Friday, 15 July 2011

Curiosity is only vanity - Pascal Pensee No. 77


Curiosity is only vanity. We usually only want to know something so that we can talk about it; in other words, we would never travel by sea if it meant never talking about it, and for the sheer pleasure of seeing things we could never hope to describe to others.

Blaise Pascal - Pensees - Number 77. Translated by AJ Krailsheimer, Penguin edition of 1966.


I recognized the truth of this specific point early in life, in relation to travel and holidays - that these were apparently, usually, planned and conducted primarily so as to be talked-about afterwards.

But then so much else is also done for that reason and none other.

As a thought experiment, it is worth considering what arduous and time-consuming things we would bother to do if we were forbidden ever to mention the experience.



Quodrox said...

Hmmm. For me, public speaking - I wd be quite happy not to speak a word about that after I have spoken.

dearieme said...

It seems a great untruth to me - though it's interesting that it is true of such sages as Charlton and some French cove.

Seriously, you'd go to, say, Venice or Florence only so you could talk about it?

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - many people (in effect) work for an 'extra' two or three months a year (at work that they hate) in order to go to (say) Benidorm for 10 days. What they do when they get there may or may not be pleasurable in its own right - but they always make sure to tell everybody else all about their exploits.

I personally have never been to Italy. (Well, 2 hours on a cross border bus trip from Austria).

But clearly, many people would not go on holiday unless there was a cast iron guarantee that they would be allowed to inflict their photgraphs and videos on at least *some* other people; many people would not going skiing unless they could tell at least some others about their exciting adventures on the slopes or in the evenings.

*Mostly* it is to impress others - but what impresses others differs between social groups.

And so on.

a Finn said...

Well, if much hard work you would find a secret weak spot -button of the liberal system, and you would press the button, you would then watch the process of downfall, and you would very much smile inwardly and rub hands a little bit, no need to tell anyone.

A desired effect and outcome can replace the talking about.

Daniel said...

Dr. Charlton,

You strike me as someone who does not use Facebook, so I will assume you do not.

If so, you can't have any idea how much this post applies to that world. On the one hand it's quite subtle, and on the other, it's screamingly obvious, but people post pictures of everything they do. Whatever activities have the highest status attached to them in a particular social group, are the same ones I see constantly reiterated in my friends' facebook posts.

I'm white and middle- to upper-middle class. Therefore my facebook friends are the kind of people who (God bless them!) post pictures of their latest culinary adventures, complete with ingredients and any status-enhancing factors like "free range," "local" or "organic."

Often, of course, people post comments highlighting their conformity to Leftism... such as changing their "profile picture" to an "I = NY" logo in support of New York State's recent gay marriage law (a play on the famous "I 'heart' NY" logo, connoting equality with love).

But even the more homely posts carry the reek of public demonstration. You climbed a local mountain? Your kids are being cute? You read such-and-such an author? Post it on facebook for all the world to see!

I do understand the impulse to share what one is excited about with the broader world. I'm sure you do too... you write a blog, after all. There's nothing inherently wrong with the mere act of sharing one's experience and thoughts with the world. It's very subtle at times, but I believe it's the tone of how one does so that separates other-love from self-love. Other-love is overjoyed to share some glory of the world with compatriots (or else is grimly consigned to reveal a regrettably true ugliness for the sake of the greater good). Self-love wishes others to witness and praise one's own glory (or else wishes others to note one's own wisdom and impenetrable depth).

Why am I on facebook then? I joined reluctantly, after many promptings from my 3 sisters. And literally the same day I decided to quit, I received a message from none other than the New York Times which led to me being quoted in that newspaper, which later led to more money for my small business than I had got in two years. Apparently, my soul is for sale.

The Continental Op said...

Speaking of Facebook, what a baleful thing it is.

If I take my car to the shop I tell my wife, because she is interested in that kind of minutiae in my life. I don't tell my friends unless something interesting happened--I had an argument over the bill, or they tried to push extra unneeded work ("The cheats!").

With Facebook you end up treating people to all the minutiae that only a spouse could stand to know. You shouldn't be doing that to friends.

And you're not a celebrity--you shouldn't be shotgunning such things to "friends" on Facebook.

But Facebook is where you can be a self-proclaimed celebrity, and all your friends hang on every word, or so you imagine. Now THAT'S vanity.

The Crow said...

The impulse to impress others with one's experiences arises only from the perennial insecurity of ego.
Things I have done, one reads about in books. People are astonished and wonder how these things could be.
Yet I almost never refer to them.

When ego is banished, this phenomenon ceases to be.
One may be impressed by one's own experiences, and one's own performance, but be quite uninterested in wearing them as a badge.

Bruce Charlton said...

Other commenters might be interested by reading this fine piece of writing about 'The Crow's experiences:

Ron Guhname said...

I probably don't travel much because I don't enjoy casual conversation.

The Crow said...

Golly, Bruce: you must be part elephant :)
No need to blow one's own horn when others will do it for you! Thank you.

Gabe Ruth said...

First intelligence, now curiosity. What will remain of human attributes when Pascal is done eviscerating them? I feel pity when I imagine his sickly existence. He was a great mind, but I think his worldly suffering warped his image of God somewhat. Maybe he is right and the proper position of man is cowering on his face on the floor of his room, praising that which he has no hope of understanding and so has not even tried. But I have my doubts.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GR - he is clearing the ground in search of the essence - pointing out the snares for modern men.