Mon Apr 14, 2003

Pascal on Tyranny

Mark Kleiman quotes Pascal using the word “tyranny” in what Mark thinks is “an odd way” whose relationship to “political tyranny is only a metaphorical one” but that nevertheless, he thinks, “describes an important phenomenon, for which I can’t at the moment think of another single name.” Pascal says, in part:

Tyranny consists in the desire of universal power beyond its scope. … 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.

I know nothing about Pascal, but it seems to me that something very close to this is what people have in mind when they use the phrase “the tyranny of the market.” The desire to put a price on everything, to reduce incommensurable goods to cash equivalents is, as Pascal seems to say, one expression of “the wish to have in one way what can only be had in another.”