Blaise Pascal 1623–1662
French scientist, theologian, and philosopher.
Considered one of the most advanced thinkers of his time in the areas of science and mathematics, Pascal is admired today mostly for his spiritual insights, argumentational style and form, and mastery of the French language. His queries into matters both secular and religious involved a uniform methodology—the construction of mathematical proofs—and focused chiefly on the dichotomy between reason and faith. Modern critics and scholars agree that Pascal's influence and participation in some of the most prominent intellectual debates of his time, as well as his writings on such disparate subjects as science and religion, make him an important contributor to the history of ideas.
Pascal was born to Étienne and Antoinette Begon Pascal, members of the petite noblesse, in the provincial town of Clermont en Auvergne in 1623. Pascal's mother died in 1626, leaving his father alone to raise him and his two sisters, Gilberte and Jacqueline. In 1631 the family moved to Paris, where Pascal was schooled solely by his father, a mathematician, who prevented Pascal from studying mathematics until he had first mastered Latin and Greek. A child prodigy, Pascal had secretly taught himself geometry and, by the age of twelve, had demonstrated thirty-two propositions in Euclid's Elements of Geometry. Pascal accompanied his father on weekly mathematical lectures organized by Father Marin Mersenne, one of the foremost scholars of that period. In 1638 Pascal's father fled Paris because of disputes over policy issues with Cardinal Richelieu, but was pardoned a year later and appointed royal tax commissioner at Rouen. In 1639 Pascal began writing his first major work, Essai pour les coniques (1640). In 1642, he invented the machine arithmétique—a device that performed basic mathematical functions—to help his father in his tax work. Pascal also pursued geometry, number theory, and probability theory, and undertook a series of important experiments concerning the behavior of liquids in equilibrium. These experiments in which Pascal attempted to disprove the notion that nature abhors a vacuum, were published in Expériences nouvelles touchant le vide (1647). In 1646 the elder Pascal injured his hip in a fall, and for three months was cared for by two men
who were followers of Cornelius Jansen, a Dutch theologian whose ideas about Catholicism were based on the teachings of St. Augustine. Pascal's association with the Jansenists compelled him to practice his own Catholicism more conscientiously. In 1647 Pascal returned to Paris for treatment of chronic headaches, stomach pains, and partial paralysis of the legs. With the death of his father in 1651, Pascal abandoned his religious interests for the Paris social scene. He associated with the freethinking and libertine friends of the Duc de Roannez, his childhood companion, but eventually came to view his social amusements as an impediment to his spiritual progress. On the evening of November 23, 1654, Pascal claimed to have had an experience so profound that he vowed thereafter to devote himself solely to religious activities: he claimed to have been in the presence of the "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and of the learned." Pascal documented this religious experience in a series of notes (called the Mémorial) which he had sewn into the lining of his coat and carried around with him to serve as a reminder. In 1655, Pascal made several visits to two Jansenist convents and became acquainted with Antoine Arnauld, a prominent Jansenist accused of heresy by the Jesuits. With the help of Arnauld and Pierre Nicole, Pascal wrote (under the pseudonym Louis de Montalte) Lettres provinciales [1656-57; Provincial Letters ], a series of eighteen published letters that attacked Jesuit doctrines. By 1659,...
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