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Alien Encounters - Prologue to Act 1: The Presumption of Man

Gavin Hitchcock

Scene:     BLAISE PASCAL, in a monastery garden in Paris about the year 1658, walks meditatively across front-stage, stopping half-way to confide...


I once called myself a mathematician. At the age of sixteen I astounded the greatest mathematicians of France with my Essay on the Conics (the proud Descartes was an exception: all he said was, "I cannot pretend to be interested in the work of a boy!"). I spent much time in the study of the abstract sciences. But the limited human companionship they produced disgusted me, so I turned to the study of man, and I saw that these abstract sciences are alien to man, and that by plunging into them I was wandering far from my proper condition. I thought at least to find many companions in the study of mankind, which is man's proper study. I was wrong! Still fewer study man than study mathematics.

But perhaps it is true that, if a man would be happy, he had better remain in ignorance of himself. Otherwise he is compelled to abase himself. I wish that, before entering upon deeper research into Nature, men would consider her seriously and at leisure, examining themselves too, and recognise what disproportion there is. Were man to begin by self-examination, he would see how incapable he is of further advance. How can a part possibly know the whole? A man may perhaps hope to know at least the other parts with which he has some proportion. But all the parts of the universe are so linked together that it seems to me impossible to know one apart from another or from the whole.

Let man then contemplate Nature in her full and lofty majesty... let man reawake and consider what he is compared with the reality of things; regard himself lost in this remote corner of Nature; and from the tiny cell where he lodges (the Universe), weigh at their true worth earth, kingdoms, towns, himself. What is a man when face to face with infinity?

But, to behold another prodigy, equally amazing, let him seek out the most delicate things he knows. He will think perhaps - after dividing and sub-dividing again, and exhausting himself in these conceptions - that he has reached the limit of minuteness in Nature. I will show him her infinite greatness. I will open to him therein a new abyss - all the unimaginable vastness of Nature enclosed within this atomised atom - an infinity of universes repeated, each within the mites contained within the last, endlessly, ceaselessly... Let him stand dumb before these wonders as amazing in their minuteness as the others in their vastness. For who can fail to marvel that our human body, which just now was imperceptible in the sum of things, is now a collossus, nay a world, nay a universe, compared with the nothingness which lies beyond our reach?

If a man will look at himself as I suggest, the sight will terrify him; and seeing himself suspended in the material form given him by Nature, between the two abysses of Infinity and Nothingness, he will tremble beholding these marvels, and I think that, as his curiosity turns to awe, he will rather gaze in silence than dare to question them.

For, I ask, what is man in Nature? A cypher compared with the Infinite, an All compared with Nothing, a mean between zero and all. Infinitely unable to grasp the extremes, the end of things and their principle are for him hopelessly hidden in an inpenetrable secret, for he is equally unable to see the Nothing whence he springs, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up.

Failing to perceive these two Infinites, men have rashly plunged into an examination of Nature, as though they were in some proportion to her. They have, strange to say, tried to grasp the principles of things and thence go on to know the whole; their presumption is as infinite as the object which they seek. For it is certain that you cannot embark on this without infinite presumption of infinite ability - infinite as Nature herself.

Let us then know our limits. Our intelligence stands in the order of Intelligibles just where our body does in the vast realm of Nature. Confined as we are in every way, this middle state between two extremes figures in all our faculties. Too much noise deafens us, too much light blinds, too great a distance or too great a nearness hampers vision; too many words, or too few, obscure speech; too much pleasure is a bore, too many concords in music are unpleasing, too many benefits are an annoyance; first principles are too plain for us, too much truth baffles us. (I have known people who could not understand that to take four away from zero leaves zero!).

[the last statement having been confided to the audience with intensity of feeling, Pascal moves slowly off, intoning the following words until his voice fades away in the distance: ]

Such is our true condition, rendering us incapable of certain knowledge or of absolute ignorance. We sail over a vast expanse, ever uncertain, ever adrift, carried to and fro. To whatever point we think to fix and fasten ourselves, it shifts and leaves us; and if we pursue it, it escapes our grasp, slips away, fleeing in eternal flight. Nothing stays for us. That is our condition, natural, yet most contrary to our inclination; we have a burning desire to find a sure resting place and a final fixed basis whereon to build a tower rising to the Infinite; but our whole foundation cracks and the earth yawns to the abyss. Let us then cease to look for security and stability. Our reason is ever cheated by misleading appearances: nothing can fix the finite between the two Infinites which enclose it and fly from it.

This understood, I believe that we shall remain at rest, each in the state assigned to him by Nature.....


Gavin Hitchcock , "Alien Encounters - Prologue to Act 1: The Presumption of Man," Loci (May 2011)