Pascal on tyranny

In the following passage, Pascal uses “tyranny” in what seems to me an odd way; the relationship between what he describes and political tyranny is only a metaphorical one. Still, he describes an important phenomenon, for which I can’t at the moment think of another single name:

Tyranny consists in the desire of universal power beyond its scope. There are different assemblies of the strong, the fair, the sensible, the pious, in which each one rules at home, not elsewhere.

And sometimes they meet, and the strong and the fair foolishly fight as to who shall be master, for their mastery is of different kinds. They do not understand one another, and their fault is the desire to rule everywhere. Nothing can effect this, not even might, which is of no use in the kingdom of the wise, and is only mistress of external actions.

So these expressions are false and tyrannical: “I am fair, therefore I must be feared. I am strong, therefore I must be loved.” Tyranny is the wish to have in one way what can only be had in another. We render different duties to different merits; the duty of love to the pleasant; the duty of fear to the strong; duty of belief to the learned. We must render these duties; it is unjust to refuse them, and unjust to ask others.

And so it is false and tyrannical to say, “He is not strong, therefore I will not esteem him; he is not able, therefore I will not fear him.”

Update: Kieran Healy points out that the phrase “tyranny of the market” captures Pascal’s sense precisely.

Second update John Holbo notes that in Greek the primary meaning of “tyrannos” was not “unjust ruler unbound by law” but “usurper,” someone claiming a power not rightfully his; this, as he notes, helps make sense of Pascal’s usage. I’m not saying that Pascal’s metaphor is inapposite, or that Michael Walzer was wrong to adopt it in Spheres of Justice (see Jacob Levy).

My point is that Pascal’s usage is metaphorical, if we take “tyranny” in its primary modern sense of unjust and unlimited rule, and that we lack an unambiguous word to denote the problem to which Pascal refers, which might be thought of as the pragmatic analogue of category error.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: