Some Imaginary Life

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), the French mathematician, was a careful observer of the human condition. He was notably interested in people’s preoccupation with accomplishment, and wondered what force animates our yearning to achieve. Why are we chronically engrossed with getting more and doing better?

We do not content ourselves with the life we have in ourselves and in our own being; we desire to live an imaginary life in the mind of others, and for this purpose we endeavour to shine. (Pascal, Pensées 2.147, trans. Trotter)

Pascal’s thesis is provocative. Let’s suppose, for a moment, that there are two versions of John. The first version of John is represented by his innermost thoughts and feelings — his consciousness, or, as some might say, his soul. The second version of John is the ‘idea of John’ that other people have in their heads. Obviously, you and I can never truly know John as intimately as he knows himself; all we can ever know is a version of John we have in our minds. We must trust that the version of John we know is fairly representative of who John honestly believes himself to be.

Now, let’s suppose you are John. It is now up to you manage this external version of yourself. How will you shape and inform the opinions that other people have about you? Since every other person can only know a rendition of you, how will you choose to portray yourself?

It is here that Pascal interrupts us. He points out that this socially imagined version of John does not actually exist. Yes, of course, John himself is a real person, but his preoccupation with the thoughts and conceptions of other people amounts to the management of a version of himself, an “imaginary existence” or “imaginary life in the mind of others,” that is not real. As intuitive as the hypothesis that there are two versions of John might be, one John is only a misconceived hallucination.

However, Pascal argues that the lion’s share of our energy goes into framing and broadcasting these apparitions of ourselves.

We labour unceasingly to adorn and preserve this imaginary existence and neglect the real. And if we possess calmness, or generosity, or truthfulness, we are eager to make it known, so as to attach these virtues to that imaginary existence. (2.147)

Why does the soldier yearn for advancement? Why does a cook appreciate compliments? Why does a philosopher glow when praised for intellectual rigour? “Vanity is so anchored in the heart of man,” writes Pascal, that even “[t]hose who write against it want to have the glory of having written well; and those who read it desire the glory of having read it. I who write this have perhaps this desire, and perhaps those who will read it” (2.150).

At the heart of Pascal’s thesis is a simple proposition: accomplishment for accomplishment’s sake is meaningless; there is no such thing as accomplishment without acclaim. Written hundreds of years before Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) conceived of psychoanalysis or Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929) framed the concept of social psychology, Pascal’s Pensées (uncompleted at the time of his death in 1662) anticipates later theories that human behaviour is principally motivated by social needs: we do not pursue studies strictly in order to gain knowledge, but in order to demonstrate the knowledge we have gained. We do not go on great voyages, “in order to never talk of it,” or visit a distant land, “without hope of ever communicating it” (2.152). Pleasure is virtually pointless unless we find a way to inform others of how much we enjoy it. As soon as our basic physical needs are met, we become absorbed with polishing, tweaking, and optimizing our “imaginary lives” for the notice of others.

One can only imagine what Pascal would have to say about social media! Contemporary technology seems designed to perfectly fit his hypothesis that everything we do is a signal that can be used to educate those around us about the status of our “imaginary existence.” A picture of my dinner plate does not communicate raw data about the quality of my diet, but data about the kind of lifestyle I live and the pace at which I live it. Likewise, updating others about the upholstery in the airport terminal might be guised as a humorous public service announcement, but in actuality it is a statement dripping with social and economic symbols. Why does my vacation feel incomplete until my pictures have been customarily shared and liked? Why is my exercise session lacking until I inform you of how many calories I burned?

We might conjecture that as far as Pascal is concerned, social media has not made us into self-preoccupied advertisers of our own imaginary lives — it is simply the tool we have always wanted.

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