From Modern Philosophy: Essential Selections, by James Fieser
Copyright 2015, updated 1/1/2017
NOBLEMEN NOT INTRINSICALLY BETTER THAN ORDINARY PEOPLE (“Discourse on the Condition of the Great” 1652)
Noble Heritage results from Chance and Human Regulation
Imagine that a man was cast by a storm upon an unknown island, whose inhabitants were at that moment in trouble, owing to the sudden disappearance of their King; and, as he happened to bear a strong resemblance in person and countenance to the lost Sovereign, he is supposed to be actually himself, and is immediately received, as such, by the whole population. He was at first perplexed, what part he ought to act on the occasion; but, quickly resolved to avail himself of the advantage which fortune presented to him. He received, therefore, all the considerations offered to him, and allowed himself at once to be treated by the deceived population as their King. But, as he was unable to forget his former condition, his reflections were, while receiving the people’s homage, that he was not really the Sovereign of whom they were in search, and that the kingdom was no property of his. Thus, a double train of thought occupied his mind: the one, how he was to conduct himself as King; the other, what had been his original state, and by what strange accident he had become a Sovereign. The latter, however, he kept to himself; the former alone, he revealed to others: by the one, be governed the people; by the other, he regulated his own conduct.
Now, I would not have you imagine, that it is less an accident that you are in possession of your wealth and distinction, than that the man we have imagined found himself a King. You have no superiority in yourself, and by virtue of your own nature, any more than he. It is to a multitude of chances you owe it, not only that you are the son of a duke, but that you are born into this world at all. Your birth depended upon a marriage,—or rather, upon the marriages of your whole line of ancestors. From where does the marriage tie arise? From an accidental visit, from a fugitive conversation, from a hundred unforeseen contingencies! You hold, you will say, your revenues from your ancestors; but is it not the result of numberless accidents, that your ancestors acquired, and have retained, the possession of them?
Can you suppose it to be by any necessary order of things, that these possessions have been handed down from your ancestors to yourself? Far is this from being the case. That order is founded alone on legislative enactments, originating, perhaps, in the soundest reasons, but none of which assume any natural right on your part to these things. Had our forefathers thought fit to enact that the possessions, after being enjoyed by your predecessors during life, should revert to the commonwealth after their death, you would have had no ground of complaint. Thus, then, is the whole title by which you hold your property—not one conferred by natural right, but by human regulation. A different resolve of judgment on the part of those who had the making of laws, might have rendered you poor; and it is only the concurrence of circumstances in which your birth originated, and the accident of laws favorable to your interests, that have put you in possession of all that you enjoy.
Noble Heritage not from Merit or Natural Superiority
I do not say that they do not belong legitimately to you, or that any other could be permitted to take them from you. God, who is the proprietor of all things, has permitted societies to make laws for the distribution of property; and when these laws are once enacted, it becomes a crime to violate them. This constitutes some distinction between your case, and that of the man who obtained his kingdom by the mistake of the people: God had not sanctioned his possession of the sovereignty, and might have compelled him to renounce it; while yours he has sanctioned. But what assimilates you with him is, that your rights are not founded, any more than his, in any qualification and merit in yourself, by which you obtain a title to them.
Your mind and your body might have been indifferently, those of a laborer, or of a duke; and there is no natural superiority in them, that should assign them to the one, rather than to the other. What is the inference, then, from this ?—-That you ought, like the man of whom we have been speaking, to entertain a double habit of thought; and that, if among men you conduct yourself in a manner conformable to your rank, a deeper, but not less true conviction, should suggest, that by nature you possess no advantages over them. If the avowed thought elevates you above the generality of mankind, let the inward reflection humble you, by showing you the perfect equality, in your natural state, between yourself and all your fellow-men. The crowds who admire you know, perhaps, nothing of the secret. They deem nobility a real elevation, and regard the great as almost of a different species from their own. I advise that you should not deprive them of this illusion; but, on the other hand, do not abuse your elevation to the point of arrogance. Most importantly, do not mistake yourself so much as to suppose that you, in reality, possess a nature in any respect different from theirs.
What would you have said, if the man who was installed into royalty by the mistake of the people, had at once so far forgotten his former condition, as to imagine the kingdom was his due; that he had obtained it by desert, and enjoyed it of right? You would have marveled at his ignorance and folly. But is it greater than that of persons of high condition, who fall into so strange a forgetfulness of their natural and original state? Most important is this caution! Believe me, all the excesses, all the follies, all the outrages of the great, arise from their ignorance of what they really are. Difficult would it be for those who regarded themselves as intrinsically on a level with all men, and were convinced that in themselves they had no claim to those petty advantages which God confers upon them, in preference to others. Difficult, indeed, would it be for such to conduct themselves toward their fellow-men with arrogance. It is those only who forget these things, and believe themselves to possess real advantages over others, that can fall into such conduct; and this is the illusion against which I would now desire to caution you.
THE LIMITATIONS OF HUMAN REASONING (from Thoughts, 1670)
Reason's Confusion about Nature: Trapped between two Infinities
72. . . . Returning to himself, let man consider what he is in comparison with all existence; let him regard himself as lost in this remote corner of nature; and from the little cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him estimate at their true value the earth, kingdoms, cities, and himself. What is a man in the Infinite?
But to show him another wonder equally astonishing, let him examine the most delicate things he knows. Let a mite be given him, with its minute body and parts incomparably more minute, limbs with their joints, veins in the limbs, blood in the veins, humors in the blood, drops in the humors, vapors in the drops. Dividing these last things again, let him exhaust his powers of conception, and let the last object at which he can arrive be now that of our discourse. Perhaps he will think that here is the smallest point in nature. I will let him see therein a new abyss. I will paint for him not only the visible universe, but all that he can conceive of nature's immensity in the womb of this abridged atom. Let him see therein an infinity of universes, each of which has its firmament, its planets, its earth, in the same proportion as in the visible world; in each earth animals, and in the last mites, in which he will find again all that the first had, finding still in these others the same thing without end and without cessation. Let him lose himself in wonders as amazing in their littleness as the others in their vastness. For who will not be astounded at the fact that our body, which a little while ago was imperceptible in the universe, itself imperceptible in the bosom of the whole, is now a colossus, a world, or rather a whole, in respect of the nothingness which we cannot reach? He who regards himself in this light will be afraid of himself, and observing himself sustained in the body given him by nature between those two abysses of the Infinite and Nothing, will tremble at the sight of these marvels; and I think that, as his curiosity changes into admiration, he will be more disposed to contemplate them in silence than to examine them with presumption.
For, in fact, what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up.
What will he do then, but perceive the appearance of the middle of things, in an eternal despair of knowing either their beginning or their end. All things proceed from the Nothing, and are borne towards the Infinite. Who will follow these marvellous processes? The Author of these wonders understands them. None other can do so.
Through failure to contemplate these Infinites, men have rashly rushed into the examination of nature, as though they bore some proportion to her. It is strange that they have wished to understand the beginnings of things, and thence to arrive at the knowledge of the whole, with a presumption as infinite as their object. For surely this design cannot be formed without presumption or without a capacity infinite like nature.
If we are well informed, we understand that, as nature has graven her image and that of her Author on all things, they almost all partake of her double infinity. Thus we see that all the sciences are infinite in the extent of their researches. For who doubts that geometry, for instance, has an infinite infinity of problems to solve? They are also infinite in the multitude and fineness of their premises; for it is clear that those which are put forward as ultimate are not self-supporting, but are based on others which, again having others for their support, do not permit of finality. But we represent some as ultimate for reason, in the same way as in regard to material objects we call that an indivisible point beyond which our senses can no longer perceive anything, although by its nature it is infinitely divisible.
Of these two Infinites of science, that of greatness is the most palpable, and hence a few persons have pretended to know all things. "I will speak of the whole," said Democritus.
But the infinitely little is the least obvious. Philosophers have much oftener claimed to have reached it, and it is here they have all stumbled. This has given rise to such common titles as First Principles, Principles of Philosophy, and the like, as pretentious in fact, though not in appearance, as that one which blinds us, De omni scibili ["On Everything Knowable", the title of one of Pico's 900 Theses].
We naturally believe ourselves far more capable of reaching the center of things than of embracing their circumference. The visible extent of the world visibly exceeds us; but as we exceed little things, we think ourselves more capable of knowing them. Yet we need no less capacity for attaining the Nothing than the All. Infinite capacity is required for both, and it seems to me that whoever will have understood the ultimate principles of being might also attain to the knowledge of the Infinite. The one depends on the other, and one leads to the other. These extremes meet and reunite by force of distance and find each other in God, and in God alone.
Let us, then, take our compass; we are something, and we are not everything. The nature of our existence hides from us the knowledge of first beginnings which are born of the Nothing; and the littleness of our being conceals from us the sight of the Infinite.
Reason's Incapacity to Comprehend Extremes
Our intellect holds the same position in the world of thought as our body occupies in the expanse of nature.
Limited as we are in every way, this state which holds the mean between two extremes is present in all our powerlessness. Our senses perceive no extreme. Too much sound deafens us; too much light dazzles us; too great distance or proximity hinders our view. Too great length and too great brevity of discourse tend to obscurity; too much truth is paralyzing (I know some who cannot understand that to take four from nothing leaves nothing). First principles are too self-evident for us; too much pleasure disagrees with us. Too many concords are annoying in music; too many benefits irritate us; we wish to have the wherewithal to overpay our debts. "Kindnesses are agreeable so long as one thinks them possible to render; further, recognition makes way for hatred" [Tacitus]. We feel neither extreme heat nor extreme cold. Excessive qualities are prejudicial to us and not perceptible by the senses; we do not feel but suffer them. Extreme youth and extreme age hinder the mind, as also too much and too little education. In short, extremes are for us as though they were not, and we are not within their notice. They escape us, or we them.
This is our true state; this is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge and of absolute ignorance. We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and to fasten to it, it wavers and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes forever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition and yet most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses.
Let us, therefore, not look for certainty and stability. Our reason is always deceived by fickle shadows; nothing can fix the finite between the two Infinites, which both enclose and fly from it.
If this be well understood, I think that we will remain at rest, each in the state wherein nature has placed him. As this sphere which has fallen to us as our lot is always distant from either extreme, what matters it that man should have a little more knowledge of the universe? If he has it, he but gets a little higher. Is he not always infinitely removed from the end, and is not the duration of our life equally removed from eternity, even if it lasts ten years longer?
Reason's Incapacity to Understand the Parts of Human Nature without Knowledge of the Whole
In comparison with these Infinites, all finites are equal, and I see no reason for fixing our imagination on one more than on another. The only comparison which we make of ourselves to the finite is painful to us.
If man made himself the first object of study, he would see how incapable he is of going further. How can a part know the whole? But he may perhaps aspire to know at least the parts to which he bears some proportion. But the parts of the world are all so related and linked to one another that I believe it impossible to know one without the other and without the whole.
Man, for instance, is related to all he knows. He needs a place wherein to live, time through which to live, motion in order to live, elements to compose him, warmth and food to nourish him, air to breathe. He sees light; he feels bodies; in short, he is in a dependent alliance with everything. To know man, then, it is necessary to know how it happens that he needs air to live, and, to know the air, we must know how it is thus related to the life of man, etc. Flame cannot exist without air; therefore, to understand the one, we must understand the other.
Since everything, then, is cause and effect, dependent and supporting, mediate and immediate, and all is held together by a natural though imperceptible chain which binds together things most distant and most different, I hold it equally impossible to know the parts without knowing the whole and to know the whole without knowing the parts in detail.
The eternity of things in itself or in God must also astonish our brief duration. The fixed and constant immobility of nature, in comparison with the continual change which goes on within us, must have the same effect.
Reason's Confusion about Mind and Body
And what completes our incapability of knowing things is the fact that they are simple and that we are composed of two opposite natures, different in kind, soul and body. For it is impossible that our rational part should be other than spiritual; and if any one maintain that we are simply corporeal, this would far more exclude us from the knowledge of things, there being nothing so inconceivable as to say that matter knows itself. It is impossible to imagine how it should know itself.
So, if we are simply material, we can know nothing at all; and if we are composed of mind and matter, we cannot know perfectly things which are simple, whether spiritual or corporeal. Hence it comes that almost all philosophers have confused ideas of things, and speak of material things in spiritual terms, and of spiritual things in material terms. For they say boldly that bodies have a tendency to fall, that they seek after their center, that they fly from destruction, that they fear the void, that they have inclinations, sympathies, antipathies, all of which attributes pertain only to mind. In speaking of minds, they consider them as in a place, and attribute to them movement from one place to another; and these are qualities which belong only to bodies.
Instead of receiving the ideas of these things in their purity, we color them with our own qualities, and stamp with our composite being all the simple things which we contemplate.
Who would not think, seeing us compose all things of mind and body, but that this mixture would be quite intelligible to us? Yet it is the very thing we least understand. Man is to himself the most wonderful object in nature; for he cannot conceive what the body is, still less what the mind is, and least of all how a body should be united to a mind.
Reason's Confusion about the Highest Good
73. But perhaps this subject goes beyond the capacity of reason. Let us therefore examine her solutions to problems within her powers. If there be anything to which her own interest must have made her apply herself most seriously, it is the inquiry into her own sovereign good. Let us see, then, wherein these strong and clear-sighted souls have placed it and whether they agree.
One says that the sovereign good consists in virtue, another in pleasure, another in the knowledge of nature, another in truth: “Fortunate is he, who is able to know the hidden causes of things"; another in total ignorance, another in indolence, others in neglect of appearances, another in the lack of wonder: “To be astonished at nothing is nearly the only thing which can give and conserve happiness”, the true sceptics in their indifference, doubt and perpetual suspense, and others, more wise, think they can find a better way. This is all we get from them!
We must see if this fine philosophy has gained nothing certain from a research so lengthy and so wide, at least perhaps the soul has learned to know herself. We will hear the rulers of the world on this matter. What have they thought of her substance? Have they been luckier in fixing her seat? What have they discovered about her origin, duration and departure?
Main Arguments of the Skeptics: Wicked Demon, Dreaming
434. The chief arguments of the sceptics—while I pass over the minor ones—are that we have no certainty of the truth of these [first] principles apart from faith and revelation, except in so far as we naturally perceive them in ourselves. Now this natural intuition is not a convincing proof of their truth; since, having no certainty, apart from faith, whether man was created by a good God, or by a wicked demon, or by chance, it is doubtful whether these principles given to us are true, or false, or uncertain, according to our origin. Again, no person is certain, apart from faith, whether he is awake or sleeps, seeing that during sleep we believe that we are awake as firmly as we do when we are awake; we believe that we see space, figure, and motion; we are aware of the passage of time, we measure it; and in fact we act as if we were awake. So that half of our life being passed in sleep, we have on our own admission no idea of truth, whatever we may imagine. As all our intuitions are, then, illusions, who knows whether the other half of our life, in which we think we are awake, is not another sleep a little different from the former, from which we awake when we suppose ourselves asleep?
And who doubts that, if we dreamt in company, and the dreams happened to agree, which is common enough, and if we were always alone when awake, we should believe that matters were reversed? In short, as we often dream that we dream, heaping dream upon dream, may it not be that this half of our life, wherein we think ourselves awake, is itself only a dream on which the others are grafted, from which we wake at death, during which we have as few principles of truth and good as during natural sleep, these different thoughts which disturb us being perhaps only illusions like the flight of time and the vain fancies of our dreams?
These are the chief arguments on one side and the other.
I omit minor ones, such as the skeptical talk against the influence of custom, education, manners, country and the like. Though these influence the majority of common folk, who dogmatize only on shallow foundations, they are upset by the least breath of the sceptics. We have only to see their books if we are not sufficiently convinced of this, and we will very quickly become so, perhaps too much.
Failure of both Skepticism and Dogmatism
I notice the only strong point of the dogmatists, namely, that, speaking in good faith and sincerely, we cannot doubt natural principles. Against this the sceptics set up in one word the uncertainty of our origin, which includes that of our nature. The dogmatists have been trying to answer this objection ever since the world began.
So there is open war among men, in which each must take a part and side either with dogmatism or skepticism. For he who thinks to remain neutral is above all a sceptic. This neutrality is the essence of the sect; he who is not against them is essentially for them. In this appears their advantage. They are not for themselves; they are neutral, indifferent, in suspense as to all things, even themselves being no exception.
What, then, will man do in this state? Will he doubt everything? Will he doubt whether he is awake, whether he is being pinched, or whether he is being burned? Will he doubt whether he doubts? Will he doubt whether he exists? We cannot go so far as that; and I lay it down as a fact that there never has been a real complete sceptic. Nature sustains our feeble reason and prevents it raving to this extent.
Will he, then, say, on the contrary, that he certainly possesses truth—he who, when pressed ever so little, can show no title to it and is forced to let go his hold?
What a chimera, then, is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe!
Who will unravel this tangle? Nature confutes the sceptics, and reason confutes the dogmatists. What, then, will you become, O men! who try to find out by your natural reason what is your true condition? You cannot avoid one of these sects, nor adhere to one of them.
The Mystery of Original Sin Necessary for Understanding the Human Condition
Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Humble yourself, weak reason; be silent, foolish nature; learn that man infinitely transcends man, and learn from your Master your true condition, of which you are ignorant. Hear God.
For in fact, if man had never been corrupt, he would enjoy in his innocence both truth and happiness with assurance; and if man had always been corrupt, he would have no idea of truth or bliss. But, wretched as we are, and more so than if there were no greatness in our condition, we have an idea of happiness and cannot reach it. We perceive an image of truth and possess only a lie. Incapable of absolute ignorance and of certain knowledge, we have thus been manifestly in a degree of perfection from which we have unhappily fallen.
It is, however, an astonishing thing that the mystery furthest removed from our knowledge, namely, that of the transmission of sin, should be a fact without which we can have no knowledge of ourselves. For it is beyond doubt that there is nothing which more shocks our reason than to say that the sin of the first man has rendered guilty those who, being so removed from this source, seem incapable of participation in it. This transmission does not only seem to us impossible, it seems also very unjust. For what is more contrary to the rules of our miserable justice than to damn eternally an infant incapable of will, for a sin wherein he seems to have so little a share that it was committed six thousand years before he was in existence? Certainly nothing offends us more rudely than this doctrine; and yet without this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we are incomprehensible to ourselves. The knot of our condition takes its twists and turns in this abyss, so that man is more inconceivable without this mystery than this mystery is inconceivable to man.
From this it seems that God, willing to render the difficulty of our existence unintelligible to ourselves, has concealed the knot so high, or, better speaking, so low, that we are quite incapable of reaching it; so that it is not by the proud exertions of our reason, but by the simple submissions of reason, that we can truly know ourselves.
These foundations, solidly established on the inviolable authority of religion, make us know that there are two truths of faith equally certain: the one, that man, in the state of creation, or in that of grace, is raised above all nature, made like God and sharing in his divinity; the other, that in the state of corruption and sin, he is fallen from this state and made like the beasts.
JUSTICE, CUSTOM AND FORCE
Customary Justice is Arbitrary, True Unchanging Justice is Unknown
294. On what will man found the order of the world which he would govern? Will it be on the caprice of each individual? What confusion! Will it be on justice? Man is ignorant of it.
Certainly, had he known it, he would not have established this maxim, the most general of all that obtain among men, that each should follow the custom of his own country. The glory of true equity would have brought all nations under subjection, and legislators would not have taken as their model the fancies and caprice of Persians and Germans instead of this unchanging justice. We would have seen it set up in all the States on earth and in all times; whereas we see neither justice nor injustice which does not change its nature with change in climate. Three degrees of latitude reverse all jurisprudence; a meridian decides the truth. Fundamental laws change after a few years of possession; right has its epochs; the entry of Saturn into the Lion marks to us the origin of such and such a crime. A strange justice that is bounded by a river! Truth on this side of the Pyrenees, error on the other side.
Men admit that justice does not consist in these customs, but that it resides in natural laws, common to every country. They would certainly maintain it obstinately, if reckless chance which has distributed human laws had encountered even one which was universal; but the farce is that the caprice of men has so many vagaries that there is no such law.
Theft, incest, infanticide, parricide, have all had a place among virtuous actions. Can anything be more ridiculous than that a man should have the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of the water, and because his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have none with him?
Doubtless there are natural laws; but good reason once corrupted has corrupted all.
The result of this confusion is that one affirms the essence of justice to be the authority of the legislator; another, the interest of the sovereign; another, present custom, and this is the most sure. Nothing, according to reason alone, is just itself; all changes with time. Custom creates the whole of equity, for the simple reason that it is accepted. It is the mystical foundation of its authority; whoever carries it back to first principles destroys it. Nothing is so faulty as those laws which correct faults. He who obeys them because they are just obeys a justice which is imaginary and not the essence of law; it is quite self-contained, it is law and nothing more. He who will examine its motive will find it so feeble and so trifling that, if he be not accustomed to contemplate the wonders of human imagination, he will marvel that one century has gained for it so much pomp and reverence. The art of opposition and of revolution is to unsettle established customs, sounding them even to their source, to point out their want of authority and justice. We must, it is said, get back to the natural and fundamental laws of the State, which an unjust custom has abolished. It is a game certain to result in the loss of all; nothing will be just on the balance. Yet people readily lend their ear to such arguments. They shake off the yoke as soon as they recognize it; and the great profit by their ruin and by that of these curious investigators of accepted customs. But from a contrary mistake men sometimes think they can justly do everything which is not without an example. That is why the wisest of legislators said that it was necessary to deceive men for their own good; and another, a good politician, “As he has ignored the truth which frees, it is right he is mistaken” [Augustine]. We must not see the fact of usurpation; law was once introduced without reason, and has become reasonable. We must make it regarded as authoritative, eternal, and conceal its origin, if we do not wish that it should soon come to an end.
Customary Justice Secured through Force and obedience to Law
297. "Concerning true law" [Cicero]—we have it no more. If we had it, we should take conformity to the customs of a country as the rule of justice. It is here that, not finding justice, we have found force, etc.
298. Justice, might.—It is right that what is just should be obeyed; it is necessary that what is strongest should be obeyed. Justice without might is helpless; might without justice is tyrannical. Justice without might is gainsaid, because there are always offenders; might without justice is condemned. We must then combine justice and might and, for this end, make what is just strong, or what is strong just.
Justice is subject to dispute; might is easily recognized and is not disputed. So we cannot give might to justice, because might has gainsaid justice and has declared that it is she herself who is just. Thus, being unable to make what is just strong, we have made what is strong just.
299. The only universal rules are the laws of the country in ordinary affairs and of the majority in others. Where does this come from? From the might which is in them. Thus it happens that kings, who have power of a different kind, do not follow the majority of their ministers.
No doubt equality of goods is just. But, being unable to cause might to obey justice, men have made it just to obey might. Unable to strengthen justice, they have justified might; so that the just and the strong should unite, and there should be peace, which is the sovereign good.
325. Montaigne is wrong. [According to Montaigne,] custom should be followed only because it is custom, and not because it is reasonable or just. But people follow it for this sole reason, that they think it just. Otherwise they would follow it no longer, although it were the custom; for they will only submit to reason or justice. Custom without this would pass for tyranny; but the sovereignty of reason and justice is no more tyrannical than that of desire. They are principles natural to man.
It would, therefore, be right to obey laws and customs, because they are laws; but we should know that there is neither truth nor justice to introduce into them, that we know nothing of these, and so must follow what is accepted. By this means we would never depart from them. But people cannot accept this doctrine; and, as they believe that truth can be found, and that it exists in law and custom, they believe them and take their antiquity as a proof of their truth, and not simply of their authority apart from truth. Thus they obey laws, but they are liable to revolt when these are proved to be valueless; and this can be shown of all of them when looked at from a certain aspect.
326. Injustice. It is dangerous to tell the people that the laws are unjust; for they obey them only because they think them just. Therefore it is necessary to tell them at the same time that they must obey them because they are laws, just as they must obey superiors, not because they are just, but because they are superiors. In this way all sedition is prevented, if this can be made intelligible and it be understood what is the proper definition of justice.
375. I have passed a great part of my life believing that there was [true] justice, and in this I was not mistaken; for there is [true] justice according as God has willed to reveal it to us. But I did not take it so, and this is where I made a mistake. For I believed that our [customary] justice was essentially just, and that I had that whereby to know and judge of it. But I have so often found my right judgment at fault, that at last I have come to distrust myself and then others. I have seen changes in all nations and men, and thus, after many changes of judgment regarding [what is] true justice, I have recognized that our nature was but in continual change, and I have not changed since; and if I changed, I would confirm my opinion.
Failure of Proofs for God's Existence
242. . . . I admire the boldness with which these persons undertake to speak of God. In addressing their argument to infidels, their first chapter is to prove Divinity from the works of nature. I should not be astonished at their enterprise, if they were addressing their argument to the faithful; for it is certain that those who have the living faith in their hearts see at once that all existence is none other than the work of the God whom they adore. But for those in whom this light is extinguished, and in whom we purpose to rekindle it, persons destitute of faith and grace, who, seeking with all their light whatever they see in nature that can bring them to this knowledge, find only obscurity and darkness; to tell them that they have only to look at the smallest things which surround them, and they will see God openly, to give them, as a complete proof of this great and important matter, the course of the moon and planets, and to claim to have concluded the proof with such an argument, is to give them ground for believing that the proofs of our religion are very weak. I see by reason and experience that nothing is more calculated to arouse their contempt.
It is not after this manner that Scripture speaks, which has a better knowledge of the things that are of God. It says, on the contrary, that God is a hidden God, and that, since the corruption of nature, He has left men in a darkness from which they can escape only through Jesus Christ, without whom all communion with God is cut off. "Neither knows any man the Father, except the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him" [Matt 11:27].
This is what Scripture points out to us, when it says in so many places that those who seek God find Him. It is not of that light, "like the noonday sun," that this is said. We do not say that those who seek the noonday sun, or water in the sea, will find them; and hence the evidence of God must not be of this nature. So it tells us elsewhere: "Truly, you are a God that hides yourself" [Is. 45:15].
243. It is an astounding fact that no canonical writer has ever made use of nature to prove God. They all strive to make us believe in Him. David, Solomon, etc., have never said, "There is no void, therefore there is a God." They must have had more knowledge than the most learned people who came after them, and who have all made use of this argument. This is worthy of attention.
244. "Why! Do you not say yourself that the heavens and birds prove God?" No. "And does your religion not say so"? No. For although it is true in a sense for some souls to whom God gives this light, yet it is false with respect to the majority of men.
245. There are three sources of belief: reason, custom, inspiration. The Christian religion, which alone has reason, does not acknowledge as her true children those who believe without inspiration. It is not that she excludes reason and custom. On the contrary, the mind must be opened to proofs, must be confirmed by custom and offer itself in humbleness to inspirations, which alone can produce a true and saving effect. "Lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect" [I Cor. 1:17].
Reason is Neutral Concerning God’s Existence and Nature
233. We know then the existence and nature of the finite, because we also are finite and have extension. We know the existence of the infinite and are ignorant of its nature, because it has extension like us, but not limits like us. But we know neither the existence nor the nature of God, because He has neither extension nor limits.
By faith we know God’s existence. In the glorious state of heaven we will know his nature. Now, I have already shown that we may easily know the existence of a thing without knowing its nature. Let us speak now according to the light of nature. If there is a God he is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, he has no proportion to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what he is, or whether he is. This being true, who will dare to undertake to resolve this question? It cannot be we who have no proportion to him.
Who, then, will blame those Christians who are not able to give a reason for their belief insofar as they profess a religion for which they can give no reason? In exposing it to the world, they declare that it is foolishness (1 Corinthians, 1:18). Then you complain that they do not prove it! If they proved it, they would not keep their word. It is in lacking proofs that they do not lack sense. Yes, but though this may excuse those who offer it such, and take away the blame for producing it without reason, this does not excuse those who receive it.
Let us examine this point then, and say “God is, or he is not.” But to which side will we incline? Reason cannot decide it at all. There is an infinite chaos that separates us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance in which heads or tails must come up. Which will you take? By reason you can wager on neither. By reason you can hinder neither from winning.
Do not, then, charge those with falsehood who have made a choice. For you know nothing about it. “No. But I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice. For although he who takes heads, and the other, are in the same fault, they are both in fault. The proper way is simply not to wager.”
High Stakes of the Wager Compel a Decision
Yes, but you must wager. This is not voluntary. You have set sail. Which will you take? Let’s see. Since a choice must be made, let’s see which interests you the least. You have two things to lose: the true and the good. You also have two things to stake: your reason and your will; that is, your knowledge and your complete happiness. Your nature has two things to shun: error and misery. Your reason is not more wounded, since a choice must necessarily be made in choosing one rather than the other. Here a point is eliminated. But what about your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in taking heads that God exists. Let us weigh these two cases. If you gain, you gain all. If you lose, you lose nothing. Wager without hesitation, then, that he is. “This is admirable. Yes, it is necessary to wager, but perhaps I wager too much.” Let us see. Since there is equal risk of gaining or losing, if you had to gain but two lives for one, still you might wager. But if there were three lives to gain, it would be required to play (since you are under the necessity of playing). When you are forced to play, you would be imprudent not to risk your life in order to gain three in a play where there is equal hazard of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. This being true, even if there were an infinity of chances (only one of which might be for you) you would still be right in wagering one in order to have two. Being obliged to play, if there was an infinity of life infinitely happy to gain, you would act foolishly to refuse to play one life against three in a game where among an infinity of chances there is one for you. But there is here an infinity of life infinitely happy to gain. There is a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you play is finite.
This [i.e., the balance of gain over loss] is quite settled. Wherever the infinite is, and where there is not an infinity of chances of loss against the chance of gain, there is nothing to weigh, and we must give all. Thus, when we are forced to play, we must renounce reason in order to keep life, rather than to risk it for the infinite gain, which is as likely to occur as the loss of nothingness.
Possible Criticism: Happiness now is Certain, but Infinite Gain in the Afterlife is Infinitely Uncertain
For there is no use in saying that it is uncertain whether we will gain, and that it is certain that we risk. There is no use in saying that, [a] the infinite distance between the certainty of what we risk and, [b] the uncertainty of what we will gain, raises the finite good which we certainly risk to a level of equality with the uncertain infinite gain. It is not so. Every player, without violating reason, risks a certainty to gain uncertainty, and nevertheless he risks a finite certainty to gain a finite uncertainty. The distance is not infinite between this certainty of what we risk, and the uncertainty of gain. This is false. There is, in truth, an infinity between the certainty of gaining and the certainty of losing. But the uncertainty of gaining is proportioned to the certainty of what we risk, according to the proportion of the chances of gain and loss. It follows from this that if there are as many chances on one side as there are on the other, the game is playing even. Then the certainty of what we risk is equal to the uncertainty of the gain. This is quite far from being infinitely distant. Thus our proposition [of infinite gain] is of infinite force when there is the finite to hazard in a play where the chances of gain and loss are equal, and the infinite to gain. This is demonstrative, and if people are capable of any truths, this is one of them.
If Belief and Faith are Difficult, then Reduce Passion and Act Religiously
“I confess it, I admit it. But, still, are there no means of seeing the truth behind the game?” Yes, the scriptures and the rest.
“Yes, but my hands are tied and my mouth is dumb. I am forced to wager, yet I am not free. I am chained and so constituted that I cannot believe. What will you have me do then?” It is true. But at least learn your inability to believe, since reason brings you to such belief [given the above reasoning], and yet you cannot believe. Try then to convince yourself not by the addition of proofs for the existence of God, but by the reduction of your own passions. You would have recourse to faith, but don’t know the ways. You wish to be cured of infidelity, and you ask for the remedy. Learn it from those who have been bound like yourself, and who would wager now all their goods. These know the road that you wish to follow, and are cured of a disease that you wish to be cured of. Follow their course, then, from its beginning. It consisted in doing all things as if they believed in them, in using holy water, in having masses said, etc. Naturally this will make you believe and stupefy you at the same time. “But this is what I fear.” And why? What have you to lose?
Religious Commitment Creates no Loss in this Life
But to show you that this leads to it [i.e., that acting religiously will lead to genuine belief], this will diminish the passions, which are your great obstacles. Now, what harm will come to you in taking this course? You would be faithful, virtuous, humble, grateful, beneficent, a sincere friend, truthful. Truly, you would not be given up to poisonous pleasures, to false glory, or false joys. But would you not have other pleasures?
I say to you that you will gain by it in this life. Each step you take in this direction, you will see so much of the certainty of gain, and so much of the nothingness of what you hazard, that you will acknowledge in the end that you have wagered something certain, infinite for which you have given nothing.
Questions for Review
1. In Pascal's "Discourse on the Condition of the Great", how does nobility arise, and what is the double train of thought that noblemen should have?
2. In Pascal's "Thoughts", what are the two infinites between which humans are trapped?
3. What are the extremes that humans cannot comprehend?
4. Why are people confused about mind and body, and what are the incorrect theories that this leads people to?
5. What are the differing conceptions that people have of the highest good?
6. Why do both skepticism and dogmatism fail?
7. Describe the difference between true justice and customary justice, and what society must do to keep people following customary justice and laws.
8. What value do proofs of God's existence have for believers and non-believers respectively?
9. Describe Pascal's Wager.
10. What is Pascal's advice to those who are incapable of making a belief decision?
Questions for Analysis
1. In his "Discourse on the Condition of the Great", Pascal argues that noblemen are not intrinsically better than ordinary people and thus accept their privileged positions with humility. How might a nobleman with a sense of entitlement respond to Pascal?
2. In Pascal's discussion of the limits of human reason, his key argument is this: understanding the parts of nature requires understanding the whole upon which the parts depend; but we do not understand the whole, and thus not the parts. Analyze the soundness of this argument.
3. Pascal argues that since human nature is a composite combination of matter and spirit, we cannot properly know simple things, either spiritual or material. Is he right with either his assumption that we are composite or with his conclusion about our inability to know simple things?
4. Pascal argues that both skepticism and dogmatism fail. He also argues that neutrality is not an option since this this gives in to skepticism. So, is Pascal himself a skeptic or does he offer some other way that is neither skeptical nor dogmatic? Explain.
5. Discuss Pascal's view of customary justice vs. true justice, and how he thinks his position differs from Montaigne's.
6. Pascal argues that proofs for God's existence will seem weak to non-believers, and reason is neutral about God's existence. Explain his reasoning for these positions and whether you agree.
7. William James criticized Pascal’s wager arguing that it was too cold and impersonal because the wager cannot produce sincere belief. James writes, “We feel that a faith in masses and holy water adopted willfully after such a mechanical calculation – would lack the inner soul of faith’s reality; and if we were ourselves in the place of the Deity, we should probably take particular pleasure in cutting off believers of this pattern from their infinite reward. It is evident that unless there be some pre-existing tendency to believe in masses and holy water, the option offered to the will by Pascal is not a living option” (“The Will to Believe”). How might Pascal respond to James’s criticism?
8. William James also criticized Pascal’s wager on the grounds that the same type of wager could be used to compel belief in other deities since different religions claim to give eternal life. Scholars refer to this as the “the many-gods” criticism. James writes, “As well might the Mahdi write to us, saying, ‘I am the Expected One whom God has created in his effulgence. You shall be infinitely happy if you confess me; otherwise you shall be cut off from the light of the sun. Weigh, then, your infinite gain if I am genuine against your finite sacrifice if I am not!’ (“The Will to Believe”)” How might Pascal respond to this?
9. Contemporary philosopher George Schlesinger has two arguments defending Pascal against James’s “many god’s criticism”. First, Schlesinger argues, at minimum Pascal’s wager can show that belief in the theistic God is a better gamble than in non-theistic Gods. For, the happiness we receive in heaven is in proportion to the greatness of God, and an infinitely great being will give us more happiness than one who isn't infinitely great. Second, Schlesinger argues that while proofs for the theistic God are not conclusive, they still provide some evidence in favor of theism rather than non-theism, which makes theism a better gamble. Are either of these arguments by Schlesinger successful defenses of Pascal?