Blaise Pascal and Hobbes on Justice and Force

Primary version (with picture of Pascal) available at Barry Stocker’s Weblog

Blaise Pascal (1623-1661, in the picture above) was a man of many achievements in science, mathematics, philosophy, religious thought, and as a French prose stylist; his thoughts on politics are perhaps underrated. His precise contribution to political thought is complex, for example he used the phrase ‘general will’ when talking about the will of God, and this usage was taken up politically by Rousseau in the following century. It’s beyond the scope of this post to deal properly with all that. I would like to point point out though that Alexis de Tocqueville claimed to read Pascal constantly (along with Rousseau and Montesquieu), and that Nietzsche gave him a high place in philosophy.

Pascal died 10 years after Hobbes published Leviathan. He was still working on his philosophical-religious masterpiece, which survives as a series of thoughts usually known in English by its French title, Pensées. References to this text are complication by the existence of different ways of arranging the material. I won’t go into that, I will just point out that I am using the Brunschwig edition and linking to an online version of an English translation of that edition.

It is Part V where Pascal is most concerned with politics, sovereignty, law and justice. Like Hobbes he regards civil war as the greatest disaster. Unlike Hobbes, he brings to the fore the ways in which the civil laws and state institutions necessary to prevent civil war must differ from natural justice. Like Hobbes, Pascal emphasises that law differs from customs but sharpens the tension between state made law and the traditions of custom. Like Hobbes, Pascal thinks justice rests on force to uphold it, but unlike Hobbes he believes that in this justice loses its claim to be pure justice. Like Hobbes, Pascal thinks a personal sovereign is the best means of upholding ‘justice’ and that the position of the sovereign comes from chances rather than nature of divine appointment’; what Pascal also suggests is something contrary to justice in the power of one individual over all citizens, Justice upheld by the sovereign is force to prevent complete chaos and unrestrained force

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