally be working, he not only cleaned his entire apartment, but his parent’s house too, even though he doesn’t particularly enjoy the activity.

An article in The New York Post reports that eros, that most irresistible of passions, finds many young people engaging in virtual dates during quarantine by means of the popular FaceTime app. This is good news for millennials, who tend to take it for granted that other people exist for the sake of their own convenience, as dating has never been so easy. Says the Post’s Suzy Weiss:

In the pre-pandemic era, I would’ve skipped the garlic pasta before a date. Now, I skip the shower, perfume, deodorant, teeth-brushing and socks. Plus, I probably had that pasta for breakfast.…

FaceTime dating eliminates some in-person awkwardnesses: the nice-to-meet-you hug and the check fight….

It helped knowing that if things turned south, I could just take [Thalia] Perez’s advice. ‘It’s the easiest escape in the world,’ she says. ‘Just end the call.’

Weiss did not speculate as to whether, in order to promote even more personal comfort and the efficient gratification of desire, dating will be replaced by sexbots in the coming years. Nor did she comment on the duckface phenomenon, in which millennials and younger generations pose for their self-taken online snapshots by sucking in their checks and squeezing their lips together in a facial contortion that is supposed to be alluring. This ridiculous pose, having come to characterize her uniquely tasteful generation, has become exponentially more popular in digital dating of late.

“The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room,” wrote Blaise Pascal. That sentence, like others from the Pensées (1670), is deservedly famous. Frequently taken out of context, though, it is misleading and widely misunderstood. For example, two fine writers, Joseph Epstein and Anthony Daniels, each have misrepresented the apothegm recently in National Review. We should endeavor to get Pascal right, because he has much to teach us during these strange and difficult corona days. Let us therefore go to the text itself to see what the great man really thought:

Sometimes, when I set to thinking about the various activities of men, the dangers and troubles which they face at Court, or in war, giving rise to so many quarrels and passions, daring and often wicked enterprises and so on, I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room. A man wealthy enough for life’s needs would never leave home to go to sea or besiege some fortress if he knew how to stay at home and enjoy it. Men would never spend so much on a commission in the army if they could bear living in town all their lives, and they only seek after the company and diversion of gambling because they do not enjoy staying at home.

But after closer thought, looking for the particular reasons for all our unhappiness now that I knew its general cause, I found one very cogent reason in the natural unhappiness of our feeble mortal condition, so wretched that nothing can console us when we really think about it. 

We are naturally so beset by care and worry, so desirous, restless, and insatiable, Pascal goes on to say, that the “only good thing for men is…to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short by what is called diversion.” For Pascal, we are not really capable of staying quietly in our room alone. Using the gambling example, he makes the terrible point quite forcefully:

A given man lives a life free from boredom by gambling a small sum every day. Give him every morning the money he might win that day, but on condition that he does not gamble, and you will make him unhappy. It might be argued that what he wants is the entertainment of gaming and not the winnings. Make him play then for nothing; his interest will not be fired and he will become bored, so it is not just entertainment he wants. A half-hearted entertainment without excitement will bore him. He must have excitement, he must delude himself into imagining that he would be happy to win what he would not want if he had to give up gambling. He must create some target for his passions and then arouse his desire, anger, fear, for this object he has created, just like children taking fright at a face they have daubed themselves.

It is not, then, our ends that matter, but rather their pursuit, the latter affording diversion. If men actually knew themselves, Pascal writes elsewhere, they’d say that what they want is not the capture but the hunt. Yet men do not know themselves, so they imagine that their ends are ends, while in truth they are at best a means, namely, to diversion, which must engage the mind and the emotions alike.

For even at our best we are still like a rabbit in an old cartoon, forever chasing the elusive carrot cruelly dangled in front of our parching tongue since, though we cannot know lasting satisfaction or happiness, still we need diversion, which is as good as it gets.

“However sad a man may be, if you can persuade him to take up some diversion he will be happy while it lasts, and however happy a man may be, if he lacks absorbing passion or entertainment to keep boredom away, he will soon be depressed and unhappy,” Pascal writes. Therefore, “men cannot be too much occupied and distracted, and that is why, when they have been given so many things to do, if they have some time off they are advised to spend it on diversion and sport, and always to keep themselves fully occupied.” Or, as Baudelaire, who certainly read Pascal very closely, put it in his 1861 poem Le Voyage:

As if we wanted to be a ball or a top! Bouncing and twirling—even in our sleep We look for something, driven round and round Like a sun some cruel Angel spins in space. […] None of the famous landscapes that we saw Equaled the mysterious allure Of those that Chance arranged in the clouds… And our desire would let us have no peace! […] Pour us your poison, let us be comforted! Once we have burned our brains out, we can plunge To Hell or Heaven—any abyss will do— Deep in the Unknown to find the new.

Pascal is rather close in his thinking to Arthur Schopenhauer, who thought that all life is basically a torturous vacillation between need and boredom, since once the former is met, we are given over to the nagging latter. Here, however, the German thinker may have taken his notorious pessimism too far. Having met this or that need, I don’t necessarily find myself in boredom’s awful grip, although, depending on my will and circumstances, I very well may.

Anyhow, both men are fundamentally correct, surely, with respect to the nature of the human condition. Our ends indeed are somewhat anticlimactic because, once they are obtained, the satisfaction and repose that follow are brief, soon enough replaced by some new desire, without which we should surely be in despair.

To anyone who disagrees with or has doubts about Pascal’s vision of our lot, I urge them to look more closely at their own experience. My own life, at any rate, has convinced me of the truth of what he writes.

For instance, on the day that I began writing this essay, I woke up in a state of melancholy, as I sometimes do. Once I took to the work, however, I was diverted. My mood lifted and, though I did not feel happy, I felt a certain satisfaction, and no despair, thankfully.

Robert Nozick said that it is not truth that enchants the philosopher but the reasoning process. Something similar may be true of writing, or at least it’s so in my experience. Writing is a dog’s life, as Gustave Flaubert said. It provides profound value not so much through achieved work as through the transport of the aim.

portrait of Blaise Pascal, oil on canvas, copy of a painting by François the Younger Quesnel, 1691 (Palace of Versailles / Wikimedia Commons)Even as I am diverted, my usual cares and worries do not cease to exist; they are simply out of mind. Nor does intractable human vulnerability—the uncertainty of events and the suffering and sorrow they could bring at any moment—go away. Still more, my diversion, as a feeling and value, does not last. I can only keep it up for so long. Composition eventually produces a desire for relief, to which I wearily turn. And before long, I must begin the process anew—else boredom, anxiety, and despair shall come over me.

So, grateful though I am for diversion, I have only to reflect to see how very right Pascal was, and to grasp that life is a most fearsome and terrifying thing, as he tells us in the Pensées.

Pascal was a believer who seems to have derived little if any consolation from religion. An unbeliever myself, my existential anxieties also find little relief, for neither am I satisfied by any scientific explanation of life, the world, and the universe. On the contrary, the scientists’ theories and explanations strike me as utterly absurd and unbelievable. What are presented as sophisticated answers, ostensibly the best now available, mostly raise awful questions, which tend to intermingle with more personal ones. Is that really how it all began? Having once begun, why should it all continue? Is speculation even worth the trouble here?

For though logically it must be true that there is some thing or things that are not explicable in terms of anything else, but rather just the case, enabling all other things to exist, why think that I or anybody else can understand this awesome subject? Is there an ahistorical human nature, and an objective morality rooted therein? What shall be man’s fate, and my own? Will I die having lived a worthwhile and justified life? Am I doing so now? Will I be remembered? And on and on…

If, as I think, Pascal’s conception of our condition is right, the crucial question arises: How shall we live and cope? The answer, I think, is that having faced the dark truth about ourselves and the world, we must commit ourselves to self-discipline and self-mastery. It is to these virtues, indeed, that Pascal’s acute existential analysis points.

We must try to direct our necessary diversions. Creatures of habit, who become what we will and do, we must, day after day, devote ourselves as much as possible to things that are constructive and worthwhile. In this way, so far as possible, our inclinations and activities can be good ones.

Whenever—and, alas, only if—fortuna permits, the positive can get the best of the negative. We can live well, and if need be, through hard and honest work over time, bad character can be reformed. I describe a burdensome task, to be sure, but then, all life is a fervent pursuit of value—a noble effort to justify ourselves—that ends only in death.

I myself have tried of late to devote most of my days to reading, to writing, and to exercise. Among the many benefits of these activities is that they are self-reliant. Not requiring other people, they don’t expose us to any of the innumerable evils that can result from having to associate with them. Emerson writes well that:

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

Nevertheless, as always, we must guard against illusions. Today, feeling as so many of us do—isolated, bored, and lonely—we can learn the need for self-reliance, as well as its limits. Not much different are we now, truly, from the way we were before the coronavirus came. Ours is a difference of degree, not of kind. For always we require self-reliance, but other people, too. It would be hard to improve upon Alasdair MacIntyre’s definition of humanity as “dependent rational animals.” Though it would be better still, perhaps, to appropriate Jonathan Swift in his famous letter to Alexander Pope and say the human is a dependent animal merely “capable of reason.”

It’s very well to see our condition clearly now, for in our exhausted liberal era many of us, being ignorant of the wise customs of the past, just don’t know how to live. Happiness is leisure, according to Aristotle. Yet what if we don’t know what to do with our free time?

Consider, for instance, a woman I know. She recently overcame a five-year heroin addiction. But now that she’s clean, she told me, she is bored out of her mind. What to do with her days? Good habits she lacks. She’s a stranger to self-discipline and self-mastery, too. She has no culture, either. So I’d hardly be surprised if, in her poverty of mind and character, she returns to the drug.

Now it would be inaccurate, certainly, to say that boredom causes vice. If one is bored, and thus chooses to use heroin, the choice, not the boredom, is the cause. Still, boredom allows for a great deal of vice and misery, and points, as I say, to the need for self-discipline and self-mastery. “He who cannot obey himself will be commanded,” Nietzsche wrote.“That is the nature of living creatures.” And commanded, we should know, not just by others but by vice and folly generally.

Christopher DeGroot

Christopher DeGroot is editor of The Agonist Journal.

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