Blaise Pascal, who lived at a time when mathematics was beginning its qualitative advance beyond the Greeks in modeling the real world, was the last great mathematician who was also a great thinker in the Continental tradition. (This qualification avoids arguments over whether, say, Bertrand Russell was a “great thinker.”) My article in the first issue of Anthropoetics dealt with his most fascinating mathematico-philosophical construction, the pari or wager on the existence of God, an application of the theory of probability to the question of faith.
A less spectacular but comparably fascinating construction is that of the honnête homme. This term is difficult to translate, since the notion of honnêteté, although related to that of honesty, is focused differently, closer to its roots in the aristocratic notion of honor. Honesty is a kind of neutrality; to be honest is to tell the truth, to let reality reveal itself without tampering with it. The French version applies this trait to social behavior rather than truth-telling, just as Continental philosophy applies its insights to human behavior in general rather than limiting them to the analysis of propositions. The honnête homme is not a truth-teller, but one who does “the right thing.” But Pascal’s definition of this character is more elegant.
The honnête homme will talk about whatever subject was under discussion when he entered the room. How different from either the star, who monopolizes the group’s attention, or the romantic hero, who attracts attention by the counter-strategy of turning his back on the group and basking in his own sublime individuality. The honnête homme is a minimalist model of social interaction.
Les gens universels ne sont appelés ni poètes, ni géomètres, etc.; mais ils sont tout cela, et juges de tous ceux-là. On ne les devine point. Ils parleront de ce qu’on parlait quand ils sont entrés. On ne s’aperçoit point en eux d’une qualité plutôt que d’une autre, hors de la nécessité de la mettre en usage; mais alors on s’en souvient […] Il faut qu’on n’en puisse [dire], ni : “Il est mathématicien,” ni “prédicateur” […] mais “il est honnête homme.” Cette qualité universelle me plaît seule.
Universal people are not called poets or geometers; but they are both, and judges of both. One doesn’t notice them (or: one cannot second-guess them). They will talk about whatever was being talked about when they came in. One doesn’t notice in them one talent rather than another, except when there is need to make use of it; but then one remembers it […]
One should not be able to say either “He is a mathematician” or “a preacher” […] but “He is an honnête homme.” Only this universal quality pleases me.
The sentence On ne les devine point is particularly intriguing. Deviner means to guess, but it’s not clear exactly what we can’t guess about them. Each of the two translations/interpretations makes a different point about anthropological minimalism.
We don’t notice them, we don’t guess that they are present. Not to be noticed is not to attract resentment. In Pascal‘s time, as in Proust‘s, the salons were little laboratories of sociability, interpersonal marketplaces with no function other than to position their participants in the community. Poets, geometers, and the like touted their wares at these sessions, seeking the approval of those who could further their careers. What Pascal–like Proust first a sociable, then a reclusive man (and some say, a homosexual) of profound anthropological intuition–seeks in these laboratories is the model of a harmonious society, a worldly counterpart of the Kingdom of God.
A society of poets or mathematicians each experts in their specialty alone corresponds much more closely to the model put forth by modern market society–as exemplified, say, by a university faculty. Faculties are divided into departments, and the latter into specializations, so that each may be an expert in his/her own domain. (Today, this “gentlemanly” structure has broken down under the pressures of mass demography; the networkers eschew both the traditional specialties and, even more, Pascal’s ideal of universality–they are specialists in diversity.) But what disturbs Pascal in specializations is that they are worn like uniforms, noticeable to all. His ideal individual would blend in with the crowd. In a society composed of such people, none would be more visible than any other.
In this version of the honnête homme, Pascal’s exemplary individual is equally unresented, because at the moment when his talents are needed, our attention is focused not on him but on the problem to be solved. No one questions Theseus‘ personal morals when he is slaying the Minotaur.
Yet when the crisis is over, we recall the previously unnoticed honnête homme, for his poetry, his geometry, whatever was required at the moment–and knowing he is neither poet nor geometer, we infer that he would equally have stood out had he been put to the test in another domain. But there is no better recipe than universal superiority for being universally resented. The honnête homme, the individual exemplar of the ideal society, is thus a paradoxical figure, the incarnation of Pascal’s vision of the paradoxical human condition, the only conceivable resolution of which we cannot know, but must wager on: divine, transcendent Grace.