Blaise Pascal 1670

Three Discourses on the Condition of the Great[1]

Translated: by Samuel Webb
Source: original text at (Conservez cette licence si vous redistribuez ce fichier;
Licence ABU, Version 1.1, Août 1999, copyright 1999 Association de Bibliophiles Universels,,


In order to enter into genuine [véritable] knowledge of your condition, consider it in this image.

A man is cast by a storm onto an unknown island, whose inhabitants were at a loss to find their king, who had gone missing. Bearing a great resemblance, both in face and physique, to this lost king, he was taken for him, and recognized as such by all the people of the island. At first, this man was unsure what action to take, but he eventually resolved to give himself over to his good fortune. He accepted all the respect and honors that the people sought to give him and he allowed himself to be treated as a king.

But as he could not forget his natural condition, he was aware [songeait], at the same time that he received these honors, that he was not the king that this people sought, and that this kingdom did not belong to him. In this way, his thought had a double aspect: one by which he acted as a king, the other by which he recognized his true [véritable] state, and that it was merely chance that had put him in the position where he was. He hid this latter thought and made manifest the other. It was by the former that he dealt with the people, and by the latter that he dealt with himself.[2]

Do not imagine that you find yourself master of the riches you possess by any lesser chance than that by which this man found himself king. You have no right in virtue of your self or your nature, no more than he: and not only the fact that you find yourself the son of a duke,[3] but that you find yourself in the world at all is the result of an infinite string of contingencies. Your birth depended on a marriage, or rather on all the marriages of your ancestors. But on what do these marriages depend? On a chance meeting, on a speech in the air, on a thousand unforeseen, incidental occasions.

You retain, you say, your riches from your ancestors, but is it not by a thousand accidents that your ancestors acquired them and that they conserved them? You imagine, too, that it was by some natural law that these goods passed from your ancestors to you? That is not true. This order is founded on the sole will of the legislators, who could have had good reasons, but of which none is taken from a natural right that you have over these things. If it had pleased them to ordain that these goods, after having been possessed by fathers during their life, should return to the republic after their death, you would have no basis to complain.

Thus the whole title by which you possess your property is not a title of nature, but of human establishment. Another turn of imagination in those who made the laws would have rendered you poor; and it is nothing but this fortuitous confluence of circumstances – which brought you into this world, with the caprice of laws favorable to you – that puts you in possession of all these goods.

I do not mean to say that they do not belong to you legitimately, and that it be permissible for another to deprive you of them; for God, who is ultimately the master of such things, has allowed societies to make their own laws to distribute them. Once these laws are established it is unfitting [injuste][4] to violate them. This is what distinguishes you a little from this man who possessed his kingdom only by the error of the people, because God did not authorize his possession and would have obliged him to renounce it, whereas, in effect, He authorizes yours. But what you have entirely in common with him, is that the right you have to them is not founded, any more than his, on any quality or merit of your own that would render you worthy of it. Your soul and your body are in themselves indifferent to the state of being a boatman or a duke, and there is no natural link that attaches them to one condition rather than another.

What follows from this? That you must have, like this man of which we have spoken, a double-sided thought; and that if you act externally with men according to your rank, you must recognize, by a more hidden, but truer thought, that you have no quality that is naturally above them. If public thought elevates you above the common man, may the other humble you and keep you in perfect equality with all men; for this is your natural state.

The populace that admires you knows not, perhaps, this secret. It believes that nobility is a form of real greatness [grandeur] and practically considers the great [les grands] as being of a different nature than others. Do not reveal to them this error, if you wish; but do not abuse your superior position with insolence, and above all do not deceive yourself by believing that your being has something higher in it than that of others.

What would you say of this man, who would have been made king by the error of the people, if he came to forget so much his natural condition that he imagined that the kingdom was his due, that he deserved it and that it belonged to him by right? You would marvel at his foolishness and his folly. But are these any less present in the people of status [condition] who live in such a strange forgetfulness of their natural state?

How important this insight is! For all the fits of anger, all the violence and all the vanity of the great comes from the fact that they know not what they are: it being difficult for those who would regard themselves internally as equal to all men, and were persuaded that they had nothing in themselves that merited the little advantages that God had given them above others, to treat them with insolence. One must forget oneself for that, and believe that one has some real excellence above them, in which consists the illusion that I am trying to reveal to you.


It is good, sir, that you know what is owed to you, so that you do not attempt to demand from men things which are not your due; for that is a visible injustice. And yet it is quite common among people of your status, because they are ignorant of its nature.

There are in the world two sorts of greatness [grandeurs]: the greatness of establishment [établissement] and natural greatness. The greatness of establishment depends on the will of men, who have rightly believed it fitting to honor certain social positions and attach to them certain respects. Dignities and nobility are of this kind. In one country, one honors the nobles, in another the commoners, in this one the eldest, in that other one the younger. For what reason? Because it was pleasing to men. The thing was indifferent before the establishment; after the establishment it becomes just [juste], because it is unjust [injuste] to trouble it.

Natural greatness is that which is independent of the whims of men, because it consists in real and effective qualities of the soul or the body, which make one or the other more worthy of esteem, such as the sciences, the light of the mind, virtue, health, and strength.

We owe something to both of these forms of greatness, but since they are each of a different nature, we owe them different respects as well.

To the greatness of establishment, we owe the respects of establishment, that is to say, certain exterior ceremonies that must nevertheless be accompanied, according to reason, by an interior recognition of the justice of that order, but that does not make us conceive any real quality in those we honor in this way. One must speak to kings on bended knee; one must remain standing in the chamber of a prince. It is foolishness and baseness of the mind to refuse them these duties.

But for natural respect, which consists in esteem, we owe it only to natural greatness; and we owe, on the contrary, disdain and aversion to the qualities contrary to the forms of natural greatness. It is not necessary, because you are a Duke, that I esteem you; but it is necessary that I salute you. If you are a duke and an honorable man [honnête homme], I will render what I owe to one and to the other of these qualities. I will not refuse you the ceremonies that your status as a duke merits, nor the esteem you deserve for being an honorable man. But if you were a duke without being an honorable man, I would still do you justice; for while rendering you the exterior duties that the order of men has attached to your birth, I would not fail to have for you the interior contempt that your baseness of mind deserves.

There, then, is the justice in which these duties consist. And injustice consist in attaching natural respects to the greatness of establishment, or in insisting on respects of establishment for qualities of natural greatness. Mr. N – is a greater geometer than I; by virtue of this quality he wishes to pass ahead of me: I will tell him he understands nothing of this matter. Skill in geometry is a natural greatness; it demands a preference of esteem, but men attach no exterior preference to it. Thus I will pass ahead of him, but hold him in higher esteem than myself for his quality as a geometer. Likewise, if, being a duke and a peer, you were not content that I stand uncovered before you, and that you wanted me also to regard you with esteem, I would pray you to show me the qualities that merit this esteem. If you did so, it would be yours, and I could not, with justice, refuse, but if you did not, you would be unjust to demand it of me, and assuredly you would not succeed in gleaning it from me, were you the greatest prince in the world.


I would like to show you, sir, your veritable condition; for it is the thing of which people of your sort are the most ignorant. What is it, in your opinion, to be a great lord? It is to be master of some objects of the concupiscence[5] of men, and in this way to be able to satisfy some of their needs and desires. It is these needs and desires which attract them to your side, and which make them submit to you: without this, they would not bother to lay eyes on you. But they hope, by these services and this deference that they render you, to obtain from you a part of the goods they desire and which they see you have at your disposal.

God is surrounded by people full of charitable love [charité][6], who ask from him goods of charity, which are in His power; in this way He is properly speaking a king of charity.

You are also surrounded by a small number of people, over whom you reign in your way. These people are full of concupiscence. They seek the goods of concupiscence; it is that which attaches them to you. You are thus, properly speaking, a king of concupiscence. Your kingdom does not reach far, but you are equal to the greatest kings of the earth; they are, like you, kings of concupiscence. It is concupiscence that makes their strength, that is to say, the possession of things which the cupidity of men desires.

But in knowing your natural condition, use the means that it gives you, and do not claim to reign by another path than that which makes you king. It is not your force and your natural power [puissance] that subject all these people to you. Do not claim to dominate them by force, then, nor treat them harshly. Satisfy their just desires, meet their necessities, put your pleasure in being beneficent. Advance the interests of your people as much as you can, and you will act as a true king of concupiscence.

What I tell you does not go very far; and if you leave it at that, you will not fail to get yourself lost. But at least you will lose your way as an honest man. There are those who damn themselves so foolishly by avarice, by brutality, by debauchery, by violence, by fits of anger, and by blasphemy. The way that I open for you is no doubt more honest, but in truth it is always a great folly to damn oneself; and that is why you must go further than what I have said. You must despise concupiscence and its kingdom, and aspire to a kingdom of charity, and desire only the goods of charity. Others than myself will tell you the way: it suffices for me to have turned you away from the brutal lives that I see other persons of your condition let themselves fall into, for lack of knowing that condition’s true state.


1. Translator’s note: ‘The great’ or ‘les grands’ refers to people of upper social classes, those of high or noble birth, who thereby command certain respect from others. Later in the text, Pascal distinguishes two types of qualities that can make someone great, i.e., worthy of respect or esteem: those which result from human-established institutions, and those which are natural. Unfortunately, the term ‘greatness’ does not allow the plural (les grandeurs) that Pascal uses to evoke the different qualities or types of greatness that compose these two broad categories. With these caveats in mind, and to avoid potential confusion from other related meanings of the term ‘grandeur’ in English, the terms ‘the great’ and ‘greatness’ are used, throughout the text, to translate ‘les grands’ and ‘les grandeurs’, respectively, with the French in brackets after the first appearance of the term. In general, all bracketed terms refer to the French text.

2. Cf. K. Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 1, Sec. 3, n.22: ‘...[O]ne man is king only because other men stand in the relation of subjects to him. They, on the contrary, imagine that they are subjects because he is king’.

3. It is generally thought that these discourses are addressed to the eldest son of the Duke of Luynes.

4. Translator’s note: ‘juste’, in French, is a versatile term that can mean, variously, ‘just’, ‘fair’, ‘right’, ‘fitting’, ‘correct’, ‘apt’, ‘appropriate’, while its antonym ‘injuste’ can negate those meanings. Since it is a matter of some significant philosophical interpretation which exact meaning Pascal intends in different contexts, I have included the term in brackets, each time it occurs, to signal the reader of the ambiguity.

5. Translator’s note: ‘concupiscence’ is a term used notably in Christian theology. It refers to a kind of strong, self-interested desire or appetite. Lust and greed or cupidity can be seen as forms of concupiscence. Here, it is thought to play a key role in ordinary human motivation.

6. Translator’s note: la charité is an important concept in Pascal’s lexicon, particularly in contrast to the what he calls the flesh [la chaire] and the mind or spirit [l'esprit], in his famous theory of the three “orders.” Here, it is to be understood not primarily in its sense of benevolent giving, but as a kind of unconditional love, not mediated by personal desire, and contrasted to concupiscence. The expression in English, “christian charity,” comes closest to this attitude of general love and kindness towards others.