We Should All Have Blaise Pascal's Honnêteté


Of course we should all be honest men. We know that. Honest like boy scouts and German shepherds. As honest as the day is long. But perhaps we should desire more for ourselves. Perhaps we ought to be hommes honnêtes, honest men, gentlemen.

To be honest is not simply to tell the truth, or even more poorly, simply to avoid telling untruths. Although I admit that that is precisely what our dictionary says it is.

Let us have a richer, fuller, more human, more Christian idea of what this word means, and what it might mean for you to be an honest man.

According to our dictionary, honest was first used in the 14th century (so, basically as early as a modern English word could be used), and it comes from the Latin for honorable, and honor. To be an honest man was to be a worthy man, a good man, an honorable man.

According to the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy, honesto, which we translate "honest", is defined as decent, decorous, modest, honorable, reasonable, just, upright, honored.

When a man is a sincere and dedicated practicer of religion, we say that he is devout or pious. In Spanish he is said to be honesto.

The French word for honesty is honnêteté. It is integrity, wholeness (which is integrity, non?) sincerity, truthfullness, and even innocence.

Before the age of modernity and the expert, before Descartes and Montaigne defined how all men would think to think, the dying Middle Ages in France expressed one last enthusiasm for the good man. There had been the saint. He had been shown to be a fraud. There had been the courtly lover. His sonnets had been mocked near to death. There had been the knight, and he had been shown to be at best a fool chasing windmills. There was even the knight's son, the cavalier. His mustache would soon be made to droop in the dismal battlefields of Flanders and Edgehill.

After what ideal was the Christian man, both the Protestant and the Papist, to model himself? How to describe such men as Coligny or Philip Sidney?

Why, as honest men, of course.

Blaise Pascal was the greatest, but far from the first, explainer of what l'homme honnête was. If you read his Pensées, which you should do, you will often find the term translated as "gentleman". This gentleman was someone ridiculed by Montaigne, primarily because he was a wicked and godless heathen, and secondarily because he believed that the ideal man should be an expert. The honest man, in contrast to this heathen concept, is a generalist. He is balanced, reasonable, and well-rounded. Not only does he comprehend, he apprehends. He is as poetical as he is mathematical. He is cultured without affectation and eloquent without artifice.

He would not be ashamed to embrace G. K. Chesterton's 20th-century maxim that anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

He sees no contradiction in being a poet and a warrior, or in using the word philosopher to describe what today we call a scientist.

It is not for nothing, my dear friends, that our priests today are capital-S Scientists. It is not for nothing that we despise the weak and love brute force. It is not for nothing that the will of the majority is automatically what is right. It is not for nothing that we have no concept of justice beyond a forced equality of input and result. It is not for nothing that we cannot see the trees for the forest.

The honest man doesn't just tell the truth. He can see the truth, because he can see. He sees all men, and their God, and the image of God in all men. He does not suffer from the myopia of the expert.

If you, sir, are an expert, consider that you might be a little blind. Be honest with yourself: generalize. If you are an engineer, read a poem. If you are a poet, build a bridge. Go to war. Make peace.

The truth of God is one. And it is everywhere. The diversity of the Trinity is manifest. It is not chaos, and it is not monad. It is one and many, and, honestly, only honest men can see that.

Read the Pensées, my friend. It will do your manhood some good.

Comments

  1. "...primarily because he was a wicked and godless heathen.." What a wonderful sentence.

    Robert Heinlein also believed in the generalist.

    I am a specialist. I'm almost a PhD. I'm so specialised, it's ridiculous. That is why I'm trying to read things like Pensees, and Dante, Homer, Plato and all of the things I should have read, had I received a liberal arts education instead of a purely scientific one. Because being a specialist is useful up to a point, but it does, by necessity, exclude a lot of things. Things that people like the remarkable Chesterton thought was worth knowing. Luckily, old books are easy to come by. Thank you Gutenberg project.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, I get very happy when I write a wonderful sentence.

      Gutenberg Project is wonderful.

      Of course, we both know that specialists are necessary. The problem with our world right now is that specialists are the only people we value. And then we rank the specialties. A specialist in English lit ranks lower than a chemist ranks lower than a physicist.

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