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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

Pascal asks some very profound questions in this chapter on Justice and Customs in his collection of Thoughts (1669). He laments the fact that too many people are willing to obey the laws of their country unquestioningly even if they do not comport with natural law but are merely the conventions in which they have grown up (“unjust custom”). The example he cites is that of going to war to kill an unknown personal across a national border just because one’s sovereign orders one to do so. However, he recoils from the full consequences of this line of thinking by concluding that it is perhaps better not to examine the origin of the state too closely because one might find some very unsavoury and unpleasant things: “it is necessary to cause it (the law) to be regarded as eternal and authoritative, and to conceal the beginning if we do not wish it should soon come to an end.”

Other quotes about Law:

5 June, 2012

Blaise_Pascal250

Pascal and the absurd notion that the principles of justice vary across state borders (1669)

Read the full quote in context here.

The French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) points out that artificial lines drawn on a map do not invalidate moral laws which are derived from the nature of man. It is “absurd” to think I have the right to kill a foreigner because my sovereign orders me to do so:

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 amplius nostrum est; quod nostrum dicimus, artis est (“There is no longer anything which is ours; what I call ours is conventional”). Ex senatus consultis, et plebiscitis crimina exercentur (“It is by virtue of senatus-consultes and plebiscites that one commits crimes”). Ut olim vitiis, sic nunc legibus laboramus (“Once we suffered from our vices; today we suffer from our laws”).

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

OF JUSTICE CUSTOMS AND PREJUDICES.

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.

[More works by Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662) and on Philosophy]