Friday, August 10, 2007


Merton uses “divertissement”, the word of the French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, to describe the occupations and recreations we use to avoid our own company.

The following is excerpted from a website, Pascal: The first modern Christian:

Few words, in fact, are more crucial to Pascal than divertissement, usually translated as "diversion" or "distraction." …"all the misfortunes of men derive from one single thing, their inability to remain at repose in a room." Far from being merely the obiter dictum of a dry cynic, Pascal’s remark actually forms the opening gambit of his Christian apologetics, for he knows that "being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance," and being not too fond of the medicine of Christ on offer either, "men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things." … "That is why men are so fond of hustle and bustle," he says. "That is why prison is such a fearful punishment; that is why the pleasures of solitude are so incomprehensible."

This craving for distraction is so overriding and exigent that for Pascal it actually constitutes the driving force of ambition. In one sharply worded paragraph in the Pensées, he asserts that the main joy of being a king is the opportunity it affords for endless distraction, since courtiers are continually trying to keep the king’s mind off his mortality and provide him every kind of pleasure. "A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him so that he might be kept from thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself."

But what applies to the ambitions of a king applies equally well to the motivations of all men. We crave distractions because we do not want to face the realities of the human condition. And because we are unwilling to admit our despair, we perforce cannot face the thought of applying the appropriate balm to heal these unacknowledged wounds. Consequently we hurl ourselves into an endless round of diversions, jobs, hobbies, etc., …

“Man is obviously made for thinking. Therein lies all his dignity and his merit; and his whole duty is to think as he ought. Now the order of thought is to begin with ourselves, and with our Author and our end. But what does the world think about? Never about that, but about dancing, playing the lute, singing, writing verse, jousting and fighting, becoming a king, without ever thinking what it means to be a king or to be a man.”

Like Kierkegaard and Heidegger after him, Pascal was an acute student of boredom, and saw in this phenomenon (actually rather puzzling when one thinks about it) the clue to the very pathos of the human condition. Generally speaking, says Pascal, "we think either of present woes or of threatened miseries." But moments occur in almost everyone’s experience when life reaches a temporary pause of homeostasis, when we feel quite safe on every side, when bad health does not threaten, when bill collectors are not baying at the door, when rush–hour traffic is light and the weather pleasant. But precisely at such moments "boredom on its own account emerges from the depths of our hearts, where it is naturally rooted, and poisons our whole mind." Not just the king craves diversion. So terrified are we of boredom that the king’s ambition is our own.

In his essay “Notes on a Philosophy of Solitude”, while acknowledging our fundamental dependence on society, Merton, like Pascal, insists that no one will become a person by plunging into “warm, apathetic stupor of a collectivity which, like himself, wishes to remain amused”.

The task of the solitary is to detach from these diversions, and to realize that she has less need of them than the organization people, with dogmatic self-complacency, tell her.

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