Front Page Titles (by Subject) OF JUSTICE CUSTOMS AND PREJUDICES. - The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal
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OF JUSTICE CUSTOMS AND PREJUDICES. - 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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ON what shall man found the economy of the world which he would fain govern? If on the caprice of each man, all is confusion. If on justice, man is ignorant of it.
Certainly had he known it, he would not have established the maxim, most general of all current among men, that every one must conform to the manners of his own country; the splendour of true equity would have brought all nations into subjection, and legislators would not have taken as their model the fancies and caprice of Persians and Germans instead of stable justice. We should have seen it established in all the States of the world, in all times, whereas now we see neither justice nor injustice which does not change its quality upon changing its climate. Three degrees of latitude reverse all jurisprudence, a meridian decides what is truth, fundamental laws change after a few years of possession, right has its epochs, the entrance of Saturn into the Lion marks for us the origin of such and such a crime. That is droll justice which is bounded by a stream! Truth on this side of the Pyrenees, error on that.
It is admitted that justice is not in these customs, but that it resides in natural laws common to every country. This would no doubt be maintained with obstinacy if the rash chance which has disseminated human laws had lighted upon even one that is universal, but the singularity of the matter is that owing to the vagaries of human caprice there is not one.
Theft, incest, infanticide, parricide, all have found a place among virtuous actions. Can there be any thing more absurd than that a man should have the right to kill me because he lives across the water, and because his prince has a quarrel with mine, although I have none with him? There are no doubt natural laws, but fair reason once corrupted has corrupted all. Nihil ampliusnostrum est; quod nostrum dicimus, artis est. Ex senatus consultis, et plebiscitis crimina exercentur. Ut olim vitiis, sic nunc legibus laboramus.
From this confusion it results that one declares the essence of justice to be the authority of the legislator, another, the convenience of the sovereign, another, existing custom, and this is the most sure; nothing which follows reason alone is just in itself, all shifts and changes with time; custom creates equity, by the simple reason that this is received. It is the mystical foundation of its authority, whoever carries it back to first principles annihilates it. Nothing is so faulty as those laws which correct faults. Whoever obeys them because they are just, obeys an imaginary justice, not law in its essence; it is altogether self-contained, it is law and nothing more. Whoever will examine its motive will find it so feeble and so slight that if he be not used to contemplate the marvels of human imagination, he will wonder that a single century has gained for it so much pomp and reverence. It is the art of disturbance and of revolution to shake established customs, sounding them to their source, to mark their want of authority and justice. We must, it is said, return to the primitive and fundamental laws of the State, abolished by unjust custom. It is a game wherein we are sure to lose all; in this balance nothing would be true, yet the people easily lends an ear to such talk as this. They shake off the yoke as soon as they recognise it, and the great profit by its ruin, and by the ruin of those who have too curiously examined recognised customs. This is why the wisest of law givers said that it was often necessary to cheat men for their good, and another, a good politician, Quum veritatemqua liberetur ignoret, expedit quod fallatur. We ought not to feel the truth that law is but usurpation; it was once introduced without reason, and has become reasonable; it is necessary to cause it to be regarded as eternal and authoritative, and to conceal the beginning if we do not wish it should soon come to an end.
I have passed much of my life believing that justice existed, and in this I did not deceive myself, for there is justice according as God has willed to reveal it to us. But I did not take it so, and in that I deceived myself, for I believed that our justice was essentially just, and that I had that whereby I was able to know and judge of it. But I so often find that my right judgment was at fault, that at last I have begun to distrust myself, and then others. I saw in all countries that men change, and thus after many changes of judgment concerning true justice, I recognised that our nature was a continual change, and I have not changed since; were I to change I should but strengthen my opinion. The sceptic Archesilas became a dogmatist.
The most unreasonable things in the world become most reasonable, because of the unruly lives of men. What is less reasonable than to choose the eldest son of a queen to guide a state? for we do not choose as steersman of a ship that one of the passengers who is of the best family. Such a law would be ridiculous and unjust; but since they are so themselves, and ever will be, it becomes reasonable and just. For would they choose the most virtuous and able, we at once fall to blows, since each asserts that he is the most virtuous and able. Let us then affix this quality to something which cannot be disputed. This man is the king’s eldest son. That is clear, and there is no dispute. Reason can do no better, for civil war is the worst of evils.
Men of unruly lives assert that they alone follow nature, while those who are orderly stray from her paths; as passengers in a ship think that those move who stand upon the shore. Both sides say the same thing. There must be a fixed point to enable us to judge. The harbour decides the question for those who are in the vessel, but where can we find the harbour in morals?
When all moves equally, nothing seems to move, as in a ship. When all tend to vice, none appears to do so. Whoever stops draws attention to the onward movement of others, as does a fixed point.
Justice is what is established, and thus all our established laws are necessarily held to be just without being examined, because they are established.
Justice.—As fashion makes what is agreeable, so it makes what is just.
Our natural principles are but principles of custom. In children natural principles are those which they have received from the habits of their fathers, as hunting in animals.
A different custom will produce different natural principles. This experience testifies, and if there are some natural principles ineradicable by custom, so are there some customs opposed to nature ineradicable by nature, or by a second custom. This depends on constitution.
Fathers fear that the natural love of their children may be effaced. Now what sort of thing is that nature which is liable to be effaced. Custom is a second nature which destroys the former. But what is nature, for is not custom natural? I am greatly afraid that nature itself may be only our first custom, as custom is second nature.
Montaigne was wrong: custom should only be followed because it is custom, and not because it is reasonable or just; but most men follow it for the simple reason that they think it just. Otherwise they would not follow it though it were the custom, for our only wish is to be subjected to reason or to justice. Without this, custom would pass for tyranny, but the empire of reason and justice is no more tyrannical than that of desire. These are principles natural to man.
It is then good to obey laws and customs because they are laws, but we ought to know that there is neither truth nor justice to introduce into them, that we know nothing about these, and can therefore only follow what is recognised, and thus we should never transgress them. But most men cannot receive this doctrine, and since they believe that truth can be found, and that it resides in law and custom, they believe these laws, and take their antiquity as a proof of their truth, and not merely of their authority apart from truth. Thus they obey the laws, but are liable to revolt when these are shown to be of no value; and this may be proved of all of them, looked at from a certain point of view.
Injustice.—The authority of the judge is not given him for his sake, but for that of the judged. It is dangerous to say this to the people, but the people have too much faith in you; that will not harm them, and may serve you. You must then say it openly. Pasce oves meas, not tuas. You owe me pasturage.
Injustice.—It is dangerous to say to the people that the laws are not just, for men obey them only because they think them just. Therefore it is necessary to say at the same time that they must be obeyed because they are laws, as superiors must be obeyed, not because they are just, but because they are superiors. All sedition is averted, if this principle be established and it be understood what is rightly the definition of justice.
If God gave us masters direct from himself, how heartily ought we to obey them! Circumstances and necessity are infalliable masters.
Custom is our nature. Whoever is accustomed to the faith believes in it, can no longer even fear hell, and believes in nothing else. Whoever accustoms himself to believe that the king is terrible . . . etc. Who doubts then that our soul, being accustomed to see number, space, and motion, believes that and nothing else?
Veri juris; we have it no longer; had we it, we should not take the manners of our country as our rule of justice.
Here, not finding justice, we fall back on force, etc.
It is a ridiculous thing to consider that there are people in the world who, having renounced all the laws of God and nature, have yet made laws for themselves which they exactly obey, as, for instance, the soldiers of Mahomet, thieves, heretics, etc., and thus logicians . . .
It seems as though their licence must be without limit or barrier, since they have broken down so many that are just and holy.
Weakness.—The whole employment of men is to gain wealth; yet they have no title to show that they justly possess it but human caprice, nor have they power to hold it securely. It is the same with knowledge, of which disease deprives us. We are incapable both of truth and of goodness.
The Swiss are offended if they are called noble, and bring proof of their plebian race that they may be judged worthy of office.
When the question is of judging whether we ought to make war and kill so many men, condemning so many Spaniards to death, there is only one man who is the judge, and he an interested party; there ought to be a third, and he disinterested.
“Why do you kill me?—What! Do not you live on the other side of the stream, my friend? If you lived on this side I should be an assassin, and it were unjust to kill you in this fashion, but since you live on the other side, I am a brave soldier, and it is just.”
Justice, Power.—It is just that what is just should be obeyed, it is of necessity that what is strongest should be obeyed.
Justice without power is unavailing, power without justice is tyrannical. Justice without power is gainsaid, because the wicked always exist, power without justice is condemned. We must therefore combine justice and power, making what is just strong, and what is strong just.
Justice is subject to dispute, power is easily recognised and cannot be disputed. Thus we cannot give power to justice, because power has arraigned justice, saying that justice is unjust, and she herself truly just; so since we are unable to bring about that what is just should be strong, we have made the strong just.
The sole universal rules are the laws of the country in ordinary affairs, and the law of the majority in others. And this comes from the power which is in them.
Thus it comes that kings, whose power is of another kind, do not follow the majority of their ministers.
No doubt equality of goods is just, but since they are unable to bring about that power should obey justice, people have judged it right to obey power; not being able to add power to justice they have justified power, so that justice and power should coalesce, and peace, the sovereign good, result.
Do we follow the majority because they have more reason? No; but because they have more power.
Do we follow ancient laws and opinions because they are more sound? No; but because they stand alone and take from us the root of diversity.
The way of the majority is the best way, because it is plain, and has power to make itself obeyed; yet it is the opinion of the least able.
If men could have done so, they would have placed power in the hands of justice, since we cannot deal with power as we please, because it is a tangible quality, while justice is a spiritual quality of which we dispose as we please, they have placed justice in the hands of power, and thus that is called just which we are forced to obey.
Thence arises the right of the sword, for the sword gives a true right.
Otherwise we should see violence on one side and justice on the other. The end of the twelfth Provincial.
Thence the injustice of the Fronde, which raises its socalled justice against power.
It is not the same in the Church, for there is true justice and no violence.
Injustice.—That presumption should be joined to insignificance is extreme injustice.
Tyranny consists in the desire of universal rule outside its sphere.
There are different societies, in which are the strong, the fair, the judicious, the devout, in which each man rules at home, not elsewhere. Sometimes they meet, and the strong and the fair contend for the mastery, foolishly, for their mastery is each in a different kind. They do not agree, and their fault is that each aims at universal dominion. None can obtain this, not even power, which is of no avail in the realm of the wise; she is only mistress of our external actions.
Tyranny.—Thus the following expressions are false and tyrannical: “I am beautiful, therefore I should be feared; I am strong, therefore I should be loved. I am . . .”
Tyranny is the wishing to have in one way what can only be had in another. Divers duties are owing to divers merits, the duty of love to the pleasant, of fear to the strong, of belief to the wise.
These duties should be paid, it is unjust to refuse them, unjust also to require others. In the same way it is false and tyrannous to say, “He is not strong, therefore I will not esteem him; he is not clever, therefore I will not fear him.”
It is necessary that men should be unequal. True; but that being granted, the door is open, not only to the greatest domination, but to the greatest tyranny.
It is necessary to relax the mind a little, but that opens the door to extreme dissipation.
We must mark the limits.—There are no fixed boundaries in these matters, law wishes to impose them, but the mind will not bear them.
Mine, Thine.—“This is my dog,” said those poor children, “that is my place in the sunshine.” Here is the beginning and the image of the usurpation of the whole earth.
Good birth is a great advantage, for it gives a man a chance at the age of eighteen, making him known and respected as an ordinary man is on his merits at fifty. Here are thirty years gained at a stroke.
It is the result of power and not of custom. For those who are able to originate are few, the greater number will only follow, and refuse glory to those inventors who seek it by their inventions. And if they persist in wishing to gain glory, and in despising those who do not originate, the others will give them ridicule and would fain give them blows. Let no one then pride himself on this subtle capacity, or else let him keep his content to himself.
The reason of effects.—It is strange that men would not have me honour a man clothed in brocade, and followed by seven or eight footmen! Yet he will have them give me the strap if I do not salute him. This custom is a power. It is the same with a horse in fine trappings compared with another. It is odd that Montaigne does not see what difference there is, wonders that we find any, and asks the reason. “Indeed,” he says, “how comes it,” etc. . . .
When power attacks craft, when a mere soldier takes the square cap of a first president, and flings it out of the window.
Injustice.—Men have found no means to gratify their sensuality without wrong to others.
The greatness of man even in his sensuality, to have known how to extract from it an admirable code, and to have drawn from it a picture of love to others.
Greatness.—The reason of effects mark the greatness of man, in having formed so fair an order out of sensuality.
The reason of effects.—Sensuality and power are the source of all our actions; sensuality causes those which are voluntary, power the involuntary.
From sensuality men have found and drawn excellent rules of policy, of morals, and of justice.
But after all, this evil root of man, this figmentum malum, is only hidden, it is not removed.
All men by nature hate each other. They have used sensuality as best they could to make it serve the public weal, but this is only a feint, and a false image of charity, for at bottom it is but hate.
To pity the unfortunate is not contrary to sensuality, rather is it easy to render this evidence of friendship, and to gain the reputation of a tender heart, without giving.
The people have very sound opinions, for instance:
1. In having preferred diversion and hunting to poetry. The half educated deride this, and are triumphant over the folly of the world, but the people are right by a reason which the others do not understand.
2. In distinguishing men by outward marks, as birth or wealth. The world is again triumphant in showing how unreasonable this is, yet it is thoroughly reasonable. Savages laugh at an infant king.
3. In taking offence at a blow, or in desiring glory so strongly.
But it is very desirable, on account of the other essential goods which are joined to it, and a man who has received a blow without resenting it is overwhelmed with abuse and indignity.
4. In working for an uncertainty, in going on a sea voyage, in walking over a plank.
Sound opinions of the people.—Civil wars are the greatest of all evils. They are certain, if we try to reward desert, for all will say they deserve. The evil to fear from a fool who succeeds by right of birth, is neither so great nor so certain.
Sound opinions of the people.—To be well dressed is not altogether foolish, for it proves that a great number of people work for us. It shows by our hair, that we have a valet, a perfumer etc. by our band, our thread, our trimming, etc. Now it is not merely superficial nor simply outward show to have many arms at our disposal.
The more arms we have the stronger we are. To be well dressed is to show our power.
The reason of effects.—Continual alternation of pro and con.
We have then shown that man is frivolous, by the estimation he has of non-essentials. And all these opinions are destroyed. We have next shown that all these opinions were perfectly sound, and that thus all these frivolities being well founded, the people is not so frivolous as is said. And thus we have destroyed the opinion which destroyed that of the people.
But we must now destroy this last proposition, and show that it remains always true that the people is frivolous, though its opinions are sound, because it does not feel the truth where it is, and placing it where it is not, its opinions are always very false and very unsound.
The reason of effects.—It is, then, true to say that all men are under an illusion, for even though the opinions of the people be sound, they are not so as they hold them, for they think that truth is where it is not. Truth is indeed in their opinions, but not at the point where they imagine it.
Thus, it is true that we should honour men of birth, but not because good birth is in itself an advantage, etc.
The reason of effects.—Gradation. The people honours persons of high birth. The half-educated despise them, saying that birth is not a personal, but a chance advantage. The educated honour them, not from the motives of the people, but from another motive. Devout persons of more zeal than knowledge despise them, in spite of that consideration which makes them honoured by the educated, because they judge by a new light arising from their piety. But true Christians honour them by a still higher light. So there is a succession of opinions for and against, according to the measure of our light.
How rightly do men distinguish by exterior rather than by interior qualities! Which of us twain shall take the lead? Who will give place to the other? The least able? But I am as able as he is. We should have to fight about that. He has four footmen, and I have but one; that is something which can be seen; there is nothing to do but to count; it is my place to yield, and I am a fool if I contest it. So by this means we remain at peace, the greatest of all blessings.
Deference is shown by submitting to personal inconvenience. This is apparently foolish but really just, for it is to say, “I would certainly put myself to inconvenience did you need it, since I do so when it can be of no service to you.” Respect, moreover, is for the purpose of marking distinctions of rank. Now if it showed respect to be seated in an arm-chair, we should pay respect to every body, and thus no distinction would be made, but being put to inconvenience we distinguish very well.
The reason of effects.—We should keep our own secret thoughts, and judge of all by those, while speaking like every one else.
King and Tyrant.—I too will have my secret thoughts. I will take care on every journey.
The reason of effects.—Epictetus. Those who say “You have a headache,” this is not the same thing. We are assured of health, and not of justice, and indeed his own was folly.
Yet he believed it demonstrable when he said, “it is either in our power or it is not.”
But he did not see that it is not in our power to regulate the heart, and he was wrong to draw this conclusion from the fact that some were Christians.
The reason of effects.—It is owing to the weakness of man that so many things are esteemed beautiful, as to be well skilled in playing the lute.
It is only an evil because of our weakness.
[P. 61.]Of Justice, etc. These fragments, now among the best known of Pascal’s Thoughts, but for the most part brought to notice in the edition of Bossut, 1779, have their present arrangement and title from Molinier.
[P. 62, l. 7.]Nihil amplius. These sentences, borrowed from Montaigne, are quoted, the first of them wrongly, from Cicero, De Finibus, v. 21; the second from Seneca, Ad Lucilium, Ep. 95; the third from Tacitus, Annales, iii. 25. Compare with the whole passage Montaigne, Essais, l. ii. ch. xii. and l. iii. ch. xiii.
[P. 62, l. 35.]the wisest of law givers. Socrates, in the Republic of Plato.
[P. 62, l. 37.]Quum veritatem. S. Aug., De Civit. Dei, iv. 31. From Montaigne, Essais, l. ii. ch. xii.
[P. 63, l. 16.]Archesilas. Born at Pitane in Æolis of a Scythian father, about 300 bc He was founder of the School known as the Second Academy. See Montaigne, Essais, l. ii. ch. xii.
[P. 64, l. 25.]For all that is here said on Custom, see Montaigne, Essais, l. i. ch. xxii.
[P. 65, l. 15.]Pasce oves meas. Joh. xxi. 17. The words are those taken as the foundation of papal authority. You owe me pasturage, i.e. you owe me justice.
[P. 66, l. 5.]the soldiers of Mahomet, thieves, heretics. Pascal boldly joins heretics and thieves, for those who did not hold his creed appeared to him as men sans foi ni loi, faithless and lawless. In his eyes a Turk was scarce a man. See the Provincial Letters, let. xiv. “Sont-ce des religieux et des prêtres qui parlent de cette sorte? Sont-ce des Chrétiens? Sont-ce des Turcs? Sont-ce des démons?” And Thoughts, p. 211, l. 30. “Do we not see beasts live and die like men, and Turks like Christians?”
[P. 66, l. 16.]The Swiss. See note on p. 56, l. 26.
[P. 66, l. 20.]condemning so many Spaniards to death. Possibly an allusion to the battle of the Dunes, 1659, which led to the Peace of the Pyrenees, so long desired by all but Spain, then obliged to consent.
[P. 67, l. 25.]Summum jus, summa injuria. Charron, Traité de la Sagesse, etc. ch. xxvii. art. 8.
[P. 68, l. 2.]The end of the Twelfth Provincial. The following is the passage to which Pascal alludes. “C’est une etrange et longue guerre que celle où la violence essaye d’opprimer la vérité.Tous les efforts de la violence ne peuvent affaiblir la vérite, et ne servent qu’à la relever davantage. Toutes les lumières de la vérité ne peuvent rien pour arrêter la violence et ne font que l’irriter encore plus . . . la violence et la vérité ne peuvent rien l’une sur l’autre.”
[P. 68, l. 3.]The Fronde. This was the name given to the party which rose against Mazarin and the Court during the minority of Louis XIV., and plunged France into civil war.
[P. 69, l. 20.]give me the strap. This is no exaggeration, since, fifty years after Pascal wrote, Voltaire was beaten by the servants of the Duc de Rohan.
[P. 69, l. 23.]It is odd that Montaigne. Essais, l. i. ch. xlii.
[P. 69, l. 26.]When power attacks craft. Satyre Menippée, Harangue du Sire de Rieux: “il n’y a ny bonnet quarré, ny bourlet, que je ne face voler.”
[P. 70, l. 8.]figmentum malum. Ps. ciii. 13.
[P. 70, l. 24.]Savages laugh at an infant king. Pascal is alluding to the story in Montaigne, Essais, l. i. ch. xxx., of the savages presented to Charles IX. at Rouen, who were astonished to see bearded men obey a child.
[P. 72, l. 31.]Epictetus. See p. 46, l. 32, in order to understand this somewhat enigmatic fragment. In the next paragraph is an allusion to the passage in which Epictetus says, l. iv. ch. 7, that the philosopher may well be constant and detached from life by wisdom, as were the Galilæans by their fanaticism.