History of Literature

Blaise Pascal


Blaise Pascal



Blaise Pascal

French philosopher and scientist

born June 19, 1623, Clermont-Ferrand, France
died August 19, 1662, Paris

French mathematician, physicist, religious philosopher, and master of prose. He laid the foundation for the modern theory of probabilities, formulated what came to be known as Pascal’s law of pressure, and propagated a religious doctrine that taught the experience of God through the heart rather than through reason. The establishment of his principle of intuitionism had an impact on such later philosophers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Henri Bergson and also on the Existentialists.

Pascal’s life to the Port-Royal years
Pascal’s father, Étienne Pascal, was presiding judge of the tax court at Clermont-Ferrand. His mother died in 1626, and in 1631 the family moved to Paris. Étienne, who was respected as a mathematician, devoted himself henceforth to the education of his children. While his sister Jacqueline (born in 1625) figured as an infant prodigy in literary circles, Blaise proved himself no less precocious in mathematics. In 1640 he wrote an essay on conic sections, Essai pour les coniques, based on his study of the now classical work of Girard Desargues on synthetic projective geometry. The young man’s work, which was highly successful in the world of mathematics, aroused the envy of no less a personage than the great French Rationalist and mathematician René Descartes. Between 1642 and 1644, Pascal conceived and constructed a calculating device to help his father—who in 1639 had been appointed intendant (local administrator) at Rouen—in his tax computations. The machine was regarded by Pascal’s contemporaries as his main claim to fame, and with reason, for in a sense it was the first digital calculator since it operated by counting integers. The significance of this contribution explains the youthful pride that appears in his dedication of the machine to the chancellor of France, Pierre Seguier, in 1644.

Until 1646 the Pascal family held strictly Roman Catholic principles, though they often substituted l’honnêteté (“polite respectability”) for inward religion. An illness of his father, however, brought Blaise into contact with a more profound expression of religion, for he met two disciples of the abbé de Saint-Cyran, who, as director of the convent of Port-Royal, had brought the austere moral and theological conceptions of Jansenism into the life and thought of the convent. Jansenism was a 17th-century form of Augustinianism in the Roman Catholic Church. It repudiated free will, accepted predestination, and taught that divine grace, rather than good works, was the key to salvation. The convent at Port-Royal had become the centre for the dissemination of the doctrine. Pascal himself was the first to feel the necessity of entirely turning away from the world to God, and he won his family over to the spiritual life in 1646. His letters indicate that for several years he was his family’s spiritual adviser, but the conflict within himself—between the world and ascetic life—was not yet resolved. Absorbed again in his scientific interests, he tested the theories of Galileo and Evangelista Torricelli (an Italian physicist who discovered the principle of the barometer). To do so, he reproduced and amplified experiments on atmospheric pressure by constructing mercury barometers and measuring air pressure, both in Paris and on the top of a mountain overlooking Clermont-Ferrand. These tests paved the way for further studies in hydrodynamics and hydrostatics. While experimenting, Pascal invented the syringe and created the hydraulic press, an instrument based upon the principle that became known as Pascal’s law: pressure applied to a confined liquid is transmitted undiminished through the liquid in all directions regardless of the area to which the pressure is applied. His publications on the problem of the vacuum (1647–48) added to his reputation. When he fell ill from overwork, his doctors advised him to seek distractions; but what has been described as Pascal’s “worldly period” (1651–54) was, in fact, primarily a period of intense scientific work, during which he composed treatises on the equilibrium of liquid solutions, on the weight and density of air, and on the arithmetic triangle: Traité de l’équilibre des liqueurs et de la pesanteur de la masse de l’air (Eng. trans., The Physical Treatises of Pascal, 1937) and also his Traité du triangle arithmétique. In the last treatise, a fragment of the De Alea Geometriae, he laid the foundations for the calculus of probabilities. By the end of 1653, however, he had begun to feel religious scruples; and the “night of fire,” an intense, perhaps mystical “conversion” that he experienced on November 23, 1654, he believed to be the beginning of a new life. He entered Port-Royal in January 1655, and though he never became one of the solitaires, he thereafter wrote only at their request and never again published in his own name. The two works for which he is chiefly known, Les Provinciales and the Pensées, date from the years of his life spent at Port-Royal.

“Les Provinciales”
Written in defense of Antoine Arnauld, an opponent of the Jesuits and a defender of Jansenism who was on trial before the faculty of theology in Paris for his controversial religious works, Pascal’s 18 Lettres écrites par Louis de Montalte à un provincialdeal with divine grace and the ethical code of the Jesuits. They are better known as Les Provinciales. They included a blow against the relaxed morality that the Jesuits were said to teach and that was the weak point in their controversy with Port-Royal; Pascal quotes freely Jesuit dialogues and discrediting quotations from their own works, sometimes in a spirit of derision, sometimes with indignation. In the two last letters, dealing with the question of grace, Pascal proposed a conciliatory position that was later to make it possible for Port-Royal to subscribe to the “Peace of the Church,” a temporary cessation of the conflict over Jansenism, in 1668.

The Provinciales were an immediate success, and their popularity has remained undiminished. This they owe primarily to their form, in which for the first time bombast and tedious rhetoric are replaced by variety, brevity, tautness, and precision of style; as Nicolas Boileau, the founder of French literary criticism, recognized, they marked the beginning of modern French prose. Something of their popularity, moreover, in fashionable, Protestant, or skeptical circles, must be attributed to the violence of their attack on the Jesuits. In England they have been most widely read when Roman Catholicism has seemed a threat to the Church of England. Yet they have also helped Catholicism to rid itself of laxity; and, in 1678, Pope Innocent XI himself condemned half of the propositions that Pascal had denounced earlier. Thus, the Provinciales played a decisive part in promoting a return to inner religion and helped to secure the eventual triumph of the ideas set forth in Antoine Arnauld’s treatise De la fréquente communion (1643), in which he protested against the idea that the profligate could atone for continued sin by frequent communion without repentance, a thesis that thereafter remained almost unchallengeable until the French church felt the repercussion of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (which had granted religious freedom to French Protestants) in 1685. Whereas the Jesuits seemed to represent a Counter-Reformation predominantly concerned with orthodoxy and obedience to ecclesiastical authority, the Provinciales advocated a more spiritual approach, emphasizing the soul’s union with the Mystical Body of Christ through charity.

Further, by rejecting any double standard of morality and the distinction between counsel and precept, Pascal aligned himself with those who believe the ideal of evangelical perfection to be inseparable from the Christian life. Although there was nothing original in these opinions, Pascal nevertheless stamped them with the passionate conviction of a man in love with the absolute, of a man who saw no salvation apart from a heartfelt desire for the truth, together with a love of God that works continually toward destroying all self-love. For Pascal, morality cannot be separated from spirituality. Moreover, his own spiritual development can be traced in the Provinciales. The religious sense in them becomes progressively refined after the first letters, in which the tone of ridicule is smart rather than charitable.

Pascal finally decided to write his work of Christian apologetics, Apologie de la religion chrétienne, as a consequence of his meditations on miracles and other proofs of Christianity. The work remained unfinished at his death. Between the summers of 1657 and 1658, he put together most of the notes and fragments that editors have published under the inappropriate title Pensées (“Thoughts”; Eng. trans., Pensées, 1962). In the Apologie, Pascal shows the man without grace to be an incomprehensible mixture of greatness and abjectness, incapable of truth or of reaching the supreme good to which his nature nevertheless aspires. A religion that accounts for these contradictions, which he believed philosophy and worldliness fail to do, is for that very reason “to be venerated and loved.” The indifference of the skeptic, Pascal wrote, is to be overcome by means of the “wager”: if God does not exist, the skeptic loses nothing by believing in him; but if he does exist, the skeptic gains eternal life by believing in him. Pascal insists that men must be brought to God through Jesus Christ alone, because a creature could never know the infinite if Jesus had not descended to assume the proportions of man’s fallen state.

The second part of the work applies the Augustinian theory of allegorical interpretation to the biblical types (figuratifs); reviews the rabbinical texts, the persistence of true religion, the work of Moses, and the proofs concerning Jesus Christ’s God-like role; and, finally, gives a picture of the primitive church and the fulfillment of the prophecies. The Apologie (Pensées) is a treatise on spirituality. Pascal was not interested in making converts if they were not going to be saints.

Pascal’s apologetics, though it has stood the test of time, is primarily addressed to individuals of his own acquaintance. To convert his libertine friends, he looked for arguments in their favourite authors: in Michel de Montaigne, in the Skeptic Pierre Charron, in the Epicurean Pierre Gassendi, and in Thomas Hobbes, an English political philosopher. For Pascal, Skepticism was but a stage. Modernist theologians in particular have tried to make use of his main contention, that “man is infinitely more than man,” in isolation from his other contention, that man’s wretchedness is explicable only as the effect of a Fall, about which a man can learn what he needs to know from history. In so doing, they sacrifice the second part of the Apologie to the first, keeping the philosophy while losing the exegesis. For Pascal as for St. Paul, Jesus Christ is the second Adam, inconceivable without the first.

Finally, too, Pascal expressly admitted that his psychological analyses were not by themselves sufficient to exclude a “philosophy of the absurd”; to do so, it is necessary to have recourse to the convergence of these analyses with the “lines of fact” concerning revelation, this convergence being too extraordinary not to appear as the work of providence to an anguished seeker after truth (qui cherche en gémissant).

He was next again involved in scientific work. First, the “Messieurs de Port-Royal” themselves asked for his help in composing the Élements de géométrie; and second, it was suggested that he should publish what he had discovered about cycloid curves, a subject on which the greatest mathematicians of the time had been working. Once more fame aroused in him feelings of self-esteem; but from February 1659, illness brought him back to his former frame of mind, and he composed the “prayer for conversion” that the English clergymen Charles and John Wesley, who founded the Methodist Church, were later to regard so highly. Scarcely capable of regular work, he henceforth gave himself over to helping the poor and to the ascetic and devotional life. He took part intermittently, however, in the disputes to which the “Formulary”—a document condemning five propositions of Jansenism that, at the demand of the church authorities, had to be signed before a person could receive the sacraments—gave rise. Finally a difference of opinion with the theologians of Port-Royal led him to withdraw from controversy, though he did not sever his relations with them.

Pascal died in 1662 after suffering terrible pain, probably from carcinomatous meningitis following a malignant ulcer of the stomach. He was assisted by a non-Jansenist parish priest.

At once a physicist, a mathematician, an eloquent publicist in the Provinciales, and an inspired artist in the Apologie and in his private notes, Pascal was embarrassed by the very abundance of his talents. It has been suggested that it was his too concrete turn of mind that prevented his discovering the infinitesimal calculus; and in some of the Provinciales the mysterious relations of human beings with God are treated as if they were a geometrical problem. But these considerations are far outweighed by the profit that he drew from the multiplicity of his gifts; his religious writings are rigorous because of his scientific training; and his love of the concrete emerges no less from the stream of quotations in the Provinciales than from his determination to reject the vigorous method of attack that he had used so effectively in his Apologie.

Jean Orcibal
Lucien Jerphagnon

Major Works
Mathematics, logic, and the foundations of science
Essai pour les coniques (1640); Lettre sur le sujet de la machine inventée par le sieur B.P. pour faire toutes sortes d’opération d’arithmétique (1645); De l’autorité en matière de philosophie, the first editor’s title of Pascal’s preface to a projected Traité du vuide, consisting of a general statement of the principle of scientific research (written 1647, printed 1779); Traité du triangle arithmétique avec quelques autres petits traités sur la même matière (written 1654, printed 1665); De l’esprit géométrique—de l’art de persuader (written c. 1658, first printed in two parts 1728 and 1776); Histoire de la roulette, appellée autrement trochoïde ou cycloïde (1658); Lettres de A. Dettonville, contenant quelques-unes de ses inventions de géométrie (1658–59).

Expériences nouvelles touchant le vuide (1647); Récit de la grande expérience de l’équilibre des liqueurs (1648); Traites de l’équilibre des liqueurs et de la pesanteur de la masse de l’air (written 1651, printed 1663; The Physical Treatises of Pascal: The Equilibrium of Liquids and the Weight of the Mass of the Air, 1937).

Religious philosophy and controversy
Abrégé de la vie de Jésus-Christ (written 1654 or 1655, printed 1846); Lettre escritte à un Provincial par un de ses amis sur le sujet des disputes présentes de la Sorbonne (January 1656, followed by 17 more pamphlets on the same themes down to March 1657), all 18 being subsequently republished together as Les Provinciales (1657; augmented edition, with supplementary pamphlets, 1659); Projet de mandement contre l’Apologie pour les casuistes (written 1658, printed 1779); Ecrits sur la grâce (four treatises drafted between 1656 and 1658 and printed from 1779 onward); Pensées de M. Pascal sur la religion et sur quelques autres sujets (1670; the first Eng. trans. was Monsieur Pascal’s Thoughts, Meditations, and Prayers, 1688; numerous new translations and versions have appeared since then); Prière pur demander à Dieu le bon usages des maladies (written 1659, printed 1666 and 1670).

Other works
Trois discours sur la condition des grands (comprised 1660, printed 1670). Collected editions of Pascal’s works include letters of mathematical or spiritual interest.




Type of work: Philosophical reflections
Author: Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
First published: 1670


Blaise Pascal, scientist and mathematician, became an active member of the society of Port Royal after his conversion as the result of a mystical experience in 1654. He was actively involved in the bitter debate between the Jansenists, with whom he allied himself, and the Jesuits, and the series of polemical letters titled Provinciates (1656-1657) is the result of that great quarrel. Wanting to write a defense of Catholic Christianity which would appeal to men of reason and sensibility, Pascal, about 1660, began to prepare his defense of the Catholic faith.
Like many other great thinkers whose concern was more with the subject of their compositions than with the external order and completeness of the presentation, he failed to complete a continuous and unified apology. When he died at thirty-nine he left little more than his notes for the projected work, a series of philosophical fragments reflecting his religious meditations. These form the Pen-sees as we know it. Despite its fragmentary character, the book is a classic of French literature, charming and effective in its style, powerful and sincere in its philosophic and religious protestations.
Philosophers distinguish themselves either by the insight of their claims or by the power of their justification. Paradoxically, Pascal distinguishes himself in his defense by the power of his claims. This quality is partly a matter of style and partly a matter of conviction. It was Pascal, in the Pensees, who wrote, "The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know," by which he meant not that emotion is superior to reason, but that in being compelled by a moving experience one submits to a superior kind of reasons. Pascal also wrote that "all our reasoning reduces itself to yielding to feeling," but he admitted that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between feeling and fancy; nevertheless, he believed that the way to truth is by the heart, the feeling, and that the intuitive way of knowledge is the most important, not only because it is of the most important matters but also because it is essential to all reasoning, providing the first principles of thought. Much of the value of the Pensees results from the clarity with which Pascal presented his intuitive thoughts.
A considerable portion of the Pensees is taken up with a discussion of philosophical method, particularly in relation to religious reflection. The book begins with an analysis of the difference between mathematical and intuitive thinking and continues the discussion, in later sections, by considering the value of skepticism, of contradictions, of feeling, memory, and imagination. A number of passages remind the reader of the fact that a proposition which seems true from one perspective may seem false from another, but Pascal insists that "essential" truth is "altogether pure and altogether true." The power of skepticism and the use of contradictions in reasoning both depend upon a conception of human thinking which ignores the importance of perspective in determining a man's belief. Thus, from the skeptic's point of view nothing is known because we can be sure of nothing; but the skeptic forgets that "it is good to be tired and wearied by the vain search after the true good, that we may stretch out our arms to the Redeemer." Contradiction, according to Pascal, "is a bad sign of truth" since there are some things certain which have been contradicted and some false ideas which have not. Yet contradiction has its use: "All these contradictions, which seem most to keep me from the knowledge of religion, have led me most quickly to the true one."
Pascal had the gift of responding critically in a way that added value to both his own discourse and that of his opponent. Criticizing Montaigne's skepticism, he came to recognize the truth—a partial truth, to be sure—of much that Montaigne wrote. His acknowledgment of this is grudging; he writes that "it is not in Montaigne, but in myself, that I find all that I see in him," and also "What good there is in Montaigne can only have been acquired with difficulty." Yet, as T. S. Eliot has pointed out in an introduction to the Pensees, Pascal uses many of Montaigne's ideas, phrases, and terms, paralleling several parts of Montaigne's "Apology for Raimond Sebond."
Perhaps the most controversial part of the Pensees is Pascal's section on miracles. He quotes Saint Augustine as saying that he would not have been a Christian but for the miracles, and he argues that there are three marks of religion: perpetuity, a good life, and miracles. He writes, "If the cooling of love leaves the Church almost without believers, miracles will rouse them," and, "Miracles are more important than you think. They have served for the foundation, and will serve for the continuation of the Church till Antichrist, till the end." Although there are other passages which assert the importance of faith which is in no way dependent upon miracles, as, for example, "That we must love one God only is a thing so evident, that it does not require miracles to prove it," Pascal does seem unambiguously to assert that miracles are a way to faith. This idea is opposed by those who insist that belief in miracles presupposes a belief in God and the Gospels. Pascal had been profoundly affected by a miracle at Port Royal, but his defense of the importance of miracles goes beyond that immediate reference with appeals to reason and authority as well as to feeling.
Pascal's "Proof of Jesus Christ" is interesting not because it pretends to offer demonstrations which would appeal to unbelievers, but because it uses persuasive references which throw a new light on the question of Jesus' status. He argues that because of unbelievers at the time of Christ we now have witnesses to Him. If Jesus had made His nature so evident that none could mistake it, the proof of His nature and existence would not have been as convincing as it is when reported by unbelievers. Pascal emphasizes the function of the Jews as unbelievers when he writes: "The Jews, in slaying Him in order not to receive Him as the Messiah, have given Him the final proof of being the Messiah. And in continuing not to recognize Him, they made themselves irreproachable witnesses."
Pascal's famous wager is presented in the Pensees. He makes an appeal to "natural lights"—ordinary human intelligence and good sense. God either exists or He does not. How shall you decide? This is a game with infinitely serious consequences. You must wager, but how shall you wager? Reason is of no use here. Suppose you decide to wager that God is. "If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing." Pascal concludes that there is everything to be said in favor of committing oneself to a belief in God and strong reasons against denying God. To the objection that a man cannot come to believe simply by recognizing that he will be extremely fortunate if he is right and no worse off if he is wrong, Pascal replies by saying that if an unbeliever will act as if he believes, and if he wants to believe, belief will come to him. This wager later inspired William James's The Will to Believe, in which the American pragmatist argued that Pascal's method is essentially pragmatic. James's objection to Pascal's wager is that the wager alone presents no momentous issue; unless one can relate the particular issue being considered to a man's concerns, the appeal of the wager is empty. If such proof would work for Pascal's God, it would work for any god whatsoever. However, James's use of the wager to justify passional decisions is much like Pascal's.
In a section titled "The Fundamentals of the Christian Religion," Pascal wrote that the Christian religion teaches two truths: that there is a God whom men can know and that by virtue of their corruption men are unworthy of Him. Pascal rejected cold conceptions of God which reduced Him to the author of mathematical truths or of the order of the elements. For Pascal the God of salvation had to be conceived as He is known through Jesus Christ. The Christian God car. be known, according to Pascal, but since men are corrupt they do not always know God. Nature assists God to hide Himself from corrupt men, although it also contains perfections to show that Nature is the image of God.
In considering "The Philosophers," Pascal emphasizes thought as distinguishing men from brutes and making the greatness of man possible. "Man is neither angel nor brute," he writes, "and the unfortunate thing is that he who would act the angel acts the brute."
Thus in Pascal we find a man who is on the one hand eager to defend the Christian faith, on the other determined to indicate the shortcomings of men. He is remorselessly critical in his attacks on skeptics, atheists, and other critics of the Church, not simply because they err, but because they do so in disorder and without respect for the possibilities of man or the values of religion. In regard to skepticism he wrote that his thoughts were intentionally without order, because only thus could he be true to the disorderly character of his subject.
But it is not Pascal the bitter critic who prevails in the Pensees; it is, rather, the impassioned and inspired defender of the faith. Even those who do not share his convictions admire his style and the ingenuity of his thought, and much that is true of all mankind has never been better said than in the Penrzes.



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