Pascal On Love

I read this gem in the past month from Pascal’s Penses. This is his snippet on love:

“What is the self? A man goes to the window to see the people passing by; if I pass by, can I say he went there to see me? No, for he is not thinking of me in particular. But what about a person who loves someone for the sake of her beauty; does he love her? No, for smallpox, which will destroy beauty without destroying the person, will put an end to his love for her.

And if someone loves me for my judgement or my memory, do they love me? me, myself? No, for I could lose these qualities without losing my self. Where then is this self, if it is neither in the body nor the soul? And how can one love the body or the soul except for the sake of such qualities, which are not what makes up the self, since they are perishable? Would we love the substance of a person’s soul, in the abstract, whatever qualities might be in it? That is not possible, and it would be wrong. Therefore we never love anyone, but only qualities.”

Wow. One can interpret it as the fact that we never love anyone - only their qualities. It’s a very logical, cold, reductionist point of view. It kind of reminded me of principle component analysis - how you extract information to the most relevant features that explain the most.

Most qualities of a person are malleable. People change. A person can be selfless today, but tomorrow they can be selfish. They can be the nicest person you know today, but something tragic happens to them tomorrow, and they become the most bitter and cynical person you’ve ever known.

This quote kept me up at nights before bed. Is it true that we really never love anyone, except for their qualities?

After much thought, I lean towards no.

One can argue that there are qualities of things that do not change no matter what. No matter how I change, I will still be my mother’s son. No matter how I change, I will still be me. Maybe there are essential to being me, that stand the rigor of time.

Secondly, let’s take a step back and evaluate this scenario. If someone asks me, “Why do you love your brother so much?”

I can list out all the qualities of why I love my brother. he’s smart, funny, kind, and thoughtful. Hmm. But what if he’s dumb, full of lame jokes, mean, and thoughtless - would I still love him? I think so. Aren’t there siblings we love that are like that already? There’s more behind than simple qualities.

Similarly, if I love someone, I can list out the qualities of why I love that person, but I love them because of who they are. Maybe listing out qualities is one abstraction level down to explain things that you cannot explain. If someone asks you, “Why do you love Jane?” Wouldn’t the optimal answer be, “Because she’s Jane. There’s no one like her, and there will never be anyone like her. Ever.”

Also, love and building affection is a gradual process. People grow on you! So suddenly one of their qualities change, and if you decide to cut them off, maybe there wasn’t any substance in the first place. After all, you can’t love someone you don’t truly know and without understanding who they are.

The other side of change

I took a very negative approach to thinking about this in the beginning and focused on how people can change for the worse. But doesn’t Pascal’s thought apply in the reverse direction as well? People can change dramatically for the better. You can be bitter enemies with someone and abhor spending time with them because of certain traits. But everything is subject to change. They can change in ways you can’t imagine. Who knows. Maybe you two become besties later on? Similarly, you’re also subject to the forces of change. Maybe they didn’t change to become more likable - you did!

Perhaps people are like quarters. I mean the coins. When we examine one side, we see an engraving of George Washington. Flip it over, and we see one of fifty states. Can you really predict this? You can’t predict which state, nor can you predict based on the picture of Washington that you’re going to get a state on the back. For better or for worse, no one can really know for sure how people change.

Update 8/1/19(in progress):

I talked to someone my friends on this quote and asked what they thought about it. To my surprise, when I asked my friend (whom we shall refer to as Roy) he was the first one who said he’s thought deeply about this before! Woah.

Here is what I got from my friend that was an interesting idea.

He said that he doesn’t believe in true love. Here’s his argument.

For every personality, there is only a finite number of personalities. Given how many of us there are, there are bound to be cases where two people have the same personality. The Pigeonhole Principle!

Here’s a diagram(also to be added later):

After all, Confucius said, “All people are the same; only their habits differ.”

To some degree, that is true, but it’s only one way to look at the picture.

I asked him if he believed in a soul - he said yes, but it has nothing to do with personality. Hmm…

Last updated August 2nd, 2019