Studies in Self-Interest: From Descartes to La Bruyere

By A. J. Krailsheimer | Go to book overview

6: PASCAL-LETTRES PROVINCIALES

THE picture of man and society variously presented in the authors so far discussed is both clear and extensive, but it is far from complete. One would not expect a dramatist, especially in tragedy, to deal with problems of every-day life, and Corneille explicitly excludes such questions from consideration as tragic themes. Descartes offers a philosophy for the honnête homme, and indeed left unfinished a presentation of his system specifically adapted to this type of reader (in la Recherche de la Vérité), but the discrepancy between Cartesianism and the daily life of ordinary people reflects its author's own preference for a life of isolation. Both Retz and La Rochefoucauld in their very different ways are concerned with practical problems, but both are so limited by circumstances of birth and breeding that their observations are quite one-sided; even when Retz, for instance, shows some intelligent awareness of the common people of Paris, it is from a position of complete detachment. The sum total of these authors' prescriptions and descriptions falls far short of a guide to the human predicament as such. Pascal's situation is not limited by the exigencies of genre or class-consciousness, nor does he offer a system, but of all these authors he is the one most deeply involved in the human predicament, because he feels himself essentially man, not gentilhomme, or honnête homme but just homme.

Impressive as they are, his technical qualifications come second to this almost obsessive consciousness of a humanity shared with all men. A scientist at least equal, perhaps superior to Descartes, a writer of French inferior to none, a propagandist as skilful as Retz, who pays tribute to the Provinciales, Pascal has always aroused the most intense feelings, whether of sympathy or antipathy, and defies classification. It could perhaps be claimed that this is a sign of greatness; it is only honest to recall that his greatest work was left unfinished, and that his other great literary work must inevitably be judged by the violently polemical context of its composition. The nature of the Pensées and the Provinciales

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