Blaise Pascal

Born at Clermont-Ferrand, 19 June 1623; died in Paris, 19 August 1662. He was the son of Etienne Pascal, advocate at the court of Aids of Clermont, and of Antoinette Bégon. His father, a man of fortune, went with his children (1631) to live in Paris. He taught his son grammar, Latin, Spanish, and mathematics, all according to an original method. In his twelfth year Blaise composed a treatise on the communication of sounds; at sixteen another treatise, on conic sections. In 1639 he went to Rouen with his father, who had been appointed intendant of Normandy, and, to assist his father in his calculations, he invented the arithmetical machine. He repeated Torricelli's vacuum experiments and demonstrated, against Père Noël, the weight of air (cf. Mathiew, "Revue de Paris", 1906; Abel Lefranc "Revue Bleue", 1906; Strowski, "Pascal", Paris, 1908). He published works on the arithmetical triangle, on wagers and the theory of probabilities, and on the roulette or cycloid.

Meanwhile, in 1646, he had been won over to Jansenism, and induced his family, especially his sister Jacqueline, to follow in the same direction. In 1650, after a sojourn in Auvergne, his family returned to Paris. On the advice of physicians Pascal, who had always been ailing and who now suffered more than ever, relaxed his labours and mingled in society, with such friends as the Duc de Roannez, the Chevalier Mere, the poet Desbarreaux, the actor Milton. This was what has been called the worldly period of his life, during which he must have written the "Discours sur les passions de l'amour", inspired, it is said, by Mlle de Roannez. But the world soon became distasteful to him, and he felt more and more impelled to abandon it. During the night of 23 November 1654, his doubts were settled by a sort of vision, the evidence of which is in a writing, always subsequently carried in the lining of his coat, and called "Pascal's talisman". After this he practiced the most severe asceticism, renounced learning, and became the constant quest of Port Royal. In 1656 he undertook the defense of Jansenism, and published the "Provinciales". This polemical work was nearing completion when Pascal had the joy of seeing his friends, the Duc de Roannez and the jurisconsult Domat, converted to Jansenism, as well as his niece Marguerite Perier, who had been cured of a fistula of the eye by contact with a relic of the Holy Thorn preserved at Port Royal. Thenceforth, although exhausted by illness, Pascal gave himself more and more to God. He multiplied his mortifications, wore a cincture of nails which he drove into his flesh at the slightest thought of vanity, and to be more like Jesus crucified, he left his own house and went to die in that of his brother-in-law. He wrote the "Mystère de Jesus", a sublime memorial of his transports of faith and love, and he laboured to collect the materials for a great apologetic work. He died at the age of thirty-nine, after having received in an ecstasy of joy the Holy Viaticum, for which he had several times asked, crying out as he half rose from his couch: "May God never abandon me!"

Pascal left numerous scientific works, among which must be mentioned "Essai sur les coniques" (1640); "Avis à ceux qui verront la machine arithmétique" (1645); "Récit de la grande expérience de l'équilibre des liqueurs" (1648); "Traité du triangle arithmétique" (1654). He shows himself a determined advocate of the experimental method, in opposition to the mathematical and mechanical method of Descartes. In his "Traité sur la vide", often reprinted with the "Pensées" under the title "De l'autorité en matière de philosophie", Pascal clearly puts the question regarding progress, which he answers, boldly yet prudently in "L'esprit géometrique", where he luminously distinguishes between the geometrical and the acute mind, and establishes the foundations of the art of persuasion. As to his authorship of the "Discours sur les passions de l'amour", that essay at least contains certain theories familiar to the author of the "Pensées" on the part played by intuition in sentiment and aesthetic, and its style for the most part resembles that of Pascal. The "Entretien avec M. de Saci sur Epictète et Montaigne" gives the key to the "Pensées"; psychology serving as the foundation and criterion of apologetics, various philosophies solving the problem only in one aspect, and Christianity alone affording the complete solution.

But Pascal's two masterpieces are the "Provinciales" and the "Pensées". The occasion of the "Provinciales" was an accident. The Duc of Liancourt, a friend of Port Royal, having been refused absolution by the curé of Saint Sulpice, Antoine Arnauld wrote two letters which were censured by the Sorbonne. He wished to appeal to the public in a pamphlet which he submitted to his friends, but they found it too heavy and theological. He then said to Pascal: "You, who are young, must do something." The next day (23 Jan., 1656) Pascal brought the first "Provinciale". The "Petites lettres" followed to the number of nineteen, the last unfinished, from January, 1656, to March, 1657. Appearing under the pseudonym of Louis de Montalte, they were published at Cologne in 1657 as "Les Provinciales, ou Lettres écrites par Louis de Montalte à un provincial de ses amis et au RR. PP. Jesuites sur le sujet de la morale et de la politique de ces pères". The first four treat the dogmatic question which forms the basis of Jansenism on the agreement between grace and human liberty. Pascal answers it by practically, if not theoretically, denying sufficient grace and liberty. The seventeenth and eighteenth letters take up the same questions, but with noteworthy qualifications. From the fourth to the sixteenth Pascal censures the Jesuit moral code, or rather the casuistry, first, by depicting a naîf Jesuit who, through silly vanity, reveals to him the pretended secrets of the Jesuit policy, and then by direct invective against the Jesuits themselves. The most famous are the fourth, on sins of ignorance, and the thirteenth, on homicide.

That Pascal intended this to be a useful work, his whole life bears witness, as do his deathbed declarations. His good faith cannot seriously be doubted, but some of his methods are more questionable. Without ever seriously altering his citations from the casuists, as he has sometimes been wrongfully accused of doing, he arranges them somewhat disingenously; he simplifies complicated questions excessively, and, in setting forth the solutions of the casuists sometimes lets his own bias interfere. But the gravest reproach against him is, first, that he unjustly blamed the Society of Jesus, attacking it exclusively, and attributing to it a desire to lower the Christian ideal and to soften down the moral code in the interest of its policy; then that he discredited casuistry itself by refusing to recognize its legitimacy or, in certain cases, its necessity, so that not only the Jesuits, but religion itself suffered by this strife, which contributed to hasten the condemnation of certain lax theories by the Church. And, without wishing or even knowing it, Pascal furnished weapons on the one hand to unbelievers and adversaries of the Church and on the other to the partisans of independent morality. As to their literary form, the "Provinciales" are, in point of time, the first prose masterpiece of the French language, in their satirical humour and passionate eloquence.

The "Pensées" are an unfinished work. From his conversion to Jansenism Pascal nourished the project of writing an apology for the Christian Religion which the increasing number of libertines rendered so necessary at that time. He had elaborated the plan, and at intervals during his illness he jotted down notes, fragments, and meditations for his book. In 1670 Port Royal issued an incomplete edition. Condorcet, on the advice of Voltaire, attempted, in 1776, to connect Pascal with the Philosophie party by means of a garbled edition, which was opposed by that of the Abbe Bossuet (1779). After a famous report of Cousin on the manuscript of the "Pensées" (1842), Faugère published the first critical edition (1844), followed since then by a host of others, the best of which is undoubtedly that of Michaut (Basle, 1896), which reproduces the original MS. pure and simple. What Pascal's plan was, can never be determined, despite the information furnished by Port Royal and by his sister. It is certain that his method of apologetics must have been at once rigorous and original; no doubt, he had made use of the traditional proofs -- notably, the historical argument from prophecies and miracles. But as against adversaries who did not admit historical certainty, it was stroke of genius to produce a wholly psychological argument and, by starting from the study of the human soul, to arrive at God. Man is an "incomprehensible monster", says he, "at once sovereign greatness and sovereign misery." Neither dogmatism nor pyrrhonism will solve the enigma: the one explains the greatness of man, the other his misery; but neither explains both. We must listen to God. Christianity alone, through the doctrine of the Fall and that of the Incarnation, gives the key to the mystery. Christianity, therefore, is truth. God being thus apprehended and felt by the heart -- which "has its reasons that the mind knows not of", and which, amid the confusion of the other faculties, is never mistaken -- it remains for us to go to Him through the will, by making acts of faith even before we have faith.

Another curious argument of Pascal's is that which is known as the argument of the wager. God exists or He does not exist, and we must of necessity lay odds for or against Him.

  • If I wager for and God is -- infinite gain;

  • If I wager for and God is not -- no loss.

  • If I wager against and God is -- infinite loss;

  • If I wager against and God is not -- neither loss nor gain.

In the second case there is an hypothesis wherein I am exposed to the loss of everything. Wisdom, therefore, counsels me to make the wager which insures my winning all or, at worst losing nothing. Innumerable works were devoted to Pascal in the second half of the nineteenth century. Poets, critics, roman-writers, theologians, philosophers have drawn their inspiration from him or made him the subject of discussion. As M. Bourget has said, he is not only one of the princes of style, but he represents the religious soul in its most tragic and terrified aspects. Moreover, the problems which he presents are precisely those which confront us nowadays. SAINT-BEUVE, Port-Royal, I, II, III (Paris, 1880); VINET, Etude sur Blaise Pascal (Paris, 1848); SULLY-PRUDHOMME, La vraie religion selon Pascal (Paris, 1909); BRUNETIERE, Etudes critiques, ser. 1, 3, 4; Hist. et literature, II (Paris, 1880-1903); MICHAUT, Les époques de la pensée de Pascal (Paris, 1897); GIRAUD, Pascal; l'homme, l'oeuvre, l'influence (Paris, 1905); BOUTROUX in Coll.. des grands écrivains francais (Paris, 1900); STROWSKI, Pascal et son temps (Paris, 1909); (especially important); TAYLOR, Pascal's Thoughts on Religion and Philosophy (London, 1804); JANNESS, La philosophie et l'apologétique de P. (Louvain, 1896).

J. Lataste.

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