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Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)


Mathematician, physicist, and theologian, inventor of the first digital calculator, who is often thought of as the ideal of classic French prose. Pascal lived in the time when Copernicus' discovery – that the earth moves round the sun – had made fallen human beings insignificant factors in the new order of the world. Facing the immensity of the universe, Pascal felt horror – "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me." For him the world seemed empty of ultimate meaning or significance without Christianity, which he defended against the assaults of freethinkers. While Montaigne lived at ease with skepticism, Pascal was tormented by religious doubt, and took the question Why are we here? with the utmost seriousness, revealing his thoughts in his most famous book, the posthumous Pensées.

"Pascal's disillusioned analysis of human bondage is sometimes interpreted to mean that Pascal was really and finally an unbeliever, who, in his despair, was incapable of enduring reality and enjoying the heroic satisfaction of the free man's worship of nothing. His despair, his disillusion, are, however, no illustration of personal weakness; they are perfectly objective, because they are essential moments in the progress of the intellectual soul; and for the type of Pascal they are the analogue of the drought, the dark night, which is an essential stage in the progress of the Christian mystic." (T.S. Eliot in Selected Essays, 1960)

Blaise Pascal was born in Clermont-Ferrand, Auvergne (now Clermont-Ferrand), a town on the slope of Puy de Dôme, an extinct volcanic peak. A sickly, precocious child, he grew up without the company of other children. His mother Pascal had lost at an early age. He studied privately, tutored mostly by his father, Etienne, who was a scientist and a government official. By age 12 he had worked out Pythagoras' theorem by himself. At thirteen Pascal was introduced to a discussion group, called the Académie Mersenne after the black-robed friar. This scientific circle included the philosopher-mathematician René Descartes and the amateur mathematic genius Pierre de Fermat. For a time Pascal's father was disgraced for complicity in a bond-holders' protest, but he was rehabilitated with the help of Richelieu's niece. In 1631 the family moved to Paris and in 1640 then to Rouen. When his father died, he was able to leave a sufficient patrimony to his son and his two daughters.

From an early age Pascal showed an inclination toward mathematics. He wrote at the age of 16 a highly appreciated treatise Essay pour les Coniques. Together with Fermat, Pascal invented the calculus of probabilities and laid the foundations for Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz's infinitesimal calculus. Pascal also designed a calculating machine – becoming one of the fathers of the Computer Age – and later the barometer, the hydraulic press, and the syringe. In Clermont Pascal demostrated how the weight of the Earth's atmosphere balanced the mercury in the barometer.

Pascal suffered on an off with stomach pains, headaches, bouts of sweating, and partial paralysis in his legs. His treatment included bleedings, purgings, and the consumption of asses' milk. In 1646 Parcal's father dislocated his hip, and two Jansenist brothers, Adrien and Jean Deschamps, came to his aid. By the end of the year the entire Pascal family had converted to Jansenism, the Catholic sect rivaling the Jesuits who had the support of the King, Louis XIV. Pascal's sister, Jaqueline, entered the Jansenist convent of Port-Royal in south-west Paris and became one of the most passionate advocates of the sect.

The Jansenists, who were never officially accepted by the Catholic Church, were named after Cornelius Jansenius (1587-1638), a Flemish theologian. The Jansenists argued that since the Fall in the Garden of Eden, all humankind has been corrupted by sin. Their objection to the Jesuits stemmed from what they saw as the over-reliance of the Jesuits on human free will, to the detriment of divine grace. Jansenius, in his book Augustinus, stated that the salvation of the individual man must be achieved by a combination of his own effort and the free-will to exercise his natural ability together with supernatural grace.

On his father's second retirement, Pascal returned in 1647 to Paris, where his physical condition improved. He was adviced by a doctor to give up all continued mental labor, and seek as much as possible all opportunities to divet himself. Until 1654 Pascal devoted himself to mathematics and scientific studies, but he also spent time in the company of young men of leisure. His sister Gilberte called his wordly period "the time of his life that was worst employed." One of Pascal's partying friends introduced him to chevalier de Méré, an expert gambler, who brought him the so-called problem of points. Pascal solved the puzzle with Fermat, a lawyer and polymath. As a byproduct, they established the foundations of the modern theory of probability. At the heart of their computational method was a triangle array called Pascal's triangle, actually discovered by a Chinese mathematician, Jia Xian, around 1050, published by Zhu Shijie, in 1303, and discussed in a work by the Italian Renaissance mathematician Gerolamo Cardano.

- - 1
- -1 1
- 1 2 1
-1 3 3 1
1 4 6 4 1

(Every number in the triangle is the sum of the two above it.)

After a mystical experience on the night of November 23, 1654, which is referred to by  his biographers as "The Night of Fire," he had a second conversion, and dropped most of his friends. While he lived, he never mentioned this experience to anyone. He sold everything except his Bible, began to wear an iron belt with points on the inside, and denounced his studies of mathematics and science. Pascal defended Jansenism against the Jesuits in Lettres provinciales (Provincial Letters). The work progresses from parody to provocative formulations. In France the dichotomy between Jesuits and Jansenists come to mean the moral divide between opportunism and blunt integrity.

After his horses plunged off a bridge to their deaths in 1654, Pascal renewed his spiritual direction and made occasional retreats to the Jansenist community at Port-Royal des Champs. In 1659 Pascal fell gravely ill. His final years he devoted himself to charitable projects.

From 1660 to 1662 Pascal worked on a public transportation system for Paris. It concisted of horse-drawn carriages, "Five-Penny Coaches", scheduled to run along regular routes. Pascal died in Paris on August 19, 1662, as a result of what is believed to have been a painful stomach ulcer. His last words were: "My God, forsake me not." Pascal's autopsy revealed a severe lesion in his brain. Memorial, his document of faith, was found sewn in his clothing on his death. He had apparently carried the sheets with him for the last eight years of his life.

Pascal examined the problems of human existence from both psychological and theological points of view. "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of," he once wrote. Against the immensity of the universe he measured the fate of human beings – "Man is but a reed, the weakest thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed." For Jansenists his work came at the right time: they needed an outsider to defend their cause. The Letters, written with freshness and spontaneity, was ideal for that purpose.

According to the famous "Pascal's wager", sane and prudent persons must bet their lives on Roman Catholicism. If they do, and it turns out to be true, then they have won an eternity of bliss. And if it turns out to be false, and death is after all annihilation, what has been lost? Due to its greater expected value, religious belief is more rational. But of course there is a weakness in this beautiful reasoning – Roman Catholicism is not the only set of beliefs; there is an actual infinity of other possible universal truths. Moreover, Pascal's necessity of betting doesn't make sense for an atheist, for whom the probability that God exists is 0.Pascal's elegant attempt to think together two different discourses, the theological and the mathematics of probability, makes a distinction between the act of believing and the object of belief. This was mocked by Douglas Adams in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987) in which Electric Monks "believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe." 

Experimenting with the vacuum, Pascal published in 1663 his study Traité de la pesanteur de la masse de l'air, where he argued that "experiments are the true teachers which one must follow in physics." This principle of empiricism put Pascal into conflict with Descartes, whose starting point was human reason. "Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling," Pascal said, "do not understand the process of reasoning, for they would understand at first sight and are not used to seek for principles. And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, do not at all understand matters of feeling, seeking principles and being unable to see at a glance." But Pascal's belief in God was based on personal religious experience – he saw that reason cannot decide the question of God's existence, but he could appeal to it. In Pensées Pascal wrote: "Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is."

Pascal´s studies deeply influenced the development of modern essay writing. The idea of intuition as presented in Pensées had an impact on the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), and Henri Bergson (1859-1941). Also the popularity of Provincial Letters has remained undiminished. Pascal was among the first noteworthy philosophers who seriously questioned the existence of God. When he imagined himself arguing with somebody who was constitutionally unable to believe, Pascal could find no arguments to convince him. He concluded that belief in God could only be a matter of personal choice. This basically revolutionary approach to the problem of God's existence – it became a matter of betting – has never been officially accepted by any church. Samuel Butler wrote later in his notebook: "What is faith but a kind of betting or speculation after all? It should be: 'I bet my Redeemer liveth.'"

For further reading: Pascal and Theology by Jan Miel (1969); Pascal et Montaigne by Bernard Croquette (1974); Pascal's Provincial Letters by Walter E. Rex (1977); Pascal by A.J. Krailsheimer (1980); Blaise Pascal by Hugh M. Davidson (1983); Portraits of Thought by Buford Norman (1988); Pascal and Disbelief by David Wetsel (1994); Les Pensées de Pascal by Jean Mesnard (1993, orig. ed. 1976); Playing with Truth by Nicholas Hammond (1994); Blaise Pascal: Reasons of the Heart by Marvin Richard O'Connell (1997); 'Pascal' by Anthony Levi, in A Companion to the Philosophers, ed. Robert L. Arrington (1999); Pascal's Wager: The Man Who Played Dice with God by James A. Connor (2006); Pascal the Philosopher: An Introduction by Graeme Hunter (2013) - See also: Isaiah Berlin

Selected works:

  • Les provinciales: ou, les lettres écrites par Louis de Montalte à un provincial de ses amis et aux RR. PP. Jésuites, 1656-57
    - The Mystery of Jesuitism discovered in certain Letters, written upon occasion of the Present Differences at Sorbonne between the Jansenists and the Molinists (tr. 1679) / Provincial Letters (tr. 1816) / The Provincial Letters of Blaise Pascal (translated by Thomas McCrie, 1847) / The Provincial Letters (translated by A.J. Krailsheimer, 1966)
  • Pensées de M. Pascal sur la religion, et sur quelques autres sujets, 1669-70
    - Monsieur Pascall's Thoughts, Meditations, and Prayers, Touching Matters Moral and Divine (translated by Joe Walkr, 1688) / Thoughts on Religion and Philosophy by Blaise Pascal (translated by Isaac Taylor, 1838) / The Thoughts on Religion, and Evidence of Christianity (translated by George Pearce, 1850) / Thoughts of Blaise Pascal (translated by Paul C. Kegan, 1885) / The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal (translated by W.F. Trotter, 1904) / Thoughts (translated by Morits Kaufman, 1908) / Pascal's Pensées (translated by Hugh Stewart, 1950) / Pascal's Pensées (tranlated by Martin Turnell, 1962) / Pensées (translated by A.J. Krailsheimer, 1966) / Blaise Pascal: Pensées and Other Writings (translated by Honor Levi, 1995) / Pensées (edited and translated by Roger Ariew, 2005)
    - Mietteitä (suom. L.F. Rosendal, 1952; Martti Anhava, 1996)
  • Oeuvres complètes, 1904-14 (14 vols.)
  • Great Shorter Works of Pascal, 1948 (translated with an introd. by  by Emile Cailliet and John C. Blankenagel)
  • Oeuvres complètes, 1954 (edited by Jacques Chevalier)
  • Oeuvres complètes, 1963 (edited by Louis Lafuma)
  • Oeuvres complètes, 1964-92 (4 vols., edited by Jean Mesnard)
  • The Essential Pascal, 1966 (translated by Gertrude Pullen, edited by Robert Gleason)
  • Selections, 1989 (edited by Richard H. Popkins)
  • The Mind on Fire, 1989 (edited by James M. Houston)
  • Selected Readings, 1991
  • Discours sur la religion et sur quelques autres sujets qui ont été trouvés après sa mort parmi ses papiers, 1992 (ed. Emmanuel Martineau)
  • Pensées and Other Writings, 1995 (translated by Honor Levi, intr. and notes by Anthony Levi)
  • Selected "Pensées" and Provincial letters = Pensées et Provinciales choisies, 2004 (edited and translated by Stanley Appelbaum)

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