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Pascal, Blaise


PASCAL, BLAISE (16231662), French mathematician, religious thinker, and philosopher, was one of the greatest minds in modern intellectual history. He was educated at home by his father, Étienne, who, when living in Paris from 1631 to 1639, belonged to the society of scientists organized by Mersenne. A precocious genius, Pascal in 1639 wrote a mathematical work of which a part, Essai sur les coniques, has been preserved and published. From 1642 to 1644, when in Normandy with his father, he constructed a calculating machine. His mathematical and physical works include a treatise, based on experiments, disproving the theory of the impossibility of vacuum, as well as works on cycloids and on the theory of probability.


In Normandy Pascal was in touch with priests who were disciples of the Abbé of Saint-Cyran, and in 1646 he went through a religious conversion, but he neither abandoned his scientific work nor renounced mundane life. However, in November 1654, he experienced a second conversion, a kind of violent shock about which he wrote a short and remarkable memoir; he kept this reminder of his experience on his person to the end of his days. For some years before his conversion Pascal had been under Jansenist influence, in particular in Port-Royal. There Pascal became acquainted with the main figures of JansenismAntoine Arnauld, Pierre Nicole, Le Maistre de Saciand became himself one of the leading writers and polemicists of this political as well as religious movement.

Cornelius Jansen, also called Jansenius (15851638), in his posthumously published Augustinus (1640), elaborated a theory of grace that was antagonistic to the Jesuit soteriology known as Molinism, after the Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina (15351600), and which contributed to the reform of the church in the spirit of moral rigorism and theocentric piety. The Molinists were attacked for making the efficacy of divine grace dependent on human free choice and thus falling into Pelagian or semi-Pelagian heresy and for encouraging moral laxity, dangerous self-confidence, and "easy devotion." Jansenius, following Augustine, emphasized the deep corruption of human nature, its inability both to know God and to help us in obeying his commandments; he praised the omnipotence of divine grace, which is presented in his writings as the condition, not only necessary but sufficient as well, of salvation. In 1643, Arnauld published his treatise on the Eucharist, De la fréquente communion, which became a kind of Jansenist manifesto. The battle between the two camps was carried on with ferocity in the 1650s. As a result of pressure by the Jesuits, Innocent X, in his bull Cum occasione (1653), condemned five of Jansenius's statements in which the Molinists detected the Calvinist heresy; Jansenius was accused of saying that some divine commandments are for humans impracticable, that Jesus Christ sacrificed himself for the elect only and not for all people, and that divine grace works irresistibly. The Jansenists argued that the condemned statements could not be found in Augustinus and that the pope was not infallible in the matter-of-fact question of whether or not a given book included a certain theological doctrine. In 1656, Alexander VII renewed the condemnation in a separate constitution and asserted that the heretical statements were in fact in the book; earlier Arnauld had been condemned by the Sorbonne for theological and factual errors.

Pascal intervened in the battle by publishing pseudonymously, from January 1656 until March 1657, eighteen successive writings known collectively as the Lettres provinciales, a literary masterpiece which, notwithstanding its listing in the Index of Forbidden Books, was to become a classic of French literature. In this pamphlet Pascal attacked the Jesuits' moral doctrine, as it was taught in the works of known writers (Le Moine, Escobar, and Bauny, among others), as well as the theory of grace on which Jesuit "laxism" and moral permissiveness were supposedly based. The letters display to some extent the influence of Cartesianism, an influence not unusual among Jansenists, insofar as they imply the separation of faith from secular reason and assert the latter's autonomy; they denounce Jesuit casuistry and educational technique, claiming that through it all kinds of sins and vices could be exculpated easily or turned into virtues; they attack the Molinist teaching that sufficient grace has been given to all, and thus, by virtue of a free decision, anyone can make it efficient and perfectly fulfill the divine law.


In the 1650s, apart from producing a number of short theological, philosophical, and scientific texts, all of them published posthumously (Préface d'un traité du vide, Entretien avec M. de Saci, Comparaison des chrétiens des premiers temps avec ceux d'aujourd'hui, De l'esprit géométrique, De l'art de persuader, Écrits sur la grâce, Histoire de la roulette), Pascal worked on Apologie de la religion chrétienne. This major apologetical work was to be addressed to libertines, probably of the kind he knew well personally: people who were religiously indifferent, skeptical, or incredulous, rather than committed atheists; the apology was to convince them of the truth of Christianity. He did not complete this work, and the first edition (1670) of the fragments he left was incomplete and arbitrarily ordered. In a number of subsequent printings, the editors of Pensées, as the work came to be known, arranged the text according to its logical order as they saw it. The edition of Brunschwig (1897) was used for several decades as a standard text, yet Louis Lafuma proved that the text left by Pascal was less chaotic and better arranged than had been previously assumed; since 1952 his edition has been considered superior to all others in existence.

Pensées is beyond doubt one of the major texts in the history of philosophical and religious ideas. This extremely rich and challenging work can be read as the depiction of the ambiguity of human destiny in the face of God, who is both hidden and manifest, and in the face of our own corruption and frailty. To Pascal, nature does not lead us to God unambiguously: "Why, do not you say yourself that the sky and the birds prove God?NoDoes your religion not say so?No. For though it is true to some souls whom God has enlightened in this way, yet it is untrue for the majority." There are no "proofs" of faith, which is God's gift. "Our religion is wise and foolish: wise because it is the most learned and most strongly based on miracles, prophecies, etc., foolish, because it is not all this which makes people belong to it. This is a good enough reason for condemning those who do not belong, but not for making those who do belong believe. What makes them believe is the Cross."

Reason is not to be condemneda person's entire dignity consists in thinkingbut it ought to be looked upon with suspicion, and it is crucial that it knows its limitations. Pascal was the reader of Epictetus and Montaigne; the former stressed the strength of human nature, the latter its weakness and fragility. Both are right in part, but to take only one side amounts to falling either into hubris and dogmatic self-confidence or into despair. "We have an incapacity for proving anything which no amount of dogmatism can overcome. We have an idea of truth which no amount of skepticism can overcome." It is proper that God should be hidden in part and revealed in part, and it is proper that we should know both God and our misery. Therefore to know Jesus Christ is essential, as it is in him that we find both God and our misery. Indeed, our greatness consists in being aware of our misery. The position of man as a creature located between angels and animals by no means gives us, in Pascal's eyes, a quiet abode in our natural place; being "in the middle," we are torn between incompatible desires, and our natural state is the most opposed to our higher inclinations. It is the immobility of tension, rather than of satisfaction, that distinguishes us; we are incomprehensible to ourselves, our reason and our senses deceive us, no certainty is accessible to us. Christianity, with all its "foolishness," is the only way the human condition can become intelligible and meaningful. Indeed, the mystery of original sin, the core of the Christian worldview, according to Pascal, is an outrage to reason, and yet without this mystery we cannot understand ourselves. "Acknowledge then the truth of religion in its very obscurity, in the little light we can throw on it, in our indifference regarding knowledge of it."

Although, as Pascal argues both in Pensées and in De l'esprit géométrique, human reason cannot achieve any certitude, there is a separate power, the heart, which has "reasons of its own, unknown to reason" and which is a practical, rather than intellectual, faculty whereby a choice between equally valid arguments for and against Christianity can be made. In the famous passage on the wager (pari ), Pascal appeals to a kind of practical reasoning in order to compel the libertine to admit that he cannot avoid the choice between religion and irreligion. It is impossible to suspend the question of immortality and of our eternal destiny: our happiness is at stake, and the search for happiness is an aspect of our nature. God being infinite and therefore inaccessible to our reason, one cannot rationally affirm or deny his existence, but neither can one suspend judgment. One has to bet, as in a game of chance: If one bets on God having even the slightest chance of existence, one may gain an eternal life of happiness, whereas only one's finite life on earth is at stake; betting against God one risks the loss of eternal life, and the possible gain is finite; it is therefore practically rational to opt for God.

It needs stressing that the wager is a way to persuade skeptics that they ought to bet on God, however uncertain of God's existence they might be; it is neither the expression of Pascal's own uncertainty nor another "proof" of a theological truth. It is practical advice, and Pascal is aware that by itself it cannot produce genuine faith. He wants to show libertines that they ought to behave as if God were real, and this means taming their passions and even "stultifying" themselves by complying, without real faith, with external Christian rules. The new way of life eventually will make them realize that they have lost nothing in abandoning their sinful habits, and they will be converted to a true Christian faith.

By the standards of human nature, religion is uncertain, and humanity cannot get rid of its nature. A tension between the attraction of the world and participation in the eternal is unavoidable. Human history and social life do not offer any solution; history is the prey of insignificant accidents ("Cleopatra's nose: if it had been shorter the whole face of the earth would have been different"); social reality has no intrinsic value and cannot be improved. Therefore Pascal, on the one hand, sneers at all titles and ranks, reduces laws and justice to pure conventions and property to a superstition, and, on the other hand, recommends a conservative acceptance of social hierarchy and external respect for monarchy, rank, and wealth. His worldview is essentially nonhistorical.

Pascal, not surprisingly, was attacked by the eighteenth-century philosophes Voltaire, Diderot, and Condorcet; his skeptical view of science, to which he (unlike his critics) made very serious contributions, his belief in the naturally incurable corruption of human nature, his pessimistic assessment of the human quest for happiness, were, of course, unacceptable to the prophets of the Enlightenment. He has remained one of the main figures in the history of conflict between Christianity and modernity, and his analyses sound astonishingly fresh in the present time.


Works by Pascal

Œuvres complètes. Edited by Louis Lafuma. With a preface by Henri Gouhier. New York and Paris, 1963.

Pensées. Translated into English by A. J. Krailsheimer. Harmondsworth, 1966.

Works about Pascal

Blaise Pascal, l'homme et l'œuvre. Cahiers de Royaumont, Philosophie, no. 1. Paris, 1956.

Brunschvicg, Léon. Le génie de Pascal. Paris, 1924.

Brunschvicg, Léon. Descartes et Pascal, lecteurs de Montaigne. Paris, 1944.

Goldmann, Lucien. Le dieu caché. Paris, 1955. Translated by Philip Thody as The Hidden God (New York, 1964).

Jovy, Ernest. Études pascaliennes. 9 vols. Paris, 19271936.

Laporte, Jean. Le cœur et la raison selon Pascal. Paris, 1950.

Mesnard, Jean. Pascal, l'homme et l'œuvre. Paris, 1951. Translated by G. S. Fraser as Pascal, His Life and Works (London, 1952).

Russier, Jeanne. La foi selon Pascal. Paris, 1949.

Strowski, Fortunat. Pascal et son temps. 3 vols. Paris, 19071922.

Leszek Kolakowski (1987)

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