Suffering from insomnia and looking for a hefty tome that I can studiously devote myself to (and distract myself from sublunary realities), I came across Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. The first chapter begins with this observation:
It is the characteristic of our minds to be ever engaged in passing judgment on the things which come before us. No sooner do we apprehend than we judge: we allow nothing to stand by itself: we compare, contrast, abstract, generalize, connect, adjust, classify: and we view all our knowledge in the associations with which these processes have invested it.
I was reminded of Theodore Dalrymple’s phrase about “man being a creature who compares” in his study in cultural contrasts between modern Britain and the English society of his youth. When not reading Dalyrmple’s columns in back issues of City Journal and New Criterion (passed on to me by my father during a recent trip to Texas), I have been glancing at Pascal’s Pensees. It’s an acquaintance long overdue. While many of the passages are abrupt and sketchy, there are some gems that invite further reflection:
Thinking too little about things or thinking too much both make us obstinate and fanatical (381).
It’s the sort of remark that would serve as a witty preface to an essay on intellectual life. I may return to that theme at some point. For now random commentary must suffice. And needless to say, one could devote an entire book to Pascal’s paradox about atheism: “Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true” (187).