Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Provincial Letters

Review of:
Lettres Provinciales (by Blaise Pascal)

Pascal’s Provincial Letters stand at the head of a class of literature which, since his time, has assumed gigantic proportions. He was the precursor of Junius in the eighteenth, and of the newspapers of the nineteenth century. One of his letters, on an average, would not fill much more than two columns of the Times; and the first eleven, upon which the same of the book principally depends, might easily be contained in four sides of that paper. Whilst it undoubtedly owes something to the fact that it was first in the field, and much more to the enormous political and social importance which attached to it at the time of its appearance, there can be no doubt that the book is indebted for its position in French literature principally to its intrinsic merit. We have selected it for notice, not in order to comment upon literary excellences universally admitted, but to draw attention to a side of the discussion that gives the Letters their principal, interest, the importance of which can hardly be overrated, although it has been strangely neglected by most of Pascal's critics.

Though the earlier Provincial Letters (for it is to the first eleven that our remarks principally apply) contain several passages which jar on the feelings of an ordinary English reader, the first impression derived from them is, that of all the refutations ever written, they are the most triumphant and conclusive. The condition to which the Jesuits are there reduced can be compared to nothing but that to which Lord Macaulay reduced Mr. Robert Montgomery. With hardly any perceptible effort, but with a sort of incidental smiling ease, they are shown to be the advocates of theft, murder, calumny, gluttony, magic, and fraudulent bankruptcy. Their object, says their assailant, is to govern the world by pandering to its impatience of the severity of Christian morals, and they carry out their design so completely that they subvert in turn every Christian duty, civil, social, and religious. It is easy to imagine the transport with which such denunciations of an unpopular and most justly suspected body were received, and it would perhaps be difficult to overrate their political importance at the time of their publication. But to those who live in England in the nineteenth century the Jesuits and their intrigues have become almost as unsubstantial as Louis XIV. and his lettres de cachet; and after freely conceding that their teaching was most immoral, and that the triumph of their great antagonist was highly important to the best interests of society, it is impossible to deny that, on closer and cooler observation, the Provincial Letters do not appear so conclusive as they seemed at first, and that they raise several questions of vast importance to mankind at large, which are even now most imperfectly understood, and which deeply affect the daily conduct of our lives and the whole tone of our thoughts.

In order to understand the subject, it is necessary to take a short view of the opposition between the Jesuitical and the Jansenist systems of morals, and to show the mode in which each of them, differed from that which has come by slow degrees to obtain almost universally—though it is rather assumed than expressed—throughout all the most civilized European nations, especially those which have embraced Protestantism. Between our own conception of morality and that which prevailed, amongst both Jesuits and Jansenists two centuries ago, there is one broad and deep difference of principle, on which all subordinate differences depend. According to our modern view, Law and Morals are radically distinct from, and in a certain sense opposed to, each other. A law is a definite rule which may either be kept or broken, and which, if broken, involves certain distinct definite, penalties; nor has it anything whatever to do with the question of wickedness. A man who never breaks the law at all may be much more wicked than one who breaks it often. A man who goes up to the very verge of breaking it— who stretches out his hand to steal, and only draws it back when the policeman passes—who draws the knife to stab, and is only restrained from using it by the grossest cowardice—is, in the eye of the law, on exactly the same footing as one who never felt a dishonest or murderous emotion. So, again, if a man steals from a dwelling-house to the value of £4 19s., he incurs one penalty; if the property stolen is worth only one shilling more, the penalty is greatly increased, though the guilt remains the same. "In the same way, a crime committed at five minutes past nine on a summer's evening, in broad daylight, is more heavily punished than a similar or more serious offence committed at half-past eight on a winter night. Every one feels instinctively—what the slightest knowledge of the subject shows—that such distinctions, immaterial and unsubstantial as they may appear, are absolutely necessary in all legal systems, because the want of definite rules on such subjects is a greater evil than a very large amount of individual hardship. A feeling equally widespread and equally instinctive teaches us that in morality such strictness is neither possible nor desirable. We can construct legal definitions by which certain acts are qualified as murders; but these definitions are not only of no sort of assistance to us, but are positive hindrances when our object is to discuss the sin as distinguished from the crime— the moral guilt as distinguished from the legal character of the offence. The fact that, for a particular purpose, society chooses to apply the same epithet to three persons, one of whom treacherously poisons his friend, whilst a second unintentionally kills a constable who lawfully arrests him, and a third jumps into the Thames with her starving child in her arms, is only a source of confusion when we attempt to estimate the guilt of such conduct. Every one must feel that, though all three were equally murderers, their acts were very far indeed from being equally wicked, and even from bearing any kind of relation to each other. The notion of gauging moral guilt has indeed been long, and most happily, given up in Protestant countries. We can say that some things are wrong—that some are very wrong indeed, and some abominable; but we have no sort of measure by which we can compare the enormity of different sins, so as to say, for example, whether adultery is worse than burglary with violence, and how much or how many thefts are collectively as bad as a murder.

This, however, is a very modern conception. Two centuries ago, morality was considered to be subject to rules as precise as law itself; and indeed the two subjects can hardly be said to have been separated at that time. Law was almost universally regarded as something which had an independent existence, like the physical phenomena of gravitation, sound, and light; and morality was considered as a science hardly less complete and definite than arithmetic. One great source of this confusion was the practice of confession. The confessor had to allot so much penance for such an act. Of course the criminality of the act, and in many cases the question whether it was a mortal or a venial sin, depended upon an infinite number of surrounding circumstances of aggravation or extenuation. Hence a system gradually sprung up which had a surprising affinity to what is known to modern English lawyers as case law. If any one will read the Statute of Frauds, he will find that in certain kinds of contracts it is necessary that there should be a written memorandum of the agreement between the parties, signed by the party to be charged with it. This sounds simple enough; but the law reports supply many dozen rules as to what form of words is a sufficient memorandum, what is the precise meaning of the word “agreement,” what is a sufficient signature, and so forth. No one who is at all familiar with such subjects can fail to be struck with the analogy between such rules and the cases of conscience decided by the Jesuits. It is easy to deride such things as mere subtleties and technicalities, but the variety of human conduct is so enormous, that any system, whether it apply to law or to morality, which is administered with any approach to strictness and accuracy, will inevitably produce a plentiful crop of them.

It follows from these considerations that Pascal's attack upon the Jesuits must either go a great deal further than its author intended it to go, or must be considered to apply at least as strongly to the Jansenists as to their opponents. It is easy to say that Pascal was in advance of his age, and that his book is levelled more or less unconsciously against any systematic conception of morality; but this assertion appears to us to be not only gratuitous, but demonstrably incorrect. It is impossible to read the Pensées without seeing that he was intensely attached to Jansenism in all its parts, and he frequently speaks with enthusiasm of the system of confession. He was, in fact, the partisan of a system of morality of the most rigid kind; and it is a little singular that it should not have been more frequently observed, that in the Provincial Letters he continually lays himself open to retorts as to the character of his own views, which it would have been very difficult to parry; and it may be added, that if, upon such a subject, any weight at all is to be attached to the logic of facts and of history, it is not less difficult to justify his views of morality than to justify those which he attacked. The morals of the Jesuits were unquestionably fantastic, dangerous, and dishonest, but the points which Pascal selected for attack were in all probability the most vulnerable that he could find; and with all their extravagance and dishonesty they unquestionably show a consciousness that a system of morality which absolutely condemns the whole existing state of society, and which would, if adopted, bind in iron chains all the energies and all the affections of mankind, stands self-refuted. In their anxiety to bring human life within the pale of salvation, the Jesuits no doubt stretched their system further than they had any right to stretch it; but if it is once granted (and at that time it was universally admitted) that morality is capable of being reduced to a system at all, the wish that there may be some sort of proportion between that system and the actual state of human society is one to which it is impossible to refuse a considerable degree of sympathy.

The ordinary illustrations of the Jesuits' morals are matter of notoriety, and are circulated principally by those who look upon Jesuits as capita lupine whom it is a sort of Christian duty to invest with every horrible attribute that can be imagined. We will give a few, which tend to show not so much the extravagances into which they ran, as the legal manner in which they speculated, and in which all persons must of necessity speculate who profess to decide upon the right and wrong of extreme cases in morality, and to administer a system of what is virtually criminal law in connexion with their speculations. Take, for example, the following. Escobar says—“Promises are not obligatory unless the promisor intends to bind himself when he makes them. This intention is not common unless they are confirmed by oath or contract; so that if a person says simply, ‘I will do it,' he means, ‘I will do it if I do not change my mind;’ for he does not mean by what he says to deprive himself of his liberty.” Nothing, of course, can sound more dishonest than this, and nothing could be more dishonest than to address such an admonition to a person who wished to evade an obligation. In such a case, the proper advice would of course be to fulfil the promise at the expense of any amount of suffering or loss; but this and similar passages occur not in sermons but in law books, and in judging of their morality the question is, not whether they would make a good impression on an ordinary or on an ill-disposed hearer, but whether there is any considerable class of cases to which they apply. Such a class there most undoubtedly is. Escobar's doctrine is no more than the legal maxim, Ex nudo pacto non oritur actio, applied to morals. If a man says to his servant, “Have my clothes brushed to-morrow at half-past six; I shall get up at that hour,” it would be absurd to say that he was bound in conscience to get up accordingly. If a person says to another, “I will give you £100,” he would surely be at liberty to rescind his promise if he saw grounds of expediency for doing so, unless the person to whom it was made had done anything by way of consideration for it. If he had said, “I will give you £100 to furnish such and such rooms, if you will take a lease of them"—and if the lease were taken, or if the promisee had ordered goods on the faith of a bare promise, and the promisor knew it—it would be highly dishonourable and wicked to retract, whatever might be the loss and inconvenience of fulfilling the engagement. It is, no doubt, easy to put cases in which this or any general rule would sanction unhandsome and even fraudulent conduct, but that is the disadvantage of all express general rules; and the general rule which Pascal's unqualified condemnation of Escobar implies, would be perfectly intolerable. Suppose it ran thus—“Promises are obligatory, although it was not the intention of the promisor to oblige himself when he made them; so that if a man says ‘I will do it,' he debars himself from changing his mind, and leaves himself no liberty respecting it.” If this were the general understanding of men, and the true interpretation of human language, all intercourse would become impossible. In a vast proportion of cases, a promise in form is meant, and is understood, as a mere intimation of present intention; and all systems of law agree in considering that, to be binding, a contract must be mutual. This obligation is of course enlarged in o: of morality by an infinite number of considerations, which depend rather upon the individual conscience than upon any inflexible rule; but if we must have an inflexible rule at all, Escobar's (though it is expressed so loosely and imperfectly as to open a wide door to fraud) appears to us to be in principle better and truer than Pascal's.

It is impossible not to feel that Pascal not only misrepresents his antagonists by ignoring the essential conditions of the problem which, in common with them, he seems to have considered as soluble—the problem of framing a system of general rules by which the morality or the degree of immorality of any given action whatever may be determined—but that the extraordinary rigidity and harshness of his own system lay him under some difficulties from which they are exempt. For example, he is greatly scandalized at the following passage from Escobar:— “Is it permitted to eat and drink as much as we please (tout son saoul), without necessity and for mere pleasure? Certainly, according to Sanchez, if it does not hurt our health, for it is permitted to the natural appetite to enjoy the actions which belong to it.” If this maxim is wrong, and if any systematic view of the subject can be taken, there would seem to be no possibility of stopping short of the principle that it is wrong to eat or drink as much as we like for mere pleasure and without necessity, and although it would not hurt our health to do so. A man eats half-a-dozen strawberries (being as much as he wants–tout son saoul) after dinner—is this a sin”. If Escobar is wrong, it would seem that it is. Suppose the half-dozen become a dozen, two dozen, three dozen, or more, is it possible to draw any better line with regard to the lawfulness of the indulgence (considerations of selfishness and decency being out of the question), than that which Escobar actually does draw? When Mr. Atkinson trayelled in Siberia, he came upon a wilderness full of wild raspberries. If he had had the requisite appetite and digestion, why might he not have eaten a cart-load of them, if he had no other way of passing his time? If the principle which Pascal appears to imply were the true one, no one would ever take a meal without sin; for even the prisoners in a gaol eat some part of their food merely because it pleases their palates. We might multiply illustrations of Pascal’s views in this respect to almost any extent. It seems, a fair inference from one passage of the book to suppose that he maintained that it was a duty to give in alms the whole of our superfluous property; and from another, that he considered all desire to rise in the social scale, even (as he expressly says) by legitimate modes, as being sins of ambition. In a third passage, he distinctly maintains that it is wrong to lend money at interest. Usury, he says, consists in receiving back more money than you lent. In fact, though we do not wish to defend the Jesuits, whose faults were no doubt both flagrant and enormous, we cannot deny that, Pascal's views appear to us to lead logically to consequences hardly less fatal to human society than those which he attacks. The whole point and force of the Provincial Letters lies in the assumption that there is a grand unalterable code of morality which can be put into an express systematic form, according to which all actions must be regulated, and which the maxims of the Jesuits either evaded or overthrew.

The true answer to the book is, that the system which Pascal invested with these glorious attributes was in fact arbitrary, and in many respects false, and that if it had been strictly applied to the purpose to which Jansenists and Jesuits alike contended that systems of morality ought to be applied, it would have speedily reduced the . to a monastery or a wilderness. If it is admitted that it is a formal duty to give to the poor all superfluities, one of three results is inevitable—either the world must go on and prosper in and by wickedness; or it must be turned into a huge waste of listless sloth and beggary; or the word “superfluity” must be defined in such a manner as to avert this consequence. It is this evasion with which Pascal so bitterly reproaches the Jesuits. Certainly it would have been better to deny than to evade the obligation, but it was a less evil to evade than it would have been to enforce it. Indeed, the evasion can hardly be called dishonest. All that the Jesuits said was, that whatever was necessary for the maintenance of a man's state and position in society according to his rank, was not part of his superfluities. From this, no doubt, they drew the consequence that few people had any superfluities; but the consequence and the principle stand on different grounds.

The passionate denial that morality has any sort of relation to expediency, is one which is frequently made; but it is hard to believe that it can have been entirely sincere in the case of a man of Pascal's depth and force of mind. We do not see how it would have been possible, upon his principle, to answer Mandeville's famous thesis, that private vices are public benefits. It has always seemed to us that the true answer is, that Mandeville's conception of virtue is totally false, and that under that name he describes nothing but a sort of pedantic pride, the prevalence of which would in effect be the greatest of public and private mischiefs; but from Pascal's view of life it would seem to follow, either that what he denounced as pride, ayarice, ambition, and usury are good things, and that the virtue of alms-giving is a very questionable one, or else that Dahomey and Timbuctoo are in a holier condition than France and England. Indeed, the legitimate consequence of that contempt for the common interests of life, and that intense admiration for monasticism which pervaded Pascal's character, and which supplies the foundation of the Provincial Letters, is, that life is an evil, that the creation was a mistake, and that the seed of the woman has got the worst of its encounter with the serpent. The constancy with which this view of life presents itself to our notice as we read the Provincial Letters, greatly mars our admiration of that celebrated book. It is, in our opinion, far from being its author's greatest work; and we hope on some future occasion to take an opportunity of referring to the Pensées, which we consider to be entitled to that high distinction.

Saturday Review, July 17, 1858.

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