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I've just started Pascal's Pensées and the first several pages seem like a flood of incoherent statements. For example,

16) Vanity: That something so obvious as the vanity of the world should be so little recognized that people find it odd and surprising to be told that it is foolish to seek greatness; that is most remarkable.

17) Inconstancy and oddity: To live by one's work alone and to reign over the most powerful state in the world are two very different things.

They are combined in the person of the Grand Turk.

18) An inch or two of cowl can put 25,000 monks up in arms.

19) He has four lackeys.

20) He lives across the water.

These all seem completely unrelated and incoherent. What's the structure this writing? Is this a diary? Am I supposed to read it like an essay or something else? In my printing (Penguin Classics) there are numbers on the right margin of each of these bulleted items: namely, (161), (113), (955), (318), and (292), respectively. I also don't know what these mean.

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    Pensées = thoughts. It literally is a collection of random things that came to his mind, mostly written down in a quite prosaic fashion. E.g. no. 16 imho means that there is so much vanity in the world that it is remarkable that individuals are [still] surprised when being called out for seeking greatness. This calling out is downplaying the (potential) abilities of others in order to feel better about yourself, i.e. vanity. – Philip Klöcking Aug 30 '17 at 20:15
  • Additionally, there are commentaries on (parts of) the Pensées, e.g. this one, commenting one sixth of it. – Philip Klöcking Aug 30 '17 at 20:18
  • Why not trying with some overview and introduction to Blaise Pascal followed by some introductory book: Graeme Hunter, Pascal the Philosopher: An Introduction (2013) ? – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Aug 31 '17 at 6:20
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    @MauroALLEGRANZA This should be an answer. It drives me crazy when people put the best answer in the comments. You can include the quote from Hunter, note the source, and you'd have a strong, properly sourced answer to the question. – Chris Sunami Feb 2 '18 at 17:26
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You can see some overview and introduction to Blaise Pascal:

The final years of Pascal's life were devoted to religious controversy, to the extent that his increasingly poor health permitted. During this period, he began to collect ideas and to draft notes for a book in defence of the Catholic faith. Pascal had collected his notes into bundles or liasses before he died, and had provided tentative titles for each bundle; however, these notes gave no indication of the order in which they should be read, either within a given bundle or even between various bundles, and subsequent editors failed to agree on any numbering system for the posthumously published notes.

The most frequently quoted modern editions of the Pensées provide concordances to the numbering systems adopted by alternative editions. Given the status of the Pensées as a posthumously published notebook, it also remains unclear whether Pascal endorsed the opinions that are recorded there, or whether he planned to use some of them merely for comment or critique.

And you can see some introductory book, like e.g.: Graeme Hunter, Pascal the Philosopher: An Introduction (2013).

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The initial impression is one of mayhem. One can't readily see any continuous lines of thought in the Pensees. Matters have not been helped by the fact that different editors have numbered and sequenced the 'thoughts' in different way, though the Lafuma and Mesnard editions order them more coherently than others.

Some parts of Pascal do make independent sense, for instance 'The Spirit of Geometry and the Spirit of Finesse' (differently titled in different editions but easy to find).

The basic key to the Pensees is that Pascal investigates the nature of mathematical and scientific knowledge and is dissatisfied with the limited certitude it yields. He then seeks to persuade us - or expresses at least his own belief - that religious experience delivers a greater degree of certitude. This will strike most readers nowadays as implausible but he was writing in the 17th century and not for a sceptical 21st-century readership.

If it's of any reassurance I had the same sense of random disconnectedness in the text when I first read the Pensees. But do at least go for the 'Spirit of Geometry', really a short essay, which does make fairly easy sense.

Good luck !

  • @Clclstdnt. You have a new answer to your question on Pascal. – Geoffrey Thomas Feb 1 '18 at 20:31
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As I recall (it's been over a decade since I've read it!), if you are reading from a Great Books of the Western World edition, there should be two sets of numbers. One identifies the order in which it was found; the other will indicate where it belongs in a more topical organization. The latter is more useful, as the "he lives across the water" is then placed with other passages about the immorality of killing people for being on the other side of a geographical boundary/border.

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