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Today, I received an email with a quote in the signature attributed to Blaise Pascal reading

All of human evil comes from a single cause, man's inability to sit still in a room.

A more accurate quote is,

tout le malheur des hommes vient d'une seule chose, qui est de ne pas savoir demeurer en repos dans une chambre

All the unhappiness of men comes from only one thing, which is not knowing how to stay at rest (or 'remain peacefully') in a room.

Here is the whole passage in context (I translate),

When I put myself sometimes to considering the diverse agitations of men and the dangers and trouble which they expose themselves to, in the court, in war, from where are born so many troubles, passions, endeavours that are hardy (or fool-hardy) and often bad, etc., I discovered that all the unhappiness of man comes from just one cause, which is not knowing how to stay peacefully in a room. A man who has enough goods to live, if he knew how to live with pleasure in his home, wouldn't leave it to go on the sea or to the seat of a place. One buys such an expensive warrant for the army, only because one finds it intolerable to not move from the town; and one looks for conversations and the distraction of games only because one can't stay at one's own home with pleasure.

But when I thought about it more closely and after finding the cause of all our unhappiness, I wanted to discover the reason for that, I found there is one very effective (reason), which consists in the natural unhappiness of our feeble and mortal condition, and so miserable, that nothing can console us, when we think of it closely.

Whatever condition one figures oneself to be in, if one assembles all the goods which can belong to us, royalty is the most beautiful position in the world, and nevertheless if one imagines oneself (in that position), accompanied by all the satisfactions associated with it. If it's without distraction, and if one lets oneself consider and reflect on what is, that langorous happiness wouldn't sustain itself, it necessarily falls among the sights which menace it, the revolts which could happen, and finally the death and sickness which are inevitable; such that, if it is without what one calls 'distractions' (literally 'detours', figuratively 'games'), there he (the king) is unhappy and more unhappy than the least of his subjects, who play and distract (or entertain) themselves.

How would a Buddhist respond to such a statement ?

I have a feeling he or she would agree at least on some levels. Even though it seemed Buddhism was introduced to the west beginning mainly in the 20th century, this quote seems to echo that the West was not totally unawares.

If I remember correctly, "Lines Composed a Few Mile Above Tintern Abbey" also seemed to reiterate some principles found in Buddhism.

There were probably missionaries who came in contact with it after the birth of Christ. Reverand Kusala mentions Zen Buddhism was actual a reaction of missionaries coming in contact with the existing Therevadan tradition.

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Apparently Pascal is aware of the same thing that the Buddha was aware of before he became enlightened: i.e. a view of reality which was the actual incentive for Gautama to look for enlightenment, asking something like, "How can I be happy, even as a king, when illness and death are inevitable?"

This description of the "human condition" is presumably well-known to many other people too.

What's remarkable about Buddhism isn't its description of the problem: what's remarkable is the Buddha's description of the solution to that problem.

Pascal describes the problem but not the solution. He says (I paraphrase),

"We can't be happy. But there's a reason for that, i.e. our feeble and mortal condition. Even a king couldn't be happy without distractions."

Later,

"Thus goes life. We look for rest by overcoming a few obstacles. And when they're overcome, rest becomes insufferable."

And a few pages beyond that,

"Man, who hasn't been able to heal death, misery, and ignorance, has advised himself not to think about it.

The conclusion to that chapter is that such distraction is actually harmful because it stops us from looking for the real remedy:

puisque l’homme ne s’ennuie de tout, et ne cherche cette multitude d’occupations que parce qu’il a l’idée du bonheur qu’il a perdu ; lequel ne trouvant pas en soi, il le cherche inutilement dans les choses extérieures, sans se pouvoir jamais contenter, parce qu’il n’est ni dans nous, ni dans les créatures, mais en Dieu seul.

because man gets bored with everything, and searches for this multitude of activities only because he has the idea of the unhappiness which he has lost; which having not found (happiness) in himself, he (man) looks for it uselessly (in vain) in external things, never able to content himself, because it (happiness) is not in us, not in the creatures, but only in God.

In summary I think that Pascal is aware of the First Noble Truth but the rest of it is not especially Buddhist. The remedy which Pascal proposes (elsewhere in the book) is the Christian faith.

  • An interesting note is that Pascal does not necessarily suggest sitting still in a room in the translation but rather have the potential or ability to. I am left to believe sitting still in a room will cultivate our ability to sit still in a room. – Parag Dec 13 '14 at 5:54
  • My guess is that for Pascal, the fact that people can't simply relax in a room happily is a fact of life (not one to be changed), and is a throw-away observation as he introduces human misery and vain activity: and according to him the solution is to [go out and] follow the rules which Christ left to the Church to give to us! Other random quotes like the two at the end of this answer also contain elements which could have (fairly distant) parallels to 'Buddhist' doctrine: e.g. "proof by reason", and perhaps "humility" as opposed to ego. – ChrisW Dec 13 '14 at 15:03
  • And as for Above Tintern Abbey, I might manufacture some (distant) parallels between that too and Buddhist doctrine: e.g. I think he was treating that place and that memory as a 'Refuge'. – ChrisW Dec 13 '14 at 15:06
  • Yes, the passage I was thinking of was more along the lines of animsim: And I have felt A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man; A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things. – Parag Dec 14 '14 at 0:45

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