Charles Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities with the immortal lines: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” These words sound like a contradiction, dissonant to the ear, harsh to the brain. How could the times be both best and worst?
Before Charles Dickens ever picked up a pen, the French mathematician, philosopher, and writer Blaise Pascal had made use of the paradox. For Pascal, man himself is the crowning paradox of all creation. He said that we are at the same time the creatures of highest grandeur and lowest misery. The paradox is that we can think, an ability which is a two-edged sword. That we can contemplate ourselves is our grandeur….
The misery comes when we contemplate a better life than we now enjoy and realize we are unable to make it happen. We have just enough knowledge to escape the bliss of ignorance. Translated into daily realities, this means that a person with enormous wealth can conceive of yet more wealth, power, prestige, health, fame—all things can be increased or improved. But consider that person who commands such a vast amount of money, yet who suffers from ill health or grieves over the death of a loved one. Ultimately, human dignity is built on the conviction that someone is up there who made us. Behind human dignity is theology.