Blaise Pascal Introduction - Essay


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.

Biographical Information

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, Pascal's health had deteriorated so much that he was unable to write for extended periods of time. He spent the last years of his life mostly praying, reading the Bible, and helping the poor. Pascal left behind a collection of unfinished fragments at his death—published posthumously as the Pensées de M. Pascal sur la religion et sur quelques autres sujets [1670; Thoughts]—that was conceived as an Apologie de la religion chrétienne [apology for Christianity], which he hoped would dispel the widespread skepticism and hostility toward religion he had witnessed among the upper classes of French society.

Major Works

Pascal's religious writings, especially the Provincial Letters and the Pensées, enjoy wide readership, and his mathematical and scientific writings continue to interest specialists in these fields. Literary and religious scholars are studying Pascal's mathematical and scientific works to understand not only his concepts of truth and knowledge, but to gain further insight into his religious beliefs. For example, in two of Pascal's most important mathematical works—originally intended as a geometry textbook for the Jansenists schools—De l'esprit géométrique and De l'art de persuader [On the Art of Persuasion], Pascal outlined his epistemology, arguing that certainty in propositions can be logically deduced from simple or first principles. Moreover, Pascal developed many of the ideas concerning the human condition in the Pensées that he had previously expressed in the Provincial Letters. He explained that shortcomings in man's rational capacities require that these first principles are instinctual or heartfelt. According to Pascal, then, man's dubious understanding of the truth naturally makes him skeptical, but this skepticism can be overcome through divine revelations he receives once he submits to God. Man's limitations and dependence on God are also an important theme of the Provincial Letters. These letters assume several different forms: in some, an unnamed observer writes to a friend in the country about the disputes between Jansenist and Jesuit theologians taking place at the Sorbonne; in others, the unnamed observer writes directly to Jesuit theologians; in others, the unnamed observer addresses the Jesuit Père Annat, Louis XIV's confessor. In many of the letters Pascal attempted to disprove the Jesuits' doctrine of sufficient grace: the power of humans to either accept or reject God's graces, thereby shaping their own destiny. Rather, Pascal advocated efficacious grace: the Jansenist notion that God's graces always ensure salvation, but only for those who have been predestined for a life of Chrisian virtue. In other letters, Pascal attacked the laxity of the Jesuits' system of moral casuistry, and sought to discredit their moral and theological views by carefully uncovering errors in their reasoning.

Critical Reception

The continuing popularity of the Provincial Letters and the Pensées derives in large part from their readability. Scholars have consistently remarked on Pascal's literary artistry, praising his various styles and tones; his clever use of imagery, irony, and wit; and his habit of discussing mystical questions in terms of practical problems and consequences. Studies of the Provincial Letters and the Pensées often focus on Pascal's method of argument—specifically, on how he evidences his analyses of theological doctrines with the construction of mathematical proofs. Pascal's strict separation of reason and faith in both the Provincial Letters and the Pensées is also a frequent topic of analysis. Books and essays on the Pensées, the more widely discussed of the two works, commonly examine Pascal's theories of knowledge as well as correllations between his threefold understanding of reality (corporeal, intellectual, and spiritual) and his three-part system of knowing (sense, mind, and heart). In addition, much critical debate has been stimulated by Pascal's "wager" argument in the Pensées which reasons that it is more advantageous to believe than not believe in God. The critical history of the Pensées is also in large part a history of its publication. Pascal's planned "apology for Christianity" consisted of approximately one thousand notes of varying lengths, some collected in identifiable units, others not. The first edition of these notes, published in 1670 as the Pensées, included only portions of the original manuscript, organized and amended by the editors. It was not until the 1840s that a complete version of the Pensées appeared, based on manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale. The 1952 version of the Pensées published by one of Pascal's relatives, is believed by scholars to be most accurately representative of the ordering of the notes as Pascal wrote them. This version, compiled by Louis Lafuma, is considered the definitive edition of the work. Critical controversy still exists, however, concerning how the fragments of the Pensées should be ordered for purposes of reader accessibility. Some critics argue that they should be arranged according to subject matter, based on informed opinions of what Pascal intended to say. Others contend that Pascal's original ordering should be preserved because it reveals important aspects of his conceptual and compositional process.