When I was in my teens my father gave me The Pensées by Blaise Pascal. I was fascinated by its combination of science and philosophy. I can’t pretend to have understood it all. After all, what did I know about life at the age of 15? Nothing. Yet his mind and his writings intrigued me and a particular passage stands out even now from the book, as it was, perhaps, the first indication that there is much in life that I shall never be able to comprehend. Talking about infinity:
Nature is an infinite sphere, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.
What does that do to your mind I wonder? My mind went into a kind of spin when I read this for the first time. It still does. It’s like black holes, which I equally find well nigh impossible to grasp. This thought causes a sort of black hole of space in my mind as I try to think about the universe and what I am supposed to make of it in a lifetime.
Man’s search for meaning is probably as endless as our search for the understanding of the infinite. I was interested to read today in Kieran Setiya’s book Life is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help us Find our Way, that apparently man’s search for meaning does not come up in Plato or Aristotle, Seneca or Epictetus, Augustine or Aquinas, Descartes, Hume or Kant. They, as many other philosopher, focus more on how to live well, how to make the most of our human life.
I just saw Bill Nighy in Living, a movie about a man waking up to his true nature, to life, in the last few months of life. He is determined, in that time, to live and laugh, and also to make a difference. His example makes a lasting imprint on some, but only some, of those around him.
Yet I think we all search for some kind of personal meaning. And that means taking time to stop and reflect on our values, on the legacy we want to leave with our children and grandchildren, on the fact that the world is full of wonder and, if we appreciate it, then we can give time to consider what we might contribute towards it, in our own small way. I find there is so much spoken now about ‘rights’ that people seek to get from governments, and far too little about ‘responsibilities’, and what we can each do to contribute, to make life in our country more prosperous or enjoyable. My goodness, do we need it now, that pulling together towards rebuilding the economy post-Covid, post-Ukraine and in the midst of global economic challenges.
As I think of the senselessness of the war in Ukraine I am reminded of Pascal’s statement about young men meeting at a border. In one situation they would be friends, in another enemies.
We must kill them in war, just because they live beyond the river. If they lived on this side, we would be called murderers.
This is so true of Ukraine and Russia, who share so much history. And I read today that, inevitably, the consequence of this war has been to emit horrendous toxicity into the universe. Just what no human being needs.
And if we do all die out, I turn to another wonderful book, given to me by my dear departed friend Bruce – The Human Situation by W. Macneile Dixon. In this, Dixon writes of the concept of the planets and galaxies of the universe churning away for millennia whether we are here to watch, wonder or measure, or not. This sends my mind into the same black hole of life’s mysteries as Pascal!
It’s a miserable rainy day here in Kew but I am sure there are things we can all wonder at, nonetheless, despite the ghastly news, things we wish to do with our lives, books we want to read, or re-read?