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Glory

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                                                                                             Glory – The brutes do not admire each other. A horse does not admire his companion. Not that there is no rivalry between them in a race, but that is of no consequence; for, when in the stable, the heaviest and most ill-formed does not give up his oats to another, as men would have others do to them. Their virtue is satisfied with itself.
                                                            – Pascal, Pensees, 401

One brother took up law; the other trooped
Away to endless war. I stayed home
As a bureaucratic bean-counter, duped

To think that riches played an easy game:
Addition, multiplication – each cooks
The books for future fortunes. All the same,

With squared-off cubits, office duty yokes
Existence to these ledger lines that spill
With columned figures. Fortune’s spinning spokes

Subtract from time, divide with iron will
What irony remainders. Would my years
Be sown in furrowed wax my styli till?

“There’s glory,” Primus said, “in foreign tours
Of duty.” So Secundus sought the heights
Of politics. But Tertius now secures

Them both in one: I poll these client states,
Reconquering for Rome. Hand-picked to lead
The census here in Palestine, I set my sights

On taxing tails for piles of Caesar’s head –
This skin game they’re calling his “Golden Fleece.”
(And who has time to calculate the dead

When the living offer glory’s increase?)
“The catgut of the state,” said Cicero
Describing taxes. Let that be the case –

To string and peg fame’s fingerboard just so.

Flies

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               The power of flies; they win battles, hinder our soul from acting, eat our body.
                                                                          – Pascal, Pensees, 367

I hate the thing I cannot be and yet
I know I’m not wrong for I’m never wrong.
I count the stars and one alone has set

Me going – all the rest can go to hell.
I didn’t make the flies, but I had put
Their song to good employment. Now they dwell

With me – and I should know, being the lord
Of the buggers, they make an easy sell
For cleaning up a butcher’s yard. Byword

Of light itself – I was it! But no more –
I’ve got a kitchen kingdom, fleshy sword
And flyblown maw instead to tend. I’m sore

At heart and hate the Jews – and Romans too.
But they can play very well together, or
I’ll see them die in their attempts. Then, through

The gates I see that star. That goddamn star.
No fly left out, no maggot stranded – no!
So how can stars be any different? Sure,

The cretins eat putrescence put in front
Of them, but never question it. Their care
For me – it knows no bounds! Each accident

Of nature, each festering harlot of
Ol’ Babylon, every mother-loving runt
Of a whoreson tabbed. Then I look above….

I’m not waiting around. No. Time to move.

Egypt

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                                                  Prophecies – The conversion of the Egyptians (Isaiah xix, 19); an altar in Egypt to the true God.
                                        – Pascal, Pensees, 724

My altars are ubiquitous. I touch
The shadows that they cast. Once river mud,
My soul’s basalt is baked and bricked from scratch…

The Greeks had heroes; Rome, its empire’s blood,
But revenant Cleopatra boasts death
As neither myth nor state. So Egypt stood

As proof: my lust and beauty forged its truth
In brickyards, straw or not. The pyramid
And temple praise me. Caesars raise a wreath

Upon my crypt, like writhing asps that bid
My granite-needled will and hang with thread
My womb, an empire’s balance pan, which hid

My heart and raised my feather far above
The reign of Ra. So Serpent Apep’s rule
Commands that woman crush such fleeting love

Upon the open market. Sell a mule
In memory of me, then; buy a colt
To free my soul. When strangers come, the cruel

Indifferent sun still blackens soil, and silt
That bleeds from holy Nile to middling seas
Still shapes my body, bringing to a halt

Advancing Roman altars. Prophecies
Are empty: Take the Jews – they came, they lost,
They conquered nothing. So my enemies

Abjure: I alone renovate this boast.

David

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                         A single saying of David or Moses, such as ‘God will circumcise their hearts,’ is a test of their way of thinking.
                         All their other arguments may be ambiguous and leave it uncertain whether they are philosophers or Christians, but one saying of this kind settles all the others, just as one saying of Epictetus settles everything else in a contrary sense. Ambiguity goes just so far and no farther.

                                           – Pascal, Pensees, 690

Consult philosophers, what do they say?
Some fiction flinging theories from the void.
So ask the oracles you say? Well, they

Would speak of crows in flight and cooling guts,
Then hide the gods in feathers, plucked away
And squibbed with blood. Enough’s enough. For what’s

The use of being emperor if truth
Has taken wing in ether realms or struts
In toga, scroll in hand, with garlic breath

To wilt a legion? Rather to my mind
Arithmetic’s the thing. So do the math –
An easy thing to lead – but from behind?

At Actium it was so. (Ply the wax
As styli scribble! What these censors find!)
The breezes blow and Antony’s heart cracks –

An egg for augur’s breakfast. Take the win
As lessons in empire: peace prefers a tax
To nails upon a cross. So Palestine

Has made a stink? That crazy Herod writes
About his lack of funds? There’s truth for you!
No David he, but still, his greed indicts

And makes a friend in Caesar. Numbers, Kings
Of Iudaea, never let you down –
So count each coin a friendly thorn that stings

And slays the words your heart might seek to crown.

Caesar

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Caesar was too old, it seems to me, to set about amusing himself with conquering the world. Such sport was good for Augustus or Alexander. They were still young men, and thus difficult to restrain. But Caesar should have been more mature.
                                                                          – Pascal, Pensees, 132

From emperor to god, distinction’s blade
Has cut me loose from earthly care and set
My star within a diadem that made

My shade regret its bloody ways (forget
The fact that I refused the crown with three
Dismissive waves). So three were keen to set

Upon me – brute ambition, envy’s glee,
And tilting pride – my own to think success
A measure tallied by eternity….

I wept at Alexander’s feats no less
Than now I laugh at what Augustus wants –
To valuate the empire’s populace

A victory subtracting weal from chance
In one decisive sweep of columned sums.
I told the pirates I’d be back to dance

Before their crucifixions; Pompey’s drums
Resolved my mettle. “Let Catullus sing
Of plows and flowers,” I said, “Caesar comes

From Gaul and India with arms to bring
About hic novus ordo.” This head
Is wizened, iron-willed, the only thing

That raises me above them all. Include
Among them, by the way, my wretched son
Who counts his greatest triumph as a god

A forced retreat of numbers back to one.

Pascal & Pascal Caricatured

I liked this, from Professor James Franklin:

Pascal caricatured:
Being base and greedy, we want lots of goodies in this life and, if possible, the next. So we are prepared to give up some pleasures now, on the off chance of a lot more later, if our eye to the main chancemakes it look worth our while. Since the loot on offer is infinite, even a smallchance of raking it in makes it worth a try to grovel to any deity that might do what we want.

What Pascal said:
You have to choose whether to accept religion. Think of itas a coin toss, where you don’t know the outcome. In this case, if you lose –there’s no God – you have not lost much. But if you win, there is an infinitepayoff. So, you should go to Mass, and pray for faith.

To be considered in light of mathematical exactitude rather than Catholic stridency, if that helps.

Happy Blaise Days

From The Writer’s Almanac


Today is the birthday of mathematician, physicist, and religious philosopher Blaise Pascal (books by this author), born in Clermont-Ferrand, France. He was a child prodigy, and by the time he was 19, he had already perfected the first mechanical calculator for sale to the public. In the field of physics, he discovered that air has weight and proved that vacuums are possible in nature. In mathematics, he founded the theory of probabilities and developed an early form of integral calculus. He also invented the syringe and the hydraulic press.

He was often torn between a spiritual life and a scientific one. When he was 23, he began to feel the need to withdraw from the world and devote his life to God. He did just that, for a while, but soon threw himself back into his scientific pursuits, working so hard he made himself ill. He returned to religion for good after a mystical conversion experience, which he called the “night of fire,” in 1654, and entered the Abbey of Port-Royal in January 1655. He lived as an informal hermit, and he never again published under his own name. He only wrote things that the monks requested, and he produced two great works of religious philosophy: Provincial Letters (1657) and Thoughts (1658).

He wrote, “In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.”

Pensées by Blaise

I picked up Pascal’s Pensées for a reread in 1991 (having read them first about five years earlier) and jotted down the following notes:

Like a casual conversation over tea–casual, easygoing, pithy, humorous–and yet matters of such weight, intensity, honesty, transparency, and truth. Pascal is like Kierkegaard sans angst and misanthropy–someone you would genuinely like to meet.

My favorite: “Man is so inevitably mad that not to be mad would be to put a mad twist to madness.”

Yeah! I think I’m due for another reread. Korrektiv Summer Reading Klub, anyone?

Blaise Says

[The Christian religion] teaches men both these truths: that there is a God of whom we are capable, and that a corruption in our nature makes us unworthy of Him. It is equally important for us to know both these points; for it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness, and to know his wretchedness without knowing the Redeemer who can cure him of it. Knowledge of only one of these points leads either to the arrogance of the philosophers, who have known God and not their own wretchedness, or to the despair of the atheists, who know their wretchedness without knowing the Redeemer.