The reason we have suffering

Pascal, On Diversion/Divertissement:

When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entering games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home.

Quand je m’y suis mis quelquefois à considérer les diverses agitations des hommes et les périls et les peines où ils s’exposent dans la Cour, dans la guerre, d’où naissent tant de querelles, de passions, d’entreprises hardies et souvent mauvaises, etc., j’ai dit souvent que tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre. Un homme qui a assez de bien pour vivre, s’il savait demeurer chez soi avec plaisir, n’en sortirait pas pour aller sur la mer ou au siège d’une place. On n’achète une charge à l’armée si cher, que parce qu’on trouverait insupportable de ne bouger de la ville. Et on ne recherche les conversations et les divertissements des jeux que parce qu’on ne peut demeurer chez soi avec plaisir.

Responded to by Vauvenargues’ Maxime 198:

Fire, air, intellect, light – everything exists by virtue of activity. Thence come the interaction and co-operation of all the elements; thence unity and harmony in the universe. However, this law of nature, so fruitful in result, is found to be an offence in mankind, and because we are compelled to observe it, being unable to exist in inactivity, we suppose we are out of our proper element.

Le feu, l’air, l’esprit, la lumière, tout vit par l’action ; de là la communication et l’alliance de tous les êtres ; de là l’unité et l’harmonie dans l’univers Cependant cette loi de la nature, si féconde, nous trouvons que c’est un vice dans l’homme ; et, parce qu’il est obligé d’y obéir, ne pouvant subsister dans le repos, nous concluons qu’il est hors de sa place.

And – somewhat out of context but it’s what launched this association chain – Lao-Tzu section 13 of the Tao Teo Ching:

The reason we have suffering / is because we have a body / if we didn’t have a body / we wouldn’t have suffering

There are related Seneca and Plotinus quotes I can’t manage to call to mind and surely countless others worth citing in this line of dialogue.

Looking for gold (and pearls) in the dung

From Donatus’ Life of Vergil (Vita Vergiliana 71 and taken from a lost Suetonian vita):

Once when he [Virgil] held Ennius in his hand and was asked what he was doing, he replied that he was gathering gold from Ennius’ dung, for this poet has outstanding ideas buried under not very polished words.

cum is aliquando Ennium in manu haberet rogareturque quidnam faceret, respondit se aurum colligere de stercore Ennii. habet enim poeta ille egregias sententias sub verbis non multum ornatis.

Similarly reported in Cassiodorus (Inst. 1.1.8):

To whom [Origen] that too could conveniently be applied, namely what Virgil, while reading Ennius, answered when asked by someone what he was doing: “I am looking for gold in the dung.”

cui et illud convenienter aptari potest quod Vergilius, dum Ennium legeret, a quodam quid ageret inquisitus, respondit: aurum in stercore quaero.

The phrase seems to have become at least semi-proverbial in antiquity, though apparently without a crystallized form. In late antiquity it morphed into an occasional reference image for christians reading christian-heretical (or non-christian) works. The best instance in this vein is Saint Jerome’s famous letter 107, A Girl’s Education (De Institutione Filiae). Note the softening from stercus to lutum.

Let her avoid all the apocryphal books, and if she ever wishes to read them, not for the truth of their doctrines but out of respect for their wondrous tales, let her realize that they are not really written by those to whom they are ascribed, that there are many faulty elements in them, and that it requires great skill to look for gold in mud.

Caveat omnia apocrypha et, si quando ea non ad dogmatum veritatem, sed ad signorum reverentiam legere voluerit, sciat non eorum esse, quorum titulis praenotantur, multaque his admixta vitiosa et grandis esse prudentiae aurum in luto quaerere.

In another lesser known letter (98) that is rather a translation of correspondence sent to Jerome by Theophilus of Alexandria we find an interesting expanded variant:

Therefore those who delight in Origen’s errors should not despise the preaching of the Lord’s feast. Nor should they seek ointments, gold and pearls in the mire.

unde, qui Origenis erroribus delectantur, festivitatis dominicae non spernant praeconia nec unguenta, aurum et margaritas quaerant in luto.

Whether originating with Theophilus or reflecting a variant phrasing, I’ve found this version with pearls making a couple of later appearances. First is a letter of Marsilio Ficino’s from 1457 (in Kristeller’s Supplementum ad Ficinum II.82 but recalled from a footnote in Arthur Fields’ The Origins of the Platonic Academy of Florence):

You are happy in the midst of calamities. Fear does not make you lose heart; sadness excruciates not; pleasure does not corrupt nor desire inflame. In the thickest thorns you gather delicate and fair flowers, from dung you extract pearls, in the deepest darkness you see, impeded and held by chains you run like one who is free.

Felicem te puto . . . qui in mediis quoque calamitatibus sis beatus, quem nec metus exanimat nec dolor excruciat nec voluptas corrumpit nec libido inflammat, qui inter densissimas spinas molles ac candidos flores legas, qui ex putrido stercore margaritas eruas atque effodias, qui in profundis tenebris videas, qui compedibus gravatus et vinculis circumstrictus velut liber solutusque percurras.

Fields’ translation doesn’t follow Ficino’s exaggerated style in qualifying stercus as putridus (rotten, decayed) and doubling the verbal action with eruo (dig or pluck out) and effodio (dig out, unearth). There’s of course no way of knowing whether Ficino is here intentionally splicing the variants (with a possible added recollection of a phrase from Plautus’ Casina – ex sterculino effosse / dug from a dung-heap) or is recalling an earlier intermediary source that had already done the same.

A similar curious blend comes from a minor work of Blaise Pascal (Entretien avec M. de Saci sur Epictete et MontaigneA Conversation with M. de Saci on Epictetus and Montaigne) where we see the aurum ex stercore version referenced as Jerome’s (presumably) and glossed with pearls (perles):

M. de Saci could not refrain from testifying to M. Pascal that he was surprised to see how well he knew how to interpret things; but he acknowledged at the same time that every one had not the secret of making on these readings such wise and elevated reflections. He told him that he was like those skilful physicians, who by an adroit method of preparing the most deadly poisons knew how to extract from them the most efficacious remedies. He added, that though he saw clearly, from what he had just said, that these readings were useful to him, he could not believe however that they would be advantageous to many people of slow intellect, who would not have elevation of mind enough to read these authors and judge of them, and to know how to draw pearls from the midst of the dunghill, aurum ex stercore, as said one of the Fathers. This could be much better said of these philosophers, the dunghill of whom, by its black fumes, might obscure the wavering faith of those who read them. For this reason he would always counsel such persons not to expose themselves lightly to these readings, for fear of being destroyed with these philosophers, and of becoming the prey of demons and the food of worms, according to the language of the Scripture, as these philosophers have been.

M. de Saci ne put s’empêcher de témoigner à M. Pascal qu’il était surpris comment il savait tourner les choses, mais il avoua en même temps que tout le monde n’avait pas le secret comme lui de faire des lectures des réflexions si sages et si élevées. Il lui dit qu’il ressemblait à ces médecins habiles qui, par la manière adroite de préparer les plus grands poisons, en savent tirer les plus grands remèdes. Il ajouta que, quoiqu’il vît bien, parce qu’il venait de lui dire, que ces lectures lui étaient utiles, il ne pouvait pas croire néanmoins qu’elles fussent avantageuses à beaucoup de gens dont l’esprit se traînerait un peu, et n’aurait pas assez d’élévation pour lire ces auteurs et en juger, et savoir tirer les perles du milieu du fumier aurum ex stercore, disait un Père. Ce qu’on pouvait bien plus dire de ces philosophes, dont le fumier, par sa noire fumée, pouvait obscurcir la foi chancelante de ceux qui les lisent. C’est pourquoi il conseillerait toujours à ces personnes de ne pas s’exposer légèrement à ces lectures, de peur de se perdre avec ces philosophes et de devenir l’objet des démons et la pâture des vers, selon le langage de l’Écriture, comme ces philosophes l’ont été.

The vanity of the sciences

From Pascal’s Pensées – 23 in any Lafuma edition.

Vanité des sciences.

 La science des choses extérieures ne me consolera pas de l’ignorance de la morale au temps d’affliction, mais la science des mœurs me consolera toujours de l’ignorance des sciences extérieures

The vanity of the sciences.

Physical science will not console me for the ignorance of morality in the time of affliction. But the science of ethics will always console me for the ignorance of the physical sciences.

English can’t easily capture the fluidity of French science – both (fields of) science and general learning, knowledge.

The fault I find with our journalism

From Du côté de chez Swann (pg.25-26 in the new Pleiade).  The translation is Moncrieff’s.

The fault I find with our journalism is that it forces us to take an interest in some fresh triviality or other every day, whereas only three or four books in a lifetime give us anything that is of real importance. Suppose that, every morning, when we tore the wrapper off our paper with fevered hands, a transmutation were to take place, and we were to find inside it — oh! I don’t know; shall we say Pascal’s Pensées?”

Ce que je reproche aux journaux c’est de nous faire faire attention tous les jours à des choses insignifiantes tandis que nous lisons trois ou quatre fois dans notre vie les livres où il y a des choses essentielles. Du moment que nous déchirons fiévreusement chaque matin la bande du journal, alors on devrait changer les choses et mettre dans le journal, moi je ne sais pas, les . . . Pensées de Pascal!