Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1892
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 Jansenists, which he is purportedly trying to explain to his fellow provincial back home. In reality, the letters are an impassioned defense of the principles and principals of the Jansenist movement and a stinging attack on the Jesuits. The letters were enormously popular, and the local authorities went to great lengths to try to suppress them and discover their author. Pascal’s letters have been admired ever since as masterpieces of French prose.
Pascal was not satisfied, however, merely to defend a particular movement within the Catholic church. He desired to write a great defense of Christianity as a whole at a time when religious faith was increasingly under attack by skepticism, on the one hand, and rationalism, on the other. Prompted in part by what he took to be the miraculous cure of his young niece, Pascal began in 1657 to take notes for this work, which he once said would take ten years of steady effort to complete. As it turned out, Pascal never completed the work or even a draft of it. Instead, he produced approximately one thousand notes, some only a few words, others pages long and substantially revised. The majority of these notes were written in 1657 and 1658, after which time he fell into the extremely painful and debilitating illness that would largely incapacitate him until his death. They were first published in abbreviated form as Pensées (Monsieur Pascal’s Thoughts, Meditations, and Prayers, 1688; best known as Pensées) in 1670 and have become one of the classic documents of Western culture.
Although Pascal never wrote his great apology for the Christian faith, he did organize many of his notes into groups, from which scholars have speculated as to his ultimate intentions. As enlightening as these speculations sometimes are, the timelessness of Pensées comes not from the tantalizing promise of some irrefutable defense of religious faith but from Pascal’s compelling, often painful insights into the human condition and from the process of watching one of history’s great minds struggle with eternal questions of faith, spirit, and transcendence.
Many of Pascal’s most powerful entries poignantly explore the tragedy and folly of the human condition if there were no God. He depicts humankind as lost in an alien and inhospitable world, given over to the empty baubles and distractions of society. Pascal portrays the world as a psychologically frightening place. Men and women are caught between the infinitely large, on the one hand, and the infinitely small, on the other. They are torn by a divided nature which is neither angel nor beast, to use one of his images, but is capable of acting like either. Human beings yearn for something sure and permanent but find only illusion and transience. Pascal finds the solution for the human dilemma in the grace of God as manifested in Jesus Christ. Only by knowing who created them, Pascal argues, can humans know who they are and how they can be happy. He does not, however, offer this solution as an effortless one. Part of Pascal’s enduring appeal is his very modern awareness of the difficulty of religious faith in a scientific and skeptical world.
Pascal was seriously ill much of the last four years of his life, but that did not prevent him from at least sporadic efforts on a variety of projects. In 1658, he made further mathematical discoveries on the cycloid and publicly challenged the mathematicians of Europe to a contest in solving problems in this area. He was drawn briefly into the Jansenist controversy once again but then withdrew from it altogether. His concern for the poor led him to invent and launch a public transportation system in Paris in March of 1662. Additionally, when health permitted, he worked on his defense of Christianity that became Pensées. After much suffering patiently borne, Pascal died on August 19, 1662, at the age of thirty-nine.
Blaise Pascal is one of those handful of individuals in history whose wide range of accomplishments shows evidence of a fundamental genius that expressed itself wherever it was applied. Proof of his greatness is given by the number of different fields of intellectual effort which claim him. He is considered a mathematician of the first rank, an important physicist at the early stages of that science, an inventor, a literary master of French prose, and, most important, a philosopher and religious thinker who has written brilliantly about fundamental questions of the human condition.
Pascal was a man standing at the beginning of the modern age who felt keenly the call of reason and science but who realized the price to be paid if one lost a sense of the spiritual and transcendent. He felt caught between two contrary forces: the rationalism of rising seventeenth century science, and the skepticism about all human efforts, reason included, as epitomized by his French predecessor, Michel de Montaigne. He sought an approach to life that avoided the arrogance and materialism of the former and the cynicism and moral passivity of the latter. In this sense, Pascal’s situation anticipates the modern one. How does one find meaning, values, and faith in a rationalistic, skeptical world where most traditional guidelines are called into question? For more than three hundred years, men and women have found insight and inspiration in Pascal’s answers.
Coleman, Francis X. J. Neither Angel nor Beast: The Life and Work of Blaise Pascal. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. A somewhat poorly organized but still-insightful overview of Pascal’s life and work. Good at placing Pascal in the context of thought of the seventeenth century. Detailed account of the Jansenist controversy. Also useful on Pascal’s style. Contains biographical overview, chronology, and bibliography.
Davidson, Hugh M. Blaise Pascal. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A good first introduction to Pascal. Short but adequate overview of his life and discussions of all of his major and most of his minor works, including detailed discussion of his mathematical contributions. Includes a chronology, index, and annotated bibliography.
Krailsheimer, Alban. Pascal. New York: Hill & Wang, 1980. Part of the very helpful Past Masters series, which provides short (less than one-hundred-page) but serious overviews of the lives and work of central figures in Western culture. Brief but helpful summary of Pascal’s mathematical and scientific accomplishments. Good on the cultural context and central concerns of the Pensées. Short bibliography.
Nelson, Robert J. Pascal: Adversary and Advocate. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981. One of the more comprehensive and ambitious studies of Pascal. Takes a psychological approach to Pascal’s biography and work and offers extensive critical study of individual works. Includes a detailed bibliography.
Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. Translated by A. J. Krailsheimer. London: Penguin Books, 1966. One of the better of the many translations of Pascal’s great work. Follows the ordering of the fragments that has become the standard, though work still goes on as to the best ordering of Pascal’s fragments. Others who have translated Pascal into English include W. F. Trotter, E. B. Thayer, John Warrington, H. F. Stewart, E. Cailliet, and John Blankenagel.