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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 311

Before his death in 1662, the French mathematician Blaise Pascal, who was also a dedicated Christian, had planned to write a philosophical and theological work that would be both a rational defense of the Christian faith and perhaps a spiritual autobiography, along the lines of Augustine's Confessions. He did not survive to complete this work, however, and the work known as Les Pensees ("Thoughts") is a collection of his notes for this incomplete magnum opus.

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Because the Pensees were not put in order by Pascal himself, various editors and scholars of his thought have organized these notes in different ways, so it isn't really possible to analyze the work's structure. One can, however, discuss a couple key features.

First, the notes are of varying length and completeness. Some are very short, as short as a single sentence, or seem like only random aphorisms or fragments of larger ideas. Others, however, are long, well thought-out, and/or clearly written in what seems like nearly their final form.

Second, Pascal focuses on both natural religion—knowledge of a Supreme God by reason—and on the Christian faith in particular, through discussion of Scripture. Furthermore, the nature of human beings as not only rational but also volitional and spiritual beings is a major focus. As part of this, one particular argument has become quite famous: the so-called "Wager," which could be summed up in these lines:

Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

According to Pascal, we are not just thinking machines, but holistic beings, with will, desires, hopes, and fears, and so we must engage with the question of God's existence not just with rational argument but with the question of personal commitment.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 79

Blaise Pascal’s reflections on religion make up a large body of notes, written between 1654 and his death in 1662, intended to develop a work called “Apologie de la religion catholique.” Composed at different times after a moving mystical experience, the contents of Pensées appeared in print posthumously. These reflections reveal Pascal as belonging to the group of fervently Christian writers who reject the usual claims of natural theology in order the more sharply to separate faith from reason.

Jansenist Influence

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 153

Pascal’s thought expresses the influence of the Jansenists, a seventeenth century Catholic order indebted to the theological views of John Calvin, one of the Protestant reformers. A group in conflict with the Jesuits, the Jansenists lived at Port Royal, near Paris, where they taught several central beliefs: the total sinfulness of humanity, salvation through God’s predestination, grace as sole means to salvation, and the need of the faithful to hold to a Christian belief that can never be proved by reason.

Though never an official member of the Jansenist community, Pascal visited them frequently (his sister belonged) and wrote in their defense in a bitter controversy with the Jesuits. Pascal was a brilliant mathematician as well as a religious writer, aware of the significant mathematical developments of his day. Living an austerely self-disciplined life, he gave away his wealth in an effort to exclude all pleasure and vanity from his practices.

The Existence of God

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 261

Pensées expresses numerous reflections concerning a few central themes. The Christian religion as known by Pascal teaches two essential truths: “that...

(The entire section contains 4582 words.)

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