Pascal on Truth, Flattery, and the Ego

From the “Pensées,” pp. 348-350, Penguin edition.—

It is no doubt an evil to be full of faults, but it is a still greater evil to be full of them and unwilling to recognize them, since this entails the further evil of deliberate self-delusion.

We do not want others to deceive us; we do not think it right for them to want us to esteem them more than they deserve; we do not think it is right either that we should deceive them and want them to esteem us more than we deserve.

Thus when [others] merely reveal vices and imperfections which we actually possess, it is obvious that they do us no wrong, since they are not responsible for them, but are really doing us good, by helping us to escape from an evil, namely our ignorance of these imperfections. We ought not to be annoyed that they know them and despise us, because it is right that they should know us for what we are and despise us if we are despicable.

These are the feelings which would spring from a heart full of equity and justice.

What then should we say of ours, seeing it quite differently disposed? For is it not true that we hate the truth and those who tell it to us, and we like them to be deceived to our advantage, and want to be esteemed by them as other than we actually are? . . .

This aversion for truth exists in differing degrees, but it may be said that it exists in everyone to some degree, because it is inseparable from (unhealthy or immature) self-love (narcissism). It is this false delicacy which makes those who have to correct others choose so many devious ways and qualifications to avoid giving offense. They must minimize our faults, pretend to excuse them, and combine this with praise and marks of affection and esteem. Even then such medicine still tastes bitter to self-love, which takes as little of it as possible, always with disgust and often with secret resentment against those administering it.

The result is that anyone who has an interest in winning our affection tends to avoid rendering us a service which he knows to be unwelcome; we are treated as we want to be treated—we hate the truth and so it is kept from us, we desire to be flattered and so we are flattered, we like being deceived and so we are deceived.

This is why each rung of fortune’s ladder which leads us up in the world takes us further from the truth, because people are more wary of offending those whose friendship is most useful and whose enmity is most dangerous. . . . [T]elling the truth is useful to the hearer but harmful to those who tell it. . . .

[The ego] conceives a deadly hatred for the truth which rebukes it and which convinces it of its faults. It would like to do away with this truth, and not being able to destroy it as such, it destroys it, as best it can, in the consciousness of itself and others; that is, it takes every care to hide its faults both from itself and others, and cannot bear to have them pointed out or noticed.

[Thus] human life is nothing but a perpetual illusion; there is nothing but mutual deception and flattery. No one talks about us in our presence as he would in our absence. Human relations are only based on this mutual deception. Few friendships would survive if everyone knew what his friend said about him behind his back, even though he spoke sincerely and dispassionately.

Man is therefore nothing but disguise, falsehood and hypocrisy, both in himself and with regard to others. He does not want to be told the truth. He avoids telling it to others, and all these tendencies, so remote from justice and reason, are naturally rooted in his heart.