Entertainment society: the eternal topicality of Pascal's lessons

Entertainment Society the eternal topicality of Pascal's lessons

The global echo met, at the end of April, by the announcement of the complaint filed by Dinsey, the "entertainment giant", against the Governor of Florida, a potential candidate for the presidential nomination in the United States, testifies, among many other signs, to the importance of entertainment in our society - does not the latest advertising campaign for Amazon prime promise "entertainment to infinity ?"

However – all high school students know this – entertainment has been the subject of severe criticism from Blaise Pascal, born 400 years ago. But this criticism, made in the XVIIe century, in the context of a search for "the truth of the Christian religion" does it still have a meaning and an interest today? More than ever, it seems to us, and for three reasons.

A masterful analysis of entertainment

To entertain is, etymologically, to turn away. Today, the term "entertainment" has taken on the meaning of simple distraction, of amusement providing pleasure, whether it be scrolling on the screen of one's mobile phone, "binge-watching" a series or sing in karaoke. Something innocuous, and basically legitimate, to offset the weight of the worries of daily life and work, or concerns due to the socio, even geopolitical context.

But, in its classic meaning, entertainment is an occupation that distracts us from thinking about what should primarily concern us. Its meaning is then more to be sought in the importance of what it diverts, than in the interest of the occupation it privileges. Such is Pascal's first great lesson.

For him, "the only thing that consoles us for our miseries is entertainment, and yet it is the greatest of our miseries". For what ? Because it "mainly prevents us from thinking of ourselves", and of the substantial misery of man (without God). Entertainment is a misery… because it is only a hide-and-seek!

All the traits whose negative dimension Pascal emphasizes ("running after smoke", "noise and stirring", "agitation") derive their negativity from their function of stunning. The entertainment society is in fact a stunning society. We chat, we run, we play, we court, we hunt ("the hunt, not the catch"), we make war, to forget the terrible secret of its emptiness.

less than the fact of "not knowing how to remain at rest, in a room", which is only "the cause of all our misfortunes", it is their "reason" which matters, "which consists in the natural misfortune of our weak and mortal condition, and so miserable, that nothing can console us, when we think about it closely".

"Full rest" is "so unbearable" for us only because it is an opportunity to feel "one's nothingness, abandonment, inadequacy, dependence, impotence, emptiness". What is reprehensible in entertainment is therefore less the flight movement than the refusal it expresses to see oneself as one is. That is to say, ultimately, the refusal to think.

A pressing invitation to think

For Pascal, "Man is obviously made to think; it is all his dignity and all his merit, and all his duty is to think as he should". He insists :

“Thought makes man great. Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature; but he is a thinking reed… Let us therefore work to think well: this is the principle of morality”.

But what is "thinking well"? The answer given by Pascal is clear, which is the basis of the negative judgment made on entertainment: it is only an "occupation... which distracts from thinking about oneself". Now, to think is first and foremost to think of oneself, not as a particular individual, but in one's universality as a human being (man and woman); and in his (sad) condition: "Now what is the world thinking? Never about that; but about dancing, playing the lute, singing, writing verses, running the ring, etc., fighting, to make oneself king, without thinking of what it is to be a king, and what it is to be a man".

This is why loneliness is only a means, not an end. A necessary means, because we cannot "rest in the society of our fellow men: miserable like us, helpless like us, they will not help us: we will die alone. We must therefore act as if we were alone". In which case "we would seek the truth without hesitation".

It is in this search for truth that thought consists, which is undoubtedly sorely lacking today, at the time of massive misinformation, while fake news triumphs, and proliferation of false works of creation. It is more urgent than ever to work on "thinking well", such is the second lesson.

A focus on two essential questions

Thus Pascal's analysis of entertainment has the great merit of suggesting a program for "thinking well". It appears necessary, in fine, to focus today on two major questions, which ultimately come together.

The first is to know what it is to live, for a human being. Because "we never live, but we hope to live". In other words: what is it to be a man? "You have to know yourself", but by going to the essential, to grasp what makes you an "honest man", a member of the society of "universal people". To be a man is a "universal quality", which it is necessary to apprehend, to make it one's own, and to show oneself worthy of it.

For Pascal, it is a question of asking the question of the meaning and the value of human life, so as to know what man can hope for best for what concerns him, and to what he must attach himself. This is the first way to find a "port for morality", that is, to find a "fixed point" to judge what is worth giving value to life, escaping the wandering in the "perpetual illusion" – precisely the one that the entertainment society offers us.

The second big question is to know if man can still think of himself (situate himself) in a relationship to the Absolute, that is to say to God, and how. Pascal depicted the misery of man without God. But should we not note that, following what he could have designated as a "strange reversal", we must above all deplore today the misery of the man (and especially of the woman!) to whom we claim to impose God? In any case in theocratic countries, which so easily turn into dictatorships!

The problem is the same: to find, to give meaning to our life, a possible foundation in a transcendence which, on the one hand, would not be totally uncertain, and of the order of a simple illusion. And which, on the other hand, would not be alienating, but liberating, by making religion lose the face, which it too often takes, of a factory of servitude.

It is conceivable that the greatness and the difficulty of the task can, again and again, constantly throw us into the arms of "entertainment"!

Charles Hadji, Honorary Professor (Educational Sciences), Grenoble Alpes University (UGA)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock/Morphart Creation

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