Article abstract: Pascal was a man of genius in many areas, who made important contributions to mathematics and physics and invented an early form of the calculator. His major contribution, however, is the record of his religious and philosophical struggle to reconcile human experience, God, and the quest for happiness and meaning.
Blaise Pascal was the third child of Étienne Pascal, a government financial bureaucrat, and Antoinette (Begon), who died when Pascal was about three. After his mother’s death, Pascal and his family moved to Paris. Pascal’s father decided to educate his children himself, rather than making use of either tutors or schools. Étienne Pascal was associated with the intellectual circles of Paris and thereby exposed Pascal to the best scientific and mathematical thought of his time.
While still a teenager, the precocious Pascal attracted the attention of the court and, in 1640, published his first mathematical treatise. In 1642, he began working on a mechanical calculator to help in his father’s work. He continued improving the device for the next ten years and in 1652 sent a version of it to Queen Christina of Sweden. In 1646, Pascal and his two older sisters first came under the influence of Jansenism, a strict, pietistic movement within the Catholic church that stressed a life of devotion, practical charity, and asceticism. Pascal experienced what is usually called his “first conversion,” feeling the need for religious renewal but not wanting to give up his scientific and mathematical endeavors. His scientific work at this time included experiments with vacuums, an important area of exploration in seventeenth century physics.
By his mid-twenties, Pascal had assumed a pattern of life that he would continue until his death. In 1647, he entered into the first of the public religious controversies that would preoccupy him on and off for the rest of his life. He also continued his scientific work on the vacuum, exchanging information with the great philosopher René Descartes and publishing his own findings. In 1648, he wrote a mathematical essay on conic sections. Throughout this period, Pascal was afflicted with serious illness, as he would be for the remainder of his life.
Pascal’s sister Jacqueline continued to be influenced by Jansenism, and during this time she expressed her desire to enter the Jansenist religious community at Port-Royal. Both Pascal and his father objected, but after her father’s death in 1651 Jacqueline entered the convent the following year. Pascal began a brief phase in which he indulged himself in the pleasures and pursuits of French society, finding the experience empty but also finding no other direction for his life at this time.
Pascal experienced a growing disillusionment with the skeptical worldliness of society life and greatly desired something more meaningful. During the middle of the night of November 23, 1654, he had an intense, mystical religious experience that lasted about two hours and changed the direction of his life. During this experience, Pascal felt powerfully and unmistakably the truth of God’s existence and the blessing of His love and forgiveness. Pascal had been provided with the kind of experiential certainty for which his scientific mind yearned and, consequently, saw everything thereafter in spiritual terms. In reaction to this experience, Pascal went to Port-Royal, the center of Jansenism, for a two-week retreat in early 1655 in order to begin the reformation of his life that he now sought. He was particularly concerned with overcoming the willful pride that had marked his life since his spectacular intellectual accomplishments as a boy and the selfishness that showed itself in his resistance to his sister Jacqueline’s entrance into the community at Port-Royal.
Jansenism was to dominate his life for the next few years. In 1653, Pope Innocent X had condemned the writings of Cornelius Jansen, Bishop of Ypres, upon which the Jansenist movement in the Catholic church was based. The great enemies of the Jansenists were the rationalistic Jesuits, and in January of 1656 Pascal wrote the first of a series of anonymous letters now entitled Lettres provinciales (1656-1657; The Provincial Letters, 1657). These letters, eighteen in all, came out until May, 1657, and are masterpieces of satire, wit, analytic logic, and French prose style. Especially in the early letters, the fictitious writer adopts a pose of objective, naïve curiosity about the controversy between the Jesuits and...
(The entire section is 1892 words.)