Of course there's been some progress over the centuries. Why, in the 1800s, it used to take forever to get anywhere in Manhattan! And as for the ruthless exploitation of prison labor -- well, now that takes place a whole ocean away from where we can see it. As a comedy writer my temperament makes me root against progress, at least as it pertains to the human soul. Because that would be bad for business.
However, I do wonder sometimes, and reading Pascal today is one of those times. Because Pascal was one of the smartest men in Europe at the time, the 1660s, yet here in the Pensees he sounds like a bright, but stoned, freshman:
The whole visible world is only an imperceptible atom in the ample bosom of nature. No idea approaches it. We may enlarge our conceptions beyond all imaginable space; we only produce atoms in comparison with the reality of things...Or at least get very very hungry. And have you ever really noticed those crescent moons on the bottom of your fingernails? How come they're there?
Let a mite be given him, with its minute body and parts incomparably more minute, limbs with their joints, veins in the limbs, blood in the veins, humours in the blood, drops in the humours, vapours in the drops. Dividing these last things again, let him exhaust his powers of conception, and let the last object at which he can arrive be now that of our discourse. Perhaps he will think that here is the smallest point in nature. I will let him see therein a new abyss...
For who will not be astounded at the fact that our body, which a little ago was imperceptible, in the universe, itself imperceptible in the bosom of the whole, is now a colossus, a world, or rather a whole, in respect of the nothingness which we cannot reach? He who regards himself in this light will will tremble at the sight of these marvels....
As further proof of my brillant-genius-of-the-past-seems-like-stoner thesis, Thought 76 (I don't feel like re-figuring out how to do the accents) also seems like the kind of fragmentary note one puzzles over upon seeing it the next morning:
For some reason it reminds me of a fake classified ad from Monty Python: "FOUND. Small green and brown thing. Could be a Vermeer."76
To write against those who made too profound a study of science. Descartes.
My other complaint about this passage, in addition to high-ness, which isn't so bad really, is this quietist part right here:
If this be well understood, I think that we shall remain at rest, each in the state wherein nature has placed him. As this sphere which has fallen to us as our lot is always distant from either extreme, what matters it that man should have a little more knowledge of the universe?To this I have two replies: 1. Easy for Pascal to say that there's nothing worth discovering -- after he'd already invented the syringe, and 2. With this advice to spend our lives doing nothing, Pascal proves his point that we can't really understand human nature. Too much can be made of our Eternally Questing spirit, god knows, and I have a bias in favor of the lazy, but the fact is that we are bound to get into mischief, as the sparks fly upward. If people were inclined to stay where nature had placed them, no one would ever work off the books. And yet it happens all the time. To say nothing of philosophy students dealing pot out of their dorm rooms -- that would be Pascal's Double, in my opinion.