Blaise Pascal Additional Biography


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

0111200334-Pascal.jpg Blaise Pascal (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

A philosopher, mathematician, theologian, and visionary, Pascal wrote meditations on God and miracles that inspired the project of an apology or defense of the Christian religion (Catholicism) in his works. His innovations in mathematics included contributions to vacuum theory and the geometry of cycloid curves, and he helped create Paris’ public omnibus carriage system.

During the 1650’s Pascal grew interested in theology and moral philosophy. After undergoing a mystical experience at the convent at Port Royal in 1654, he retired from the world. He wrote his recollection of this mystical experience in a text called “The Memorial,” which he sewed into his clothing in order always to have it with him. During 1656 he came out of retirement briefly to defend Antoine Arnauld from an attack by the Jesuits, publishing the Lettres provinciales (1656-1657), a series of letters defending Jansenism.

Pascal led a quiet life within the walls of Port Royal until his death in 1662. Eight years later a group of Jansenists edited and published Pensées de M. Pascal sur la religion et sur quelques autres sujets (commonly known as the Pensées), fragments salvaged from Pascal’s unfinished work “Apologie de la religion catholique.” Pascal’s nephew believed that the order in which these fragments were discovered after his uncle’s death made no sense, and he reorganized them in an order that seriously distorted...

(The entire section is 434 words.)


(Survey of World Philosophers)

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.

Early Life

Blaise Pascal was the third child of Étienne Pascal, a government financial bureaucrat, and Antoinette (née 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 developing 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.

Life’s Work

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 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 The Provincial Letters. 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...

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(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Although Blaise Pascal was a very important mathematician and physicist, he has remained famous above all for his eloquent writings on the moral obligations that accompany a commitment to Christianity. Pascal believed that an acceptance of divine authority enables people to develop an objective foundation for moral values. The problem of ethical subjectivity disappears once one accepts the revealed and liberating truths to be found in the Bible and in the exegetical works of respected Church Fathers such as Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine. Because of the clarity and the depth of his analysis of ethical questions, Blaise Pascal has remained one of the most influential and controversial French writers, even several centuries after...

(The entire section is 547 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Blaise Pascal (pahs-kahl), born on June 19, 1623, was a precocious child tutored at home in Clermont-Ferrand and later in Paris by his father. During Pascal’s boyhood his father displeased Cardinal Richelieu by objecting to the cardinal’s handling of some financial matters and had to go into temporary exile. The cardinal later relented and appointed Pascal’s father intendant of Rouen in 1639, a post he held for nine years. During the years in Rouen, Pascal became acquainted with Pierre Corneille, the famous dramatist. In 1646 the Pascal family became interested in Jansenism, although Blaise Pascal himself seems to have been at the time more interested in science than in religion. He had written a geometric treatise at the age...

(The entire section is 401 words.)