“Put the world’s greatest philosopher on a plank that is wider than need be,” the late polymath Blaise Pascal wrote in his now-famous notebook Pensees, “if there is a precipice below, although his reason may convince him that he is safe, his imagination will prevail.”
Pascal was a child prodigy born sometime in the 17th-century. By the time he was a teenager, he had already made contributions to the world of engineering: His early prototypes became the mechanical calculator. As a mathematician in his later years, he worked with Pierre de Fermat to lay the foundations of probability theory, thereby indirectly inspiring the development of modern economics and the social sciences. In the world of physics, he gave us new principles for hydraulic fluids.
As far as one can use reason to impact the external world, he did. His statement about the shortcoming of philosophers in this sense wasn’t born from a lack of understanding or even malice. In fact, he himself was a philosopher, too, and like most of the truly honest philosophers, he knew that philosophy had value only to an extent. The reason simply being that most of our lives aren’t lived in the realm of reason; they are lived in the imagination.
It’s often been said that humans are the only animal who can look into the far future, thus imagine our own death, and that’s what makes us different. A philosopher safely standing on a plank that is comfortably wide enough to carry him isn’t what is interesting about us. It’s the fact that that philosopher, rationally knowing that he is safe, can still potentially feel a level of anxiety that could cripple him in the moment. Other animals, too, I’m sure would respond to the possible threat of a situation like this, but they generally respond to dangers that are more real. We could easily transport that philosopher to the safety of his home, and he would still be able to find something to feel dread about in a substantial way.
Our ability to think flexibly across time is a source of both our reason and our imagination. Thought, itself, is the underlying denominator. And thinking can be oppressing. Beyond just the terror of the future, it can also bring back memories of regret — things we can no longer do anything about, things we have to live with. It can cause our body to slowly self-destruct if it’s unproductively aimed internally with harsh self-criticism. It can even detach us from reality entirely if it takes over too strongly. Now, reasoned thought can sometimes help, of course, but imaginative thought is generally more forceful, almost more real, even if we know better.
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called this kind of anxiety we face in the imagination “the dizziness of freedom.” And herein lies a powerful reframing of what this kind of imagination can instead be used for. If reasoned thought is what we use to coordinate ourselves with reality, the physical world of matter, then imaginative thought is the source of our ingenuity, the infinite possibility and the infinite freedom of the future.
When the psychologist Viktor Frankl was sent to a concentration camp during the Second World War, he was separated from his family. Over the years, he spent time at four different facilities, including the infamous Auschwitz. He watched people die miserable deaths on a daily basis. He was abused, treated with such indignity that, at times, death itself didn’t seem like the worst option. And for many, it wasn’t. And they chose it themselves. When time would come, they would sit in a corner, not eat, not sleep, waiting for their body to give up until it did. But there were also others. They seemed to have taken a different approach. In his own words:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
What was different about these few, Frankl found, was that they had reinterpreted the reality of their situation by giving themselves away to something bigger than themselves. Their kindness and their generosity were often for others, true, but it was also for themselves. It was a source of connection and humanity in a place where there otherwise was none. Even in Frankl’s case, the only thing that got him through was the thought of his wife. Somewhere deep down, he knew chances of her survival were slim, but he thought of her every day, and he willed himself to live to see her again.
In the end, his wife didn’t survive. But that act of imagination while he was curled up at night, or when he was shoveling rocks, was enough to get him through. At the depth of his misery, he had an ideal in his mind, an ideal that represented something more important than the day to day reality of his life, and that ideal gave him the agency, the attitude, the possibility, and the freedom to ultimately do what he had to do in spite of everything.
If we put ourselves in the shoes of someone who let themselves give up under such brutal circumstances, few of us would shun that choice. But it was a choice. And it was a choice that only reasoned thought could have made. When you are already in hell, there is nothing worse that your imagination can conjure up. And when there is nothing worse, you are simply stuck with what is left. And what is left is a place where chances of survival are extremely low, the chances of future suffering extremely high, and the possibility of living with all of this for the rest of your life extremely daunting. Which rationally thinking person wouldn’t choose to let go?
The only thing that can motivate survival, and thus provide meaning to our existence, is the act of going from experiencing the inner dizziness of freedom to experiencing the inner choice of freedom. Among people stuck in a concentration camp, tremendous circumstances force them to choose. But that’s not the only time we choose. We choose every day. In every moment of thought, in every memory relived, in every experience anticipated, we choose who we are, based on what we do, inspired by the unhinged possibility of what our mind can interpret and conjure up about reality.
Our imaginative powers are vast, and they can be overwhelming, but they are also the source of our humanity, both figuratively and literally. This core element that gives our lives meaning is the same element that challenges us to feel the slings and arrows of the visions in our mind. And yet, without these slings and arrows, without these visions, we would have no way of knowing what is worth sacrificing for. We can’t stop this imagination from bringing us unpleasantries, but we can control it — we can harness its power to give us a vision for something that is greater than the harm it has the possibility to cause us, something worth enduring for.
After decades of playing around with numbers and formulas and machines in the physical and the mathematical realm, Blaise Pascal gave himself back to his inner world. Pensees were fragments of thoughts he wrote down privately for himself, but their wisdom continues to echo across the centuries.
Like most, he respected the importance of the outer world and its demands, and he contributed more to it than most of us can ever hope, but at the same time, he knew that what comes up out there finds its root within. In another one of his pithy notes, he brings it right back to the underlying mechanism that gives rise to both reason and imagination.
“It is not in space that I must seek my human dignity, but in the ordering of my thought. It will do me no good to own land. Through space the universe grasps me and swallows me up like a speck; through thought I grasp it.”
We can think wonderful things, we can think horrible things. We can reason our way to success, we can reason our way to failure. We can imagine our way to prosperity, we can imagine our way to terror. We are in a perpetual flux between two extremes bound by nothing but our capacity to manage ourselves in a way that adds meaning and wonder to our lives. And managing ourselves is something we have to learn to do, first, through the force of circumstance and, then, through our imagination.
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