Pascal on Entertainment

Blaise Pascal (1623-62), was both a great mathematician and a great spiritual writer and very devout Christian. Now, he was a heretic – part of the Jansenist movement, which, though it never exactly left the fold of the Catholic Church, was condemned for a far too negative view of human nature – so if you don’t like what he says here, you are free to disagree with him.

But I think he has a point, and an important one for us today. The danger of theater, he says (and, far more, the danger of television and the movies) is not that it portrays evil, but that it portrays the good in such a shallow, easy way. The danger is that we leave thinking life is that simple – and do not realize the great struggle that goodness is.

I think we could apply this to many simplistic things people say about “good and evil”: if a movie has good guys and bad guys, we are supposed to think it’s basically Christian. But life is not that simple: Pascal would warn that these movies do not challenge us enough. And even more, he says, when the movies portray love: if only love were so easy! The danger is that, in thinking goodness is easy, we will not take our own spiritual development seriously.

In this quotation, do not miss the element of seduction. Pascal is portraying the innocence of theater not because he thinks it is innocent, but because he thinks its false innocence is dangerous.

pascalAll great amusements are a danger to the life of the Christian; but of all those which the world has invented there is none more to be feared than the theater. It represents the passions, so natural and subtle that it awakens them and brings them forth in our hearts; above all the passion of love, especially when it is portrayed as very chaste and honorable.

For, the more innocent it appears to innocent souls, the more apt are they to be moved by it; its vehemence flatters our self-love, which straightway develops a desire to produce the same effects which we see so well represented. At the same time, we develop a conscience founded on the honorable feelings portrayed, which reassure pure souls who fancy that a love so apparently moderate cannot injure their innocence.

So we leave the theater with our hearts so full of all the beauty and tenderness of love, our souls and minds so convinced of its innocence, that we are ready to receive its first impressions, or rather to seek occasion of awakening them in the heart of some one else, so that we may experience the same pleasures and sacrifices which we have seen so well depicted on the stage.

-From “Pascal’s Apology for True Religion” (part of the Pensées)


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