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Pascal, Blaise


Mathematician, Christian apologist; b. Clermont-en-Auvergne, June 19, 1623; d. Paris, Aug. 19, 1662. Despite his brief life and incomplete work, Pascal was one of the most universal geniuses of modern France and a singularly novel and profound interpreter of the Christian conscience. In him life and thought were intimately commingled: the witness of the man is no less significant than the message of his work.

Pascal's life can be thought of as a drama in which three principles confront each other: science, the world, and God. His genius first became apparent through science. Deprived of maternal care at the age of three, he was brought up with admirable devotion and competence by his father, Etienne, a mathematician of genuine ability, who, in order to devote himself more fully to the education of this son and two daughters, Gilberte and Jacqueline, gave up his post as magistrate of Clermont-Ferrand to move to Paris in 1631. In the capital, Blaise, whose mathematical genius manifested itself at an early age, was soon able to take part in the discussions of those savants who gathered around Father Mersenne. In 1639 Pascal wrote his Essai pour les coniques, a widely acclaimed treatise in which he demonstrated a remarkable new property of conic sections.

From 1640 to 1647 Pascal lived at Rouen, where Richelieu had appointed his father administrator. Here Pascal invented his famous arithmetical machine, the first known mechanical calculator, an achievement by which he showed himself as competent in technical matters as he was in pure science. His machine enjoyed considerable success, not only among the savants, but with the general public as well, and made him famous.

First Conversion. From his father Blaise had received a thorough, though not very fervent, religious education. In 1646 the young man was exposed to the revelation of a much more demanding Christianity. Several disciples of Jean du Vergier, Abbé of Saint Cyran (d.1643), lived in the vicinity of Rouen, and Pascal became acquainted with their austere doctrine which advocated, primarily, the necessity of "conversion"an abandonment of the world and submission to God. He accepted this demand enthusiastically, became a convert himself, and won his family over to his point of view. He woke to the fact that he genuinely relished one of the most dangerous of worldly enticements, fame, and resolved forthwith to abandon the sciences, the means by which he had won renown.

This resolution, however, was not immediately reduced to practice. Pascal continued his research and plunged into physics in an effort to interpret the famous experiment of Torricelli. Through some original, most ingenious experiments, he demonstrated the existence of the vacuum and the weight of air. At the same time he advanced the principles of a truly modern scientific philosophy based on primary reliance on the experiment; through him came the final break between true science and metaphysics.

Meanwhile, stricken by a serious illness, the young savant returned to Paris in 1647. His doctors had recommended diversionsadvice which was, indirectly, the cause of some relaxation of his religious discipline. Worldliness again gained ground in his mind, and he began again to frequent the "world." He attached himself principally to a nobleman, the Duc de Roannez, through whom he made the acquaintance of two very charming men, the Chevalier de Méré and Mitton. They became the models for his "emancipated free-thinker" of the Pensées, and though he turned away from them, they had taught him muchthey made him taste of montaigne, and they convinced him that the science of man was of far greater importance than the science of things.

During this time Pascal continued his scientific labors and established the foundations of the calculus of probabilities. But neither science nor the world could satisfy this soul so enamored of the absolute. In 1654 his sister Jacqueline, who had become a religious in the

Convent at port-royal, privately heard him confess his confusion and understood immediately that, for the second time, he had become a convert. The famous and brilliantly written Mémorial recalls the intense religious experience that resulted, during the night of November 23, 1654, in the revelation of the living God.

Second Conversion and Port-Royal. Through this second conversion Pascal found himself intimately linked with the theologians and recluses of Port-Royal. He traveled there repeatedly for retreats, and the one of January 1655 gave rise to the Entretien avec M. de Sacy sur Epictète et Montaigne. A similar period of prayer the following year made him decide to embark on Les Provinciales (Lettres écrites par Louis de Montalte à un provincial ), the masterpiece of the great mass of pamphlet literature brought out by the Jansenist controversies. (see jansenism.) At the same time Pascal remained in touch with his fashionable friends, trying to win them over to his views. He succeeded in the case of the Duc de Roannez, and addressed some remarkable letters to the duke's sister, Mlle. de Roannez (1656). It was in thinking about Méré and Mitton that Pascal conceived his project of an apologetic for the Christian religion, to be directed toward the unbelievers, for which the Pensées form the rough draft.

Although he had given up the sciences on his conversion in 1654, Pascal returned to them in 1658 at the urgent request of friends who persuaded him that publication of a worthwhile discovery would add weight to the arguments of his apologetic. Thus it was that he published (1658) some investigations on the curve called roulette, or cycloid, that provided the foundations for differential and integral calculus. But this episode was unique; following it Pascal withdraw from all lay activity. His illness, which returned in 1659 and from which he would never again be free, prohibited from that moment on any mental effort. His only writing of this period, a "Prayer asking God to make good use of his illness," expresses an ardent desire for a conversion still more perfect. In his last years Pascal accomplished one final spiritual ascension, which, reaching its culmination during the course of a terrible agony, brought him to a sort of sainthood.

Significance of his Work. He left a diversified life's work touching on the sciences, philosophy, theology, and spirituality, but at the same time extending beyond them because it was the work of neither a savant nor a specialist, but of a man gifted with a winning personality and a mind of profound insight. He owed to science his rigorous regard for truth, based on geometric reasoning or the experimental method, but he had come quickly to the conclusion that science was powerless to discern the condition of humanity, to fix the objectives of human lifein a word, powerless to attain those truths essential to man. One may properly say that the two fundamental traits of Pascal's mind were the strict demands of the absolute and the need of a living truth.

It is not surprising that he fervently embraced the Christian message, especially in the form in which it was made known to him. A devout Catholic, Pascal at the same time adhered to the thought of Port-Royal, that one need not be too rigid in the formulation of theological propositions, and as a fervent Augustinian, he believed that in the domain of religion knowledge is inseparable from love. The certainties of faith are not grasped through reason, but through the heart, the mainspring of love, which submits to revealed truth and fosters its manifestation. (see augustinianism.)

From this conviction springs the deep feeling of the Provinciales. If Pascal grappled with the "casuistry" of the Jesuits, it was not because he was ignorant of certain difficulties and the necessity of resolving them, but because he wished to use only the light of revelation and not that of a reason corrupted by the Fall, which tends, understandably, to define duty as a function of self-interest. He was hostile to any compromise between humanism and Christianity, and refused to place any faith in a human nature sustained only by its own strength.

The impotence of man's reason is no less clearly set forth in the Pensées. Granted that impotence, how can the verities of Christianity be demonstrated? As a matter of fact, Pascal does not propose a rational demonstration. If the reason is too weak to achieve the absolute, it is at least strong enough to prove "that there are an infinite number of things which surpass it." It can realize the contradiction of manhis weakness and his nobilitybut it cannot explain them; only revelation can resolve the problems imposed by the reason. In addition, reason can grasp revelation as a historical fact surrounded by certain wonderful events that guarantee its supernatural character. The method of the physician, who from some facts arrives at an explanatory hypothesis, is equally applicable to apologetics.

Through his sensitivity to the human drama, and the exalted ideal he propounded of a religion that rejects any compromise with worldly standards of value, Pascal impregnated his work with a ferment whose power is far from being exhausted.

Bibliography: Oeuvres complètes, ed. l. brunschvicg and p. l. boutroux, 14 v. (Paris 190414); Pensées, ed. l. lafuma, 3v. (Paris 1951). j. mesnard, Pascal: His Life and Works, tr. g. s. fraser (London 1952). m. l. hubert, Pascal's Unfinished Apology: A Study of His Plan (New Haven 1952). a. maire, Bibliographie générale des oeuvres de Blaise Pascal, 5 v. (Paris 192527).

[j. mesnard]

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