Front Page Titles (by Subject) OF THE DECEPTIVE POWERS OF THE IMAGINATION. - The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal
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OF THE DECEPTIVE POWERS OF THE IMAGINATION. - Blaise Pascal, The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal 
The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal, translated from the text of M. Auguste Molinier by C. Kegan Paul (London: George Bell and Sons, 1901).
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OF the deceptive powers.—Man is only a subject full of natural error, which is indelible without grace. Nothing shows him the truth, everything deceives him. These two principles of truth, reason and the senses, in addition to the fact that they are both wanting in sincerity, reciprocally deceive each other. The senses trick the reason by false appearances, and gain from reason in their turn the same deception with which they deceive; reason avenges herself. The passions of the soul trouble the senses, and make on them false impressions. They lie and deceive, outvieing one another.
But beyond those errors which come by accident, and by a lack of intelligence, with these heterogeneous faculties . . . To begin thus the chapter on the deceptive powers.
Imagination. —This is that deceitful part of man, the mistress of error and falsity, the more knavish that she is not always so, for she would be an infallible rule of truth, if she were an infallible rule of lying. But being for the most part false, she gives no mark of her character, stamping the true and the false with the same die.
I speak not of fools, but of the wisest men, and it is among them that imagination has the great gift of persuasion. Reason protests in vain, for she can make no true estimate.
This proud potentate, who loves to rule and domineer over her enemy, reason, has established in man a second nature in order to show her wide-spread influence. She makes men happy and miserable, sound and sick, rich and poor; she obliges reason to believe, doubt, and deny; she dulls the senses, or sharpens them; she has her fools and wise; and nothing vexes us more than to see that she fills her votaries with a satisfaction far more full and entire than does reason. Those whose imagination is active feel greater complacency than the truly wise can reasonably allow themselves to feel. They look down on other men as from the height of empire, they argue with assurance and confidence, others with diffidence and fear, and this gaiety of countenance often gives the former an advantage in the minds of their hearers; such favour do the imaginary wise find from judges like-minded. Imagination cannot make fools wise, but it makes them content, and so triumphs over reason, which can only make its friends miserable; the one covers them with glory, the other with shame.
What but this faculty of imagination dispenses reputation, assigns respect and veneration to persons, works, laws, and the great? How valueless are all the treasures of earth without her consent!
You would say that this magistrate whose reverend age commands the respect of a whole people is swayed by pure and lofty reason, that he judges all causes according to their true nature, unmoved by those mere accidents which only affect the imagination of the weak. See him go to sermon with devout zeal, strengthening his firm and impartial reason by the ardour of his divine love. He is ready to listen with exemplary respect. The preacher appears; but if nature have given him a hoarse voice or a comic face, if his barber have shaven him ill, or if his clothes be splashed more than is wont, then however great the truths he announces, I wager that our statesman lose his gravity.
Set the greatest philosopher in the world on a plank really wider than he needs, but hanging over a precipice, and though reason convince him of his security, imagination will prevail. Many will scarce bear the thought without a cold sweat.
I will not name all its effects. Every one knows that the sight of cats, and rats, or the crushing of a coal, etc., may quite unhinge the reason. The tone of voice will affect the wisest and change the whole force of a speech or a poem.
Love or hate will change the aspect of justice, and an advocate retained with a large fee has an increased confidence in the right of the cause he pleads, while the assurance of his demeanour commends it to the judges, duped in their turn by appearances. How ridiculous is reason, swayed by a breath in every direction!
I should have to enumerate almost every action of men who seldom stagger but under her shocks. For reason has been forced to yield, and the wisest reason accepts as her own those principles which the imagination of men has everywhere casually introduced.
Our magistrates are well aware of this mystery. Their scarlet robes, the ermine in which they wrap themselves like furred cats, the halls in which they administer justice, the fleurs-de-lis, and all their august apparatus are most necessary; if the doctors had not their cassocks and their mules, if the lawyers had not their square caps, and their robes four times too wide, they would never have duped the world, which cannot resist so authoritative an appearance. Soldiers alone are not disguised after this fashion, because indeed their part is the more essential, they establish themselves by force, the others by fraud.
So our kings seek out no disguises. They do not mask themselves in strange garments to appear such, but they are accompanied by guards and halberdiers. Those armed puppets who have hands and power for them alone, those trumpets and drums which go before them, and those legions round about them, make the firmest tremble. They have not dress only, but power; we need an highly refined reason to regard as an ordinary man the Grand Turk, in his superb seraglio, surrounded with forty thousand janissaries.
We cannot even see an advocate in his long robe and with his cap on his head, without an enhanced opinion of his ability.
If magistrates had true justice, and if doctors had the true art of healing, they would have no need of square caps, the majesty of these sciences were of itself venerable enough. But having only imaginary knowledge, they must take these instruments, idle, but striking to the imagination with which they have to deal, and by that in fact they gain respect.
Imagination is the disposer of all things, it creates beauty, justice and happiness, and these are the world’s all. I should much like to see an Italian work, of which I know the title only, but such a title is worth many books: Della opinioneRegina del mondo. I accept the book without knowing it, save the evil in it, if there be any.
These are for the most part the effects of that deceptive faculty, which seems to have been given us expressly to lead us into necessary error. Of error however we have many other sources.
Not only are old impressions capable of deceiving us, the charms of novelty have the same power. Hence arise all the disputes of men, who charge each other either with following the false impressions of childhood or of running rashly after new. Who rightly keeps a middle way? Let him appear and make good his pretensions. There is no principle, however natural to us even from childhood, which may not be made to pass for a false impression either of education or of sense.
“Because,” say some, “you have believed from childhood that a box was empty when you saw nothing in it, you have therefore believed the possibility of a vacuum. This is an illusion of your senses, strengthened by custom, which science must correct.” “Because,” say others, “you were taught at school that there is no such thing as a vacuum, your common sense, which clearly comprehended the matter before, is corrupted, and you must correct this false impression by returning to your primitive nature.” Which has deceived you, your senses or your education?
Diseases are another source of error. They impair our judgment and our senses, and if the more violent produce a sensible change, I do not doubt that slighter ailments produce each its proportionate impression.
Our own interest is again a wonderful instrument for putting out our eyes in a pleasant way. The man of greatest probity can not be judge in his own cause; I know some who that they may not fall into this self love are, out of opposition, thoroughly unjust. The certain way of ruining a just cause has been to get it recommended to these men by their near relatives.
Justice and truth are two such subtle points, that our instruments are too blunt to touch them accurately. If they attain the point they cover it so completely that they rest more often on the wrong than the right.
There is internecine war in man between the reason and the passions.
If he had only reason without passions . . .
If he had only passions without reason . . .
But having both he must have continual strife, since he cannot be at peace with one unless he be at war with the other. Hence he is always divided against and contrary to himself.
The habit of seeing kings accompanied by guards, drums, officers and all those things which mechanically incline man to respect and terror, causes their countenance, when now and then seen alone, and without these accompaniments, to impress respect and terror on their subjects, because our thought cannot separate their personality from those surroundings with which it is ordinarily joined. And the world which does not know that the effect arises from habit, believes that it arises from natural force, and hence come such expressions as: “The character of Divinity is imprinted on his countenance,” etc.
The power of kings is based both on the reason and the folly of the people, and mainly on their folly. The greatest and most important matter in the world has weakness for its foundation, and this foundation is admirably sure, for there is nothing more sure than this, that the people will be weak. What is founded on sound reason is very ill founded, as the value of wisdom.
The chancellor is grave, and clothed with ornaments, for his position is unreal. Not so the king, he has power and nothing to do with imagination. Judges, doctors, etc., depend solely on imagination.
Empire founded on opinion and imagination lasts some time, the rule is gentle and willingly accepted; that founded on power lasts for ever. Thus opinion is, as it were, queen of the world, but power is its tyrant.
Power is the queen of the world, not opinion, but opinion makes use of power.
Power creates opinion. Gentleness is beautiful, as we think. Why? Because he who goes to extremes will be alone, and I will make a stronger cabal of people who will say it is inexpedient.
The cords attached by the respect of man for man, are for the most part, cords of necessity, for there must be different degrees, all men wishing to rule, but not all being able to do so, though some are able.
Let us suppose then we see men beginning to form a society. They will no doubt fight till the stronger party gets the better of the weaker, and a dominant party is constituted. But so soon as this is once settled, the masters not wishing that the strife should continue, declare that the power in their hands shall be transmitted as they please, some placing it in the choice of the people, others in the succession of birth, etc.
And here imagination begins to play her part. Till now power has constrained facts, now power is upheld by imagination in a certain party, in France that of the nobles, in Switzerland that of the burgesses, etc.
The cords therefore which bind the respect of men to any given man are the cords of imagination.
Our imagination so enlarges the present by dint of continually reflecting on it, and so contracts eternity, by never reflecting on it, that we make a nothing of eternity and an eternity of nothing; and all this has such living roots in us, that all our reason cannot suppress them, and that . . .
The imagination enlarges little objects so as to fill our soul with its fantastic estimate, and by a rash insolence belittles the great to its own measure, as when it speaks of God.
Things which have the greatest hold on us, as the concealing our small possessions, are often a mere nothing. It is a nothing which our imagination magnifies into a mountain, another turn of imagination would make us discover its nothingness without difficulty.
Two faces which resemble each other, neither of which alone causes our laughter, make us laugh, when together, by their resemblance.
Children who are frightened at the face they have daubed are mere children, but how shall one who is so weak when a child grow truly strong as he grows old? We only change our fancies.
All that is brought to perfection by progress perishes also by progress. All that has been weak can never be absolutely strong. It is in vain to say, “He has grown, he has changed.” He is also the same.
My fancy makes me hate a man who breathes hard when he is eating. Fancy has great weight. Will you profit by yielding to this weight because it is natural? No; but by resisting it.
Prejudice leading into error.—It is a deplorable thing to see all men deliberating on means alone, and not on the end. Every man thinks how he may acquit himself in his condition, but as for the choice of condition or of country, chance gives them to us.
It is a pitiable thing, to see so many Turks, heretics and infidels, follow the way of their fathers for the simple reason that each has been told it is the best. And that fixes for each man his condition, locksmith, soldier, etc.
Therefore savages would care nothing for Provence.
Ferox gens,nullam esse vitam sine armis rati. They love death rather than peace, other men love death rather than war.
Every opinion may be held in preference to life, of which the love seems so strong and so natural.
Thoughts.—All is one, all is diverse. How many natures in that of man, how many vocations! And by what a chance does each man take ordinarily what he has heard praised. A well turned heel.
The heel of a slipper.—How well this is turned, here is a clever workman, how brave is this soldier! Such is the source of our inclinations and of the choice of conditions. How much this man drinks, how little that man! That is what makes men sober or drunken, soldiers, cowards, etc.
Glory.—Admiration spoils everything from infancy. How well said, how well done, how clever he is! etc.
The children of Port Royal, who are not urged with this spur of envy and glory, become careless.
Glory.—The brutes have no admiration for each other. A horse does not admire his companion. Not but that they have their rivalries in a race, but that entails no consequences, for once in the stable the heaviest and most ill-formed does not yield his oats to another, as men would expect from others in their own case. Their virtue is satisfied with itself.
First degree: to be blamed for doing evil, and praised for doing good. Second degree: to be neither praised nor blamed.
Brave deeds are most estimable when hidden. When I see some of these in history they please me much. But after all they have not been wholly hidden, since they have become known. And though all has been done to hide them that could be done, the little whereby they have appeared has spoiled all, for what was finest in them was the desire to hide them.
We are not content with the life we have in ourselves and in our own being, we wish to live an imaginary life in the idea of others, and to this end we strive to make a show. We labour incessantly to embellish and preserve this imaginary being, and we neglect the true. And if we have either calmness, generosity, or fidelity, we hasten to let it be known, that we may attach these virtues to that imaginary being; we would even part with them for this end, and gladly become cowards for the reputation of valour. It is a great mark of the nothingness of our own being that we are not satisfied with the one without the other, and that we often renounce one for the other. For he would be infamous who would not die to preserve his honour.
Vocations.—The sweetness of glory is so great that join it to what we will, even to death, we love it.
Evil is easy, and its forms are infinite; good is almost unique. But a certain kind of evil is as difficult to find as what is called good; and often on this account this particular kind of evil gets passed off as good. There is even needed an extraordinary greatness of soul to attain to it as well as to good.
We are so presumptuous that we would fain be known by the whole world, even by those who shall come after, when we are no more. And we are such triflers that the esteem of five or six persons about us diverts and contents us.
Vanity is so anchored in the heart of man that a soldier, a camp-follower, a cook, a porter makes his boasts, and is for having his admirers; even philosophers wish for them. Those who write against it, yet desire the glory of having written well, those who read, desire the glory of having read; I who write this have, may be, this desire, and perhaps those who will read it. . . .
In towns through which we pass we care not whether men esteem us, but we do care if we have to live there any time. How long is needed? A time in proportion to our vain and fleeting life.
The condition of man; inconstancy, weariness, unrest.
Whoever will know fully the vanity of man has but to consider the causes and the effects of love. The cause is an unknown quantity, and the effects are terrible. This unknown quantity, so small a matter that we cannot recognise it, moves a whole country, princes, armies, and all the world.
Cleopatra’s nose: had it been shorter, the face of the world had been changed.
Nothing better shows the frivolity of man than to consider what are the causes and what the effects of love, for all the universe is changed by them. Cleopatra’s nose.
Frivolity.—The cause and the effects of love. Cleopatra.
Pride is a counterpoise, and turns the scale against all woes. Here is a strange monster, a very visible aberration. Behold him fallen from his place, and anxiously seeking it. That is what all men do. Let us see who has found it.
Contradiction.—Pride is a counterpoise to all miseries. Man either conceals them, or if he display them, glories in the knowledge of them.
Of the desire of being esteemed by those with whom we are.—Pride has a natural possession of us in the midst of our miseries, errors, etc. We can even lose our life with joy, if men will but talk of it.
Vanity, play, hunting, visiting, false pretences, a lasting name.
Pride.—Curiosity is mere frivolity. For the most part we want to know only for the sake of talking. People would not make voyages if they were never to speak of them, for the sole pleasure of seeing, without hope of ever communicating their impressions.
[P. 51.]Of the deceptive powers, etc. This is Pascal’s own title for this section.
[P. 51, l. 15.]Imagination. Pascal uses this word in an extended sense already given to it by Montaigne, and means that faculty by which we attribute a value to those things which in fact have none.
[P. 53, l. 16.]furred cats. Rabelais, bk. v. ch. 11.
[P. 54, l. 7.]Della Opinione. No work is known under this name. Pascal possibly means a work of Carlo Flosi, L’Opinione tiranna, moralmente considerata ne gli affari del mondo, Mondovi, 1690. But it is not certain that this edition is the reprint of a work extant before Pascal wrote.
[P. 54, l. 33.]Diseases are another source of error. Taken from Montaigne, Essais, l. ii. ch. xii.
[P. 56, l. 26.]in Switzerland that of the burgesses. This may be compared with p. 66, l. 16. In the majority of Swiss towns every candidate for municipal office must needs possess the freedom of the town, but the intention was not to set aside those of noble birth, as Pascal supposes, but foreigners, and those of other towns, each of which was considered as a separate state.
[P. 57, l. 31.]would care nothing for Provence. Compare Montaigne, Essais, l. i. ch. xxii. “C’est par l’entremise de la coustume que chacun est contant du lieu où nature l’a planté: et lessauvages d’Escosse n’ont que faire de la Touraine ny les Scythes de la Thessalie.”
[P. 57, l. 32.]Ferox gens. Livy, l. xxxiv. c. 17.
[P. 58, l. 26.]Brave deeds. Borrowed from Montaigne, Essais, l. i. ch. xl.