Depicts a contemporary individual in a minimalist room, gazing out at a vast sky transitioning from blue to light gray, symbolizing the move from distraction to introspection. Modern devices are present but unused, emphasizing a deliberate choice for solitude. The individual's contemplative yet uneasy demeanor reflects the struggle and importance of facing one's own thoughts.

L.M. Sacasas has written a lengthy commentary on an essay by Ted Gioia, which is well worth reading in its entirety. The main thrust of Gioia’s essay is that we have substituted ‘dopamine culture’ for the arts and creative pursuits. Sacasas believes that this is too simplistic a framing.

I’m quoting the part where he uses Pascal to show Gioia, and anyone else who holds a similar point of view, that human beings have been forever thus. Except these days we live like kings of old, where we have the means to be distracted easily and at will. I think, in general, we’re far too bothered about how other people act, and not bothered enough about how we do.

It might be helpful to back up a few hundred years and consider a different telling of our compulsive relationship to distraction, and from there to ask some better questions of our current situation. Writing in the mid-seventeenth century, the French polymath Blaise Pascal wrote a series of strikingly relevant observations about distraction, or, as the translations typically put it, diversions. Frankly, these centuries-old observations do more, as I see it, to illuminate the nature of the problem we face than an appeal to dopamine and they do so because they do not reduce human behavior to neuro-chemical process, however helpful that knowledge may sometimes be.

Pascal argued, for example, that human beings will naturally seek distractions rather than confront their own thoughts in moments of solitude and quiet because those thoughts will eventually lead them to consider unpleasant matters such as their own mortality, the vanity of their endeavors, and the general frailty of the human condition. Even a king, Pascal notes, pursues distractions despite having all the earthly pleasures and honors one could aspire to in this life. “The king is surrounded by persons whose only thought is to divert the king, and to prevent his thinking of self,” Pascal writes. “For he is unhappy, king though he be, if he think of himself.”

We are all of us kings now surrounded by devices whose only purpose is to prevent us from thinking about ourselves.

Pascal even struck a familiar note by commenting directly on the young who do not see the vanity of the world because their lives “are all noise, diversions, and thoughts for the future.” “But take away their devices diversions,” Pascal observes, “and you will see them bored to extinction. Then they feel their nullity without recognizing it, for nothing could be more wretched than to be intolerably depressed as soon as one is reduced to introspection with no means of diversion.”

I don’t know, you tell me? I wouldn’t limit that description to the “young.” What do you feel when confronted with a sudden unexpected moment of silence and inactivity? Do you grow uneasy? Do you find it difficult to abide the stillness and quiet? Do your thoughts worry you? Solitude, as opposed to loneliness, can be understood as a practice or maybe even a skill. Have we been deskilled in the practice of solitude? Have we grown uncomfortable in our own company and has this amplified the preponderance of loneliness in contemporary society? Recall, for instance, how Hannah Arendt once distinguished solitude from loneliness: “I call this existential state [thinking as an internal conversation] in which I keep myself company ‘solitude’ to distinguish it from ‘loneliness,’ where I am also alone but now deserted not only by human company but also by the possible company of myself.”

It seems to me that these are all now familiar issues and tired questions. As observations about our situation, they now strike me as banal. We all know this, right? But perhaps for that reason we do well to recall them to mind from time to time. After all, Pascal would also tell us that the stakes are high, quite high. “The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries,” he writes. “For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves, and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.”

Source: The Convivial Society