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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Blaise Pascal (1623–1662)

On Mental Reservations

From “Provincial Letters”

“I PROCEED to the facilities we have invented for the avoidance of sin in the conversation and intrigues of the world. One of the most embarrassing things to provide against is lying, when it is the object to excite confidence in any false representation. In this case, our doctrine of equivocals is of admirable service, by which, says Sanchez, ‘it is lawful to use ambiguous terms to give the impression a different sense from that which you understand yourself.” “This I am well aware of, father.” “We have,” continued he, “published it so frequently, that in fact everybody is acquainted with it; but pray, do you know what is to be done when no equivocal terms can be found?” “No, father.” “Ha, I thought this would be new to you: it is the doctrine of mental reservations. Sanchez states it in the same place: ‘A person may take an oath that he has not done such a thing, though in fact he has, by saying to himself, it was not done on a certain specified day or before he was born, or by concealing any other similar circumstance which gives another meaning to the statement. This is in numberless instances extremely convenient, and is always justifiable when it is necessary to your welfare, honor, or property.’”

“But, father, is not this adding perjury to lying?” “No; Sanchez and Filiutius show the contrary: “It is the intention which stamps the quality of the action;’ and the latter furnishes another and surer method of avoiding lying. After saying in an audible voice, I swear that I did not do this, you may add inwardly, to-day; or after affirming aloud, I swear, you may repeat in a whisper, I say; and then resuming the former tone—I did not do it. Now this you must admit is telling the truth.” “I own it is,” said I; “but it is telling truth in a whisper, and a lie in an audible voice; besides, I apprehend that very few people have sufficient presence of mind to avail themselves of this deception.” “Our fathers,” answered the Jesuit, “have in the same place given directions for those who do not know how to manage these niceties, so that they may be indemnified against the sin of lying, while plainly declaring they have not done what in reality they have, provided ‘that, in general, they intended to give the same sense to their assertion which a skilful man would have contrived to do.’”

“Now confess,” he asked, “have not you sometimes been embarrassed through an ignorance of this doctrine?” “Certainly.” “And will you not admit, too, that it would often be very convenient to violate your word with a good conscience?” “Surely, one of the most convenient things in the world!” “Then, sir, listen to Escobar; he gives this general rule: ‘Promises are not obligatory when a man has no intention of being bound to fulfil them; and it seldom happens that he has such an intention, unless he confirms it by an oath or bond, so that when he merely says I will do it, it is to be understood if he do not change his mind; for he did not intend by what he promised to deprive himself of his liberty.’ He furnishes some other rules which you may read for yourself, and concludes thus: ‘Everything is taken from Molina and our other authors—omnia ex Molina et aliis;’ it is, consequently, indisputable.”

“Father,” exclaimed I, “I never knew before that the direction of the intention could nullify the obligation of a promise.” “Now, then,” said he, “you perceive this very much facilitates the intercourse of mankind.”