Blaise Pascal, scientist and mathematician, became a member of the society of Port Royal after his conversion following a mystical experience in 1654. He was actively involved in the bitter debate between the Jansenists, with whom he allied himself, and the Jesuits; the series of polemical letters titled Lettres provinciales (1656-1657; The Provincial Letters; 1657) is the result of that great quarrel. Wanting to write a defense of Roman Catholic Christianity that would appeal to people of reason and sensibility, Pascal, about 1660, began to prepare his defense of the Catholic faith.
Like many other great thinkers whose concern was more with the subject of their compositions than with the external order and completeness of the presentation, he failed to complete a continuous and unified apology. When he died at the age of thirty-nine he left little more than his notes for the projected work, a series of philosophical fragments reflecting his religious meditations. These fragments form the Pensées. Despite its fragmentary character, the book is a classic of French literature, charming and effective in its style, powerful and sincere in its philosophic and religious protestations.
Philosophers distinguish themselves either by the insight of their claims or by the power of their justification. Paradoxically, Pascal distinguishes himself in his defense by the power of his claims. This quality is partly a matter of style and partly a matter of conviction. It was Pascal, in the Pensées, who wrote, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know,” by which he meant not that emotion is superior to reason, but that in being compelled by a moving experience one submits to a superior kind of reason. Pascal also wrote that “All our reasoning reduces itself to yielding to feeling,” but he admitted that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between feeling and fancy. Pascal believed that the way to truth is through the heart and feeling, and that intuitive knowledge is the most important, not only because feeling or intuition is what leads the mind but also because it is essential to all reasoning, providing the first principles of thought. Much of the value of the Pensées results from the clarity with which Pascal presented his intuitive thoughts.
A considerable portion of the Pensées is taken up with a discussion of philosophical method, particularly in relation to religious reflection. The book begins with an analysis of the difference between mathematical and intuitive thinking and continues the discussion, in later sections, by considering the value of skepticism, of contradictions, of feeling, memory, and imagination. A number of passages remind the reader that a proposition that seems true from one perspective may seem false from another, but Pascal insists that “essential” truth is “altogether pure and altogether true.” The power of skepticism and the use of contradictions in reasoning depend upon a conception of human thinking that ignores the importance of perspective in determining one’s belief. Thus, from the skeptic’s point of view nothing is known because people can be sure of nothing. The skeptic forgets, however, that “It is good to be tired and wearied by the vain search after the true good, that we may stretch out our arms to the Redeemer.” Contradiction, according to Pascal, “is a bad sign of truth” since there are some certainties that have been contradicted and some false ideas that have not. Contradiction nevertheless has its use: “All these contradictions, which seem most to keep me from the knowledge of religion, have led me most quickly to the true one.”
Pascal had the gift of responding critically in a way that added value to both his own discourse and that of his opponent. Criticizing Michel Eyquem de Montaigne’s skepticism, he came to recognize the truth—a partial truth, to be sure—of much...
(The entire section is 1616 words.)