Blaise Pascal/Discourses on the Condition of the Great

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On the Condition of the Great


In order to enter into a real knowledge of your condition, consider it in this image:

A man was cast by a tempest upon an unknown island, the inhabitants of which were in trouble to find their king, who was lost; and having a strong resemblance both in form and face to this king, he was taken for him, and acknowledged in this capacity by all the people. At first he knew not what course to take; but finally he resolved to give himself up to his good fortune. He received all the homage that they chose to render him, and suffered himself to be treated as a king.

But as he could not forget his real condition, he was conscious, at the same time that he was receiving this homage, that he was not the king whom this people had sought, and that this kingdom did not belong to him. Thus he had a double thought: the one by which he acted as king, the other by which he recognized his true state, and that it was accident alone that had placed him in his present condition. He concealed the latter thought, and revealed the other. It was by the former that he treated with the people, and by the latter that he treated with himself.

Do not imagine that it is less an accident by which you find yourself master of the wealth which you possess, than that by which this man found himself king. You have no right to it of yourself and by your own nature any more than he: and not only do you find yourself the son of a duke, but also do you find yourself in the world at all, only through an infinity of chances. Your birth depends on a marriage, or rather on the marriages of all those from whom you descend. But upon what do these marriages depend? A visit made by chance, an idle word, a thousand unforeseen occasions.

You hold, you say, your wealth from your ancestors; but was it not by a thousand accidents that your ancestors acquired it and that they reserved it? A thousand others, as capable as they, have either been unable to acquire it, or have lost it after having gained it. Do you imagine too, that it may have been by some natural way that this wealth has passed from your ancestors to you? This is not true. This order is founded only upon the mere will of legislators who may have had good reasons, but none of which was drawn from a natural right that you have over these things. If it had pleased them to order that this wealth, after having been possessed by fathers during their life, should return to the republic after their death, you would have no reason to complain of it.

Thus the whole title by which you possess your property, is not a title of nature but of a human institution. Another turn of imagination in those who made the laws would have rendered you poor; and it is only this concurrence of chance which caused your birth with the caprice of laws favorable in your behalf, that puts you in possession of all this property.

I will not say that it does not legitimately belong to you, and that it is permissible for another to wrest it from you; for God, who is its master, has permitted communities to make laws for its division, and when these laws are once established, it is unjust to violate them. This it is that distinguishes you somewhat from the man who possessed his kingdom only through the error of the people; because God did not authorize this possession, and required him to renounce it, whilst he authorizes yours. But what you have wholly in common with him is, that this right which you have, is not founded any more than his upon any quality or any merit in yourself which renders you worthy of it. Your soul and your body are, of themselves, indifferent to the state of boatman or that of duke; and there is no natural bond that attaches them to one condition rather than to another.

What follows from this? that you should have a double thought, like the man of whom we have spoken, and that, if you act externally with men in conformity with your rank, you should recognize, by a more secret but truer thought, that you have nothing naturally superior to them. If the public thought elevates you above the generality of men, let the other humble you, and hold you in a perfect equality with all mankind, for this is your natural condition.

The populace that admires you knows not, perhaps, this secret. It believes that nobility is real greatness, and it almost considers the great as being of a different nature from others. Do not discover to them this error, unless you choose; but do not abuse this elevation with insolence, and, above all, do not mistake yourself by believing that your being has something in it more exalted than that of others.

What would you say of that man who was made king by the error of the people, if he had so far forgotten his natural condition as to imagine that this kingdom was due to him, that he deserved it, and that it belonged to him of right? You would marvel at his stupidity and folly. But is there less in the people of rank who live in so strange a forgetfulness of their natural condition?

How important is this advice! For all the excesses, all the violence, and all the vanity of great men, come from the fact that they know not what they are: it being difficult for those who regard themselves at heart as equal with all men, and who are fully persuaded that they have nothing within themselves that merits these trifling advantages which God has given them over others, to treat them with insolence. For this it is necessary for one to forget himself, and to believe that he has some real excellence above them, in which consists this illusion that I am endeavoring to discover to you.


It is well, sir, that you should know what is due to you, that you may not pretend to exact from men that which is not due to you; for this is an obvious injustice; and nevertheless it is very common to those of your condition, because they are ignorant of the nature of it.

There is in the world two kinds of greatness: for there is greatness of institution, and natural greatness. Greatness of institution depends upon the will of men who have with reason thought it right to honor certain positions, and to attach to them certain marks of respect. Dignities and nobility are of this class. In one country the nobles are honored, in another the plebeians; in this the eldest, in the other the youngest. Why is this? because thus it has been pleasing to men. The thing was indifferent before the institution; since the institution it becomes just, because it is unjust to disturb it.

Natural greatness is that which is independent of the caprice of men, because it consists in the real and effective qualities of the soul or the body, which render the one or the other more estimable, as the sciences, the enlightenment of the mind, virtue, health, strength.

We owe something to both these kinds of greatness; but as they are of a different nature, we owe them likewise different respect. To the greatness of institution we owe the respect of institution, that is, certain external ceremonies which should be nevertheless accompanied, in conformity with reason, with an internal recognition of the justice of this order, but which do not make us conceive any real quality in those whom we honor after this manner. It is necessary to speak to kings on the bended knee, to remain standing in the presence-chamber of princes. It is a folly and baseness of spirit to refuse to them these duties.

But as for the natural homage which consists in esteem, we owe it only to natural greatness; and we owe, on the contrary, contempt and aversion to qualities contrary to this natural greatness. It is not necessary, because you are a duke, that I should esteem you; but it is necessary that I should salute you. If you are a duke and a gentleman, I shall render what I owe to both these qualities. I shall not refuse you the ceremonies that are merited by your quality of duke, nor the esteem that is merited by that of a gentleman. But if you were a duke without being a gentleman, I should still do you justice; for in rendering you the external homage which the order of men has attached to your birth, I should not fail to have for you the internal contempt that would be merited by your baseness of mind.

Therein consists the justice of these duties. And the injustice consists in attaching natural respect to greatness of condition, or in exacting respect of condition for natural greatness. M. N.…is a greater geometrician than I; in this quality, he wishes to take precedence of me: I will tell him that he understands nothing of the matter. Geometry is a natural greatness; it demands a preference of esteem; but men have not attached to it any external preference. I shall, therefore, take precedence of him, and shall esteem him greater than I in the quality of geometrician. In the same manner, if, being duke and peer, you would not be contented with my standing uncovered before you, but should also wish that I should esteem you, I should ask you to show me the qualities that merit my esteem. If you did this, you would gain it, and I could not refuse it to you with justice; but if you did not do it, you would be unjust to demand it of me; and assuredly you would not succeed, were you the greatest prince in the world.


I wish, sir, to make known to you your true condition; for this is the thing of all others of which persons of your class are the most ignorant. What is it, in your opinion, to be a great nobleman? It is to be master of several objects that men covet, and thus to be able to satisfy the wants and the desires of many. It is these wants and these desires that attract them towards you, and that make them submit to you: were it not for these, they would not even look at you; but they hope, by these services, and this deference which they render you, to obtain from you some part of the good which they desire, and of which they see that you have the disposal.

God is surrounded with people full of love who demand of him the benefits of love which are in his power: thus he is properly the king of love. You are in the same manner surrounded with a small circle of persons, over whom you reign in your way. These men are full of desire. They demand of you the benefits of desire; it is desire that binds them to you. You are therefore properly the king of desire. Your kingdom is of small extent; but you are equal in this to the greatest kings of the earth: they are like you the sovereigns of desire. It is desire that constitutes their power; that is the possession of things that men covet.

But while knowing your natural condition, avail yourself of the means that it gives you, and do not pretend to rule by a different power than by that which makes you king. It is not your strength and your natural power that subjects all these people to you. Do not pretend then to rule them by force or to treat them with harshness. Satisfy their reasonable desires; alleviate their necessities; let your pleasure consist in being beneficent; advance them as much as you can, and you will act like the true king of desire.

What I tell you does not go very far; and if you stop there you will not save yourself from being lost; but at least you will be lost like an honest man. There are some men who expose themselves to damnation so foolishly by avarice, by brutality, by debauches, by violence, by excesses, by blasphemies! The way which I open to you is doubtless the most honorable; but in truth it is always a great folly for a man to expose himself to damnation; and therefore he must not stop at this. He must despise desire and its kingdom, and aspire to that kingdom of love in which all the subjects breathe nothing but love, and desire nothing but the benefits of love. Others than I will show you the way to this; it is sufficient for me to have turned you from those gross ways into which I see many persons of your condition suffer themselves to be led, for want of knowing the true state of this condition.