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Brief Lives

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

Martin Jenkins looks at the life of a mathematician-philosopher apologist.

Blaise Pascal was a physicist, mathematician, geometer, calculating-machine designer, controversialist and Christian apologist – but was he a philosopher? He would probably have said no, bearing in mind the implications of the term in his own time. In the memorial of his conversion he writes, “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the savants.” Yet Pascal is still read because he engaged creatively with the philosophical thought of his day, and still has something to say even to the thought of our time.

Blaise Pascal portrait by Darren McAndrew 2018

Early Life

Blaise Pascal was born on June 19th 1623 in Clermont in the Auvergne in central France. His older sister, Gilberte, was born in 1620; his younger sister, Jacqueline in 1625. His mother died the following year, and when he was eight the family moved to Paris. His father never remarried. At the age of twelve Pascal discovered for himself the thirty-second proposition of Euclid; afterwards he was admitted to the meetings of the intellectual circle led by the polymath Marin Mersenne.

In 1638 Pascal’s father risked imprisonment in the Bastille in a rather obscure political affair, and had to go into hiding. However, after performing in a play before Cardinal Richelieu, the youngest daughter Jacqueline obtained his pardon. (She was then thirteen; precociousness appears to have been a Pascal family trait). He was then appointed as a tax commissioner in Normandy and the family moved to Rouen in 1640. At this time, aged 17, Blaise wrote an essay on conical sections. In 1641 his older sister Gilberte married Florin Périer. It is largely thanks to her and the Périer family that Pascal’s writings have survived.

Between 1642 and 1645 Pascal was working on an arithmetical machine – thus anticipating Charles Babbage by two centuries. In 1646 his father suffered a fall and was cared for by the Deschamps brothers, who introduced Pascal to pious works from the abbey of Port-Royal, resulting in Pascal’s ‘first conversion’. At the end of the year and into 1647 Pascal was conducting experiments with pumps, investigating the nature of a vacuum. Later he got his brother-in-law Florin Périer to carry out experiments which demonstrated the differing effects of air pressure at different heights. In 1647 he also met Descartes.

Blaise’s father died in 1651. He and his sister then installed themselves at Paris; thereafter he left the city only for brief periods. He continued to write on mathematics and physics. In the summer of 1654, in response to a letter from the Chevalier de Méré about the likely outcome of an uncompleted wager, he initiated a correspondence with Fermat which laid the foundations of probability theory.

It is tempting to say that it is now that Pascal’s life becomes interesting. On the night of November 23rd 1654 he had the experience usually known as his ‘second conversion’. He recorded this in a document known as the memorial, which he kept sewn into his clothes until his death. It was so personal that when it was transferred between clothing, Pascal himself, rather than his servants, removed and replaced it.

Pascal began to frequent the Jansenist abbey of Port-Royal. His sister Jacqueline had already become a nun at the abbey. However, Jansenism was a suspect religious movement in seventeenth century France. It was founded on the posthumous book of Cornelius Jansen, Augustinus; the issues, around the theology of grace, seem incomprehensible today. Pascal often distanced himself from Jansenist ideas, yet he found himself drawn into the controversy.

There were a number of reasons for this. One may have been his loyalty to his sister and her abbey. However, he seems also to have been concerned by questions of authority and how far church authority properly extends. He was a good experimental scientist but accepted that the church had authority to determine theological truth. But he knew the difference. When the University of Paris condemned five propositions as heretical but further stated that they were to be found in Jansen’s work, Pascal drew the distinction: the latter assertion was one of fact, in which the theologians had no more competence than any other educated person.

The result of his reflection on these issues was the Provincial Letters. The first of these appeared in January 1656, the eighteenth and last in March 1657. They were published anonymously – a fortunate choice, since they were placed on the papal Index of Forbidden Books in September 1657.

The first three letters addressed the University’s condemnation of Arnauld’s defence of Jansen. Pascal points out that the two factions united against Arnauld – the Jesuits and the Dominicans – actually disagree with each other on the theology of grace but have agreed to use the same terminology while meaning different things by it. He delights in having an anti-Jansenist explain that all men have access to ‘sufficient grace’, but that in the face of temptation they need to receive ‘efficacious grace’ from God because sufficient grace is insufficient. As a scientist he recognised the absurdity of that!

The remaining letters criticise Jesuit casuistry by citing extracts from the Jesuits’ own writings. The Jesuits relied on contemporary authorities rather than the fathers and doctors of the church. Pascal believed in traditional authority in theology while rejecting it in science. Also, the Jesuits allowed for reliance on ‘probable opinion’. This did not mean choosing what seemed the logically most correct view, while acknowledging that other views might nevertheless be right; it meant choosing the view that best suited the moral position one wanted to adopt. In practice this meant that the Jesuits could always find a way of excusing sins.

Although a polemical work, the Letters rests on a firm intellectual foundation. Pascal begins by condemning a lack of intellectual rigor and shows how it leads to a lack of moral rigor, and demands that we seek truth rather than what is convenient to believe.

God’s Bookie

About this time Pascal began work on an apology, that is to say, an intellectual justification, for the Christian religion. It was never completed; but his notes and drafts were published in 1670, after his death, under the title Pensées (Thoughts), and this is the work for which he is best remembered.

Pascal’s target audience was the circle in which he moved, that is, the educated nobility and bourgeoisie. These men (and an increasing number of educated women), under the influence of contemporary thought, tended to move away from traditional Christianity towards either deism or rationalism. Pascal intended to demonstrate the truth of Christianity in the context of seventeenth century philosophy. However, while engaging with the rational thought of his day, he also acknowledged the power of the non-rational. (His most famous phrase is probably “Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point” – “The heart has its reasons which reason does not know” – ‘know’ in the sense of ‘to be acquainted with’: a better translation is, ‘Reason is a stranger to the reasons of the heart’.)

Traditional apologetics began with proofs of the existence of God. Pascal instead starts from the human condition as a question which demands an answer. He compares human life to a man in a prison cell who does not know his fate and has only an hour to find it out, yet the hour is enough to effect a change in his fate. It is contrary to nature that the man should spend the hour not discovering his fate but playing cards. Similarily, the one certainty in human life is the inevitability of death. Thus it is natural to seek the answer to the question of death. That question brings us to the most notorious idea in the Pensées : ‘Pascal’s wager’. (The text may well date from 1655, soon after Pascal had been working on the mathematics of gambling.) The man in the prison cell is invited to gamble after all: to bet on the Christian faith because the outcome of a successful bet is eternal bliss, which far outweighs any worldly loss caused by renunciation.

The obvious and often-made response to this argument is that the worldly loss would be real and demonstrable, whereas the gain hypothetical and uncertain. Pascal himself acknowledges this. He writes in a dialogue form (possibly between two aspects of himself), and the sceptic in his dialogue points out that the best option would be not to bet at all. The response to this is, “Yes, but it is necessary to bet.” There is no choice except to bet one way or the other; if you do not bet on faith for the next world, you are betting on this world by default. In this Pascal reminds us that we cannot avoid existential choices, and that what we see as inaction is in fact an active choice of which we must accept the consequences. This aspect of Pascal’s thought can be seen as a forerunner of French existentialism.

Pascal was an acute psychologist. He recognised that while the question of death needs to be confronted, many seek to avoid it. A frequent word in his writings is divertissement – distraction; he uses it as a heading to many of his notes. The man in the prison cell is playing cards, after all; but from what is he distracting himself? From death, or from his understanding of his place in the universe?

The Middle Man

The seventeenth century saw a dramatic change in how humanity viewed itself. Pascal’s understanding of this was affected by two instruments: the microscope and the telescope. The microscope revealed the unsuspected world of the infinitely small; the telescope, the infinity of the universe. (It is worth noting in passing that the Pope’s condemnation of Galileo in 1633 seems to have had no significant impact on either scientific or Christian thinking. Pascal accepts that the Ptolemaic system is no longer viable.)

What is the place of humanity in this new universe of thought? Clearly the self-importance which humans formerly gave themselves is no longer possible; but, Pascal argues, there are two factors which enable us to retain our dignity.

The first is that humanity represents a mid-point between the infinitely small and the infinity of the universe. “For in the end what is a man as regards nature? Nothing compared to the infinite, everything compared to nothingness, a medium between nothing and the all, infinitely distant from understanding the extremes.” Humanity may not be able to reach to the furthest point of both infinities, but it has its dignity in comprehending much that lies between because of its central position.

Also, “Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but a thinking reed.” The universe can crush him; but he will know that he is dying, whereas the universe knows nothing. “Our whole dignity therefore consists of thought” – or, we would probably say today, of consciousness. The rest of the universe is devoid of consciousness; only human beings enjoy the dignity which it confers.

Following the note which I have just quoted, Pascal has added a single sentence: “Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie” – “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” Commentators have argued whether this represents Pascal’s own thought or that of a hypothetical rationalist. The question is, to me, meaningless. Both would share the terror brought on by contemplating this new and infinite universe; Pascal would have found in his Christian faith a means of coping with the terror.

Cashing In His Chips

In 1658 Pascal organised his notes and drafts into bundles and delivered a talk explaining the plan of his apology. At the same time he was busy writing further polemics around the Jansenist controversy, as well as treatises on geometry. Yet early in 1659 he suffered a serious illness (still undiagnosed). From May to September 1660 he stayed with the Périer family at Clermont and his condition improved. In October 1661 his sister Jacqueline died, and his involvement in theological controversy ended; one wonders to what extent she had inspired it. In the first three months of 1662, Pascal organised les carrosses à cinq sols in Paris, a network of coaches, thus adding to his achievements the creation of the first urban public transport system. In June he became seriously ill. He died on August 19th 1662, two months after his thirty-ninth birthday.

The apology was never finished. After 1658 Pascal continued to make notes and drafts, but he never organised them again. It is a real question whether the work could ever have been finished. Pascal had made an acute analysis of the human condition as it appeared in the mid-seventeenth century, and he knew, as a result of his conversion, what his answer to the question was. But he seems never to have found a way from the question to the answer that would reconcile his intellectual commitment with his experience of conversion . He at first considered miracles (he was deeply influenced by the apparently miraculous cure of Marguerite Périer in 1656); then he looked to prophecies; but in the end, he could not solve this problem.

Perhaps, however, the incompleteness of Pascal’s work makes it more useful than a finished apology would have been. In the Pensées, we encounter a great thinker wrestling with his own difficulties and those of his time. Pascal on miracles and prophecies is bogged down in his own era; Pascal on the human condition and the question of death still speaks to us today.

© Martin Jenkins 2018

Martin Jenkins is a retired community worker and Quaker in London.

Pascal’s Wager

It goes like this. Each of us has to make a choice of whether or not to believe in Jesus Christ. Many of us have to make this choice without having proof that we consider decisive either way. Therefore effectively we have to make a wager. However, we can compare the possible outcomes to help us choose which way to bet. If we bet on believing in Christ and we are right, then our reward will be eternal bliss. If we bet on Christ, and we are wrong, then we have lost little – merely missed out, perhaps, on a few worldy pleasures. However if we bet against Christ – i.e., we decide not to believe in him – and we turn out to be wrong, then we have missed out on eternal life. So it is rational to put your faith in Christ, Pascal argues.

A Note On Texts

Both the Provincial Letters and the Pensées are readily available in translations. However, Pascal is best read in the original French. As well as a great thinker, he was an outstanding prose stylist, even when writing notes and drafts.

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